Retrochallenge 2009
      Mark Wickens
      26-Jan-2009 19:59

      In case anyone has missed my inane ramblings over the last week - it is because
      I was on holiday, booked pretty much at the last minute. We went snowboarding in
      Switzerland for a week, at the 'jewel of Switzerland' resort Saas Fee. It must
      have put three feet of snow down during the week which made for some
      interestingly deep power and some well groomed pistes.

      On the way back we got stuck in the chaos of Geneva airport which was closed for
      most of the morning due to an Instrument Landing System failure (well, this is
      allegedly as I can't find mention on the internet of the closure or indeed a
      reason why). It makes sense however as the visibility was non-existent early on
      so aircraft could potentially take-off but all inbound flights had to be
      diverted. We were fortunate in that our flight was later in the afternoon when
      some semblance of normality had started to return. Clearly the redundancy
      afforded in the aircraft systems is not duplicated on the ground!

      I also came down with a temperature and a broken tooth (after a very expensive
      sandwich in Geneva airport!) which thankfully was sorted today.

      So, I'm treating this as a belated half-way even though we only have a week to
      go! I decided to not leave the VAX on at home over the break (which was acting
      as my SMTP server), so I had to recreate my IMAP email account and restored a
      previous backup made with IMAPSize[1]. I've also decided to relax my restriction
      of using the VAX as my sole computer for this last week as I think it has been
      long enough that I've experienced the majority of problems/issues.

      What I found is that if you lowered your expectations and ruled out 'WEB 2.0'
      sites then the browser worked well enough to get things done. I experienced a
      strange sense of, how can I put it, nostalgia-superiority? um, a sort of 'if it
      needs javascript then I'm not interested' mentality. Hard to explain, a quiet
      shunning of the modern over the more traditional. It's not really me and it felt
      kind of odd but at the same time there was a kind of 'cozy' existence afforded
      in my little VAX/OpenVMS-centric world. I found that using ALLIN1 as my email
      client and my 'blogging' tool became almost second nature after the first week,
      and my productivity is in no small part due to the isolated world in which you
      find yourself. The 'internet' via mosaic was a slow-enough prospect to rule out
      the casual distraction. Studies on programmers (and I would imagine anyone using
      a computer for productive reasons) have shown that even a short interruption
      (oh, I'll just check that on wikipedia!) can have disasterous consequences on
      daily productivity.

      What I have found with the internet is that if you're not very disciplined you
      can turn totally into an information 'sink' without every producing anything of
      your own. A very similar scenario to watching TV. I remember a quote a while
      back from the Pope, of all people, on the internet being all well and good but
      it didn't inspire people to create. This retro-challenge has been a bit of a
      wake up call in that respect. I'm one of those that starts a lot of little
      projects and finishes few. A little gentle peer pressure as created by this
      'competition' goes a long way to knudging me in the right direction.

      I didn't take the laptop on holiday - from previous experiences a holiday with
      young children leaves little time for anything other than sleep! It was a
      possibility to 'phone home' to the VAX via a tunnel through my router as I have
      a static IP address but to be honest it wouldn't have been that secure using
      telnet (although the fact that I would have turned the VAX on and off remotely
      as required would have somewhat mitigated any risks).

      Just before I went on holiday I got a little distracted with what I would class
      as a potential future retrochallenge project. I have a MECB board - Motorola's
      68000-based Educational Computer Board[2] (well, a functionality similar clone)
      and always thought it would be a nice combination of retro to combine a
      VAX-based assembler with a serial connection to the MECB.

      Whilst searching for keywords such as 'VAX 68000 assembler' I came across Markus
      Wandel's account of a CS project to develop a VAX based C compiler that produced
      VAX targetted code[3] and it reminded me of my own college experiences. I wrote
      him a short note expressing my appreciation of his recollections and he pointed
      me towards the A68K assembler[4]. I tried compiling the source up on the VAX
      last night and there are clearly some issues to address, however I don't think
      it's a huge deal to get it up and running. However, I'm going to avoid spending
      any more time on it at the moment as I'll only end up with two half-finished


      1. IMAPSize

      2. My 68000 MECB

      3. Mark Wandels' C Compiler

      4. A68K Assembler