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Computing nostalgia

Posted on Saturday, 30 June 2007

It's pretty much exactly a decade since I started using Linux, so it seems like a good time to look back at what I used to use before.
Immediately prior to jumping into the FOSS world, I was using Windows 98, but I don't really want to talk about that because I never really liked it and it hated my hardware, so it was a very brief partnership.
The 7 or 8 years before that though, were computing heaven because I was a devoted Amiga user. Initially I was using an A500, which I added a second floppy drive to (I think the Cumana drive I bought cost me about £80!), as well as a couple of MB of Fast RAM (some of which I hacked into being Chip RAM for better graphics). Eventually the 500 was getting far too restrictive and even my 2-disk boot environment was getting hard to live with, so I got a job in a supermarket to earn some money to buy a shiny new A1200, which was a pretty big leap forward over the 500. After a while I put the much faster 68030 CPU in it (thanks to phase5's excellent 1230 IV expansion card), a 16MB SIMM and a 120MB 2.5" hard disk. Later I swapped the 030 card for an 040 card, for even more blazing performance.
Anyway, enough boring hardware reminiscing, on to the fun stuff!

For a while now I've wanted to rescue everything on the last Amiga hard disk I owned (a Western Digital 1.2GB monster!), but since my A1200 had something of a small accident (here's a tip kids, never use the inside of a computer as a footrest) that wasn't going to be hugely easy. Had I not broken the 1200, things would have been fine - by the time I stopped using the Amiga it had an Ethernet interface and a fair whack of UNIX programs on it like scp.
A few months back I fished the disk out of the remains of the Amiga (now forever consigned to the past, as I took the carcass to the local dump), hooked it up to an external USB-IDE interface and took a raw image of the disk. I then bought Amiga Forever, a distribution of various Amiga Emulators and a pretty much complete set of officially licenced ROMs and system disks (lacking working hardware there was no way I could get dumps of my ROMs or transfer the contents of the PC-incompatible floppy system disks). I briefly dallied with the included emulator for UNIX (the venerable UAE), but it was pretty unstable and on further investigation it turns out that most of the development work these days goes into the Windows fork (WinUAE). This was quite disappointing and I never really looked into it all further.

That was, until last night when I started tidying up all the crap on my desktop and got to the Amiga Forever folder. The pangs of nostalgia grabbed me again and I decided to have another stab at things. This time I used e-UAE, another fork of UAE, maintained by Richard Drummond (any Amiga user will recognise that name). He has been diligently pulling in the improvements from WinUAE, and it really shows. It's much more stable than vanilla UAE (although I can still provoke it into crashing).

This was a good start, but I was still left with the problem of how to extract the data from the disk image I had. After battling with the uae configs a little, I discovered that there was something wrong - I could only persuade the Amiga to see 1 of the 4 partitions. Fortunately it was the one with all my data on - except my old programming stuff, but the point of this exercise was not to rescue data as I had copied the stuff I really cared about off before I stopped using it. The point was to get *my* Amiga running again, even if the hardware was now just some software.

I conversed with some of the long time Amiga stalwarts I still converse with on IRC and one of them pointed me at some really simple code to extract partitions from an Amiga disk image. This proved to be part of the key to making everything Just Work™. The other part being that Linux can read AFFS formatted partitions.
I quickly mounted them and pointed e-UAE at the mountpoints and bam! off it went. Ok so I had to spend a few minutes hacking out the various hardware hacks I had from the Startup-sequence, but with that done, I was left with a pretty much exact copy of what I used to use 10 years ago.

It's a very strange experience, leaping back in time like this. You look over your old code, email, pictures and so on and while one part of you thinks "hey I remember this!", another part things "damn what was I thinking" ;)

As Jamie Zawinski found when he tried to do a similar (but unfortunately for him, much more painful) operation a while back, the best way to keep data from being obsoleted is to keep it on a live computer. Sooner or later all hardware fails, but if you always transfer all of your data from one computer to your new one, you'll never have a huge gap to cross (this is exactly how speciation works, by the way).

Emulation and FOSS suggest that there is no real reason why my Amiga now can't live on forever, virtually. That's hardly the hugest achievement of mankind, but it makes me happy.
I'd like to say thank you to everyone who made the Amiga, everyone who made its community such a fantastic place, and everyone who still works on making it live on.

(As a side note, this all serves to make me think what a natural predecessor to the current Linux ecosystem the Amiga was. It had a powerful shell, a friendly GUI, but most crucially, an active and dedicated community)

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