Simple Gifts

'Tis a gift to be simple, 'tis a gift to be free
'Tis a gift to come 'round where we ought to be
And when we find ourselves in the place just right
It will be in the valley of love and delight
-- Shaker hymn

Recently I was reading an article (which I can no longer track down, unfortunately) bemoaning the fact that GNOME on a 1+GHz system is now barely faster than a Pentium 166 running the X applications that were current when the 166 was on the cutting edge. Ironically I was reading this on my 450MHz Linux box at work, using Mozilla 0.9.9 (the first to have nearly acceptable performance) on the CTWM configuration I perfected a decade ago, while in the lunchroom Fry's was advertising a 500MHz CPU and motherboard for $49.

Between documenting some of the finer points of my code and reading the web, I was contemplating whether to switch from my Agenda PDA (monochrome, 40MHz, 8Mb RAM / 16Mb flash) to the Zaurus (color, 200MHz, 32Mb / MMC+CF) I'd inherited the previous afternoon from a colleague who'd just upgraded from the developer version to the released version, with twice as much RAM. Yes, I thought, not because of the increased memory but because of the networking capability offered by the compact flash.

I stopped worrying about performance a few hundred megahertz ago.

One of the glories of Linux is that, if you like, you can -- even now in the days of GNOME, KDE, Java, and C++ -- drop back to the apps of an earlier time, when a 3-M machine (a meg of RAM, 1MHz, and a million pixels on the screen) was a top-of-the-line engineering workstation and Emacs and X were the bloated extravagances of their day. I remember my shocked amusement when I benchmarked my 486-based Linux box at home against my Sparcstation 2 at work and found them running nearly neck and neck.

Using the console on a modern PC -- or even text-based apps in an xterm window, with raise-on-focus putting your emacs window only a mouse-move away -- is like ambling through your neighborhood in a Ferrari. You wave politely at the cop because you both know he'd be eating your dust if you shifted into second; you think about firing off a kernel build just to see if you can tell the difference in lynx. All those horsepower idling with a deep-throated rumble; all those megaflops waiting behind a plain black screen. ``Go ahead--step on it!'' says the little voice in your head.

So drop back to the console every now and then, and be amazed at how little time it takes to get a shell prompt. Edit with vi or emacs, browse with lynx or links, create a one-line file with cat just because it's quicker; typeset a manual with TeX and ask yourself why you ever bothered with a word processor. Boot your little Agenda and watch it reach an xdm login in the time it takes your PC to figure out how many disks it has on board. Wonder whether that 486 in the attic deserves a second chance, as an X terminal or maybe a router.

Ah, yes, let's hear it for the simple life; the good old days that are, even now, no more than a keystroke away. Excuse me: [Ctrl][Alt][F1] -- my, that's better. And the Agenda's a whole lot smaller than the Zaurus, isn't it?

$Id: simple-gifts.html,v 1.4 2002/05/18 06:45:17 steve Exp $
Stephen R. Savitzky <>