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Undeterred by the harsh realities of open hardware, Glaucon returns to the agora, this time hoping for assistance with compiling an operating system for a 16-bit computer. Socrates again steps up to assist, ignoring the heckling of Thrasymachus and Adeimantus. They are joined by Diogenes, a plain-speaking and direct Corinthian. Cephalus, a Cretin knowledgeable on older hardware and esoteric operating systems, attempts to give Glaucon a few other possible leads in his pursuit of computing perfection. It becomes somewhat clearer that Glaucon has bitten off rather more than he can chew.

Dramatis personae

In order of appearance:


Glaucon returns to the agora. The discussion thus far for the evening has included text parsing programming languages, health care privacy laws, and a joint effort in trying to explain the agora’s rules on obscenity to a foul-mouthed and recalcitrant Spartan.

Glaucon: so, uh
Glaucon: I still don’t understand how compilation works
Glaucon: if I have a simple program, with the only requirements being—let’s say—just the C compiler and make, as long as my system has some form of make and—let’s say—tcc, it’ll compile correctly?
Socrates: is this a practical or a theoretical question?
Glaucon: practical—I’ve never compiled anything successfully before
Glaucon: I never figured out how it worked
Socrates: it should be said that neither of those are requirements of the program, they’re requirements to compile the program
Socrates: which is subtly different
Glaucon: right right
Glaucon: because once compiled the program should just run on its own, right?
Socrates: if the compiled program has no runtime dependencies, sure
Glaucon: >runtime dependencies
Glaucon: bloat

If you come at the King…

Socrates: so we’ll stick to C here
Socrates: but the concept is fairly general
Socrates: a compiler takes Translation Units (usually a file) and parses the code, and then turns that into an object file
Socrates: so if you have a program with two files: frontend.c (which has main(), etc, to read input) and compute.c (which does some kind of stuff with them), then you will use the compiler twice, to generate frontend.o and compute.o

Diogenes the Corinthian interrupts, taking issue with Socrates’ terminology.

Diogenes: >not calling them “Compilation Units”
Diogenes: very disappointed
Socrates: that’s because compilation unit wouldn’t be correct in the context of the C standard
Diogenes: change the standard

Compiling new software on old hardware

Socrates: so these files are essentially at this point just binary versions of the source files: each function gets a tag for its name, etc, and then a body of machine code, but that’s all
Glaucon: I’m lost
Glaucon: genuinely I didn’t get that
Glaucon: this is far beyond me
Socrates: OK
Socrates: you’re familiar with the concept of machine code, yeah?
Glaucon: lemme simplify my question, because it’s a practical one
Socrates: OK, lets take the practical one
Glaucon: let’s say I install this on my PC, it’s IA-16 Linux, basically
Socrates: OK
Glaucon: as long as it has make and a C compiler, I should be able to compile basic suckless tools/programs, right?
Glaucon: like this?
Socrates: so you’re happily running that and are in a Linux environment of some kind?
Glaucon: Uh, I haven’t installed it, if that’s what you’re asking
Glaucon: But I’m considering it, if I can compile basic programs like this without much issue
Socrates: OK, I’ll give you this answer really simply, but I don’t think it will help you
Socrates: if you have some C source code that has no build or runtime dependencies, then yes, all you need is a toolchain (compiler+friends), and any build automation tools (like make)
Glaucon: so since most suckless tools are written in straight C, I should be able to compile them without much issue?
Socrates: “yes”
Thrasymachus: Haha
Glaucon: it will be a big issue, I understand, Thrasymachus
Glaucon: and it won’t be that simple
Glaucon: but in theory, it might work
Thrasymachus: I’m not making fun of you; I still don’t fully understand why you insist on making things so hard for yourself—it’s perverse and weird—but I’m laughing with recognition at Socrates’s double-quoting “what should be” as opposed to “what is”

Practical and portable C

Socrates: if you’re in a reduced version of Linux
Socrates: and running in 16 bit mode
Socrates: the suckless source will need to be appropriately portable to this environment
Socrates: the jump is presumably much smaller than, say, Linux to Windows
Socrates: but presumably larger than between Debian and Ubuntu
Glaucon: I was fine in DOS, I just needed multitasking, and applying a multitasking environment over it seemed like a sillier solution than just finding a reduced Linux like this one
Glaucon: for reference, I don’t plan on compiling any software that won’t work in the command line
Glaucon: maybe at most a browser and video player that needs the framebuffer
Socrates: it’s not the front end I’m worried about
Socrates: it’s if suckless source code makes any assumptions that expect to be on a 32 bit system
Socrates: i.e., any modern system
Glaucon: that was the question
Socrates: suckless is quite aggressive at targeting the minimal, common case
Glaucon: but they still usually presume a 386
Glaucon: from what I can tell
Socrates: that is to say, it’s quite possible they will not support running in legacy 16 bit environments
Glaucon: yeah
Socrates: remember that running isn’t the same as working
Glaucon: There is good news, though: I got a lot of modern programs working just fine in DOS without EMM
Glaucon: such as links, and an audio player
Socrates: if they exist, make sure to run the tests
Glaucon: if what exists?
Socrates: tests
Socrates: consider how much of a hassle it has been to upgrade Linux to go from 32-bit time_ts to 64-bit time_ts
Socrates: and now you want to change things as fundamental as the width of a pointer
Socrates: just remember that there are things that will run, but not always work. unless you have made a deliberate effort to port and audit, it’s possible for stuff to fuck up in quiet, insidious ways
Glaucon: My guess is
Glaucon: tools like ii, sic, lynx/links, mutt, this won’t be a problem
Glaucon: and then anything beyond that will probably not work
Thrasymachus: You don’t know how to compile a program and you think you can guess what will and won’t work on a 16-bit computer?
Glaucon: well yes
Glaucon: because those are tools that have been ported to DOS
Glaucon: and run without memory management
Glaucon: all of them except ii and sic, and sic is only 5kb filesize so
Socrates: OK
Socrates: best of luck, Godspeed, and be sure to document and report back
Socrates: for a moment, when you linked ELKS, I was expecting you to say “I need to build this in FreeDOS to embed Linux programs”
Socrates: and I was going to say “no”
Socrates: have you considered something sane like plan 9?
Socrates: (there’s a cursed phrase)
Glaucon: I have, but plan 9 has more graphical focus than I want/need
Socrates: wild concept right there
Socrates: I’m not sure I agree but OK
Socrates: if you mean “it uses a mouse”, yes, it’s quite mouse reliant
Socrates: but almost everything is text
Socrates: I can recommend 9front if you want to play, it will run happily in QEMU but I get the feeling you’re never going to run a system bloated enough to include other systems
Glaucon: I don’t like using a mouse
Glaucon: Remember I’ve been using all CLI tools plus like, Links for web browsing
Glaucon: so I actually unplugged my mouse while using FreeDOS yesterday just so I didn’t even need the mouse driver running in the background
Glaucon: there’s simply no reason for me to use a mouse, the only graphical thing I use is a web browser and I can browse with links/surf/whatever just fine with keyboard commands
Thrasymachus: You are very strange
Glaucon: I’m really not

The road less travelled by, for a reason

Cephalus has taken an interest in his countryman’s intentions with esoteric operating systems, being himself experienced in such things.

Cephalus: what web browser are you on right now
Glaucon: Chrome on a Windows 10 laptop
Glaucon: lmao
Glaucon: because MINIX wiped my FreeDOS install but couldn’t finish installing itself
Adeimantus: no, you wiped your FreeDOS install
Adeimantus: don’t blame poor ol’ MINIX
Glaucon: I do blame MINIX
Cephalus: tbh MINIX is a bit rough around the edges
Cephalus: best to assume it’ll do bad things
Adeimantus: it just did what you told it to
Glaucon: I can hardly even login with the live CD, it crashes 50% of the time while booting
Glaucon: shit’s broken, tbh
Thrasymachus: I just… I just don’t get it
Thrasymachus: You do the strangest, most difficult thing at every possible turn and then are baffled when it doesn’t work
Adeimantus: glaucon.txt
Glaucon: I’m not baffled that MINIX doesn’t work, who said I was baffled
Glaucon: it’s MINIX, of course it’s broken
Socrates: MINIX runs on more systems than windows, you cheeky cunt
Adeimantus: if you knew it was broken, why did you install it to begin with?
Glaucon: because I expected to at least be able to install it and compile basic programs, but alas
Glaucon: I’m surprised however that NetBSD kernel panicked on every live CD boot
Glaucon: the default boot is without
Thrasymachus: The sooner Glaucon realises he needs to install Ubuntu and learn how to echo and cd, the happier he will be
Adeimantus: ^
Thrasymachus: But it looks like it’s going to take a long time
Glaucon: >install Ubuntu
Glaucon: I don’t understand why I wouldn’t just use BSD or Void like an adult
Adeimantus: because you’re not an adult
Adeimantus: apt install build-essential
Adeimantus: “look ma I can compile shit”
Glaucon: Although, since NetBSD is borked, and I can’t install MINIX
Glaucon: I’m a bit limited on BSD options
Glaucon: I have a Dell Dimension 4600, as far as I know everything is stock but the RAM is upgraded to 1.5GB
Thrasymachus: Glaucon won’t be happy until he’s mask-off doomer blackpilled, full joker mode minimal MINIX user
Glaucon: MINIX is bloat tho
Thrasymachus: Ah yes, how foolish of me
Adeimantus: and yet you insist on installing it
Adeimantus: and defining runtime libraries as bloat despite not knowing what a compiler is or does
Glaucon: because it’s easier than moving straight down to ELKS
Glaucon: sillybilly
Thrasymachus: When have you ever—ever—wanted to do something easy?
Glaucon: Thrasymachus never
Glaucon: I have however, wanted to do things that are easier for the time being
Glaucon: if you can get a full desktop on a Amstrad CPC then it shouldn’t be so hard to get one on an IBM XT
Glaucon: I think a more reasonable option right now would be Linux From Scratch
Glaucon: and then move from LFS to ELKS
Glaucon: because I can’t get MINIX or NetBSD working
Thrasymachus: It just doesn’t stop
Socrates: install Gentoo

Glaucon and the Temple of God

Socrates: this is what Glaucon is worried will happen if he uses technology: rip-aluminum-pan-man.webm
Socrates: (btw the lightning doesn’t happen with TempleOS)
Socrates: which actually is a really good idea
Socrates: Glaucon: have you tried TempleOS yet?
Thrasymachus: Oh god, don’t
Thrasymachus: Don’t!
Glaucon: lmao
Glaucon: If it had software, I would
Glaucon: I essentially want a Unix equivalent of TempleOS
Adeimantus: it’s minimal as fuck
Adeimantus: it can’t do shit
Adeimantus: and it runs on a type of C
Adeimantus: right up your alley
Glaucon: HolyC
Glaucon: I’m more than aware
Thrasymachus: “I want a Unix equivalent of TempleOS. That’s why I’m compiling some weird subset of the Linux kernel on FreeDOS”
Socrates: I’m always pleased when I hear HolyC
Socrates: what an amazing pun
Socrates: miss you terry
Adeimantus: tfw
Socrates: hope you’re fucking up those glowinnadarks in heaven
Socrates: (don’t confuse them with the angels bro)
Thrasymachus: Press “N” to pay respects
Socrates: N
Thrasymachus: I
Socrates: C
Socrates: E… work terry
Thrasymachus: fun ruiner

Keep it simple and/or difficult

Cephalus: what’s that nutter’s distro, the one who was forced quit void Linux
Cephalus: K1ss Linux I think
Cephalus: pure autism and retard tier
Cephalus: you might find it interesting
Cephalus: btw I only say that because on principle it’s a bit batshit insane to consider it for most production use
Glaucon: Kiss Linux looks interesting
Glaucon: I’ve seen it before
Glaucon: but I automatically discount any OS that only runs 64-bit
Cephalus: do you use IA32?
Socrates: ironically
Socrates: 64 bit is simpler than 16/32
Glaucon: that’s why I’m only going to use IA-16
Adeimantus: can’t have it actually using his hardware. hardware usage is bloat.
Glaucon: yeah I know it’s way too powerful
Glaucon: I’m gonna have to find a weaker PC, or use the ao486 core on the MiSTer
Socrates: >runs only on PIC32
Socrates: damn
Socrates: do it
Socrates: that’d be sick as fuck
Glaucon: I’m gonna buy one
Glaucon: I think
Socrates: be sure to research the toolchain beforehand
Glaucon: the what
Socrates: the toolchain
Socrates: the compilers have unusual licensing
Socrates: (common in the embedded world)
Glaucon: uh
Glaucon: sure
Socrates: how do you get code onto a PIC
Glaucon: the toolchain of course
Glaucon: I think
Glaucon: do I win?

The truth gets vicious when you corner it

Socrates: so, remember the other day I linked an architecture diagram for an AVR device? 1
Glaucon: yes
Socrates: and it had things like flash ROM and static SRAM inside the system boundary?
Glaucon: I don’t remember that but I’ll take your word
Socrates: PICs are microcontrollers and entirely unlike common desktop devices
Socrates: they store their software on-chip
Socrates: and have non-standard ISAs
Socrates: if you don’t know what a compiler is, you do not want to be using a microcontroller
Glaucon: There’s no way to have it boot from a device?
Socrates: only if you write and program an appropriate BIOS+bootloader
Socrates: write and program being specific, and program does not mean what you think it means
Glaucon: Sounds like exactly what I need
Glaucon: lemme find one to buy
Socrates: OK, well, like I said, I recommend Arduino if you want to go down this path
Socrates: understand that you’ll be using C, but not in an environment like anything you’ve programmed before
Glaucon: >he thinks I’ve programmed before
Glaucon: haha
Socrates: OK, let me put it this way. you will need to learn a custom variant of C, use a custom compiler, assembler, linker, hardware programming tools, and learn electronics enough (way past the “build your own Z80 stuff”)
Glaucon: Okay, now
Glaucon: I’m a little scared
Glaucon: Let’s start with LFS
Socrates: you will probably never talk to an actual hard drive without also learning how to design and fabricate/order PCBs for high-speed digital signals
Socrates: high-speed digital design being a masters in itself and is the primary reason why computers are slow these days
Socrates: (mainly, it’s too hard to get a fast link between RAM and CPU because at these speeds, every bit of wire is an antenna and they all bleed signals into each other)
Socrates: it’s the same reason we went from slow serial links, to faster parallel links, back to serial links
Socrates: serial links are easy to design but rely on better terminal electronics
Socrates: parallel links are fucking nails
Glaucon: well it’s a good thing I’m using a 5kb IRC client then
Socrates: that’s 10% of your entire ram
Glaucon: good thing I only need to do a few tasks at once
Socrates: good, because you’re probably not getting interactive multitasking
Glaucon: I was using DOS just fine, I just wanted to have maybe 2-3 programs open at a time
Socrates: oh
Socrates: well
Socrates: good luck
Socrates: generally, this is for embedded systems, not user-facing
Glaucon: yes of course
Glaucon: I don’t think I’ll buy a microcontroller I’m not that crazy
Glaucon: maybe I should just use multitasking DOS
Glaucon: or Xenix
Glaucon: I’m gonna try installing LFS
Socrates: I hope I get to tell you about compilers some time
Socrates: because I like you more now it’s clear you’re just a silly kid rather than the least subtle troll

Drawing a line in the silicon

Glaucon: wait
Glaucon: you really thought I installed FreeDOS on real hardware to test it as a desktop just to troll you guys?
Glaucon: I mean, quite honestly, don’t give yourselves so much credit
Socrates: I mean, I would say “surely no one is that stupid”
Socrates: but here you are
Glaucon: KEK
Glaucon: I didn’t come in here trying to hoping to use a MSX as a desktop and expect everyone to smile and nod at me
Glaucon: I’m not 15
Glaucon: you guys respond better than a lot of minimalists themselves do
Glaucon: because they each have their own point that they’re comfortable with, and the second you go beyond that they start to get pissy
Glaucon: say to someone who’s using 9front that it’s bloated, and they get red in the face
Glaucon: because it’s a threat to their entire identity
Adeimantus: or because you have yet to define what “bloat” actually means
Glaucon: bloat means just about everything when it comes to cat-v
Glaucon: they openly admit that there’s no real OS anymore that completely adheres to the UNIX philosophy, maybe Plan 9 and OpenBSD
Glaucon: that’s about it
Glaucon: and most people don’t use either
Adeimantus: if it means everything, it means nothing
Adeimantus: did that ever occur to you?
Glaucon: no Adeimantus lmao
Glaucon: because relativity exists
Thrasymachus: You’d make a fantastic case study for cat-v brain damage
Thrasymachus: I’m somehow confident that eventually you’ll come right, but for the moment you’re hopelessly confused
Glaucon: I can say Windows is bloated compared to Void
Glaucon: and that’s objectively true
Adeimantus: why?
Glaucon: because the average user can do what they need to do with less, both sysops and desktop users
Adeimantus: if that’s your base, I think you’re conflating “can” with “should”
Adeimantus: something is not bloat purely because there’s a more obscure or tinier way to do something
Adeimantus: part of the Unix philosophy includes choice of tooling by virtue of their modular nature. If there was only one good way to do something, alternative tools would not exist or be needed. If they add something legitimately useful, they’re not bloat. bloat comes from adding useless things that go beyond the purpose or focus of the tool
Glaucon: bro if you need bloat to work that’s fine I just don’t
Glaucon: das all
Adeimantus: much like casinos and dojos, this “bloat” is all in your mind
Diogenes: but alpine is “too minimal”
Diogenes: 🤔
Glaucon: it’s not too minimal at all
Glaucon: it’s just not what I’d call finished lmao
Diogenes: OK, so everything that goes beyond “finished” is bloat?
Diogenes: like security, or performance?
Glaucon: no I’d say it’s not even finished
Glaucon: like I said, couldn’t even get audio working, basic security issues
Diogenes: then what is “finished”
Diogenes: is there any software that is finished?
Glaucon: Finished is OpenBSD lmao
Glaucon: or FreeBSD
Glaucon: or FreeDOS
Glaucon: is a great example
Glaucon: most DOS variants, even
Glaucon: we can add to it, sure, but it’s still completely functional on a boot floppy
Diogenes: so those things don’t need any improvements?
Glaucon: yeah DOS especially
Glaucon: Jim Hall has said this, he considered making it 32-bit, implementing a networking stack, etc.
Diogenes: so new things are, per definition, bloat?
Diogenes: like Unicode?
Glaucon: yes
Diogenes: interesting
Diogenes: so you’re basically Amish with a different year in which you stop advancements
Diogenes: a different time at which you think “this is the way it was all meant to be, time to stop”
Glaucon: I was visiting the Amish a few weeks ago
Glaucon: was nice
Diogenes: wonder what constitutes this perfect moment in technological development specifically
Diogenes: was it when the shell was invented?
Diogenes: was it when ASCII was standardized?
Diogenes: was it when floppies were invented?
Glaucon: I’ve considered this
Glaucon: I draw the line at about the PDP-11

Not done yet

Cephalus: Diogenes: how do I learn2ansible
Diogenes: Cephalus: pain and suffering
Cephalus: Diogenes: please give it to me, Daddy Ansible
Thrasymachus: Can you two wait a few minutes while they finish ripping Glaucon’s soul in half, please

Learn Python, dammit

Socrates: Glaucon: being able to boot small systems isn’t the same as understanding them, or how to use them
Socrates: which is really the crux of why this is so painful
Glaucon: of course, but I have learned a lot
Socrates: yes, the slow and hard way
Glaucon: >the slow and hard way
Glaucon: it’s been a few days lmao
Socrates: yes, and it’s going to take, many, many, many more
Glaucon: it’s a lot faster than I ever learned before
Adeimantus: and in that time, what have you actually done?
Adeimantus: aside from fuck up hard enough to blow away your old install
Glaucon: Adeimantus I mean I can reinstall FreeDOS and reconfigure it in an hour
Adeimantus: configuring an OS older than you are isn’t terribly hard
Glaucon: reinstall it, install links and the packet driver and the music player, install DOS/32A
Glaucon: add the packet driver to autoexec, and that’s it
Socrates: make no mistake, no one here thinks you’re not learning, but if you start with adding, then multiplication, then algebra, you’re going to reach calculus faster than if you start with complex differential equations on day one and smash yourself into it for 3 years
Glaucon: I am starting with adding, then multiplication, then algebra though
Glaucon: I’m starting from the bottom up
Socrates: no, you’re not
Glaucon: should I go lower?
Socrates: the idea of this being bottom up learning isn’t true
Glaucon: Then I should go lower, no?
Diogenes: lower in this case would be harder
Diogenes: so no
Glaucon: I can brush up on circuitry
Socrates: learning computing from first principles is what has taken many PhDs 50 years
Socrates: start from the abstractions
Socrates: dig into them as you become comfy with each
Glaucon: I wonder what that means long term
Socrates: there’s a reason why we teach python rather than C in schools
Socrates: some might say it’s right, some might say it’s wrong
Socrates: but teaching the concepts without the sharp edges is sensible
Glaucon: >paying to learn python
Glaucon: do you think I should pay to learn python?
Socrates: unironically yes, you should learn at least some high level language first
Socrates: then C
Socrates: and then how C applies to operating systems
Socrates: just choose something high level and learn to program
Socrates: then learn how to program in C
Socrates: programming languages and programming-the-skill are orthogonal
Socrates: learn programming-the-skill in a high level language so you can focus on getting that to a high standard before you slow yourself down by having to multitask with the sharp edges that C makes you wade through
Cephalus: tbh python does get your dick caught in the ceiling fan occasionally, but it’s better than most languages
Adeimantus: why does that metaphor keep coming up


Socrates: what’s a linker?
Adeimantus: not doing much C, as I recall, a linker is used in compilation to combine object files into other files
Socrates: thanks for that
Adeimantus: did I miss something here?
Socrates: I was teaching him about translation units from the C standard earlier, I was joking that he doesn’t know what a linker is with respect to “defines as bloat when you don’t know what a compiler is”
Thrasymachus: I think Adeimantus thought you were testing him :)

  1. From our previous discussion, where we consider the practical openness of x86