Some of my fonder memories of computing days of yore are those where I was working with utilities under DOS.
And boy, were we spoiled for choice.
Norton Utilities was the father of them all - the venerable and venerated, almost to the point of holiness. But there was also PC Tools, XTree Gold and many more - each trying to fix a perceived gap or gaps in the (admittedly slim) repertoire of MS-DOS.
They each had their strengths and weaknesses. Norton Utilities were more useful for fixing disks, recovering files and doing disk optimisation. PC Tools did all of that and also had some pretty decent file management. XTree Gold was mostly just file management - but to be fair it was the best file manager that there ever has been!
But here was the thing....
These utilities were widely regarded as ESSENTIAL.
Nobody could contemplate serious computing without them. And I’m not kidding here - on software sales charts, they had their own category. New releases were headline news for the industry press. On CompuServe and CIX, debates raged over which was more efficacious.
(An aside: I just got to legitimately use the word Efficacious. How's your day compare with that?)
Yet by the mid-90's, they were already becoming irrelevant. Today, the utilities market exists mostly as a vestigial stump of the larger Security market.
So what went wrong? Why do we no have Norton Disk Doctor, Mirror, Undelete, Filefind, PC Shell, XTree and their like?
I didn't understand it at the time, but hindsight is crystal clear.
Computing was getting better.
That was all. Nothing special. Just that these utilities existed at a point in time where computers were becoming widespread, but weren't yet mature. The hardware was unreliable, the software spartan and buggy.
Utilities fixed that, but also sowed the seeds of their own doom.
Hardware has become ever-more reliable, which didn't help. Floppy disks were prone to failure, but a USB flash drive is very durable.
But the real problem has been improvements in software.
It would be tempting to say it started with Windows 95, which brought a double-whammy of a Recycle Bin and massive architectural changes that made us all live without utilities for the many months that passed until compatible versions were available. When the utilities did finally ship for Windows 95, we all realised that we were doing just fine without them...
But it started before that.
MS-DOS 5 brought with it an undelete command. Oh, and an unformat command, and... Mirror?
Yes, well spotted. They were all licensed from Central Point Software, who made PC Tools.
Symantec did no better, as the disk defragmenter in MS-DOS 6 was a cut-down version of their very own Speed Disk (speedisk.exe - a marvelously efficient filename!).
No doubt these licensing deals were profitable in their own right. But they also meant that by MS-DOS 6, the basics were covered for most users. And what Microsoft hadn’t licensed, they built themselves - chkdsk.exe remained, but scandisk.exe was the newer, prettier and more reliable way to fix your disk problems.
Then there was no MS-DOS 7. Not as a standalone product, anyway, as it became a bootloader for Windows 95.
And although Windows 95 was primitive by today’s standards, it was enough. In hardware, floppy disks were giving way to CD-R/CD-RW, which was then to give way to USB flash. Hard disks were ever more reliable. And whilst Windows Explorer is no XTree Gold, it’s almost infinitely better than the File Manager that preceded it in Windows 3.x.
The death of utilities should be a cause of celebration. It should be a way in which we gauge the industry’s progress.
Personally, I can’t help feel a little melancholy about it.
Whilst things are technically better, these utilities are a large part of how I learnt about the IBM PC - optimising and fixing, and sometimes just cleaning up after a failed experiment.
(OK, OK. Very frequently cleaning up after a failed experiment!)
Utilities, we thank you. You shamed operating systems into improving themselves. In that regard, you may be the most important neurons that the industry has ever wasted...
A superb grain and some very decent young whiskies on this list...
G10.1 Thanksgiving dram
23 years old, distilled 31st August 1989, 59.6%, refill ex-bourbon hogshead
Toffee, demerara sugar, caramel, cinnamon and vanilla are in this surprisingly robust nose. The body is very light and slippery, with cigar boxes and vanilla ice cream. When held on the palate, caramel and cardamom become more dominant. The finish is long and sweet, full of demerara sugar and oak.
After water, the gets hints of milk chocolate added to it, and the body gains a very slight note of PVA glue. The finish explodes with wood spices.
Although thin, this grain packs in a lot of flavours and balances them brilliantly.
78.40 Tantalisingly sweet and savoury
16 years old, distilled 17th September 1996, 55.1%, sherry butt
Stewed apples and cherry sponge cake on the nose, then a rich body of rum & raisin and Battenburg cake. The finish is vaguely ginger - like.
After water, the nose has added raisins, which also appear in the body.
A very drinkable dram.
77.30 Attractively accessible and mouth-watering
9 years old, distilled 17th April 2003, 61.9%, refill ex-bourbon hogshead
The nose has barley water, shortbread, and a hint of floral-scented washing detergent. The body is pineapple and vanilla, and the finish is tropical fruits. The mouth-feel is a little harsh - but a look at the strength explains that!
After water, it smoothes out into a very nice, slightly lemony dram. Very fruity on the body - mangoes? - and a nice clean zesty finish.
A session dram par excellence...
44.56 Sweet and sour creative tension
23 years old, distilled 9th October 1989, 51.8%, refill ex-bourbon hogshead
A nose of haribo and honey. The body is fudge and crunchy honeycomb, with hints of honeysuckle. The finish is smooth and lingers a little, with more honeycomb.
After water, the nose is fruitier - melon or pineapple? The body has more vanilla, which continues into the finish.
This is an elegant and drinkable dram, superb for a warm spring day.
1.168 Delightfully dulcet deliciosity
28 years old, distilled 16th May 1984, 53.3%, refill ex-bourbon hogshead
A nose full of tropical fruits - melon, pineapple, banana, oranges. There's also a hint of toffee. The body is reminiscent of crumble from a dessert, with plenty of vanilla and some light fruits - more melon. The finish is oaky and sweet.
After water - not much! - the fruits become stronger and there are touches of gelatin sweets. The body has a little tannin, more leather than wood, and the finish is longer.
26.92 Hard glazed pretzel sticks
28 years old, distilled 13th December 1984, 58.2%, refill ex-sherry butt
A quiet, elegant nose - nothing definite, just hints of wax and lemon. The body is light, with wood and ash notes. The finish is dry and sweet, with crystallised oranges.
After water - and after standing this whisky really starts to open up. The nose gains straw, pepper and brine, the body has toffee and coconut, with much more of this distillery's characteristic wax. The finish is an ashen, salty and smokey lingering that there was no hint of before water.
This dram is an odd stalking horse - it seems at first to be a quiet, sweet summer's day dram, and slowly expands into an elegant and interesting tasting that is a delightful surprise. It's only problem is that it takes so long to open up into true excellence.
31.26 BBQ smoke by a rolling sea
24 years old, distilled 27th September 1988, 53.6%, refill ex-bourbon hogshead
Brine, smoke, and aniseed on the nose. The body has smokey bacon and barbecue sauce, and the finish is sweet smoke - like scented candles.
After water, the smoke from the nose begins to billow into the body. It has less fruit from the sauce, but a bit more vanilla sweetness. The finish is now smoke and oak spices.
A superb light Islay substitute, which is the kind of description that I fear masks this whisky's charms or even undervalues it. This should be drunk for what it is - an excellent example of well matured and heavily peated Jura.
These days, all Windows programs are .EXE files. But back in the days of DOS, there were also .COM files.
Why no .COM files anymore?
The answer lies with the precursor of MS-DOS - CP/M.
MS-DOS was not actually written by Microsoft - IBM had tried to get CP/M for their new PC, but couldn't agree on the royalty rates. As a hedge bet, they asked Microsoft for an operating system - so Microsoft first licensed, then bought outright someone else's CP/M clone and resold it to IBM!
86-DOS was designed to be source compatible with CP/M, albeit loosely. That meant that most programs could be recompiled for 86-DOS without any difficulties.
So IBM's PC-DOS - IBM always called their MS-DOS version "PC-DOS" - was basically a CP/M clone. And CP/M used .COM files for external commands (programs)...
However, .COM files were pretty basic. Just a memory image, really - they were always loaded at the same address - 0100h, just after the Program Segment Prefix. A .COM file is often thought to be limited to under 64Kb in size, but in can be larger - however, you have to write the memory management yourself!
That's the big difference between a .COM file and a .EXE file - the .EXE file can be loaded anywhere rather than at a fixed point, and MS-DOS can also load different parts into different memory segments.
If that last part made no sense to you, be thankful. Segmented memory models are evil, and we should never repeat those mistakes!
So that's why we have .COM and .EXE files - the .COM files are there for CP/M compatibility, and the .EXE files are the newer, shinier MS-DOS format.
Then why were so many MS-DOS programs in the old .COM format, rather than the shiny new native .EXE?
Well, basically, most of them were small and didn't need to be a .EXE. But a few did grow larger than 64Kb - COMMAND.COM and FORMAT.COM spring to mind - so should have become .EXE files.
Except that MS-DOS didn't actually care whether the application was a .EXE or a .COM filename, because COMMAND.COM checked the first two bytes of the file when loading it - if they were "MZ" or "ZM", it treated it as a .EXE. If those two characters weren't there, it was loaded as a .COM file.
So it didn't actually matter what the file extension was!
More importantly, the filenames had to stay the same for compatibility - it would have been chaos if you'd renamed COMMAND.COM, as many other applications called it for various reasons!
And it gets worse.
Of course, there is one final thing to note about .COM/.EXE files that might be useful to know...
.COM takes precedence.
So if you have "PROGRAM.COM" and "PROGRAM.EXE" in the same directory, and you type "PROGRAM" at the command prompt to run it, you're going to load "PROGRAM.COM". Every time.
There were actually some viruses that used that to spread. Very stupid, very dumb viruses that were incredibly easy to spot and remove. But it happened!
There were also applications that would use this trick to load an initial "wrapper" application that would do any checking that they needed - hardware, licensing, whatever - before unloading and loading the .EXE file.
Of course, you're very unlikely to have that to run a true .COM file today. These days pretty much everything is a .EXE. So all of this is just wasted neurons...
Intel really struck it big when IBM's PC design used their 8088 as it's CPU.
The Intel 8088 was a budget version of the Intel 8086 - the money was saved by only giving the 8088 an 8-bit data bus instead of a 16- bit one.
So here's the thing...
IBM's replacement for the IBM PC - the IBM PC AT - used an Intel 80286.
A few years later, Compaq famously beat IBM to the punch when it came to shipping the first PCs with the next generation of processors - the Intel 80386.
And then we had the 80486, and then came the Pentium - a sudden name change which threw everyone, because they were expecting an 80586.
(US courts said you can't trademark a number, so Intel stopped using them.)
So we can easily see a fairly decent progression in Intel's numbering scheme. But isn't there a hole?
Shouldn't there be an Intel 80186?
Yes. And there was one. It just wasn't used in IBM PCs.
The Intel 80186 was an odd beast. It was designed to be binary compatible with the 8086, but at the same time it included a lot of features that were usually part of the supporting chipsets on a computer.
That made it more suitable for use in embedded computers rather than in IBM PCs, especially as some of those extra features actively clashed with the standards expected in an IBM compatible machine - so most computer manufacturers just skipped it and waited for the 80286.
A few plucky companies did use the 80186 in an "IBM Compatible", and one of them was where I first saw this chip. It was an RM Nimbus, a common machine in the education sector of the UK back in the late 80's.
And it was gloriously almost-compatible. It could do EGA graphics! Kind of. If you remembered to tell it to be, by running the "setmode" command first...
I still run across people who don’t believe that the 80186 existed. And before the internet, it was kind of difficult to prove that it did, unless you happened to have an example handy. So the debates could get a little circular...
Interestingly, although the 80186 isn’t remembered by the public, it evidently sold well. Intel stopped making the 80286 in the early 90’s, but manufactured their last 80186 in 2007 - less than a decade ago.
25 years is a pretty good run for a processor. Although perhaps not a good enough reason to waste neurons on knowing about it...
An impressive outturn from the SMWS this month, with plenty of older (and therefore more expensive) bottlings.
G3.4 Pride of Bengal
27 years old, distilled 29th November 1984, 57.5% abv, refill ex-bourbon hogshead
A light nose of vanilla, butteriness, PVA glue, cornflake dust and a hint of ginger. The body is very sweet, with naan bread and peanuts complimenting a massive vanilla note. The finish is fiery and sees a return of the ginger note from the nose.
Water doesn’t bring out much more - perhaps a little cumin on the body. Holding this whisky on the tongue for a few seconds gives an astonishingly satisfying mouth feel - truly a highlight of the day.
58.14 Ye olde sweetie shoppe
23 years old, distilled 5th June 1989, 57.8% abv, refill ex-bourbon barrel
The nose has midget gems, berries and a touch of oak. The body adds peaches and fruit fondant centres from a box of chocolates, and the finish brings in golden syrup and oak.
After water,the nose has a touch of old dusty books, and in the body there is a much larger presence of oak and berries, as we as sponge cake in the body.
A very decent dram, nicely balanced and dangerously drinkable.
41.56 Rabbit in soured cream source
24 years old, distilled 28th August 1988, 51.9% abv, refill ex-bourbon hogshead
A very light nose - sweet vanilla and oats, but not much else. The body is similarly clean and straightforward. Custard Creams, a hint of Bourbon biscuits, and a floral sweetness - honeysuckle? The finish is oak and corn - unexpectedly heavier than the body and nose.
After water, you can spend a little while marvelling at the heavy whorling in your glass, before returning to the flavours. The nose and body now have a slightly grassy flavours added, and the finish is slightly less large.
A fine dram for a summer's day.
37.54 A contradictory dram
27 years old, distilled 24th April 1985, 52.4% abv, refill ex-bourbon hogshead
An excellent nose - slight hints of oak and almost burnt toast, and lots of perfumed notes from scented soaps. Subtly floral. The body is less subtle, quite substantial, and brings in tannins and a hint of linament. The finish is much woodier, bringing back that toast note yet having a floral note too - violets?
After water, the nose is sweeter, with buttercups and a suggestion of gelatin. The body has wood - camphor wood? - and the finish is also woody, but still retains those floral hints.
A very satisfactory dram, which brought a little more light into a dull overcast day.
24.124 Close to the edge of extreme
23 years old, distilled 22nd December 1988, 50.8% abv, refill ex-sherry butt
Furniture polish and cedar wood on the nose, which also hints at Terry's Chocolate Orange. The body is robust in flavour, but quite thin in mouth-feel. It's full of toffee, oranges, dark chocolate, tobacco and Arabic spices. The finish is toffee and treacle.
I didn't find that water did much for this dram - a little coffee, but otherwise very similar to its unwatered experience.
An excellent example of sherry maturation, from the distillery that made its reputation on sherry casks.
3.5/5 (would have been 4 if the mouth-feel was less thin)
44.57 Sea salted caramel pebbles
22 years old, distilled 13th August 1990, 52.9% abv, refill ex-bourbon hogshead
Toffee, caramel, grapefruit and melon on the nose. The body has salted caramels, hints of lemon and custard. The finish is like an assortment of penny sweets.
After water, the toffee becomes a bit more dominant, but this is still a very sweet, light dram.
A fine aperitif dram.
29.129 Leather and lime in a smoky room
22 years old, distilled 9th November 1989, 55.1% abv, refill ex-sherry butt
Smoke and embers of the nose, with a background hint of leather and mahogany. The body has plenty of smoke, with a slightly nutty background - walnuts? The finish is big, smoky, and has a hint of oranges.
After water, the nose brings in a bit more mahogany, but is still dominated by smoke and ash. The body is a little sweeter, bringing peanuts alongside the smoke. The finish remains unremittingly smoky, with the oranges having given way to walnut.
A fine finishing dram, which provides a palate coating barrage of pleasantly complimented smoke. If only the law permitted me to smoke a cigar with this...