Learning from Legend… the System Minotaur

Personal computers used to be fairly simple things. They had a CPU which did the work, some memory for it to keep things in, and a Basic Input/Output System to let it move things around. Anything more than that was usually up to the capabilities of whatever application you launched from the command line.

Nowadays, our PCs are complex structures, with abstract user interfaces which shield us from the underlying complexity of hundreds of concurrent and inter-related processes. Sometimes we must stray beyond the user interface, making our way – like Theseus – into the labyrinthine interior. And, like Theseus, we may well encounter a strange and fearsome beast in there… the System Minotaur. Although early PCs didn’t have a System Minotaur inside them, the current Minotaurs are actually atavistic successors of those in the computers of bygone, and more hostile times.

The first System Minotaur I ever encountered lurked at the heart of the IBM 4700 Finance Controller. It was a powerful and deeply unfriendly creature which responded only to arcane and complex incantations. One small mistake in these esoteric rituals, and it would – as likely as not – kill you, rip out your backbone and, in all probability, trample all over your discs. The current System Minotaurs in mazes such as Window and Linux have, through years of selective breeding and genetic modification, been made superficially more docile. If you handle them with care and point them in the right direction, you can use them to kill other, lesser vermin in the maze. But be warned: it doesn’t take much for the savage genes of their ancestors to surge to the surface and run amok – killing processes, crippling applications and, by all accounts, slaughtering virgins of either sex.

These legends tell of the hard lessons learned by our predecessors, and we ignore them at our peril…