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general

Finger

There was an interesting post that came up recently about the history of the unfortunately-named finger command in unix here. This jogged a few memories for me, because I remember finger as being the early precursor to blogs, web pages, and social media platforms.

Back in the days of unix and logging into mainframes and big workstations through terminals, there was a program called who, which listed every user currently logged into the machine. That was cool, except when there were hundreds of people on a machine and it quickly scrolled past in an indecipherable flood of text. It would show you a few brief details about each user, like how long they were logged in, or what program they were currently running. This was, in a very primitive way, similar to the little green dot next to a name in a messaging program, that tells you if the person is online or not. (Or maybe they never logged out, and their terminal was sitting idle overnight in a locked office.)

The next level of granularity was finger. If you were logged in and typed finger jkonrath, it would show a bit of info about that account, like that user’s home directory, the shell they used, and where they last logged in, or how long they’ve been logged in. That can lead to some stalker-y situations, but this was decades before anyone really thought that through.

One cool feature about finger was that if you had a text file named either .project or .plan in your home directory and they were would readable, they would also be displayed. The former was a one-line thing, and the latter could be any length. I think the original intent when this was written back at Stanford in 1972, you’d set your project to “AI Lab, Compiler Division” and your plan would be something like “I teach M-W-F in the basement of the science building. I will be on vacation June 1-9. Contact Dave Smith for questions.”

I first got a unix account (ULTRIX, actually) at IU in December of 1989. One of the first things I was absolutely infatuated with was the idea of coming up with a perfect plan file. I was 18 and of course had Big Thoughts I needed to tell the world, probably involving dumb song lyrics or movie quotes. I think for months, the only thing I used my account for was setting a new plan file and playing the text-based Tetris game someone installed on there. But it was almost like a really rough social network, sort of.

At some point, a CS buddy (it may have been either Brad Ramsey or Jesse Martin) told me about named pipes. A named pipe was a way of creating a file that really was a redirect to a program. I don’t remember how this worked, but they showed me a way to create a plan file that actually ran a script which did a who command, looked for the person who was running the finger command, then print some cute message like “hey $username quit spying on me” and output that to the pipe. It worked great, as long as the person was on the same machine, which was almost never the case. (I forgot to mention: you could run a finger command to any other machine that had a finger server running. So finger jkonrath@gnu.ai.mit.edu would also work on my burner account over there.)

Most undergrads and casual users were over on the VAX computers at that time for their general email use, and that VMS system had some half-baked implementation of finger that didn’t entirely work right, or didn’t support plan files, or something. VMS had its own arcane commands, like the much less sexy SHOW USERS/FULL and the like. This led to Sid Sowder and 19 other people (including me) writing their own VMS utility programs to meld together the disparate systems into something more usable as a social network, way back when Mark Zuckerberg was probably still learning to read.

That’s all another story I’ve told before. But one tangent on it is that I wrote a replacement for the finger command, sort of. The thing was, we needed a database to store various things about users, like preferences and login times and dates and whatever. So I wrote a program for Sid called XINFO, which was a horrible Pascal database program where his utility program would stash login information. Then I wrote a couple of different client programs that could hit this database for information, like an XFINGER command which was everything the VMS finger command wasn’t. And one of the biggest draws to Sowder’s program was a WHOIS program that was all neat and pretty and would show you where your friends were logged in from and so on. So yeah, maybe I should have filed a patent on this and sued everyone. Or maybe I should have gone to classes and studied instead of doing this.

The plan thing had an interesting connection to present. Back in like 1992 or so, the Computer Science department installed this thing on their server that at first was touted as some king of super-finger doodad. It was a server that would show your plan file, but let you put graphics and markup text in it. It called these a HyPlan file. You would write them in this weird markup language which was apparently called HTML, and then people all around the world could use a special program to read your HyPlan and click links on it and go to other HyPlan pages. This was called the “world wide web” and of course I thought it was a stupid fad and made a dumb HyPlan that I think had a gigantic uncompressed audio file of like three seconds of a Cannibal Corpse song that would play when you clicked on it. The name HyPlan became Homepage and was forgotten, and thirty years later, people are using a distant relative of that same system to try and sell me boner pills. And once again, I should have gotten in front of this early and maybe patented selling books on the web or something.

Anyway, the finger command still works if you’re on a Mac. Maybe I should go back to just updating my plan file, instead of upgrading WordPress plugins every 17 minutes so this site doesn’t get hacked by Russians again.

Categories
blog

Every day I don’t delete this blog is a goddamn miracle

I can’t believe there was a time I used to write here daily. I really can’t believe there was a time I used to write here daily, write in a journal, write books, plus write a dozen hours a day at my actual job.

Now I write here… checks posts… five times in 2022.

Why? Why is this so hard?

* * *

I keep meaning to write a post about “why blogs are more important than ever” or “why you should blog” or something like that. I actually have a draft post where I paste in the occasional thought blast or loose link I find about this topic, and keep meaning to structure this stuff into a cohesive manifesto of sorts.

But… life. There are only so many hours in the day, and by the time I sit down after a day of work, I’m usually completely strung out and exhausted. I consume so much caffeine to keep running at combat power for ten or twelve hours every day, that by the afternoon, I’ve overdosed to the point where I’m about to black out. I cannot focus on this stuff at all.

But when I started this thing back in 1996, the point of it was to not focus. I wanted to write just to write, dump a few hundred words into the void and keep my chops up. It was like jogging, running laps around the neighborhood, not to go anywhere, but to just run for 45 minutes. There was something liberating about posting the day-to-day in an unstructured format, without needing a genre or a “container” or a specific format to put things in. It was. Nothing more.

This was before Facebook, Twitter, and everything else lowered the bar on posting inane personal updates for no reason. This was before the term blog was even invented. It was before LiveJournal or MySpace. To people born after the year 2000 who doesn’t have the attention span to watch an entire TikTok video, these updates were probably like reading Leo Tolstoy do an hour-long jazz set on watching his lawn grow. But having that “container” to do this, without comparison to other platforms – that gave me the freedom to sit down and do this without being blocked on exactly what to do.

* * *

When I sit down to write on Rumored dot com, this is the thought pattern when an idea pops into my head that typically makes me give up and go waste two hours doom-scrolling investment news:

  1. <XYZ> is boring.
  2. You already wrote about <XYZ> in 2011.
  3. Nobody cares about that memory of going to the Scottsdale Mall in South Bend, Indiana on the morning of Friday, August 24th, 1990, buying a new car battery for your 1984 Turismo at Target, and then spending two hours playing Tetris on the Gameboy display because your shift at the English computer lab at IUSB didn’t start until noon.
  4. You can’t write about <XYZ> in a public place because some family member will see it and get pissed off, or it will come up in a search result five years from now during a job interview.
  5. <XYZ> is some disparate thought, and what you really need is some SEO-friendly format, like only writing about pay phones or media trends or book reviews or… something, a format that will draw in people, one or two set things that I can focus on every time I write.

* * *

That last one is what kills me. I’ve complained about this a lot, especially during the “Golden Era” of blogs (which, christ, was 18 years ago now) when people suddenly decided blogs had to be “about something.” And that wasn’t because some grand arbiter of taste codified the online world and listed out what you could write about, and it wasn’t a tool limitation, like you had to choose one of five things when you created your account and you could only do those five things.

Like everything else, this was about money.

People suddenly realized that instead of blogging being like jogging on a treadmill but for writers, blogging became a stepping-stone in the world of publishing. Blogs with a cohesive vision became more trafficked, so once AdWords and affiliate links were a thing, the blogs with the most visitors rose to the top, and got more visitors, and became A Thing. Blogging wasn’t about writing about your feelings. Blogging was about producing some self-contained docudrama about your persona’s supposed life, and were hopefully a launching pad to a book or movie deal. Or they were basically a self-produced magazine, about politics or news or whatever, and the line between mass-media and blogging became blurred until they basically became the same thing.

(I cannot count the number of times I wrote a thousand-word essay here off the cuff, just to burn two hours between work and dinner, and some other writer or random civilian emailed me and said “wow you should submit that at XYZ and sell it.” This always launched me into a white-hot rage. If I was trying to write puff pieces for McSweeney’s, I’d write them. I write here to write here, god damn it. If I was thinking about what markets would take my writing, I wouldn’t be writing. I could not walk 10,000 steps a day for exercise if I spent every waking moment wondering what media outlet would pay me for walking 10,000 steps. I walk 10,000 steps. God DAMN it why is this so hard for anyone to understand?)

* * *

(Stay with me here. I know I’m rambling.)

* * *
I’m not going to go old-man-yells-at-sky about how these damn kids don’t have an attention span to read anymore. They do if they wan’t to; that’s not the problem. I think the dopamine-killing feedback loop of social media has fully been documented elsewhere, and people fail to factor in that people don’t have time and have too many other competing things to prevent them from sitting down and reading a series of 2000-word blog posts like we used to do during every office workday in 2003. I get it.

There’s a much more subtle thing that happened with this tool evolution, aside from the shortening of the media form. The “democratization” of tools like LiveJounal, then Facebook, then Twitter, then TikTok made it easier for anyone to journal their life in real-time. When I started this site, I had to write code by hand, telnet into a remote computer, and use unix commands on a terminal to publish each day’s page. Now, you get an app on your phone, press a button, and a video of your dance routine is live for the world to see, which is great. Anyone can do this.

But the issue is this has transformed the nature and value of the word “blogging.” It used to be that blogging was about constructing a text essay to post. Now the word is a generic verb used to chronicle something in any format online. Live-blogging used to be a CNBC journalist feverishly posting up-to-the-minute copy about the 1998 midterm elections. Now it’s someone taking pictures of their visit to the grocery store. Blogging has lost all meaning. There’s no way to give meaning to the term again.

* * *

I think the most frustrating thing with blogging is that if you search for the term “blog,” the first hundred results you find are people saying you need to create a “blog” to generate SEO for your dental practice or real estate venture. The Reddit group on blogging is filled with people “finding their niche,” which means drilling into a genre that can create a profitable drop-shipping business. People don’t blog to express anything. They use blogs to store marketing content to game search engines.

Because there’s no money in this, there are no successful blogging platforms anymore. They have all been overrun by people selling boner pills and work-from-home scams. Blog discovery is now impossible. Any mechanism to create a directory of blogs or link together similar blogs will quickly be exploited and gamed by vitamin tycoons and destroyed. And once any fun personal hangout where you can converse with authentic people gets overrun by sales bots peddling a revolutionary new mop, they leave. It happened to Blogger, to MySpace, to LiveJournal, and it’s currently happening to Facebook.

Case in point on the blog directory thing: I just searched for “blog directory” and clicked the first result, then clicked the first article shown, and it was “Great Ways To Increase Customer Engagement!” Stock photo of a bearded hipster guy at a Square point-of-sale in an all-white store, smiling at a smiling woman from a Gap ad. Exactly 600 words long. A listicle. Exactly four outgoing links. Textbook SEO. Garbage. This is where we are. This is the entire web. It’s all useless. Old man yells at sky.

* * *

There are like 17 other things in my list of reasons we got to this point. RSS died. Google Reader died. WordPress is horrible. PHPbb is horrible. Blogger got bought and then left in the yard to rust. Every Tumblr in existence got banned for being NSFW. Everyone switched to reading on their phone, which left many sites unreadable. Video. Walled gardens. Privacy concerns. Whatever. I can go on forever. I’ll stop.

The truth is, I have a Notes document that has a list of URLs on it, of every blog I still like to read. Maybe once a month, I find a new one and paste it in there. Maybe six of them still post regularly. I revisit the other ones, read old posts, wish I could find more blogs about nothing.

Blogs are still important. Someone needs to figure this out. I need to stop caring about someone figuring this out and keep writing here. I don’t care if nobody reads it. There are 1,381 posts here. That’s a good start, but I need to keep going.

Categories
general

COVAD-99

Ever since the COVID stuff started, I’ve had the term COVAD stuck in my head. There’s a reason for that. Let me explain.

So back in 1999, I moved to New York to freelance and write fiction and do that whole lifestyle, and it lasted about six months and I ended up at a full-time job at Juno Online that fall. Juno was that free email company, where they gave you a clunky Windows program and you got a free email address but had to look at ads in a little sidebar thing. When I got there, they also got into giving away a limited number of hours of free web browsing, or you could pay a little per month to get “unlimited” use.

At that point in time, 99.99% of internet users connected through a dial-up modem. Some dorms and campuses had ethernet; some offices, too. You could also pay a ton of money to get an ISDN connection at a screaming 128Kbps. Like most people, I used a 56K modem, which wasn’t blazing fast, but my first modem ever was 300bps, and I spent a few years of college on a 2400bps, so it didn’t seem that horrible. The busy signals were, though.

One of the first things I worked on at Juno was a new product called Juno Express. This was a Juno unlimited connection, but also included a broadband connection. Juno experimented with every type of broadband technology coming out at the turn of the century. We did trials with cable modems, satellite, microwave, various radio technologies, and something that ran through power lines to the home. But the one that stuck was DSL. And our DSL partner was called Covad Communications.

Prior to the late 90s, the only real way into a person’s house from a communication standpoint was the voice line. Modems worked by connecting to the voice line and converting digital communication into an audio signal, that screeching sound you heard when you connected a modem to the internet, if you were old enough to remember using a modem. That worked, but only up to a certain point, because of the inefficiency of cramming a wide digital signal over a relatively narrow pipe.

The Telecommunications Act of 1996 changed this. Among the other things they deregulated, they made it so that an Incumbent Local Exchange Carrier (ILEC) – the big phone companies like Bell Atlantic or Ameritech – had to allow any company the ability to share the local-loop access of the pieces of copper that tied a home to a telephone exchange. That meant a company like Covad could lease these lines and run their own digital internet service directly to your home.

Of course, the big phone companies didn’t make this easy. They dragged their feet and instituted byzantine processes for partners and did as much as possible to discourage this forced competition. Part of what made my documentation of Juno Express so messy was the complicated dance of getting the customer’s phone company and someone from Covad to both work with each other to get everything connected. Companies like Verizon weren’t going to just hand keys to Covad and say “knock yourself out.” Getting appointments was tedious, and sometimes they just wouldn’t show up, so you had to reschedule the following Covad appointment. It would take weeks and sometimes months to turn on a connection.

Once you got all of this sorted, you ended up with a DSL box in your house that had a 10 base T ethernet connection at about 768Kbps. But it was on 24 hours a day. No busy signals! And over ten times faster than a modem. Yes, my current connection is usually about 600Mbps, but just under 1Mbps was so insanely fast at that time. And not having to wait an hour to get past the busy signal at peak hours was a huge plus.

I seldom worked with anyone from Covad. But they had a sales rep who, when he was in New York, was always good for a high-end lunch. I remember getting a three-hour, all-expenses paid steak dinner for lunch at Sparks Steak House once. I think we spent thirty seconds discussing business, and it was “how’s business?/not bad/let’s get more drinks.” Other than that and the usual swag that showed up (I’m sure I had Covad mouse pads galore at the time, maybe a stress ball or some pens, too) I seldom had direct interaction with them, just deciphering their emails and adding to the docs.

When I moved into my own place in Astoria in 1999, I got DSL right after I got my keys, but I didn’t use Juno. Covad also got hooked up with Speakeasy, who I still had accounts with from my Seattle days. Speakeasy started as an internet cafe in Belltown, and I got a shell account there when I got to Seattle. For five bucks a month, I got an account on a SparcStation, the address jkonrath@speakeasy.org, and a few megs of web space. I kept that account for like ten years, but when I got to New York, they were doing dial-up access nationwide, which I used, until I got the DSL hookup. I later moved from the leased-line DSL, which used the second set of copper in my walls, to a shared-line setup, which ran on the same pair as my voice line, using DSL filters. I think that was maybe a 3Mbps connection.

I left Juno in the summer of 2001, right as they got bought by NetZero. I kept using Speakeasy/Covad until maybe 2005 when I moved in with Sarah. Oddly enough, Covad and Speakeasy were acquired and mashed together with MegaPath in a three-way merger in 2010. The Speakeasy cafe burned down in 2001. And now when you search on Covad, Google suggests Covid. So I’m not the only one confusing the two.