October 7, 2010

Internet Memories


There is a story told around the UWA Computer Science department I occasionally retell. Supposedly, in the early 90’s someone at the national level discovered that a huge percentage of all internet traffic into Australia was going to UWA. After some investigation it was discovered that most of the traffic was overnight and into the CS department. Even further investigation demonstrated that the traffic was to a single desktop computer owned by one of the grad students. It was then found that this student was running a mirror of decoded images from the alt.binaries.erotica.* newsgroups with anonymous ftp access. Uh oh.

When I tell this story to old programmer friends (people who did their degrees in the early-mid 90’s like myself) I generally get a few laughs. As the audience gets younger, the story needs more explanation. At first it was that the bandwidth to Australia wasn’t very large at the time, only a few Mb/s; there are faster home broadband connections today. People jealously guarded it – online text games were banned and online chat was discouraged – there was no web or commercial usage allowed. Then I had to describe newsgroups to people who think the web and internet are the same thing, and most recently even FTP (something I still use regularly today!) required explanation. Here are some other computer/internet memories that time has passed by.

My first computer was an Amstrad CPC6128 (we also had an Atari 2600, but I consider that more of a games console than a general purpose computer). My friends had ZX Spectrums, BBC Micros, Macs and early IBM PCs. They were all different architectures and incompatible. Amstrads used an unusual floppy disk so I couldn’t even transfer files (there was no networking). Some other computers used audio cassettes to store programs. They were slow to load (taking many, many minutes), often failed or corrupted and made a screeching noise while loading. The noise was like “eee-aaayyy-eeee-shhhhh” (similar to old modems) and we learnt to pay attention, because if the sound wasn’t quite right we would stop the load straight away rather than wait for the inevitable failure message.

Modems were expensive and slow. They weren’t particularly useful either until ISPs were set up in the mid-90s. Before then the only thing most people could connect to were BBS’s. I got access to the internet when I started university in 1992. Initially I used it rarely and only for email. In the middle of my first year I went to a BBQ (held by the science fiction association) where much of conversation was about alt.music, comp.lang.c, rec.games.board and other alien sounding terms. After that I learnt all about usenet and regularly trawled a few groups. From there came IRC (which I never got into), rogue-like games and MUDs. Interacting and communicating with people around the world was such a thrill – now it seems normal. One guy at college even got offered a free plane ticket to the US from a fellow MUD player, but that might have been related to him pretending to be a woman online. Everything was text based. No sound or pictures (unless you count ascii art) – there just wasn’t the bandwidth. I played a MUD based on BattleTech where you would furiously type in text commands to move your robot around a text-based map that couldn’t be seen until a “look” command was typed. It was very frustrating, especially as the lag on a good day to the US servers was a few seconds. Despite this I was still banned from the computer club’s servers for playing it – all that text apparently took too much bandwidth (presumably most of it was needed for the PhD student’s porn).

I remember a time on the internet before spam. Sure there was the occasional “Jesus will save you” post on random newsgroups, but people would pass round email addresses without any concern. I remember there was a book of email addresses produced called the Internet White Pages. Along with thousands of people from the US and Europe, I was in it (they must have scraped it from the newsgroups). I was proud, but if something similar occurred now I would be aghast – my inbox would become a target! The first spam message is considered to be Canter and Siegel’s Green Card lottery newsgroup post. I remember repeatedly seeing this post and how mad it made a lot of people.

I got my first PC in late 1993. The first two things I did with it were installing Doom and Linux. Doom was shareware; that is, a cutdown free version that acted as advertising for the full version. I got the shareware version of Doom as 3 floppy disks from a local shop. The game looked better than anything I’d seen on a PC before, it was revolutionary. It was so engrossing I actually jumped a few times when a monster came up behind me (much to the amusement of my friends). I wanted Linux on my computer as it would make it easier to do uni assignments which had to run on the Sun unix boxes they used in the CS department. Originally I got a quote for a “proper” version of unix, but SCO wanted $4k for their operating system (and this on a $2K computer). Balking at this I downloaded an early version of Slackware. It came with a 0.99p14 Linux kernel and to install it I had to copy it onto floppy disks – over 80 of them. It took me days to download and days to copy to floppy, writing the detail of each disk’s contents down as I went. It all worked, and for coding and internet work it was far better than Windows.

By the start of 1995 the utility of the internet was rapidly increasing, mainly due to the recent creation of web browsers and Gopher. “Huh, what is Gopher?” you say. It was a competitor to the web that largely did the same things. We soon discovered that the web, with is anarchic linking and better browsers that had inline images (we used Mosaic at first before going to Netscape) was much better. Many of the text-based internet tools like Gopher and Archie are long gone now. Killed by the greater functionality that greater bandwidth allows.

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