Matthew Gifford

A little nostalgia at the beginning of the year


As we begin our next trip around the sun, it’s time to take a look at ourselves and our surroundings and make (mostly unrealistic) promises to make improvements. I’m still working on defining my goals for 2015. So far, they go something like this:

Plus a few that are private. Most of them aren’t very ambitious. But they do require sustained effort, which is challenging to someone who likes a quick reward.

Do you you have any interesting goals? I’d love to hear about them.

By the way, you’re moving at about 66,600 mph around the sun right now.

When I started college in the fall of 1994, Mosaic, the first graphical web browser, was starting to become popular. By popular, I mean that people other than the geekiest geeks started using it. We went from this (a terminal browser called Lynx):

to this:

Huge improvement, right? Needless to say, we didn’t have social networks like you think of them. Most of the approximately 3000 websites in the world were academic/scientific, had information pertaining to the hobbies of geeks, or took advantage of the new graphical capabilities of the web. (I’ll let you figure out what that last one means.) And even if you did think of the idea of a web-based social network, it would have been very difficult. HTML forms were hard to deal with. And JavaScript wouldn’t be released for another year. However, we did have social networks. The one I belonged to was a Unix or Linux (I don’t remember which) server called Accounts on expert were offered to students who wanted email and a place to store files on the university’s network. But I soon learned from my engineering friends that I could do much more with my account. It turned out that I could see who was logged into the server.

And each user had a public profile.

And that there was a command called “talk” that would allow me to chat with other users in real time. Sounds a little like a social network, doesn’t it? Then I discovered the “telnet” command, which allowed me to access stuff on other machines, such as NUTS talkers and MUDs. All of this was amazing. I had 24/7 access to diverse, intelligent people all around the world. Sleep and my real-life social life took a back seat for a while. In the years since, things have changed a lot. The internet is no longer the domain of generally smart, reasonable people. Social networks are filled with trolls, relatives reposting stuff that’s been debunked by, and racist posts from high school acquaintances who never left your hometown. People are getting tired of it. Nerds are starting to retreat from Facebook/Twitter and setting up their own networks. There’s even a resurgence in the popularity of mailing lists. A few months ago, the brilliant Paul Ford got nostalgic, set up a Linux server, and started giving out free accounts. (You should definitely read his story when you’re done with this email.) Apparently, there were many others who pined for the good old days of shell accounts, because he was soon overwhelmed with requests for access. There are now several servers offering free accounts, if you’d like to try it out. Mine is on, which is a pretty awesome domain. Hopefully, I’ll figure out something equally awesome to do with that account sometime soon.

Inspiration is for amateurs — the rest of us just show up and get to work. — Chuck Close
March 1, 2015

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