Sunday, April 10, 2011

Memories of sites and culture past

I was thinking about the previously mentioned ongoing death of k5, and I started to also reflect on some aspects of my Geek Life from days past. Here's some of my geek memories:

- The Geek Pride Festivals (for 2 years here in Boston) that were held at the old Armory. I still have some goodies from them.

- Related to that, I remember meeting the folks from the now defunct NewsTrolls site (Stephen Downes remains active on the web from their crew, and I remember Pasty Drone was a rather attractive young lady who sang as her day job). CmdrTaco was at the first one, too.

- I have a low 4-digit ID at Slashdot, just to point that out...

- Back in the days when the local computer shows (Northern and KGP) were the only way to get components at reasonable prices, I went to the one that was at the Shriners' Auditorium in Wilmington (I used to go to them every few months) and Bob Young was there, selling Linux CDs and books at a table in the entranceway from his mail-order tech bookstore in my hometown of Westport CT. Bob went on to partner up with a part-time programmer at CMU named Marc Ewing, and turned ACC into a company to sell Marc's Linux distribution. You may have heard of the company - it became Red Hat Software.

- There was a guy at the MIT Flea shows who sold nothing but NeXT Cubes. Did a nice business, even after NeXT was merged into Apple.

- I used to be a client of TIAC, one of the first ISPs in the region. I used to build Linux boxes because I'd decided that was the wave of the future (about 15 years later, I got tired of waiting for the future to finally arrive and nowadays I just pretty much do Mac OS X and Windows) and I upgraded from on-demand dial-up to a full-time 56k modem connection. TIAC gave me a Class C range to play with and so I routed it in the house. I still remember one day back in about '97 or so that my modem had gone offline at their NOC, so I drove to Bedford at 11PM, walked into the server room, and reset it. I had an unusual level of trust with them as customers went.

- My original Linux server (it was named and went through several different incarnations) was actually one of the first few thousand websites back when nobody was quite sure what this "web" thing would amount to. Everything was managed by hand and all my publishing was in straight HTML with no authoring system or CMS. Which is part of why I don't run it anymore!

- For years, I was the only 802.11 network broadcasting within about 3 blocks of my house. Right now I just checked and I can see 9 others from my upstairs office. Optimistically, they are all password-protected.

- In the days when shows like Interop came to Boston, I was active in the Netware Users' Group around here (BNUG has survived to this day and still does business - I even served as President myself in the late '90s for 3 years). We used to sponsor a booth and beer bash event with all the vendors during it. Lots of promo goods in the days when servers had 50% margins for resellers.

- I also have fond memories of the old Boston Macworld Expo. Back in the mid-90s just before the return of Steve the event peaked - Ingram Micro used to sponsor a fairly wild party at the Museum of Science during the show and I was a regular, along with my wife and any of our friends we could get tickets for. I recall the old Talking Moose returning as a full commercial product one year. The vendor had a person walking around the Expo handing out demo disks dressed in a Talking Moose costume. He showed up at the party and was dancing with the girls until he passed out from heat exhaustion.
(reference that only a couple of people will get: "but I got the Berkowitzes!")

- The Boston show was yanked the year after Steve's return to Apple in 1997 and sent to New York for a few years (it briefly returned to Boston after Apple pulled their participation). I think Steve disliked the idea of riding buses between the two Expo sites in Boston.

- In 2000 I took the plunge and went to the Expo in NYC. Wasn't the same. Though I did get to see Jason Whong of Ambrosia Software eat bugs on stage and get drunk.

- The whole industry peaked in 2000 - the year the dot-com bust really started. At the Atlanta Interop show that year (I went for 4 consecutive years on the trip until 2001 when I was there for 9/11) they had Gigabit Ethernet (at the time a new standard) being sent via barbed wire, Penn & Teller were performing at a booth, and another vendor had the late Andrew (Test) Martin and Lisa (Ivory) Moretti from the WWF running a booth where people wrestled in sumo suits.

That's just a short reflection and semi random, but it's some of the things that stood out for me as memories of a bygone era in IT culture. The Internet was a place where you went to the local ISP and hung out with the folks there who ran it. There were no firewalls unless you were a government contractor or huge company. NAT wasn't needed - you were either dial-up or routed. The companies that are big today back then were a guy with a vendor pass and a table full of merchandise. The companies that were big then were fat enough to pay big-name performers to hang at their trade show booths. Of course they did - a decent computer cost about $3000 or more!

I miss it sometimes, but as I prepare to begin another lap around the Sun tomorrow, I don't miss it as much as I used to.

Saturday, April 09, 2011

One of my old favorite websites is dying

Back around the turn of the last decade, the website was a popular place, with a diverse community posting about technology and social issues. There was a proto-blogging feature (diaries), some very skilled and verbose posters, and the site was well-managed. I was a regular there (posting as "the original jht". At the time it looked like k5 (the nickname most folks had for it) would be one of the big long-term winners in "new media".

But sometime around 2004 or so, things started changing there. First of all, due to to some changes in his personal life, the site's founder couldn't spend as much time and care on the site as he once could. Then other sites with a more clearly defined profitability model started gaining traction. Finally, the trolls came and started chasing out the regulars. Today, though k5 is still on the Internet, it's barely registering in traffic stats and the community has mainly dispersed. The big surviving (and thriving) sites from that era are Slashdot and Fark (I'm still active at both of them, too).

But before k5 faded away, there were some really interesting discussions. Recently, I was wondering what I should do with all my content i posted there over the years I was active. This morning, I logged in and using the powers of copy/paste I created an archive file of it all. And I'm going to repost a few of my writings, along with the Big Questions I was responding to in them. Here's my first one below:

Original story link

Make the world a better place.

By seebs in Culture
Sun Feb 24, 2002 at 03:52:00 PM EST
Tags: Round Table (all tags)

If you were given a budget of a trillion US dollars, with the goal of making the world "a better place", what would you do?

I've occasionally had this conversation with friends, and it's amazing how many different ideas people have of what would make the most difference. What would you do, if you were going to try to get the most bang for your buck? A little of everything? One big project? Would you focus on short-term improvements, or long-term ones?
And no, I don't mean just this planet; if you think colonizing Mars is the best use of your money, go ahead.

My response:

I'd set priorities - the world needs basics first (3.00 / 2) (#293)
by the original jht on Tue Feb 26, 2002 at 09:00:40 AM EST

First off - the world needs cheap, reliable power. I'd build power plants in parts of the world that need them, using appropriate technology for an area (wind, solar, coal, gas, nuclear - probably not oil). People with no power don't need a lot - just enough for lights, refrigeration, and perhaps radio and/or TV. This'll make a big impact to people's lives and provide energy for the next two things on the list:
Item number 2 (and 3): Clean water supplies and adequate sanitation for parts of the world that don't have it. That'll cut back on disease vectors and improve health greatly.

Fourth - Provide basic medical care in places where it's not currently available. A little help goes a long way here, and money I gave out would be well-complimented by other charitable giving.

Fifth - Education. We need to replace the madrases (I think I spelled it right) and their equivalents in other nations with good, solid, basic secularized education. People don't need to be "fully indoctrinated into the capitalist system" to learn neutral facts about the world, how to read, write, and perform basic math, and be functional citizens of their society. People need to learn enough to thrive within their nation, and they need to learn that the rest of the world is not full of prospective enemies.

With those essentials funded, I think the world will be ultimately be able to take care of itself quite nicely.

Of course, the first three items on the list will cost money to build and money to run - As a society that is serviced improves their standard of living I'd expect to be able to charge enough for the infrastructure to pay for ongoing costs. So the infrastructure needs to be built as economically as possible understanding that the point of break-even operation may be years away.

And finally, I'd keep a million or so for myself to live off of - I'm going to be pretty busy coordinating all this and will not have time for my real job anymore. Hey - a man's gotta eat (and have a vacation house on the Vineyard!)...