Indiana Online: Digital archeology on the BBS.

Apr 09

Maybe its because i’m getting older but, for some reason I just love to play around with old technology. It might be a sign of age and nostalgia, it might be the direct result that the current digitital landscape is just too damn distracting and high-paced to get anything done. A lot of people go towards Yoga and Mindfullness to “slow things down”. I drag up an old computer or an older piece of tech to get my mind out of the ratrace from time to time.

As a result I’ve been toying around with BBS’s lately (Bulletin Board Systems). Ancient tech from before the internet existed. It was Jason Scotts documentary on the BBS that got me curious about this tech that existed even before I even got my very first computer. It was interesting to watch how people used limited technologies to build communities and create art. Pure nostalgia. Or was it ?

Lately a new BBS documentary has popped up on Youtube explaining the art and the allure of BBS and how they are coming back into fashion. The high paced/low privacy of modern Social Media outlets has reached a level of frustration with bold older users and younger digi-peepz that they turn away from the Facebooks and the Twitters and are going ‘back to the bbs’. The great thing about the new documentary is that it does not talk about “the old days” but instead shows you what BBS’s are still alive today and how to connect to them. I am actively following the documentary and have even managed to “get online” onto one of the BBS’s and have been enjoying reading and replying to messages of total strangers.

Aside from the soothing command-line-only interface there is another allure to the BBS: Anonimity. The freedom of talking to strangers about a variety of topics without knowing anything about them. Opposed to Facebook that takes away the myth of anonimity straight away by exposing your every detail. So it’s an interesting passtime. Just like the first forums, ICQ and IRC, I get to sit behind my “Knightwise” avatar and shout at the world. I’ll keep you apprised of my adventures as I use my monstrously heavy specced gaming machine to connect to a 40 euro Raspberry Pi in order to dail into an obsolete piece of tech. Enjoyment lies in the little things they say.


Jason Scotts documentary:

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“Geek nostalgia with bulletin board systems” by @mcvries

May 20

At the age of 17 I owned my first real personal computer. A 8086 XT Pc. It had a whopping 20 MB hard disk and a “color” screen. Monochrome “amber”, the referred to as the only color the screen could display. Booting took minutes, installing software took tweaking and knowledge, and all in all it was new, exciting and fun. And it was beige, of course. Back then … everything was beige.

One day, rumors started drifting my way :  Other students told me about BBS’ s, mysterious computer systems hiding behind a telephone number. Managed by ‘SysOp’s’, another kind of super computer human who ‘controlled the system’. Most of them were underground and mysterious, some of them were a professional service. Some of them might have been pirates on a ship in the middle of the Caribian .. or maybe not.

I was intrigued. Intrigue turned to marvel, marvel to desire.  A Modem had to be bought, installed and put to dear use. And so a journey began. With a modem installed the previous day, a terminal client on a floppy and a telephone number scribbled on a piece of paper I came home and sat down on my throne. Somewhat nervous I started the application and configured a new ‘Remote Host’. The telephone number of “De Digitale Stad” (The Digital City) in Amsterdam was entered and squeaking and whining a connection was made. “De Digitale stad” was connected to “The Internet” and therefor I became empowered with “The E-Mail” (Exclamation Mark to be inserted while reading this.) To actually use e-mail I had to use mutt, a text based email client. And after probing and prodding, I composed the first e-mail in my life.

After pondering and correcting, contemplating I came up with the body : “Test” (Poetry, pure and simple !). Lovely,  but  to whom should I sent it ? The only email address I knew was my own. Well,it was just as good as any ! (I was an interesting person to talk why not ? )  The brand new address was carefully typed in the correct field and the “ctrl <s>” was pressed.  ZOOMM …  my first digital message began it’s way into cyberspace. (Pause a second … or two ) And there it arrived back to me ! Well that was quick! Marvelous new technology ! I yet had to learn that the message probably never even left the server, but the excitement of it all, the possibilities at my finger tips! I could e-mail with someone across the ocean! At no extra cost. Huzzah ! 

Since I didn’t really knew anybody across the pond and my curiosity wasn’t utterly fulfilled with the services on “De Digitale Stad”. And so  I searched for some other BBS’s and found them. Lists with telephone numbers were exchanged again during school hours, with notes on how good and worthwhile they were. Connecting through a telephone line at 2400 baud gets you about 240 characters per second if I recall, and that was exactly what you got: Characters. In full color, where available.

 And boy , those menu’s were filled with options: downloading .JPG’s, downloading .mod’s (the Camemans MP3), and chatting with other user(s). The  plural of “User” only applied if the sysop had more than one landline. This was however rarely the case on any of the BBS’s I visited. 

And of course there was the magical ability for ‘uploading’. Uploading to get credits, credits to allow downloading. What I downloaded I uploaded somewhere else to gain even more credits! Meanwhile, through the messaging boards I got to know people, learned about computers, learned how to set up a BBS myself and after a while people called into my system. Dropping files, typing messages, submitting stories, manuals, hacks and books. We were “surfing” at the cutting edge of technology!

But in a world which is always connected, offering enough bandwidth to stream HD movies and connect to thousands of online friends those systems were sure to fade away. Or were they?

Well, if you would start a telnet session to you will see an ascii version of starwars. Telnet to and you will see Nyancat which is all nice, but telnet to (open a shell and just type : “telnet”) and you will end up in a secluded world, a singularity in CyberSpace, a BBS. Not searchable, but menu driven and ancient to the touch, it will be a journey back in time.

At quadrilion times the speed “we had back in the day..”. And rest asured :  there are many more like it. No longer through a modem, no longer at a bitrate a professional typist could  defeat with one hand, but the “feel” is as authentic as it ever was.

Hosting a BBS  yourself ought to be do-able, just have a look at lunduke’s post here Hmmm, I just might start one myself and when I do, I’ll scribble the address on a note here.

 If you want to get a feel of how it really was, go to the Internet Archive here and watch the documentary. Make sure to keep an acoustic 300 baud modem in mind when the gazillion of bytes you need so much to be transformed in a HD movie take a bit longer to arrive at your enormous hard disk, than you would like. You live in a future we couldn’t foresee back then. Enjoy it.


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Essential tools for a low bandwith connection.

May 12

Before me the dawn rises from the dark soil and sheds its rays across the trees that stretch as far as the eye can see. The songs of birds drown out the ever present hum of society and remind me how far I am from the busy world around me. Yep, i’m up in a cabin, in the woods, with almost no internet connection at all. Whats a geek to do ? Be creative and make the most out of the tiny trickle of internet that gets through here. Time to turn your cellphone into a wifi hotspot and squeeze the most out of the trickle of bits that goes for broadband around here.

So after noticing that the signal on my cellphone had only an edge/gprs coverage, and that 4 other people in the cabin were using it as their personal hotspot too, I knew it was time to be creative. Watching hd netflix was not going to happen and even surfing standard websites with a lot of graphics was gonna be slow. The only thing that was left is to break out the “bandwith impaired emergency toolkit”

Blogging : WordPress for the iPad. A pretty simple app for some quick and dirty blogging without a lot of fancy features. So forgive me for the bad text markup. I’m kinda on dailup here. The great thing about the wordpress app os that you can do the entire post offline and sync it up when you are ready.

Issh : The command line is the way to get things done when you are on a tight pipe. Issh on the iPad is a cute little app that lets you setup multiple ssh and telnet connections your your server. With moderate bandwidth use issh is ideal to bring the power of the unix command line to your fingertips.

So, the command line apps of choice are …

Twidge : if Tweets are what you need , but you can’t afford the interface, twidge is awesome. Commands like Twidge update “hello world” let you share your greetings with the twitterverse. Punch in TWIDGE COMMANDS for a simple list of commands. Hit sudo apt-get install twidge

Irssi : Without a shadow of a doubt, my favorite IRC client. Simple, powerful, versatile AND made by a Belgian. Irssi is your link to the chatrooms of your choice. Hit sudo apt-get install irssi

Alpine : a very powerful but also slightly complex email client for any mail server of your choice. Imap, pop, whatever. Asynchronous in use it lets you compose and reply to emails offline and “burst” your communications to the cloud. ( this is in fact the way we used to do it in the days of dial-up !) Hit sudo apt-get install alpine

Mc : Instead of going cp and mv, just hit up “mc” or midnight commander to have a powerful file manager from the command line. Move copy and transfer file easily. Hit sudo apt-get install mc

Centerim : If you can’t live without your IM, Centerim is a quick command line tool to hook up your Aol, Yahoo, Msn and Jabber accounts. If you configure it right, you can hook up hour googletalk and Facebook chat from the command line. Hit sudo apt-get install centerim

Trying to surf websites with a text only browser is painful, so I will spare you a review of Lynks and the like , but with the tools mentioned above you can survive your digital drought until you find your big fat pipe again.

Do YOU have a favorite command line tool you like to share ? Drop your thoughts in a comment 🙂

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