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Whatever happened to… online politeness?

Very early in my BBSing days (1989 or so), I was talking to the operator of one of the first BBSs I called. He said he instantly bans anyone who engages in "flame wars."

I didn’t know what a flame war was, though I found out pretty fast. And they’re just as much a problem today as they were back then. Maybe more, since people can talk any time and they don’t have to wait for the BBS line to get un-busy.Gatermann and I were talking about how rude people can be online. It’s frustrating to me–probably the most frustrating thing about the ‘net. But that human contact is the best thing about the ‘net, so of course I always come back, no matter how torqued off I get.

But I think that’s the problem: Human contact. The computer dehumanizes it.

I first noticed myself dehumanizing when I was meeting girls on eharmony.com two summers ago. The girls outnumber the guys there, so if you’re a guy, unless you’ve really narrowed your focus, you’re going to get a lot of matches. It felt kind of like playing Alter Ego or another early game that tried to simulate human contact. I’d say something and try to see what they sent back. And it was at the point that I got to see one girl’s picture that it suddenly dawned on me that there was a human being sitting on the other side of that keyboard and monitor.

I don’t think some people grasp the concept of talking through a machine versus talking to a machine.

Of course, some people may just hide behind it. They can’t see the look of hurt on the other person’s face, and the other person can’t reach across the table and smack them when they have it coming, so they act like trolls and get away with it. Maybe they even relish it.

The most blatant example I’ve seen is a guy who swoops in on most of the train boards once a month or so. He’s a millionaire in Washington, D.C. (he’s a trash-hauling magnate, from what I understand), and supposedly has a train collection and layout that must be seen to believe. I’m told that in person he’s a great guy, and supposedly just about anyone can come into his house and see his layout just by asking.

But online, he’s a monster. He swoops in, says rude things, watches the volcano erupt as the people who disagree with him start screaming, and then the people who agree with him start screaming, and mostly just sits back and enjoys watching people bicker and throw temper tantrums.

That’s my worst experience, mostly because I stay out of chat rooms, except for a Yahoo chat room that meets on Saturday nights and talks about repairing Marx trains. The start of the whole conversation was Gatermann telling me about someone he knows signing onto a chat room. She got to talking to some guy she didn’t know from Adam, and almost immediately demanded to see pictures. And I’m not talking the kind of pictures you show to your mother.

Maybe some people enjoy being Dr. Jeckyl in person and Mr. Hyde as soon as they sign on to the Internet. Maybe some just can’t get the idea in their head that they’re talking to a human being, since they’re not hearing a human voice and they’re not seeing facial expressions.

Anymore, I try not to say anything online that I wouldn’t say in person to someone I expect to see again. And the funny thing is, that actually keeps me out of trouble most of the time.

To take care of the rest of the time, there are certain things that I just try to avoid talking about.

A day of catching up

I might finally have reliable DSL. Gatermann and I spent a good part of the day cleaning up my phone wiring. The wiring appeared to have been done by someone who couldn’t make up his mind how he wanted to do it. Seeing as I had two jacks that didn’t work anyway, and I own exactly three telephones plus an answering machine, we pulled out a number of the runs altogether (the wires are still there, just not hooked up at the box). And we cleaned up some oxidation that had shown up on some of the lines that were there.
My DSL connection does seem to be more reliable as a result. We’ll see in time how it turns out, but I know the brief storm we had tonight would normally knock me off the ‘net, and I haven’t fallen off yet since we did the work.

We also rebuilt a system. I’ve been intending to rebuild this one for some time (I pulled the case out of storage months ago) but never got around to it. Anymore, it seems like it’s a lot more fun to mess with other people’s computer projects than with my own. Anyway, we pulled out the system that served up this web site up until about a year or so ago (a Celeron on one of the last of the AT motherboards, a socket 370 job from Soyo), removed it from the old Micron case I’d put it in, and we put it in a monster server case, a former Everex 486/33. It’s a really good-looking case–battleship gray with black drives. And it’s built like a battleship too–very heavy gauge steel. It was pretty funny when we pulled out the full AT motherboard that had been in there and installed the Soyo, which is even smaller than what we used to call baby AT. We installed my CD-RW and DVD-ROM drives and a few other bits and pieces, and… an ISA video card. Yes, I’m sick. I was out of PCI slots and I loaned the AGP video card for the system (a Radeon 7000) to Steve last week and won’t be able to meet up with him to get it back until Wednesday at the earliest. I am half tempted to go ISA for either the sound or network card for the time being in order to free a PCI slot for an Nvidia Riva 128 card I have kicking around. It would be a big improvement. The screen writes remind me of BBSing; the text comes onto the screen at a rate somewhere between what I remember 300 bps and 1200 bps looking like.

But then again, what I want this system for (primarily) is to do things like burn CDs, and I don’t need superfast video for that. And I don’t know that I’m going to be burning anything between now and then.

Yes, I know, catch-up days are terribly exciting to read about.

But somewhere around here I think I have some stuff I wrote last week and never posted. I’ll have to see if I can find it to post tomorrow.

Why is there a stigma about meeting people online?

Steve DeLassus just made a funny observation to me. He said when he talks about me, sometimes people consider meeting and communicating with people online as somehow abnormal. And they tell him via e-mail.
My coworker, Murel, has told me several times that when he was my age, the last place he would want to say he met someone was in a bar. Without making any moral judgments, I would rate the likelihood of me meeting someone in a bar and finding the right stuff for a serious, long-term relationship as very low. There are numerous qualities and values on my must-have list that you’re just not very likely to find in that kind of environment. And most of the things on my can’t-stand list that are very easy to find there.

But what’s the stigma about meeting people online? Steve DeLassus and I met on a bulletin board back in 1989 or 1990. We both had Commodores and modems, and it was summertime and we had time on our hands. The closest thing we had to the Internet in our homes those days was CompuServe. People who didn’t want to pay for CompuServe dialed into BBSs instead. I have one other friend from that timeframe that I talk to at all, and that’s about once a year. But Steve’s been one of my best friends for a very long time.

I met Dan Bowman online. I fired off a rant to Jerry Pournelle about alternative operating systems, and–these were the days when one could post an e-mail address on a Web site without fear of having 250 spam messages in your inbox the next day–Dan replied to me. And we quickly found some common ground. Dan noticed that at the time I was working for a Lutheran organization, and his dad was Lutheran. The result was, once again, a lasting and very valuable friendship.

It’s true that online you can pretend to be othing that you’re not, but it’s hard. Eventually the truth comes out. Some people are fooled for a long time, but every relationship I’ve made online that later fell apart, whether it was of romantic nature or strictly friendship, had one thing in common: My initial impression of the person was slightly wrong.

Funny. When I think of relationships that started in the physical world that fell apart, the same thing is true.

Now, some people are better at talking and listening than they are at reading. As a journalist, I had to be able to look at available information and take educated guesses about what was missing. No, not so I could print those along with the facts, but so I could go and find the rest of the story. As a computer tech, I’m constantly faced with solving problems for which there is little information. I can tell a lot about a person by their writing style and by the questions they ask me. Talking on the phone and later meeting in person tells me some more, but for me, that’s the optimal order.

And it’s easier for me to open up in writing than it is to just talk. It’s easier for me to be real and transparent and honest with someone I barely know when I’m not watching their expression or hearing their voice. Once I’m comfortable with the person, we can talk, but it’s pretty obvious when I get into an uncomfortable situation, and my discomfort can tend to overshadow anything that I might say. Plus, in writing, it matters a lot less how long it takes me to find the right words to say what I’m thinking.

For someone who’s a better listener than reader, the optimal order may be different. That doesn’t make this new way of doing things any less valid.

My what-I-did-tonight piece

I hate to do a boring this-is-what-I-did-tonight post, but I figure the occasional one of those is better than silence from my direction.
I’m sick again. I think this is some kind of record. This pattern of five-day breaks between illnesses really better not last much longer.

So I went out to stock up on sick supplies. You know the drill: chicken soup, zinc lozenges, vitamins. I went in to get my vitamins, then found myself blocked in, so I continued down the aisle and found the first vacant aisle to cut through. Of course it was the make-up section. I felt especially manly cutting through the make-up section, especially considering my next stop was… the sewing section. I needed a needle and thread, for two reasons. I’ve got two shirts with buttons popped off, and I learned a cool way to bind books, but you need a drill (which I have) and a needle and thread (which I didn’t) in order to do it.

So I picked up a couple different colors of thread, then wandered aimlessly for a while until I stumbled across the needles. I found a 25-pack for 64 cents. Good deal.

I really, really hope I looked as lost as I felt.

So when I got home I bound a short book. The idea is this: You drill holes a quarter inch from the top and the bottom, then drill two more holes spaced two inches apart. Cut a length of thread about four times as long as the book is high. You can get the sewing technique from this PDF file. Traditionally, you use Japanese stab binding for short books of drawings, poetry, or journals. But I found it works just fine for everyday stuff. I recently printed a few public domain texts from Project Gutenberg, and this provides me with an easy and extremely cheap way to bind them.

I was trying unsuccessfully to sew on a button when my phone rang. It was my girlfriend. She asked what I was doing. I told her I was making a fool of myself trying to remember how to sew on a button. She described a technique to me, and when I got off the phone with her, I gave it another try. I think I ended up using a combination of her technique and my mom’s, but it worked. The button’s not going anywhere.

Something she said gave me my masculinity back. She asked how I was at threading needles. I said I had some trouble doing it. She said part of the reason sewing is traditionally a women’s thing is because women have smaller hands, which are more adept to the fine movements that sewing requires. My hands aren’t huge, but they’re bigger than most women’s. She said threading a needle requires good vision, concentration, and a steady hand. I’ve got good vision and concentration. But every time I tried to do something that required a steady hand, my dad just shook his head and said, “You’ll never be a surgeon.” And they’ve only gotten worse with age.

And before all this, I spent some time writing up a piece talking about all the lovely things Microsoft did to DR DOS in the late 1980s. This is in response to some mudslinging that happened over at my recent anti-Microsoft piece. Normally I’d just ignore a troll who doesn’t even have enough guts to put his name on his taunts–all I know about him is his IP address is 12.209.152.69, which tells me he’s using a cable modem attached to AT&T’s network, he lives in or around Salt Lake City, Utah, and at this moment he’s not online–but I think this story needs to be told anyway. Depth is good. Sources are good. And there’s a wealth of information in the legal filings from Caldera. And those filings prove that my memory of these events–I remember reading about the dirty tricks in the early 1990s on local St. Louis BBSs–was pretty accurate.

I’m not surprised. I have a knack for remembering this stuff, and I had occasion to meet an awful lot of really knowledgeable people back then.

If I can still remember that Commodore’s single-sided 170K 5.25″ drive was the 1541, its double-sided 340K drive was the 1571, and its 800K 3.5″ drive was the 1581 and I remember the command to make the 1571 emulate the 1541, and why you would want to emulate a 1541, I can probably just as easily remember what you had to do to get Windows 3.1 running under DR DOS and what the reasons were for jumping through those hoops. That history is more recent, and at this stage in my life, I’m a lot more likely to have occasion to use it.

Not that I’m trying to brag. I can remember the names of the DR DOS system files, and I can remember George Brett’s batting average in 1983, but at the end of a five-minute conversation with someone I just met, I’ll probably struggle to remember a name. Or if you send me to the store, you’d better give me a list, because I’m good at forgetting that kind of stuff.

I suspect the DR DOS piece is half done. I might just get it posted this week.

Santa Claus reportedly considering Linux

BBSpot: “IIS couldn’t keep up when Slashdot posted a link to that web-interface I made for turning Rudolph’s new LED nose on and off. That was the last straw,” [Santa] Claus continued. “I’m entrusting the entire holiday of Christmas to a company that can’t even make a reliable web server?”
The story mentions lots of other reasons for Santa to switch from Windows. I guess that means Santa doesn’t believe that controversial IDC report from last month or whenever it was. Thanks to Karl Koenig for this link.

A total blast from the past

I don’t remember how I stumbled across it, but textfiles.com tries to collect documents from the classic days of BBSing, which the curator defines as having ended in 1995. I wouldn’t have thought it that recent. I was still BBSing in the summer of ’94, but by the fall of ’94 I’d discovered the Web, and I thought I was the last one to wake up to it.
I’d learned FTP and Gopher when I went to college in 1993, and I’d been using Usenet via local BBSs for even longer, but as everyone knows now, it was the Web that put the Internet on the map. I think a lot of people think the Web is the Internet.

Anyway, before the Internet, hobbyists would take computers, get a phone line, hook up a modem, and see who called. There were usually discussion boards, file transfers, and at least one online multiplayer game. The really big BBSs ran on 386s with hard drives, but an awful lot of the BBSs I called ran on 8-bit computers and stored their data on floppy drives. I remember one board I called used seven or eight floppy drives to give itself a whopping 6 or 7 megs of online storage. It was called The Future BBS, and the sysops’ real names were Rick and Jim (I don’t remember their handles), and it ran on a Commodore 64 or 128 with, ironically, a bunch of drives that dated back to the days of the PET–Commodore had produced some 1-meg drives in the early 80s that would connect to a 64 or 128 if you put an IEEE-488 interface in it. Theirs was a pretty hot setup and probably filled a spare bedroom all by itself for the most part.

It was a very different time.

Well, most of the boards I called were clearinghouses for pirated software. It was casual copying; I didn’t mess with any of that 0-1 day warez stuff. We were curmudgeons; someone would wax nostalgic about how great Zork was and how they didn’t know what happened to their copy, then someone would upload it. I remember on a couple of occasions sysops would move to St. Louis and complain about how St. Louis was the most rampant center of software piracy they’d ever seen, but I see from the files on textfiles.com that probably wasn’t true.

Besides illegal software, a lot of text files floated around. A lot of it was recipes. Some of them were “anarchy” files–how-to guides to creating mayhem. Having lots of them was a status symbol. Most of the files were 20K in length or so (most 8-bit computers didn’t have enough address space for documents much longer than that once you loaded a word processor into memory), and I knew people who had megabytes of them in an era of 170K floppies.

A lot of the stuff on the site is seedy. Seedier than I remember the boards I called being.

But a lot of the content is just random stuff, and some of it dates itself. (Hey, where else was I going to find out that the 1982 song “Pac-Man Fever” was recorded by Buckner & Garcia? Allmusic.com forgot about that song. If I recall correctly, that’s probably proof that God is merciful, but hey.)

Mostly I find it interesting to see what people were talking about 10 and 20 years ago. Some of the issues of yesterday are pretty much unchanged. Some of them just seem bizarre now. Like rumors of weird objects in Diet Pepsi cans.

Actually that doesn’t sound so bizarre. I’m sure there’s an e-mail forward about those in my inbox right now.

Why Linux stands a chance

Something I read on LinuxToday on Monday made me realize something. The article was a tutorial on writing Gnome apps with Python. Not too exciting, right? Not until you realize the implications. Python is a high-level, interpreted language. Gnome produces good, professional-looking applications with Windows-like functionality like toolbars and menus and drag-and-drop.
Put two and two together. Remember the early days of computing, when practically everyone who owned one knew how to program, at least a little bit? We’d program our 8-bit microcomputers in Basic, and sometimes we’d come up with something cool. You might send your creation off to a magazine in hopes of them publishing it and sending you a little money — a friend growing up and I netted a cool $350 on a little hack we wrote over spring break one year. Other times you just uploaded your creation to a BBS, hoping that people would find it useful, and maybe someone would download it and improve it a little. IBM was big and unstoppable, and Apple made the wise decision to flood the schools with cheap hardware in hopes of making it up by selling overpriced hardware to homes and businesses (which they did), but the homebrew market kept Commodore afloat for 10 years after their last good marketing decision. The cost of entry was low, and an easy-to-learn programming language was built right in, so creative minds could start playing with it without spending hundreds or thousands of dollars on development tools and thousands of dollars going to class.

The results weren’t always professional, but a surprising amount of it was exceptionally high-quality. High enough to sell more machines. Today, some 20 years after the Commodore 64 was released, it still has a following. It’s insane.

I still think that was part of what killed the Amiga. There were free languages for it, but you had to fork over a few hundred bucks for the toolkit to make them work. A lot of people did, but not enough. The development community was small. Some of the best stuff I saw on that platform came from people who pirated the toolkit. But not enough people did, so the pool of people to learn and steal tricks from was tiny. Meanwhile, Microsoft was selling complete languages, with everything you needed, for less than Commodore was charging for its header files. The Amiga never stood a chance.

Linux and other open-source projects collectively give you a free operating system or five, but they also give hundreds of development tools. The end result is Web sites like Freshmeat that do nothing but track new software. There may be more graphical Linux freeware out there now than there is Windows freeware. Considering Linux has maybe 1/50 the installed base of Windows, that’s pretty impressive. Linux doesn’t have a killer app just yet, but it may come. It’s definitely not short of ideas. Just this past week, someone released a hack for the Nautilus file manager to make it read binary newsgroups. It reads them and is intelligent enough to group related binaries in subdirectories for you. It’s a file collector’s delight. Brilliant idea. I’ve never seen anything like that for any other OS, especially not Windows.

Free languages lower the bar. Free and capable high-level languages lower the bar even more. Even a non-programmer like me can have an idea, hack out something in Python, and even if it doesn’t work perfectly, it can serve as a springboard for someone else to grab and improve, either by revising the existing code or by translating it into a lower-level, faster language. The quality of the code isn’t nearly as important as the quality of the idea. And we all know programmers don’t have a monopoly on good ideas.

Maybe Linux will remain an underground, punk OS forever. But even if it does, it’s going to be an unbelievably good one. Look for it to be bigger than the Mac within two years.

How to pad your resume while meeting chicks.

Padding your resume while meeting chicks. I got a phone call last night offering me just that. Seriously. I didn’t hang up or ask to be taken off the calling list because it was a friend. Not a male friend with a harebrained, sleazy scheme. It was Jeanne. So it was a female friend with a sleazy scheme.
I guess it helps to know Jeanne. She has the distinction of being the only female friend who’s ever offered to lend me a copy of Playboy. She said she bought it for the articles. One of those articles was an interview with some film hunk. Another article was an interview with Aimee Mann. But I think it was all a diabolical plot to see what it would take to get me to read a copy of Playboy in front of her.

This time, Jeanne’s plotting to get me to serve on a committee. She tells me there are virtually no males on the committee. “Sixty to one, Dave! With odds like those you can’t lose!” she said.

Didn’t I hear someone say that about the Red Sox earlier this year?

Let’s change the subject to something more cheerful. How about if I list my qualifications?

1. I’m a male of the species homo sapiens.
2. I’m a sucker for dogs that are smarter than my former landlords my eighth grade science teacher the creeps who dated my sister when I was in college. That’s not every dog I’ve ever seen, but it’s a sizable percentage.

Gatermann says this is the most pathetic thing Jeanne’s ever asked me to do. And yes, Gatermann was there when Jeanne conned me into reading that magazine in front of her. (Yes, I gave in. I had to know what Aimee Mann had to say about Jewel, OK? And yes, her interview was just that–an interview.)

I serve on several committees, few of which work as well as I’d like, so it’s probably a good idea for me to participate, just to see if anyone else knows how to make a committee work right. The time commitment is small, so it just makes sense. In a sick sort of way.

Or maybe you can just say I’m easily finding ways to justify padding my resume while meeting women.

Harry Connick Jr. One of my coworkers pulled out a package he’d just received from Amazon. “I ordered two Harry Connick Jr. CDs,” he said. “This is what they sent.” He whipped out two CDs. They got that much right. But the CDs he received were (drum roll) The Bee Gees and LeAnn Rhimes.

He talked about how much he likes Harry Connick Jr. and how he has two tickets to go see him in some faraway city and he’s bringing a date.

“That’s what you think those tickets are for,” I said. Then, in my best concert-announcer voice, I said, “One night only! The Bee Gees! With very special guest LeAnn Rhimes!”

He glared at me.

Speaking of annoying… I got mail from someone who claims to have invented the “compressed ramdisk” technique I’ve talked about here and in my book, said something at least mildly disparaging about Andre Moreira–one of the other Windows-in-a-ramdisk pioneers–and he says he’s patented the technique, and wants me to download a trial copy of his software and link to it off my site.

I e-mailed him and asked him to set the record straight. It sounded to me like he’s claiming to have invented the compressed ramdisk–something CP/M owners were doing way back in 1984, if not earlier–and he wants free advertising from me for his commercial product.

Now, I could be wrong about that. I was wrong about OS/2 being the next big thing, after all. But if I’ve got the story more or less right, then the answer is no.

Now how did CP/M owners do compressed ramdisks? You’d just put your must-have utilities and applications into an .LBR file, then you’d run SQ on it to compress it. Then in profile.sub–the CP/M equivalent of autoexec.bat–you copied the archive to M: (CP/M’s built-in ramdisk) and then you decompressed it. In the days when applications were smaller than 64K, you could put your OS’ crucial utilities, plus WordStar and dBASE into a ramdisk and smoke all your neighbors who were running that newfangled MS-DOS.

I rediscovered the technique on my Commodore 128 (which was capable of running CP/M) in the late 1980s and thought I was really hot stuff with my 512K ramdisk.

Anyone who thinks the compressed ramdisk was invented in 1999 or 2000 either doesn’t remember his history or is smoking crack.

SCSI! SCSI vs. IDE is a long debate, almost a religious war, and it always has been. I remember seeing SCSI/IDE debates on BBSs in the early 1990s. Few argued that IDE was better than SCSI, though some did–but when you’re using an 8 MHz bus it doesn’t really matter–but IDE generally was less expensive than SCSI. The difference wasn’t always great. I remember seeing an IDE drive sell for $10 less than the SCSI version. The controller might have cost more, but back in the days when a 40-meg drive would set you back $300, a $10 premium for SCSI was nothing. To me, that settled the argument. It didn’t for everyone.

Today, IDE is cheap. Real cheap. A 20-gig drive costs you 50 bucks. A 7200-rpm 40-gig drive is all the drive many people will ever need, and it’s 99 bucks. And for simple computers, that’s great. If it fails, so what? Buy two drives and copy your important data over. At today’s prices you can afford to do that.

SCSI isn’t cheap. It’s hard to find a controller for less than $150, whereas IDE is included free on your motherboard. And if you find a SCSI drive for less than $150, it’s a closeout special. A 20-gig SCSI drive is likely to set you back $175-$200.

Superficially, the difference is philosophy. The IDE drive is designed to be cheap. Good enough to run Word, good enough to play Quake, quiet enough to not wake the baby, cheap enough to sell them by the warehouseful.

SCSI is designed for workstations and servers, where the only things that matter are speed, reliability, speed and speed. (Kind of like spam egg spam and spam in that Monty Python skit). If it costs $1,000 and requires a wind tunnel to cool it and ear protection to use it, who cares? It’s fast! So this is where you see extreme spindle rates like 10,000 and 15,000 RPM and seek times of 4.9 or even 3.9 milliseconds and disk caches of 4, 8, or even 16 MB. It’s also not uncommon to find a 5-year warranty.

In all fairness, I put my Quantum Atlas 10K3 in a Coolermaster cooler. It’s a big bay adapter that acts like a big heatsink and has a single fan, and it also dampens the sound. The setup is no louder than some of the 5400 RPM IDE drives Quantum was manufacturing in 1996-97.

OK, so what’s the practical difference?

IDE is faithful and dumb. You give it requests, it handles them in the order received. SCSI is smart. You send a bunch of read and write requests, and SCSI will figure out the optimal order to execute them in. That’s why you can defrag a SCSI drive while running other things without interrupting the defrag process very much. (Out of order execution is also one of the main things that makes modern CPUs faster than the 486.)

And if you’re running multiple devices, only one IDE device can talk at a time. SCSI devices can talk until you run out of bandwidth. So 160 MB/sec and 320 MB/sec SCSI is actually useful, unlike 133 MB/sec IDE, which is only useful until your drive’s onboard cache empties. Who cares whether a 2-meg cache empties in 0.0303 seconds or 0.01503 seconds?

There’s another advantage to SCSI with multiple devices. With IDE devices, you get two devices per channel, one interrupt per channel. With SCSI, you can do 7 devices per channel and interrupt. Some cards may give you 14. I know a lot of us are awfully crowded for interrupts, so being able to string a ton of devices off a single channel is very appealing. IRQ conflicts are rare these days but they’re not unheard of. SCSI giving you in one interrupt what IDE gives you in four is very nice in a crowded system.