Saturday, March 20, 2010

Alone at the Terminal: The Lost World of the BBS

Several years ago I took a required course on computer literacy at UNO. Admittedly, the course was outdated even then. Its primary function was to teach students several things any college student should be embarrassed to have had to learn—how to make a Power Point slide show, how to move files from one folder to another, how to find porn, etc . . . But there were also several lessons that appealed to the historian in me. One lesson that still stands out in my mind was on the history of the internet. In the lecture, the professor gave us the standard spiel: DARPA begets ARPANET begets, well, YouTube, facebook, and other incredible wastes of time. I remember leaving the lecture feeling angry. Hell no, I thought!! He’s left out a huge part of the story!! The internet wasn’t the product of the top-down, deliberate activities of a few professors and government organizations. Where’s the personal agency? Where’s the unpredictability? Where’s the unintended consequences of teenagers writing software just for fun or plugging in one piece of hardware to another just to see if it would work? WHERE’S THE BULLETIN BOARD SYSTEM!!??!!??

Now, the few people who stumble across this blog are likely unfamiliar with the concept of a BBS. But, for anybody who grew up in the shadow of War Games and Whiz Kids, Bulletin Board Systems were the internet before the internet. More than this, they were a more intimate, more personal, more close-knit network of computer users. Essentially, a BBS was an open system run on a personal computer that other users could dial into via phone lines and modems. A system operator (Sysop) would set up his computer as a single- or multi-user host system (depending on how many phone lines he had); and other computer owners could use their 300, 1200, 2400 baud modems to access his computer for the purpose of trading files, sending messages, posting comments, chatting with the Sysop or other users, or playing multi-person online games. This may seem limited by today’s standards, but in the late eighties and early ninety’s, it was blowyourfuckingmind exciting!!!

These systems were run on very low megahertz, low memory, floppy disk storage, almost toy-like computers: TRS-80s, Commodore 64s, Apple IIes, and IBM 8086s. The boards were typically run as a hobby. In fact, many older users and Sysops shifted to the BBS world from Ham Radio. The first system I owned was a Tandy 1000 SL/2 I bought on lay-away at Radio Shack. It had a CMT monitor, an 8086 processor, 386kbs of memory, a single 720k 3.5 floppy drive, and a 2400bps modem I installed later. My current cell phone is 10,000 times more powerful than this computer was. But, at the time, that system was my vehicle into the world of the BBS.

I would spend hours and hours and hours of my days and nights dialing BBSes, looking for new BBSes locally, searching for the shareware I wanted, and learning everything I could. I can still remember the time it took to download a large file. I would select the file I wanted, run around the house disabling all the phones in the house, and then wait the 30, 45, 50 minutes to download a good-size compressed file. Any disturbance in the signal (somebody picking up the phone, somebody calling in, etc. . . ) would cause me to have to start the process all over again. But, if everything went right, I would have the game or program I wanted; and I’d be able to spend even more time playing it. This was a Basic and MSDos world—no multi-tasking, no windows, only your computer talking to another computer with a series of beeps, buzzes, clicks and clocks. It seems so low-tech and time-consuming now that it’s difficult to communicate the excitement that I would feel “surfing” these BBSes.

Between 1987 and 1994, the BBS community exploded. People all over the country were calling other computers, sharing files and sending echo-mail from one system to the next. Being a part of this community was like having one foot in the future. From my vantage point then, I imagined a coming world-wide network of computer users and Sysops exchanging information through ANSI-clouded, digital worlds. And then, seemingly as quickly as it appeared, it vanished. Occasional BBS callers became internet users and die-hard BBS supporters fought the futile fight. But, in the blink of an eye, it was over; an entire movement gone!

It’s sad to think that this stage between autonomous computers humming in living rooms around the country and the full-blown internet has been written out of the history of networking. The transition wasn’t necessarily linear—BBSes didn’t become internet websites. But the BBS world opened the door that the internet walked through. The unanticipated, viral popularity of BBSes made the dream of terminal to terminal communication and digital commerce a real possibility. Somebody should really fight to write BBSes back into the story. And, maybe somebody has. I found this fantastic eight-part documentary on the lost BBS world. This is the best attempt I’ve come across so far of someone writing the BBS back into the history of the world computer networking has made.

NO CARRIER . . . . . . 

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

A DISH by any other name . . . .

Louisianans have dealt with the commercialization of Mardi Gras pretty well.  Initially at least, I considered it something of a complement to see Mardi Gras parades in cities that had absolutely no business hosting them.  It was fine when audience members at the Jerry Springer show were encouraged to throw purple, green and gold beads at the half-naked freak show on the stage.  I can even tolerate the bottles of Cajun hot sauce and cans of Cajun Spice made in Cleveland.  I can stomach Cajun burritos, Cajun McChicken sandwiches, Cajun chicken salads, and all the other commercialized insults to my cultural heritage.  Alone, they’re not that bad.    

But what I absolutely refuse to accept are the far too many “Cajun” restaurants that sell food no Cajun would ever eat.  Where do they come up with these menus?  What self-respecting Cajun would ever make a vegetarian gumbo?  What white rubber boot-wearing Coonass would dare to dip his spoon into a tofu ettouffee?  Since when does an over-spiced leg of chicken constitute Cajun food?

And there are countless other examples.  A few years ago I passed a small restaurant in Boston’s South Station that sold boiled crawfish by the half dozen—THE HALF DOZEN!!!!  What the fuck are you going to do with six crawfish? 

Some people might not understand my sensitivity here.  Why, you might be asking, would this fool be so offended by bad Cajun food?  Well, let me explain.  Until relatively recently, the name “Cajun” was something of a derogative term, even in Louisiana.  By the early 20th century, French had effectively vanished from the few cities and urban areas in Louisiana.  And, as happens in many places where the vernacular is neither the language of politics nor of business, French was relegated to the countryside.  French was the language of the uneducated; and “Cajun” was the term used to describe the “stupid,” “illiterate,” “rice-farming,” country-bumpkins of Louisiana.  It’s a sad fact, but Cajuns have been the victims of a very successful form of cultural extermination.  My grandmother—a French-speaking child of two illiterate Cajun peasants—was beaten in school each time she spoke in her mother tongue.  And this was no isolated incident.  Most families in Louisiana, at least those that can claim even an ounce Cajun heritage, tell stories like this one.  Like my grandmother, the few remaining true Cajun French speakers will be gone in just a few years—gone FOREVER!! 

So it’s with a strange mixture of disgust and acceptance that I tolerate the ham-fisted, over-commercialized  celebration of Cajun culture.  But it’s more than a little insulting that any dish can become Cajun with just a touch of black pepper or a side of rice. 

Several years back there was an attempt by some eccentric Louisiana legislators—God bless ‘em—to demand that any product sold in the country with the name “Cajun” in the title include some ingredient actually from Louisiana.  This attempt was ridiculed at the time.  And, I must be honest, I don’t remember thinking it a very wise move myself.  But, consider how New Englanders would feel if cans of brown gruel swimming with unidentified seafood chunks were sold all over the country under the label “New England Clam Chowder.”  How would Koreans feel if grilled ham sandwiches were sold as 삼겹살?  Shit!!, how do Mexicans feel about Taco Bell?  I don’t know.  But I can’t imagine they’re particularly happy about it.

I don’t know where I’m going with this.  But, most Irish bars in New York City actually have Irish people working there.  Most Chicago-style pizza restaurants actually sell Chicago-style pizza.  Is it too much to ask that a purportedly Cajun restaurant either serve Cajun food (and by this I mean food that people in South Louisiana actually eat) or, and this would be clever, hire a few random Coonasses to work the bar?  Maybe it is.  I don’t know.

In case anybody is wondering what real Cajun food actually looks like:

Sunday, March 7, 2010

A Few Common Mistakes (that most of us are guilty of)

I’ll admit upfront that I’ve been guilty in the past of misusing common expressions (even the few I've identified here in this post).  But, even at the risk of sounding hypocritical, it’s worth at least one post to draw a little attention to these common mistakes.  I hear some of these errors almost every day from intelligent, articulate people (some of which have their own TV shows for god’s sake).  And, since I was pretty tough on some Korean’s English in the last post, it’s only fair that I call us native speakers out too.

     Data—Data is plural.  The singular form is Datum.  Don’t say “the data is conclusive.”  Say “the      
          data are conclusive.”  And please, unless you want to get a foot up your ass for being a pompous 
          prick, don't ever say datum. 

     Sacred cow—People can’t be sacred cows, ideas are.  People, however, can most 
          certainly be "fat cows," "stubborn cows," or just "cows."  Certain restrictions occasionally apply. 

     Immaculate Conception—I don’t know why people just don’t look this
          up before they say it.  But the “immaculate conception” is not the conception of Jesus.  The
          “immaculate conception” refers to Mary’s conception.  According to the book of Luke (hence, ". . .
          Mary, full of grace . . ."), Mary was conceived without original sin.  Regardless of how people feel
          about religion, let’s get the goddamn usage right!!

These are just a few I came up with off the top of my head.

Any other ideas?  Let me know.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Absolutely NO EXCUSE!!!

Alright . . . . I just couldn’t let this one go.  I understand how difficult it is to write in a foreign language.  Mistakes are common, even for those who’ve spent decades working diligently to improve their skill.  But people who publish in second or third languages USE PROOFREADERS.  Shit, foreign or native, it’s just a good idea.  This is simply INEXCUSABLE!!!  The Writer and Publisher should be ashamed.

Mike, how do you say 腹切 in Korean?

 And this is only one example out of dozens.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

March First in Korea—celebrating an “uncomfortable” past?

Anyone who’s lived in Korea is familiar with the mad rush to get out of town on Chuseok and Seollal.  They’ve seen the eerily empty streets and closed up shops in Seoul during those holidays.  They’ve heard the stories of eating Dok-guk, of playing Yuk-nori, and of sitting in traffic for 10+ hours to cover a distance of 100km.  But what happens on March First?  How do Koreans—typically rabidly nationalistic—celebrate such a powerfully symbolic anniversary of Korea’s national birth?  It seems as though they don’t do much.  The rare Korean will put a flag out on their balcony or spend a few moments in solemn reflection on the memory Yu Gwan-sun.  But most Koreans spend the day lounging about the house watching TV, sleeping in, and generally enjoying a day away from the office.   

The absence of any strong tradition of celebration seems even more uncharacteristic when we consider how Koreans typically react over important symbols of Korean nationalism.  Whether it’s in defense of Dok-do or in righteous indignation over a questionable judgment in the Olympics, Koreans tend to respond quickly and passionately.  “You cheated, Apollo!” . . . “Go Home, Yankee!” . . . “독도 는 우리땅" . . . etc.  So, what gives?

Well, I have a few ideas.

For one, popularly, Koreans are reluctant to concede Korea’s relative newness.  It’s more than just the colorful, bucolic imagery of the previous Korean dynasties that contribute to the unmatched popularity of movies like 왕의남자; there are practical reasons for insisting on 5000 years of Korean history, celebrating the stories of King Sejong, and encouraging Koreans to make pilgrimages to Gyeongju.  There is a natural, and understandable, aversion to tracing the roots of modern Korea back to the early twentieth century.  Why would Koreans want to lend even trace amounts of legitimacy to Japanese colonialism?  In a related sense, this same aversion contributes to the reification of those Korean holidays that do have strong celebration traditions: Seollal, Chuseok, Buddha’s Birthday.  What do all these holidays have in common?  They all draw inspiration from traditions that pre-date Japanese colonialism.

And it’s not just the Korean public that finds the convergence of Japanese colonialism and Korean nationalism difficult to reconcile; scholars have struggled with this as well.  Only in Korea do historians use such strange tortuous terminology like “Colonial Modernity.”  In other fields the apparent contradiction in this term is so absurd as to be laughable.  Academia, in this regard, seems to reflect the discomfort Koreans feel toward their colonial past.

Secondly, the Korean established elite is uncomfortable with the surface-level imagery and symbolism of the March First Uprising.  Quite understandably, a government that continues to struggle with the image of its own legitimacy might hesitate to celebrate too zealously a movement that so forcefully proclaimed the illegitimacy of the previous authority.  This is most obvious during years when the commemoration of March First is decidedly more pronounced.  As in most countries, the expression of Korean nationalism is most potent when directed toward external foes.  In 2005, at the height of the most recent 독도 fervor, March First Movement celebrations were loud and organized.  On that anniversary Roh Moo-hyun took the opportunity to excoriate Japan for not coming to terms, at least the way Korea would like it to, with its colonial past.  This year, quite differently, the new president called for "national harmony to heal the economic wounds.  In the absence of an identifiable "other" toward which Koreans can direct the passions of the uprising's remembrance, the rhetoric of the celebration is quite neutral.

I don't necessarily have an answer for this problem, if that's what it is.  Koreans can celebrate or not celebrate their national holidays as they see fit.  If on the off chance Koreans are ever looking for some traditional celebrations to institutionalize, however, I recommend hotdogs, hamburgers, a few Budweisers, and a little American football.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Spike THIS!!

The other day my wife showed me a message she received from one of her coworkers about the dangers of going out in New York City.  The message claimed that several women had had their drinks spiked while out at the bars.  That the women “lost consciousness” after consuming several drinks, was the only evidence proffered. 

Now, I’ve always been a little skeptical of the average “I think my drink was spiked” claim.  Stories about GHB, Ketamine and Rohypnol finding their way into women’s drinks have in the past struck me as questionable for a couple of reasons.  For one, most of the women I knew in high school and college could drink more and pop more pills than the men.  And two, I could never understand why men would just give away good drugs on the uninviting prospect of humping some poor passed-out chick.  What a terrible reason to spend a few years in prison!!!  Indeed, why not take the drugs yourself and be assured of having a great time?  Prison free, no less!

This time, however, I had a little time on my hands.  So, before I let my personal preconceptions about urban legends and female vindictiveness lead me to hold unsupportable conclusions, I decided to do a bit of research.  After a few simple searches I found several sites that appeared to support the spiked drink thesis.  Maybe this is real, I thought. 

But as I read on I found many of these sites lacking in any quantifiable evidence.  In fact, the “information” they did provide seemed absurdly useless.  For instance, all the sites described the symptoms of drinking a spike drink as feeling “disoriented and dizzy.”  They claimed that people who’ve had their drinks spiked tend to “lose their inhibitions,” and “become unconscious, unable to defend [themselves], or unable to remember what happened.”

Now, I’m no scientist.  But don’t you typically lose your inhibitions, have trouble defending yourself, become dizzy and disoriented whenever you drink a lot?  Hell, I thought that was the fucking point!!!

Eventually I stumbled across an interesting article that deals with this issue head on.  Published in the British Journal of Criminology, the article declares as simply implausible the (strangely unchallenged) premise that women are commonly drugged while out drinking. 

“Drug-facilitated sexual assault is a culturally embedded crime fear, it has prompted the creation and distribution of ‘risk products’, and there seems to be widespread acceptance that it is a prevalent form of ‘date rape’. Yet, routinized DFSA is improbable as a widespread crime: it involves a stranger extracting an individual from her social group unnoticed, administering a substance undetected, precisely controlling drug effects, and reliably erasing memory of the experience. Indeed, the conclusions of scientific and police investigation suggest that DFSA is in fact a very limited threat.”

So why is there such a fear of a crime that seems so implausible?  The article goes on to answer this question.  But I won’t take up space with the interesting conclusions.  Have a look for yourself.

EMBODYING UNCERTAINTY? Understanding Heightened Risk Perception of Drink ‘Spiking.’ By Adam Burgess , Pamela Donovan and Sarah E. H. Moore, British Journal of Criminology (2009) 49, 848–862.