Under the Influence: The Dawn of the Network Age

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     I grew up as part of the last generation that can remember computers being something that only Scientists and Universities and Governments had – arcane hunks of metal with das blinkenlights and whirr-whirr-whirr tape drives and big, washing-machine sized magnetic disk drives (which held orders of magnitude less than your USB thumb drive does today).

 

     So while ARPANet/the Internet was born when I was considerably younger, I was part of the first generation who had the opportunity to see and operate a computer when we were young. The first computer I ever actually saw I don't even know the name of, but I remember clearly that it was (A) some university's open house event, and (B) it was set up to allow people to play "Moon Landing", a videogame before videogames actually emerged as a paying entertainment thing.

 

     After that, I first encountered computers in two locations pretty much simultaneously: the State University of New York at Albany (SUNYA) and my high school, Mont Pleasant. SUNYA had a very large computer installation, relatively speaking, of which the centerpiece was the UNIVAC 1100, connected among other things to a small room filled with cast-iron teletype terminals – with tall, oval keys and a punch-tape output printer on the side to allow you to save work for later input. It was on one of those I wrote my first program and saved it (a simple input-output program).

 

     But it was at Mont Pleasant that I truly entered the nascent information age. Mont Pleasant was one of a couple dozen local schools which were part of a network using the BOCES (Board of Cooperative Educational Services) PDP-11 computer. Computer classes were just starting to be taught, and in my freshman year I wasn't allowed to take the course – it was only for juniors and seniors. So I got on the computer only by hanging around the older kids like a puppydog, stealing time when I had the chance. Even with the limited access, I did learn some things about the machine – including the wonder of bulletin board programs (ours was called "Talk") and e-mail. It was during this time that I first sent Email and posted online, under the initial handle of "Kimball Kinnison" (yes, not terribly original, but better than the usual slew of Gandalfs and similar LotR inspired handles).

 

     The next year I somehow pushed my way into the computer class, despite being only a sophomore, and my online addiction was complete (though the term "online" wouldn't be used commonly for a decade or more yet). I learned the basics of programming, but spent most of my time interacting with people online.

 

     This was a safe method of interacting with people – something important to me since I had no idea how to properly interact with people face to face for the most part, and also because my experiences with other people weren't terribly positive for the most part. On the network, you could find out if you were kindred spirits without having to risk face-to-face meetings. There was also a sort of rough brotherhood among those who used the school terminals (there were only two, later four).

 

     I would often stay late on the computer, in the library long after school ended, sometimes past 8 or 9. My parents didn't mind if they knew ahead of time, and I could always walk home (later on I could drive).

 

     The security on the machines, in those days, was pretty laughable; at one point we got the entire password file for the whole system by setting up "virtual arrays" on the disk and not clearing them, and looking through the data which remained there ("erased" data in those days was simply marked as "erased", but not actually gone over and physically removed from the system, so the unemptied array actually contained data that had been marked as erased). Passwords were also not checked for secureness; the ones used one year by our school were all variants of gas stations (LIBOM, 0SSE, etc.).

 

     Despite this, it was relatively rare to find people hacking the system (back then we did, in fact, call ourselves hackers if we were breaking into things; apparently in other areas the term for people doing that was "cracker", but I never encountered that term until well after I'd graduated from high school).

 

     For me, the real point of the computer system was that I had found a community that fit me, mostly. And that community also introduced me to my OTHER community, Roleplaying Games; it was Mike Calabro, AKA "Vigilante", who first introduced me to the concept of Dungeons and Dragons in 1977.

 

     In 1978, the old guard  -- the remaining "System Gods" who had been around when I first arrived – graduated, and I became one of the dominant figures on the system, using over two dozen aliases, but most frequently the handle "Sea Wasp" – a name I first used in 1977, and which is my overwhelmingly most-used online name to this day. I was what we referred to (after Star Wars) as a "Lightsider", someone whose hacking activities were purely as an exercise of "can I do this" or, sometimes, even "can I stop these Darksiders from doing THAT?".

 

     I also provided the Email program for the entire system. For those who have grown up in some part of the Information Age, here's something that you may find mindboggling: I had to type the Email program into the computer BY HAND. And I had to do this at least once a semester – because the system operator (Sysop, basically God Almighty as he literally was physically in control of the computer; he not only had all the password accesses, he could just shut the machine off if he wanted) would routinely delete such programs if he found them. "These 'mail' programs are a frivolous waste of computer resources," he once wrote, "and will never have any practical use."

 

     So I had to type in that program every time he deleted it. Later we had to do the same thing for "Phone", which was a program equivalent to Instant Messaging – what I typed on my terminal showed up on yours instantly.

 

     Well, almost instantly. Here's another concept for those who grew up in the Web era: the high speed connections then available for us ordinary kids were 300 baud, and some of them (like the teletype) were 110 baud. At 8 bits per byte that meant a speed of 37.5 bytes per second, so to put that in perspective, a modern digital movie file of, say, 600MB would take one hundred eighty-five DAYS to transmit at 300 baud. (Actually probably twice that, because it's probably using 16-bit bytes instead of 8). This was also the era of those modems you may have seen on old TV shows – the ones where an old-fashioned phone headset was shoved into a gadget with two foam-circled holes for the talking and listening ends of the headset.

 

     Since the actual computer was over at the BOCES center in Colonie, anything I did had to first be typed at my terminal, received and processed by the computer, and then transmitted by the computer to the receiver. In practice, this meant that I could often type faster than the computer could process and had to wait for it to catch up!

 

     While I was, as I said, a "lightsider", there were occasional "darksiders" on our system. In my junior and senior years, a group of them got together in three other schools and eventually decided that I was going to be their target – presumably because I was the "establishment", so to speak, and the most visible inhabitant of the network for the years I'd been on.

 

     It was fairly quickly obvious to me that I did not have a chance, by myself, of countering them forever. I may have known more than they did about the system, but I was one person, and even with my preference to be online a LOT I couldn't come close to matching the hours they put into their activities, given that there were probably eight to ten of them.

 

     At the same time, I had to do something to put a stop to their activities, because they were doing things like deleting people's homework assignments whenever they found a way into someone else's accounts. I wasn't too concerned for myself on that front, because by then I had a lot of accounts – many more than most people realized), but many of my friends were potential victims.

 

     And suddenly it dawned on me how to address the problem.

 

     If you recall, I was the one who wrote and maintained the Email program ("Mail"). As the group came from three separate schools, and I assumed they were nerds like me, I was sure they were doing most of their conspiring via E-mail.

 

     So I inserted some new lines of code into the program. Lines that sent copies of every single message to a separate, hidden file that only I knew existed and how to access, in one of my accounts. Amusingly, it occurred to them that I might somehow be able to spy on them through the mail account, so they copied my Email program… and never noticed or removed those  lines.

 

     Thus I was able to see a lot of what they were doing well before they did it.

 

     But I also knew that they would either eventually figure that out, or simply do something, like break into other people's accounts, that just knowing about it wouldn't stop. So I went one step farther. I picked a new account I'd never used before, set it up as a student account for yet another school, and contacted this group as "The Stainless Steel Rat". I also had one of my friends online – one from a different school, who I trusted for various reasons – post several of the Rat's messages (which I wrote for him ahead of time, so the writing style matched) during class periods. I suspected they had at least one ally in my school who would be able to verify when I'd been on the computer or not.

 

The Rat provided them with a lot of intel, culminating in giving them the password to my personal school account (which they subsequently erased entirely; I had of course copied all crucial material from the account beforehand). This gave them confidence and trust in the Rat… enough that I was able to derive their names and locations from subsequent conversations.

    

     Then came one of my favorite moments: talking with "The System Overlord", as he called himself, on Phone. As usual, it started with what is now called "trash-talking" me, to which I responded by calling him "System Overlard", to which he responded:

 

     Yeah, okay, laugh now. But we have the Stainless Steel Rat on our side, so you're going down SOON.

 

            That would be a nice trick if you could manage it, I wrote back in proper Doc Smithian mode (it only now dawned on me that when I wrote DuQuesne's Badass Boast to the Molothos, I was quite definitely mimicking this particular confrontation – which had, of course, taken its phrasing from Doc Smith to begin with). But you see, I AM the Stainless Steel Rat.

 

     There was, literally, several moments of no response at all, and I admit my smile grew wider every second of that silent wait.. Then:

 

     Bullshit! We checked that possibility out you fool!

 

            I thought you would, so I had someone else post a couple of the Rat's messages at times you could be SURE I was in class. At this point I was laughing out loud, earning me strange looks from the other person in the library at the time. But I now have your names and schools, and I WILL be sending them to Mr. Murphy (the name of the Sysop) if I have any more trouble from you.

 

     I never heard from any of them again. And yes, tiny and insignificant though that whole sequence is from any real-life point of view, I still feel an inordinate bit of pride at pulling that off and making that system just a little safer for the other users.

 

     Mostly, of course, the computer system was a big and awesome toy. And the combination of the communications capability of the toy and my new gaming hobby immediately presented itself as an idea. Towards the end of 1978, I began running a D&D campaign via Email, based in my then brand-new world of Zarathan. As far as I know, that makes me the very first person to ever run an RPG campaign over a computer network.

 

     During 1980, my last year at Mont Pleasant, I ran my last online D&D game for quite some time, and joining that game were a couple of people who I just hit it off with quite well, to the point that they invited me to come visit them (they were in Delmar). One was named Ken Summerville; what happened to him in later years I don't know. But the other was Eric Palmer, who became my best friend, and still is to this day. Several of my other friends I also met through computer means, including Carl Edlund (immortalized now in Grand Central Arena).

 

     Once I went into college, the era of the personal computer had started, and I learned about BBS's and, eventually, about "Usenet". Usenet was (and in fact still is) a worldwide discussion forum which was propogated through multiple machines in a manner that evaded centralization. There is no "Usenet Machine" anywhere. The messages are no more centralized than everyone's email is. And in those days, it was huge – the largest online interchange of communication. On Usenet I became fairly well known, at least in a limited set of "newsgroups" including those devoted to anime, science fiction, and RPGs, as "Sea Wasp"; I first begain posting to Usenet in 1989, although the oldest messages I have found in any archive are from 1991. One can tell, however, from the way in which they're written that I had already been around for a while.

 

     Usenet led, directly, to two other very transformative events in my life. In 1991 I was contacted by a gentleman calling himself "Mavra", who said he was starting a new RPG company and had selected me, based on my participation in the Usenet RPG groups, as one of those he would really like to review his company's first proposed product, called The Primal Order, a "capsystem" supplement for the use of deities in many different RPG systems. I reviewed his product, and was pleased to see that it seemed to fit well with my preferred style of gaming. I did do some edits, point out some areas where they might be showing specific influences too clearly, and so on. As Mavra wanted this to be a professional activity, he offered to pay around $25-$30 for the work; I said "look, that'll disappear in a couple of pizzas. Tell you what, you said your stock was going to sell at a buck a share, gimme that much money in stock. If your company crashes and burns like most RPG companies, hey, I had the fun of reading the stuff and I'm out a couple meals. If you take off, I might make something out of it."

 

     "Mavra" was the online name of Peter Adkison, and the little startup was Wizards of the Coast. For those who don't know that name (probably not very many, given the people likely to be visiting this site), Wizards of the Coast eventually became known initially as the creators of the first truly successful collectible card game (CCG), Magic: The Gathering, and then for continuing their success in this arena with the Pokemon card game franchise, and reviving the RPG game industry by purchasing and re-invigorating the best-known RPG of all, Dungeons and Dragons.

 

     All of my contact with Wizards of the Coast (or "WotC") was via email, save only for a couple of legal documents that had to be signed and returned. While working with them as an informal, and then later formal, consultant, I helped to make the conversion notes for The Primal Order and related products, contracted for and wrote the first draft of a Primal Order supplement called Unorthodox Strategies: Deities in Non-Fantasy Campaigns, and wrote a few stories that they considered for publication. One of those stories was the original draft of Fall of Saints – the story now being published as Phoenix Rising.

 

     Of more immediate importance to me was that my connection with WotC saved me financially at least twice. First, when Kathy and I chose to move back home to New York to be married, I really couldn't afford the move. But WotC paid me for Unorthodox Strategies (almost as much as they would have on publication) when they got out of RPGs temporarily, and I also discovered there was one other perk of having been one of the original stockholders in WotC: I got one free copy of everything that WotC produced. And I could buy other stuff from them at a roughly 40% discount.

 

     I was thus able to finance my move by selling Magic cards to collectors, and end up with a little left over.

 

     Later, when things were getting very tight, it so happened that Hasbro finally made an offer and purchased WotC. For a price of $1,000 per share. I'd sold some of my shares earlier, but this was a windfall that saved pretty much everything at the time. And all of this because I'd been spending a lot of time on Usenet talking about D&D.

 

     The second transformative event, of course, was the Usenet flamewar that led to my being published – something I've already posted about in detail here.

 

     Today, I see that most of the world is online, that television and movies are viewed more often using computers than by the broadcast channels and movie theaters that dominated my youth, that people carry devices in their pockets that update them on news and trivia across the globe in the time my compatriots would have taken to check a pocket watch… and I remember the days when this was all science fiction.

 

     We are in the future already, and it always amazes me.

 

 

 

 

Comments

  1. So maybe this is a good opportunity to ask: Why choose “Sea Wasp?”

  2. I’ve been in and run a lot of fun email RPG games over the years. Thanks for starting that.

  3. Ian Clark says:

    Wow!!

  4. i remember my dad learning to program. i was 3 or 4 [call it 80 or 81] and his computer was a KEYBOARD that he PLUGGED INTO THE BACK OF THE TV!

    the very first video game i played my dad wrote. in 84.

    but my mom is technophobic, so after they divorced[i was 6], i was kept away from computers [except when visiting him, and at school. we have a computer lab of Commodore 64s at my Junior High, starting in 89… and we did indeed email, and i DID play in a D&D game through that email, for most of the year. also got detention twice for it 😀 ] until i was 14. [my dad made me a computer for my 14th. it had a TAPE DRIVE! heeeeeh!!!] i got my first modem at 15…

    but after basic and pasquel, i didn’t have any urge to learn further programming. just… wasn’t my thing. i sometimes regret that, but not often – much as computers are useful to me, and they are awesomely advanced, they’ve never been my passion. *shrug* i don’t have a smart phone. don’t want one. don’t have a top computer [it’s a laptop i bought 3 years ago, and it cost $500. it’s the most expensive computer i’ve ever bought, yes, but it was merely mediocre compared to what i COULD have bought…]
    but still – i remember when a modem required a phone to be plugged into it, the actual phone reciever [it sent data back and forth as pulses or something? i was 7 when i saw this for the first time. my dad and a buddy of his.] hell, i remember going with my dad to work, he worked at Pave Paws, Beale AFB, on the mainframe, it was HIS job to change the lightbulbs and “bugs” when needed. it’s why he learned to program, first on the mainframe before i was born [i was born in 77…] then at home ON THE TV [i love freaking kids out with that. lol] he just absolutely fell IN LOVE with all things computer.

    i think he’s looking for Mike – Mycroft Holmes, i mean, from The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. i know *I’d* kill to meet and talk to Mike, but my dad LOVES all things computer.

  5. “Cracker” was a term made up by light-side folks as a label for darksiders, because the press and other mundanes insisted (and still insist) on using “hacker” only for the dark side, and we wanted to keep the term for ourselves. Nobody calls themselves crackers, ever.

Your comments or questions welcomed!