Echoes of popular culture and open source.

Oct 03 2019

(Note: This post is well beyond the seven year limit for spoilers.  If you haven't seen 2001 or 2010 by now, I can't help you.)

Many years ago, as a loomling, one of my very first memories was of seeing the movie 2010: The Year We Make Contact on cable.  That the first 'real' record I ever listened to was the soundtrack to that movie should come as no surprise, but that's not really relevant.  I was quite young so I didn't get most of it, but I remembered enough about it that it gave me some interesting questions (so I thought; I was six, okay?) to ask at the library later.  The thing that struck me the most about the movies was, unsurprisingly, the monolith.  The universal alien device, which manipulated proto-hominids on Earth by teaching them how to hunt, gather, and make war, as well as making unspecified changes to their evolutionary path; which served as a monitoring outpost; which implemented the endpoints of a vast interstellar (intergalactic? interdimensional?) wormhole network; which turned a gas giant into a miniature star.  If you like, the monolith was a universal key to unlock the mysteries of the universe and inspire growth and change.

Many, many years later I was a computer geek in my late teens, just dumb enough to think I knew the right questions to ask, just smart enough to know that I didn't know nearly as much as I should.  I knew that college was coming up one way or another and I'd have to get my ducks in a row to do work there and hopefully get some research done.  I also knew that it wasn't going to be easy.  I'd just graduated from a hotwired Atari microcomputer with a modem to a modest PC clone, a 386 cobbled together out of hand-me-down components, stuff I'd scavenged out of dumpsters, and the odd weekend trip to the computer show.  I knew that there was this thing called Ethernet, and the college I was going to had just started rolling out connections of same to dorm rooms, and it was a pre-req for a comp.sci major.  I also knew that I needed an OS that could connect to the Net somehow, but I didn't have the connections to get my hands on the new hotness back then, nor did Leandra have the specs to run it if I did.

The answer came to me one evening as I was calling around to the few BBSes left in my area code one day after school in 1995.  It was a board called Monolith, and it was a system the likes of which I'd never seen before.  I was accustomed to BBSes running Renegade or one of its many clones, or WWIV, or Sapphire (I'd even run one, once upon a time), but this one was different.  It wasn't fancy, it didn't have great art, and it acted like it'd been written by the sysop.  Of course, because it was one of those places that I was implicitly allowed to be (I'd asked for and been granted an account, after all) I couldn't resist paging the sysop to ask him some questions about his setup, and maybe he'd have some suggestions for me... as it turned out he was running something called eBBS (no, it's not my work, but I did check it into Github in case the few sites that still had copies vanished from the face of the Net) on top of Slackware Linux v2.1...  The sysop (it's been so long I don't remember his name) was nice enough to make all of the installation disks available in his filebase, which I set about downloading one at a time and copying onto a stack of floppy disks as high as my knee.

The rest, as they say, is history.

The reason I'm ruminating about this is because, a couple of weeks ago out of idle curiosity I did the math and discovered that I'd been running Linux on all of my machines for nearly twenty-five years (1995.ev to the current day, late in 2019.ev).  I've watched it grow up, and it's grown up along with me as the kernel has changed, the number of distributions has exploded since the time of the Big Three (Slackware, Debian, and Redhat), and the software ecosystem has gone Cambrian.  "How in the hell," I thought to myself, "have I been running this weird little OS as my everyday rig for nearly a quarter century?!"

That question has been rattling around in the back of my head ever since, and it wasn't until I was doing the dishes this afternoon that it found an answer to connect to.  As in the movies, a monolith (a benign if not benevolent, alien-to-me system) appeared at just the right time to nudge me in a new direction.  It stimulated my development into a somewhat different person than I might have become otherwise given my circumstances.  I was exposed to novelty in such a way that I could play and fight with something so far outside of my experience that I had to grow as a person to figure out what it could and couldn't do, and in the process learn that I could make it do things it was never designed for.  And, its task complete, the monolith disappeared from my slightly-less-little world leaving nary a trace behind.  Since then, BBS culture has all but disappeared.  Dialup boards are rare and the few remaining BBS networks have shrunk down to shadows of their former selves.  Looking at the latest FidoNET nodelist, there are just 1465 systems out there, down from around 20,000 at its height.  Save for a handful of old friends, I've lost contact with everyone I used to exchange messages with.

To the friendly alien who helped make me into who I am today, I give you my thanks.

The Doctor [412/724/301/703/415/510]

"I am everywhere."