Journal: News & Comment

This is " January 2001," a page that archives an entire month's entries from my online journal. The latest material for that month is at the top. For my newest entries, visit the home page.

Wednesday, January 31, 2001 - newest items first
# 11:49:00 AM:

I lost my job today

This morning, my employer since August 12, 1996, Multiactive Software Inc., laid off a number of people -- including me. Now I have a few weeks to:

  1. Update my expertise page.
  2. Look for a new job.

Since I'm mostly a stay-at-home dad, I only want something part time. If you know of any leads, e-mail away.


Monday, January 29, 2001 - newest items first
# 8:29:00 PM:

Get down tonight!

If you played video games twenty years ago (and if you have QuickTime installed), you'll enjoy this little film.


Friday, January 26, 2001 - newest items first
# 12:40:00 PM:

Today's updates come fast and furious

Okay, this is the last one for today, but possibly the neatest. While reading the San Jose Mercury News's Palm handheld edition this morning, I saw a link to George Washington University librarian Gary Price's "Fast Facts" page. As David Plotnikoff of the SJMN notes in his column, Fast Facts is "an amazing compendium of specialized online almanacs, statistical yearbooks and other quick resources, covering topics from agriculture to zoology. The site has everything from the number of moviegoers in Norway last year to step-by-step instructions for landing a space shuttle."

If you have a use for both of those, my hat's off to you.


# 10:30:00 AM:

Happy birthday, Lolo

The youngest of my two daughters was born one year ago today at St. Paul's Hospital in Vancouver. Now she walks and smiles and likes to read picture books. It's been quite a year.

Her sister will be three on Valentine's Day.


# 10:29:00 AM:

How did California's power crisis happen?

In the nineteenth century, almost no one used electricity for anything productive. Now we're all fearfully dependent on it, as California's current power crisis shows. You can't run the Internet (or your house, or vital medical equipment, or the government) very well with no electricity.

I've been wondering how it came to this in the U.S.'s "Golden State." Feed magazine just explained it very well, and with quite a snarky attitude too.


# 8:42:00 AM:

It keeps me alive, but still I am wary

I have diabetes, and I stay alive by injecting myself with insulin three times a day. I use synthetic human insulin, produced not by people but by genetically engineered bacteria. So, bioengineering saves my life every day.

Still, the four years of training that got me a B.Sc. in biology gives me enough of an understanding of biotechnology that I remain wary of its possibilities -- especially when we make genetic modifications to animals and plants used for food.

On Tuesday, the New York Times published an article (free registration required) about how such wariness from scientists and laypeople alike -- combined with arrogance and incompetence by companies making genetically modified (GM) foodstuffs -- has stymied GM foods from gaining much acceptance in the worldwide marketplace. Which, I think, is probably a good thing.

On another diabetic note, Salon argues that some diabetics using automated insulin pumps (which I don't) are actually some of the first cyborgs. It's a hard argument to deny.


Wednesday, January 24, 2001 - newest items first
# 2:39:00 PM:

The mutability of language

Countries such as France (and provinces including Québec) have official agencies to preserve the "purity" of their language. English has no such authority, and, I would argue, is richer for it.

Still, it does get mangled in creative ways sometimes, and not just by people like me who work in marketing.


# 11:58:00 AM:

Feeling warmer? Or not?

Some parts of the northern hemisphere are suffering record low temperatures this winter. Others are having record mild spells. Even here in Vancouver, we have much lower than usual snowpacks on the local mountains, which makes for lousy skiing.

Is this evidence of accelerated global warming? After all, global warming doesn't mean everywhere gets warmer -- just that there tend to be more extremes, with the average temperature getting higher.

I suspect the answer is yes. The bad news of this new century may very well be dominated by the consequences of climate change, the way the last one was dominated by wars, genocide, and the threat of nuclear annihilation.

And on that cheery note, I'd like to say that this is a really spiffy notebook computer.


Thursday, January 18, 2001 - newest items first
# 9:25:00 AM:

Look out below

The Russian Space Agency plans to destroy the 15-year-old, long-suffering Mir space station by steering it into earth's atmosphere to break up -- and to let anything that doesn't burn on re-entry fall into the Indian Ocean.

Few people have been alarmed by the plan, even though the last re-entry of a formerly-occupied space station, NASA's Skylab (in July 1979), sprayed space junk over (fortunately) largely unoccupied swaths of Australia. There was quite a hubbub before Skylab's uncontrolled descent, including worries about the very slim chance of debris hitting a nuclear power plant -- and even an immortal theme song by The Monks (a spoof punk band).

Punk rock not being what it was then, I haven't heard of any plans for a Mir theme song. But if you do, please let me know.


Wednesday, January 17, 2001 - newest items first
# 1:36:00 PM:

Another worthy language site

This one is based in the U.K., at Lots of stuff, plenty of trivia, and a suitably low-key British sense of humour. For instance, they (correctly) note that the word webinar is "not a felicitous formation."

I tracked World Wide Words down through Apple Computer's EdView educational Web index.


# 10:43:00 AM:

More infiltrations

In yesterday's note, I forgot to mention that we also explored some abandoned mineshafts and prisons (where we climbed the guard tower and found the old gallows chamber). My roommate at the time even found himself a prison guard's uniform jacket.

Don't try this at home. On second thought, do. If you're young and without a spouse and kids who don't want to see you injured, anyway.


Tuesday, January 16, 2001 - newest items first
# 5:00:00 PM:

It has a name: infiltration

In university, I had a group of friends prone to unusual activities. We called them "excursions," but it turns out we were not alone -- and that most people who do similar things call them "infiltrations."

Ours included exploring the steam tunnels beneath the University of B.C. and the storm sewers underneath the city of West Vancouver, riding freight trains, and adventures in a few railway tunnels (on one of which I jumped on a train midway, and unknowingly left my two companions behind -- without a flashlight). A few years later, one of our members extended his rail-riding by going all the way to New Orleans from Vancouver on freight cars.

Anyway, Salon magazine just published a feature about the online network of people who do such things. It's a fun read.


Wednesday, January 10, 2001 - newest items first
# 4:17:00 PM:

The search for perfect software

Here's one of my favourite quotes: "If the software isn't perfect, some of the people we go to meetings with might die." It's from Bill Pate, one of the software engineers who works on the Space Shuttle.

His group is one of the only ones in the world that makes essentially bug-free software. It is possible, despite what your experience with commercial personal computer software might tell you. Read more to find out how the Shuttle software development process works.


Monday, January 08, 2001 - newest items first
# 1:17:00 PM:

The impersistence of memory

Okay, so my little "ten years on the Internet" post managed to be both correct in many of its facts and completely out to lunch on the timeline. (In fact, the tenth anniversary had long since passed when I posted it.) I'll let Steve -- the protagonist, who is now a Senior Systems Administrator at Simon Fraser University -- clarify:

Well, the timelines are a bit off. From my (fading) memory, it goes like this:

TZ was started on an Apple ][ in April of 1983 (I believe). It quickly expanded to use to 640k drives (big at the time). Sometime in 1984, I found an HP750 drive in the Buy & Sell for $30. It was off an HP3000 minicomputer. Since I didn't have a channel interface on my Apple (:)), I had to build an interface. That took most of my grade 12 year to perfect, so it was the summer of '85 by the time it was working. I ended up having to use a second Apple2 to control the interface and communicate with the drive. It in turn spoke to my Apple2 running TZ over a 9600bps serial line. That didn't matter much, because my modem speed was only 300bps. I set up an AE (Ascii Express) board that you got to from a menu option in TZ. The AE line managed the software that was uploaded and downloaded to/from the giant drive. I ended having to lock down the hours of the AE line to midnight-8am, since otherwise it monopolized the use of the BBS. As a result, every night at midnight, the drive spun up, and then stayed on until about 8:15am (it had a timeout that would shut down the drive after some period of inactivity).

In 1986, a lamp fell over and shorted the ground of the drive to 120v. I was never able to really revive the drive after that.

In '87, I built an IBM PC out of parts that Richard had given to me that he pulled from his clients' upgraded machines. I had a basic 4.77 Mhz PC w/ 10mb hard drive. On this, I built 'TZ 2', written entirely in assembler and using raw tracks/sectors to store messages. The board was only open to my friends - I think it gradually grew to a total of about 100 members (compared to the old one, which had some 1500). I gradually converted its storage to file-based storage and in '89, I believe, I added a freeware BBS (I can't remember it's name - begins with a 'W') that supported UUCP for e-mail and NetNews. I set it up to work with Curt Sampson's server, who in turn connected to Wimsey. Curt Sampson is still around today. I saw him again at an EnglishBay LISA meet a couple of years ago. I can't remember which ISP in Vancouver he owns.

In about '91, when I moved over to Network Operations at SFU, I stopped using Curt's server and set up a server at SFU called "". It received all mail and usenet for our 'TZ' and I would walk the data home on a floppy each night (primitive, I know).

I toyed with the wireless gear when we moved to an apartment in New West that had line-of-sight to SFU - that was the summer of '92 - but no go.

By then, of course, the Internet was well established and there were lots of avenues to get on. When we moved from New West, the server was relocated to Bob's house, but its use gradually died out as people moved fully over to the Internet (and the World Wide Web really took off)

But Derek, considering you were remembering someone else's life, more or less, you were pretty darned accurate!

Hard to believe it was so many years ago.

I now have a 3mbps link to my house, a computer that's 1000 times faster than TZ's with 1000 times more storage & 1000 times more RAM and I manage a terabyte of storage at work.

Also, another participant from the time, Richard Campbell, reports that:

I believe the drive was an HP 750, and it was originally only 20Mb, Steve did some sort of software improvement to it that got it up to 50Mb.

There you have it. I was only wrong about the hard drive by about five years! Pretty soon (in 2003), it will be the 20th anniversary of the Twilight Zone BBS -- and of the purchase of my first 300 bps modem.

Okay, enough already.


Friday, January 05, 2001 - newest items first
# 12:48:00 PM:

I am an old-timer at 31

NOTE: On January 8, 2001, I posted a large batch of corrections to this badly-remembered tale. Please check them out above.

I can't pinpoint the exact date, but I know the place in cyberspace where it happened. Sometime soon is my tenth anniversary of using the Internet, and it began on a long-gone dial-up computer bulletin board system (BBS) here in Vancouver. The BBS was called the Twilight Zone, and had been built and run since 1984 by my friend Steve Hillman, who has since gone on to be a long-time employee of Simon Fraser University's computer operations department.

Steve was, and is, a pretty crafty hardware and software guy. To illustrate: The Twilight Zone (a.k.a. "TZ") ran from an Apple II with a modem and one phone line. Like most BBSs, only one person could call in at a time, so in today's terms, it was something like a serial Internet Service Provider (ISP), capable of handling no more than a single customer at any time. At one point Steve acquired an old Hewlett-Packard (I think) 50 MB hard drive. This was in the mid-80s, when 50 MB hard drives were the size of dishwashers -- and consumed more power. Steve's had probably been designed for a mainframe or minicomputer, but that didn't faze him.

He built his own interface card for this drive, and wrote his own driver software. On the drive, he stored download files that were too big for the floppy disks on the Apple, as well as his own local mirror of some Usenet newsgroups and Internet e-mail for TZ's users, of which I was one.

He soon discovered that the 50 MB drive consumed so much power that it was significantly increasing his parents' power bill each month. (TZ lived in his room in the attic of their Kitsilano house.) So he did some more hacking, and soon enough the drive only powered up when someone calling TZ requested files it contained -- thus, in the middle of the night he was sometimes awakened by the drive rumbling to life.

The Internet connection was primitive (Steve called it the Usenet connection, in fact -- that was the most important bit). Here's how it worked.

At a predetermined time in the middle of the night (eventually he revised it to several times a day, I believe), TZ -- if it wasn't busy with someone calling in -- would automatically dial up Wimsey, one of Vancouver's first ISPs, which has now apparently been absorbed into Inter.Net Canada. TZ would upload any e-mail and Usenet postings from its users since the last connection, and download new e-mail and Usenet postings for them. Then, the next time someone dialed in (at between 300 and 2400 bps -- not the 56,000 bps even modems are today), we could read new posts and e-mail. Our replies would go out the next day.

Being able to send e-mail around the world in less than a day was pretty cool. (Now I expect it to go out within seconds, of course.) Reading Usenet was also cool. There was no World Wide Web at all -- it wouldn't exist in any form for at least a year.

Our addresses then were all We used pseudonyms, and mine had been The Grodd since my earliest BBSing days in 1983. So I was -- that was my first Internet e-mail address. When Steve started working at SFU, he moved the Internet connection there, so I became At one point, Steve even experimented with a wireless connection between TZ and SFU -- something that's still pretty cutting edge ten years on.

Later, the 50 MB drive died a smoking death. We took the heavy steel, pizza-size, orange oxide-coated hard disk platters on our annual summer camping trip to Long Beach on Vancouver Island and used them as (potentially lethal) frisbees that would sail up, up in the howling west coast wind, slicing afterward into the soft sand -- and the occasional driftwood log. (No heads, fortunately.)

By late 1992, my Internet connection was through the University of B.C., where I eventually became something of an expert and sat on the university's Task Force on Appropriate Use of Information Technology. Now the Internet is my job.

I wonder where the Internet and I will be in another decade?


Wednesday, January 03, 2001 - newest items first
# 12:07:00 PM:

It took less than a day

I warned you on New Year's Eve to keep an eye out for the black monoliths. Look what happens when you don't listen to me.


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