Evolving Computer Words: “Hacker”

This is part of a series of posts on computer terminology whose popular meaning – determined by surveying my friends – has significantly diverged from its original/technical one. Read more evolving words…

Anticipatory note: based on the traffic I already get to my blog and the keywords people search for, I imagine that some people will end up here looking to learn “how to become a hacker”. If that’s your goal, you’re probably already asking the wrong question, but I direct you to Eric S. Raymond’s Guide/FAQ on the subject. Good luck.

Few words have seen such mutation of meaning over their lifetimes as the word “silly”. The earliest references, found in Old English, Proto-Germanic, and Old Norse and presumably having an original root even earlier, meant “happy”. By the end of the 12th century it meant “pious”; by the end of the 13th, “pitiable” or “weak”; only by the late 16th coming to mean “foolish”; its evolution continues in the present day.

Right, stop that! It's too silly.
The Monty Python crew were certainly the experts on the contemporary use of the word.

But there’s little so silly as the media-driven evolution of the word “hacker” into something that’s at least a little offensive those of us who probably would be described as hackers. Let’s take a look.

Hacker

What people think it means

Computer criminal with access to either knowledge or tools which are (or should be) illegal.

What it originally meant

Expert, creative computer programmer; often politically inclined towards information transparency, egalitarianism, anti-authoritarianism, anarchy, and/or decentralisation of power.

The Past

The earliest recorded uses of the word “hack” had a meaning that is unchanged to this day: to chop or cut, as you might describe hacking down an unruly bramble. There are clear links between this and the contemporary definition, “to plod away at a repetitive task”. However, it’s less certain how the word came to be associated with the meaning it would come to take on in the computer labs of 1960s university campuses (the earliest references seem to come from around April 1955).

There, the word hacker came to describe computer experts who were developing a culture of:

  • sharing computer resources and code (even to the extent, in extreme cases, breaking into systems to establish more equal opportunity of access),
  • learning everything possible about humankind’s new digital frontiers (hacking to learn, not learning to hack)
  • judging others only by their contributions and not by their claims or credentials, and
  • discovering and advancing the limits of computers: it’s been said that the difference between a non-hacker and a hacker is that a non-hacker asks of a new gadget “what does it do?”, while a hacker asks “what can I make it do?”
Venn-Euler-style diagram showing crackers as a subset of security hackers, who in turn are a subset of hackers. Script kiddies are a group of their own, off to the side where nobody has to talk to them (this is probably for the best).
What the media generally refers to as “hackers” would be more-accurately, within the hacker community, be called crackers; a subset of security hackers, in turn a subset of hackers as a whole. Script kiddies – people who use hacking tools exclusively for mischief without fully understanding what they’re doing – are a separate subset on their own.

It is absolutely possible for hacking, then, to involve no lawbreaking whatsoever. Plenty of hacking involves writing (and sharing) code, reverse-engineering technology and systems you own or to which you have legitimate access, and pushing the boundaries of what’s possible in terms of software, art, and human-computer interaction. Even among hackers with a specific interest in computer security, there’s plenty of scope for the legal pursuit of their interests: penetration testing, security research, defensive security, auditing, vulnerability assessment, developer education… (I didn’t say cyberwarfare because 90% of its application is of questionable legality, but it is of course a big growth area.)

Getty Images search for "Hacker".
Hackers have a serious image problem, and the best way to see it is to search on your favourite stock photo site for “hacker”. If you don’t use a laptop in a darkened room, wearing a hoodie and optionally mask and gloves, you’re not a real hacker. Also, 50% of all text should be green, 40% blue, 10% red.

So what changed? Hackers got famous, and not for the best reasons. A big tipping point came in the early 1980s when hacking group The 414s broke into a number of high-profile computer systems, mostly by using the default password which had never been changed. The six teenagers responsible were arrested by the FBI but few were charged, and those that were were charged only with minor offences. This was at least in part because there weren’t yet solid laws under which to prosecute them but also because they were cooperative, apologetic, and for the most part hadn’t caused any real harm. Mostly they’d just been curious about what they could get access to, and were interested in exploring the systems to which they’d logged-in, and seeing how long they could remain there undetected. These remain common motivations for many hackers to this day.

"Hacker" Dan Q
Hoodie: check. Face-concealing mask: check. Green/blue code: check. Is I a l33t hacker yet?

News media though – after being excited by “hacker” ideas introduced by WarGames – rightly realised that a hacker with the same elementary resources as these teens but with malicious intent could cause significant real-world damage. Bruce Schneier argued last year that the danger of this may be higher today than ever before. The press ran news stories strongly associating the word “hacker” specifically with the focus on the illegal activities in which some hackers engage. The release of Neuromancer the following year, coupled with an increasing awareness of and organisation by hacker groups and a number of arrests on both sides of the Atlantic only fuelled things further. By the end of the decade it was essentially impossible for a layperson to see the word “hacker” in anything other than a negative light. Counter-arguments like The Conscience of a Hacker (Hacker’s Manifesto) didn’t reach remotely the same audiences: and even if they had, the points they made remain hard to sympathise with for those outside of hacker communities.

"Glider" Hacker Emblem
‘Nuff said.

A lack of understanding about what hackers did and what motivated them made them seem mysterious and otherworldly. People came to make the same assumptions about hackers that they do about magicians – that their abilities are the result of being privy to tightly-guarded knowledge rather than years of practice – and this elevated them to a mythical level of threat. By the time that Kevin Mitnick was jailed in the mid-1990s, prosecutors were able to successfully persuade a judge that this “most dangerous hacker in the world” must be kept in solitary confinement and with no access to telephones to ensure that he couldn’t, for example, “start a nuclear war by whistling into a pay phone”. Yes, really.

Four hands on one keyboard, from CSI: Cyber
Whistling into a phone to start a nuclear war? That makes CSI: Cyber seem realistic [watch].

The Future

Every decade’s hackers have debated whether or not the next decade’s have correctly interpreted their idea of “hacker ethics”. For me, Steven Levy’s tenets encompass them best:

  1. Access to computers – and anything which might teach you something about the way the world works – should be unlimited and total.
  2. All information should be free.
  3. Mistrust authority – promote decentralization.
  4. Hackers should be judged by their hacking, not bogus criteria such as degrees, age, race, or position.
  5. You can create art and beauty on a computer.
  6. Computers can change your life for the better.

Given these concepts as representative of hacker ethics, I’m convinced that hacking remains alive and well today. Hackers continue to be responsible for many of the coolest and most-important innovations in computing, and are likely to continue to do so. Unlike many other sciences, where progress over the ages has gradually pushed innovators away from backrooms and garages and into labs to take advantage of increasingly-precise generations of equipment, the tools of computer science are increasingly available to individuals. More than ever before, bedroom-based hackers are able to get started on their journey with nothing more than a basic laptop or desktop computer and a stack of freely-available open-source software and documentation. That progress may be threatened by the growth in popularity of easy-to-use (but highly locked-down) tablets and smartphones, but the barrier to entry is still low enough that most people can pass it, and the new generation of ultra-lightweight computers like the Raspberry Pi are doing their part to inspire the next generation of hackers, too.

That said, and as much as I personally love and identify with the term “hacker”, the hacker community has never been less in-need of this overarching label. The diverse variety of types of technologist nowadays coupled with the infiltration of pop culture by geek culture has inevitably diluted only to be replaced with a multitude of others each describing a narrow but understandable part of the hacker mindset. You can describe yourself today as a coder, gamer, maker, biohacker, upcycler, cracker, blogger, reverse-engineer, social engineer, unconferencer, or one of dozens of other terms that more-specifically ties you to your community. You’ll be understood and you’ll be elegantly sidestepping the implications of criminality associated with the word “hacker”.

The original meaning of “hacker” has also been soiled from within its community: its biggest and perhaps most-famous advocate‘s insistence upon linguistic prescriptivism came under fire just this year after he pushed for a dogmatic interpretation of the term “sexual assault” in spite of a victim’s experience. This seems to be absolutely representative of his general attitudes towards sex, consent, women, and appropriate professional relationships. Perhaps distancing ourselves from the old definition of the word “hacker” can go hand-in-hand with distancing ourselves from some of the toxicity in the field of computer science?

(I’m aware that I linked at the top of this blog post to the venerable but also-problematic Eric S. Raymond; if anybody can suggest an equivalent resource by another author I’d love to swap out the link.)

Verdict: The word “hacker” has become so broad in scope that we’ll never be able to rein it back in. It’s tainted by its associations with both criminality, on one side, and unpleasant individuals on the other, and it’s time to accept that the popular contemporary meaning has won. Let’s find new words to define ourselves, instead.

Evolving Computer Words: “Broadband”

This is part of a series of posts on computer terminology whose popular meaning – determined by surveying my friends – has significantly diverged from its original/technical one. Read more evolving words…

Until the 17th century, to “fathom” something was to embrace it. Nowadays, it’s more likely to refer to your understanding of something in depth. The migration came via the similarly-named imperial unit of measurement, which was originally defined as the span of a man’s outstretched arms, so you can understand how we got from one to the other. But you know what I can’t fathom? Broadband.

Woman hugging a dalmatian. Photo by Daria Shevtsova from Pexels.
I can’t fathom dalmatians. But this woman can.

Broadband Internet access has become almost ubiquitous over the last decade and a half, but ask people to define “broadband” and they have a very specific idea about what it means. It’s not the technical definition, and this re-invention of the word can cause problems.

Broadband

What people think it means

High-speed, always-on Internet access.

What it originally meant

Communications channel capable of multiple different traffic types simultaneously.

The Past

Throughout the 19th century, optical (semaphore) telegraph networks gave way to the new-fangled electrical telegraph, which not only worked regardless of the weather but resulted in significantly faster transmission. “Faster” here means two distinct things: latency – how long it takes a message to reach its destination, and bandwidth – how much information can be transmitted at once. If you’re having difficulty understanding the difference, consider this: a man on a horse might be faster than a telegraph if the size of the message is big enough because a backpack full of scrolls has greater bandwidth than a Morse code pedal, but the latency of an electrical wire beats land transport every time. Or as Andrew S. Tanenbaum famously put it: Never underestimate the bandwidth of a station wagon full of tapes hurtling down the highway.

Telephone-to-heliograph conversion circa 1912.
There were transitional periods. This man, photographed in 1912, is relaying a telephone message into a heliograph. I’m not sure what message he’s transmitting, but I’m guessing it ends with a hashtag.

Telegraph companies were keen to be able to increase their bandwidth – that is, to get more messages on the wire – and this was achieved by multiplexing. The simplest approach, time-division multiplexing, involves messages (or parts of messages) “taking turns”, and doesn’t actually increase bandwidth at all: although it does improve the perception of speed by giving recipients the start of their messages early on. A variety of other multiplexing techniques were (and continue to be) explored, but the one that’s most-interesting to us right now was called acoustic telegraphy: today, we’d call it frequency-division multiplexing.

What if, asked folks-you’ll-have-heard-of like Thomas Edison and Alexander Graham Bell, we were to send telegraph messages down the line at different frequencies. Some beeps and bips would be high tones, and some would be low tones, and a machine at the receiving end could separate them out again (so long as you chose your frequencies carefully, to avoid harmonic distortion). As might be clear from the names I dropped earlier, this approach – sending sound down a telegraph wire – ultimately led to the invention of the telephone. Hurrah, I’m sure they all immediately called one another to say, our efforts to create a higher-bandwidth medium for telegrams has accidentally resulted in a lower-bandwidth (but more-convenient!) way for people to communicate. Job’s a good ‘un.

Electro-acoustic telegraph "tuning fork".
If this part of Edison’s 1878 patent looks like a tuning fork, that’s not a coincidence. These early multiplexers made distinct humming sounds as they operated, owing to the movement of the synchronised forks within.

Most electronic communications systems that have ever existed have been narrowband: they’ve been capable of only a single kind of transmission at a time. Even if you’re multiplexing a dozen different frequencies to carry a dozen different telegraph messages at once, you’re still only transmitting telegraph messages. For the most part, that’s fine: we’re pretty clever and we can find workarounds when we need them. For example, when we started wanting to be able to send data to one another (because computers are cool now) over telephone wires (which are conveniently everywhere), we did so by teaching our computers to make sounds and understand one another’s sounds. If you’re old enough to have heard a fax machine call a landline or, better yet used a dial-up modem, you know what I’m talking about.

As the Internet became more and more critical to business and home life, and the limitations (of bandwidth and convenience) of dial-up access became increasingly questionable, a better solution was needed. Bringing broadband to Internet access was necessary, but the technologies involved weren’t revolutionary: they were just the result of the application of a little imagination.

Dawson can't use the Internet because someone's on the phone.
I’ve felt your pain, Dawson. I’ve felt your pain.

We’d seen this kind of imagination before. Consider teletext, for example (for those of you too young to remember teletext, it was a standard for browsing pages of text and simple graphics using an 70s-90s analogue television), which is – strictly speaking – a broadband technology. Teletext works by embedding pages of digital data, encoded in an analogue stream, in the otherwise-“wasted” space in-between frames of broadcast video. When you told your television to show you a particular page, either by entering its three-digit number or by following one of four colour-coded hyperlinks, your television would wait until the page you were looking for came around again in the broadcast stream, decode it, and show it to you.

Teletext was, fundamentally, broadband. In addition to carrying television pictures and audio, the same radio wave was being used to transmit text: not pictures of text, but encoded characters. Analogue subtitles (which used basically the same technology): also broadband. Broadband doesn’t have to mean “Internet access”, and indeed for much of its history, it hasn’t.

Ceefax news article from 29 October 1988, about a cancelled Soviet shuttle launch.
My family started getting our news via broadband in about 1985. Not broadband Internet, but broadband nonetheless.

Here in the UK, ISDN (from 1988!) and later ADSL would be the first widespread technologies to provide broadband data connections over the copper wires simultaneously used to carry telephone calls. ADSL does this in basically the same way as Edison and Bell’s acoustic telegraphy: a portion of the available frequencies (usually the first 4MHz) is reserved for telephone calls, followed by a no-mans-land band, followed by two frequency bands of different sizes (hence the asymmetry: the A in ADSL) for up- and downstream data. This, at last, allowed true “broadband Internet”.

But was it fast? Well, relative to dial-up, certainly… but the essential nature of broadband technologies is that they share the bandwidth with other services. A connection that doesn’t have to share will always have more bandwidth, all other things being equal! Leased lines, despite technically being a narrowband technology, necessarily outperform broadband connections having the same total bandwidth because they don’t have to share it with other services. And don’t forget that not all speed is created equal: satellite Internet access is a narrowband technology with excellent bandwidth… but sometimes-problematic latency issues!

ADSL microfilter
Did you have one of these tucked behind your naughties router? This box filtered out the data from the telephone frequencies, helping to ensure that you can neither hear the pops and clicks of your ADSL connection nor interfere with it by shouting.

Equating the word “broadband” with speed is based on a consumer-centric misunderstanding about what broadband is, because it’s necessarily true that if your home “broadband” weren’t configured to be able to support old-fashioned telephone calls, it’d be (a) (slightly) faster, and (b) not-broadband.

The Future

But does the word that people use to refer to their high-speed Internet connection matter. More than you’d think: various countries around the world have begun to make legal definitions of the word “broadband” based not on the technical meaning but on the populist one, and it’s becoming a source of friction. In the USA, the FCC variously defines broadband as having a minimum download speed of 10Mbps or 25Mbps, among other characteristics (they seem to use the former when protecting consumer rights and the latter when reporting on penetration, and you can read into that what you will). In the UK, Ofcom‘s regulations differentiate between “decent” (yes, that’s really the word they use) and “superfast” broadband at 10Mbps and 24Mbps download speeds, respectively, while the Scottish and Welsh governments as well as the EU say it must be 30Mbps to be “superfast broadband”.

Faster, Harder, Scooter music video.
At full-tilt, going from 10Mbps to 24Mbps means taking only 4 seconds, rather than 11 seconds, to download the music video to Faster! Harder! Scooter!

I’m all in favour of regulation that protects consumers and makes it easier for them to compare products. It’s a little messy that definitions vary so widely on what different speeds mean, but that’s not the biggest problem. I don’t even mind that these agencies have all given themselves very little breathing room for the future: where do you go after “superfast”? Ultrafast (actually, that’s exactly where we go)? Megafast? Ludicrous speed?

What I mind is the redefining of a useful term to differentiate whether a connection is shared with other services or not to be tied to a completely independent characteristic of that connection. It’d have been simple for the FCC, for example, to have defined e.g. “full-speed broadband” as providing a particular bandwidth.

Verdict: It’s not a big deal; I should just chill out. I’m probably going to have to throw in the towel anyway on this one and join the masses in calling all high-speed Internet connections “broadband” and not using that word for all slower and non-Internet connections, regardless of how they’re set up.

Consume less, create more

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Perhaps three people will read this essay, including my parents. Despite that, I feel an immense sense of accomplishment. I’ve been sitting on buses for years, but I have more to show for my last month of bus rides than the rest of that time combined.

Smartphones, I’ve decided, are not evil. This entire essay was composed on an iPhone. What’s evil is passive consumption, in all its forms.

This amazing essay really hammers home a major part of why I blog at all. Creating things on the Web is good. Creating things at all is good.

A side-effect of social media culture (repost, reshare, subscribe, like) is that it’s found perhaps the minimum-effort activity that humans can do that still fulfils our need to feel like we’ve participated in our society. With one tap we can pass on a meme or a funny photo or an outrageous news story. Or we can give a virtual thumbs-up or a heart on a friend’s holiday snaps, representing the entirety of our social interactions with them. We’re encouraged to create the smallest, lightest content possible: forty words into a Tweet, a picture on Instagram that we took seconds ago and might never look at again, on Facebook… whatever Facebook’s for these days. The “new ‘netiquette” is complicated.

I, for one, think it’d be a better world if it saw a greater diversity of online content. Instead of many millions of followers of each of a million content creators, wouldn’t it be nice to see mere thousands of each of billions? I don’t propose to erode the fame of those who’ve achieved Internet celebrity; but I’d love to migrate towards a culture in which we can all better support one another’s drive to create original content online. And do so ourselves.

The best time to write on your blog is… well, let’s be honest, it was a decade ago. But the second best time is right now. Or if you’d rather draw, or sing, or dance, or make puzzles or games or films… do that. The barrier to being a content creator has never been lower: publishing is basically free and virtually any digital medium is accessible from even the simplest of devices. Go make something, and share it with the world.

(with thanks to Jeremy for the reshare)

A poem about Silicon Valley, assembled from Quora questions about Silicon Valley

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Post-it Note Affirmations and the Amazon Dash

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The amazon dash is a pinnacle of modern web design. It’s one of the most intrusive, complex, and resource-dependent devices we’ve introduced into our homes, yet it appears as a simple oval with a single button for a single use. The use is absurdly narrow: the button will have a picture of Tide detergent, and when you press the button, Tide detergent is sent to your door.

Barely a week goes by between the times that I discover some horrifically over-engineered “solution” on the Internet. Amazon’s Dash buttons are terrible: disposable (plastic) single-purpose computers that could so easily have been made into something “more” – more-versatile, more-open, more-configurable, more-flexible. Indeed: people have been doing exactly that kind of thing! But the vanilla Dash button remains little more than selling you convenience (and not much convenience, if we’re honest) in exchange for more and more of your feeling of digital freedom. Yet another example of what replaced the Web we lost…

By hiding the technical processes, and simplifying the onboarding and engagement of their services, Amazon can continually reinforce your depression for a profit— and you can get name-brand laundry detergent faster.

Also, can I just take a moment to point out how awesome Zach’s website is. Not only is it the perfect example of how fun and weird the Internet can be and having a mixture of fascinating and curious content, it’s also available via dat:// for those of you who’ve got some love for the datbaseiverse.

Finding Lena Forsen, the Patron Saint of JPEGs

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Lena, then and now

Every morning, Lena Forsen wakes up beneath a brass-trimmed wooden mantel clock dedicated to “The First Lady of the Internet.”

It was presented to her more than two decades ago by the Society for Imaging Science and Technology, in recognition of the pivotal—and altogether unexpected—role she played in shaping the digital world as we know it.

Among some computer engineers, Lena is a mythic figure, a mononym on par with Woz or Zuck. Whether or not you know her face, you’ve used the technology it helped create; practically every photo you’ve ever taken, every website you’ve ever visited, every meme you’ve ever shared owes some small debt to Lena. Yet today, as a 67-year-old retiree living in her native Sweden, she remains a little mystified by her own fame. “I’m just surprised that it never ends,” she told me recently.

While I’m not sure that it’s fair to say that Lena “remained a mystery” until now – the article itself identifies several events she’s attended in her capacity of “first lady of the Internet” – but this is still a great article about a picture that you might have seen but never understood the significance of nor the person in front of the lens. Oh, and it’s pronounced “lee-na”; did you know?

RFC-20

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The choice of this encoding has made ASCII-compatible standards the language that computers use to communicate to this day.

Even casual internet users have probably encountered a URL with “%20” in it where there logically ought to be a space character. If we look at this RFC we see this:

   Column/Row  Symbol      Name

   2/0         SP          Space (Normally Non-Printing)

Hey would you look at that! Column 2, row 0 (2,0; 20!) is what stands for “space”. When you see that “%20”, it’s because of this RFC, which exists because of some bureaucratic decisions made in the 1950s and 1960s.

Darius Kazemi is reading a single RFC every day throughout 2019 and writing up his understanding as to the content and importance of each. It’s good reading if you’re “into” RFCs and it’s probably pretty interesting if you’re just a casual Internet historian.

Prime and Punishment

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For sellers, Amazon is a quasi-state. They rely on its infrastructure — its warehouses, shipping network, financial systems, and portal to millions of customers — and pay taxes in the form of fees. They also live in terror of its rules, which often change and are harshly enforced.

…the only way back from suspension is to “confess and repent,” she says, even if you don’t think you’ve done anything wrong. “Amazon doesn’t like to see finger-pointing.”

Suppose you have a competitor on Amazon Marketplace. Based on this article, the following strategies are pretty much fair game and are likely to result in immediate suspension of your competitor’s account:

  1. Posting fake reviews favouring your competitor’s products, then reporting your competitor for manipulating reviews.
  2. Making a copyright claim against your competitor’s username, even though you’d never used it before.
  3. Buying your competitor’s product, setting fire to it, photographing it, and claiming that it did that by itself and is thus unsafe for sale.

Amazon don’t like controversy, so they always side against the seller. A great illustration as to why it’s dangerous when we let companies (like Amazon) have the power of judiciaries without the responsibilities of democracies.

We’ve Always Hated Girls Online: A Wayback Machine Investigation

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We’ve Always Hated Girls Online: A Wayback Machine Investigation by Julianne Aguilar (Longreads)

Julianne Aguilar | Longreads | February 2018 | 14 minutes (2,894 words)
Once upon a time, in 1999, when the internet was small, when it came through your phone and not just on your phone, when the first browser war had not yet been won, when you had to teach yourself a few lines of code if you want…

Once upon a time, in 1999, when the internet was small, when it came through your phone and not just on your phone, when the first browser war had not yet been won, when you had to teach yourself a few lines of code if you wanted to exist online, when the idea of broadcasting your real name for anyone to see was unthinkable — in those early days, before Twitter revolutions, before Facebook Live homicides, when the internet was small and most people didn’t understand it, and only the nerds hung out there even then, it was already happening.

Even then, people hated girls on the internet.

I Have a Confession to Make

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That goober you see above is me as a nerdy high school kid in my bedroom in 1998, being interviewed on TV for a dumb website I made. Allow me to explain.

20 years ago this month, an episode of the TV show Ally McBeal featured a strange animated baby dancing the cha-cha in a vision experienced by the show’s titular character. It immediately became an unlikely pop culture sensation, and by the tail end of the 90s you couldn’t pass a mall t-shirt kiosk or a Spencer’s Gifts without seeing corny merchandise for The Dancing Baby, or “Oogachaka Baby” as it was sometimes known. This child of the Uncanny Valley was an offensively banal phenomenon: It had no depth, no meaning, no commentary, no narrative. It was just a dumb video loop from the internet, something your nerdiest co-worker would have emailed you for a ten-second chuckle. We know these frivolous bite-sized jokes as memes now, and they’re wildly pervasive in popular culture. You can get every type of Grumpy Cat merchandise imaginable, for example, despite the property being nothing more than a photo of a cranky-looking feline with some added text. We know what memes are in 2018 but in 1997, we didn’t. The breathtaking stupidity of The Dancing Baby’s popularity was a strange development with online origins that had no cultural precedent. It’s a cringe-worthy thing to look back on, appropriately relegated to the dumpster of regrettable 90s fads. But I have a confession to make: The Dancing Baby was kinda my fault.

Internet memes of the 1990s were a very different beast to those you see today. A combination of the slow connection speeds, lower population of “netizens” (can you believe we used to call ourselves that), and the fact that many of the things we take for granted today were then cutting-edge or experimental technologies like animated GIFs or web pages with music means that memes spread more-slowly and lived for longer. Whereas today a meme can be born and die in the fraction of a heartbeat that it takes for you to discover them, the memes of 1990s grew gradually and truly organically: there was not yet any market for attempting to “manufacture” a meme. If if you were thoroughly plugged-in to Net culture, by the time you discovered a new meme it could be weeks or months old and still thriving, and spin-off memes (like the dozens of sites that followed the theme of the Hampster Dance) almost existed to pay homage to the originals, rather than in an effort to supplant them.

I’m aware that meme culture predates the dancing baby, and I had the privilege of seeing it foster on e.g. newsgroups beforehand. But the early Web provided a fascinating breeding ground for a new kind of meme: one that brushed up against mainstream culture and helped to put the Internet onto more people’s mental maps: consider the media reaction to the appearance of the Dancing Baby on Ally McBeal. So as much as you might want to wrap your hands around the throat of the greasy teenager in the picture, above, I think that in a way we should be thanking him for his admittedly-accidental work in helping bring geek culture into the sight of popular culture.

And I’m not just saying that because I, too, spent the latter half of the 1990s putting things online that I ought to by right have been embarassed by in hindsight. ;-)

The death of the internet

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hen I was very young, before I was on the internet — even before the internet was really a thing you could “go on” — I would dial into BBSs (bulletin board systems). BBSs were kind of like private, micro-internets that people set up in their houses. You had to use a dial-up modem to connect to them, and the people who were in charge of these networks (usually just some random technology enthusiast) could shut them off or boot you at any time. I got booted a lot when I was kid, because I was curious and annoying and all the things I am today but way less savvy about it. Once a guy who ran a BBS called my house to complain to my mother that her son had been snooping around in places he wasn’t supposed to go — I don’t remember what I was after, but I’m sure he had a very good reason to be angry.

Here’s why I mention this: What I was doing online, in a virtual space, had real-world repercussions. It was real. What I was doing was real. That guy who complained about me was real. And I realize now that I never treated or experienced the internet like some other thing — as if the physical world were “real” and what happened on the internet was something less. That was where my real life was. That’s where I was, as a person.

The internet was the most real thing to me that I’d ever had in my life, before my wife and my daughter; my job, my house, my things. Its existence helped to form the basis of my worldview, my politics, my obsessions. It gave me tools to talk and create in ways that would have been impossible in another age. But it was never not reality. I wish the rest of the world had always seen it this way…

Enabling IPv6 Support in nginx

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This is going to be a really short post, but for someone it could save an hour of life.

So, you’ve nothing to do and you’ve decided to play around with IPv6 or maybe you’re happened to be an administrator of a web service that needs to support IPv6 connectivity and you need to make your nginx server work nicely with this protocol.

First thing you need to do is to enable IPv6 in nginx by recompiling it with --with-ipv6 configure option and reinstalling it. If you use some pre-built package, check if your nginx already has this key enabled by running nginx -V.

The Web began dying in 2014, here’s how

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Before the year 2014, there were many people using Google, Facebook, and Amazon. Today, there are still many people using services from those three tech giants (respectively, GOOG, FB, AMZN). Not much has changed, and quite literally the user interface and features on those sites has remained mostly untouched. However, the underlying dynamics of power on the Web have drastically changed, and those three companies are at the center of a fundamental transformation of the Web.

It looks like nothing changed since 2014, but GOOG and FB now have direct influence over 70%+ of internet traffic.

Internet activity itself hasn’t slowed down. It maintains a steady growth, both in amount of users and amount of websites…

For the love of god, not everything is about cats

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Earlier this week, the Spanish government raided the Barcelona office of the PuntCat Foundation, the company that administers the .cat domain, and arrested one of its senior executives.

PuntCat means “dot cat” in Catalan, the language spoken in the Catalonian region of Spain as well as places in France, Andorra, and Italy. The office was raided because Catalonia hopes to hold a referendum on October 1 to decide if it should secede from Spain, and in an effort to quash the referendum, the government of Spain ordered puntCat to “block all .cat domain names that may contain any kind of information about the forthcoming independence referendum,” according to a press release from the foundation.

This is an astonishing attempt at censorship by a member of the E.U. but, unfortunately, that aspect is going largely uncovered because the media is idiotically obsessed with cats…

Theresa May to launch wide-ranging internet regulation and security changes despite not winning majority

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Theresa May looks set to launch wide-ranging internet regulation and plans to fundamentally change how technology works despite not having won a majority.

In the speech in which she committed to keep governing despite calls to stand down, the prime minister made reference to extending powers for the security services. Those powers – which include regulation of the internet and forcing internet companies to let spies read everyone’s private communications – were a key part of the Conservative campaign, which failed to score a majority in the House of Commons.

In the speech, given in Downing Street after losing her majority but still looking to form a government, she laid out a series of plans that she hopes to carry out at what she called a “critical time for our country”…