BB #40: Down the Tubes

tubesLast week Vinton “Vint” Cerf was the guest on The Colbert Report. The elegant Mr. Cerf is one of the two acknowledged fathers of the internet (the other is Bob Kahn). Among other things, those two invented the TCP/IP protocol that allows all internet communication.

Briefly, the need to connect different computers together goes back to the 1960s. Researchers in the 1970s sought to create a network for government (especially military) and academic computing (the ARPANET). The 1980s saw the birth of the internet — the first “dot-com” name was registered in 1985. And only six years later, in 1991, the “interweb” began!

It got me thinking back to those early text-based days before “the web”…

Vint Cerf the Architect

Many people have noticed an unusual similarity between “The Architect” and the sartorial Mr. Cerf. One wonders if it’s even coincidence!

 There was a time when a 256-color GIF was impressive and a JPEG (with over 16 million) was awesome. There was a time when those things were new! (Specifically, GIFs first came out in 1987, and JPEGs not until 1992.)

In the very early days, way back in the pre-historic 1980s, there were no images at all.

Essentially, we were all sending each other text messages and comments, although the software then supported longer entries than the texts and Tweets of today.

Even comment boxes tend to be small (although recently some of them can be re-sized). Email still allows longer communication, but many people today use their phones, which is just as bad as a tiny comment box.

[This is one of my concerns — that the modern internet doesn’t lend itself to long or nuanced thinking. And that is a capability I sense people are losing.]

Amazing what you can do with just four colors!

It is amazing what you can do with just a four-color palette!

If sending and receiving images was a future feature, even the computer’s ability to create images locally was crude then.

Very early PC systems had extremely limited palettes. High-end image generation used 256 colors. There was also the crappy 16 colors and the revolting four. The first Macintosh was black and white!

Which all sets up that — from the very beginning — computer programmers have used computers to play games.

But the very first computer games had no images of any kind, and even later games had very crude ones. It’s only in the last decade or so that game graphics have really come into their own.

My first exposure to computer games came back in the mid-1970s.

An engineer, Vince, I knew played a Medieval simulation game not unlike some of the “Sim” games of today.  Vince would input information about his society and the computer would advance the simulation accordingly.

Various random factors obtained: there could be severe weather or wars or whatnot. The computer would spit out the new state of the society and Vince would figure out the next round.

punch cards!

It’s heart-breaking when you’re carrying your card stack to the computer center and you drop them and the wind scatters them!

The thing was, Vince’s input had to be entered on punched cards and submitted as one of the big mainframe computer’s tasks.

This was the 1970s, the decade before the personal computer came out. All we had then was “big iron” (mainframe computers) in “glass houses” (special climate-controlled computer rooms).

The turn-around time on a single round of play was usually 24 hours!

For one thing, Vince’s game was pretty low priority, since he was using the University’s mainframe — the one charged with doing all the University’s business! The fastest Vince could play was one round per day!

That’s almost like playing chess by mail.

When personal computers came around, a common type of game was a “text adventure.”

The most famous of the early ones is, perhaps, one called Zork (which, in fact, predates PCs). Another was Colossal Cave Adventure, from whence comes the immortal line, “You are in a maze of twisty little passages, all alike.”

Zork-1 The thing about these games was that you typed commands (East or Pick up axe or Hit ogre with axe) and the game responded.

And, of course, unlike video games, time wasn’t really a factor. You could go eat lunch between moves.

Sometimes I see the interweb as a kind of giant text adventure.

We type commands into our computers (or phones) and we get a response from the “system.” (Trolls very much treat the interweb as a game!)

And we can pretend to be anyone we want: adventurer, explorer, pirate, merchant, teacher or storyteller.


Didn’t George Carlin have a bit about things going down the tubes? He wanted to know where were these “tubes” everyone was talking about!

(Obviously the expression means “going down the drain,” and I believe that bit comes from the “Angry George” period when he sometimes didn’t make complete sense.)

George Carlin

I wonder what George would have thought about how things are going these days!

And while the expression is oft-mocked, comparing the internet to a series of tubes isn’t all that far off the mark.

There are the actual physical communication paths (in fiber, copper and microwave) that can be considered “tubes.”

There are also the virtual connections formed between computers that can be considered “information tubes.”

I’ve been going through some old files and seeing the names of friends from those early days of networking.

Forgotten names in forgotten files. Time marches on.

But we sure had fun in those days when the internet was the domain of geeks and nerds.  Then the rest of the world showed up, and the place really went to hell.

It’s perhaps ironic that our interstate highway system was created to enable military mobility, and our internet was created to enable military communication. War continues to be a technology and progress driver.

Chaos, in general, seems involved with dynamic systems, which is why I preferred the Shadows to the Vorlons.

Astute and observant readers may chuckle when I mention that the gap of days was due to not being able to find a decent “D” and it wasn’t until I saw Cerf on Colbert that something clicked.

About Wyrd Smythe

The canonical fool on the hill watching the sunset and the rotation of the planet and thinking what he imagines are large thoughts. View all posts by Wyrd Smythe

19 responses to “BB #40: Down the Tubes

  • Wyrd Smythe

    For a taste of Mr. Cerf’s views about the internet, read his 2002 RFC 3271:

    For a taste of his sense of humor, here’s a poem he wrote about the birth of the internet:

  • E.D.

    cool! My husband’s thing though, so I am going to post this right to him. He will so enjoy it. Thanks so much, for even I relate to much of what you say. (jpgs and jiffs) – are part of my life and they have been so for a long time now.. eve

    • Wyrd Smythe

      And don’t forget “pee-en-gees”! (And I see you know the correct pronunciation for GIF! 😀 )

      Were you around for the GIF wars? When Unisys got all legal and patent-y about the compression algorithm GIF files used, so any software that created GIF files needed a license from those bean-counting [expletive deleted], [expletive deleted], [expletive deleted]s. The copyright ran out a while back, I believe, so now it’s a moot point, but at the time it created a huge anti-GIF movement and spawned a new — explicitly open-licensed — standard, the PNG!

      One of the after-effects for me is that I still avoid using GIFs as much as possible! XD

  • E.D.

    also notice your’s is not reblogged! So I will ask my husband to reblog your post here. He will enjoy reading it I know, so he will be happy to reblog. It needs a second time aroung. You really do offer some good reading material in your posts. eve

  • reocochran

    This is a note to say that I am excited about the Cleveland Indians games against Detroit Tigers… We are heading your way, soon! Smiles and so sorry, I will have to come back to read this and others I missed. I spent an hour on the phone straightening things out with 2 of my 9 bills I mailed from the US Post Office on July 2nd, in Westlake, Ohio, that did not reach the intended places, even as of today! I mailed them out to reach by the 15th! Yikes! No one wants to trace them, since they did not ‘clear’ the bank… Take it easy and hope you had a great weekend! Robin

    • Wyrd Smythe

      In fact we’re hosting the Indians tonight and for the next two days here at Target Field. I’m really hoping you guys a brief (three days would perfect 🙂 ) slump. Then you can go back to winning.

      Come on, please? We really need the wins! We’re in last place!!

      Bummer about the bills! I hate late fees!! 😦

    • Wyrd Smythe

      Well, Twins beat the Indians last night. We’ll see how they do tonight and tomorrow PM. (But, hooray, the Twins won, so I can order half-off on a Papa John’s tonight! 😀 )

  • reocochran

    You can gloat and maybe have your 3 days of perfection if we can still return to winning afterwards!! I was ‘bummed’ when we thought, no offense, that it would be an ‘easy win,’ last night!
    I appreciate your sympathy about the bills, I will keep a buffer in my account for any sudden appearances, luckily, the two bills were from companies that felt I was an upstanding citizen and deleted late fees! Yeah!
    I read this post, for which I am glad, since I do think that computers connecting is a good thing. I think it is interesting that it is more complicated than I thought, with the different ‘crude’ beginnings where things literally had to be punched in. Wow!
    I am sure that my Dad would have loved your technical knowledge, since he was rather interestingly ‘unsure’ when it came to computer usage. He made lots of notes on cards, in large, dark marker writing. Not sure why but I think he was still inputting data at NASA, the long way, typing on a typewriter. Most of his technical reports are all piled into a big tub, in the trunk of my car now going on 2 years since my Mom moved into her apartment. My brothers say when they get time, they will help me sort these out…
    I liked how you did explain this in fairly understandable language for this ‘lay person!’ Smiles, Robin

    • Wyrd Smythe

      I’m glad you got the late fees removed! That’s great!!

      Sadly, the Indians pounded us pretty good last night. The third game (the “rubber” match) is about to start as I write this. At this point, it’s just not looking very good for the Twins, but who knows. Still two months of baseball left. I suppose Detroit AND Cleveland AND Kansas City AND Chicago could all do a fade, but it’s looking more like another last-place season for us. 😦

      My dad was probably even worse than yours with regard to computers. Both my mom and dad were convinced they could never understand any of it, and so they seemed to have a mental block against learning. I know exactly what you mean about making notes. I’m pretty sure my dad’s were never of much help… there has to be some basic understanding to even make sense of your own notes, and it was all “black magic” to him.

  • moi

    I think I still have a disc indoors of 20 text based adventures including the Zork series. I remember back on my Spectrum 48k I had a game of The Hobbit and I think it used a 16 colour palette (maybe 4) and the lines graphics took ages to draw. I found this, wow, memories haha.

    • Wyrd Smythe

      Heh, yeah the good old days! We used to spend more than an hour waiting for a program called FRACTINT.EXE to draw a single image of the Mandelbrot fractal. The weird thing was that, as computers got faster and faster, it still took Windows forever to boot!

      I’ve got some old disks, too. My favorite game back then was one, called Descent (flying a little ship shooting robots infected with an alien virus). But I’d have to revive my old 133 Pentium just to have a machine with an actual disk drive to play it. (I do still have my multi-button joy stick, though, so it’s possible I could play it again!)

      • moi

        I think my first “real” machine was a 133 Pentium if memory services, I bought it because I wanted to play sim city.

        I’ve had a speccy 48k, Commodore 64 and Commodore Amiga (both the 500 and the 1200) crazy times with those, they were pure gaming machines for me.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        I remember the Commodore 64 (and the 128) with a great deal of fondness. Dungeons of Castle Creep (IIRC) was the game my buddy and I spent hours mastering. I go back to the days of punch cards, and through work had access to the earliest PCs (look, Ma, no hard drive; just 5.25″ floppies!) and the original Mac. Back in the day I had a Timex Sinclar Z80… yikes, talk about crude. Saved BASIC programs to cassette tape! 😀

        It’s amazing how far it’s come. Dick Tracy’s wrist communicators are here! (I want one of those flying trash cans, though.)

      • moi

        haha, flying anything would be good. I remember the Z80 with the little silver keyboard thingy, wasnt it like a 1k machine or something like that?

        Punchcards are not something I am familiar with though. well I have seem them but never used them.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        Yep, 1K onboard memory. I bought the 16K expansion module, so I had “tons” of space. 😀

        I still have some of my very first BASIC programs… stored on punched paper tape that was the input/output method of the old Teletype Model 33s. I go waaaaay back!

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