Over the years, I cannot be sure just how many times I have been asked about my domain name. It has been with me a very long time and, like most old things, there’s a story to go with it.
I was employed by my college’s Science Computing Facility, and it was there that I was introduced to large, multi-user, networked computers. Initially, we only had dial-up connections to the outside world and processed email via batch transfer. Our manager went all out, secured us a state grant some time in the late 1980s, and we moved into full time, real-time networking. In those days, we’re talking about dedicated 56KBps service delivered via special circuit from The Phone Company. It is so slow that you’d have trouble imagining it these days – one sixth the speed of 2G data. No problem, since there were no video or sound clips in those early days. But speed be damned, we were live 24 hours a day, no more dial tones.
This improvement to our networking also changed the way we handled email. With batch processing, everything had to be routed manually. If you were a competent site, you were set up for source routing – meaning that the sending system chose the hops (behind the scenes) that the mail message would take to get somewhere. And email addresses were encoded in “bang paths” – we used exclamation marks to separate sites along the path (me ! here ! there ! you). Once we moved into full time network connectivity, you rarely, if ever, had to do routing. That’s when you were able to use email addresses with the “@” sign in it. It seemed that everybody you were trying to reach was already out there, open for direct connectivity.
The Gold Standard back then, for mail handling, was a piece of software called sendmail. It sat contentedly in the background of your server and was responsible for almost everything you could imagine. It would send emails out (so you didn’t have to wait around) after you hit “send”. If the other side was down, it held it in a queue for you so it would not get lost. It would receive all emails that came in, and (depending upon the configuration), would either drop it in your local email box or convert it into the older “batch process” method for sites that were not powerful and/or rich enough to have access to the net. At the time, sendmail was notorious for being flexible – so flexible you needed to be a wizard to make the system run without getting tripped up in its own shoelaces. Later revisions had pseudo-custom configurations, where you could say “I want to do this” and a config file would be pieced together to do it, more or less. Much more less than more, if memory serves.
And there I was – a kid who wanted to learn how to speak “with the adults” and go to the “fun” parties that they went to. That meant growing my hair (for all wizards must have long hair) and reading the books that you were warned not to, for fear of madness. Sendmail documentation was right up there, so I read it what seemed like a million times. But, as you’d expect, reading only goes so far, and I needed a system of my own to practice on. I saved up a ton of money for the time and purchased a used AT&T 3B1 (also called a Unix PC). It seemed like a lovely idea at the time. Except… In the early days of Unix, we had a only a single, major schism to deal with. You were either BSD (from University of California, Berkeley) or you were System III/V (direct from AT&T Bell Labs). I won’t bore you with the differences or religious arguments for using one over the other. But the machine at work spoke BSD and my new home system was speaking a creaky version of Systems III, V, and a touch of BSD thrown in because, hey, why not?!? And sendmail was not going to run out of the box on my new-to-me computer. It took people much brighter than I to figure out how to get it up and running. And, bless my soul, the modifications were shared so that we all could use this tool.
I set my machine up to have dial-up connectivity to school. Truth be told, if I didn’t have admin privileges and the trust of my boss, it could never have happened. Maybe I got away with murder, but it was the best education I ever had and I will never once complain about it. Still, though, I needed a name for my computer. A name that would be mine, one that people all over the (what would become the) Internet would associate with me. Because, for important people, their email address was more impressive than business cards. Picture a world where you knew people just by their email address. That’s what I was trying to get into. I wanted to be important – not just anybody, but somebody. It was springtime 1991 and I was faced with the biggest truism on the Internet – all of the good names were taken. Of course, the big computer companies had staked out their turf (sun.com, apple.com, dec.com, compaq.com, etc). What was left over for me? I looked out the window from my home office and the decision sort of made itself.
At the time, I was living on Roosevelt Island, off the east coast of Manhattan in NYC. There were only three ways to get to the island from the mainland. You could swim the East River – probably not the wisest choice. You could drive in from Queens (Ravenswood area), but you had to park over a mile away from where you lived. The third option was to take the Roosevelt Island Tram. It left Second Avenue and 59th Street in Manhattan and, in under 5 minutes, you were on the island. That’s the way civilized people moved back and forth before the subway opened. When I peeked out of my window on that depressingly grey day, I could see the red and silver tram riding the cable track across the East River. Symbolically, that tram represented freedom and release to me. Freedom from the Brooklyn I was raised in, and release from the New York City where I was going to college, and would eventually work every day for 25 years. Freedom to learn, freedom to explore, freedom to shake off all of the uncomfortable things that I found myself wrapped in. That was my soul up there.
Life changes, of course. We move away from the places were were. People we used to know come and go like the tides. We get older and wiser – maybe more older than wiser. But some things never change. My domain name is one of them…