Wednesday, September 26, 2007

A Few Words From Cyberspace Citizen Chuck Divine

OK, sonny, pour yourself and your great-great-great-great-great-great-grandfather Chuck a double of The Glenlivet, sit down and listen to his tales of life as a cybercitizen. Remember, you need some good alcohol to cope when newbies like young Dickie McCormick -- you know, the President of Rutgers -- come barging in without learning how cyberspace operates.

I became a cybercitizen in 1986. At the time I was on the Board (or is that Bored?) of Directors of the L5 Society. Don't know what the L5 Society was? Google it, sonny. Let's just say I was bright enough to understand the technology of orbital space colonies, bright enough to communicate the benefits of same to normal people, bright enough to lead the organization of various events and groups and dumb enough to actually think that by herding tribbles I could help get us into said space colonies in 15 years. What are tribbles? Try Google or Wikipedia, sonny.

Anyway, David Brandt-Erichsen sent out a letter to all board members telling us about a thing called the Byte Information Exchange (BIX for short). Noted SF author Jerry Pournelle had set up a conference on BIX for L5 board members. I used my brand new computer -- an AT&T PC with TWO floppy drives and 256K of memory -- to access BIX via a 1200 baud modem that was the envy of my friends who only had 300 baud modems. Since Jerry was jerryp on BIX, I picked the BIX name chuckd. It was much later that I learned there was a rapper by the name of Chuck D. C'est la vie....

Anyway, BIX was a wonderful place to discuss space politics, space technology, information technology and lots more. When I posted an essay that I wrote that had appeared in the meatspace Trenton Times, my reputation as a thoughtful writer was sealed. OK, some of the people doing the judging were a bit out there. Still, though, my stock rose enormously in cyberspace.

While on BIX, we heard stories of the fabled Internet and Usenet. Back in the 1980s they were operated by the GOVERNMENT. The discussions had to be better and more informed. Well, by the early 90s I was working at Goddard Space Flight Center (another source of funny stories, if you find making fun of the mentally ill funny) and I actually got access to the Internet and Usenet. I decided, just for practice, to take a look at Imagine my surprise when I found ignorant university undergraduates praising the 1970s version of Battlestar (or was it Cattle Car?) Galactica. That show was mediocre at best.

OK, by then I had two identities in cyberspace. There was still chuckd on BIX. There was also xrcjd at Goddard. I got my first spam as! I still remember the spams advertising millions and millions of e-mail addresses. The advertisers, though, thoughtfully removed all .edu, .mil and .gov addresses. Hmm, I thought, they weren't using their own product. Once an idiotic, sexually frigid manager accused me of using gummint computers to look at porn based on one such piece of spam. Ah, those were the days.

It was at Goddard in 1995 that I created my first website. It was to support the work of the group of which I was a part. Yes, sonny, I can write HTML at the bare metal level. Woohoo!

Later on I finally bought a more up to date PC for my home. The 1986 machine finally burned out. The new computer became my first Linux box. The machine came with no software. When I checked out the prices of software at a local store, I freaked out. A friend at Goddard, Meg Larko, acquainted me with Linux. It was FREE! And actually pretty good. OK, normal people, like newbie Dickie McCormick, couldn't have used it. But it worked pretty well for an experienced cyberspace citizen like me.

Anyway, I signed up first for Earthlink. I became Then a friend told me Earthlink was run by Scientologists. Bye bye, Earthlink, hello I became I also upgraded to a 56K modem. Boy, was that fast! I could really zip around the Internet at warp speed now! I could read and post on Slashdot -- with nearly 4 million readers. On Slashdot my identity was ChuckDivine. My karma is still excellent. My posts, especially about space exploration, garnered +5 ratings -- the highest possible. Only Cthulthu knows how many people read that crap. And, as you know, Cthulthu won't tell unless you give him a really big bribe. I don't post nearly as much there as I once did, but I do try to look at Slashdot at least once a week. This week I checked out the comments about the awful TV show "The Big Bang Theory." Slashdotters didn't like it either.

Then I got involved in AIAA. My involvement in the Baltimore Section got me to upgrade to a broadband account with Comcast. Today I'm I even have my own set of websites -- yes, sonny, websites -- on Comcast. My home page has links to most of them. Be careful, though. A couple of pages are NSFW. Oh, the character Ambassador Chuck is totally fictional. I was really stunned when some 419 actually replied to the good ambassador.

After some years of posting on various blogs like Rand Simberg's and even getting an occasional e-mail posted by Jerry Pournelle, I decided to start this blog myself. I haven't made too many waves yet, but time will tell.

I've heard of things like Facebook and Myspace, but, truthfully, they're a bit simple minded for long time cybercitizens like me. They're fine for newbies, though. Perhaps Dickie McCormick should surf on over and give them a try. I'd be glad to make comments when he does.

------------End of colloquial mode------------------------

OK, all, now I'm going to assume a more serious demeanor. I've been writing like this to give people who aren't as familiar with cyberspace a bit of a look at what the wild, wild Internet is really like. Yes, there are very corporate websites that present established organizations quite well. People do go to them to get honest information about what such organizations are intentionally doing. Rutgers has a pretty good set of websites.

When the new alumni plan, though, talks about connecting with the community via blast e-mails from President McCormick (whom I do highly respect), I wonder what they are thinking. If it's some vitally important piece of information of importance to the entire Rutgers community, that might be the way to go. But that kind of communication doesn't really connect people -- especially alumni -- to Rutgers. What might be a better approach would be to establish web fora much like Slashdot where old friends could reconnect, where former students could connect with faculty, where alumni in various geographic localities could start clubs to connect local grads together, where alumni in various subgroups could connect with each other and where ways of helping alumni from various subgroups connect with people outside their groups. That's a more organic, democratic approach which might strengthen bonds among Rutgers grads and the university.

The new plan also talks about things like a more meaningful Homecoming. Have people thought that through? I attended my first Rutgers football game not as a college student but as a guest of my father, class of 1935. My mom came along. I was just a child. When the original Rutgers Stadium was built, it could accommodate over 20,000 people. Back in 1938 when it opened, that number was a quite sizable part of the entire Rutgers family -- students, faculty, alumni and family members. Today the much larger stadium can accommodate only 40K+ people. The larger Rutgers family easily tops 1 million. What do people have in mind?

I'd be more impressed if, in this past year, the committee that produced the report had spent time contacting alumni and listening to them. I'm webmaster of the Rutgers Club of DC and just took on that role for the class of 1967. I get e-mails from alumni relations and the local clubs as well as some from clubs around the country. Before writing this piece, I searched through my old e-mails over the past year. I didn't find anything about the work of this committee.

Old alums like myself clearly aren't the entire Rutgers community. But just what did this committee do? It's not like some of us are hard to find.

A few token meetings now that the report has come out are not going to help all that much.

What thoughts do you have? Feel free to post comments here.