Category Archives: Internet history

Douglas Engelbart (1925-2013) – inventor of interactive computing

Douglas Engelbart has died at the age of 88.

New York Times obit from John Markoff:

Douglas C. Engelbart, a visionary scientist whose singular epiphany in 1950 about technology’s potential to expand human intelligence led to a host of inventions — among them the computer mouse — that became the basis for both the Internet and the modern personal computer, died on Tuesday at his home in Atherton, Calif. He was 88.

Engelbart was known for this 1968 (!) demo of interactive computing:

The story goes that while in World War II stationed on an island he read the Vannevar Bush work “As We May Think“, and it became the foundation for his work.


The internet as a moving target (and it’s hard to hit a moving target)

From Tracy LaQuey, 1994:

Remember, the Internet is a moving target. Computer names change. Sites disappear. What works today may not work tomorrow. 

Pursuing this phrase where it also shows up:

“Learning about Internet culture is like learning a new language. Immersion is the most important approach – but immersion in cyberspace has its seductive side. There is always something new: there are new developments related to the Internet, whether technological, social, cultural, or political. Studying the Internet did indeed feel like shooting a moving target. …To be sure, the Internet changes daily. But that does not mean what happened yesterday is meaningless today, for every little development in the past becomes part of the present. …Seen in this way, no research of the Internet can be outdated.”

And illustrating just how resilient an organzation can be in the face of opposition, Wikileaks as a moving target (from Renesys), 2010:

Second, it's apparent that search and social infrastructure (Google and Twitter) now play a key role in re-spawning content that gets blocked in any one place, and drawing even more attention to the surviving copies. If suppressed content automatically goes viral, the Internet's construction basically guarantees that that content will have a home for the rest of time. If you attack DNS support, people will tweet raw IP addresses. If you take down the BGP routes to web content, people will put up more mirrors, or switch to overlay networks to distribute the data. You can't burn down theLibrary of Alexandria any more— it will respawn in someone's basement in Stockholm, or Denver, or Beijing.



My career in food service

As published in the Association for Computing Machinery’s Risks Digest, v4 n30, 1986:

 Fast-Food Computing


Tue, 16 Dec 86 16:15:04 EST

I must have been in the cycle early for McDonald's
fast-food intelligent man-machine systems, according to
Guthery's law:
>     In an evolving man-machine system, the man will get
>     dumber faster than the machine gets smarter.
McDonald's fast food computers (i.e., cash registers)
collect all sorts of data on the individual employee at
the counter and on all counter sales as a whole.  They also
do not have a <no sale> key that opens up the cash
register, probably to prevent theft.  That made it real hard to fix a
mistake without calling a manager to get a key to open the drawer.
Solution?  Well, the people I worked with at McD's had been
around thesystem long enough to figure out how to get around
it.  Without getting into too many details of why things were
as they were, the easiest way to open the drawer without a
manager was to ring up a sale that gave away a
tub of barbecue sauce for McNuggets and nothing else.
(Hit <promo> <barbecue> <promo> <total> .)
Of course, that messed up the daily statistics some.
Edward Vielmetti, Ex-McDonalds employee, Computing Center
Microgroup, U. Mich.


Alas, poor delicious, you knew us well

The scuttlebutt is that delicious is going to be axed by Yahoo. 

Once upon a time, I bookmarked everything interesting that came across my path to delicious (back when it was  It was part of my routine, and a daily summary was posted through to this blog.

Delicious was from the tags era of the Internet, where in addition to noting that a thing existed you could add your own tags to describe it. Sometimes these were straightforward tags, like the 1533 pages I marked as "annarbor". Others were idiosyncratic, like the 5 pages I marked as "attention-to-irrelevant-details".

There are other, better ways to bookmark things so that lots of people see them. The facebook "like" button gets more page views without consuming any cognitive overhead about how to tag, whether to tag, and what you've tagged before. Actually writing about something is quite a bit better than just bookmarking it, because you get to be yourself for a little while and not just an automaton forwarding on links automatically.

Every bookmark I ever did on delicious, up until now, is archived for posterity here: . As I review it, there really should have been more of them marked "attention to irrelevant details". It's hours of reading, though some of it goes by fast because the site that was linked to has disappeared, leaving only the bookmark and whatever clipping I managed to care about.

edit: now with more cognitive overhead

more delicious:

Les Orchard, Let a million bookmarks bloom. "Use the web. Host your own, pay for it, or find someone who values your data."

Stephen Hood, We can save Delicious, but probably not in the way you think. "The Delicious user community could organize to save the data themselves via a coordinated harvesting project." 

Edward Vielmetti is

Borrowed nostalgia for the unremembered 90s at Slate

Slate's Farhad Manjoo wonders what the fuss was all about of the Internet of 1996:

I started thinking about the Web of yesteryear after I got an e-mail from an idly curious Slatecolleague: What did people do online back whenSlate launched, he wondered? After plunging into the Internet Archive and talking to several people who were watching the Web closely back then, I've got an answer: not very much.

Once you get past the "oh ha ha dancing cats" attitude of the article, you discover that the preserved online record of the World Wide Web circa 1996 is incomplete (at least as seen via the Internet Archive) and there's really not that much to explain why people were interested in it.  That's true especially if you constrain your view only to things that you can find now that were web based:

Some of Yahoo's 1996-era front pages have been saved in the Internet Archive. What's interesting about them is what they lack. First, no e-mail: The first webmail site, Hotmail,launched in July of 1996. There was no instant-messaging software; the first big IM client, ICQ, hit the Web early in 1997.

This would be sad if it were true, but it's not true.

Email has been around for a long time (since 1975 or so), and in 1996 companies like Netcom were selling dial-up Internet connections just as fast as they could install modems to serve the demand.  Netcom's NetCruiser software was state of the art, and it had wide support for the popular stuff of the day:

NetCruiser for the Mac will include support for GIF and JPEG image formats and drag-and-drop support. NetCruiser also includes access to the Web, email, Usenet newsgroups, Internet Relay Chat (IRC), Gopher, ftp, and Telnet.

If Slate can't remember what the net was like back when it was doubling every six months, that's a reflection of the poor physical record that the virtual world has left behind.

More discussion at Techmeme