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Reflecting on a Quarter Century Online

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Tagged As: Blog, History, Internet, and Musing

This morning while driving to work, I decided to take a walk down memory lane to figure out how far back my experience with the Internet really went. Although not the Internet itself, I pegged the beginning for me in 1992. Sure, the Internet is much older with the first four ARPAnet machines communicating between themselves in 1969. But I wouldn't be born for another decade and needed another decade before having the opportunity to mess around on-line. Although I did get to grow up playing MS-DOS games that booted from 5.25" floppies on my Dad's original IBM 8086XT. Remembering all of these changes and developments gave me an interesting look at how technology shaped my opportunities.

In 1992, I remember first connecting a computer to another computer in 8th grade while taking a computer science course. At the time, I was in a DoD school in Belgium (Go Brigands!) and they opted to pilot me in a Pascal via Telecommunications option through a college program back in the US. I "attended" lessons watching an instructor pre-recorded on VHS tapes for my assignments. After completing them, I went to the library, dialed up the school over a 2400bps modem, and uploaded my assignments from a 5.25" floppy. I also remember arranging with my Dad to direct dial his work computer and my school computer so that we could chat for a few minutes. That seemed so cutting edge at the time.

Back in the United States, I remember the digital hotness of 1994 was direct dial-up connections between friends over 9600bps modems in order to play both Doom and Warcraft. After years of single-player DOS games, being able to play against a friend across town seemed amazing. Of course, this always led to the family's phone line being tied up. Kids today complain about Internet lag getting them killed in game ... '90s kids remember getting getting killed because Mom picked up the phone disconnecting the the fragile modem links.

Around 1995, I discovered the fun of connecting to a BBS and browsing around files shared across the country along with playing text mode games like Legend of the Red Dragon and TradeWars with players I would never actually meet. BBS file shares were my first exposure to Shareware and repositories of "warez" amongst other things a teenage male would find interesting. Score! Of course, it was still a ridiculously slow process to download single files at a time over a 9600bps connection and not even see them until you disconnected. (Back then, I was running DOS 6.22 on a 386SX I bought used for $50 - it was not capable of running Windows95.) I also remember guessing phone numbers and discovering my local library had an unauthenticated modem connection allowing you to browse their selections and see other back-end data that probably should not have been available to the public.

I also stumbled across a book in the library that opened a new door of programming. Previously, I was disappointed when at the conclusion of computer science with linked lists that instructors stated, "that's it ... go forth and code." Curriculum back then did not show aspiring programmers how anything worked - graphics, the mouse, hardware, the operating system, games, etc. For the life of me, I cannot find it on Amazon but the title was something akin to Hardware Programming in Pascal and showed how I could directly access hardware ports, CPU registers, timing chips, the VGA controller, the BIOS, etc. Suddenly, the x86 assembly language I learned had a place to be used and I was able to write my own code to interface with my modem (and relentlessly ping my cousin's pager), adjust the refresh rate on my RAM (which on a 386SX could dramatically increase your system's responsiveness), and make a very rudimentary 3D space viewer. I also learned you could just write to Intel and they would send you detailed hardware specifications and processor programming manuals.

In 1996, my Dad called me over to "come check this out" on his computer where he left me staring at a blinking cursor on Yahoo's search page. *It was the Internet*. After more than a year of dedicated connections with BBSs, it was amazing how the Netscape browser could connect to multiple sites at once and seemingly download so much simultaneously over his faster 33.6kbps modem. I do remember staring at that prompt and wondering ... what do I search for? The very first search I ever conducted against this trove of global knowledge was - how to pick a lock. The second search I ever conducted aligned with being a teenage male. Several searches after that, I wanted to know how this Internet thing worked interleaving data and connecting sites without phone numbers. Yes, on the first day I was reading RFC 1034, RFC 1180, RFC 793, and RFC 768. What a nerd.

Now with a "need", I finally upgraded my own 386SX with Windows 3.1 and the Trumpet WINSOCK implementation. With my personal computer now connected, I installed some ancient version of WHTTPD and hosted my website directly, then called LasVegas Domain after my nickname from the tennis team. It hosted a purely static version of the International Cursing & Swearing Dictionary webpage (yes, I've technically had it on-line for 20 years now). That project began on an 8.5x11" loose leaf sheet back at the Brussels American School because middle-schoolers learn to swear in foreign languages not communicate! Aside from the webserver, I became an avid fan of connecting to EFnet and DALnet IRC networks, along with trying to install Slackware from floppy disks, and following digital miscreants to learn how viruses were written.

Attending West Point (BEAT NAVY) was my first time on a "hi-speed" LAN along with a state-of-the-art computer. Our class was provided desktops running 233Mhz Pentium IIs with 64MB of RAM on Windows NT 4. Back then, we had 4000 cadets plus all the faculty running 100baseTX connections on hubs (yes) through a shared T1. How did I know we were on hubs? Because that's when I learned how to do promiscuous mode traffic sniffing with Ethereal (now Wireshark) in order to capture all the LANMAN credentials on the network. We also taught ourselves to manually distribute the LANMAN hashes collected from SAM file dumps in order to quickly use L0phtcrack to break all of the GoldCoat passwords for every class machine. I still remember jbnjbq7 was the 2001 class password (just as Kingme! was 2000, Ucstss! was the "alternate" 2001 password, dcmicy! controlled 2002, U2chaxyzpc authenticated 2003, and A41&14a! managed 2004) we needed for getting control of our computers back from the GoldCoats. Having alternate login credentials proved to be useful later when Cadet Dean Remington's (alias) underground satire website State Of The Corps needed to be removed without network monitors being able to attribute the action during a witch hunt.

We conducted all sorts of antics back in those days. One of my first run-ins with the GoldCoats followed their discovery of a webserver I ran from my room. Each morning, I woke up and posted a summary cheat-sheet of all the knowledge a plebe needed to know - current day counts, meals, and news. They could not figure out how I managed to host the site past their firewall and had trouble grasping that changing from port 80 to 8080 was all it took. To avoid further trouble, the LasVegas Domain website moved to GeoCities and rebranded as VnutZ Domain. (This was during the phase when "DeezNutz" was a popular phrase). The millennium change was also the age of file-sharing, I recall being contacted once for being the number two bandwidth user for the entire Corps of Cadets ... to which I wondered, who was number one? We also used NT 3.51 vulnerabilities to crash upperclassmen computers when they were hazing excessively but also put together simple denial of service scripts to inundate others that were misbehaving. Learning to Telnet directly into SMTP servers to send forged email was also great fun.

Of course, with nothing to do throughout the Gloom period over the years at West Point, building computers and gaming passed most of the time. Fortunately the days of using Kali to simulate IPX networks for multiplayer gaming ended and Quake, Quake II, Team Fortress, Starcraft, and CounterStrike dominated. It was quite fun to build faster and faster computers with overclocking and bleeding edge consumer multiprocessing (remember BP6 boards for Celerons?) to handle being the multiplayer server. At one point, to cool the system when I overclocked into the 1Ghz range, I set the computer in my open window to take advantage of frigid Hudson Valley wind. My roommate's "WTF are you doing - it's f**king freezing in here?" response when he returned to see me sitting in a coat, knit hat, and gloves ended those extreme overclocking endeavors. Nevertheless, I was always trying to get a machine to run SETI@home faster and faster.

Naturally at some point the fun came to an end. In the spring of 2000, I was the subject of a Regimental Board when the GoldCoats claimed to have evidence of me hacking an external web server and installing viruses. The Army Captain provided quite a bit of dubious evidence that I debunked. Of all the things at West Point, I got in trouble finally for something I really didn't do. I even had to refute his claims that I used a portscanner to install a virus by actually coding a portscanner in C and challenging him to show me how a TCP connect against a port can install a virus. Nevertheless, while the presiding officer found my provided evidence interesting, I was found "guilty" anyway and had to serve 50 hours (25 walking and 25 sitting). My TAC Officer told me I "won" the case because I did not receive the full punishment available and no cadet is ever found not-guilty (yeah, that's how West Point rolls). I only accrued 55 total hours of punishment tours at USMA, my roommate, however, managed to become a triple century man. I later found out it was a faculty member that conducted the hack and the Academy opted to blame a plausible cadet [me] with administrative punishment rather than levy full UCMJ against the officer. So I was a fall-guy. Whatever ... we ended up winning the first ever NSA sponsored CDX for West Point.

Following West Point, my roommate and I decided to join the wireless revolution of 802.11b/g in our apartment by Fort Gordon, GA. We had one of the first models of the legendary LinkSys WRT54G and learned all the fun of war-driving for wireless signals. This later proved useful in 2005 on deployment to Iraq in order to break WEP keys and get some free Internet. Further wireless endeavors included connecting a Handspring Visor via a serial tether to an ancient Sprint PCS phone in order to use it as a 14.4kbps modem for checking email during the awful Signal OBC. Experiences like that really make one appreciate LTE speed and the all-in-one convenience of an iPhone.

After Fort Gordon, the hacking sprees largely came to an end due to having a real job to attend to. But my assignment to Korea opened my eyes to real consumer network speed. In 2002, for a mere $25 a month, I was able to get a 45Mbps DSL connection into my apartment as pretty much the standard service. It's been quite disappointing that it's taken until nearly 2015 for the United States to offer anything like that at scale and even then its an overpriced, special package. Living in Asia provided pretty immediate access to just about any piece of hardware and software a computer junkie could want. Despite fast Internet and living in a country with a dedicated StarCraft TV channel, I opted to go cold-turkey and quit video games to force myself away from the computer and go see Korea - a wise choice.

Around 2004, the OmniNerd website came to life and quickly most of my attention for the next decade focused on creating content for the site along with administering the backend while a friend handled the code. Throughout its thirteen year life, the OmniNerd server migrated from shared environments to dedicated hardware to virtualization and ran RedHat and Debian instances using PHP and eventually Ruby. Most of the original VnutZ content moved onto OmniNerd (and subsequently back to VnutZ in more recent years). Then GeoCities shutdown and VnutZ acquired it's own domain name while transitioning from static pages to Ruby. This enabled such gems as the Cursing and Swearing page to become dynamically editable where it grew from just French, German, Spanish and Turkish to more than 54 languages. Additionally, in 2007 the huge interest in the Pattern Analysis of Megamillions Lottery Numbers (then hosted on OmniNerd) led to creating the dynamically updating versions of MegaMillions and PowerBall lottery analysis hosted here today. A variety of those articles gained me small bits of fame such as an interview and credits with MythBusters for the Improve MPG article along with some quotes in various newspapers for the lottery sites whenever the jackpots were big. During this period, technology became less about the equipment and more about its integration and usage in regular living. Alas, OmniNerd finally passed away in 2016 and was deactivated to little fanfare although it had several thousand active users over the years.

I made the credits of Season 6 Episode 9

Although the first BitCoin was mined back in 2009, it took me until 2014 to finally jump on the mining bandwagon. After years of just being a common "user" again, it was really fun diving into the details of finding dedicated hardware, building faster machines, and solving cooling problems again. Throughout the next six months, I had an 10GH/s ASIC miner and four 40GH/s miners in addition to building an open-air GPU rig consuming nearly 2000W of electricity to mine Litecoins (that were sold for BitCoins). That Radeon 290X GPU machine produced so much heat I was able to never run the heat in our house for the entire winter by simply circulating the BitCoin miner's heat output with a box fan.

Looking back on the twenty-four years from 1992 until 2016, it's quite amazing how far technology and my personal use of it has come. The march from chatting with my Dad at work over a direct dialed 2400bps modem on a 16Mhz 386SX to being globally connected on my own IRC server node to now having a 1.8Ghz multicore, mobile computer that is globally connected at 12Mbps LTE speed in my pocket that can spend digital currency I "mined" at home is an amazingly quick cultural revolution.

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