Why anachronauts.club?

I had some ideas and they all rolled into one thing and now I have a pubnix. If you’re already on Gemini, then precisely none of this will be new to you. I have two goals here:

I’ll start with some history: how I experienced the Internet over the past 15 years. I will try and keep it brief. I will fail miserably.

Web 2.0

I started playing with Web stuff in maybe 2001, 2002. The latest HTML standard was 4.0, and you could learn it from a printout of Dave Raggett's HTML tutorial (which is still online! Check it out).

“Getting Started with HTML” by Dave Raggett

Yeah, we wrote HTML by hand, like cavepeople. Maybe we added some JavaScript later. It was great. Let’s skip ahead to 2004 or 2005 or so. Web 2.0. I think Web 2.0 was, at heart, not a terrible idea. Interactive documents are a neat idea, as is stuff like RSS/Atom, and machine-parseable information. Things were still very much organized around HTML pages, styled with CSS, and enhanced with JavaScript. You might generate HTML server-side, and send it over with AJAX, if you’re super cutting-edge. Wikis and blogs were exciting and new, and it was genuinely an okay experience. It wasn’t as log-in-and-go as Facebook is, but you could get started easily. You generally got content in the order it was published, rather than having it filtered and rearranged. Around 2009, I got into IRC. Also, Skype chats. I was a regular on the Tcler’s Wiki, which was a super supportive and friendly environment! IRC is as well, but that’s because I’m careful about picking chatrooms.

The Tcler’s Wiki

I managed to get a shell account around that time, so I could run a “ZNC bouncer”, which kept you connected to IRC even while your computer was off and forwarded messages you missed to you. The account was with Shellium, which gave you a free shell account with two TCP ports if you could get three existing members to vouch for you. You accomplished this by being helpful in the IRC chatroom. These were formative experiences for me. Web development was something you didn’t really need special tools for, and you could find small communities where you could get to know people.

Cancer

I dropped out of the scene during college, because I was a maths major, and I had other things to do. I ended up going into back-end development. 2015. Rant mode: engage. The new hotness was static sites, because Web development became a nightmare, a cancerous growth of bad abstractions and ethical morasses. Like Tetsuo in Akira. Facebook and Twitter started using The Algorithm instead of just fucking showing you what your friends are saying in the order that they said it. Political polarization flared. People created languages that compiled to JavaScript, because JavaScript was terrible and nobody wanted to write JavaScript, but you had to because Java applets were dead, Flash was almost dead, and both of those things were security catastrophes. JavaScript was marginally less of a security catastrophe, driven by the Chrome and Firefox teams. Facebook is evil. Google is evil now too. Being on the Web is scientifically proven to be damaging to your mental health, which Facebook actively experiments on. Also, they’re selling all of your information to advertisers, your insurance company, and anyone else who will give them a nickel or two. People in bars keep trying to talk to me about Bitcoin when they hear I’m a computer person. People with business degrees and no programming ability show up to hackathons trying to get a prototype for their startup idea made for free. I go to a computer music hackathon and it happens there too. (The computer music hackathon was otherwise quite good, though I failed to make anything due to equipment failure. I’d like to try going again once COVID is over. Hit me up if you’re interested.)

Monthly Music Hackathon NYC

Gemini

It’s January 22nd, 2021. Stuff has happened, which is an understatement, but anything I’m capable of writing would be an understatement, so I may as well go for broke. The upshot is that we’ve all spent way too much time on the Internet, because the alternative being either a hermit, or a character in the Masque of the Red Death. Late last year, the SSD on my laptop suddenly died, finally driving home the importance of actually setting up one’s backup server, so I was in the process of doing that. Having gotten it working, I figured, hey, maybe I’ll try this Gemini thing I keep hearing about. If we take a dialectical approach, and the modern Web, in its JavaScript-laden, GPU-hogging, data-mining, world-eating glory is the thesis, and the c. 2017 Gopher revival is the antithesis, then the introduction in 2019 of Gemini is, perhaps, an attempt at synthesis. An attempt to apply almost three decades worth of lessons learned to a protocol that all but died two and a half decades ago. As much of the good parts and as few of the bad parts as possible, while heading off the kinds of features that made the web go wrong. (Spoilers: I don’t think Gemini is a successful synthesis.) Gopher is an Internet document-retrieval system which was released to the public in 1991, created by a group at the University of Minnesota. It supported lists of links (“directories”), which could be to either files or other lists of links. The files were usually plain text. It rapidly became popular among the kind of people who were interested in retrieving plain-text documents over the Internet in 1991.

Gopher on Wikipedia

HTTP, the HyperText Transfer Protocol, is an Internet document-retrieval system which was released to the public in 1991, created by Sir Tim Berners-Lee at CERN. While it could be used to retrieve any kind of file, it was created primarily to retrieve documents written in companion language HTML, the HyperText Markup Language. Hypertext was based around the idea that instead of browsing a list of documents you might want to read, documents would instead of parts of their text designated as “anchors”, which would “link” to other documents. Author mentioned something interesting you want to know more about? Why look, the place were they mention it is underlined! Just click on it, and you’ll be whisked away to view another document all about it! HTTP+HTML (a.k.a. the World Wide Web, or the Web) ate Gopher’s lunch, largely in 1993 when the Gopher server started costing money, and Web browsers learned to display images inside documents. Images inside documents! Then audio, video, interactive elements… slowly the Web evolved into an application programming platform, built on the bones of a document-retrieval platform.

World Wide Web on Wikipedia

Gemini is an Internet document-retrieval system which was released to the public in 2019, created by Solderpunk, in response to perceived deficiencies in both Gopher and the modern Web. While it can be used to retrieve any kind of file, it was created primarily to retrieve documents written in “gemtext”. Gemtext isn’t quite hypertext; like HTML and unlike Gopher, it easily supports having both text and links in the same document, but like Gopher and unlike HTML, they have to be on their own lines…

Project Gemini
Solderpunk

…like so. It also natively supports encryption (the Web had it added, and explaining the encryption situation for Gopher would take too long), but doesn’t really support embedded images or media in documents, as it tries to keep a one-to-one correspondence between users making a request and the browser making a request. Some Gemini browsers, like Lagrange, will display linked images and audio inline, but only if you click on the link.

Lagrange

Gemini has, as you may have noticed, not eaten anyone’s lunch, and doesn’t intend to. It has some shortcomings; I do find myself missing inline links (unlikely to change), the story around how TLS certificates works is kind of broken (likely to change, fingers crossed), I definitely find myself missing inline tables (how am I supposed to write TTRPG material!?), and the spec is very much unfinished.

Gemini Specification
“Your Gemini Browser and Server are Probably Doing Certificates Wrong” by ew0k/bjorn
“RE ew0k: …” by Michael Lazar (response to previous)

I think all that (especially the lack of embedded media) will sink Gemini as a synthesis, but that’s fine. A niche community which seems to be really nice has built up around it, and that’s what I am more interested in. Smaller communities seem to work better.

The Smol Web

Nostalgia is a seductive emotion, but I think the online experience really was better in some ways in the past. I also think that we have some modern tools that are really neat. One day I hope we’ll have the emotional and technological tools to build large communities which work as well as small ones do. Not thinking about any of that, I’d been browsing Gemini looking for TTRPG stuff a couple days before, and as I mentioned, I figured I slap a Gemini server onto my backups machine, just to play around. It was nice. AT&T did horrible things to my connections. Maybe I can host this online? I guess I need a VPS. But even a $5 DigitalOcean VPS is kind of overkill for this— A few ideas knotted themselves together in my head.

I asked some friends if they wanted shell access, and half-explained the half-formed idea I was having. They made at least vaguely-interested noises.

<sage>    it'd be cool to set up a tilde site
          dedicated to useless/un-comercializable [sic]
          technology/art/retro-electronics
<sage>    Like jeff65, a bunch of the stuff
          [~fr4gmentedidol] does, weird music, etc.
<wbarlow> oh that’d be neat, were you looking for
          .tld feedback?
<wbarlow> because anachronauts dot club is kinda
          cool

So I fired up a VPS, and installed FreeBSD—because my last job involved administrating a multi-user Linux system, and I wanted to try something different—created some accounts, then promptly hosed the server by doing something dumb. I started over, and took my time this time, as I had had a bunch of ideas in the meantime. Nethack? Classic! Or, wait, maybe Dungeon Crawl: Stone Soup? Hmm, MUSHes are neat, I’ve always wanted to play with those more, maybe they’d be good for something D&D-like… oooh, local UNIX mail! Mailing lists? Hmm. Chat server? Actually, I think the MUSH could serve for that… Writing this article, I realize my ideas are very nostalgia-flavored. What I want is something that’s fun and maybe even an improvement, not a reactionary pursuit of an ideal that never was. So now I just need to invite some people to help me—but first I should finish getting mailing lists working— I’m not doing anything other people aren’t already working on, but I want to join in, and build a community. Something cosy and friendly. Something I can invite people to with a clear conscience. There are so many more things I could say, but this is already way too long.

Okay, but: why anachronauts.club?

Why not? ~sage 2021-01-30: Original post 2021-02-05: Revised for length. Hopefully still makes sense.

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Certificate Not Before 2021-01-26 04:17:33 +0000 UTC
Certificate Not After 2026-01-26 04:17:33 +0000 UTC