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Date: 09/06/11

Wot I Dunned On Mi Burfday...

...By Teh Jugde, Age 7².

I don't know how I cope with all this excitement.


Ten Years On(Line)

Today marks not only my forty-ninth birthday, but also the tenth anniversary of getting my first PC and becoming tangled up in that world-wide web of wonders and witlessness known as The Internet.

It might seem curious that - having been a system administrator in what I am (for safety's sake) now obliged to refer to simply as The Employer for about three years by the summer of 2001, the only computer I had ever owned was a Sinclair Spectrum +2A with a mighty 128K of RAM. The thing was, having spent my entire working day grappling with the various failings of The Employer's computer systems (not to mention the far more intricate and amusing failings of the users of those systems), the last thing I felt that I wanted was to spend my evenings and weekends having possibly to cope with the same issues in my own lovely home.

It was only after my brother bought his first PC at the tail end of 1999 that I started to reconsider a little but, being extra-cautious by nature (a characteristic which is not without its serious drawbacks), I delayed and delayed and delayed. So much so that it was the late Spring of '01 before I decided to take the plunge.

Considering word-of-mouth to be your only man when it comes to cast-iron recommendations as to the provision of goods and services, I followed my brother's advice when it came to choosing who should have my custom for such a substantial purchase. So it was that one Saturday morning at the beginning of June we headed down to Eaglecom Computers, which is where he had bought his machine from.

When we got to the former St Martins airfield to the north-east of Oswestry which was where Eaglecom was based, we found that it wasn't based there any more. A note on the door of the workshop said that the company had moved into Oswestry itself. So off we went, slightly hampered by the fact that neither of us had any real idea of where in the town Smithfield Road was. We ended up parking rather a long way away from it, when it turned out that there was a sizeable car park just across the road.

I think I'd sorted out basically what I wanted by that time, although I don't remember how I reached my conclusions now. I didn't go in with a list of specifications; I was willing just to be guided by the shop's owner. I do recall that when he suggested a system running Windows 98 Second Edition, I had a moment of doubt and asked whether it would be possible to have a system running Windows NT (yes, I know now) as that was what I was used to at work. He said that it would, but that NT was only really useful for its enhanced security features and that there was hardly any software for it. He also simply didn't trust Windows 2000 (XP hadn't been released yet). I yielded and 98 it was. I wrote out the cheque (for 960 - the biggest single purchase I had ever made in my life) and arranged to call back the following Saturday to pick up the finished product.

The big day duly arrived (my thirty-ninth birthday as well - sheesh, that looks like ancient history now), so off we trolled back to Oswestry, picked up all the kit and headed home. Having dropped it all off, it was off to Argos in town, because I needed a desk to put all of this equipment on. There were other things I needed too. I don't remember if I bought anything else, but I certainly bought five boxes of ten floppy disks. Having got all that home, it was time to assemble the desk. All seemed to be going well at the start until we found that some of the holes weren't lining up as they ought. It was then that we realised that we'd put the baseboard upside down. We corrected our mistake, and I was left to connect everything up.

Tower unit, monitor, printer, scanner (the printer was connected in series with the scanner - advanced, huh?), speakers, keyboard, mouse. Power connected, on-board modem connected. Switch on!

I think I watched the system boot up with a combination of excitement and trepidation, as being a sysadmin had led me to understand at least half of the ways in which a PC can go wrong.

Finally, I was at the desktop, a sea of greeny-blue with a light scattering of icons, further Outlook unsettled. I played around with things for a bit, and then launched myself onto the Net.

I was able to do this straight away thanks to my friend and fellow sysadmin Carl, who had given me a CD which he'd had from his Internet Service Provider. No, don't worry, this isn't going to be a tale of How I Signed Up With AOL And Lost My Mind. Carl was with a company which at that time was called LineOne. I loaded the disk, followed the prompts and, within a few minutes, had Sold My Soul To The Browser. And I've been a slave ever since.

It's difficult to comprehend or explain today just how different things were in 2001. For a start, note that a couple of paragraphs ago I made reference to a curious artefact called a modem. Do you remember the days of dialup? The scritching and quacking of establishing a connection, the little green icon in the system tray blinking away? Oh, how quaint! 'Quaint' was hardly the word I used even then to describe the experience of waiting for a page full of graphics to download via a 56K connection. 'Slow torture' might be nearer to it.

As for streaming media, well when I tell you (or remind you) that the most popular application for that task way back in the when was Real Player, you might get some idea of how amazingly primitive things were. Small size, low quality pictures and - with such limited bandwidth - a highly uncertain and unsatisfactory experience was almost guaranteed. Hence the rueful chuckle I emitted when I first saw this photo:

Sign outside of Real Networks' office to which someone has stuck a sheet of paper which reads 'Buffering'

But I was online! I was connected! The world (or at least the low-graphics version of it) was mine! Or it was for part of the time, at least. You see, not only did the vast majority of us cybernauts have to endure sub-glacial downloading speeds, those of us who were with LineOne paid our monthly subscription solely to be able to access this boon between 18:00 and 06:00 Monday to Friday, and from 18:00 Friday to 06:00 Monday. Any access outside those times had to be paid for at an extra 1p per minute. On top of this, LineOne kicked you off after three hours, obliging you to reconnect. All these things taken together, the downloading of, for instance, a large program update, or a video file was problematic to say the least. It was no wonder that many of us searched frantically for a download manager which would enable us to establish a number of connections to the server we were trying to download from so that we had a chance of getting anywhere very much.

And of course, dialup meant that your voice phone line was tied up the whole time you were online. This wasn't always a bad thing, however; it meant that you were saved from the worst of that modern-day plague, the telephone salesbeing.

A colleague had lent me his copy of The Rough Guide To The Internet, as useful a map to the wildscape of the bit-jungle as ever saw daylight. Through this, I discovered many useful sites (some of which I use regularly to this day), and discovered Usenet.

Usenet is regarded as terribly old-hat now (unless you're trying to download porn, or so we're informed by our Betters who seem to know rather more than they would care to admit), but in the times before the spread of forum software, it was the way to communicate with people with whom one felt a community of interest. I remember being subscribed to about seventeen newsgroups at one time (I've got it down to seven now, and I'm not sure of the point sticking with one or two of those much longer to be honest), and one thing I found out early on is that - just like with members of your own family - it teaches you to be broad-minded. For it used to be (some of its wilder shores may well still be) where the trolls and flamers were to be found in abundance. I remember one (on soc.culture.welsh if I recall correctly) who was insistent that he had successfully recreated a language he called Cumbric, which had been spoken in the north of England prior to the coming of all those bloody Germans. There had been a Celtic language spoken in those areas at that time, certainly (which has left its mark on, for instance, the way that Pennine shepherds enumerate their sheep), but this character's 'reconstruction' was literally unbelievable. Nonetheless, he refused to be gainsaid and rambled merrily on.

One place I did find a home was alt.fan.pratchett, a newsgroup consisting of the great writer's readers, but where the topics of discussion were far broader than just the books and the subjects touched upon in them. After a few months 'lurking' (that is to say, reading the group without contributing), I finally plunged into posting on 21 October 2001. I've been there ever since, and have great difficulty imagining my daily life without it and its other 'denizens'.

Things haven't always run smoothly on the technology front, however. After a couple of months, I suddenly found that I couldn't get online anymore. The modem was dialling, LineOne was responding and logging me in, but no data transfer was taking place. I had to call Eaglecom, and the guy who'd sold me the PC suggested I bring it in. Which I did, and then me and my brother went for a walk around Oswestry for an hour while he set to sorting it out.

When we returned (having discovered that there is scarcely enough in Oswestry to hold one's interest for five minutes, let alone a whole hour), he and his obnoxious boy assistant were staring into the doings, and the boss was muttering, "That's weird...That's really weird." In the end, even having replaced the modem, he said that a clean reinstall was the only likely solution. What this meant was that everything that had been on the hard drive was lost. This at least taught me at a fortuitously early stage the value of doing backups. I've sedulously backed up my data files on the last day of every month since.

Time went on. LineOne was taken over by the dreaded Tiscali. I began to get increasingly frustrated by the slow speeds.

Then, in the spring of 2003 we were told that our exchange was about to be enabled for broadband. Wow! A whole, stonking 1Mbps of download speed!. I didn't want to stay with Tiscali; their refusal to admit when something was wrong was, to say the least, irksome.

So I looked around a bit, and initially decided I would go with a company called VultureISP, which was connected with the online tech magazine The Register. Unfortunately, their upstream ISP went tits-up and they shut down before I could sign up. I looked around a bit more and found PlusNet, which seemed to have a good word-of-keyboard reputation. I remember that one thing which I found attractive was that if something went wrong they seemed very quick to admit that it had happened.

So, I signed up. Or, rather, I applied for a credit card, something which I'd managed to avoid doing up to that point. But I needed a card in order to sign up to PlusNet. Luckily, I've never really been in debt except for when I was at Uni (where everyone was, so it didn't matter), so I was accepted and I joined PlusNet straight away. Once the ADSL modem had arrived and my phone line had been enabled, I joined the Information Superhighway™, rather than having to stick to the Information Drovers' Track I had been on up to that point.

What a difference! Well, several differences in fact. For one thing, I was paying for access 24/7, so no extra charges; for another, it meant that I could download large files without having to worry whether I was going to succeed before I ran out of time; and faster speeds meant that you could see more, hear more, get more done.

Another difference was that my account came with 250MB of web space. I toyed with the idea of having my own site for a while, and decided to join all the other egomaniacs shouting into the void. The result is before your very eyes, as it has been for eight years now.

Joy wasn't entirely unalloyed, however. An ADSL connection meant that my phone line was now freed up for the aforementioned infestation of cold-callers. I registered with the Telephone Preference Service straight away, but that has not stopped my being pestered by the bastards (particularly annoying are the automated calls which come from another jurisdiction. I now have a simple rule: if I don't hear a voice within two seconds of picking up the receiver, I hang up; if it really is that important, I figure that they'll call back).

The other down side (if it is) is that I have spent an inordinate amount of the last ten years - particularly the last eight - sitting at this PC (the November 2007 successor to the Eaglecom rig) rather than doing anything which the po-faced might consider 'worthwhile'. However, I see this as a minor disadvantage if one at all.

Because I cannot imagine that I would have been able to find out so much about the world and what is really going on in it without this huge resource literally at my fingertips. Instead of being reliant solely on the agenda being peddled at any given moment by those who previously controlled the sole means of disseminating news - governments, corporations and the dangerous combination of the two - the Web gives me the opportunity to get different viewpoints, from those who are excluded from the ideological bill of fare which the Old Media wishes me to believe is not only all there is, but all there ever possibly could be.

True, one has to learn discernment when deciding what to believe, and I am no different to anyone else in tending towards explanations which in some way bolster what I believed or what I suspected in the first case; but I take it as axiomatic that the more viewpoints you can have access to, the better informed in general you are likely to be.

It can all be quite dispiriting, of course; even dangerously so as those of you who have followed this blog during the course of the last few months may witness. The more you can delve, the more you do delve, and discovering the ever more ingenious ways in which Man (or at least his manifestations in power) can be inhuman to Man can lead to a leaden cynicism. But at the same time, you can gain insight into acts of great collective or individual courage and conscience which raises your hopes that humankind can ultimately triumph over the brutality of the prevailing political and economic winds.

Which is why, of course, both governments and corporations - forces which are increasingly intertwined in a politico-economic 69 - are desperately keen to assume control of the Web for their own purposes. In pursuance of those ends, they will claim the right of control on a variety of pretexts which - whilst pleasing to Old Media and the forces of curtain-twitching reaction alike - fall apart like soggy bog-roll when you examine them in any depth, be they the supposed threat from whatever is defined as 'terrorism' at any given point, via spurious claims to be defending the 'rights' of 'content providers', right up (or down) to the catch-all manufactured panic of "Will no-one fink of der kiddies?".

And which is why we must always be vigilant against any moves to curtail our right to communicate with each other and to distribute information and opinion. I can think of little more depressing than the prospect of the most remarkable means of communication ever devised by technology being restricted to the same base levels as its predecessors; to that which those with money, power and influence will permit and for their own ends only.

I have been greatly enriched by it over the last ten years, and I hope that I and all of you will continue to be.