Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Is This Something?

{tl;dr:  I was given some old BBS session logs and I scanned them.  Link in the third-to-last paragraph.}

People give me things.  I've built reputations in certain circles as everything from hoarder to pack rat to collector to amateur historian and, I hope, someone who cares about history, even if the narrow section of it I ended up fascinated with is understood by few and of interest to even fewer.

So someone gave me something.  It was a few years ago now when I was setting up the purchase of some old computer hardware and, as often happens, there was some "oh and I found this" and "I don't know if you'd be interested but..." and of course, I took it all.

Some pretty good scores in that lot, all now safely occupying their respective positions in the "fix me" queue.  But one item was not from one of the usual hardware, software or manual categories.  An add-on bonus from the one facilitating the sale, presented to me as "old BBS logs."  A name was mentioned but sailed by me, unrecognized.  Well, alright.  There's got to be something interesting in there - what did people spend valuable dot-matrix ink and paper on back then? Session dumps from some obscure Commodore board, nostalgia-triggering sign-on screens, maybe even some G-files that haven't been seen by human eyes since the 80s?

It was none of those.

I accepted a large blue binder of form-feed dot-matrix printouts at VCFMW two years ago, collected some months earlier and passed to me for its owner by a friend in town for the show.  It was stowed away, unexamined, in the same boxes as the hardware takings it accompanied and...forgotten.  Fast-forward to last November during one of many box-shiftings and re-stackings in the new home.  Always re-optimizing, real-world defrag, to make just a bit more space and hold collapse at bay.  The binder emerges and is opened for the first time.


I think this is something.  To Google, then.

8BBS was an early bulletin board system, running custom software (also called "8BBS") written by two DEC employees in the Bay Area ("Silicon Valley") near San Francisco.  It ran on a DEC PDP-8/e minicomputer with 32K of core memory and a pair of RK05J (1.5MB) removable disk packs for storage.  The software was written in PAL-8 assembly and BASIC and ran under OS/8.  Dial-up access was initially provided by a 300-baud modem, with a 1200-baud upgrade coming later.   Some say that that modem would prove to be the board's undoing.

The BBS scene was in its infancy in 1980; it had been barely two years since CBBS went online, right here in my area.  Disk space wasn't cheap and people were people, then as now, so most boards had some sort of moderation policy to keep things in line.  Not so with 8BBS: the system's founders chose a "zero censorship" approach to moderation, not just in the name of free speech but for the sake of convenience - it takes work to moderate.  So when "anything goes," everything often does, and the 8BBS message base was quickly buzzing with traffic from a number of talented hackers, phreaks and other elements of the "computer underground," some of whom we may recognize today.  More on those names later.

8BBS ran for about two years until the system became an early target of law enforcement's growing awareness of computer crime.  The 1200-baud modem "upgrade" the sysops received was purchased with a stolen credit card by a third party, providing the grounds for a raid and confiscation of the BBS hardware and storage media.  When the equipment was finally returned by the local police department, the disk packs had been damaged.  That was the end of 8BBS.

The 8BBS software used a simple sequential numbering system for messages.  The first post was Message 1 and all subsequent posts, public or private, were assigned numbers from the same sequence.  If a number was missing from public posts, it could be assumed that that message was an "RP," or private message to another user.  Public message number 6930 was posted on March 5th, 1981 by a user named Steve Kudlak.  Message 9975 was posted on Jun 28th, 1981 by a John Wood.

Those messages, and all public messages between them, were on the print-outs in the blue binder.

This is the point where some (most) will perhaps raise an eyebrow or nod respectfully, saying "huh, kinda cool I guess."   It's OK - I'm intrigued by some fairly obscure topics and I've accepted it.  But there had to be someone else out there with whom I could share the thrill of this discovery.  And equally important, the question always asked when one has acquired a rare document of any kind, "is it already out there?"  I was prepared to be satisfied with having an interesting original of unknown provenance, should I consult Google and find The Complete 8BBS Collection neatly scanned and indexed alongside Phrack and old 2600s.  But I found no sign of it.

I had just begun reading Phil Lapsley's excellent history of phone phreaking, Exploding the Phone, so his name was fresh in my mind.  I found his contact email and dropped him a note, sharing my discovery with the hope that he may be able to tell me more.  Phil had not seen the messages in my binder but he did know of another stack of 8BBS printouts that he was given by the journalists John Markoff and Katie Hafner after they had completed their book Cyberpunk, which drew on the logs to tell the story of early 1980s hackers, many of whom used 8BBS to communicate.  Within days he had located, scanned and sent the logs to me.  Although his printouts skipped around quite a bit, they contained Message number 2, giving a rundown of the board's hardware and Message number 3, which appears to have been periodically updated with the 8BBS software revisions.  Remarkably, the final message of the main lot was number 6931, an almost perfect match to my set's starting message of 6930.

Neither Phil or I knew where our sets originally came from but the shape of these two pieces do suggest that they came from the same puzzle.  Phil's set includes session dumps with logins and the composing of messages by the user Roscoe Dupran, a pseudonym of someone whose real identity is known.  Perhaps he's out there somewhere and can help...?

There actually are some 8BBS messages posted online, although only a few.  They were found here at a site belonging to Curtis Spangler, whose name also appears in the printouts I have.  Some messages are also found in Phil's collection and some are unique.

If you've read this far, you deserve some sort of pay-off.  I have scanned all of the print-outs I was given, cleaned them up to give OCR a fighting chance of making sense of them and compiled all the 8BBS messages available - Phil Lapsley's scans, my scans and the Flying Snail messages - into one PDF file here.  The OCR was, unsurprisingly, given the dot-matrix print and rough life some of the pages have had, not all that accurate.  There is other software out there besides Acrobat, I know, and others are invited to improve upon my results with their favorite tools and techniques.

The collection totals 600 pages, some of which contain multiple messages while some messages span multiple pages.  I have used the PDF format's bookmarking to delineate the three sources of the scans.  At some point I hope to add message numbers to the bookmarks but that will be quite a job.  Exporting the OCR'd (and corrected) text to an interactive web page is another idea.  Sometime sooner I intend to create a list of user names found in the archive and some research on those I find notable.  There are quite a few that stand out.  Whose do you recognize?  Maybe even your own?

It is my hope that those interested in BBS and hacker history, as well as the culture of vintage computing in general, will benefit from reading these messages.  I think they provide a fascinating - and intriguingly cryptic - look at a world and time when the number of private "online" users could be counted in the hundreds and the budding "elite" numbered in the low double-digits.  It's a time, place and set of conditions we'll never see again and I'm honored to help tell the tale.  Enjoy.

Many thanks to Phil Lapsley, Katie Hafner and John Markoff for their assistance and advice and just answering their email from a random Internet crank.