Psychotronic BBS, "Local," FidoNet & XRS
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Durham, NC: Mid 80s
Psychotronic, huh?Easy enough to talk about the influence of Nietzsche or H.L. Mencken on your life, even if someone doesn't like their books the authors are protected by legitimacy. But I should never forget Michael Weldon. I spent hours making notes from the first volume of The Psychotronic Encyclopedia of Film. Aside from reviving my fondness for trashy movies it gave my BBS its name.
Computer addictMy first PC was a used TRS-80. By the time I got it CP/M was on its deathbed. A year or two later I saved my money at for $1000 bought an XT clone After that I'd build my own and for some years that followed devoted too much time to playing with software and hardware.
A 1200 bps modem the first thing I put inside a computer. At $12.50 an hour I spent too much time on CompuServe. Luckily I discovered computer bulletin boards. Like most people I wanted to download software. Why I thought I needed all those utilities escapes me. I remember downloading each issue's latest PC Magazine utility. (To this day I check to see what they've written.) Now I can't remember what they did. I'd load my 20 Meg hard disk up. Once playing with one of the utilities I accidentally issued a command to delete ever file including command.com. One way to get rid of the trash.
Hobbyist bulletin boardsBut back to bulletin boards. What were they? Sort of one many online services. A guy would setup a computer or few and allow you to dial in and use his computer to download files or leave messages. Some people chatted. I never cottoned to talking via keyboard. It seemed slow and downright baffling if they guy lived in the same town. It felt safe I guess, even if as you often did you knew the other person's real name, the phone line insulated you.
There was an steadily increasing variety of BBS software. RBBS and Wildcat were favored by most of the SysOps, as the people who ran the BBS's were called. Most of the callers used their real names. While some people left messages in the forums, most people called to download files.
WWIV - World War IV - boards seems cultish. Most of the callers used handles: slave93, mrmean and the like. They were very popular with teenagers and were the most likely to have hidden file areas with porn and cracked games. Game crackers were a bit crazy. There was huge competition to be the first with a cracked game (one you could run without knowing the password that came with the manual).
My friend Craig Castelaz decided to start a BBS. Why? Inflamed whim perhaps.
I'm sure I thought that I could in some way do it better than the other Durham SysOps.
My favorite BBS, Geneal Board, used RBBS and it was free for the download, an easy choice. RBBS was good for uploading and downloading software but had a lousy social interface.
Please stand by for a little tediumAfter a flirtation with something called QuickBBS (quick and turbo were popular for software back then) I settled down to a BBS program unhappily called RemoteAccess. Then is getting dull. Ever restless I later switched to a more costly program called PCBoard.
The software offered countless possibilities for tweaking, many modules could be added. Thankfully I don't know how many hours I spent working on Psychotronic BBS.
SysOps frequently complained that people only called to download software, no one ever left messages in the forums. Considering how unsocial I am it was weird that I took this as a challenge (and hence the software changes).
FidoNet (and usenet)FidoNet, younger than the internet but older than the web was once called "the garage band internet." Started by Tom Jennings, an idealistic gay man in San Francisco, FidoNet was a way for computer bulletin boards to exchange messages. Few people had access to email back then. You could use BBS to send the FidoNet equivalent: netmail. I'm not sure how many folks who use the web even know about
usenett (too many). Usenet began here at Duke University. Usenet newsgroups are worldwide discussions via the Internet. They range from alt.frisbee to soc.subculture.bondage-bdsm. FidoNet's equivalent was the "echo" (I guess because the messages sort of 'echoed' from one BBS to the next.) The echoes continue on usenet.
I joined FidoNet and added it to Psychotronic BBS. Since bulletin boards used telephones if one person spent much time online reading it would keep others off. Luckily Mike Ratledge invented XRS, a program that would grab all the messages that might be of interest you, zip them into a file for you to download and read offline.
XRS defined Psychotronic BBS. Plenty of folks called, some from out of state, others from out of the US. I was tickled.
Stand against the inarticulateI wrote long and whimsical introductory text that a new caller had to read. They bullied and cajoled him to post something. Almost anything. You couldn't ask for files. But you could write about about them in a more discursive way. Didn't have to be long. But it couldn't be a cheap attempt to bypass my requirements.
Most folks read this and hung up. They new what they wanted and it wasn't this. They wanted file compression utilities (this was when the big war was fought on BBSs that brought us Zip files, an epic struggle that would surely bore you to tears and is doubtlessly covered somewhere else). Or GIF viewers. GIFs were the most common types of pictures, dirty or of cute kittens staring at the sun rise. Or all manner of dull but useful programs you could evaluate and then pay the author if you liked it (or like the majority use them and never pay for them).
Weirdly enough people would send me long cranky messages demanding that I register them. They'd devote more words to begging and complaining than they would've to if they'd simply posted the required message. This should've forewarned me when I got on the web and found how few people could or would compose an email instead of chat.
I'd be there watching them log on and quickly log off. Some would try to leave a message. But you could tell they'd been hitting [ENTER to continue] quickly as their fingers could go. Their message would be "I'm lookin' for WAREZ, d00ds!" (Warez is slang for pirated commercial software. Downloaded a few megs of it myself.)
LocalMiraculously Local itself thrived. I was lucky that some people who liked to type and were intelligent and funny (sounds like a personal ad) became regulars. The core group caused other folks to settle in as regulars. They'd have parties (which I would never attend). And they helped me quite a bit financially as I continued to expand the BBS (which was eventually three computers).
I didn't post much myself. I spent endless hours at the command line diddling with the software and tweaking oddball proprietary hardware. I always built my PCs from scratch. Ran IBM's failed OS/2 operating system. Tried a pre-1.0 linux kernel. Very much the computer junkie. There's enough of this left that I skim sights like Slashnot ("News for Nerds") and ZDNet. If I weren't broke I'd rush out to buy Windows & Office XP. I don't need them. I'd just have the urge. Actually I'd probably be running linux but I like to keep my home computer compatible with the shop's PCs.
Two things led to Psychotronic BBS' demise. Most importantly even with their help the system was costing me money in long distance bills (more expensive then) and mere maintenance. And the web had begun to flourish. I could tell that bulletin boards would fade. Seemed wise to leave before becoming a relic.
And with my RSI and venous stasis, it was time to get away from the keyboard.
Where are they now?David Sanders has a weblog. Ken Kuzenski remembers Psychotronic in a short page. A quick check of Google shows a few undying archives that have somehow made it onto the web.
I run into some of the regulars now and then. Some of them chat on an email list.
Psychotronic BBS went offline in 1997.