Deep in the redwood forest

Around 9 pm (Australian Eastern Daylight Saving Time) last New Year’s Eve, I rang Andrew Pam of Xanadu Australia21 who had returned from the U.S. the day before, to see if he had any suggestions of things to look out for on my trip. He made it clear that I really should try to catch up with Samuel Latt Epstein who has been at the centre of the development of the integrated Web-MOO technology of The Sprawl and some related MOOs.22 I logged back onto the Net intending to dig up Sam’s contact details to find that the first of only two new e-mail messages was a moo-cows posting from sle@sensemedia.net, so I adjusted my tack and e-mailed him my travel plans. I soon received a reply, which was written after 3 am on New Year’s Eve in California:

Within hours Joe Selvaggi and I were on a plane to Sydney and from there to San Francisco. After sleeping off the worst of the trip, I picked up the January 2 issue of MicroTimes at Computer Literacy Bookshop and drove up to Concord to meet with Diversity University MOO Wizard23 ‘Richelieu’. Next day I found best.com—a shop front selling Internet Access in Mountain View (having already driven past one in Palo Alto a couple of times without even seeing its prominent signage) from where I was able to telnet to ariel.ucs.unimelb.edu.au to clear my e-mail. Despite that success, I decided it was time to revert to telephone directory assistance to contact Sam. From the start of that conversation, it was obvious that Joe’s preparations for setting up an Australian Internet access and host service would also benefit greatly from a joint meeting with Sam, so I accepted his suggestion that we visit for dinner on the last night before we were to fly home, and I took down directions to Sam’s house in the heart of the redwood forest north of Santa Cruz.

With Macworld Expo over and reviewed, Joe and I started the next Monday early with a Los Altos meeting with Electronic Information Technologies who are heading the development of one key approach to secure financial transaction processing over the Internet. From there, we headed back down Silicon Valley to see Internet service providers, again getting a warm welcome from best.com, called at Netscape which that very day had moved into new Mountain View offices and met with its international business development manager, discovered that the first book on how to operate an Internet service provider business had sold out at all Computer Literacy bookstores during the previous few days, and headed over the mountains on Highway 17 in the worsening rain and wind.

My lasting image of best.com is of large, unfinished sheets of construction ply onto which were mounted row after row of identical 28.8 kilobaud modems, each linking one of the dozens of standard telephone plugs low on the wall to a corresponding cable that went into best’s server—a Sun computer. Two other ribbon-like cables went out through the ceiling to redundantly connect best to two larger but still relatively local hubs of the Internet24—the almost mystical T1 links which carry the first level of aggregation of ISDN traffic at 1.5 megabaud. Driving deeper into the redwood forest, Joe predicted that there would not be a T1 into Sam’s house. The jackets and ties we accepted as mandatory for Silicon Valley business calls needed to be discarded before we could start to feel comfortable in Sam’s very attractive yet strictly informal residence cum place of business, but we soon learned that Joe was wrong about a T1, although a redundant link had not yet been justified with Santa Cruz being just as dependent on a single trunk link to the Internet across the coast range formed here by the San Andreas fault line, as is Australia via AARNet’s single link across the Pacific. Sam had used his construction ply to construct a “shippable” container about twice as big as a coffin, within which an array of modems appeared to almost sit free in space, kept apart by solid looking rubber tubes. He was pursuing his own strategies to guarantee his customers service through redundancy, ever mindful of the devastation to his previous accommodations even nearer the epicentre of Loma Prieta in 1989.

For hours discussion ranged from technical and market issues to be considered by an Internet service provider through to Sensemedia’s combination of Web and MOO to form WOO—a multi-protocol server developed in the MOO programming language which, amongst other things, responds to Web clients in exactly the same way as a standard HTTP server. The WOO development also provides for HTML-encoded pages to be compiled (translated) into WOO data structures, which in turn have been designed both for fast serving and to be Xanadu compliant.25 Sam had first met Ted Nelson in the mid-1970s and had quickly become one of Ted’s close disciples, picking up U.S. marketing rights to Xanadu, while staying at arm’s length from the development efforts of the Xanadu Operating Company. I recognised Sensemedia’s efforts as representing a further convergence of ‘interactive multimedia’ (IMM) and ‘computer mediated-communications’ (CMC)—fields which Peter Sandery and I had recognised in our recent work to be, from an educational perspective, two of the major products of the widely recognised convergence of computers and communications.

After all enjoying dinner at a Santa Cruz Indian restaurant, Joe and I had to return to Palo Alto but found the entrance to Highway 17 blocked off because it was now “up to your shoulders in mud” and were redirected to Route 9 which winds its way much deeper into the redwoods after passing Sam’s before finally emerging at Saritoga—a spectacular trip on a sunny day, but rather challenging on a very wet and windy night. Along the way, Joe asked me to go over again what was unique about Sam’s project. After several slow miles of recounting the basis of MOO, how Sam’s group have used it to develop a qualitatively different kind of Web server, and on to the new reality of people constructing and owning their rooms-cum-pages which they can pay or charge others to visit. When I finally ran out of words, Joe observed that WOO “is Projection Encounter”.