[dot] plan


On the quick stupid recent things front I’ve finally gotten round to streamlined the process involved in updating my .plan.project files, using a Slack Bot thing of course.

Way way back in the day when you’d log into your work or university’s mainframe from a terminal you could use the who command to see who else was logged into the same system as you. The command would generally list the active users, how long they’d been active (or inactive) and which terminal number they were logged in at. If you got real fancy you’d have a script that drew an ASCII location map of terminals so you’d be able to track down whoever you needed to change the ribbon on the dot-matrix printer (again).

This is all fine until you need to talk to someone in another department who’s is using a different server, and you’re not sure if they’re around, busy or not. Unless you could log onto the server they were using to run who you’d have to use a phone… or even walk over to a different building and actually look for them.

Yuck.

The finger program was created to look up people logged into different remote systems, to quote Wikipedia...

Lee Earnest named his program after the idea that people would run their fingers down the who list to find what they were looking for.
The term “finger” had, in the 1970s, a connotation of “is a snitch”: this made “finger” a good reminder/mnemonic to the semantic of the UNIX finger command

…I still can’t bring myself to speak the command out loud in polite conversation.

You could run the command finger @serverX.someuniversity.edu to see who was currently logged into that server, and finger username@serverX.someuniversity.edu to get more information about a specific user. Very much an early form of “presence information" a way of being aware of other people on remote systems.

This is roughly when I joined the world of networked computers, the times of FTP, Archie, Gopher, Jughead & Veronica, ytalk and yes finger.plan files.

The .plan file was a simple text file that lived in a user’s ~home directory on the unix system which the user could update with their latest activity. This along with the contents of the .project file would be included with the usual response to a finger request. By keeping your .plan file dated people could find out what you were up-to, in turn you could keep track of them, even if they lived half-way around the world in a different timezone.

Of course this ended up extended beyond humans. Famously students at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) got tired of walking down to the end of the corridor only to find out the Coke machine was out of Coke. They wired it up-to the network where it kept it’s own .plan file updated with Coke can levels and a quick finger coke@cs.cmu.edu would tell you if it was worth going to fetch one or if disappointment lay ahead.

You could check the Coke levels from anywhere in the world, and many people did. Soon more Coke Machines around the world joined in, and (kinda) a coffee pot.

Pretty sure it was my own first interaction with an internet connected machine, or now I guess an auto-status-updating bot.

Plan files also briefly turned into a hybrid status/blogging system, popularised by John Carmack at Id Software around 1999–2003. He and other members of the team would put progress updates for the game Quake and general chit-chat into their .plan files. Users and websites would keep track of updates with the finger command, here’s a great example of Carmack’s protoblogging…

http://www.bluesnews.com/cgi-bin/finger.pl?id=1&time=19991103041516

…awww yeah, check out that hot cgi-bin action.

Coming back round to me…

Plan files were good, in the same way as livejournal, web rings and email were, they got things done but if you wanted to find out what I was up-to? Well you had to put some effort into it.

Things are much better now, with twitter you don’t have to go to any effort, what I’ve just been doing pops right up in real-time. No-one is going to finger revdancatt@revdancatt.com just to find out what I had for breakfast, but with twitter… well yay, you just know.

So smooth, frictionless.

But I can see myself wanting to be part of Twitter less and less. I’ve taken my photos off Flickr and self host ‘cause of ‘The Fear’, I already deleted Facebook way back because I wasn’t keen on how they operated. Reddit I never did have an account, I’m sure most of it is lovely, but I don’t want to be part of something that doesn’t do anything much about the parts that aren’t. Twitter feels like it’s going in that direction.

I need something that fits in somewhere between twitter and blogging (I guess “microblogging” fits the bill), something that I can easily control and I’ve always had a soft spot for the old dot plan file. I’ve been updating my .plan.project files on and off for a while now. More, I have an archive of the old ones. One problem, SSHing into my server, popping open vi and editing them…

So unsmooth, unfrictionless.

I guess that’s should just be ‘friction’ huh, anyway, it wasn’t happening because it was a PITA. But now, one evening’s hacking later I can update my .plan.project files from Slack. The path away from Twitter is clear. Not a single person will ever find out what I’m doing using the finger command (hello ~tilde.club), but it’s not for that, it’s for me 10 years into the future.

I’m becoming a digital hermit, I keep my own writing, photos, status updates (and soon video and audio) on my own website, where soon finger, gopher and RSS will be the only way to find me.

It’s strangely refreshing.

Although ironically I’m going to be tweeting about this being posted to Medium. Because I’m an idiot who still deep down wants an audience.

This post was originally posted over on revdancatt.com

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