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The time and place, late in 1990, at Warwick University, I was a first year student having the time of my life (though slowly developing a distaste for university level mathematics). Life was good! Not yet truly a spod I used to spend time working on the computers for the various courses I was doing, and rarely hanging around in the labs too much, and then someone introduced me to Warwick LPMud.
“This is interesting” I thought, as I spent some time wandering around with my newly chosen character, Cheeseplant. It was the first thing that popped into my mind when I had to make up a character name, some people will think that very strange, but I claim those people haven’t known me for very long. I have a tendency to be somewhat spurious in certain situations, and that word was one that often came to mind then.
I’ve always been really fascinated by multi-user computer things, so the MUD held some of my interest, but since they’re intended to be a role playing environment and some form of game, it did have its limitations in terms of keeping my interest. But it made me appear in the terminal rooms a little more regularly, and I got to know some of the personalities involved in the whole “Warwick Computing Experience” - which I believe has lessened somewhat since then.
Sometime right before the end of 1990 I met a group of Computer Scientists, the fysh, so named because they mostly inhabited a glass-walled terminal room, the fyshbowl. I rapidly made friends there by sitting behind their terminals and pulling out the serial cables from the back suddenly to “see if I could get the data to spill out onto the desk”. At this point however I wasn’t a total addict, I slept in my room not under the desks. sometime shortly after this I taught myself ‘C’.
Christmas came, we got snowed in which was an experience in and of itself. I consider the fact that I didn’t go to the terminal room when I had nothing else to do a good sign that I hadn’t started down the slippery slope to spoddom. Eventually we escaped, family life took over for the holidays, and pretty soon it was a new year and back I was.
It wasn’t too long before something significant happened, I started to spend some time on Cat Chat. This was an LPmud, which had its rooms replaced by a number of ‘Channels’, and which had its user command set reduced to just those required for communication (for the most part). This was pretty cool, the restrictions of the MUD weren’t there, and I met some cool people. I think I was further addicted by meeting someone I went to school with even though we didn’t have a clue who each other was until after we started talking.
It’s worth mentioning at this point that the people on the talker were pretty much limited to students in the UK. That’s because the university was only connected to JANET (Joint Academic NETwork). The Internet in all its glory didn’t hit Warwick until the summer of 1991.
And thus began my descent into spoddom, it started as an hour here, and an hour there, and soon I was spending every spare hour online, not just talking, but writing programs and things to amuse myself and others. Since I was a regular on Cat Chat, I got to know a few other regulars, one of whom I found myself talking to more and more and more, I’d log on late at night after going out with my friends and talk to her for hours.
An End And A beginning
One day disaster struck, in fear of an impending visit by the infamous (and as far as I can tell, completely non-existent) “JANET Police” - Cat shut his talker down and disappeared for a while. I found this distinctly depressing, since I couldn’t talk to my friend, I didn’t have her address or phone number and she didn’t have email! What was I going to do?
I have a clear image of myself sitting in my room thinking, and having an inspired thought. I got up and I walked down the corridor, stopping to say something to my friend Andrew, and headed for the Computer Science building. I was going to create a place where people could log in and talk, a place that had more character than mere channels, somewhere where you could have privacy. It was one of those pivotal moments in my life, a time of intense mental clarity and focussed motivation. I suspect I’ll never forget it.
So, having installed myself comfortably between a couple of ADM3E text terminals I began my work, I don’t remember exactly how long it took [Grim recalls I said it was about 19 hours, which probably means that’s how long I went before my brain shut down 8-)] but I do know that by the time the sun had set and just begun to rise again the very first version of Cheeseplant’s House was running. It wasn’t very complex, it wasn’t particularly elegant, but it worked. It was a far cry from the talker that people remember, but the basics were there, including the house-ness. Though the rooms were fairly bare and basic.
So I ran the embryonic talker on the port which Cat Chat used to occupy, and left myself logged in there while I worked on adding improvements. Reboots and additions were frequent and significant. On February 8th 1991, a somewhat bewildered Frodo logged into the house and expressed a deal of surprise at finding it there, he was the first of the ‘refuges’ who tried the old address and found the house. We talked a bit to catch up on what had happened since the disappearance, and he left. It wasn’t just me anymore, I had a resident.
Early CPH Life
Life as an early CPH’er wasn’t easy. I’d only run the talker when I was actually present at the lab (though it’s worth noting that was a significant portion of the time), and I was continually adding enhancements and fixing minor problems so there were frequent reboots. The user count really wasn’t all that high anyway and nobody seemed to complain TOO much. I did start running a second development version to batch enhancements once more than two or three people were on at the same time.
The initial command and feature set was still fairly limited by today’s talker standards, and the rooms still weren’t all that exciting, but it it was growing quickly, as was the user population. I began to leave it running while I wasn’t there so that people didn’t have to rely on my being there to chat to one another. They still needed me around to get residency and solve problems, but that still wasn’t too much of a problem because I was there most of the time.
Around this point I noticed that a user was logging in from a Computing Services staff machine, I commented on this to the user, and shortly after I received an email from him. He was interested in some of my code because he was working on an online help system, and had noticed that CPH managed to handle several different terminal types. I met up with him and agreed to assist with the help system, and in return he introduced me to the holy grail of telnet programmers, the Internet RFC’s.
This worked out very well for both of us, we stayed in touch which meant that when load on Warwick LASS (Local Area Switching System), the main entry point for external users into the university, began to be largely caused by users of the house, instead of taking Draconian measures and just shutting it down, we talked and implemented a strategy to limit the number of users. Similarly, when the method of access users were utilizing to get from LASS into the house was closed off, he helped by adding a JANET address which would allow users to connect to it directly.
The Computing Services administrators were also very understanding and helpful, when they noticed that the way I was storing player files was using up a lot of disk space, we discussed ways of improving it. When the house was using up a lot of CPU resources on orchid, the machine it ran upon, we discussed renicing it and code profiling. Looking back I realize how lucky I was to get this low-key unofficial support from them, it would have been ‘easy’ for them to have just come up with a “waste of resources” excuse and deal with the house by closing it.
A New Beginning
The academic year continued and drew to a close, life had its ups and downs, but through it all the house grew in its number of users and its usability. The number of rooms grew, and their descriptions improved (especially with the collaboration of Sage, an extraordinary character from Bristol). Towards exam time I was forced to cut back my spodding a little, and re-adopt standard daylight waking hours, but once exams were over I returned in full force and began working on “Version 2”.
Version 2 started quickly, but stalled once the core functionality was in place. I tried to be a little too ambitious in its design and construction, and it got lost in its own complexity. Term ended and I had to return home, leaving the house to its own devices in the meantime and with Version 2 unfinished. I had managed to get a letter of introduction from the Computing Services folks before I left, which allowed me to go to Liverpool University and get access to Warwick from there occasionally. This turned out to be a good thing because Warwick had become ‘connected to the world’ via the Internet and I had to make some modifications accordingly.
About mid-way through the holiday I returned to university for a couple of
exam re-sits. One of my first actions upon being back was to go into the
Version 2 source directory and
rm -rf *. Version 3 begun. This
was the CPH that most users ended up seeing, it had major functionality and
efficiency improvements, and a slightly nicer ‘feel’ to it. I don’t remember
if I made the changeover before I had to return home after re-sits, or if
it waited until I returned (early) for the next academic year, but it was
online at least few weeks before most of the user community returned from their
The user community grew, some regulars didn’t return, some new ones took their place. The new users brought with them ideas and problems, and the set of commands changed accordingly. Life was good in the land of CPH.
And So The End
On the afternoon of Tuesday February 4th, 1992 the administrators, under the direction of the Director of Computing Services, closed the house, they removed its access to the network port and placed a banner message indicating it had been withdrawn. I also had a nasty email from a Mark Brady, who appeared to be a system administrator from UMIST who wanted some information about what people had been saying on the house. I replied politely to his email and wondered what to do about the house.
The next day I worked on an assignment that was due in that day, I got it handed in early, and then I received a nasty reply email. Mr. Brady didn’t like email, but since he obviously was unaware that phone calls cost money, especially to a student, that was all he was going to get. I discussed this with the lead Computing Services administrator, and showed him the email, he suggested I try sending another mail. I did. I spent the rest of the day talking to my girlfriend online wondering what I should do.
On Thursday morning I arrived early to go and see the mysterious Director. He wasn’t there, so I logged in to check my email and see if I had any, mysteriously my account had been suspended! Great! So I tried my other two accounts, those two were similarly closed. Unable to do anything I wandered around aimlessly for a few minutes and ran into the Director himself. He told me nothing, but to go and see my advisor, so I did.
My advisor was extremely sympathetic, unbeknownst to me he’d checked out the house a couple of times and thought it was interesting. He explained what the “official” story was. Apparently Mr. Brady had determined that CPH was a “hotbed of hacker activity” and wanted logs of all of the conversions from there, this had two minor problems. The first was that it wasn’t a hotbed of hacker activity, and the second was that I didn’t log conversations. We went and met with the Director.
For some reason people in senior administrative positions seem to shed both their technical knowledge and their capacity for listening. I was asked how I could have allowed all of these users access to Computing Services’ ever so sacred systems. I tried to explain what a talker was and that no, it wasn’t a security hole because people weren’t running commands, they were contained within the confines of my program. After a lengthy telling off which really didn’t have any actual effect on me, we left, I would get access to my accounts back.
Upon logging in I had another nasty email from Mr. Brady, i forwarded it to my Advisor, who told me I shouldn’t reply to it. I also forwarded a copy to my friend in Computing Services, his opinion was that it was disgraceful and that he’d try and find out a bit about what really happened. I talked with him for about an hour, we didn’t get much information but at least I felt better.
It was clear that the house was gone, and was unlikely to return, there were other places to talk, so people went there, I didn’t all that much. I stopped most of my spodding and concentrated on my degree, my girlfriend, and just being myself I guess. I stayed in contact with several people via email, and I don’t know what happened to the rest, they show up from time to time now.
As for the house? I still have the code, it still runs if I want it to, but it looks dated, it’s not as flashy as the talkers of today, with their highlights and such. I don’t have any plans of running it anywhere, I think that its success was due to it being innovative, different, and new. I think that one day I may embark on the mysterious Version 4, who knows, the talker world could do with a change.
It’s also entirely possible that I made my mark and that you only get once chance at that. If that’s the case it’s okay, I think the mark I made was a good one. The culture of CPH lives on in the minds of some, and has certainly made me some of who I am today. And so, to all of the people who added their presence, input, and energy to the CPH experience, I thank you, I hope you don’t regret logging in there and that the amusing error messages would still make you smile.
By popular request, I decided to release the source code for CPH as a historical monument. Please read the README.SRC that’s included with it before asking me ANY questions about it.