OM346 - Figwit

This week, Ken and John talk about:

John’s Alexa went off when Ken said ”computer” and he wants to unplug it, but they use it for diabetes medications and people will literally die if he would unplug it. There is a drop-in function and this house which has been made in the 1950s has intercoms in every room, but instead they use the Alexa. The only thing Ken uses his Alexa for is to say: ”Kids, it is time for dinner!”

Getting on the Internet in the early 1990s (OM346)

Ken has been on the Internet since late 1992. In his freshman year of college everybody got an email address at forward thinking institutions. There was no web, but suddenly you had an email address that maybe your computer science professors would use and Ken was shocked to see that he could email his family in Singapore.

In 1992 John was on drugs and he had no access to computers at all, although later he figured out that you can be on drugs and on the Internet. He had zero resources back then, not even a home and a bed. He only became aware of the World Wide Web in 1998 at which point every company already had a website for the last 3 years. In 1995 Ken was still trying to figure out why the web existed. He understood email and newsgroups where you could get together and talk about X-Files, Twin Peaks, or The Sandman comics.

It was a like a message board where one person would send a message and others would reply, but it was all text and if you wanted to draw something you would do it with ASCII characters. People could post photos, but they would have to be encoded as garbage text. It was mostly used for photos of naked ladies and because no platform would support it you would send out a stream of ones and zeros that when properly decoded had nipples.

John’s first access to the Internet via Captiolhill.Net (OM346)

John was introduced to the web at an Internet café called Capitolhill.Net that was owned by a friend. The newsgroups at the time had a real problem with bad porn and guys would come into the internet café and turn the screen over to the corner and whisper, and the owners were not trying to combat it.

There was a madam and her boyfriend who was also her pimp who were using Capitolhill.Net as the dispatch center for their group of 10 prostitutes. They were young-ish, in their 30s, he was a big guy with an open shirt and she was a beautiful redhead. They would hang at the Internet café all day and John became friends with them. At one point the owner told him that they were dispatching their girls via email, and their cell-phone was always ringing, it was one of the earliest cell-phones John ever saw.

They got so enmeshed in the story of Capitolhill.Net that they ended up buying the café and the domain. John’s email address was ten.llihlotipac|dortoh#ten.llihlotipac|dortoh and it now belonged to a sex den. All of a sudden there were gangsters all around and eventually it got sold to somebody else who decided to cut off email access to the whole domain in order to threaten the gangsters to pay him some large amount of money. John got the guy on the phone and explained he was an innocent party in this and he just wanted to get his email off this server and he made it go live for 20 minutes so John could get his emails, but John wasn’t able to do it, and his emails are surely still out there because nothing ever dies on the Internet.

At the time John had no idea why you would use the Internet other than to email your college professor to ask what the assignment was and apparently to do illegal porn and dispatch sex workers. Social media didn’t really exist and even blogging was very much in its infancy in the late 1990s. It was a place for company to put coupons. Ken didn’t have the same democratized feeling that he had when he first saw Usenet or Gopher and understood that this was how communities could form.

At one time John was walking around the University of Washington, talking to somebody how the Internet was going to change the world, that we would have access to everything! Briefly it was like that, but things did change. The Web made it easier to get different kinds of information, it was easier to find like-minded people, and you could get around government censorship if you lived in parts of the world where that was an issue.

Democratizing the Internet with Web 2.0 (OM346)

In 1999 the Web 2.0 initiative wanted to make the Internet easier to use and more democratic. Everything was generated by everybody, it was participatory, and the interface was going to be better. In the earliest times you would have to learn HTML-code and only those people could have a website. Web 2.0 was working towards less barrier to entry and a more flexible web.

Around 2007 social media existed and became the only place to see your friends, it was no longer emails and texts and occasional visits to their blog, but now it was your one-stop social life. It was about the same time when we got the Internet on our phones, which was a much bigger sea change.

On Web 2.0 you were not looking at content from or, but you were sharing images, you were posting videos, you got your Geocities page where you had a blog or a wiki. Ken had a website post Jeopardy. It is pretty much abandoned and tumbleweeds now, but back then he tried to put something up every day. It was how you existed in a time before social media. His public face was journaling on Web 2.0. Ken owns with a hyphen because at there is a former Republican who once ran for state secretary of state position and will not sell the domain.

The Long Winters website (OM346)

John’s first website was The Long Winters website that went live in 2002/03 and he had to get into it. His friend Merlin Mann in San Francisco told him that as a band he needed a website, but John didn’t understand why a band needed a website. Merlin built one and the message board took off among their fan group. It was the halcyon days! Lots of people were posting in it all night long, it was really exciting! A lot of these people would then also go over to Death Cab for Cutie's message board. We have memories of lively communities that was more fun, smarter, and more utopian than anything you had in real life, but most of those were only around for maybe 9 months. The Long Winters message board was still very active in 2007/08 and it may even still be up there.

When John searches things today like: ”If you put a Chorus pedal first in your signal chain before the Distortion box?” he might find some discussion group where all the posts are from 2004 and there was a really angry conversation between people, like: ”That is the wrong Fuzz pedal!” It is funny that all that stuff is still up there and searchable.

Ken’s blog allowing him to build an audience independent from Jeopardy (OM346)

Ken is glad he blogged and left it up there every time his kids said something cute and weird. Every parent thinks they have to tell that story to grandma, but you will forget it immediately and Ken would always put in on his blog. Now their friends can search for Bewildering Conversations. Ken would have been mortified if his friends in middle school or high school had seen cute and weird things he had said as a baby, but his kids just love it and ask to be read to from the blog in 2006 when his daughter said: ”Thank you, Jesus!” to a bearded life guard, even now as teens.

Friend of The Omnibus Wil Wheaton was reviled as Wesley Crusher and started blogging partly to reclaim being Wil Wheaton. Around 2001 he had a message board and because of his revealing, open, and emotional persona and writing he attracted a huge fan group of people, a lot of it being: ”It was really hard to be Wesley Crusher and have everybody hate you. Here are some stories about how William Shattner was mean to me on a back lot one time!” and he became what we now think of as Wil Wheaton.

Before the Internet it was impossible to change your narrative like that without having an editor or an agent or a publicist. It was the same for Ken after Jeopardy: He had his 15 minutes of fame, but if he wanted to write he would have to have another platform that was not a syndicated quiz show. When he was a computer programmer he thought it would be impossible to write a book, but then came the time when you could get a book deal having a funny web comic or a series of blogs or a running joke on a social media platform.

It is easy to say now that social media is a plague that made us all unhappy, but that is leaving aside the fact that for over a decade he was able to build an audience who no longer associated him with answering questions on a game show, but something more sustainable like having a personal life, a view point, and jokes. There were of course downsides to leaving a permanent record of every dumb thought that came into your head and it was not the right way to treat a big megaphone like that. Still, that is all just a rounding error compared to how it gave whole communities voices and let people find each other without having to get past gatekeepers.

John’s introduction to nerd culture (OM346)

John was first being introduced to what became known as nerd culture though Jonathan Coulton right about 2009, which was 42 years after the first Star Trek convention, and he was coming at that world from a Rock’n’Roll perspective. He knew there were people dressed as Star Trek characters and he thought about it as LARPing, people who played swords and sorcerers, but he didn’t know they had any kind of cultural sway or that it had anything to do with Marvel superheroes or video games. He didn’t get that those things would ever connect and become a unified culture.

John was on the JoCo Cruise for many years and watched it evolve from the first year where it was disparate entities that were all attracted to one hub. He went to ComicCon and saw what that looked like as a fish out of water, just walking around: ”Wow, what is happening?” He saw video game introductions, he went to PAX a couple of times, and he walked through it absolutely baffled until he found at the very heart of it booths with old crusty bearded dudes selling comic books out of boxes.

John knew who those guys were! They had things like Fat Freddy’s Cat #1 and all the comic books that John had and lost, like Mr. Natural, all these alternative Rip Off Press comic books that he didn’t think he would ever see again, and he was spending money like crazy at those places. During the 2010s he was watching it all become a crazy V’Ger.

Ken still stumbles across things and realizes only later that it is huge. Jonathan Coulton was like that. Only after he googled him did he learn he was a massive cult leader for a massive folk scene he didn’t know existed. Today he might watch his kids watch someone speed-run a video game and wonder what they are doing and how this is a thing, and they have to patiently explain to him that this is currently the biggest hobby in the world and tens of millions of people are watching people play video games. Even though nerd culture is mainstream culture it is still somehow hidden behind a curtain in the corner.

John learned just recently that Rhianna is the biggest selling artist of all time (actually bigges selling digital singles artist). Maybe Thriller still outsells any one thing, but it was news to him that she was so big and he is not even sure he could name a Rhianna song.

There was a moment around 2001 where all these things were coalescing. Nerd culture was finding the Internet, crossing the streams, the tendrils were starting to intermingle, the original StarTrek fans, Batman people, or video game players were all recognizing that they had common cause. It all predates the rise of the Millennial income, they didn’t yet have the money or the access to be driving it and John feels like it is Generation X and their permanent childhood that wanted to luxuriate in a time before they had to worry about things. Hollywood had run out of ideas and it was: ”What about Batman?”

It was the end of history, that period in the 1990s where we were talking about a post-racial society and we weren’t having any problems, there weren’t any Russians, it was just Olive Gardens all the way down. Getting these massive cultures out of the closed and mainstreaming them changed the art forms they were writing about. You do not get 30 interlinked Marvel universe comics from a bearded guy with a stack of comics, but through Internet newsgroups, social media, fan sites, and all the rest.

John seeing Titanic at a preview showing (OM346)

At the time John was still divorced from any culture that was not Seattle café culture that involved whether or not it was cool to put your chorus pedal before the distortion pedal. One afternoon a friend came with tickets to a preview showing of Titanic at Cinerama, which was a Paul Allen thing. The movie was overwhelming because it is melodramatic and had all the special effects, it works great to this day!

John hadn’t seen that guy in years, but recently he was at an architectural salvage yard and looking across the hall of old doors he saw this guy again after 25 years. He had been in Seattle the whole time! They had been café buddies because if you went to the café every day you saw the same people and pretty soon they were your friends. It was like going to bars, but for people who didn’t drink. You could go to a café all day for 12 hours without the social disapprobation, write in your journal and look fascinating. Ken doesn’t drink coffee and to him a café is just like a bar. John is just describing a Den of Antiquity to him.

The Lord of the Rings movie release and The Phantom Menace (OM346)

The Fellowship of the Rings was released in 2001 and there was a huge hype leading up to it. Ken had bought tickets months before and was there at opening night, watching a guy dressed as Gandalf and his kids enter the theater. It was the boom of Internet movie gossip sites where the nerds got early access. Some executive at New Line, Mike DeLuca in particular, had decided to take nerd fan sites under his wing and would spread early casting ideas and rumors, meaning the nerds would get this stuff before the trades.

Ken had spent years reading sites that barely exist anymore, like Ain’t It Cool News, about every little scrap of casting information, location information, and screen adaptation information about the Star Wars prequels and especially about the Peter Jackson Lord of the Rings movies. He was also first in line for The Phantom Menace, he stayed over night in a parking lot because it was going to be the first new Star Wars movie in 20 years and how could it be anything but a masterpiece?

That was 1999, the same year The Matrix came out, which was the nail in the coffin for Star Wars because it came out of nowhere and worked on every level unlike anything about Phantom Menace which Ken saw it twice in 24 hours, first a midnight showing with his room mates and where they were under the 2am hallucinations, everyone was bopping beach balls around and cheering and everything, what an event, and it was only later that night when he was watching it with a broader group of friends that he had the sinking feeling.

At that point in time John was 28 and saw a really big difference between him and the people who were 22. Although he wasn’t gloating at them he was completely away from it until he read the reviews of Phantom Menace. He was part of a culture that would read reviews of things they were never going to see and they went to the whole process of ”We were so excited and the first time we saw it we thought it was good and then the second time we realized there was nothing there!” John never saw Phantom Menace or Attack of the Clones and he only went to see Revenge of the Sith because people told him it was the good one that had Darth Vader in it.

John was right there for Lord of the Rings. He loved those book and read them in 7th grade and again in 8th and again in 10th grade and they were some of the only books he read multiple times. They got him into Dungeons & Dragons, and ultimately he felt that these books would be with him for the rest of his life. They also made him understand Led Zeppelin better and were his entrée into nerd culture because he didn’t like superhero comics as a kid.

Ken went into Fellowship of the Rings like an abused partner, preparing for it to be terrible and having a huge moment of emotional catharsis when he realized that it was not going to suck and he was not going to have a Phantom Menace trauma moment, but that it was going to remind him of reading the books as a kid. He was happy that nerd culture hadn’t let him down! John had also been scared, particularly after reading the bad reviews of Phantom Menace, but halfway through he had the same experience of: ”This is good!”

John had that same feeling when Singles first came out. There are 3-4 plots of that movie that are dumb, but the Rock stuff showed that the guy really got it. The stupid band stuff where they were sitting at the OK Hotel and were talking about how big they were in Europe felt like he got it!

John’s problem with the Fellowship of the Ring was that he doesn’t like Elijah Wood as Frodo. All the other hobbits look like hobbits, even those in the background, but Elijah is too wavy. Frodo is fleshier and has a bigger nose! That guy never had a second breakfast in his life! They continue discussing why Elijah Wood is not the right actor for this role. Ken has the same discussion in Christianity about whether Jesus should be a tough muscular macho-figure or a limp-wristed victim. The point of the Bible is that Jesus is a patsy who takes the fall for everybody else.

John not liking superhero comics as a kid (OM346)

In 1975 John went to Tony's birthday party and the birthday boy gave everyone two comic books as party favors. He gave John Fantastic Four and Silver Surfer and John didn’t understand why he would be into that. Silver Surfer was so philosophical that he couldn’t make heads or tails of it. He didn’t even try to get into it, he just tried to understand it, but it was far over his head. It pushed him even further out. John did like the 1960s Spider-Man comics that you could get ahold of if you would find a stack of them somewhere.

Underoos or The Electric Company had convinced Ken that comics were dumb baby stuff. Maybe some sermonizing Silver Surfer would have helped him? First in High School when he had friends who were explaining the X-Men to him was he getting into Marvel superhero comics. John Hodgman sent John the Jack Kirby Superbooks a couple of different times, always excoriating him for not understanding the significance. John first saw X-Men in some dorm at John’s Hopkins and someone told him that he had to read this stuff because it was very important and John got it, they were kind of smart.


Ken was a computer programmer by the early 2000s.

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