In what will hopefully stay this blog’s ultimate monument to my ego for quite some time, Xqtr has graciously allowed me to re-post this interview that I did for NULL emag, originally appearing in issue #6. I went a little overboard on answering and editing all of this together, so I’m happy to be able to use it here as well. Besides, writing all of this was part of what inspired me to start this blog, and it touches on quite a lot of the topics that I hope to eventually cover in more detail in future articles.
Haven’t heard of NULL? It’s a modern effort to revive the more or less extinct emag format. It’s filled to the brim with personal thoughts about the BBS scene, interviews with sceners, and some very handy modding and coding howtos and snippets too. The whole thing feels very old school, and it’s awesome to see something like this being released in 2019. Speaking of which, Xqtr just released issue #7 a few days ago. Run it in your browser via 16colo.rs and/or download it and all of the previous issues over at NULL’s github.
Anyway, this interview is so epically massive that I’ve decided to chop it up into three parts to keep each one more inline with my typical article size. This first part talks a lot about my origins in the scene, including my involvement in the BBS modding and art scenes, programming and “real life”, H/P antics, and Zer0net!
When did you begin to use BBSes and how did you enter the scene?
My brother bought me my first modem in spring of 1995 as an early birthday present (somewhat selfishly, he wanted to use it as much as I did!) and we started BBSing heavily right away. I had been pining for a modem since long before I ever had a decent PC of my own, so I wasted no time jumping into the deep end. Not having AOL or the like, my brother and I started out favoring graphical PD boards – we had a pretty nice Excalibur BBS system in our local scene, as well as a nifty ROBOboard/FX system, both of which were much easier to digest than the seemingly esoteric world of the text based boards. Soon though, I found those other boards to be much more alluring and started calling them almost exclusively, while my brother stayed in PD easy-mode land outside of the occasional game of LORD.
By the end of 1995 I’d learned quite a lot about the scene, from calling countless local (and not so local) systems, somehow surviving the traditional rite of passage of racking up massive phone bills, participating heavily in message bases including my first forays into Fido, playing plenty of door games, leaching a ton of files, starting playing with numerous BBS software in an attempt to learn how to setup my own board, checking out numerous art packs, reading zines and emags, and of course countless text files, etc.
It quickly became clear to me that to make a name for yourself and really be a part of the scene you had to contribute in one way or another. In all of my playing with BBS software something clicked for me with creation of simple animated graphical mods (replacement screen templates, etc.) so I set out to join the modding scene in an attempt to exploit my newly discovered “skill”. As a side note, this is also around the same time I started drawing ASCII, even though I had no idea what I was doing. 😉
Unfortunately, by the end of 1995 I’d also witnessed my local BBS scene go from what I can imagine was close to its peak activity, to being almost entirely dead. 1995-1996 was an extremely dramatic (traumatic?) time for the BBS scene in the United States, with almost everyone jumping ship to the Internet and more modern iterations of online services (CompuServe, America Online, Prodigy, etc.) with wild abandon. It was incredibly weird for me – seemingly as soon as I’d fallen in love with the BBS scene, it was just… gone. I couldn’t help but to be left a little heartbroken, and with a lingering infatuation at that.
I knew from some of the zines and emags I had been reading that the scene had a major crossroads, as it were, on something called “Internet Relay Chat”. Again, financed by my brother’s selfish interests, I got my first ISP account in early 1996 and jumped on to IRC pretty much day 1. That was when I truly joined the underground scene.
What were your first steps once you actually got into the scene?
I joined TRiC as a modder because they were a highly respected modding crew (though mostly focused on Renegade BBS) with a strong semi-local presence in my area code in the form of senior member King Jamez and his BBS, Zyklon B, which was one of the last truly nice underground systems around there. Still, I don’t remember exactly why now, but it seemed pretty clear to me that TRiC was dying, or at least slowing down, so I also joined the Iniquity focused modding crew Thought Surfers shortly thereafter, as I was mostly working on mods for Iniquity.
Once I got on IRC I hooked up with a scene people, some of whom were artists, and some of whom encouraged me to continue the weird ASCII stuff I was playing around with at the time, which led me to briefly crank out some terrible stuff with the Brazilian art group iNSOMNiA. This was strictly a learning period for me – I was figuring out how to convert my weird style of post-oldschool ASCII into stuff more closely resembling the cool warez scene file_id.diz and info headers I saw (and liked!) and also drawing a lot of newschool ASCII based on TheDraw fonts and other people’s artwork. The latter was strictly lame stuff, in other words, but it led me to develop the skills I needed to move on from there.
Getting on IRC back then was really pivotal to my further involvement in the scene, since it let me “network” with tons of people from all over the world, and actually feel like a part of a bigger scene rather than some distant, outside observer, which I definitely felt like by the end of 1995.
It seems that you were a busy guy. 🙂 What groups and/or projects you were involved in?
Well, I don’t think anyone wants to read the entire list as it goes on and on, but some highlights starting from where we left off with my last answer: I soon got accepted to the legendary CiA, which was a total validation of potential as an ASCII artist and introduced me to a lot of other awesome artists. From there I dabbled with other groups, including helping run CiA’s breakaway ASCII division, Hazmat. I also participated in Serial, and later joined Impure. Still, more recently I’ve drawn for Break (though continuing to participate in Impure!)
The whole time I tried in vain to draw ANSI too, but it never really clicked. I finally started putting out some stuff I liked in the 2000s. You can see some of my more recent stuff in Crisis, Roots, and now Blocktronics packs.
My modding “career” is more ridiculous. I bounced around between a lot of groups, such as a Project/X, FSW, Sinister, and Taura. Some of these groups were putting out stuff I considered much nicer than anything I was capable of. Whether it being nice art or impressive code, I saw value in a lot of this stuff. More value than the template style work I was doing. Sinister was one of the most important experiences I had, since I ended up being a senior member of that group and learning a bit about running things. The aftermath of that group’s implosion soon led to me start Demonic Productions in 1997, using my experience and numerous modding scene contacts to attempt to build somewhat of a supergroup, as I saw it.
The rest is more muddled. I coded and later compiled Gutter, an art scene emag with my long time friend and collaborator, the amazing ANSI artist Filth. I co-founded Zer0net, an underground scene focused echomail network that is still around today, somehow. I began working on an epic project in the form of Darkness, my Legend of the Red Dragon style door game. I was involved in testing and developing numerous BBS software of the era, most notably Iniquity. I’ve also been a supporter of Mystic since the early days and like to think my involvement highly influenced it in the old days. I was heavily involved in trying to collect (and share!) rare BBS scene related files, though eventually these efforts got overshadowed by other, better managed projects. Of course, near the center of all this is that I’ve also been running my BBS, Distortion, since the late 90s as well.
Did you feel overwhelmed by all these projects at times?
Interestingly enough, not really! It always felt like I had an almost limitless amount of free time back then. In fact, I was bored as hell a lot of the time, which, more than ambition, is probably what led me to dabble in so many areas. Maybe that was a case of undiagnosed ADHD though. 😉 Even when I was in college, juggling school, a part time job, and heavy involvement my local punk scene, I still had time to work on Darkness and spend too much time on IRC.
Of course, that all changed when I got my first full time job. I’ve been pretty overwhelmed by my drive to dedicate free time to my various hobbies, including anything and everything BBS related, since then.
So, do you consider yourself to be a coder, an artist, an organizer/manager, maybe all of those? 🙂
I’d have to say all of the above, with some caveats. For instance, I don’t necessarily feel like a true artist, not like someone like Filth or a lot of the other guys still around today. It takes me a lot of effort to try ANSI and my focus is still far more on the technical than the expressive. ASCII comes a lot more naturally for me though. As a coder, I’ve never been an amazing programmer, but it is something I really enjoy to this day. For most of the 90s I was still very much figuring out WTF I was doing, but I had plenty of awesome people to be inspired by and to learn from. As an organizer/leader/facilitator, I’d say that this is something that comes naturally to me because of some aspects of my personality more than it is a role I usually seek to fill. I’m someone that’s just compelled to try to bring order to chaos and make shit happen, I guess. On top of all of that I seem to have a strong urge to “create.”
From what I’ve seen in your projects/mods you are a Pascal guy, correct? Do you know other languages? What is your background in computer technology?
I started dabbling a bit in BASIC and Batch (who didn’t back then?) but didn’t really dig into trying to learn to code until I joined the scene and saw all of the awesome stuff a lot of modders and coders were working on. I mean, just like seeing my first ACiD ANSIs and being completely bewildered by how what I was seeing was even possible, learning that some of my favorite BBS programs and demos were made by people around my age blew me away, as did the seemingly limitless possibilities. I’d say the aforementioned King Jamez was a big influence to me starting out, as were less approachable people like Fiend, the author of Iniquity, and Seth Robinson, the author of LORD. All of these guys had one thing in common: Pascal.
So yeah, like I mentioned, I was really still learning about coding in the 90s. I mostly learned by finding source code and ripping the shit out of it, and just trying to figure it all out on my own. It was a different world, with a lot less documentation and tutorials available, a lot fewer examples to learn from, etc. I started out working on simple utilities like scene group application programs, then moved on to doors and BBS scripts, then things like readers and e-mags. I was lucky to have a lot of friends in the scene who were far better programmers than I who could give me tips when I got stuck or simply couldn’t wrap my head around certain concepts. I owe Natedogg from Demonic in particular a whole lot of credit in that respect. This all finally culminated with Darkness, which, outside of the door library I used for communications (created by Natedogg, actually!) was almost entirely my own creation. I was pretty damn proud of myself for figuring things like multinode and IGM support out on my own.
At around the same time, I graduated High School and started working on an AAS degree in Computer Science. I ended up taking a lot of programming electives since it was something I was into leaning more about – I took a couple of Visual Basic classes as part of my degree and several extra C++ classes. I also taught myself PHP and SQL at around the same time while pursuing a job opportunity. I was just a couple of credits shy of graduating with a second programming focused degree, actually.
I was doing a lot of PHP work for awhile, and had a brief foray into professional programming mostly working on ASP Classic and Java. I’ve worked as a sysadmin and network engineer since then, which means my coding is mostly centered around automation scripting, when I get a chance to dust it off, and Python is my language of choice these days. Pascal is still my first love, however. There’s just something so simple and natural about coding in good old procedural Pascal to me. Of course, given how I learned it, a lot of my old, bad habits tend to come back out when working with Pascal, but whatever. It’s a hell of a lot of fun!
So yeah, I went on to get a BS in Information Technology and have something like 10 active certifications related to system administration and networking, and I’ve worked in and around IT since all the way when I was a high schooler back in the Demonic days of 1997. I definitely owe a lot to my time in the scene. I mean, the discipline required for self-studying for a challenging technical certification goes back to my days trying to figure out how to setup BBSes, or some random Internet servers, dabbling with Linux, or figure out how to code some tricky routine in Pascal, all in relative isolation, and I don’t question that my management style (at times in my career when I’ve been a manager) owes a lot to lessons learned running or helping run groups and projects in the scene.
Were you involved with the HPAVC scene?
I would say I’ve always been interested in the scene, but not really an active participant. Like most of us curious kids, I was naturally drawn to those “forbidden” subjects. As soon as I started calling boards, I started collecting old text files and zines. Of course, I quickly discovered that hacking was a lot less glamorous than movies and TV shows made it look, but I was introduced to phreaking, which felt more accessible, actually useful, and less risky. In fact, my scene alias, Jack Phlash, is very much inspired by those kinds of classic, cheesy hacker handles of old like “Captain Crunch” and yes, the “Ph” is fully intentional. 🙂
Over the years I dabbled in setting up confs and toll frees, running prank calls, voicemail hacking, war dialing, red boxing, and a variety of relatively mundane phreaking related shenanigans. I had some local friends who did some of this stuff with me, which was always a ton of fun. We also had some little text zines we’d put out, but nothing that ever went very far. Most of my h/p energies were spent keeping up with numerous zines and text files over the years, and sometimes providing ASCII art for them.
It’s funny, because at times, a big part of my aforementioned career in Information Technology has been working with telephony, including old school, big iron PBX phone switches and more modern SIP based VOIP systems alike. The 16 year old phreak in me would sometimes get inappropriately excited to have root access and the opportunity to do relatively deep dives into these systems. I mean, the power at my fingertips was the type of shit I’d fantasize back then, though of course in an entirely different scenario. I suppose I could make similar statements about the security aspects of my job, though that has always felt far more practical and less exciting than working with phones.
What about Zeronet? it was a very cool HPAVC network and very popular back then. How things going today?
Zer0net’s heyday as the one of the most active “othernets” out there, and a premier one at that, has likely come and gone. Still, even to this day we often have strong spurts of good conversation, and still maintain and add to a respectable nodelist – I think we have over 30 awesome, active nodes currently. There have been times over the years that I’d considered closing the doors, handing the reins to someone else, maybe another network op, but as it stands right now, I feel pretty good about the whole thing. In fact, the 20th anniversary of our first public infopack release is coming out soon, and with it I’ll be releasing a long overdue, newly revised “living” infopack that I intend to maintain from here on out.
We’ve always had competition from other networks, including some that seem to be straight up rip offs of Zer0net, but they’ve always come and gone. Occasionally some cool ones show up that I’ll even throw support behind myself, but Zer0net just keeps trucking along!
1. ak67-null.ans by Alpha King from Blocktronics: Dark Side of the Block (2019)