April 16, 2004

A blast from the past

Posted by shonk at 08:38 PM in Geek Talk, Literature | TrackBack

Today, I stumbled across this Wired article on gopher, the internet protocol developed at the University of Minnesota way back in 1992. The article brought back memories, because I remember gopher from my middle school days when we spent all our time using Lynx to access gopher and read blonde jokes instead of improving our typing, learning HyperCard, or whatever other useless pursuits the teachers had in mind. Given that the paradigm of the day was the BBS, gopher was quite a revelation. Now, of course, everyone is used to everything on the internet being a mere mouse-click away, but that was all-new 12 years ago.

I was somewhat surprised to learn that not only is gopher still kicking, but a few people are actually trying to bring it into the 21st century. For example, John Goerzen, in addition to maintaining supposedly the largest active gopher server in the world at Quux.org, thinks gopher could be used as dynamic data exchange protocol like XML-RPC and SOAP. He also sees it as a good alternative to current PDA and phone browsers:

“Consider this example: Port-a-Goph, a gopher client in development for Palm OS. Cameron Kaiser wrote this in his spare time and got it working quickly on his own Palm,” he said. “Contrast that with the state of Web browsing on handheld devices: Despite many years to improve them, I still regularly run across websites that simply do not render at all, or render so poorly that they are unusable.”

He’s probably right, but, for whatever reason, people seem to like to re-invent the wheel instead of just re-using proven wheels, so gopher probably will never be more than a tiny geek niche. That all having been said, there’s a lot of good stuff available on gopher servers like gopher://quux.org/, which you can access directly through nice browsers like Firefox. If you’re on IE, your best bet is probably Floodgap’s public gopher proxy, which translates gopher pages to HTML. And, if you’re anything like me, you’ll probably go immediately to the jokes pages, which are filled with a vast assortment of predominately nerdy material.

On the subject of internet protocols and the like, I should mention that last night I finished Neal Stephenson’s latest, The Confusion, which just came out in bookstores this week (for those that don’t get the connection between internet protocols and a historical novel set in the 17th century, I’d suggest a thorough perusal of Stephenson’s other work, including Snow Crash or Cryptonomicon or, if you’re too cheap to spend money on books, the essay “In the Beginning Was the Command Line”). The Confusion is quite good, interleaving or “con-fusing” the two main stories much more seamlessly than did its predecessor, Quicksilver, which I’ve already reviewed. Though I’m not particularly in the book review mood right now, I will say that this trilogy is really growing on me and I’m definitely looking forward to September, when The System of the World comes out. One thing that really stands out about The Confusion is that among the diverse topics with which it deals, one of the primary issues is that of money and markets, especially how they arise and how they work. For more on that, check out the Wired interview with Stephenson (via Catallarchy).