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BBS: The Documentary

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Before this whole Internet/Web fad, before AOL, before CompuServe, before even Prodigy, we had the BBS -- dialup Bulletin Board Systems serving communities of computer users. BBSed had their heyday in the Eighties, and they were generally small, homebrew systems -- a Sysop (System Operator) would start up a BBS by installing special software on a spare computer, attaching a modem and a phone line, and waiting for the calls to roll in. The BBS was primarily a local thing, because generally people didn't want to spend money to dial long-distance. So what you had in the Eighties (and still very much into the Nineties, and a bit still today) was a broad patchwork of regional online communities. This local aspect of the system was largely lost when everyone moved to the Internet, and it's only present in niche sites like Craigslist and various City Guide sites.

As a teenager, I was hugely addicted to BBSes, and even had a special phone line put in (thanks, parents!) so I could dial up my local 'boards' to exchange messages, play online games, and chat (that last option was only available if the BBS's Sysop was rich enough to have multiple phone lines running -- or if you were chatting with the Sysop him or herself!). I often met new computer geek friends online, then found out they went to my middle school. And this was in the Eighties!

I keep running into former BBS users who remember the "good old days," (when busy signals were a regular feature of "checking your email") and thought I'd blog about the topic. The other day I was buying paper at the local paper warehouse and the cashier and I somehow got into a conversation about BBSes. I'm telling you, we're everywhere, hiding in plain view. So I'm wondering -- are any flossers former BBS users? Do you remember the days of downloading files in tiny segments, configuring your dialup client to work with the latest and greatest download protocol, and trying to figure out how to use Fidonet to send email (then "e-mail") cross-country? (Bonus points: remember when your friends got 2400 baud modems before you did, and lorded it over you for months? And when it happened again with 9600 and 14.4k modems?)

Much more, including a 10-minute clip of The BBS Documentary, after the jump!

Whether you're an old-school BBS user or just interested in computer history, there's one film that's required viewing: The BBS Documentary. Spanning three DVDs, this five-hour film chronicles various aspects of the BBS scene through interviews with those who wrote early BBS software, ran major BBSes, even those who created the ASCII/ANSI art that was a staple of the BBS scene. As Wired Magazine said, it's "surprisingly engrossing." I bought the DVD set when it first came out in 2005, and have recently started watching it again -- and I'm reminded how much history is revealed by the film. This is history that's been happening in garages, basements, and spare bedrooms across the world for the past thirty years -- and you'd hardly know it if you didn't see a film like this.

If you're ready to experience the whole film, order The BBS Documentary now! If you're not up for paying for it yet, you can watch several hours of it online at Google Video, or watch this clips compilation from YouTube:

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TIM SLOAN/AFP/Getty Images
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History
Who Betrayed Anne Frank? A New Investigation Reopens the Case
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TIM SLOAN/AFP/Getty Images

The tale of Anne Frank’s years spent hiding with her family in the secret annex above her father’s warehouse is known around the world. Yet despite years of research by Otto Frank (Anne's father and the only member of her family to survive the Holocaust) and scholars, we still don’t know exactly what circumstances led to Anne and her family’s discovery. A new investigation is reopening the cold case in the hopes of finally finding out the truth, The Guardian reports.

The long-accepted theory of the Franks’ discovery and subsequent arrest is that an anonymous tip to the Sicherheitsdienst, the Nazi intelligence agency, gave their hiding place away. The 30 potential suspects identified over the years have included a warehouse worker, a housekeeper, and a man possibly blackmailing Otto Frank. In December 2016, researchers at the Anne Frank House floated a new theory: The discovery was incidental, the result of a police raid looking for proof of ration fraud at Otto Frank’s factory, in which police just happened to uncover two Jewish families living in secret. However, none of these theories has been proven definitively.

Now, a team of investigators led by a former FBI agent is taking on the cold case, reviewing the archives of the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam, examining newly declassified material in the U.S. National Archives, and using data analysis to find a conclusive answer to the decades-old mystery.

“This investigation is different from all previous attempts to find the truth,” according to the Cold Case Diary website. “It will be conducted using modern law enforcement investigative techniques. The research team is multidisciplinary, using methods of cold case detectives, historians, but also psychologists, profilers, data analysts, forensic scientists and criminologists.” Thijs Bayens and Pieter Van Twisk, a Dutch filmmaker and journalist, respectively, came up with the idea for the project, and recruited the lead investigator, retired FBI agent Vince Pankoke. Pankoke has previously worked on cases involving Colombian drug cartels.

The new Anne Frank case will focus on investigative techniques that have only become available in the last decade, like big data analysis. Already, the investigators have uncovered new information, such as a German list of informants and the names of Jews that had been arrested and betrayed in Amsterdam during the war, found in the U.S. National Archives.

The investigators hope to provide answers in time for the 75th anniversary of the Frank family’s arrest in August 2019.

[h/t The Guardian]

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Microsoft
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#TBT
The Tragic Life of Clippy, the World's Most Hated Virtual Assistant
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Microsoft

When a large company stumbles, it’s major news. Coca-Cola infamously angered millions of soda drinkers when it tinkered with its recipe to produce New Coke in 1985. Netflix may now be the country’s biggest single source of entertainment, but it wasn’t long ago they tried to spin off their DVD and streaming services into separate entities, confusing millions of otherwise satisfied consumers.

Stationed somewhere in between those gaffes sits Clippy, the unofficial name for the bouncing, sentient paper clip introduced by Microsoft in 1996 in a bid to help people hone their word processing skills. When Microsoft Office software users began writing a letter by typing “Dear,” for example, out would pop Clippy with an unsolicited offer to help.

The first time this happened, users may have been amused. But as they grew more proficient, Clippy would redouble his efforts to interrupt, his roving eyes scanning documents in what felt like a gross invasion of privacy. In no time at all, he would be the subject of scorn and ridicule, an ever-present voyeur into your home computer navigation.

In order for Microsoft to continue to flourish, Clippy would have to die.

A screen shot featuring Clippy
The Science Elf, YouTube

In the 1990s, Microsoft had already revolutionized personal computing with its Windows interface. Taking navigation out of its sterile DOS command prompts and making it feel more like the welcoming layout of Apple's Macintosh line, Windows helped facilitate the PC boom.

The company wanted to take it one step further with Bob, an operating system programmed to resemble the rooms of a house. Going to the “checkbook” on the desk, for example, would open financial software. Released in 1995, the virtual domain never took off, with users and industry observers declaring it so purposely cute that it was nauseating. (Even worse, the hated typeface Comic Sans was created for use in Bob, perpetuating a cycle of user cruelty.)

Although Microsoft quickly abandoned Bob, it seemed stuck on one of the characters that populated the OS: Clippit, an energetic paper clip that injected itself into tasks to see if it could make the experience easier on users. According to Clippit illustrator Kevan Atteberry, Microsoft had developed over 250 characters for such a purpose: Clippit, which users later re-named “Clippy,” won out, and the company decided to keep him around for the 1996 release of its word processing software.

Despite Microsoft harnessing the knowledge of social psychologists from Stanford to develop these software assistants, there were early signs Clippy was destined to annoy users. Focus groups exposed to the character made frequent references to his “leering” eyes, which female product testers found particularly unsettling. (Though he lacked any genitalia, Clippy was labeled male by Microsoft.)

Failing to heed their criticism, Microsoft inserted Clippy into the version of Office released in 1996. Users opening a blank document were greeted by a jovial paper clip that offered advice on everything from spelling to saving files. Even if keyboard shortcuts and other operating commands were mastered, Clippy materialized from the ether, repeating himself until they could figure out how to shut him up for good. (For Office 1997 users, that meant manually changing his program folder name from "Actors" to "NoActors.")

Although Clippy received the brunt of criticism, he wasn’t the only Office mascot available to distract and annoy. The Genius was an Einstein-esque icon; Power Pup was a dog that could help you retrieve information. But Clippy was the pre-set helper, and his wiggling eyebrows and contorted paper clip frame burrowed into Windows users' psyches.

Clippy meets his maker
Stan Honda/Getty Images

Microsoft was not insulated from the Clippy criticism. Writing of his time working for the company, James Fallows reported for The Atlantic in 2008 that the excitable little stationery accessory was bemoaned by employees. Yet Clippy remained, getting a minor makeover in Office 2000 before being automatically turned off in 2002. (Microsoft poked fun at the user enmity, announcing the character was out of work and creating a game that allowed players to zap Clippy with a staple gun.)

Why the allegiance? Fallows said it was in part related to Clippy’s origin as a resident of the failed Bob operating system. That project was spearheaded by Melinda French, who later became Melinda French Gates, wife of Microsoft founder Bill Gates. While Fallows is quick to point out that it wasn’t the sole reason Clippy remained an uninvited guest, no one was particularly enthusiastic about getting rid of him, either.

Clippy eventually met his end in 2007, when the latest version of Office shipped without his grating interjections. Distanced from the pain of actually having to deal with him, a number of Clippy’s critics began to produce damning fan art, from Clippy being a general nuisance to engaging in lewd acts. In 2015, author Leonard Delaney self-published Conquered by Clippy, a 16-page erotic short story that was either a meditation on how technology is seducing us or just a weird story about a paper clip copulating with a human. (Delaney also penned Taken by Tetris Blocks.)

Clippy’s final bow—for now, at least—came earlier in 2017, when an anonymous programmer offered a Chrome extension that allows Clippy to pop up virtually everywhere you go. Like the original, he’s basically useless.

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