The internet runs on…
Let me put that off for just a second and consider something slightly different — not what it runs on, but what it’s full of …
Well, it’s full of lots of things. It’s full of ‘information’, although one should probably possess a heaping helping of skepticism before actually using any of it. (Skepticism is valuable. Everyone should have some. It’s like Math 121 that way.) It’s full of memes. (Not mimes. Fortunately.) It’s full of porn. (Rule 34 applies to the internet, of course. Everyone knows there are no exceptions to Rule 34.) Germaine sums up the whole situation quite nicely.
That’s what it’s full of, but what does it run on? Well, people have claimed that it runs on tears, on cats, on dogs, on sarcasm. Slightly more serious people have pointed at things like operating systems and web server software. Even more serious people claim that it runs on whatever makes them money. Those things aside, what it really runs on is standards.
Because standards are important. Why? Because any time there is more than one of anything and it needs to interact with anything else, a description of HOW the interaction works is needed. (And one thing you can say about the internet is that there’s more than one of, well, everything.)
In short, you need a standard.
When you need a light bulb, there are standards. When you make cheesecake to feed unexpected late-night visitors, there are standards. When you need to send email, there are standards. (Lots of standards. Lots and lots of standards.) Standards are everywhere.
And they come from all over the place. They can be put forward by one person (if we’re lucky, it’s a very clever person). Sometimes they’re created by corporations and institutions who want to be able to make more money. (In the process, sometimes decisions are made for totally unexpected reasons.) Sometimes they’re written by groups of experienced, capable and thoughtful people, sensitive to the needs of the community and the capabilities and limitations of technology who subject their proposals to vigorous peer review. (Can you tell I like that kind?)
And of course, no matter where they come from, sometimes folks ignore them. Because they know better. Or they think they’re above such things. Or they want to make more money. (Corporations hate standards. They can get in the way of making money, after all.)
Anyway, the third process above has led to some incredibly useful stuff. If you’ve ever sent or received an email, you have that process to thank. If you’ve ever connected a computer to the internet, you’ve used a standard created that way. If you’ve ever named a computer…
Naming a computer is hard. Well, it’s not really hard — all you have to do is edit a file, after all — but it’s easy to do badly. For example, some years ago I started a job where they had recently acquired a new server. Its name? NEWVAX, because it was new and because it was a Vax. That was all well and good but after a couple of years — heck after the VERY NEXT MACHINE was bought — the name just became silly.
So when Ms. Rose and I had to name twenty-five computers we thought a little (well, maybe more than a little) about what to name them. Because of the room and table dimensions, it became obvious that they would be arranged in four groups of six, with the server in a locked closet in the corner. Fine. So we named the first group of six after characters in Cerebus the Aardvark, the second after characters in the Legion of Super-Heroes, the third after characters in the Justice League, the fourth (you knew it was coming) after characters in the Batman mythos.
Tidy. Ample room for expansion. Hard to confuse with Real Life. Memorable. Rfc1178-compliant. Win.
But there was the server. What should we call it? Pardon me while I reminisce a bit.
Before we were ‘given’ the room, it had held the previous generation of computer lab — a couple of servers, a host of dumb terminals, some graphics gear nailed to a table and a printer or two. It was nothing too fancy, but did the job. Ms. Rose was in charge of the care and feeding of that lab.
One Saturday she got a phone call — the lab wasn’t working properly and could she look at it? Being a responsible sort, off she went. When she got there, she verified that it wasn’t working properly (usually a good first step) and looked around for a reason.
H’m. The servers didn’t seem to be communicating with each other which had caused NFS to hang (it does that, part of its endearing charm) which, in turn, had caused almost everything else to grind to a halt. Okay — problem understood, if not solved. But what had happened? H’m again.
Turned out that there were breaks in the ethernet cable. Well, that would do it. Easy enough to fix, but what had happened? And why was that window open? Perhaps there had been an… intruder. (The screens in that building can be opened from the outside simply by pushing on them, after all.) But why would an intruder cut the ethernet?
Because apparently the piquant bouquet of a moderately aged rg58 is irresistible to sciurus carolinensis, that’s why. A particularly enterprising gastronome had entered the lab through the open window, bypassed the screen and had a late lunch on the ethernet, thereby halting the lab (and coincidentally sending the message that working on computing assignments on a Saturday afternoon was something to be deprecated). After lunch was over he moved on to dessert.
Dessert was the power cord attached to one of the printers. It disagreed with him. In fact, it disagreed with him so much that he never ate anything ever again. Heck, he didn’t even leave the premises — there he was, teeth still firmly clenched on his last post-meal treat.
It was the ultimate in negative restaurant reviews — “I hated the food so much I made the proprietor dispose of a dead body.”
Which caused a new problem. Fixing the lab was fairly simple — string some new cable, reboot a couple of machines, replace a power cord — but there was the little matter of a furry (and, unsurprisingly, somewhat fluffy) corpse. The building janitor was looked for; unsurprisingly (it was Saturday after all) he was nowhere to be found. The buildings-grounds-and-miscellaneous-infrastructure folks were called. Unfortunately, there weren’t a lot of incidents of unexpected death in university buildings and they had to be convinced this was something they had to deal with. And unfortunately this was before the era of helpful blogs and youtube videos so they didn’t really know what to do. Eventually, though, someone showed up and — with the help of the handy and resourceful IT professional — took the dissatisfied diner away. After that we have no idea what they did with him. (?)
The story spread and was told and retold. (With each retelling it became more vivid and baroque. Eventually Ms. Rose was presented with a home-made stuffed squirrel (not) with Xs for eyes and a chunk of quad sewn into his teeth.) Early in the process, the squirrel was given a name — he became Bunky or sometimes Bunky The Evil Squirrel.
When we needed a name for the server it was only logical to think back to Bunky and give him the (limited, alas — such is the nature of technology) immortality he so richly deserved. The server became ‘decsqurl’, for Dec Server Queen’s Undergraduate and Research Lab. And buried in the DNS was the alias ‘bunky’.
Sometimes choosing a good name is a lot of work. Dead bodies aren’t always involved, though.