I was always one who did things first on their computer.

I was the first human being I knew to get online via BBSes (using a dumb terminal, not a computer), AND on the internet (via illegal hacking; special thanks to local wardialers).

I was the first human being I knew to have his computer talk, or store music digitally (VOC file of 16 second Descendents song in ~1990, baby! MP3 wasn’t invented yet!);

I was the first human being I knew to use a social networking site (SixDegrees–not ONE person answered my friend requests. People didn’t understand the potential of the concept, and now almost every one of them is on Facebook);

I’also m pretty sure I was the first human being I knew to use Google (at least, I remember emailing my whole addressbook to tell them about this new search engine that beat the pants off of Altavista and Lycos. But perhaps I heard about it from one of my colleagues).

I was also the first human being I know to have any semblance of a buddy list — because Windows chat programs hasn’t been invented yet. Not to my knowledge. I did it by cobbling together the unix finger command via a cron job with it’s output filtered by grep.

HOW? Step 1: Know the unix ‘talk’ command

Unixphiles probably remember the Unix talk command. Before Facebook chat, before Yahoo Chat, before AOL chat, before ICQ, even before BBS sysop chat — there was the unix talk command:

^ Kinda like that. But without the Windows around it, as you were probably on a dumb terminal connected to a unix server

It allowed you to talk to an email address — since back then, the majority of email addresses were tied to a unix shell account.

Besides IRC and BBSes, this was really the only way to talk to someone else online. And I’ve always been interested in the extra reach online provides; I’m an eccentric person and it’s always been hard to find people like me.

In fact, I met Carolyn on a BBS in 1991 — and it just so happened that she went to my high school. Thus, when we first met over 18 years ago, her first words to me were, “Are you Satan?”, and my first words to her were, “Are you Magic Mist?”

HOW? Step 2: Know the unix ‘finger’ command


Perverted jokes aside, the unix finger command let you ‘finger’ an account, to see some basic information about it. A very basic finger would, at a minimum, give you a set of information like this:

(I've redacted my IP address from these screenshots.)

And if you edited a local file called “.plan”, you could insert extra information here. Of course I did this, so my finger output was actually longer (insert Futurama finglonger joke here):

(Click any of these images to see them in full size.)

Notice the line that says “On since Wed Dec 23”? That is crucial for step 3.

HOW? Step 3: Know the unix ‘grep‘ command

Grep is one of the single most useful unix commands in existence. I use it EVERY day. It basically returns lines that match what you’re looking for.

I use it to search my phone numbers, as well as to search my filelists so I know where files are. It employs regular expressions, which are a powerful way of matching text. (Ask Vicky about her regular expression skirt…)

Basically, if you grep for something that isn’t there, it will return nothing, like so:

Yes: The finger output above did not contain the word "snuffleupagus", so there was no output.

But if you grep for something that IS there, like “On since”, it will return the line that matches that:

"On since" appears in my unix finger output, so that line is displayed.

So now we have a command that:

  • Displays a line of text if an account is online (because finger returns a line saying “on since”)
    – or –
  • Displays nothing if an account is offline (because finger does not return a line saying “on since”)

It looks like we have a way of spitting a line out to the screen if someone is online. But how do we automate this?

HOW? Step 4: Know unix cron jobs

Cron jobs are simply unix’s way of scheduling tasks. I wont go into the details, as they are quite fugly.

But basically, you can run programs at any interval you want. I used to use it to send emails to myself every hour during business hours reminding me to do my anti-carpal tunnel hand exercises. It’s well known enough that there are shirts of it available at

free advertising

So, I simply set up a cron job to finger specific email addresses and grep them for “on since” every minute. If the person was online, the text would simply appear on your screen — wherever your cursor was:

Sample line of output.

This could mess up what you were doing — displaying a line of text over your email inbox, or over a file you were editing; so you would just hit Control-L (the refresh key) to erase the text and fix the screen. It was an ugly kludge, but it worked. And obviously you might want to grep the line containing their username out as well, so you know who is online.

In my case, I was only monitoring ONE person, so I didn’t need to know who it was.

She eventually sent me photographs of her boobs in the postal mail, so I’d say this system was a success.


They say all significant hardware advances are due to war, while all significant software advances are due to porn.

I eventually found her on Facebook, but I’m honestly not sure if she remembers me. And before anyone asks, she was, and is, quite attractive. In fact, between this girl’s photographs, and 18 years and counting with Carolyn, I’d say most of the sex I’ve gotten in my life has been a direct result of my technical prowess. Rowwwr…. Am I sexy yet?


No point. (Made you read! Haha!)

I just thought it would be neat to document something unique that I did in the early 1990s. I’m sure other people had this idea and implemented it too — but *I* didn’t know these people. Back then, people weren’t generally connected online — the world wide web didn’t exist yet. People had to come up with innovations on their own. So if anyone else ever did this as well — or something similar — I’d love to hear about it.

Old school computing had so much charm compared to nowadays. Nowadays, everything has been done. I just spend time talking about politics, blogging, and uploading photos. Back then? It was big a challenge just to get your words to reach ONE person, let alone millions of readers.


Mood: cold
Music: Pixies – All Over The World