About Negative Space

Negative Space was born on October 13, 1995. If it had parents, its mother was Cerebus the Gopher and its father was Apple Computer. Cerebus the Gopher was the Apple IIcx sitting in my “office” back in the early nineties. It started as a simple share of some comic book and role-playing game files on that computer.

The whole thing began with a Macintosh stuck into the corner of the University of San Diego “cold room”. That’s the room where all of our multi-user minicomputers and mainframes are kept. They stuck a Mac IIcx in there that no one happened to be using, and called it my “office”. I had to wear a coat in the middle of summer, and wear headphones to keep the noise of the air conditioner out.

This was in 1991. All I was doing was backups: sticking tapes in, waiting half an hour, sticking another tape in. That left a lot of time to roam the Internet. Back then, the only things to roam were Usenet, mailing lists, and FTP sites. I’d never used a Mac seriously before, but it turned out to be pretty easy. Think about where something ought to be, and that’s usually where it was. So I puttered around the comic book newsgroups, and the role-playing discussion groups, and managed to stumble across a few political newsgroups, and I started building a collection of useful postings that otherwise would have been lost. This was long before DejaNews.

Right about this time, Peter Lewis came out with FTPd, an FTP server for the Macintosh. It took the standard network publishing scheme already built into the Macintosh and used this to serve those published folders to the entire Internet. I thought that was kind of cool, so I decided to make my comic book and role-playing files available to the net. This way I didn’t have to mail them out to anyone, I’d just post the hostname occasionally and call it an FTP site. This would’ve been late 1991.1

The hostname, back then, was Beelzebub. That wasn’t my idea. Steve, who sets up the hostname info at USD, thought calling it “Jerry” was too boring. We’re a Catholic institution, and Steve likes weird things like that, so he named it after some god-awful demon.

Beelzebub turned out to be a pretty big hit. It was an FTP site, of course, which meant that only geeks could access it with any reliability. But soon enough Peter Lewis added Gopher service to his FTP server software, and that made things a little easier. “Gopher” was a pre-web “easy to use” interface to the Internet. It presented menus of files and folders, and links to other gopher and ftp sites, but you couldn’t mix text and links. It was either a menu, or a paragraph, but you couldn’t have both on the same page. You still see gopher sites scattered about the net.

Eventually someone did need that computer again. I was pretty low on the totem pole, and that computer had been bought for a specific purpose. As it was, I managed to keep a Macintosh of some kind or other in the “cold room” for a year or so. Thor, our Mac/Graphics guru, convinced me, eventually, to move the Beelzebub FTP site over to our Unix server, Teetot. Teetot is a strange name. Most folks assume that, since we’re a religious institution it’s short for teetotaler. Actually, we drink quite a lot at USD. Just a few hours ago I was accosted by a drunk law professor. Our department head is a big Hank Williams fan, and Teetot is the black street musician who Hank credits with teaching him to play guitar and sing. So Jack Pope decided to name our “new, faster, better” DEC 5810 Ultrix computer after Teetot, hoping that it was sufficiently obscure to avoid trouble.

Beelzebub didn’t last long on Unix. Unix has its uses, but it’s a pain in the ass to work with after using something as easy as the Macintosh. Fortunately, having gotten onto the net fairly early after ignoring it for too long, I became the Internet Guru at USD when the Internet became hot shit. I received a minor raise, full-time status, a real office, and… a Macintosh IIfx of my very own. This Mac came out of our computer labs, replaced by some other computer. Remember that our director was “Jack Pope”. Our assistant director was… this is not a joke… John Paul. A different one, of course. At the time, and this was probably Steve’s doing, all the Macintoshes in our computer labs were named after long dead Popes. My “new” IIfx was still named “Fabian” when I turned it on. So what choice did I have? I needed to name my Mac after a joke pope, and it was either Joan or Cerebus. Cerebus won out, and Fabian became Cerebus the Gopher. And soon after the MacHTTP web server came out, in the Fall of 1993 or Fall of 1994, Cerebus the Gopher became a web site. Up until 2012 you could still see the vestiges of the FTP/Web dichotomy in Negative Space’s layout: separating text files in a folder called ‘pub’ and HTML files in a folder called ‘html’. The old files are still in the pub folder, but I’ve gotten rid of the html folder. HTML, knock on wood, seems to be in it for the long haul.

That old Mac II did a damn good job. It ran, at the same time, a gopher server, an FTP server, a web server, a mail server, a finger and whois server. Not to mention whatever I happened to be running in the foreground. I did actually have duties at USD, after all. Plus, I was branching out beyond comic books and role-playing. I had one of the premiere anti-prohibition sites; our director disavowed any knowledge of it; I put a couple of racy stories on-line when the CDA began to break into the news; he got a little nervous, and said so; I put up a web page listing congressional e-mail addresses—and that’s when things hit the wire.

Crown Point sunset

The view from the nspace.cts.com server room. Living in San Diego had its benefits.

So I decided to get out of the USD domain. I’m an employee after all, not a student and not faculty. I didn’t want the first test case to be some joker with bad taste in hats. I wanted it to be a tenured professor with bad taste in hats.2 So I decided to get my own computer and run my own server. At the time I was using a 50 Mhz 486 with Windows 3.1 at home. It was extremely annoying, and I decided not to put up with it for a 24-hour Internet site. In August of 1995 I bought a Macintosh PowerPC 7100/80, a 28.8 modem, and 8 megabytes of extra RAM and moved into Thor’s unused upstairs room for free and used the money saved to buy a dedicated Internet connection. I renamed the comic book section “Negative Space”. Thor thought it was such a great name we ended up using it for the entire site, and left “Cerebus the Gopher” on the comic book section of “Negative Space”. Cerebus.acusd.edu became nspace.cts.com.

Moving from an “Ethernet” line to a dinky little modem wasn’t as crazy as it sounds. USD was pretty far behind at the time, and was only on a 56kb uncompressed line to the rest of the world. Still, Negative Space quickly outgrew that 28.8 modem. I had to make the choice between moving my Macintosh server into my Internet Service Provider’s rack, or moving Negative Space to their Unix Internet server. Moving the Mac would have meant going back to that horrible Windows computer for my other work, so Negative Space moved once more, to a Unix web-only server.

I started mentioning to some friends that I was thinking about getting my own domain name—I was getting tired of having to change names all the time, from beelzebub to teetot to cerebus to nspace. They were thinking along similar lines, but they just wanted it for e-mail, so that they could (a) use an e-mail address that wasn’t work-related, and (b) use an e-mail address that wouldn’t change if they left their current position. One of these friends is an old college buddy from Cornell University, where we’d had a faux-fraternity called “Eta Phi Eta”, or “Houses for Hoboes”. Turns out “hoboes.com” was one of the few domain names not yet taken (all variations on “Negative Space” had long since gone), so nspace.cts.com became, hopefully for the last time, www.hoboes.com. The name remains Negative Space.

I routinely move up to five hundred megabytes and twenty thousand pages a day through Negative Space. Negative Space currently has 14,812 pages and 8,480 links, including the blog entries on Mimsy Were the Borogoves, The Biblyon Broadsheet, and The Walkerville Weekly Reader.

Cerebus remained the name of my office Macintosh until I left USD at the end of 2013, but it had stopped receiving hits for the old Cerebus the Gopher files long before that: the acusd.edu domain had been replaced with sandiego.edu. And of course cerebus.sandiego.edu itself was retired after I left. But I suspect that, off in limbo, beelzebub and cerebus, if not nspace, are still refusing connections to the great unknown.

  1. For a few weeks, I used a program called ‘FTPShare’, which USD paid a lot of money for, but which became obsolete and overpriced almost immediately when Peter Lewis’s FTPd came out.

  2. Important bit of historical trivia: back then, everybody had their own public IP address. There was no subnetting going on, which meant that anyone with a computer on their desktop, especially if it was a Macintosh, could simply install some server software—such as Peter Lewis’s, which added HTTP service to its FTP and Gopher service—and boom, they were on the net. I was very disappointed that we lost this freedom when we turned subnetting on, but I understand the benefits in terms of security (when you are directly connected to the Internet, it is also true that everyone on the Internet has direct access to you) and the necessity of saving limited IP addresses as more and more things needed one.