The Kinder Gap: Cerebus the Gopher

  1. The Underground Highway
  2. The Kinder Gap
  3. Usenet

I have a special business card to advertise my personal truck stop on the infobahn:

Negative Space is an Internet site dedicated to comic books, role-playing games, and information about drug prohibition, as well as a bit of information on gun control and other politics of personal freedom.

I’ve nicknamed the computer “Cerebus”, because the service began on my Macintosh at the office at the University.

The Cerebus at the office is a Macintosh personal computer hooked directly to the Internet. It uses a collection of software written by an Aussie named Peter N. Lewis for the ftp, gopher, finger, and whois services, and a piece of software from Chuck Shotton called MacHTTP, to provide the web service. Besides having used it at various times as a major Internet service station, I also use it to test a Unix and Internet help center for the USD community, and I use it to write the department’s newsletter, Access. This all happens at the same time, and Cerebus is still at least as reliable as our main, much more powerful, Internet minicomputers.

I’ve told you a little bit about Cerebus already. Cerebus started out as a role-playing game information server. Role-Playing games are games such as TSR’s “Dungeons and Dragons™”, in which players control the actions of fantasy heroes. Role-Playing games exist for western fans, science fiction fans, superhero fans, and history buffs, among many others. I’ve written my own role-playing game, called Brand X™, which I distribute from Negative Space. I’ll quote myself from the introduction to Brand X: (?)

What is Role-Playing?

Role-Playing is getting together with some friends to write a story. It’s joining around a campfire or a dining room to spin some tall tales. Role-Playing is being creative and having fun with friends.

I started Cerebus (then called Beelzebub, and no, I didn’t choose the name, strange people work at Catholic institutions, why do you think they call them institutions?) because I wanted to provide a space for role-playing gamers to exchange information about games. I had been reading the gaming discussion groups on Usenet for a while, and had seen a number of very well-written gaming articles go by. Usenet articles disappear after a certain period of time, well-written or not, so I started saving these articles. After I’d saved a bunch, I discovered Peter Lewis’ ftp daemon (!) software for the Macintosh. Previous to this, I had thought that ftp sites were things that other people did, people who had really huge computers. Now, I discovered, I could have my very own ftp site, and publish anything I wanted to the world. So I did. I published net-created gaming articles back to the net, ‘archiving’ well-written Usenet articles so that they wouldn’t ‘expire’ and disappear forever.

Sometime in the same period, I started reading comic books again. (!) So I added a new folder on Beelzebub for comic book information.

Eventually, Beelzebub migrated to Teetot, and then later to its current home, Cerebus. As it was migrating, the focus changed as well, more strongly in the comic book section than the role-playing section. While I still archive information about most aspects of role-playing and comic books, I now make a special point of archiving any information that has to do with creation: self-published games, ‘free’ games distributed to the net. And, for the comic book folder, information about how individuals can create and publish their own comics. I’ve even created a special area within the comic book section of Cerebus called The Comic Ground, where comic book creators can drop bios and samples, in order to meet other creators and collaborate. Comic book creation involves a wide variety of talents, and many comic books are the result of two or more artists: a writer and a penciler, or even a writer, penciler, inker, colorist, and letterer, each handling a different portion of the comic book creation process. Using the Comic Ground, creators can fill out an on-line form with their name, electronic mail address, biography, and even a small sample of their work. This gets deposited into the special Comic Ground area of Cerebus, and anyone else on the Internet can browse through the various offerings.

I’d fallen in love with the net within a year of discovering Usenet. Usenet encompassed a bewilderingly wide variety of topics, and wherever a discussion group existed, you could also find ftp sites archiving information about the topic in question. On a sunny day in 1991, a friend of mine started having second thoughts about her use of illegal drugs, a horrible thing called marijuana. I thought this a perfect chance to use the Internet to change a life, to show her the dangers she’d been subjecting herself to. Instead, I made the mistake of discovering the facts about marijuana. They were there as plain as day on the net, once I started looking for them.

The life I ended up changing was my own. While everything else you may hear about marijuana is wrong, it is certainly a gateway drug: in my case, it led to Internet abuse.

I started saving the best articles about illegal drugs, just as I had saved the best articles about comic books and role-playing games. Soon, I opened a new folder on Beelzebub: Prohibition. Devoted to articles about modern prohibition. Having been rabidly anti-drug before discovering talk.politics.drugs, even to the point of not using alcohol and coffee, the new information was intoxicating, to say the least. Fresh information always is, to those who understand it. The Internet is fresh information mainlined directly into your brain.

This is your brain on TV. This is your brain on the Internet. Suddenly you start asking lots of questions.

There were (and still are) other Internet service stations that provide information about drugs and drug use; mine was the first (that I know of) to focus on drug laws as prohibition, and it was soon listed among the major drug information ftp sites.

Comics, games, and drugs. Where next for an anarchist on the infobahn?

For some reason, and I’m afraid the details escape me now, I decided that I wanted to take part in the gun control debate, and, like a good liberal, help further the cause of banishing guns forever. So I looked for a gun control discussion group. I found it, of course: everything under the sun is talked about somewhere on Usenet. In talk.politics.guns, I found more than I bargained for. I found facts, where I had been used to seeing empty emotion. I saw rational discussion, and I saw screaming loonies. Unfortunately, the screaming loonies and the empty emotional rhetoric were all on my side. The people rationally discussing the facts--in short, the people who knew what they were talking about, and could back it up with examples and studies from the real world--were firmly against any further gun control, and many were also against most of the twenty thousand gun control laws already in existence.

I had never really thought about why I was against guns. I mean, sure, because they ‘kill people’. But there are 270 million firearms in the United States, and less than 30,000 firearms deaths. And most of those are suicides, which, I already knew from my background in psychology, would have occurred with or without access to a firearm. So it seemed that most firearms were not, in fact, used to kill people.

But I’d never had to argue against that fact before I came to the talk.politics.guns.

I had heard the second amendment occasionally, and I knew it mentioned ‘militia’. But I had no idea what ‘militia’ was, except that it sounded a lot like ‘military.’ Which made it that much easier to forget that the word ‘people’ was also in there somewhere, and grammatically in a much stronger position.

But I’d never had to face up to that deliberate memory lapse before I came to talk.politics.guns.

What I had to face up to finally was that everything I thought I knew was wrong. This didn’t really come as a big surprise to me: I’d studied physics, and later, psychology, in college, and I knew from experience that reporters and staff writers tended to get things wrong when they reported on those fields. I assumed it was simply that they weren’t scientists. They were simply reporting on things they didn’t understand. Later, realizing that everything I learned from television and newspapers about illegal drugs was also wrong, I was able to attribute it to the same thing: neither the reporters who report about drug use, nor the lawmakers to make laws about them, have any medical knowledge, so is it really their fault that they don’t know what they’re talking about?

Hit me over the head four times, and I maybe I’ll start seeing a pattern. People see what they want to see, and what reporters want to see is excitement, if they have to use a typo deep inside the meanderings of a boring marijuana study to get it. (?) In the more classical education than tends to be given nowadays, there’s something called critical thinking. It was, at one time, a part of the ‘liberal arts’ education. Students were taught to do more than simply soak up information. They were taught to filter it and analyze it as well. Today that isn’t a commonly used skill, possibly because there is simply so much information bombarding us, from television, from newspapers, from radio, from 24-hour cable news, that we’ve given up trying to both observe and analyze. But coming to Usenet, I learned to be, not just critical about what I read--both inside Usenet and outside of it--but penetrating. To ask not only what does this mean, but where does this come from, and how reliable is it likely to be. And, most dangerous of all, who is doing the reporting. Usenet upped the information overload to such an extent that I had to start cutting back. Television was the first to go. Newspapers were second. I still listen to the radio on occasion, but I find the give and take of Usenet far more interesting. And as the Usenet information pump goes faster and faster, the computer software I use to read it gets better at filtering out what I don’t want to read. Now that I’ve brought the ‘information overload’ back to a reasonable level, I have time to think about what I’m seeing and hearing.

There’s a popular ‘signature quote’ on Usenet, attributed to science fiction author Robert Heinlein’s character Lazarus Long, which goes: What are the facts, and to how many decimal places? It could well be a caricature of infobahn debaters, who have become so critical, in the classical sense, that any unsubstantiated claim is met with “cite, please? If it’s a fact, you should have no trouble backing it up, right?” And if that feeding frenzy makes you nervous, wait’ll you see someone try to back up their claim with a newspaper article that also has no sources for its claims. You’ll have flame-broiled blood oozing out of your computer screen.

Hell hath no fury like an intellectual who finds out he’s wrong, but I directed my anger, and funneled it through Cerebus. That’s why I added the Firearms folder to Cerebus the Gopher. To atone for the sins of my youth. And also to keep the best articles from talk.politics.guns from fading into the bit bucket. They’re sitting there on my personal computer, whenever I need them. On the rare occasions when I foray into a battle on the gun group, I’ve got about ten megabytes of data ready to back my arguments. Not that I join in very often. It’s dangerous in there, asbestos suit or not.

In all the time that Cerebus has been a part of the drug war and the gun war, I’ve only once been asked to archive data for “the other side”. A quite repetitive gun control advocate wanted to know how he could go about posting “corrections” to some of the articles I’d archived. I think he must’ve been surprised when I offered to help him set up his own Internet server, and gave him step-by-step instructions on how to upload files to Cerebus. He never uploaded anything, although he did start to “debate the archives” on talk.politics.guns about a month later. It was an interesting tactic. Suddenly a new topic would pop up, and he’d be ‘correcting’ one of the archive files as if he were replying to someone’s post. Some people thought he tried that in the hopes that the archives wouldn’t debate back, but the archives gained a few human supporters to take their side and debated back anyway. Personally, I would’ve loved to archive his writings. Anyone who calls “history” a “brainless defense” is not winning converts to their side. Not on the net, at least not yet.

My naive interest in politics has also led to opening other folders on Cerebus. I’ve got one for United States documents, such as the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, and another, inspired by the Waco debacle, documenting the abuses of the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms. (!) But I try to maintain the focus of Cerebus’ political section to Prohibition of drugs and firearms, and even the BATF section has to do with drugs (alcohol and tobacco) and firearms: those are the taxes that the Bureau, a part of the Department of the Treasury, enforces.

Cerebus may well be a model of the publication of the future, or at least a primitive forebear. Like any other publication, it has an editor and publisher with a strong set of opinions: myself. And the editor chooses articles from other ‘publications’ in the community: Usenet, mailing lists, and electronic mail. In that sense, it’s a “Reader’s Digest” of the Internet, for the topics of Guns, Drugs, Comics, and Games. Future infobahn services will no doubt search out and provide more original material. Even this more traditional approach will engender discussion about the material throughout the net. And that discussion will be saved, possibly even being archived back into the service that published the original.

Future infobahn magazines will be maintained by professionals and amateurs alike. Once the infobahn runs up to every door, everyone has the potential to own their own Cerebus. What are your interests? What do your children talk about? That’s what you (and your children) will provide for the infobahn. You may provide your father’s German recipes out of the goodness of your heart--at least one person on did so, after inheriting control of the family bakery. If you think they’re worth enough, and you want to try and make some money, you might even charge a toll for your particular Cerebus.

You’ll be paid in cybercash, of course.

  1. Jerry Stratton, Brand X, 2nd edition, p. 3.
  2. A daemon is special software that does its work in the ‘background’ of your computer, where you can’t see it. Sorta fits a computer named Beelzebub, don’t it?
  3. If you don’t know what comic books are today, I strongly recommend reading Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics, which is itself a comic book. You can find it through most bookstores and comic book stores.
  4. Andrew Weil, The Natural Mind, p. 4: “In April 1970 Dr. Norman Zinberg and I published in the British journal Nature a paper... The point of the article was that no personality differences were detectable between people who used marihuana recreationally and people who did not... In a paragraph of minor importance to the whole paper, we wrote of chronic users: ‘There were no signs of overt intellectual deterioration.’ As a result of a typographical error, the word no was omitted in the article... Despite the fact that the sentence as printed made no sense, contradicted the rest of the paragraph, and had nothing to do with the paper as a whole, the Washington Post ran a major story the following day under the headline: DAILY POT-SMOKERS ERODE IN INTELLECT, RESEARCHERS CLAIM.
  5. You’ll find it under the Tax Cops if you look on Cerebus. That’s what the assault was for: a $200 unpaid tax.
  1. The Underground Highway
  2. The Kinder Gap
  3. Usenet