Last changed 05:49am 7 November 2000 by
Copyright Sunir Shah. All rights reserved.


My name is Sunir Shah. I was born in Niagara Falls, Ontario, Canada in the remaining months of the seventies. This put me in the perfect age to be among the first people to grow up with computers.

My father bought me a Vic20 on a whim when I was four while we were living in Mississauga, Ontario. I don't think I really appreciated what it was at the time, but I watched my sister write cookbook programs from the manual like:

10 PRINT "Nina is cool."
20 GOTO 10

As anyone with an older sibling knows, watching this form of boasting was insufferable. It wasn't long before I had figured out what to do:

10 PRINT "Sunir is cool."
20 GOTO 10

After that, it didn't take long to figure out how to operate a Vic20. At least to my young requirements. You got it: games.

When I turned seven, my family moved from the inner city of Hamilton, Ontario--where we had only moved to a year and half beforehand--to a small town (population: 4200) called Deep River, Ontario. Deep River is famous for having been constructed to house the employees of Chalk River Nuclear Laboratories (CRNL). CRNL was the first ever nuclear facility in Canada, constructed at the end of World War II to work on the Bomb. Despite continued government cutbacks, it remains the largest nuclear research facility in Canada, and Deep River boasts the highest number of PhDs per capita in all of Canada. Its high school also boasts a 60% drug usage rate.

I often call Deep River "the suburb to nowhere," it being designed by architects as the model "atomic town" back when Modernism, the nuclear family and "Leave it to Beaver" were the in things. To make it worse, the children of PhDs have a lot of money (owing to their parents' incomes) and have a taste for urban things. Unfortunately, Deep River is 45 minutes from the nearest "city", Pembroke, which rings in at a paltry 14 500 people. "Depriver" is two hours away from either Ottawa heading east on the TransCanada highway or North Bay heading west.

My urban youth and frequent moving had lead me to become a 20th Century Digital Boy. I grew up on a diet of TV, Atari 2600 and that Vic20. I was remarkably unpleased to be stuck in the middle of nowhere, with not even a respectable library available to fuel my quickening mind.

I was outgrowing my digital toys quickly. I did the natural thing: I asked for a new computer. After great deliberation, my father bought me a Tandy 1000 SX from Radio Shack for $1600 Canadian. Keep in mind this was in 1986. Had I known the 80386 had come out that year and what a dump Radio Shack was maybe I would have saved myself the headaches of that hunk of cheese. But I was seven and it was cool. It even had a particular new computer smell. Kind of like evaporating plastic.

I was enthralled. My sister and I played SpaceQuest I for days straight. I was even impressed by WordPerfect 4.2.

I can't tell you the number of TandyBasic programs I wrote. Thousands, I'm sure. The complexity ranged from the simple "Guess a number between 1 and a 1000" to an accounting database to a music editing program.

You should have seen the enthusiasm we had when we acquired our first 20MB HD for $400. I don't think the act of acquiring new hardware ever loses that Christmas morning excitement.

Now, what I didn't know about the Tandy was that my father had acquired a 1200bps modem. Well, I did know that, I just didn't know what a modem was for. One day, though, when I was 11, my father decided to take me with him while visiting one of the local techheads. He ran what I would later learn was called a bulletin board system, or BBS. To me, it seemed like a whole new world was made visible. Could you imagine that you could make two computers talk to each other? Magic.

I don't remember how long it took me to figure it out, but it wasn't long before I was cruising onto CRNL's mainframe. Since the nuclear lab housed secrets of great national import, it was fitting there was no security at all on their dial-up.

To a 12 year old, flying up and down someone else's computer was cool. I had access to NANET as well as the Internet, but I didn't know nor did I care. I was reading people's documents, not like I understood what they meant. (Have no fear; the important documents weren't public.) If you've never cracked someone's computer before (even as lame as this), or even chdir'd into someone else's home directory, and read their data, you're missing out on half the mystique of the 'Net.

Thrills aside, you can only read so many requisitions before you get bored. I put aside the modem for a couple years.

When I was 14, some of my friends had discovered modems in their computers too. Often donated by the labs to cash in on this "telecommuting" thing. And you think telecommuting is terrible now. It was hideous then. Most parents only went so far as to set up the terminal program with the default dial-in being that VMS I had earlier navigated. Having given up in disgust, their tech savvy kids--my friends and I--had a run at the mainframe.

This time we knew what the Internet was.

Of course, it sucked back then compared to now, but it was stellar to us. IRC, MUD, random telnets, ftp with archie (ftp was mystical to us back then), gopher with veronica and jughead, wais. I cannot believe the amount of time I spent on Undernet IRC.

Meanwhile, we were learning of local BBSes. They were all long distance from us at the time. Seeing as we were all on the young side of teenagedom, incurring random phone charges was toying with death.

Nonetheless, some were brave enough to venture forward. Some (like me) had forgiving parents. While pushing outward, some of us learnt how to phreak to avoid charges.

We coasted up and down the late night copper all the way to California to British Columbia to Germany. We all shifted phase to post midnight hours. We ate bits. We spoke in Hayes modem codes feared line noise.

I wanted my own board. I set one up on a 1200bps line with no dedicated phone line. It was an experiment. It sucked. In fact, it was certified lame.

Using my lameness as an excuse, I pushed my father again for a new computer. We sold the motor boat, which only he enjoyed seeing as none of the rest of family were allowed to touch it, and acquired a speed demon of a 486/25SX. I've learnt my lesson now: SX is short for "sucks." But it was better than the 386/40DX we ordered.

I bought the first 14.4kbps/v42b CCITT compliant modem in town. Screw the USRobotics HST modems. They were only 14.4k synchronous, 400bps in the opposite stream. I had a rocking system. I installed my own phone line. I installed Maximus BBS software. I was in business.

Ok, that BBS sucked too. But when I nuked it and rebuilt it again, I had what would be my main point of contact to the world for the next several years. Open Fire BBS--"Open fire at night."

By itself, the BBS was almost meaningless, but it was only a taste of the feast yet to come. I did the obvious thing to do: I joined Fidonet. I took my place in the nodelist. I read echomail. I read FidoNews. I was attached to the rest of the world.

People who are only used to the Web do not fully appreciate how far apart the rest of the world is. Even when we were playing around on the Internet on that rusty old VMS, you could appreciate the real distances between places. Finland really felt like it was across the ocean. Russia might as well have been on the moon.

Fidonet only accentuated this feeling. You could measure how far apart you really were from people by the "lag" on mail. If it managed to actually get there. Crossing oceans was a dicey and costly affair. But if it made it, countries opened up to you. And to think that we, in high school, were afforded this privilege. It's taken for granted now, but then...

As I became more involved in Fidonet (and the necessary flame wars), I latched onto particular echoes. I became moderator of YOUNG_ADULT when I was 15. I quickly became the absentee fascist moderator of YOUNG_ADULT; dealing with whiny brats when you yourself are a whiny brat is unbelievably difficult. I began to read the International C Echo (C_ECHO), at first haphazardly and then in earnest. It was here that things changed for me.

I had already began learning C, as early as age 12 on the school's duct tape and bailing wire QNX 80186 systems (the infamous Icon/Unisys network). But I was incapable of truly programming anything more complicated than a BASIC program. The folks on C_ECHO taught me not only how to program C, not only how to program well, but what online community was truly about.

In August of 1995, the Internet came to Deep River. I signed up. Back then, the Internet meant Trumpet Winsock/SLIP and a Unix shell account. Now it means something wildly more consumerist, something I can't stand as my ISPs can attest to. But then, it was open. It was simple. I had my first web page up within 10 hours of getting an Internet account, complete with the infamous "upside floating head" picture of myself. I wonder if people could grok HTML4.0 now as easily as I did HTML1.0. But then again, now we have Microsoft FrontPage.

Almost immediately, I fell into Usenet (which had already began its decline). It was Fidonet's echomail on Bovine Growth Hormone. It was great. I began reading and (artificial intelligence in games) judiciously, having previously fallen in lust with games after a brush with demo programming. I became a regular. Eventually, I took over the FAQ. And promptly became the absentee maintainer for that.

You see, I was busy returning the favour to my compadres in the C_ECHO. Game development discussions were choking the echo. Traffic was dropping, people were getting annoyed. I responded by creating the Game Development echo (GAMEDEV). I stretched hard to get enough nodes to get it backboned. It even went international. GAMEDEV taught me how to moderate a community for real. Nothing like YOUNG_ADULT, my attitude became one of gentle nudging. After a year, it made it and it remains to this day. The C_ECHO patrons were ecstatic.

Back in the land of, I mused about creating a little thing called WASTE--Warfare by Artificial Strategic and Tactical Engines. It was meant to be a complete warfare simulator. One of the first things I did was create a mailing list for interested people. I hacked it together out of BlueWave offline reader and the QWK packet format. It was pretty good, actually.

Meanwhile, the artificial life game called Creatures was released. Suddenly, traffic in hit the roof and all everyone wanted to do was swap eggs. As the noise level increased, the contributors dropped out in frustration. However, the WASTE Mailing List gave an outlet to continue the discussion. I had done it again, this time inadvertently: I had "rescued" my favourite hang out with my own community. I wish I could really take credit for this, but it was just a fortuitous happenstance.

The WASTE Mailing List was amazing. We talked not only about artificial intelligence, but the theory of computing and my life. I think I solidified my policy of always combining a social atmosphere with the technical. Never too much of one, mind you, and always more technical than social, but I like to project myself as a person albeit reserved. You can see how this works on my Meatball diary or at a much larger scale on Advogato's diary entries.

I spent some time burnt out. I "ran away" to Ottawa, Ontario (Canada's fine capital) two days after graduating from high school and worked for a summer. I started school at Carleton university in September and learnt what broadband internet connectivity was really like. Got to love residence. This is when I met ICQ and MP3s, including the then mere "MP3z" site, Napster.

Man, have things changed in three years.

While searching for information on Design Patterns, I stumbled onto WikiWikiWeb. At first I dismissed it, but it was only a matter of time before I found the next online community to suck me in wholesale. It was an amazing conception: the web with write permissions, just like Tim Berners-Lee always wanted. It was stable. It was high signal. It was great.

For awhile. As usual, I found Wiki just before the downswing. As readership/contributors went up, quality went down. Flame wars ensued. Meta-wiki discussions about the nature of Wiki itself consumed the community. I did what I thought was natural: with the help of Clifford Adams, I precipitated the formation of a separate wiki, MeatballWiki, precisely to talk about meta issues of online community. And I did it not just for the sake of abating the flame war. I realized that online communities have been the one constant interest in my last ten years of computing.

That's it, I figured. I'm going to build a community. Not only that, a community that builds communities. And damn us if we don't change the world.