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Browsing the World Wide Web via E-Mail -- 1990's Style
A look back at "Doctor Bob's Guide to Offline Internet Access".
May 15, 2024
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Back in the 1990s… browsing “The Web” was a distinctly different experience for many people.

Some had a limited amount of time which they could be “On-Line”. Others had access to Internet E-Mail, often through a local dial-up BBS… but not the ability to use a graphical Web Browser. (Yes… “E-Mail” has a dash in it… that’s how it was in the beginning — as it is “Electronic Mail” — and that’s how it shall forever stay.)

Luckily, a solution presented itself:

“Doctor Bob’s Guide to Offline Internet Access”

First published in 1994 by “Doctor Bob” Rankin, the guide to offline Internet access focused on ways you could fetch (and interact with) various types of Internet servers entirely via E-Mail.

The sheer amount of different types of Internet servers that could be used via E-Mail was nothing short of amazing: FTP, Gopher, Jughead, Usenet, Finger, Whois, Nslookup, Traceroute, and (of course) the “World Wide Web” were all usable (to one degree or another).

“Doctor Bob” continued to update and release new versions of the guide until 1999, when he handed duties over to Gerald E. Boyd. The final version (to my knowledge) was released in 2002 and is available in full at faqs.org.

But… HOW?!

The way all of this worked was actually pretty ingenious in its simplicity.

There were servers — quite a lot of them — that you could email. In the body of your email you would include any of a number of different commands. The server would receive your email… and send a response back to you with the result of your command.

You could almost think of these “Web via E-Mail” servers as command line tools… that you use via E-Mail. Most of them even included a “Help” command that would email you an introduction and list of available commands.

One of the most popular (and earliest) servers, known as Agora, was developed by the World Wide Web Consortium — with the final release (0.8b) published in 1997.

Let’s say, for example, you want to read the contents of “Lunduke.com”. Easy peasy! You’d simply email the Agora server of your choice (Doctor Bob’s included several to get people started) with the following in the body of your email:

send http://lunduke.com

You would then get an email response (sometimes quickly… sometimes with a large lag time) with the text-mode version of that webpage.

Fun tidbits: The Agora Web Browser was written in Perl and ran on DEC Alpha servers. It was based (in very large part) on the second Web Browser ever created: the portable “Line Mode Browser” from 1990: a text-mode tool for fetching webpages from a command line.

Searching the Web via a search engine was possible via Agora, and typically was done by including a fully formed URL (with all of the search words) in the email. For example, the following would use the Lycos Search engine to search for “linux sucks”:

https://search.lycos.com/web/?q=linux+sucks

Not the most user-friendly method in the world, but it was functional.

Later, more advanced, “Web via E-Mail” servers would include some additional features to make this all a bit easier.

For example, “GetWeb” and “WWW4MAIL” (two of the most popular, full featured servers) would allow you to perform the same search (for "linux sucks") by sending the following email:

SEARCH LYCOS linux sucks

See? Much nicer.

The Impact of Doctor Bob’s Guide

Many modern Internet users may have never even been aware of Doctor Bob’s Guide to Offline Internet Access”… just the same, its impact was far reaching.

People, across the world, utilized the techniques in the guide to gain some form of “Web Access” in areas with little availability of Internet Access. In fact, its usage was so widespread that various versions of the guide were translated to 32 different languages.

All The Servers are Gone

To my knowledge, no such “WWW via E-Mail” servers (Agora, GetWeb, or WWW4MAIL) are still in operation. In fact, even finding the source code for some of these servers has proven challenging.

There have been a few attempts at writing a new such server over the years — including “newAgora” written in Python. However, none seem to have any longevity to them (newAgora was last updated 11 years ago).

This isn’t terribly surprising, as the “WWW” has become increasingly difficult to use via text-mode browsers over the last 20 years. Add on top of this the continually shifting SSL requirements of most servers… and it has simply become too complex of a task.  Especially considering the lack of interest  in supporting such functionality.

Just the same, it’s sad when these sort of systems are no longer functional. A whole new generation of people will never have the opportunity to experience what it was like to “browse the web” entirely via E-Mail.

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"Andreas Kling creator of Serenity OS & Ladybird Web Browser" - Lunduke’s Big Tech Show - September 13th, 2023 - Ep 044

This episode is free for all to enjoy and share.

Be sure to subscribe here at Lunduke.Locals.com to get all shows & articles (including interviews with other amazing nerds).

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Off to a fantastic start!

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Last week at The Lunduke Journal (June 9 - June 15, 2024)
Firefox! Russia! WWDC! Open Source A.I.!

My-oh-my.  Another wild week at The Lunduke Journal!  It all kicked off with a live video commentary of Apple's WWDC keynote (which was banned by YouTube, but still available at the links below), then quickly moves to Mozilla and Open Source AI.

The Videos

The Articles

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Reminder: Check out The Lunduke Journal Link Central page for all the handy URLS.  Podcast RSS feeds, contact info, direct links to some of the big shows and articles and a bunch of other goodies.  And be sure to subscribe to The Lunduke Journal to help support the work... and make sure you don't miss out on anything.

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The CIA, NSA, and Pokémon Go

Back in July of 2016, I wrote a short article for Network World entitled “The CIA, NSA, and Pokémon Go."

While the title was certainly viewed as a bit “over the top” and “conspiracy theorist-y”, it was really just a collection of (in my opinion, rather bizarre) facts that – even without any sinister connection – were worth documenting. I am republishing it here, with some additional (increasingly odd) details added at the end (including radio and TV appearances related to this article).

Some of the details relating to the exact permissions and capabilities of the Pokémon application have changed over the last few years… but everything else remains correct, factual, and up to date.

 


 

The CIA, NSA, and Pokémon Go

With Pokémon Go currently enjoying, what I would call, a wee-bit-o-success, now seems like a good time to talk about a few things people may not know about the world's favorite new smartphone game.

This is not an opinion piece. I am not going to tell you Pokémon Go is bad or that it invades your privacy. I’m merely presenting verifiable facts about the biggest, most talked about game out there.

Let’s start with a little history

Way back in 2001, Keyhole, Inc. was founded by John Hanke (who previously worked in a “foreign affairs” position within the U.S. government). The company was named after the old “eye-in-the-sky” military satellites. One of the key, early backers of Keyhole was a firm called In-Q-Tel.

In-Q-Tel is the venture capital firm of the CIA. Yes, the Central Intelligence Agency. Much of the funding purportedly came from the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA). The NGA handles combat support for the U.S. Department of Defense and provides intelligence to the NSA and CIA, among others.

Keyhole’s noteworthy public product was “Earth.” Renamed to “Google Earth” after Google acquired Keyhole in 2004.

In 2010, Niantic Labs was founded (inside Google) by Keyhole’s founder, John Hanke.

Over the next few years, Niantic created two location-based apps/games. The first was Field Trip, a smartphone application where users walk around and find things. The second was Ingress, a sci-fi-themed game where players walk around and between locations in the real world.

In 2015, Niantic was spun off from Google and became its own company. Then Pokémon Go was developed and launched by Niantic. It’s a game where you walk around in the real world (between locations suggested by the service) while holding your smartphone.

Data the game can access

Let’s move on to what information Pokémon Go has access to, bearing the history of the company in mind as we do.

When you install Pokémon Go on an Android phone, you grant it the following access (not including the ability to make in-app purchases):

Identity

  • Find accounts on the device

Contacts

  • Find accounts on the device

Location

  • Precise location (GPS and network-based)

  • Approximate location (network-based)

Photos/Media/Files

  • Modify or delete the contents of your USB storage

  • Read the contents of your USB storage

Storage

  • Modify or delete the contents of your USB storage

  • Read the contents of your USB storage

Camera

  • Take pictures and videos

Other

  • Receive data from the internet

  • Control vibration

  • Pair with Bluetooth devices

  • Access Bluetooth settings

  • Full network access

  • Use accounts on the device

  • View network connections

  • Prevent the device from sleeping

Based on the access to your device (and your information), coupled with the design of Pokémon Go, the game should have no problem discerning and storing the following information (just for a start):

  • Where you are

  • Where you were

  • What route you took between those locations

  • When you were at each location

  • How long it took you to get between them

  • What you are looking at right now

  • What you were looking at in the past

  • What you look like

  • What files you have on your device and the entire contents of those files

I’m not going to tell people what they should think of all this.

I’m merely presenting the information. I recommend looking over the list of what data the game has access to, then going back to the beginning of this article and re-reading the history of the company.

Update: April 14th, 2020

In March of 2017, a little less than a year after this article was originally published, WikiLeaks released what they called “Vault 7." A series of documents that was purported to be a large leak of CIA related documents focused heavily on hacking and electronic surveillance.

Among those documents was a list of code names, descriptions, and various details around Android specific exploits.

Of the code names listed… almost a third of them were Pokémon names. Between that and the CIA investment (via In-Q-Tel) in Niantic (the company behind Pokémon Go)… I mean, that's just a heck of a lot more Pokémon than one would expect from the CIA.

One other little tidbit:

The original CEO of In-Q-Tel was a man named Gilman Louie. Louie received multiple awards for his work with In-Q-Tel - including CIA Agency Seal Medallions, Director's Award by the Director of the Central Intelligence Agency, and Director of National Intelligence Medallion – which included investing in Keyhole.

Louie now sits on the board of directors of Niantic.

In 2019 alone, Pokémon Go earned $1.4 Billion (USD). As of February 2019, the game had been downloaded over One Billion times.

Update: June 15th, 2024

After this article was originally published, back in 2016, I made a few radio guest appearances to talk about it -- my favorites being for Coast to Coast AM and Fade to Black.  Both of which remain available online.

This was followed by an episode of a TV show, for The History Channel, called "Breaking Mysterious".  That show only received a limited run in the USA, but it remains available via streaming in many other countries in case you want to look it up.

Here's a few snapshots from that episode (Season 1, Episode 1 - "The Watchers") just for good measure.

The show was originally titled "The Unexplained".  But the name was changed to "Breaking Mysterious"... and, later, "The Unexplained" title was used for an entirely different show, hosted by William Shatner.

 

Yup.  The video editors for the History Channel spelled my name wrong.  (It's with a Y!  A Y, I say!)

 

Sitting in a park.  Dropping truth bombs about surveillance on the show host, Jimmy Church.

 

Giving the show's host "The Look".
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Funny Programming Pictures Part XLIV
Father's Day Weekend Edition

I hit Ctrl-C 187,000 times while creating this article.

 

... or simply don't know what we did, but it works.  It's "the algorithm".

 

Remember when Windows Vista was the "Best Advertisement for Linux"?  Good times.

 

We're all doomed.

 

This is the correct answer for every topic for an experienced dev: I hate everything, for different reasons.

 

Correct.

 

This is a tough conversation for any dad to have.

 

The other 1% is giving up and just using a Center tag inside of a Table.

 

The more times you hit Ctrl-C, the better it copies.

 

GLAAARRGGHHH!

 

"Backend Developer"

 

WE ARE LINUX. YOU WILL BE ASSIMILATED. YOUR LINE BREAK TYPE WILL BE LF. RESISTANCE IS FUTILE.

 

Don't look behind you.  Copilot is catching up.
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