No, I did not have a project where I “released birds” over the ARPANET

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So I get this email from a researcher asking me about my project to release birds over satellites, and ARPANET, and what he called “UCNET” — and I’ll admit the initial message was puzzling. I don’t recall any significant bird release projects in my past. After a little more back and forth, I figured out what was going on — he had somehow conflated several of my past projects in a very amusing manner. However, this got me thinking about how the historical record will view this stuff. So here’s how it actually untangles:

Apparently this guy started when he stumbled across my name on a page about the old ADVENTURE game. In fact, this is where the “bird release” hook comes from in the first place!

Back in ARPANET days at UCLA, I had a project called “Touch-Tone UNIX” (it was described in a paper I presented at a USENIX conference several hundred years ago). I was pretty proud of the fact that the entire name was composed of what was then *two* AT&T trademarks.

So this used a Votrax speech synth, heavily modified UNIX text-to-speech code, and a touch-tone modem feeding into the system via a DEC PDP-11/70 serial port (running a driver I had also heavily modified). I created an early (probably the first) system for mapping touch-tone presses to full ASCII. Control-G was played as the word “BING!”

The original purpose for all this was an adjunct of my work on newswire scanning systems (I had an “underground” feed of the teletype speed AP wire coming to me from a “friendly” source over the ARPANET). I collected all this (even at TTY speed the data builds up over time) and processed it in various ways for searching and retrieval, including via voice announcements and automatic phone call notifications (that’s where the voice synth came in, of course). The newswire scanning code eventually attracted the attention of an intelligence agency subcontractor, but nothing ultimately came of them. This is a *different* story than the day I was sitting in the UCLA ARPANET machine room and a colleague suddenly came in and said, “Hey Lauren, get out here, two guys from NSA are looking for you.” Yeah, that’s a different saga.

Anyway, Touch-Tone UNIX was a quite general purpose platform in its way, and you could run arbitrary UNIX commands over the phone and it would try speak the results in a reasonable way. You can guess what happened. One of the most popular uses turned out to be playing ADVENTURE over the system. And so I indeed did have graduate students waiting for tables in Westwood eateries, and playing ADVENTURE from payphones — and confusing patrons by suddenly exclaiming loudly, “I released the bird!”

Now what about “UCNET” and satellites? This is conflation of two other of my projects. One was my UULINK software, which was the *first* non-UNIX UUCP implementation (Wikipedia of course doesn’t even mention it, and I’m not enough of a masochist to try fix stuff on Wikipedia). It included a UUCP/ARPANET mail gateway and RFC-compliant mail handling and such. At the time it was considered highly specialized but was quite widely used in a variety of commercial, government, and other applications, including some of its code being adopted for specialized “high speed” modem communications modes for UUCP. The original code was written for and ran under DOS, migrated from my earlier experiments in this area on CP/M. This is from the period where my incoming UUCP phone line to my own UULINK system typically got a call every three minutes or so 24/7, from educational sites, DEC, and Bell Labs sites around the country. My published email address around that time looked like:

ARPA: vortex!lauren@LBL-CSAM
UUCP: {decvax, ihnp4, harpo, ucbvax!lbl-csam, randvax}!vortex!lauren
(Yeah, my “vortex” goes way, way back, well before it became among the first 40 dot-com domains issued 30 years ago.)

The satellite angle was my STARGATE project (this was also described and presented in a USENIX paper). STARGATE was an experiment in sending Netnews articles over the vertical blanking interval of SuperStation WTBS (based in Atlanta, but available all over the country by cable). A very early effort at data over cable, you’d use a special (too expensive) box that would connect to your TV cable line, tune it to WTBS, and get a continuous Netnews data feed. I installed the data equipment at the WTBS uplink myself. Remarkably, someone who worked at the facility back then very recently (out of the blue!) sent me an old video of the data shack where this was all installed at the base of the big uplink dishes. Obviously this was a one-way system — you’d submit articles via UUCP for example (so my UULINK system was integrated with this, along with other systems) — but since most people read far more than they write, this actually worked pretty well. The cost factors made it impractical in the long run though — those decoder boxes were pricey and at the time cable penetration wasn’t all that great where it needed to be (e.g., inside schools, businesses, etc.) But it was quite interesting and a lot of fun.

That’s the thumbnail of all this anyway. Maybe it’ll help to avoid confusion in the future. Probably not. That’s history for ya’.

–Lauren–
I have consulted to Google, but I am not currently doing so — my opinions expressed here are mine alone.

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