2011-07-01

Thimbl on my Finger

Today I have been hacking on PageKite and Thimbl, which is a somewhat silly but also quite cool anarchistic distributed Twitter replacement.

The point of Thimbl, is to be as low-tech as possible, while still doing more-or-less the same thing as Twitter, but without the centralization and corporate lock-in. Philosophically, it's very compatible with PageKite. So today I worked on making them technologically compatible as well.

Thimbl is based on Finger, of all things, so in order to make PageKite work with Thimbl, I first had to make PageKite work with Finger.

What's Finger? Glad you asked..

Finger

Finger is an ancient Unix protocol for asking a computer to tell you something about a particular user. Things like the full name, when the user last logged on, their phone and office numbers, whether the user has any unread mail... fun stuff like that, things that it makes sense to share within a University or other place of work.

About 20 years ago, one might have typed the command:

$ finger bre@geysir.os.is

And gotten a response like this:

Login: bre                         Name: Bjarni R. Einarsson
Directory: /home/b/bre             Shell: /bin/csh
On since Tue Jun 28 18:50 (GMT) on tty2  3 days 4 hours idle
  (messages off)
No mail.
Plan:
Try the newest version of Netscape Navigator!!!1

Most of that information comes from the operating system, but the bit at the end, the Plan: is like a primitive text-only home page, where the user could write anything they wanted, and anyone on the Internet could see it just by using the finger command.

(Finger predates the web: the port number for finger is 79, one less than the now ubiquitous port 80 we use for transmitting web pages.)

Hackers loved the finger command because it let them check whether the administrator was logged on or not before making mischief. Hackers also liked putting nasty things in their Plans (core dumps, for example), so if an admin Fingered them, his screen would be filled with beeping, blinking garbage.

Good times, good times...

But thanks to this kind of mischief and the fact that the Internet was becoming a larger and less naive place, Finger gradually fell out of grace and stopped being part of a standard Unix/Linux installation. Today it is largely forgotten, except by dinosaurs like myself.

Or was, until Thimbl came along.

Thimbl, which is as much an art project as it is a technology project, brings Finger back from the dead and gives it a hip, cool new mission: Replace Twitter! The Plan section is repurposed as a place to put micro-blog-posts for the world to see, instantly bootstrapping a global, distributed Twitter replacement.

That's the idea, anyway.

Using Finger for this doesn't really make much technological sense - a protocol based on HTTP and RSS would be far more sensible (that is more or less what Thimbl's big brother, OStatus, is), but it's just so cool to see old software get a second chance at life, that geeks have been charmed by Thimbl in spite of themselves.

Myself included.

So after arguing good-naturedly on Twitter with the author of Thimbl about the relative merits of Finger vs. more modern protocols, I found myself adding support for Finger to PageKite. I didn't see that one coming!

But now it mostly works:

$ finger bre+bre.pagekite.me@bre.pagekite.me
Login: bre                       Name: Bjarni R. Einarsson
Plan:
...

Pretty cool!

Tags: life


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