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The short, tormented life of computer genius Phil Katz (2000) (bbsdocumentary.com)
365 points by sanimal on Dec 11, 2016 | hide | past | web | favorite | 122 comments



For some people conscious existence is too burdensome, uncomfortable, full of anxiety, outright maddening or some combination thereof. You see this in everyday life too, albeit in benign quantities - watch a kid after you tell him he can do nothing for the next hour.

I had read Phil Katz's story before and I read it again today - it wasn't any less painful the second time around. I think if we were to debug it - there doesn't seem to be any one unmistakable conclusion, rather a combination. It would all depend on how severely one reacts to their emotional trauma. Some people are numbed, some are able to move on, some find healthy diversions in hobbies, people, achievements and some like Phil just plain fail to function well and have to resort to drugs and alcohol in order to run away from the living nightmare. I think at some point existence becomes rather more painful than death for some - that's the only way you're able to kill yourself without regard.

Humans are puzzling as a species - all the years of conditioning, the everyday conflicts and contradictions we have to face, the constant need for asserting our existence through external means, the need for relations, the child/parent and then spouse systems and all the things that can go wrong with them, all the other uncertainties - amazingly many live through this but some just can't escape the dread.


Your comment reminded me of an essay George Scialabba wrote a couple years ago, "The Endlessly Examined Life" [1], where the author gathered over 40 years of mental health records from his therapists (mostly seeking treatment for depression and anxiety), unable to draw a real conclusion

>I am as puzzled and frustrated by the above records, and by the rest of my psychiatric file, as any casual reader could be. So much earnest effort, so much expert knowledge, so little success. The world’s most common disease is still this opaque.

Having read half a dozen compelling depression memoirs—Styron, Jamison, Millett, Solomon, Kaysen, McMurtry—I was skeptical, when The Baffler proposed publishing extracts from my file, that there was much more to say. Maybe there isn’t, at least not in that register. But maybe it’s enough just to keep talking.

[1] http://thebaffler.com/salvos/endlessly-examined-life


> For some people conscious existence is too burdensome, uncomfortable, full of anxiety, outright maddening or some combination thereof.

Reading this gives me immediate anxiety. I have times during the day where just seeing things and being alive is almost unreal, like I can't deal with, and the thought of doing this for N number of years more is overwhelming. As I'm getting older life is just even more surreal, I sometimes wonder if I have the mental fortitude to make it to old age. This isn't a cry for help, you just touched a nerve with that sentence.


Phew, I'm not alone. Word for word, to the letter.


Probably more common than you think.

One old saw has it that when a man is starving he forgets even the urgent promptings of a full bladder. A newer old saw claims that religion is the opiate of the masses (with its uncoined analog regarding fetishism & the ruling classes).

The quoted OP railed against wasted time and effort, but his views on the despiritualization of the modern man are not clear. A non contemporary would likely diagnose a 'spiritual crisis' for the existential angst of the uncommon non-aristocratic unbelieving modern man.


You're not alone. I sometimes wake up at night, with a sudden realization and shock that I am existing.


+1. It took meditation to make me realize how much we suffer and react to it without realizing it a such a regular basis. It is so part of the everyday life, and anybody does so: children, adults, old people, rich, poor, healthy, sick, etc. We manage to feel that "conscious existence is too burdensome, uncomfortable, full of anxiety, outright maddening or some combination thereof" in any context, which is a hint that we, as a specie, are part of the problem. And we invent so many ways to distract ourself to avoid feeling it we became masters at it. Some never master it, and instead of hiding the dirt under the carpet, they decide to leave home for good.


I don't think it inherent to the species, just to the way we've organized society. Only the privileged few among us truly get to self-actualize - to become our true selves and leave our marks upon the world before fading into oblivion a scant 8 decades after our arrival.

It is no wonder then that so many find a life of ultimately meaningless toil and distraction so dreadful, and akin to those words by OP.


I think it a great delusion to asscoiate self-actualization with privelege and leaving a mark on the world. It is the grandiose fiction playing out in the minds of many to design that a true self must leave a mark upon "the world". What a dependency. Truth is our brains are complex little machines composed of smaller machines cooperating and at times fighting for the primacy of resources. We exist. Creators create. Let that be enough. Judgment and opinion of our creation is largely beyond us. A person of no privilege can know his existence the same as one of great privilege. The mind is always obscuring reality with its machinery, noisy with the remnants of evolution. See past it friend.


Anything in particular that made you start? I know meditation would be helpful to me, I've known it for years, I just can't seem to bring myself to start for some reason


Curiosity. I asked Buddhist friends if they heard about a technic I could use without the religious part, no mantra, book or shrine since I'm an atheist. There are many of them.


This is me. I know madness and it's horrible, it's not scary it's an emotion of pure confusing intensity. I've been able to medicate away the intolerable symptoms, and it was never so severe as to be debilitating, but if I had to live like that day-in and day-out I would end my life quickly.

Until I experienced the emotionless emotions/feelings I couldn't have imagined it. We take for granted that our brain functions properly, even depression and other ailments are comprehensible, it's the incomprehensible emotions that can't be lived through.


I'm not knocking anyone that talks about emotional pain as a reason to drink, but I want to offer an alternative theory alcoholism based on my experience. Many if not most people have settled on the theory of escape from a painful existence as an explanation, including many alcoholics. I've been battling alcohol since I was a teenager and now I'm almost 60. I've been in and out of rehab, lots of therapy and psychiatry, lots of sober time, a family with grown kids, a successful career and yet my most recent relapse almost killed me. More on that at the end.

Alcoholism is beyond thought and emotion. It operates at another level. It takes Kings and Queens. It takes happy family men, while often skipping abused children who grow up to be unhappy adults that can't hold a family together. It takes spiritual and religious leaders such as Alan Watts. The list of great, productive and seemingly happy people who are destroyed by alcohol is a long one. My theory is that is a genetic glitch that allows alcohol to get hooked into the autonomic nervous system. It's telling in "Leaving Las Vegas" a woman tells Cage's character to quit drinking and he replies "why don't you tell me to stop breathing?" Carl Sagan liked to talk about our reptilian brain. That's the way I look at it. When the lizard brain wants a drink, it's going to get a drink. Luckily for me, it's not all the time. The urge comes and goes (sometimes for years.) The gene seems to run in families. If it is cured, my bet it will be through genetic therapy.

I'm not saying that resolving emotional issues doesn't make it easier to stay sober. Many things make it easier to stay sober. Sometimes I just go somewhere where I can't get it. That helps. It's why a lot of guys stay in the Navy. They have productive sober time at sea. Finding other activities and diversions certainly help. I like to program. I've often stayed sober by programming.

My last relapse almost killed me because I'm finding as I have become older, my ability to fight it is greatly weakened. On top of that, I go into a trance-like state where I stay I will stay drunk for days and weeks at a time unless someone who knows me intervenes. That is terrible on the body and as the body weakens, the ability to resist weakens. The downward spiral can be quick and brutal.


You aren't alone. Should you ever want to chat/commiserate/pair program, you can contact me through my HN account.

I don't have it all, though I have a lot, but I still find myself continuously drawn to a side that defies my own logic. I both glad and saddened to hear that I'm not alone.


Thanks. You are not alone. I meet people like me in AA and get coffee with them. I don't go now because I don't believe the program as designed actually works, at least for me. I also wasn't making connections at my favorite meeting. I may try another.


If you would like, contact me via my email. I think we have some issues in common.


A good friend of mine drank heavily through his twenties. Then, he just stopped, and rarely had a drink since (decades). I asked him how he stopped, and he said he just lost interest in it.

This also lends credence to the idea that it is genetic.


Sorry, how does it lend credence to the genetic theory? Ones genes don't change do they? But the need for escapism can.


If said friend wasn't genetically predisposed to alcoholism, it would explain why they would be able to quit drinking to excess with relative ease.


This goes against Occam's razor, needing 2 different mechanisms, one for people that manage to quit drinking (even after 5 decades of alcoholism) and one (genetic) for others that died alcoholics.


One reason I don't go to AA is that these days it is full of people who aren't real alcoholics. I can tell by listening to their stories. I imagine the same dichotomy for depressives. There's people who get really sad and filled with grief, usually about some event, and then there's real depressives who get devastated and blanked out for no apparent reason. They don't feel anything.


Well, specialists have long hypothesized that there is a huge difference between "heavy drinkers" (usually in their teens/20s and who quit) and "alcoholics". Heavy drinkers usually overimbibe as part of their social circle (fraternities, etc.) whereas budding alcoholics are the ones drinking alone at home in their teens/20s.


There is definitely a certain class of heavy drinker that isn't a real alcoholic. Some people just like the effect, but get tired of it.


While it's sometimes nice to have a label, I'm not sure how productive it is if people disagree about its definition.

I think it's more productive to ask if alcohol is having a serious negative effect on your life or others. If so, you've got a serious problem.

If you've tried to deal with the problem on your own and failed, then you need help.


I suspect that in the case of "what underlies alcoholism" a simpler explanation is likely to be less complete than a less simple one. There are probably dozens of different reasons people get hooked or are able to quit.


One way it hijacks the mind is through opiate receptors. I've heard good things about the Sinclair method(taking an opiate-blocker before having a drink), and it operates by blocking a lot of the euphoric aspects of alcohol. And slowly it causes the hooks that alcohol has sunk into the brain to whither and die. Or at least that's the theory.


I tried it but it didn't do much. I've actually found Kratom, which also works on those receptors, to be a good alternative. You can't overdose on Kratom and when I use it I don't ever get the urge to drink.


So many benefits to that plant, and yet the various state governments have been in a hurry to criminalize it. What a shame that so many people who had been struggling with addiction and finally found an affordable, legal, and ostensibly safe relief in kratom, only to have it taken away without legislators giving it any real consideration.


The DEA changed it's mind after public outcry. I'm buying it again at the local herb shop. (I live in CA.) Yes, it a great help for some.


Oh! That's great news! :)


One of the most heartbreaking stories of of the tech world, and one that comes with a lot of bad blood. Be sure to watch Jason Scott's documentary clip on the ARC vs PKARC battle:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YiaM5MT1Ok8

I admit that I've always wondered what a dramatic film based on this story would look like. It has all of the highs and lows of a movie, and it would be worth retelling for both the lessons it has to teach but also the important role in computer history Katz held.


Thanks for sharing this link, in lieu of watching that I wouldn't have had any idea Phil stole SEA's code to create pkarc/pkzip.

I still remember running the self-extracting pkz204g.exe on MS-DOS, and never heard of SEA or encountered their software. That's really unfortunate.


I don't disagree with you on this, but I just want to clarify something: Katz ripped off ARC, that much is clear. But on the other hand, ZIP was a brand-new format that had some differences from ARC. Among those differences is that Katz made the format open, something SEA hadn't done with ARC. This helped ensure its broad uptake as a de facto standard that's still used to this day.

I don't think what Katz did in SEA saga is worth defending, but I think we have to delineate the two formats. As Phil Becker of eSoft says in the clip, the reason that Katz's software ultimately won out was that he was more adept as a businessman—and the open nature of the ZIP format was a good example of that.


Don't forget, that this was also in the middle of the various look-and-feel lawsuits that were going on at the time. Lotus vs. Paperback Software, Lotus vs. Borland, Apple vs. Microsoft, Stac Electronics vs. Microsoft, etc.

Also, remember that PKarc was popular because it was faster than Arc. The feeling in the BBS community at the time were feeling a bit of rage, that a superior product was being killed through the courts. So when PKzip came out, which was not only faster, but had a better compression ratio, combined with the general sentiment in the community that were fed up with look-and-feel lawsuits, doing a mass conversion from arc to zip was also a form of public protest.


I feel most sorry for Tom Henderson, esp at 20:20 claiming he's over it.

Low barriers to entry make software easy to get into... and easy for your replacement to get into. It seems software businesses aren't common any more for that reason (excepting MS).


They are, it's just rather than installing the software locally, you access it as a service.

And games, games developers are still software companies, albeit in the entertainment space.


Aren't most SaaS's not pure software, but sell data, communication or offline product/service, and in that way differ from installed software?

The difficult programming in games seems mostly deferred to engines (which are becoming cheaper and nore commoditized), and the game is mostly "content" - more akin to a movie than software. But you're right, games are software, and are thriving.


And games have largely turned into a service as well.

I got two games as a gift recently, and at least one of them require a big download to even function. And both require that i register them with steam before i can play them at all.

Effectively even "offline" games have just become a client to a "service" running in the clouds.


Seems like Phil Katz literally stole code from ARC, so much for being a genius.


The linked file is a companion to the wonderful BBS Documentary.


A tragic tale, and a reminder that intelligence and business success are no replacement for mental health.

Even in the BBC's account, the tone of the writing seems to present a lot of warning signs and developing problems as just a genius' wacky eccentricities. If you require substances in order to function, can't maintain social relationships or struggle with harmful lifestyles, these aren't mere character traits, they're symptoms of real and treatable illnesses. Presenting these things as "the dark side of being smart" is a popular story, but its harmful in the long run.


The article is not affiliated with the BBC -- it's published on bbsdocumentaries.com.


Oops, good catch- one letter makes a substantial difference!

Should have wondered why a BBC documentary was being presented in plaintext format, anyway...


Something like 10 years ago I heard about a book called emotional intelligence. That title shocked me. Few people told me everything that they found hard was easy for me, while everything that was easy for them was hard for me. There's a lot of knowledge about the emotional, or socio-affective, space that's worth not ignoring. Sadly society kinda put "wit" over "wise" and I, maybe others, fell in the brainiac race trap.


The article kind of glosses over the battle with System Enhancement Associates. As a sysop (long time since I used that word), ARC was extremely popular. Then PKarc came out and it generated files that were more compact but kept the extension .ARC. SEA's product couldn't unpack those. So their product got the reputation as the one that didn't work.

The lawsuit was extremely unpopular given that they were both shareware products and the older, more established company was suing the company with a better product.

It wasn't clear now or then what else SEA could have done.


Couldn't they have just made him an offer too good to refuse to buy PKarc? I haven't read up on the background so perhaps they already tried this. But it seems like that's the "big company" playbook. At least if you're substantially bigger than your competitor.


There are some programmers on Hacker News who probably are paid more than I'm guessing both companies combined made. As I remember it (could be wrong now), SEA was two programmers and PKWare was Phil Katz (and his mom).

"The leaked agreement document revealed that under the settlement terms, the defendants had paid the plaintiff $22,500 for past royalty payments and $40,000 for expense reimbursements."

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Phil_Katz


I was about to say the same thing. For all the hard work, risks, stress, and high drama involved, we're talking about fairly trivial amounts of money for both parties.

To put it in perspective, the royalty payment that constitutes the settlement is less than what the most people pay for a new car or the average cost of a wedding in the U.S.

Given the leaked documents about the settlement (per Wikipedia) and knowing what most people pay for shareware (which is zero), I doubt the article's claim that Katz had a "multimillion-dollar company". This makes his struggles and story even sadder.


Despite the name it was actually the smaller company. The relevant articles and info are linked from Wikipedia and make for interesting reading.

When Katz died people asked the ARC people what they thought about him: http://www.esva.net/~thom/philkatz.html


From your link:

>So now Phil Katz is dead. He drank himself to death, alone in a motel room, a bottle of booze in his hand and five empties in the room. One can only guess what drove him to such a tragic end, but it is a fitting demise for a man whose professional reputation is based entirely on a lie.

What a heartless asshole.


I am old enough to have actually been involved with FidoNet when all of this was going down, and at the time Katz pretty much had the community believing that he was a little guy being unfairly squashed by the huge corporate behemoth of System Enhancement Associates for making a better version of their software. Pretty much every single bit of that turned out, indeed, to be a lie. Katz did steal SEA's work and claimed otherwise, and SEA was smaller than PKWare.

I get where you're coming from, but Katz basically stole Henderson's work, lied about it, and destroyed Henderson's business and, for many years, his reputation. I don't think I can really blame him for not having been terribly diplomatic about the man's death.


This 8 year old comment on reddit[1] sheds more light on the controversy from a person who knew him I guess.

[1] https://www.reddit.com/r/programming/comments/74x5e/phil_kat...


The whole thing hurts because things got twisted for no reasons. Both tiny business. Birth of networks. Katz did not only rename and sell, based on the reddit comment it had value. It's just that social perception and hubris turned into a sour sauce. If Katz and Henderson's companies managed to collaborate instead of going into battle .. I can easily see immensely better ending for both parties.


You forgot to quote the harshest part:

>I can think of no more fitting epitath than the final clause of the original ARC copyright statement:

>"If you fail to abide by the terms of this license, then your conscience will haunt you for the rest of your life."


> What a heartless asshole.

Agreed. Most of us have either experienced ourselves or seen someone suffer from an illness or condition we wouldn't "wish on our worst enemy".

Most of us.


I just lost my best mate from university to alcohol. Growing up in Britain, this is not my first friend I've lost because of alcohol. I'm in tears... I've struggled with drinking too much myself, this hits very close to home.


As somebody who has watched people struggle and seen them fail and succeed, I can relate. Also a Brit, also like a pint. Helped people who were hitting the alcho-pops at 8am (doesn't smell like booze on the breath, see?).

I'm p7r on twitter and reddit. If you ever want to chat, let me know, I'll follow you back, we can DM, or just PM me on reddit. It's a sincere offer: I hope in the morning you're feeling more optimistic and know you're not alone and there are people who give a fuck.

The things that make us able to do amazing things are also the things that make us do terrible things to ourselves. We should talk about that more as a community.


I've stopped and failed drinking too many times to count.

My psychiatrist told me flat out, "Don't even try to stop on you're own. It's just too f---ing dangerous." I used that terrible advice for years. I kept on drinking.

I went to A.A., and just coudn't stomach it, on so many levels.

I wasen't going to spend my last $15 grand on a expensive rehab.

I did taper off around ten years ago. It took a few weeks. I knew it would be dangerous to just stop. I did everything the experts told me not to do; like have alcohol around the house, and hang around people who drink.

We all drink for different reasons. I felt I was drinking to control my anxiety; and much of the time I was self-medicating. I tapered down to a few drinks a day--I finally got down to one, or no drinks.

My point is if anyone reading this is trying to stop drinking, and the status quo advice just isn't working, if I could taped down, I honestly think most people can.

(Try not to drink hard alcohol. That really did a number on my body. When I went back to wine, and beer; It was only then could I begin to even think about tapering down to no drinks. I'm not giving advice. I'm just stating what worked for me. I really thought I was hopeless. My father, and grandfather both died from liver tumors that metastasized into cancer. Both were big drinkers. I didn't think I had a chance in hell. Plus--I had a nervous breakdown in graduate school, which turned into generalized anxiety. I still drink, but it's not much. I'm not the bloated mess I used to be. My life is still not great, but it's not due to alcohol.)


Brit here too. I feel your pain. I'm not a drinker but my parents are. It's getting more and more excessive. I'll find litres of whiskey hone in a sitting.

The drink has ruined my relationship with them.

When I was a teenager, me and my sister suffered from psychosis. They blamed their drinking on that. When we got better, they continued and found a different scapegoat.

My sister is going through children's mental health services. My parents don't seem to understand that wrestling tablets from my mother attempting suicide is traumatic for a child. This is really messing up my sister.

When I spoke to my dad about my sister's problems, his response was "I'm not giving up my life for some 15 year old"

Over the years, I'd get nasty text messages. Anything from long essays on why my birthday gift wasn't adequate to how my choice of partner isn't adequate (my partner demands that the kids don't have cordial - my mother disagrees). Years of that plus childhood has made me feel inadequate.

Alcoholism doesn't just screw over the drinker but the family too. Sometimes it's not just the pain of watching them fall.


I have no idea whether this will help at all, but after staring at it for a while, I decided I had to try. I think it's VERY likely that a craving for a chemical such as alcohol or various drugs is learned by the brain and shares a property with such things as language learning, which is that early learning plants it deeply and indelibly in a rapidly developing brain--making it essentially native to the brain's structure--while late learning is relatively superficial.

Based on what I've seen, those who wait to start drinking until well into adulthood have brains that are MUCH more resistant to alcoholism.

The implication for you, then, is that if you can't get your sister to just join you in being a non-drinker, then at least persuade her to procrastinate her drinking as many years as possible and use the language-learning analogy if it helps: the LAST thing you want to do is become a "native drinker". You want it to be something always a little foreign and unnatural to your brain so you can push it away entirely should you ever choose to do so.

Again, this might be of no use to you in your personal situation (and sorry I can't be more useful), but if there's any way you can get her to wait until after college/university age, she won't be completely safe (no drinker is), but she will have MUCH more power than she has now.


Thank you very much for your insight :)

Unfortunately too late. My sister has had her first drink a year or so ago. She was 14 iirc. I had mine at 11 - 12.

We can shun alcohol. I have a bottle of Jaeger in the fridge untouched. I got it last Christmas.

In effect, being stupid with it when I was a kid made me realise I have a point where it isn't pleasant at all. It also made me realise that I hate the idea of me under the influence - I hate feeling like a fucking idiot.

That plus the damage it has done through other means has left me a non-drinker. If alcohol became a class A substance tomorrow and the day after consuming it was punishable by summary death, I would not care (except maybe about a right wing govt). I wouldn't give a shit about losing booze.

I also have young children. If I won't jump in a car after 1 drink, how can I look after my kids? What if one wakes up?


There's an interesting book by Jack London, "John Barleycorn"[1], which is about his battle with alcoholism. He didn't start drinking in earnest until he was 25, though he tried (and absolutely hated) alcohol earlier.

An interesting read, and recommended for one very talented person's view on alcoholism.

[1] - https://librivox.org/john-barleycorn-or-alcoholic-memoirs-by...


My condolences and hope. It is the same story on all too many reservations in the US. I've remarked that I've attended more funerals than weddings and watching the spiral of others without regard to actions taken to help them is soul killing.

As hard as it gets, you can only save yourself. You can throw as many lifelines as there are stars in the sky, but it doesn't guarantee they will be caught or even acknowledged. I sometimes wonder how much growing up on sitcoms and their solved in 30 minutes solutions have given us unrealistic expectations in real life.

As a friend who watched too much British TV[1] in college said to me: save yourself if for no other reason so you're not a selfish twat who caused everyone else pain.

1) college where students learn about Monty Python and Pink Floyd.


I understand your struggle with grief, and would enjoy chatting over a cuppa if you're ever up for it with a bloke from the other side of the pond. If I never hear from you, that's ait too, but am here if need be, young man.


Very sad story. The guy's initials are immortalized in the magic number of the zip file format, the bytes of which are

    0x50 0x4b 0x03 0x04
The values 0x50 0x4b are 'P' 'K' in ASCII.

Note also that every Java JAR file is also a ZIP file, so they all begin with the same magic number.


Windows executables start with "MZ", for Mark Zbikowski.

Edit: fixed the name


I tried googling this but nothing came up until I stumbled across https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/DOS_MZ_executable which says it stands for Mark Zbikowski (which is supported by a quick Google of that name).


You're right, I mis-remembered it. Thanks for the correction!


FreeBSD (and other BSD) UFS2 file systems have a magic number that coincides with Kirk McKusick's birthday.

#define FS_UFS2_MAGIC 0x19540119


The birthdays of Linus Torvalds and some of his relatives are encoded, in hexadecimal, in the magic constants passed to the Linux reboot() system call.


More recently I found out that systemd binary format starts with LPKS and a few other initials. Those who know the dev team can easily find which is who.


As a kid poking around with the built-in DOSSHELL hex viewer, I thought it was slang for MS/Microsoft


He's also been immortalized in artwork:

https://www.flickr.com/photos/silentarmy/351314710


As someone who is in recovery, this story always hits close to home. The anxiety, guilt, and paranoia that comes with addiction is brutal. I was on the verge on losing everything including two young daughters. What a fucking horrible disease.


I remember reading this a few years ago, and it touched me as it is touching me now again.

I don't remember computers without pkzip/pkunzip. They've always been around, many copies on floppies containing games and other software, maybe just in case someone ever found a computer without them.

My school computers also had them, and we quickly learned there wasn't any benifit of compressing a compressed file. We had pointless discussions about comparisons with arj and rar without even knowing how they worked.


I lost sone friends the same way, alcoholism and mental illnesses seem to be common in my generation. I lost my best friend in 1999 when he bought a shotgun and ended his life. I tried to do all I could to help him but he shut me and everyone out for months until he killed himself.

I've been suicidal myself. It is something not talked out, but it needs to be talked about eventually. Suicide is taking some of the best out of this industry and stress and depression and anxiety mixed with drugs and/or alcohol can lead to these weird behaviors and then suicide unless they are lucky enough to get professional help and the right psychiatrist and medicine and therapy.

I'm on disability and can't work yet, and I have to learn how to program all over again with different languages as what I know is so outdated except for theories.


> But even as Windows-based "zip" products nibbled into PKWare's sales

Anyone remember Niko Mak? I heard whisper numbers back in the late 90s of high six figure monthly licensing revenue from companies that were desperate to remain BSA legal (their employees downloaded WinZip for personal use and exposed businesses to legal liability for using unlicensed software). He seems to have disappeared, as he rightly deserves. I assume he changed his name and lives on a private island. I still get WinZip marketing spam on my old email account. Last I remember, they were at version 67...


I wonder how he would have reacted if he had lived to see the integration of his ZIP file format into Windows itself, starting with Windows XP in 2001.


I don't think he'd have a problem with it considering he released the specification for the Zip format freely[1].

[1] https://pkware.cachefly.net/webdocs/casestudies/APPNOTE.TXT


Wow that was difficult to read. Not that I'm an alcoholic but I can relate to some of the things he was going through.


Yeah, read it about 3 or 4 times now, and it always seems to be late at night (UK here) when I read it. Here I am, while my family sleeps, working away in the quiet solitude of night. Luckily though, I'm drinking tea, not alcohol.


Off topic, but what was so special about the "zip" file over a ".tar.Z" file, especially that it already existed when ZIP came out?


- It had a table of contents. You can list the contents of a ZIP file, or even extract individual files, without having to decompress the whole thing. (Which was a particularly big deal back in the 90s, when extracting a large archive would take a while.)

- You could update an archive in place. Not incredibly useful, but certainly nifty.

- It had support for multi-disk archives. Again, big deal in the 90s.

Finally, last but not least: it existed in the PC world. Ports of software between UNIX and PC systems were rare back then, and were made more difficult by the fact that the software would have to run in a segmented (16-bit) x86 environment.


This is the perfect answer. The fact that you could split zip files across several diskettes was huge.


And AT&T could go after you for stealing their Unix utility source code, who at the time had a huge legal department with a hell of a lot of lawyers.


Actually, that's second last. Last, but not least is that .tar.Z did not fit the 8.3 uppercase-only filename structure; nor did the Unix semantics that .Z was one sort of compression and .z another.


And even if you had a UNIX tar.z file, chances are the data would be in big endian, have UNIX line endings, and you'd have to do all kinds of wizardry to use the file on a PC running DOS/Windows


Let me add ZIP2EXE for self-extracting archives.


I imagine it was just a product of UNIX/academia being somewhat isolated from the general public/BBS world. Before GNU/Linux basically nobody using PCs had access to UNIX-like systems, and probably wouldn't have known of tar's existence.

My older sibling exposed me to tar indirectly by granting me access to their university-provided dialup UNIX account where they ran `elm` for email access, and this happened long after I had been using BBSs for years with my PC.

Never saw a tar file in all my years of PC-based BBS usage. GNU/Linux and Freebsd are largely responsible for the general public accessing *NIX-like systems. BBSs (and their file sharing) were a thing before those existed.


Actually, plenty of people had access to UNIX-like systems. There was XENIX, for example, described by some histories as "the most widely installed base of any Unix distribution" of its time.

XENIX is too often forgotten, as is the fact that the Unix world had its "archiver wars", too. In this case it was tar versus cpio, with the POSIX standardization effort settling on "pax", the pun in whose name is reportedly not a coincidence.


The whole mainframe world was massively insular, and thus the micro/PC world basically had to invent gunpowder all over again. You can see it play out too this day.


PKZIP was a msdos oriented format (in the pre windows 98 era) and used extensively by millions of people who never saw a tar file. Long before windows 95 shipped, even. If you had a dos PC running 3.3,4.10 or 5.0 it was the near defacto choice.


One thing I don't see mentioned, though the other reasons are fairly valid -- the 'deflate' compression that was actually a non-backwards compatible update to PKZIP was superior to 'compress' -- gzip uses it, though not the PKZIP format.

There was for a good while a bit of a "compression arms race" with folks looking to find the most optimal compression to save precious time on BBS dial-up. For a while 'ZIP' won, then 'ARJ' managed to squeeze out a bit more, and so on -- though I think diminishing returns kept things from going too far beyond ZIP/ARJ on many BBSes.


In the early/mid 90s I remember looking pretty hard for a tar utility for dos and never found one.


A sad outcome. I will more remember Phil Katz for brazenly copying SEA code to create the basis for his initial success - PKARC. His greatest achievement in my opinion was succeeding in convincing a whole community of programmers, that he was the victim, and not "evil" SEA.


Wow this is the first time I've heard this story or heard of Phil Katz. I grew up in Milwaukee and went to UWM as well so the familiarities about hearing about someone like Phil is pretty incredible and sad.


Also, as far as I know the ZIP file format wasn't patented.


File format no, compression yes https://www.google.com/patents/US5051745



Literally the first letter of this is a typo. Sad story though.


Jesus fucking Christ


Because this is an old post and not someone who is recently deceased, I do not feel what I am about to say is in poor taste.

I don't want to see the idea of the loner computer hacker be idealized any longer. Mr Robot, while a clever and more accurate representation of tech than its predecessors, still leans on the troubled genius trope. My main gripe is how software developers are dehumanized into masochistic agents of hyper productivity. It's unhealthy, it's exploitive, and it's simply not true.

Silicon Valley loves stories like Phil Katz because it gives them a pass to treat up-and-coming coders horribly. 90+ hour workweeks, death marches, and insane deadlines not only leads to burnout, it results in poor work.

Longevity and balance and much more noble pursuits in the tech world. As DHH used to say, put away the Superman cape. We don't need heroics, we need sane, well-rested creatives who enjoy their work. If you want real heroes, look at men & women who are in their 70's and 80's who are still banging out lines of code.


Katz's story is perhaps actually an antidote to that: he worked crazy hours much of the time, and ended up dead at 37.

What's interesting for me is that many geeks I've worked with have real issues in some regard, in a way that non-geeks seem to find a way to make entertaining (IT Crowd, Big Bang Theory), or simply think is disturbingly sad (the loner in the basement stereotype).

The truth is the things that make us great geeks can also make us a little self-destructive, and we should probably as a community talk about that some more.

Spending your formative years as an outsider and then finding yourself as an adult a highly in-demand insider is potentially damaging. It's compounded when - as many of us do - we realise that social anxiety can dissipate with alcohol and use of other drugs.

We've all watched it. Some of us have done it. We need to be a bit more open about discussing it, I think.

Thinking about going first and writing a blog this weekend, but man, it'll be emotionally raw for me, and possibly cringe-inducing for others...


I definitely get the sense that this was a situation where a guy made too much money way too fast. Like almost overnight.

Reading between the lines, it sounds like he had been pent up, and when an effectively unlimited budget reared its head, it open the floodgates for so many bottled up urges.

By the time he had graduated to drunk driving convictions, other habits had been so firmly established that he was never going back to his old life.

It reads like a medical study of addiction models in animals. When granted unlimited push-button access to an addictive stimulus they push the button compulsively, without stopping and kill themselves from sheer lack of self control.

And about that writing of the tell-all cringe blog. I'd reconsider if I were you. Definitely do some writing. Write on paper. Not on a computer. Not on the internet. Lock it away, and then proof read it when you're in the best possible mood, and try to imagine how it would change your mood to realize others had read it, and cringed over it.


A lot of us are probably undiagnosed as being on the spectrum. At any rate, alcohol is one of the things that make managing interpersonal relationships easier - and for someone with ASD it can actually be a big benefit socially. It doesn't take a genius to see that there's a big down side potentially waiting to happen too.


strongly agree. i think we should replace the trope with that of a master craftsmen. sure they work long hours, but i think what stands out is their wisdom, dedication, pacing, far-sightedness, and mastery. i think the best engineers i know resemble the best craftsmen, rather than indulgent narcissistic fanatics.


[flagged]


What are you even trying to claim is "total bs" here?


Short version: alcohol.


Lincoln, Hitler, Cobain, Lennon. Short version: bullet.

In seems a person's whole life can be summed up by the one thing that killed them. I never really thought of it that way before. Interesting insight.


I'm so happy that none of us - not even you - are merely our 'cause of death'.


Hmm. I thought my condescension was over the top. Guess i was too subtle.


OMG. I'm an idiot. I'll just leave this here, lol


No, no worries. it happens to the best of us. I've been suckered in by a zillion trolls. Good on you for leaving the (edited) comment up.


A more poignant and better takeaway:

    "It tore him up inside when his father died. One
    time we went to his grave," Fischer says. "He'd always
    say that when his father was alive they'd go fishing
    and do man things."


I'd say that parent is more accurate and that is the sanitized version...


If you must, I think it is more about the underlying cause versus the immediate cause.

Of course you speculate whether he would have been an alcoholic if he hadn't had a lonely childhood and hadn't had someone so close to him that died.


There is no "underlying cause" that can definitely pointed to, that's just hubris. You can't know that if those things didn't happen he wouldn't have still become someone who would drink themselves to death, or that if something else happened, such as becoming devoutly religious, he might have been able to avoid it.


Of course one cannot be sure that it is the underlying cause.

That's what my second sentence alludes to.


I think that's a bit of an insensitive summary.


Seems to be what all commenters above are focusing on though.

(and thus completely miss the point)


I think it's a good summary nonetheless. Short, to the point, and may not have to read the article after it.


Always a good cautionary tail.




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