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Origins of the finger command (1990) (groups.google.com)
150 points by ColinWright on May 6, 2018 | hide | past | web | favorite | 55 comments

    I wrote Finger and developed the supporting database to provide this
    information in traditional human terms -- real names and places.  Because
    I preferred to talk face to face rather than through the computer or
    telephone, I put in the feature that tells how long the terminal had been
    idle, so that I could assess the likelihood that I would find them there
    if I walked down the hall.
    The program was an instant hit.  Some people asked for the Plan file
    feature so that they could explain their absence or how they could be
    reached at odd times, so I added it.  I found it interesting that this
    feature evolved into a forum for social commentary and amusing
It's amazing that the core features of a modern social network were invented so far back.

I wonder what the world would be like today if Unix-like systems had gone more mainstream. Maybe ISPs would include a Unix account on their servers where you could set up your .plan file and things like 'finger' and 'talk' and regular email would fill the space, in a completely distributed and open manner, that Facebook and other social networks currently do.

> Maybe ISPs would include a Unix account on their servers where you could set up your .plan file and things like 'finger' and 'talk' and ...

Around 20 years or so ago, many did. At least, the ISPs that I used back then certainly did. It wasn't extremely common but it wasn't all that unusual either.

Yup, I had access to these on my shell that was given to me by my dial-in ISP.

I think what killed these services was a potential for abuse and spam. If you have your name/details attached to an e-mail account, it's super easy for marketers to scrap that, and then spam you if you meet certain criteria.

Centralised services (with all my distaste towards them) prevent that, because they block spammers, and limit access to such data quite nicely.

For a similar reason I think many people stick with gmail - because it's centralised, it can use ML to filter out spam much better than any other mailing services. It's also more secure - the Google's budget on maintaining security of their services is far higher than that of any other provider.

I hear this claim a lot (that Gmail's spam filter is so much better than others) but that hasn't been my experience. Spam was not a problem for my corporate email account at my last job that used Exchange and after switching from Gmail to Proton Mail last year (with the same email address on my own domain) I haven't noticed any real difference in the amount of spam than makes it to my inbox.

It may have been true that Gmail did a much better job than most other services when it first launched but I don't think it's been true for several years now.

MS Exchange on-prem does not include an anti-spam solution. You have to buy one like Symantec security cloud or MS Exchange online security. Exchange is not a 'hosted' solution.

Gmail by contrast is only a hosted/cloud solution, and comes with a security solution as part of the service.

I can compare Symantec Security Cloud sitting in front of an Exchange solution to a Gmail solution, and say that hands down Gmail is far and away better with exactly zero phishing emails making it through compared to numerous attacks able to get through Symantec Security Cloud to our Exchange users.

Comparing Exchange to Gmail is like comparing kwiwis to radishes, in my view.

I'm just saying that my experience as a user of email is that spam is not a problem for me on services other than Gmail. You telling me that it is doesn't change the fact that it hasn't been in my experience. We'd need some sort of actual data to advance the discussion productively.

> ... gmail - because it's centralised, it can use ML to filter out spam much better than any other mailing services.

For me, GMail is worse than useless as a spam filter. I don't know if I have especially unusual email or what, but there's so much ends up in the spam bin I need to wade through it all anyway, so it costs me time.

At least, it did. I've given up on it.

We are well OT but it is interesting to hear the different experiences with Gmail spam filter. I never look there except for curiosity. False positives are extremely rare...for me.

I'm baffled - I have no idea why this would be downvoted. I know that 88k karma and $5 will buy me a $5 coffee, and to that extent karma is completely irrelevant, but it says that somehow, to someone in the HN community, this comment is of negative value.

As I've said elsewhere[0], as an engineer at heart, a model-maker and problem solver, it's like sandpaper on the brain when people act in ways that mystify me, and for which I have no effective, working model.


[0] https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=17007328

I usually don't comment on these sorts of comments, but since you're a very active user I'l bite.

I downvoted you because this type of commentary is the least useful thing you can read on HN.

Nobody learned anything useful from knowing that some guy with a GMail account isn't pleased with the spam filter. What was this supposed to achieve? Some long side-thread with people sharing anecdotes about whether or not GMail worked for them? This is the sort of thing that gets made fun of at n-gate.com.


    Please don't comment about the
    voting on comments. It never
    does any good, and it makes
    boring reading.
-- https://news.ycombinator.com/newsguidelines.html

Thank you for the response! That gives me something useful to be going on with.

In contrast to your comment, I've always found the personal experiences of HN users to be incredibly valuable data points, which is why I shared my own. I'll re-evaluate that.

WRT the guidelines, I'm painfully aware of that one. While I appreciate its wisdom, it means that one can never learn from the otherwise anonymous downvotes, so to my mind it's worth taking the risk. In this case I really have learned something.

Again, thank you.

As a personal anecdote, I've also noticed that people around me are less interested in personal anecdotes in general. It seems more pronounced over time. I could hypothesize that Facebook and Twitter give people all the anecdotes they need, or that my anecdotes have become more poorly worded over time, but I really have no idea what the cause is.

> Nobody learned anything useful from knowing that some guy with a GMail account isn't pleased with the spam filter.

I didn't, because I'm already aware through personal experience that gmail's spam filter is much too strict, consigning legitimate emails to the spam folder despite the fact that any idiot could tell you they were real.

But in general, I don't see why one user's comment that the spam filter is terrible should be viewed as less "useful" than another user's comment that the spam filter is great.

That's not the difference between the two comments. The positive comment claimed that GMail's filtering was good because they can do it at scale with ML. Yours and the comment I was responding to just assert that it's still bad.

Maybe it is, but no amount of people showing up in the thread asserting that it sucks will make for interesting reading. What would make them interesting is an educated guess about why it's bad.

Making an interesting-and-wrong comment is not obviously better than making an uninteresting-and-correct comment unless you're here purely to be entertained. To me, the uninteresting-and-correct comment is much more valuable.

And if you create an account on telehack.com you can finger me over at intelca where I was hanging out in 1984.

not extremely common, but it was common. in the days when internet access was for the most part SLIP/PPP.

Back when I was a kid, I used to regularly use finger check Carmack's .plan to see what he was up to.[1] Having never given this much thought, if you asked me about the origins of social media, I would have talked about MySpace and Friendster. Now I'd probably begin with talk and finger.

[1] https://github.com/ESWAT/john-carmack-plan-archive

If youre giving that talk, don't skip the early web and httpd's commonly-enabled feature to host the contents of people's home directory, a la http://example.com/~username.

Carmack is the only reason I even knew what a .plan file was.

You should look into PLATO, as I now am (despite having heard of a fractional form of it due to software offered by TI for my first home computer, the TI-99/4A that I received in 1982). Amazing social network tech, not to mention computer learning which was it's core focus, in the '60s and '70s out of the mid-west. I am reading an excellent book on the history, "The Friendly Orange Glow."

I was extremely lucky to have Plato access in high school. The social and collaborative aspects were amazing. The idea that in 1980 I could send a note to a software author in another state and collaborate with them was (at the time) revolutionary to us high school kids.

I don't know any other system that would then allow me to learn to read and write Cyrillic and even if we'd had the right hardware listen to a native speaker.

> It's amazing that the core features of a modern social network were invented so far back.

The core feature of a modern social network was invented like 100kya. Doing this stuff on a computer is just a straightforward application. Email is mail. Chat/talk is talk. Finger is a bulletin board. All of those showed up within a few years of serious multiple user systems.

And records, cds, and mp3s are people singing and playing instruments. Netflix is theatre production.

Just because something has a history of semantic value to humans doesn’t mean that translating it into new technologies isn’t novel.

Microphones and transducers, laser inteferometric digital storage and perception-based frequency band audio compression are "novel". And by construction here, a big shared communication device that can be used to store bulletin board material is novel.

The fact that there are real inventions worth celebrating doesn't mean we should celebrate every obvious use of those inventions.

Is SMTP and the decentralized nature of email not a real invention? There are a thousand ways to build something like finger, whether centralized/decentralized, what info is disclosed, to whom, privacy models, how it gets updated, what media is included, etc etc.

Given it could have been a variant Facebook, much like MySpace could have also been Friendster before it shows how there is a lot of real innovation in things that seem obvious in hindsight.

I’d argue there are many, many more “obvious” ways to port existing social conventions to the digital domain that haven’t yet been done.

You just can't impress everyone.

"This new protocol allows anyone in the world to transfer information semantically and graphically with anyone else in the world"

"Big deal... that's just another form of vocalization that animals have been doing for millions of years!"

You’ve basically described the 90’s Internet.

They were invented repeatedly multiple times. Aol instant messenger is another example.

the .plan blogging surprised me ... also the ~ being somehow the equivalent of @ :)

> also the ~ being somehow the equivalent of @

With the decline of traditional multiuser systems, it might not be common knowledge anymore that e.g. ~joe is an alias for joe's home directory, so prefixing usernames with ~ was already an established pattern. This is still seen in URLs, but is somewhat rare now.

Back in the day it was usual for /home/user1/public_html to be exposed as http://server/~user1/

And of course "cd ~", and "cd ~user1" are still everyday commands on pretty much every computer

most often on education websites, teachers having their ~<shortname> page

This is what your post looks like when you quote text using leading whitespace.


I love finger! Back in the early 90s, I wrote a thing that would let you see what was playing on the CD-ROM in my desktop Linux machine. I used some finger daemon that allowed scripts to be executed as part of a .plan. You would finger music@somethingorother.vanderbilt.edu and a shell script would call "cda" (a command-line version of xccd and it would look up the disc name and track names from CDDB, pipe it through some sed and awk-foo and send it out to the client. I got fingered from around the world all day long.

There were all sorts of fun things you could finger around the 'net. My favorite was a VAX at McMurdo Station in Antarctica. The latency was several seconds. I posted about this years later on Slashdot and a former sysadmin chided me and said that all of the fingers were chewing Ho their minuscule satellite-provided bandwidth.

Back when finger was popular, I used to have the following line at the bottom of my .plan file:

    Bus error - cored dumped
I caught a few sysadmins with that one.

If you made .plan file a fifo, you could see when people fingered you, and customize the response based on who it was.

For example: http://www.ram.org/computing/plan/plan.html

In case anyone hasn't read it already and may be interested - this is the story of the Morris worm that leveraged a finger vuln in 1988:


Robert T Morris is a YC partner now I understand.

From https://www.ycombinator.com/people/ :

> Robert Morris is a professor of computer science at MIT... In 1988 his discovery of buffer overflow [sic] first brought the Internet to the attention of the general public.

The SAIL source to Les Earnest's finger program is here[0].

[0] https://www.saildart.org/FINGER.SAI[P,SYS]

> ! SORT does a bubble sort by PN on the active jobs.;

“Thank you for applying for a job here. We took a look at your code examples and don’t think you have enough experience with algorithms to meet the high bar here at $BIGCO.”

That source code seems very strange. I'm not even sure what language it is.

On one hand, some things feel a high-level as C - such as many of the procs starting with "proc oops". On the other hand, things like "proc netloc" seem to have a chunk of assembly embedded in the middle of it. The use of symbols in the code (e.g., "←", which seems to be the assignment operator) is also interesting.

Even though I don't fully understand it, I find old code like this absolutely fascinating. I also feel the same way about old electronics/electrical manuals.

Like tjalfi said, it's SAIL [0]. It was an ALGOL derivative.

[0]: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/SAIL_(programming_language)

Oh! I thought SAIL meant Stanford AI Lab in that context, I had no idea that it was a programming language too.


> The use of symbols in the code (e.g., "←", which seems to be the assignment operator) is also interesting.

Looks like they had their own character set

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stanford_Extended_ASCII

SAIL, that's a name I haven't heard in a long time.

Fun story, VLSI Technologies (chip maker, later eaten by Phillips in 1999) wrote a bunch of its internal CAD systems in SAIL. It was stuff like routing and layout and simulation. They had a group maintaining SAIL tools as well.

Oh they were also big into ClearCase, and had a whole team administering a policy layer for that. Not optimal.

I have a hard time believing that this isn't all an elaborate prank, given the name Les Earnest (less earnest).

I wonder if that was a regular problem for him?

He also got an FBI record at the age of 11[0].

HN discussion is here[1].

[0] http://web.stanford.edu/~learnest/les/crypto.htm

[1] https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=14229412

Finger still has some use; you can take any running job from https://zuul.openstack.org, extract the uuid and

finger uuid@zuul.openstack.org

and it will stream the job logs to you. Most of the code in


It's nice to know that no product managers, UX designers or vice presidents were harmed in the process of developing "finger". :-)

Slightly off topic, but one of Google's greatest services was not only rescuing DejaNews Usenet archive but also archiving Usenet posts from 1981. This type of pre web history would have been lost forever.

I've been kinda wishing for the past year or so that I'd stumble on a FaaS provider that can handle traffic on arbitrary ports, so that I could serve finger requests without needing to keep up with a VPS.

> I enjoyed the comradery of those gentler times and have no regrets.

I had just closed twitter when I read that. Indeed, the times are not gentle on the internet.

Posts like this from 1990, and ones complaining about Eternal September, remind me that no matter what generation you are, what year it is, people always say "It was better in the old days"

Its funny. I actually recently pulled out the Finger RFC to try to reimagine how it could be adapted to the world of today.

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