Retrosurfing: Browsing the Web of yesterday

It’s 2 AM. I’m in my bedroom. The window is open, and I can hear the crickets. I’m the only one up in the house; everyone else is asleep. “Maybe I should go to bed,” I tell myself. “Or maybe I’ll just continue to surf the Web for the just another hour…”

I’m sitting in front of my slow Packard Bell computer with its Pentium processor, 16 MB of RAM, a 2 GB hard drive, and one… big… blocky… cathode-ray tube display… with bulky speakers on its sides. It was my first computer at home, but not the first one I used—for a few years before, I was frequently using my uncle’s PC running Windows 3.1.

A picture of a part of my Packard Bell keyboard taken with a digital camera using floppy disks.

On my computer running Windows 95, I’m on the Internet, connected with my 56 kb/s dial-up modem. (Although, I know the maximum speed is actually 53.3 kb/s.) It’s late, very late, but this is the best time to be connected and keep the phone line for myself. There was no risk for anyone to pick up the phone and disconnect me by mistake. Also, it’s free to connect at night!

I’m browsing the Web using Internet Explorer 4, because I find it more stable than Netscape 4. I’m chatting with friends on ICQ, IRC, or some unheard Perl script in a cgi-bin directory running on an Apache Web server which refreshes its page everytime you post a message. I like some anime, notably Sailor Moon and Evangelion, so I browse the Anime Web Turnpike (Anipike, for short) then try navigating through a Japanese Web site even if the font couldn’t be displayed. I download hi-res images of something I like, but I know I’ll have to patiently wait a minute or two for each progressive JPEG file to download and go from a blocky mess to a clear picture. Good thing my graphics card can handle more than 256 colours, or else the dithering would make the image look horrendous! But, the download can wait. I normally queue URLs of those in a download manager and put some of them off for later—I don’t want the transfers to hog the speed for whatever else I am doing at the moment.

Anime Web Turnpike was a popular site for anime fans in the Western world.

I could always use more free hours of dial-up, but I’m too sleepy. I queue one MP3 or two for download in Napster. Downloading a single track takes half an hour in the best conditions. I schedule my computer to shutdown in an hour or two, giving some times for the downloads to finish, and I go to bed. It’s now Sunday morning—I’ll probably sleep in until the afternoon.

That was the way I was spending many of my weekend nights when I was in high school in the late 1990s. I didn’t have a car, and I had a friends but they were not living nearby. The world outside, for me, seemed much larger, but online, or in “cyberspace” as we called it back then, it seemed much, much smaller, and it kept shrinking.

The Web has been a companion for me, and for many others, during the past few decades. It began as a side project by TimBL, a scientist working on a particle accelerator to share documents. Who knew it would spread like a wildfire and affect so many lives for years to come?

It made me sociable, it made me knowledgeable, it gave me friends, entertainment, jobs, and a voice. What attracted me to it at first was its social value. I could easily make friends online, find people who loved the same things I did. Like now, I enjoyed writing, so I learned HTML to be able to write about myself and the topics I enjoyed, then share my thoughts with the world with a site I published on whatever free hosting provider I found in the time: GeoCities, Angelfire, Tripod, Xoom… For me, that was the most interesting and rewarding thing. I’m a Web developer today thanks to that. It’s not what I expected, not really what I wanted—I was hoping to be an author or actor—but it often worked in my favour.

Now, 22 years later, I longed for those times.

It’s a little bit strange. I have a smartphone with me at all times now with a fast Internet connection, even outside. I don’t have to be in the “computer room” to be on the computer. I don’t even need a desktop computer. Even my notebook is at times obsolete! No matter where I am, I’m on the Web, and I can talk to anyone and do most of the things I need. What we dreamed of being able to do back then, we have it today! So why would I miss those times?

I yearn for a few things from back then. First, not everyone knew how to be online or cared to be on the Internet. I didn’t have everyone from work or from home watching my every move online 24/7. I had my circle of friends online, and my other circles of people in my life offline—they rarely mixed. Well, that’s until I found the omnipresent omnipresence invasive and decided to block dozens and dozens of people out of my online presence recently. Still, the fact that I even had to do that… I also didn’t feel my every move online was tracked or analysed for commercial purposes or research… even though they probably were, just like in the present.

Not everything was conglomerated into a handful of popular sites. If we talk about the Internet today, we think YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, Amazon… To most, the Web is synonymous to the Internet, and to many, the Web is just those sites. But back then, the Internet, the “Information Superhighway” was a trail in digital outer space waiting to be explored, while the World Wide Web was its World Wild West and yet the most handsome new kid on the block. There were even magazines—yes, actual publications printed on paper—reviewing every unknown corner of the Web, any little site that could have an obscure topic or a flashy design. (Heh, Flash…) Every Web site had personality: Web design was new—not always pretty, but often imaginative—and it was something with which I had fun experimenting. Many surfers enjoyed it too, and about half the people of my age online had their own site, their own space online telling their stories… They were webmasters. We’d all exchange our URLs to each other on our sites’ guestbooks, join chains or link exchange networks… The Web was nascent and we all enjoyed learning to grow up with it.

With its flashy design and detailed options, HotBot was another player in the battle of the search engines led by Yahoo! and AltaVista. Seen here in Netscape Navigator 3. Today, the name of the defunct site still exists, but for a VPN service.

What if there was a way to take a trip back into those times?

I may not have a phone booth in which I can jump into and pick a place and time, but I can maybe turn my computer into my very own TARDIS.

During my hunger for nostalgia last weekend, I headed to the one place I know with all the sites of the past… The Internet Archive. They’ve been crawling the Web site 1996 and they’ve been storing historical copies of anything they can find and store over the years. With the Wayback Machine, you can not only input a URL to visit, but also ask to see it from a specific time! You can visit Apple’s front page when they introduced their iBook—the MacBook of the 1999—or check out a budding YouTube thinking about being a dating video site in 2005… There’s so much that massive digital archive can tell us.

But, browsing a retro site on a modern browser doesn’t feel right. Fonts are anti-aliased, all displays have 16 million colours, resolutions are large, pixels are dense, browser UIs are clean, neat, and minimalist… I mean, it works, but a bit like how watching VHS tapes looks somehow better or at least feels better on an old CRT with two large channel dials on the side, I believe those sites would be best viewed in Netscape than Firefox.

Thus, I explored today’s Web to find anything that will let me run outdated operating systems on my computer.

Turns out, finding all the software I needed was quite easy. I struggled a bit with setting up everything in virtual machines, notably networking, but I managed to make everything work. For a few hours, I had many failures: setting up TCP/IP in Windows 3.1 for me was impossible, Windows 95 in VirtualBox on macOS just wouldn’t boot… Eventually I set up Windows for Workgroups 3.11 and Windows 95C in VirtualBox on Windows 10. Those were the closest to what I’ve used back in the day. I also installed Mac OS 8.5 in SheepShaver on macOS Catalina. I never had a mac before Mac OS X, but hey, why not?

Okay, that was all fun for that retro feeling, but… All I get out of all this is toying around with historical OSes and browsers. There’s a big part missing… Where’s the Web?

Sure, I can try to browse the Web. But the Web of 2020 isn’t made for a W3 browser from 1998! Start accessing sites in those apps and quickly you find that practically nothing is working. In Netscape 2, for example, SSL was practically new, and so was JavaScript and CSS. Everything looks terrible, and most sites won’t even work because they all redirect to their more secure HTTPS version now, with encryption way too advanced for that navigator! Although, really, what else was I expecting? It’d be crazy to make any Web site backwards-compatible for a browser that is more than 20 years old.

Browsing modern sites on retro browsers yields many errors, which used to all be displayed to the user, thus making the content practically inaccessible.

What about old sites from the Internet Archive… Well, turns out it’s not so great. Sure, the pages were archived from decades ago, but their custom code embedded in them for navigating through their content was made for browsers today. In the old browsers, JavaScript errors pop up left and right, and it messes up the rendering of the pages. It’s as if those dusty apps travelled back to the future, our present, and had to deal with something new to them but old to us. Crap…

However, maybe I can bring the restore the retro Web thanks to that archive. Maybe I can find a way to bring that authentic browsing experience from the 1990s.

And yes, fair enough, there is a way.

A few hours later, I wrote timeprox, a Node.js ES6 HTTP server which you can use as a proxy to browse sites from the Wayback Machine. (JavaScript. There’s another thing I didn’t expect to evolve and spread far and wide!) Start the server, set it up as a proxy in your old browser, try to visit an address, and voilà! My server will request the page you want archived in 1998 (or whatever it can find from later), strip the Internet Archive’s custom code, and show it to you, along with all the images and other assets. You can click the hypertext links all you want and surf the Web of the past! Or retrosurf, as I like to call it.

(I found out later that a similar proxy already exists, written five years ago, called peabody—you know, in reference to Mr. Peabody the dog entering the WABAC machine, or “Wayback Machine.” The name of mine is simply short for “time proxy.” So, no, the “prox” here isn’t short for “proximo” or some old term from Rhode Island, US to describe a list of candidates at the elections. Nothing fancy.)

The Web of 22 years ago… today!

After some tweaking and trial and error, I have to say, the proxy works rather well! I was quite proud of making this work. The sudden surge of nostalgia as I browsed the old homepage of Netscape was exhilarating!

I visited all the sites I could recall, all the places I used to frequently visit when I was in my bedroom during my days in high school or in class during college. Yahoo!, GeoCities (which used to be independent), Infoseek, Anipike, that old Perl chatroom I mentioned, an early Japanese video-on-demand site with anime shows, and even my old site, called E-Rémi or Érémi in 2001. (A title to which I cringe every time I see it. The way I wrote it in Japanese, eレミ, thus making it unreadable by the average visitor, is making me shiver further. I like to think I learned from those mistakes. In any case, I enjoyed experimenting with its Web design and mimicking Apple’s Aqua look from the day.)

For the rest of the evening, I was excited to retrosurf through Web 1.0. The small animated GIF banners with dithered colours, the jagged fonts, the image maps as menus, the repeating motifs set as backgrounds, blinking or scrolling lines of text, design made for small monitors with a resolution of 800×600 pixels… The experience brought back so much memories. Not only memories of what I did online, but what I also did offline, how I was back then, in which environment I was while being connected. Where I went to meet people, what I used to read and watch for hours on end, the activities I used to do… Not only my online life began then, it essentially became my life.

That said, after browsing the Web of yesterday, the nostalgia melted into a desire to relive those days. But, I didn’t actually fall into a portal back in time. What I was seeing was only a snapshot, an image of the time back then, a faded photograph of what I used to enjoy. I could access Hotmail, but of course I couldn’t log in to check my mail from 22 years ago and send messages from then as if I was a time traveller. I could visit Yahoo!, but I can’t type a query and search like I can on Google today. I checked out the chatroom where I socialised, but I can’t send messages and talk with people as they were in 1998.

Those were only memories. The craving to be there and then again eventually faded away… into the realisation that we cannot live in memories and those days are long gone.

I can’t do anything but to look forward… Like going to bed for work tomorrow instead of staying up until 2 AM on the Internet to write this article.

The animated logo of Hotmail, before it was acquired by Microsoft, retrieved in January 1998.
I used their service often in the day and I think it was their best logo even to this day.
Trivia: The name “Hotmail” was sometimes capitalised “HoTMaiL” as it was a reference to “HTML.”

If you wish to retrosurf too and relive the memories from the Web of then, here are some links to which you can refer:

Feel free to leave a comment with questions about setting up VMs or simply to reminisce.

Danshari 断捨離

Hey! It’s been a while. I realise I haven’t written here for almost exactly three years! I guess working at home and almost never going out during the COVID-19 pandemic is a good time to catch up.

There’s actually quite a bit that came to this long-awaited entry.

The Japanese has a word, danshari, written as 断捨離 (Japanese page on Wikipedia). Transliterating the characters one by one, you get decline, discard, detach. These are the three Ds you need to declutter your space, which is what the word means. An old activity with religious roots popularised lately by the popular Marie Kondo. And this is what I have done.

I said “Marie,” not “Mario.”
(Image: Unknown source.)

These past few weeks, I dated someone and saw her place. One thing struck me: how she didn’t have many things; she only had what she needed. When I came back home, it hit me all the sudden. I glanced at all the stuff in my small 25 m² apartment and I simply wondered, “Why? What is all this? Why do I have all of this junk?”

Over the next few days, that question endlessly tumbled in my brain. I told my date about it. I mindlessly shuffled things around, turned every object upside down, inspected every nook and cranny… Stacks of CDs, DVDs, books, magazines, old clothes, costumes, piles of documents, little knickknacks… Until one day, my girlfriend not only pushed me to take action, but also helped me go through it. She has a “Just do it” attitude, which a guy who procrastinates like me needs from time to time.

We started from my old books. Then my CDs. Then whatever else I found that brought me no joy, no satisfaction. Many of my things were only souvenirs of memories I didn’t remember or didn’t want to remember. I collected old items and little doohickeys for 10 years, and sometimes even more, before my life in Japan. Why was I keeping all that? No matter. I didn’t need it then and I won’t need it now. We simply stuffed as many trash bags as we needed while cleaning every spot of my place imaginable. I only took some photos of some things about which I want to write later, and ripped a few discs for posterity. I even took time to fix my long desk which was sagging—turns out it was missing a support leg in the middle.

In total, we tossed outside 50 garbage bags. I also have 13 items too large for the normal trash collection that I’m waiting for the city to pick up. As for my place, it feels much bigger and much much neater. I now know everything I have and where everything is. I even found an old camera I thought I lost! Gone are the days of frustration when I’m looking for that one thing I have no idea where I left it. Working from home with a tidy desk is more productive. I even sleep better.

All that thanks to the girl who encouraged me to do it. Frankly, she didn’t find my place very inviting before… but after all this, she stayed for days on end. Now that’s improvement!

Nobody asked for a picture of garbage, but here it is… Day 1 of 3 of throwing bags away.

This renewed space. This is bliss.

And now…

Decluttering is a new habit of mine.

I look at other things and wonder if I can danshari that too.

The confusing dated and unorganised documentation at work. The data I hoarded on my NAS…

My website. Yes…

There’s one thing I’ve not been touching for the same reason I was shy from spending time in other spots of my apartment. Just like my place was a few weeks ago before this massive change, my website has been rusting in its corner of the Internet with its pile of old whatever stuff was in it.

Here was my setup in general: three websites built with Middleman, four installations of WordPress, a few PHP scripts here and there, and the most complicated .htaccess file to hold everything together with plenty of redirections to make any browser dizzy and any developer cry. I even had a local repo to generate that .htaccess file and deploy it!

Why was I doing all this? Ego, probably. I’m a Web developer. I’ve been one for 20 years. Shouldn’t I be able to make my own website instead of relying on apps like WordPress or anything else similar? I know JavaScript, I know PHP and Ruby, I know backend and frontend. Well yes, of course I should! I am professional! Therefore, I must! How dare I use something made by somebody else while I could write it myself? Besides, there’s always something in what they make that doesn’t suit me. Everything is better custom!

Haha… Funny how my mind changes as I’m approaching my 40s.

It’s a very egotistical point of view, I realise now. Yes, I could embark on an adventure to make my own site from scratch. But why? Surely, with all the experience I have as a Web developer, I should know exactly how tedious and how much work that is. Do I want to spend all me free time to do more work? Oh no. I’ve been doing that for way too long.

You wouldn’t believe all the details I implemented. Even features I knew people wouldn’t use. Keyboard shortcuts on most links (you could hit the ? key to make them all appear, good accessibility!), search fields using CSS (no backend required!), custom styling on every post (a pain to write and maintain, but it felt much more expressive—loosely inspired by Panic’s blog back in the day), even Easter eggs like hiding messages in JPEG images using steganography and a retro style for my site reminiscent of the first personal homepage I’ve published on GeoCities in 1996. All experiments, really. Fun experiments. But, who am I doing this for? Myself? To learn? Maybe? They were normally useless for most.

I backed up everything, in case I want to reuse something for later, then I got rid of most. I only kept one WordPress installation on my 15-year-old account at DreamHost (referral link), merged the content from the other ones, and upgraded this one to version 5. Very, very good editor, by the way. I’m impressed! You could tell I haven’t been using WordPress actively for a while now and I’ve been missing out. I was also able to easily find plugins to do some of the things I want my site to do, like making it multilingual. What I’d spend weeks to accomplish with custom code, I’ve done in a day or two with this setup. The only custom part of this is the 100-line of code or so of CSS to change the look of the site and give it a dark mode, if your system is in dark mode. That’s it.

Funny enough, I feel happier having decluttered my site and make this simple blog than what I’ve spent years to write, tweak, build, adjust, and rewrite. For once, I can actually focus on the content of my site rather than on the presentation or its container. Sure, there may be things I’d like to change, but I have to accept them. It’s good enough, and I must go with it. Besides, why would I? What I’ve done is much more satisfying.

I suppose what they say is true…

Less is more.

Monday less Mundane: 5 things on the Interwebs

Oh, wow! Star Waaaaarrs

Trying to make Monday less shitty, let’s talk about some interesting things I found on the Web last week, particularly about Star Waaaaarrrs:

1. Tommy Wiseau meets Skywalker

Did you know The Room was actually a backstory in Star Wars, set between Episodes VI and VII?

You did not? Well, now you do.

2. The cinematic genius of Tommy Wiseau

Talking of The Room, you may want to rediscover the genius of Tommy Wiseau in producing that movie. Particularly, the quality work done in blocking a scene.

The video is a little bit old, posted on March 30, but I think the study here is still valid.

3. Luke Skywalker is Han Solo

Wha…?

Turns out Mark Hamill is a pretty good voice actor. He’s especially known in the voice talent world as the Joker in Batman: The Animated Series. But it sounds like he can do a very decent Han Solo too!

4. Is it cosplay or is it the real Han Solo?

Well, is there such a thing as a “real” Han Solo? Whatever. Look at this cosplay of Han Solo by Wolverony on Reddit:

Fio-5USlNchRLT3Nc5hy05cdntqOE8LvqwlTqurJBGg.jpg

Well done.

5. RedLetterMedia reviews Rogue One

Reviews of Star Wars movies by RedLetterMedia always have so much depth, especially this one about Rogue One:

Where there spoilers? I don’t know.

Bonus: Dancing man is dancing again!

3l8LUc2.jpg

Not related to Star Wars, but I don’t give a shit.

Remember the guy dancing in a club who stopped dancing because other people laughed at him, took his photo, and posted it online?

C0z5kV0.jpg

No? Well, he was the guy dancing in a club who stopped dancing because other people laughed at him, took his photo, and posted it online.

uGpstCr.jpg

Well, that was just wrong. He just wanted to dance. Some woman made it her mission to find this man, and she made the Internet find him. Before you know it, people found him, celebrities met him, and people who like dancing like he does liked him, so he started dancing again. Good job!

So, yeah, hope Monday is a bit better now.

iOS 10: Unlock only with Touch ID, no Home button press

Ever since I upgraded to iOS 10 on my iPhone SE, I’m still trying to break from the habit of swiping the lock screen to unlock my phone.

Then, I have to touch the Home button to unlock with Touch ID, then press it to reveal the Home screen. That gets annoying at time. I often find myself holding down the button instead, making Siri speak when I don’t want it to.
Turns out there’s a simple accessibility setting you can turn on to help you with that.

In the Settings app, go in General, Accessibility, then Home Button. In there, turn on Rest Finger to Open:

Now, you’ll just have to touch the Home button on the Lock screen to unlock and open your phone.

Of course, this only works on devices with Touch ID.

Generate your own ‘Stranger Things’ logo

I haven’t watched Stranger Things on Netflix yet. Why hurry? As a fan of typography, design, and vaporwave—or synthwave, retrowave, whateverwave—I’m too busy watching the opening of the series made by the creative studio Imaginary Forces accompanied by the awesome synth track by Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein of the band Survive. The subtle grain, the fading of the text… It looks so simple, yet it’s so well done.

Obviously, I’m not the only one savouring that opening sequence of pure synth and typographic bliss. Sarah Gless is a designer at Nelson Cash who wrote at length about her love of the type design of the series. Her studio likes the font and its kerning so much they even made a Stranger Things logo generator for you to enjoy.

stranger-things-generator
The Stranger Things logo generator by Nelson Cash.

If that’s not enough, here’s the Web design gem in the mix: the generator actually builds a SVG file with the text you input. The result you see on the page is all vectors and filters, which the browser will happily render into a PNG file you can download.