Interview with a Sysop: The Lower Planes BBS

Sysop of The Lower Planes BBS Anthony Adverse answers a few of our questions about the Australian BBS Scene…

Thanks for taking the time to chat with us! Firstly, we assume you were a BBS user before you were a sysop – what was the BBS scene like in 1980s / 1990s Melbourne?

Time for a quick trip in the way back machine.  A group of my friends from High School all ended up going to Monash University.  We’d all also played D&D together and one day one of them comes round and says “You need to check this out”.  What he’d found was a MUD.  After playing for some time using campus computers it was in fact discovered you could use dial in access to get there.  So eventually I bought my first modem to save a long ride to and fro Monash campus. Eventually MUD players were hogging all the dial in access and they cut off dial in from MUD access. Enter the bulletin board.

Back then finding a BBS was a bit of a closed loop.  Where do you find a phone number if you don’t know any?  I discovered a few in a copy of “Your Computer” I think it was.  Dialled a few, some answered some didn’t.  But once you find one, you’ve got a line to others, and you’re off.  I think in those halcyon days the first phone bill after I got the modem was about $450 which was enormous  for our household and in general really.  My pride and joy and daily compute was an Apple IIgs, although there was the unspoken promise of scads of software out there it turned out mostly not to be true for me.  The bulk of bulletin boards out there were PC based and catering primarily for PC users.  There were some Amiga and C64 boards out there still, but they were few and far between. But what I did find was no Apple II supporting boards anywhere that held a software library. 

There were so many single line BBS out there that the have all kind of merged into a homogeneous amalgam in my mind.  A couple stand out still, The Kingdom, Clone Phone.. And then there were the Multi-Line jobs. In some ways I’m a relative late comer to the scene, the mess of Pacific Islands, and Zen has already passed.  And the two predominant  boards in the landscape are Cafe, and Nemesis. Both chat boards, both came at it from very different directions. 

Cafe was wide open come one come all affair 4 line board, where you’d get your logon allowance and get moved on.   It was paid for by it’s sysop and subsidised by donations from users to help defray costs. As soon as you timed out you’d start attack dialing to get back on again.  Of course there were all sorts of other people waiting for you to time out and already attack dialing to try and take your place.  I think about 90% of the users would have been tweenies, all thinking they’re smarter than everyone else, and also young enough to know everything.  So while chat would mostly be pretty harmless you’d get groups of people that hung together, and those that didn’t get along with each other.

Nemesis on the other hand was a pay for use, it also had more lines.  9 I recall. With the cost of phone lines it was enormous for the time, and in spite of the pay for use constantly busy although you could generally get online fairly easily.  Somewhere between 5 and 10 would have been the sweet spot for having enough lines for users to dial in on, without having to wait to long. It also supported actions, emote type constructs allowing you to “kiss fred” and the BBS would return to the chat “donkey kisses fred”. 

Neither of these boards kept a software library. Both had inordinate numbers of users and from time to time would hold “meets”.  Which could vary from a night at Charltons playing pool, to a party at someone’s home and almost anything else you could imagine. There were a large group that played Zone3 laser tag at one point.  Despite being a large group of youngish people with to much time on their hands, I don’t recall any particular problems at a meet.  In person most either knew each other or were terminally shy and although things could get boisterous actual fights never seemed to happen.  Smaller boards also tried to host meets too, but it took a lot longer for the word to get around for them, single line, only so many callers can call per day, word of mouth is slow after a notice is put up saying there’s one coming.  And turnout could vary wildly, from the tiny to reasonably large.  Tiny might have been 5 people, large could easily get to 30 or so.

All the single line boards I recall kept a library of software online for users to download.  The almost ubiquitous nature of the PC meant most were aimed at PC users with Mac, Amiga, C64 added as an after thought.  Some were massive libraries of hundreds if not thousands of files, ranging up to hundred of megabytes in size.  Yes megabytes, high speeds and real mass storage haven’t arrived yet.  In some ways funny to think that 90% of all BBS software libraries in Melbourne would probably have fit on a single USB stick that you could purchase now.  Some boards had strict limits on downloading, you’d have to meet a ratio of uploads to downloads. Others didn’t really care which seemed to make more sense, why force people to upload if they don’t have anything really worthwhile or new to upload? Depending on the sysop file compression and space saving were an important consideration also. The smaller you could compress the file the more you could store, and the less time it took for someone to up or download. ZIP files were popular even then.  But there were more efficient compression available. Notably ARJ although there were other minorities out there too LHA and SQZ spring to mind.  We ended up using SqueezeIt for compression although actual space savings were minimal, we decided to use it because no one else did, just to be different.

What made you start your own BBS? Did you run it on your own computer or did you get another one?

I finally started my own BBS because I couldn’t find anyone that supported my daily compute, the IIgs.  In fact Apple II seemed to be already on the wane and the GS never really quite picked up the slack, people were moving to other platforms.  So in opening a BBS the theme was already set, Apple II support, and thanks to the many hours playing D&D The Lower Planes became the name/style.  Apple equipment always had a pretty steep price tag, although I had a IIgs I wasn’t about to turn it over to BBS duties, particularly on floppy drives.  It would never have enough space for what I envisioned.  So poking through “The Trading Post” I discovered for I could acquire a 286 clone for in the order of $300 with a 40MB hard drive and if you were lucky extra’s in my case I got a tape backup drive with.  And so TLP was born, Apple support on a PC based system, kind of ironic for the time, when users of one were kind of fanatical about it.  I didn’t really care it was a better fit, it was to expensive for me to fund more Apple equipment.

This led me to a steep learning curve, on DOS and BBS software.  There was plenty of it out there, and at the end of the day most of it was the same.  Clones of an original package called QuickBBS, the main pair were Remote Access and SuperBBS.  I swapped between the two from time to time and looked at other options for a time, Searchlight, Celerity and others, but ended up sticking with SuperBBS in the end, for features available and ease of use.

The biggest ongoing problem presented was storage space for files.  Having come from floppies 40Mb seemed like infinite space but the reality was, holding Apple II files, and in the end PC files also, it wasn’t long before that became a problem.  I skimmed through the trading post again and looked through all the second hand hard drives out there, and in the end, bought the cheapest per megabyte I could find.   This led me to the second learning curve in PC land, not all hard drives are equal.  The initial drive in my 286 was an IDE drive, the next drive I’d acquired was an MFM drive and never would the twain meet.  In the end I was lucky enough to swap my 40Mb IDE drive for another 40Mb MFM drive and away we went again.  Future storage issue were solved for me by networking more 286 systems with more hard drives.  There weren’t an awful lot of larger drives out there, and they tended to be expensive more so than buying more computers, so I threw more iron at the problem as some would say. 

What were your users like? Did you have any unruly ones?

At the end of the day most of TLP’s users were pretty docile.  If you had someone that just just plain stupid by the time they were a pain in the backside you’d just ban them. By far the easiest thing to do and kept everything peaceful.  We held a few meets, moderately successful often in timing with other BBS too. On our own we only managed a dozen or so people for a bbq usually, in league with other BBS you might go bowling, see a movie, or have that same bbq and up the attendance numbers.   

By the time the internet arrived in full swing, the early adopters were modem users.  This meant that the bulletin board scene went from a thriving busy thing to dead in a matter of months really.  One day were busy doing our thing, and the next…no callers.. everyone was migrating to a system that hosted USENET or IRC meaning you needed to either get yourself dial in access to pick up messages for usenet or a real time link meaning another phone line for something like irc.  This was in truth a bit beyond me, and although I migrated to linux and the BBS hardware became a server with web sites, and other users the BBS as it were, was dead.

What made you decide to start your BBS back up again?

I think its the rose coloured glasses coming out that made me get it out of retirement.  There are some groups on Facebook which are the user groups from a couple of the larger BBS.  There was a discussion not that long ago about trying to recreate a BBS and the atmosphere it had back in the day. 

I got fired with enthusiasm and got TLP out of retirement.  In doing so, I had a few hurdles, how to run it, what to run it on in particular.  The first was relatively easy I re-purposed my home server which nominally serves files/games/movies around the house, and Wifi access for phones tablets and such.  Its and oldish quad core xeon but more than enough for running old DOS software surely. There are a few options for running DOS software, DOSBOX, FreeDOS, DOSEMU. 

I looked at a few and for a variety of reasons, like the serial ports didn’t work properly with the software, or it didn’t support a telnet server to front the BBS I ended up using VirtualBox with Ubuntu.  All this BBS software relies on a FOSSIL interface, from way back in the dark ages somewhere when no two serial ports were alike it was a way to standardise a way to access them.  It was a layer between the software and the serial port/modem. 

I couldn’t use a regular FOSSIL as they either didn’t like the emulated serial ports or just plain didn’t work.  In the end I found a packet driver.  This allows for the fossil layer to be mounted on top of a network driver, so the software is still talking to a FOSSIL but there are no serial ports involved.  This also has its limitations because using a FOSSIL is a relatively slow way to do things, and a lot of software despite requiring one to be loaded would also write directly to the serial port. 

Anything the does direct writes in my system is broken because there are no ports involved.  They either hang up immediately or just sit there sucking their thumb doing nothing. The BBS software I’m using is exactly the same as previous, SuperBBS. It gave minimal problems in itself, but finding a way for it interact properly with the world took a bit of effort. For the moment I think I have the only SuperBBS in the world. At least I can’t find any other instances of it anywhere.  Online games are far more restricted as they are notorious for the direct port writes and fail.

In some ways its a lot simpler than before.  Only four message areas instead of the previous 30 or so.  Comparatively empty file areas, although I’m working on Apple II areas as much as possible. But in these days of Internet its not the only source of access.  So there’s the website, ftp access, and all the rest that goes with it.  I had a heap of information and documents, and no way to present them so I’ve had to try my hand at PHP, (fiendishly difficult in my opinion) and sql databases.  It works but the back end is not real pretty.  So getting this stuff organised chews into the time I have to work with the file areas, and all the rest.  Including some basic electronics stuff, like a 232wifi which allows anything with a serial port and terminal software to telnet to anywhere they can get to.  And an OrangePi I’ve been setting up as a router for the IIgs.  The GS supports SLIP and PPP so with a direct link to the Pi it can route the packets out onto the internet and presto without any kind of ethernet card you’re live out there.

How has it been going so far?

The Lower Planes revisited has been, well underwhelming really.  In some ways I’m fortunate to have a lot of time on my hands, I’m on disability after having had back surgery, so I can devote a lot of time to getting it running.  On the other hand, the number of logins it quite low.  There are active telnet BBS lists out there, and it’ll take time for any sort of regular crowd to settle in.  The most likely are old regular users if they can be found and are still interested in their Apple II.  It still seems odd to a lot of users that I have II support on my PC BBS when there are Apple II systems out there still running on floppy drives no less.  But that was the way I did it, and I’ve stuck to it, although it does make finding loyal Apple II users a shade trickier.

Thanks Anthony!

If you would like to visit Anthony’s BBS, The Lower Planes, you can visit with a web browser or use an ANSI-capable terminal application and telnet to that address.

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