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Chapter 2: Toad HallOf all the questions raised by the first attack, one stiff puzzles me: was it simply an extraordinary coincidence that the initial raid was launched from Toad Hall?
Toad Hall, an exquisitely renovated two-story Queen Anne just north of San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury district and Golden Gate Park, is owned by John Gilmore, a Unix hacker, libertarian, and electronic privacy activist. John had also been the fifth employee of Sun Microsystems in 1982, years before it became a publicly held company and one of the world's leading makers of workstations and networking systems. He left Sun four years later but the millions he made from being one of the first employees at one of America's most successful companies let him purchase a beautiful home.
The name he chose for the place originally comes, of course, from the home of ML Toad in the Kenneth Grahame Children's book classic The Wind in the Willows. "Toad" also happened to be the nickname of a woman John was living with when he bought the house. Either way, the name was a suitable title, because the fictional Mr. Toad was a wealthy free spirit, and so was Mr. John Gilmore.
With John and friends in residence, Toad Hall became a prototype: one of the first digitally networked homes in San Francisco, the city where new social trends always seem to be accepted first. In the fifties it was the beat generation, in the sixties the hippies, in the seventies alternative sexuality, in the eighties it was south of market skateboard punks. Now in the nineties, cyber-communes seemed to be sprouting up all over the city.
In this scheme a group of starving artists, or bicy cle messengers, or even financial-district hackers will get together and rent a house or a flat or an apartment in order to pool their money to share a fiftysix-kilobit-per-second line, leased from the phone company for several hundred dollars a month, to connect to the Internet. Or if the group is more solvent, they might scrape up several thousand for specialized hardware and perhaps a thousand dollars a month for an even faster T-1 connection.
A T- I line can give you a garden hose of computer data from the Net, compared to the strawlike modems that most people use to connect to on-line services like CompuServe, Prodigy, and America Online. A T-1 data line will transmit 1.5 million bits of information a second. That's enough to download the complete text of Moby-Dick in seven seconds, or to watch a full-screen movie in real time. (Before things get really interesting, however, digital network speeds will need to increase by roughly two orders of magnitude-the equivalent of a fire hydrant-something unlikely to happen until after the turn of the century.)
I take the Net for granted as part of my work, but I can understand why people who must pay their own way might want to co-op. Still, the commune idea seems an odd one to me. If the Internet is about building "Virtual communities"-electronic collections of people with no face-to-face contact-doesn't it seem strange that they feel a need to live together, too? In any case, John Gilmore was starting a trend, not following one, when he moved into the Queen Anne in 1987. It had two flats, one for himself and his girlfriend, the other initially for a friend he eventually bought out. From the beginning, this was to be no mere residential building; it was a place to live on-line. A coaxial Ethernet networking cable soon snaked its way through the entire house. There were also computer workstations occupying various places, from bedroom desks to basement tables, for use by the various residents, house guests, and drop-in visitors who lived in and hung out in Toad Hall. Where other people might put a coat rack, in the entrance hallway to his second-floor flat, John had placed a Sun SPARCstation ELC.
In keeping with Internet nomenclature, Toad Hall acquired the Internet domain name toad.com, whose gateway to the rest of the world was a Sun SPARCstation computer in the building's basement. This digital domain was run by John and an eclectic band of programmers and hardware gurus, who together had a diverse political outlook, and while privacy was a priority, computer security at Toad was often pretty loose.
John's Toad Hall experiment eventually spawned an early Internet cooperative called The Little Garden, named after a Chinese restaurant in Palo Alto where the first organizing meeting took place. Started by a well-known San Francisco computer hacker named Tom Jennings, The Little Garden was one of the first low-cost ways of getting directly hooked up to the Internet. Unlike today's live-in cyber communes, though, The Little Garden didn't require being physically located in Toad Hall to enjoy its electronic benefits. A member bought two modems and put one at his home and one in the basement of Toad Hall. This second modem was connected through a router to Toad Hall's network link to the Internet and as a result members were permanently on the Net.
The setup was economical, because Pacific Bell offered unmetered residential phone service. So it was possible from a business telephone to leave your data line connected around the clock for a single monthly fee that members chipped in to The Little Garden. If the line was dropped, your modem at the Little Garden would call you back at no charge. Toad Hall eventually had more than a dozen phone lines running into it, and the Pac Bell installers probably wondered what kind of boiler-room racket John and his gang were running in there.
For the past five years, Toad Hall had been Julia's home-for John Gilmore was the "other man," with whom her relationship had been souring even before she and I had met. During the Christmas holidays John was away visiting Ins relatives in Florida, and so Julia and I had Toad Hall to ourselves when we arrived around 4 Pm. on the afternoon of her flight from Nepal.
John, now forty, was someone I've known from hacker circles, and even as a friend, for a number of years. Several years earlier he had helped found a second company based on some of the principles of an organization called the Free Software Foundation. The idea behind the company, known as Cygnus Support, was not to sell software directly but, instead, to give it away and then sell the support and maintenance that corporations would require to make full use of the programs such as computer languages and security tools that Cygnus developed. It's a powerful idea, and the company was thriving, even in a world dominated by Microsoft....
Table of Contents
- Julia's Return
- Toad Hall
- Damage Control
- The Real World
- Forensic Data
- My Christmas Vacation
- The Press Descends
- Koball's Find
- "You Lamers!"
- "Tactical Nuclear Range"
- "You're Tsutomu!"
- Toad Hall