How to send a selfie in 1993

I originally posted this on Quora and then it ended up on Forbes. On Quora, it’s gotten over 2,200 upvotes. As I said on Facebook the other day, if I’d known it was going to get this much attention, I would have written it better.

In 1989, I was working for GeoVision, a GIS company in Ottawa. It remains to this day one of the best places I’ve ever worked. At that time I was in charge of the bug fix team, which for most of the time was just me and three other people, but during pre-release times would baloon up to over 30 developers. After that particular crunch, my manager rewarded me by sending me to the Usenix conference in Baltimore.

One of the features at this conference on the “show floor” was a booth where they were taking pictures of every Usenix member for the “FaceSaver” project. They would give you a sheet of stickers with your picture and name and email address and a few other things. A lot of vendors on the floor had give-aways where you had to give your business card to enter, and some enterprising person not affiliated with Usenix was giving away pieces of card stock so you could use these stickers as your business card, and since I wanted one of these give-aways, I lined up for a picture. (I never won any of the give-aways, but I did get a t-shirt that said “VMSucks” on it in exchange for a resume.)

After the conference, I was able to retrieve a digital copy of this picture – Usenix had put it on their FTP server, and because GeoVision wasn’t on the Internet proper but accessed the network through UUCP at UUNet, so I had to access the file by sending email to a email to FTP gateway called “decwrl” and receiving the file back as one or more emails.

The file after being re-assembled consists of a header with some useful information, and then a bunch of hex digits. I haven’t been able to find a full description of the format currently, but this is what it looks like:
FirstName: Paul
LastName: Tomblin
E-mail: geovision!pt
Telephone: 613-722-9518
Company: GeoVision
Address1: 1600 Carling Ave.
CityStateZip: Ottawa, ONT/CANADA K1Z 8R7
Date: Jun 13 1989
PicData: 108 128 8
Image: 96 128 8


In order to view it or print it, I believe I used a program I’d found on the Usenet newsgroup comp.sources.unix. After decoding, it looked like:

Note how small it is. Back then, 108×128 was actually a pretty good resolution – our screens were low resolution, and so were our printers.

Ok, so flash forward a few years. I was no longer working for GeoVision and now I accessed the network using a text-only VT220 terminal hooked up to a 2400 bps modem dialed into the National Capital Freenet. I’d met a woman on the Usenet newsgroup alt.folklore.urban and we’d been conversing a lot, first via email, but later when the stars aligned and the various machine dependencies worked out we’d use chat, ychat or ochat. But usually the various versions of chat wouldn’t talk to each other and so we’d have to take our chances on IRC, which was a pain in the ass because we’d make a channel to talk, but some jerkwad would see Vicki’s name and barge in to try to chat her up in barely passable English.

But things were progressing to the point where we needed to meet. But first Vicki wanted to see a picture of me. I didn’t have any pictures of myself, but I did have this file that I’d saved on my computer at home. I had to upload it to NCF, then I emailed it to her, and somehow she and her geeky friends at work figured out how to decode it. Since she worked at a university, they probably used Gopher to find the software to decode it. But again, they did it on their Ultrix host, and she didn’t have a graphical connection to Ultrix, so the first time she saw it was when it came off the printer. I’ve seen the printout, and it was full page, which is another indication of the change of resolution from those days until now, although it was probably blown up a bit. I warned her beforehand that in the years since the picture, there was less hair and more of everything else.

After seeing that I looked presentable, she did agree to meet me at a neutral location. And after a few other adventures, we’ve now been married for over 17 years.

And that, my children, is how you got a picture of yourself to another geek in another city in the early 1990s. These days, we FaceTime when we’re in different rooms in the same house.

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