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Ye Olde Wombat's Den

So, back in 1993, I was interviewed by a local newspaper.  One of the reporters there was covering the local BBS scene (remember this was a few years before anyone had heard of the intertubes) and he liked mine the best.

My BBS was different than most: it was a general purpose forum, a place where we talked bout shit, and did little else.  Most other BBS' at the time concentrated on file sharing, a kind of precursor to today's warez scene.

So anyway, I made the cover of the newspaper.  The had me come in to their studio, sat me under some lights, and posed me.

Here's that article:

It was their idea.  I've censored it to protect your beautiful eyes.

Sex, lies and video games
It's all there on the Valley's computer bulletin boards

Welcome to the Wombat's Den, in Westbank.  This five-story, 30-room state of the art information and conference centre attracts upwards of 70 guests a day, and with good reason.

At any given time, denizens of the Den can be found doing things most never dream of: in Room #19, a small audience has gathered to listen to an advertising executive interpret a dream he had the night before; three floors below, a freelance write is borrowing X-rated pictures that make Madonna's Sex look like Dr. Seuss; and on the first floor, a band of teenagers trade bawdy blonde jokes.  From sex, to lies to video games - you name it, The Wombat's Den has it.

But you won't find this extraordinary building by phone book or business directory.  Though it resembles a high-tech convention centre in design, the Wombat's Den is nothing more than a computer Bulletin Board Service (BBS) - a limitless communication base accessible to anyone who owns a computer and a modem (a handy device that plugs ninto any phone line and allows computers to talk to each other.)

For a user or 'guest', a good BBS can be like touring Disneyland without leaving the comfort of the home.  Each BBS comes complete with its own house rules, but once a user checks in, they have the world at their fingertips - interaction on high-tech video games) some with up to 50 other users playing at the same time), conversation with other, anonymous users, copyable X-rated pictures and videos, technical information, desktop publishing images, fonts, and of course, bulletins for other users.

One of 26 Bulletin boards currently 'on-line' in the Kelowna area, The Wombat's Den is nothing more than an Atari monitor, two computer hard drives, a phone line and a modem.  Based in the basement of his parent's home in Westbank, Lawrence Wright, the system operator or 'sysop,' says his BBS currently boasts 72 users or 'guests' checking in and out at any given time.


"I've got everyone from 13-year old kids to 40-year-old business executives calling in." says Wright, who claims he was born and raised with computers.  "It's a complete mix."

The equation is simple.  Although users take or 'download' information off a BBS, they almost always leave or 'upload' more than they copy.  For a sysop, the more information he can offer, the more users he can attract who will, in turn, leave more information and attract more users.

"The primary aim of a BBS is to create a very active message centre," explains the 20-year old computer whiz who named his BBS The Wombat's Den because of his family's Australian Heritage.  "It's really a case of one-upmanship.  You leave a message and then every other user can reply to it.  If someone gets into an argument, everyone can get involved."

Because bulletin boards foster free speech and communication between users and vendors, the availability of abusive messages, electronic lynch mob mentalities and X-rated pictures (available only to users who upload X-rated material onto the BBS first) can make the difference between a popular BBS and one whichno one will use, admits Wright.  "It's like owning a television station...  you want to attract more users than your competitor.  It's a really neat concept."

Neat maybe, but not new.  Since the 1970s, colleges and universities have traded mass information through their own bulletin boards.  But since the early 1980s, the bulletin boards have grown from small single-line dial-in services into large systems that carry thousands of files and have multiple phone lines.  Many are aimed at particular interests and offer everything from magazine lists to specialized information on subjects like the occult and gay lifestyles.  The world:s largest public BBS - Exec PC Board in Shoreham, Wisconsin - operates 150 phone lines and fields an average of 3,000 calls per day.

Most often the easiest way for new sysops to attract users to their board is by advertising on another, more popular BBS.  After that, the success or failure of a BBS depends entirely on the imagination of the sysop and the availability of his service.  "If you're not up 24 hours a day, no one will call."

But Wright also knows how easy it is to lose users.  At one time he had 110 of them on his BBS.  That was last spring, before one of his hard drives crashed and eliminated not only hs BBS, but the millions of bits of information stored there by the 110 users frequenting his board.

"I'm talking 'big-time' frustrating.  I was off-line until November," Wright growls.  "You see, once you fail your users that first time, they lose faith...  and as a systop you have to fight like hell to attract them back."

In some cases the closure of a BBS is not as simple as the innocent failure of a hard drive.  Last June, the FBI shut down the Davy Jones Locker service, an electronic bulletin board that was allegedly distributing illegally copied software in Milbury, Ma.  Though the move was the first in a planned summer-long crack-down against software piracy, it wasn't the first time the U.S. government had closed a bulletin board.

In June, 1991, Novell Inc, a computer software giant based in the U.S., ordered its lawyers (with the assistance of five federal marshalls) to raid two California-based bulletin board systems - The Red October and The Original Wishlist - and confiscate all computer equipment.  Novell charged system operator Steven Merenkov with illegally distributing Novell NetWare files on his BBS.  Merenkov operated The Red October BBS for approximately four years, maintaining several forums and distributing shareware programs.

So heavy-handed has the U.S. government's handling of computer crime become in recent years that Lotus Development Corp. founder Mitch Kapor and other industry luminaries have founded the Electronic Frontier Foundation to sponsor litigation aimed at protecting telecommunications.  Just as AT&T is not charged when drug dealers use telephones to arrange an illegal transaction, so should BBS operators not be arrested or blamed when the tiny minority of computing criminals takes advantage of their service, they argue.  Computing criminals are few and far between here in the Okanagan (the commercial crime section of the Kelowna RCMP reports no investigations involving computer bulletin boards), but Kelowna sysop Jean Bygrave isn't taking any chances.  Last year, she and her husband Colin set up Dementia 9.4, a BBS the pair operate from their living room.

Though she originally offered X-rated pictures through her BBS to attract new users, Bygrave says she dumped the porn when it started attracting users who left crude messages, tried pillaging her board and called in under other uesers' names.

"We lost a couple of users but now we're trying to cultivate the more mature user," explains this one time "computaphobic" who admits she once considered the home computer revolution nothing more than a load of technological hype.

"I was totally, vehemently against computers...  it was honestly that bad.  The only way I would ever have let a computer in my house was if I could shoot it first."

Now she's content to sit back in her sagging easy-chair and monitor the 200 calls Bygrave claims come scrolling into her VVS each week.  "I learned not to be afraid of computers."

But with the increase of curious computer owners setting up their own fully functional BBS with easy, some, like Wombat's Den sysop Wright, say the number of computer bulletin boards in the Okanagan has eclipsed the demand.

"There's a serious glut here in Kelowna right now.  Two years ago, there were only ten bulletin boards...  the phones were busy all the time.  Now anyone who gets more than fuve messages a day is doing well."

Though it's nothing as drastic as an invasion of the killer BBS, the proliferation of computer bulletin boards in recent months has left a good majority of the sysops in the area wondering whether theirs will be the next to fall victim to a ratings wrecking ball.
We love UNB by Yves Goergen!