Given the impressive Curriculum vitae of my esteemed Friend Behr, it seems weird that he’d get so many things wrong about the Everything2.com brand node-by-mail system. Perhaps—and this is a conjecture at this point—there really was a different system of noding by mail in the countries on that side of the Berlin Wall. Here in the American continent it worked differently.
And so, here’s an extensive quote from my extensive library.
These inaccuracies were replaced by others once the node-by-telegram system was patented and implemented in the American Continent by William S. Balding. The original system he used was simple: a telegram could be submitted as a node to Mr. Balding as long as it had 10 words or fewer and was sent through a special form available in every postal office. For the low, low price of 5 cents, one could send up to 3 nodes per month1 Given this price, several preachers used the system to write very large litanies, in hopes of giving their cults a certain external validation at 5 cents and 10 words every time.
The main problem here, of course, was twofold. The second problem was that the Node Catalog2 constructed in this way was quickly flooded with low quality submissions that had no obvious connection to each other, since preachers often forgot to number their sermons, leading to Mr. Balding trying to piece together their anonymous sermons with no indication of how to proceed.
This happened because the first problem was that nodes never went through any authentication at all.
You’ll see, in the beginning nodes were always signed and stamped. This was because noding was seen as a curiosity to replace the ordinary letters and paper-based diversions (the kind that Naked Fraulein is part of) and not many people actually signed on to the Catalog. The first few nodes were written my by Mr Balding himself to have an actual product to advertise (“Node by telegram! Get your nodes submitted and a selection of 3–5 new topics to consider and ponder over dinner with family and friends!”).
The low subscription numbers meant that Mr Balding didn’t need to keep accurate records of every single user: comparing the node’s penmanship against the original receipt was all the authentication needed at the beginning.
But as the numbers grew, Mr Balding had to both archive and categorize the database, manage incoming and outgoing mail, keep account records, financial statements and appropriate linking3 between nodes.
Despite his protests, Balding hired an editor to help him manage the pure text facing part (linking, archiving, categorizing) while Balding himself managed the business side. It was during this phase that both men saw true growth of the Catalog and decided against the artificial limitations of the telegram. For a while, they thought of ways of advertising the growing Catalog that still managed to make money.
In a particular incident, they sent an internal memo as an advertisement to the local newspaper. In it, they discussed ditching the “5 cents per 3 nodes per month” limitation and instead charging a flexible amount for any number of words, with no time limitations. After a particularly charged discussion with the paper’s editor in chief (Emmett Belching) the three men went for a drink to settle things. In their excited state, they described the process as similar to the one used with great authors that got paid for a fixed amount of dollars per word, like Dickens. Only this system would work in reverse, charging people per word. After the bar closed, Mr Belching returned to his desk and composed a new ad for the next day’s paper. This is the origin of the now infamous phrase “Reverse Dicking” that still has connotations of exchanging money for word-based pleasures.
But I digress.
The decision was controversial to say the least. Charging per word was a blow to the people most integral to the Catalog’s growth: prophets4, priests, pastors and poets. These four groups began meeting in secret to discuss their options to use the Catalog’s ample reach to further their cause. They registered as a group and were almost instantly banned from public discourse5 until they renamed themselves simply as The Cabal.
Publicly, they were a loose association of writers. Secretly, they pooled together their resources to further their causes without breaking the bank.
The Cabal planted a spy in Balding and Belching’s offices and came back with a surprising fact: the Catalog did not have a central repository of statistics. In other words, they didn’t keep precise track of how many users there were, or how many nodes they were submitting. This could be used for their advantage, the Cabal thought, and decided to add a new member to the Catalog.
This is when the mysterious persona of “Mr. Webster” was created.
Mister Webster—according to the official Catalog record—was registered as a member at February 29, 1?13 and began sending one node after another. Balding didn’t notice, since he was concerned with financial matters. The old method of authentication by penmanship had long since been discarded, so the Cabal could submit hundreds of nodes under a single identity without having to pay lots of membership fees and opting only for the “timeout” penalty that prolific writers would cause.6
The second Timeout of the Catalog was the fatal one (the first was apparently unnoticed by anyone except the administrators, but we have a hint of it on Balding’s diary). Apparently the Cabal itself was replicated from town to town and the idea of writing under a single identity was copied. There were as many as 400 authors writing under the same identity and they all submitted daily. The volume of notes led Balding to start disposing of the mail by himself in a strange way: he built an underground furnace that would serve the double purpose of a space heater to forgo the use of old coal machines.
Under his administration, he fed the furnace one node at a time, but the Great Fake Earthquake of 1914 led to a panic and Balding’s assistant dumped the whole database in the furnace for safekeeping (she confused her emergency protocols) The explosion meant the end of the old Catalog.
But all was not lost. For starters, the real Mr. Webster (born actually a few years prior) found a stack of Balding’s unread mail and decided to start a database of his own, focused on single words.
Belching, on the other hand, resorted to rebuilding the Catalog from scratch, albeit with a great philosophical difference: the database itself would be open to readers. While this is now an obvious choice to make, back in the beginning of the XX Century it was seen as an unwise decision. After all, how could people Belching make money if anyone could get instant access to the database?
Belching made two decisions that would alter the database forever.
First, the database would be delivered in small issues, so as not to torture postal workers with 3-ton deliveries. Anyone who wished to subscribe to the database could do so, for the low price of 5 cents7 All that was needed was for someone to procure a ticket printed in the back of the “Everything Observer magazine”8 and send it with 5 cents enclosed.
However, this was a ruse, for there was no actual Everything Observer. Only one issue was printed and purposefully left abandoned in a park bench in Chattanooga9 Who took it is now unknown (folk legends attribute this mysterious first reader with Webster himself, but there is no conclusive evidence at the moment.)
The indisputable fact is that someone took the magazine. At the back there was an ad that read:
Interested in getting the Everything Database? Get it now for 5 cents instead of its regular price of 25! Call this number for more information.
This mysterious first reader called and was informed that, in order for him or her to get the Database, they would need to cut up the 4 numbered tickets that had been inserted in the magazine, and sell them to 4 friends for 5 cents each. Then and only then he would mail back the 25 cents.
What good were these numbered tickets? Well, they entitled the bearer to show up at any postal office and request their copy of the Everything Database that they’d already payed 5 cents for. Only, Mr Belching would send them another 4 numbered tickets for them sell to their friends.
This—according to a Courtly Supreme pronunciation—was in no way illegal, since the ad was correct (people only had to pay 5 cents) and the company didn’t suffer losses (since it got the full 25 cents per copy of the database).
The second major improvement of Mr Belching to the database was the use of obvious holes in content.
Not in metaphor, mind you, but literal holes cut into the pages. These were advertised as “missing content” and “to be added.”10 Belching decided to advertise the lack of content as content in and of itself, stuck in the process of being added to the database. More content would come, he promised, in future versions of the database. This was normal, given that it’s impossible to fit an infinite amount of information in a finite amount of paper. But the database, he assured, would continue to grow.
And grow it did. Belching’s plan was a success, because the second edition of his Everything Database never went to print. Instead, he began accepting graciously the work of impatient individuals who would—free of charge—write the content marked as missing so as to speed up the Second Database Coming. “Thanks for your submission”—a small letter would read—“and thank you for being a reader. Your content will be added to the database as soon as our editors make sure it’s free of grammatical errors…”
The volume second edition was always a promise. That was the plan from the start. Belching would continue publishing, of course, but it was always addenda, appendices to what already was. The indices at the back of every issue were a perfect map of how the Second edition was coming along. At first, it was a regular index of subjects in alphabetical order. Then, the appendices and comments came in a separate issue and those would have to be added to the index as well.11
The indices grew in size, and so the simple issue of 30 pages grew to a monthly distribution of 20 pages of content and 100 of the editor’s notes to the roadmap to the compleat concept of the organization of the second edition of the database of Everything.
The readers grew furious. Letter after letter to the editor complaining that it was a scam, that they payed for content, not for advertising of the content. And these letters were all added to the database.
Belching, obviously, had to comply at some point, but it would happen only after the Supreme Just of Course decided that there was no need for a second edition, as long as content kept being added to the database and distributed to the readers. But continuous work demanded continuous reward, and so Mr belching was, in a shocking case, suddenly owed for the millions of pages produced and already distributed to the readers. Their pleas were not heeded: if the readers had used up all that paper to clean, to train their dogs, to squat bugs and to start barbecue fires it was of no importance: they had been served the database they had payed for, and then some.
Belching had a few millions in debit. He did not always collect, though, only when his fridge was near empty or his bar near dry. A foreclosure here, asset liquidation there and he was set for life.
Few things are known of Belching after this pronunciation. What is known is that the Everything Corp. Inc. Assoc. Ltd. Unltd. firm was established at some point after Mr. Webster himself published his competing Database of Single Words. The firm started accepting works by mail in lieu of small payments of the debt. Slowly but surely, the Node by Mail system was established and in its current form, and what once was writing in fear of one’s home being taken away by a mysterious force had become a pastime of regular people, and the calamities of financial failure of a n individual here and there were unconnected to it.
That was, of course, until the node by mail system was deployed after and beyond the Berlin Wall…
Reprinted with permission, from the second reprint of the American edition of the English translation of the “New Authorized History of Everything, Re-told to ensure accuracy”; by Andy Cyca.
Such a discount might seems marginal to us, but remember that the competitor—“The Large Archive”—charged a flat rate of 2 cents per submission and an processing fee of 2 cents if someone submitted more than 3 nodes per month.
The term “database” wouldn’t come until much later. One day, the great John Rash was leading leading physicist Sergei Physics through Harvard. Physics would try to refine his poor understanding of English by constantly asking the names of things. After mishearing Abbott and Costello he was constantly wondering “Why, iz Dat a Base?” and John Rash would politely tell him no. This continued for a while until they reached the node sorting machine, still powered by vacuum tubes. “Mister Rash, iz Dat a Base?” Physics asked and Rash, visibly irritated, told him yes. Physics, who later became the Head Sorter, never learned the truth and would instruct his technicians to take care of “Dat a Base”. And so, a name was born.
The linking mechanism implemented by Mr balding was fascinating in its naivete and accuracy, even for a 100% analog system, but it is beyond the scope of this essay. Interested readers should refer to “A Written history of linking mechanisms: how wax, string and nails became hyperlinks”, a wonderful collection of essays edited by A Random House. Kneebiter et al. delve into the early history of links, back when the Mesopotamian civilization invented the concept of linking with physical proximity of clay tablets, through the “clothesline web” of Charles Cabbage and the wax seal and wiring mechanisms that ultimately led to Al Gore inventing the hyperlink and the internet as we know them today.
Self-described as such.
In retrospect, calling themselves “Four Ps for Ample Reaching” was ill-advised
The modern convention of a “timeout” in computing systems is unrelated. The early Catalog’s name for a timeout came can be traced to a folk song from Denmark, brought by the Catalog’s janitor, badly translated by Mexican workers to Spanish, then to English. This janitor would sing, asking for “a time-out from all these chores” every time he had to work overtime.
This pricing scheme, a historical nod to the past, was no coincidence and as we’ll see was integral to thew new database’s success.
This, in turn, led to the actual Panoptikon, but that is a story for another time.
A modern reconstruction of this magazine exists in the Butchersonian Institute Museum of Charcuteries and Printed Word, in Ketchuptown, SC.
Legend says that when Mr Belching came up with this idea, he ran to the Writers’ desk and showed them the page with a circular cut in it. “Glorious, isn’t it?” he moaned, as he held the page in front of him, standing on a desk. A cousin of Mr Webster was working there as an editor and told his bizarre story to his family (and every time he got more than 3 beers at the local bar). Apparently, this strange word association of holes with Glory stuck, and has now become a tradition, closely observed and followed by people all around the world.
For instance, the reader-review of “Commentarii de Bello Gallico” was listed under “Gaul War, commentary to”, “Julius Caesar, works of”, “Julius Caesar, attributed works”, “Comments to the Gallic War” and “Review of the Comment to the Gallic War”.