Pubnix Admin Interviews - #3, Ryan Sayre,

The previous two Pubnix Admin Interviews were with admins from Tilde servers.
This time, we interview Ryan Sayre (kraptv) of Portland, OR.  Ryan is part of
the admin team that runs[1], a system that got its start as an internet
services co-op.  Skylab has been around much longer than most Tildes, and is in
fact one of the oldest active pubnixes.  While the active membership isn't huge
right now, it has had a user count in the 100s in the past.  So Skylab exists
as sort of a hidden gem now, and some of the things that make it unique are
probably very interesting to the current generation of pubnix members.

Skylab not only offers the standard *nix services, but also has a small but
active Freenode IRC channel, #skylab.  On their IRC channel, you get a taste of
the old school geek culture that exists on Skylab - retro computing, amateur
radio, programming (and even home appliances).  One of the most popular topics
is ham radio.  And these guys aren't new hams either.  Take a look at Ryan's
great talk (here [2]) at the EMF 2014 Conference, for example, titled "Amateur
Radio - The Original Nerd Hobby".  Whether you are a Skylab shell account owner
or not, you can strike up interesting, nerdy conversation #skylab.

Ryan's history is interesting to me in that it carries a lot of links to the
early days of both pubnixes and BBSes.  Skylab also has quite a history, from
it's start in 1997 to the present system running FreeBSD on a DO droplet, a lot
has happened.  Take a look at the Skylab website[1] for some of that history.

And now, on to the Q&A.  Questions will be prefixed by a "Q" and answers by an


Q: Ryan, how did you first get into computers?  ...and multi-user system

A:  I first got into computers in the early 1980s from a neighbor who was an
amateur radio enthusiast who was also experimenting with microcomputers.  He
started with a TRS-80 Model 3 and graduated quickly to a Commodore 64. We got a
Commodore 64 and a 300 Baud VICMODEM which allowed me to call local BBSes. 
Some of the dial-in numbers were eventually multi-user UNIX systems (Agora -
now RainDrop systems, PDaxs, evolved into Teleport and ultimately acquired by
Earthlink), and by that time, Linux was starting to evolve into something fun.
Four friends co-operatively setup a Linux box (a 486) in a University dorm and
started running services for friends and friends-of-friends.  At the same time,
Portland State University had a wonderful free lecture series called the
Braindump ( that taught and celebrated
system administration.


Q: What was your first experience with pubnixes or similar computer-based
social communities?

A: Color 64 BBSes in the mid to late 1980s were just interesting and colorful
for a Commodore 64 user with a 300 baud modem, Hermes and WWIV BBSes were cool
fringe culture and conversations, lots of weird and exciting text files being
shared around too. FirstClass BBSes were an amazing GUI BBS network that made
it easy to relay messages and files.  Lots of friendly people who would trade
warez face to face later on.


Q: What pubnixes were you involved with before you started your own?  What did
you like about those?

A: None, sadly. We peripherally knew about SDF because it seemed to be out
there and Agora seemed to be quasi-commercial, so we just started our own and
got away with colocating in a lot of free places until we ran out of personal
favors with data center owners. I think we had to start paying for our service
around 2006 since starting in 1997. Almost a decade of free everything (besides
the hardware) was pretty awesome though.


Q: When did you start your current pubnix?  Briefly describe the history of
your pubnix from start until now.

A: We started in 1997. It was a wonderful group of four people - me - Ryan
Sayre, Chris Lattner, James Neal, and Michael Plump.  Chris Lattner is now
known well for co-authoring CLANG/LLVM/Xcode/Swift and many more amazing
things. James Neal was a passionate sysadmin who founded and still operates the
maker-friendly OSHpark circuit board fabrication service. Michael Plump went
onto being instrumental at Google Fiber.


Q: What motivated you to start your pubnix?

A: Given the value of the BBS and its dynamic culture versus some sort of
moderated experience with services like CompuServe, Prodigy, AOL, starting seemed completely natural and fun. Why pay for something that you
dont want when you can choose your own destiny with free software and
interacting with like minded people?


Q: How would you describe your pubnix to someone who is not familiar with

A: Its basically a pre-cloud internet cooperative that allows you to share
infrastructure and ideas with others on the same system. With a commercial
cloud provider, you dont know your neighbors, and with a pubnix, you actively
share the garden.


Q: What are the biggest challenges you face as a pubnix admin?

A: Everyone has grown up and cultivates their own relationships outside of the
system now, so Im left keeping the lights on. I have a small fraction of
friends who actively communicate on our IRC channel, which is wonderful, but
the diversity of chatter and number of people is much lower. I pay for it
monthly because I ended up being the most invested in its legacy.


Q: What software have you developed? If more than one, what is your favorite?

A: We developed, a proto-Slack anti-IRC chat system that had all
sorts of bugs and chatter. People liked it because it was NOT IRC, no splits,
no weird spam, and people were mostly friendly but ready to have a healthy


Q: What are your hopes for the future of pubnixes?

A: I hope that if people are seriously tired of the commercial-infused
zeitgeist machines (Facebook, Twitter, various blogging platforms, etc.) that a
pubnix environment can step up with the right mix of services to bring home and
social enrichment to a lot of people.


Q: What should pubnixes be doing that they aren't yet doing?

A: Developing social software and attracting a combination of creative,
friendly people with the technocrats. Get people interested in and being
comfortable with interface weirdness in exchange for knowing their content is
not getting mined for commercial exploitation.


Q: Are the Internet's best years behind us or ahead?

A: The innocence of early adopter pure-heartedness is basically gone with the
Internet approaching beyond-utility status of some stating access to it is a
human right.  If you bring everyone to the dinner table, you also bring some
pretty complicated interactions for people.


Q: What do you do when you're not on the internet?

A: Currently Im the primary caregiver for a toddler. I am working on
refurbishing the house we moved in six months ago, and fantasizing about going
to the beach and the mountains.


Q: What else do you enjoy doing with computers besides pubnix-related activity?

A: Resto-modding old Apple Macintosh computers, experimenting in dumb Raspberry
Pi tricks, and playing with mechanical keyboard culture.


Q: If people want to follow you online, where should they look? mastodon
address? gopher hole? gemini capsule? git repo? etc?

A: is not cool enough to have any of that. Maybe someday in the future.

[cmccabe:] If you would like to learn more about Skylab or Ryan Sayre, poke
your head into #skylab on Freenode, or you may also find him on Twitter:


Q: What is a good interview question I didn't ask you?

A:  What other pubnixes do you admire, and why? Is there a particular user
experience you strive for?  Got any interesting good and/or bad user stories?
What would you need to make this thing appeal to more people?


Q: Answer the question(s) you entered into #17:

A: I admire SDF because its an absolute juggernaut. It is super-solid and
despite it not being pretty, it just kinda works. Their ethos for education and
experimenting with services encouraged the users to lean in and participate.

We strive for users to get the multi-user UNIX experience, to poke around and
see other interesting users, and to be an active and continuous participant. We
encourage them to join the IRC group, Facebook (if wanted), and other venues to
feel part of a community.

Oh man. Awesome users include people with weirdly-popular websites (example:
user Chugga seemed to have the de-facto page on raising crickets for many years
- how random!) and people who just expressed gratitude for helping them out
(frequently not necessarily related to our system). Bad users included ones
that just used us for storage and compute and ran automated antisocial software
- they had no remorse when we pointed out this was very bad for the rest of us.

We need to make things easier and make it easy to understand why seeking our
community is worth coming to and participating in. If that means evolving the
platform or seeking out a different audience, I dont know.


Thanks Ryan!

This has been the third in the series of Pubnix Admin Interviews.  In the next
interview, we will hear from a sysadmin at a very different type of system, one
that combines elements of BBSes and pubnixes, and that holds a big emphasis on
DIY tooling and resource minimalism.


[1] Skylab:

[2] EMF Conference talk, 2014: Ryan Sayre - Amateur Radio: The Original Nerd Hobby

[3] The BBS Documentary