Article by Kevin Savetz

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Copyright © by Kevin Savetz


The Internet abounds with FAQ documents answering your Frequently-Asked Questions, on everything from astrology to electrical engineering.

But we all have questions so personal, so unique that there is no place to go for a ready-made answer. When this happens, does the Internet have a place to go? You bet: The Usenet Oracle.

Have you talked to the Usenet Oracle? He can answer all of your important questions: "What's the meaning of life?" ... "Where does the dryer put the socks it steals from the wash?" and "How much wood could a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood?" Or, he could *ZOT* you into a smoldering pile of ashes. Either way, he's a great guy.

The Usenet Oracle isn't really a person. It's an electronic mail service run by Steve Kinzler (kinzler@cs.indiana.edu), a graduate student and systems administrator at Indiana University. Send the Oracle your question, and within a few hours, you'll receive an answer from the all-knowing one.

The Oracle is a cooperative effort for creative humor. When you send a question to the Oracle server, your message is actually forwarded to someone else who uses the program. He or she mails a (hopefully witty) answer back to the Oracle server, which forwards it to you. Thanks to the server program, all of this is done anonymously - the questioner (or "supplicant") and the answerer (that is, the Oracle incarnate) never know who each other are.

The Oracle started as a program running on an Indiana University computer system. The program became popular, so Kinzler, with the help of hacker Ray Moody, created a network version of the service that went on-line in October of 1989. The best questions and answers - as selected by volunteer "priests" - are distributed in "Oracularity digests" on the Usenet group "rec.humor.oracle." Oracularities on that group are read by an estimated 41,000 people. Over 1000 additional readers (who presumably can not access the Usenet) subscribe to the Oracle mailing list, receiving the Oracularities via e-mail. To date, over 12,000 people have participated by sending in a question or an answer, with 73,000 questions answered. Kinzler is planning on staring non-English based Oracle servers in the near future.

Local oracle programs have existed in various places for many years. Most can trace their origin or influence to Peter Langston's (psl@acm.org) seminal oracle program which was written for the research V5 Unix system at the Harvard Science Center in 1975-76. As part of his "psl games" distribution, this original program spread to a number of sites, such as Murray Hill Bell Labs, Interactive Systems and Lucasfilm. Lars Huttar (huttar@occs.oberlin.edu) used a description of this program to write his Oracle program, which was posted to alt.sources in August 1989. This program inspired the Usenet Oracle.

Over time, the Usenet Oracle has developed his own personality. Writers incarnated as the Oracle often blend in known aspects of his persona: an inflated ego, a sense of humor, his girlfriend Lisa, and the propensity to his less fortunate supplicants.

Why did Kinzler start the Oracle? "Well, it was fun most of the time. Challenging frequently from a programming and system design perspective. But mostly it was that typical hacker's motivation: when a great idea comes along, it just deserves to be done. I thought an e-mail Oracle was a great idea, had the resources and desire to do it, and so I did it. Part of my interest in the Oracle was experimental - I wanted to see what would come of it, what people would do with an interactive, anonymous system like this."

Kinzler calls the anonymous mail aspect of the Oracle server a crucial aspect of its popularity. "Anonymity gives more people the security to try to be witty or funny in their creative writing. I hope to include people who discover through the Oracle they can and can enjoy writing creatively. And the Oracle gives them a guaranteed audience of two, and, if they're lucky, maybe tens of thousands."

For more information about the Usenet Oracle, send electronic mail to oracle@cs.indiana.edu with a subject line of "help." To ask a question, the subject line should include the words "tell me" and the body of the message should contain your question. (If you don't grovel to the sometimes-egotistic Oracle, you may find that you've been ted to oblivion, so you may want to pander to his ego!) You should receive an answer in a day or two, probably much sooner.

Once you ask a question, the Oracle may ask you to answer somebody else's question, as a sort of payment for services. You should respond with the most witty answer possible, so that the supplicant feels gratified in his or her quest for knowledge. If you can't think of a worthy reply, do nothing and the question will be sent to someone else. If you wish to answer a question without asking one, just send a message to the Oracle server with a subject line of "ask me."

If you don't have access to rec.humor.oracle and would like to receive the Oracularities, send mail to oracle-request@cs.indiana.edu. To get on the distribution list, include a subject line of "subscribe"; to remove yourself from the list of recipients, put "unsubscribe" in the subject line.

You can also find the Oracle on the Web at http://www.pcnet.com/~stenor/oracle/

Sample Questions and Answers from the Usenet Oracle

The Usenet Oracle has pondered your question deeply. Your question was:
> Hey, Joe - Where you're going with that GNU in your hand?

And in response, thus spake the Oracle: 
} The dyslexic hackers' convention.  Gonna kill some jobs.

The Usenet Oracle has pondered your question deeply. Your question was: > O Masterful Oracle, please answer your humble suppliant this question: > How do I invent the world's best compression algorithm? And in response, thus spake the Oracle: } .

The Usenet Oracle has pondered your question deeply. Your question was: > O Great Oracle, whose profundities steer the fate of Man. Answer me > this question: > Is it safe for me to run /usr/bin/fortune without spawning > /usr/bin/outrageous_fortune < slings+arrows ? And in response, thus spake the Oracle: } To spawn, or not to spawn--that is the question } Whether 'tis /usr/contrib/bin/snobol'er in the mind to } endure the slings+arrows of outrageous_fortune } Or to take alarm(2) against a /bin/csh of troubles } And by apropos'ing end(3C) them. } To die, to /bin/sleep--no /usr/bin/more } And by a /bin/sleep to say we end(heartache, } 1000*shocks(natural,flesh)) } To die, 'tis a comm | summation dev(2)+out(3)'ly } to be wished! } To /bin/sleep, perchance to iostream! Aye, there's the rub! } For in that sleep of death what screens may come } When we have shuffled off this mortal coil } Must give us pause() } } You owe the Oracle source code to splint (the Shakespeare } verse beautifier)


Articles by Kevin Savetz