Date: Tue, 18 Mar 1997 16:04:11 -0500
From: Bob Rankin 
Subject: TOURBUS - 18 March 1997 - Zen and Blarney

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         TODAY'S TOURBUS TOPIC: Zen and Blarney

 Here's an interview I did for Boardwatch Magazine in March 1996
 with Brendan Kehoe, a well known figure on the Net.  It seemed
 timely, and I think you'll enjoy this little change of pace!  --Bob

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Brendan Kehoe is one of the good guys.  As author of the classic "Zen
and the Art of the Internet" guide, developer of Archie client
software, archivist for the Computer underground Digest and general
doer of good online deeds, Kehoe personifies the phrase "net denizen".

Kehoe is a soft-spoken young man with a fiery Irish spirit who seems
most content when he is doing something for others.  While in college
he wrote the "Zen" guide to help fellow students understand what he
had learned about the Internet, and this free guide became an instant
sensation.  When he's not off doing volunteer work in the community or
answering a seemingly endless stream of e-mail from fellow internauts,
Brendan works for Cygnus Support in Mountain View, CA as manager of
the C++ Development group.

Born in Dublin, Ireland some 25 years ago, Kehoe came to America when
he was 4 1/2 and developed the computer habit not long afterward.  But
the road that led him from Commodore to SparcStation was not without a
few bumps.  In December of 1993, Kehoe sustained severe head injuries
in an automobile accident and was not expected to recover.
Miraculously, he survived the crash and emerged with a new outlook on
life and what really matters.

Recently I talked with Brendan about Zen, the accident, and his life
both on and offline.  Here's what he had to say...

Doc: Tell me a bit about how you first got into computers.

Brendan: My first computer was an Atari 800, when I was nine years
old.  Actually it was my cousin's, but I very quietly stole his BASIC
manual, read through it at home and then every time I was over at his
place I'd go and try to figure it all out while the others were in the
next room watching TV.

I conned my mother into getting me a Commodore 64 when I was twelve,
which I later upgraded to a model 128, and then I got a modem.  That
was the beginning of the end - also when my mother started getting
horrendous phone bills.  I was making toll calls from Maine to Chicago
because they had UUCP there, which allowed me to use e-mail.

Doc: What was it that attracted you to the Internet?

Brendan: Just being able to find things out really quickly.  In high
school I was blowing away my physics teacher by bringing in a copy of
a technical report only a day after some scientist had announced a
major discovery.  It was really neat that you could find that much
stuff that quickly.  Now the problem we're running into is how to
organize that massive amount of information.

Doc: Do you really use a 14.4K modem?

Brendan: Well, my Sun SparcStation 1+ apparently can't handle higher
than a 14.4 modem.  Some of my friends keep telling me "Oh, you've got
to get ISDN, it's so great" - but it would cost me a few thousand
dollars to upgrade this machine to a Sparc 2 in order to handle a 28.8
or better.

Doc: You had a brush with death about two years ago.  Can
you tell me what happened that day?

Brendan: I was in rural Pennsylvania, coming home from a friend's
house on New Year's Eve of 1993.  Whatever we were talking about it so
captivated us that I went right through a stop sign and was hit by a
Jeep Cherokee in the driver's side of the car.  We went into a spin
and ended up being jammed about a foot into some guy's house.

Fortunately a lady who was following us saw the whole thing and was
able to call 911 on her cellular phone.  I was flown by helicopter to
the hospital at the Univ.  of Pennsylvania where I had three sessions
of brain surgery.  I was in a coma for three days and after I came out
of that I was in something called an aphasia for about three weeks.  I
had an attention span of about 2 seconds - I was swearing, talking in
numbers - actually consistent numbers my friend said.

Then one morning I just magically woke up, rang for the nurse and
asked for a newspaper to find out what day it was and why I was there.

Doc: I remember following the saga in Computer underground Digest, and
the initial prognosis for a full recovery sounded pretty grim.  Are
you pretty much back to your old self?

Brendan: Yes, but with some interesting changes.  During the third
session of my brain surgery they had to take out a section of my left
temporal lobe, which resulted in this "name memory" problem and
sometimes a loss of short-term memory.

(See the CuD archives at for more on the
fascinating story of Kehoe's accident and recovery.)

Doc: I understand you're considering a move from software engineering
to teaching elementary school.

Brendan: One of the interesting results of the whole accident thing
was that it really pointed out the "fragility of life" to me, and that
you should do things that you're going to be gratified for having done
years later.  Being a software engineer is fine and I can do all this
cool stuff but I don't get much out of it.  And I know that 2 or 3
years down the line everything I do will be completely changed.

So as all this fragility of life stuff was hitting me I started really
enjoying working with kids, reading things with them and things like
that.  I started going into classrooms to watch teachers work, and
figure out what kind of stuff I'd be able to do and how it would feel.

I was also volunteering at a support network for battered women - I'd
keep the kids busy while the moms were in with a counselor.  It was
really interesting - escaping from a C++ meeting, spending an hour so
playing with the kids and then returning to work.  The difference
between the two was amazing, and I started thinking "I suppose I could
do this."

Doc: So you're changing your occupation to a vocation...

Brendan: Exactly.  Everybody's telling me "Why you gonna do that -
there's no way you can get anywhere near the money you're making now",
but it's a trade-off depending on what you really want out of life.
If I can figure out a way to live off a teacher's salary and continue
writing Internet books it could work.  It better!

Doc: About your book - the title is an obvious play on "Zen and the
Art of Motorcycle Maintenance" - is there any special significance to
the "Zen" thing for you?

Brendan: I had actually just finished reading Motorcycle Maintenance
when I was finishing the first draft of my book, and I realized that a
lot of the stuff that Robert Persig did in his book was to encourage
people to learn the basics and then go off and learn more by
themselves.  This was the approach I was taking with "Zen", to give
everybody the raw tools they need without deluging them in hundreds
and hundreds of pages of random stuff - instead relying on them to
take what I've given them and learn it in their own way.

Doc: You were a student when you started the "Zen" book, right?

Brendan: Yup, at a place called Widener University in Pennsylvania.
While I was a student there I took on the job of becoming their UNIX
system administrator.  Widener had just gotten hooked up to the Net
and nobody could figure out what in the world to do with it, so I
started trying to figure it out for myself.

I wasn't actually reading anything from anyone - just going exploring
and trying all these different commands.  When people saw that I was
figuring it out I got hit with so many questions I was going nuts.  So
I thought why not just write it down, and that's where the idea of the
online first edition of "Zen" came from.

I took about four months of writing down all the questions I was being
asked and putting it in a form that was usable.  And after making it
available to students at Widener I realized that people everywhere
must have the same questions.  So I figured "what the hell" and put it
out on the Net.

About two and a half weeks later I got a call from David Farber at
University of Pennsylvania saying "How would you feel about making
this a published book?" That was February of 1992, and I had the
galley copy done by mid-April.  The 4th Edition [ISBN 0-13-452914-6,
$23.95] now has a chapter on the Web, a section on how to write your
own home page, and an appendix on how to safely introduce your kids to
the Net.

Doc: I got a kick out of the opening paragraph on your site...

  "The Zen Internet Group is a very small, covert group of
  highly technical people struggling to overcome the
  drudgery of day-to-day life and burrow down into the
  world like a spoon into a banana split, splitting apart
  the atoms of closed-mindedness and tie-dyeing the very
  fabric of the universe, venting our frustrations at
  working on computers all day at work by coming home and
  working on a computer."

...Is the Zen Group for real, or it is just a whimsical thing?

Brendan: I liked the idea of getting the domain so I thought
I'd make up the Zen Internet Group in the hopes that maybe someday it
will actually exist.  We do get deluged with people asking us about
the Zen religion, though.

Doc: You've got a nice collection of "kids stuff" on your website.
Tell me how that came about.

Brendan: Originally it was just interesting things that I'd found, and
I realized that there were all but they weren't in any one place.
Even Yahoo hadn't been set up completely at that point.  I realized
that people might not be seeing good uses of the Net if it's all
spread out like that, so I just put them all together and wound up
with a mention in Yahoo and several other places.

Now I'm getting lots of people sending me mail with suggestions for
additions, and there are about 2000 hits per week.  It would probably
be better if I had a faster modem on my machine!

Doc: How much e-mail do you handle on a daily basis?

Brendan: Hmm, well over a hundred a day.  I still get mail from
top-level domains that I've never seen before so I have to go and
figure out what country they're from.

Doc: A lot of people see you as a kind of Internet hero.  Who do you
see as the people who have done the most good for the Net?

Brendan: There's a group up in Canada called Bunyip that did Archie.
Alan Emtage was one of the key guys there.  The way that they set up
Archie, along with the way folks at University of Nevada-Reno did
Gopher together helped to really spawn the growth of the Net and all
the stuff that's happening today.

There's also David Farber at U.  Penn who seems to be at the forefront
of everything; and both Mitch Kapor and John Perry Barlow at EFF who I
admire for their speeches on privacy and the Internet.

Doc: Here's a real "gee whiz" question, and I'll forgive you if you
don't have a good answer for it, but how do you see the Internet
changing society or the way we live by the turn of the century?

Brendan: I'm convinced that before the year 2000 we'll come up with a
way for more people to afford it - it's still too elitist.  You still
need a really nice computer to be able to do it.  There's a project
going on out here in Sunnyvale now where you can get an Internet
connection using just your existing cable and television [no computer
required] for $30 a month.  It's an interesting sign that they're
trying to come up with ways to make it less expensive.

One thing I'm positive that's gonna happen within the next year is
that we'll solve the whole digital cash and electronic money thing.
Right now there are three or four different approaches to doing secure
transfers over the Net.  Some of the projects underway now include
really big names like Sun Microsystems and Microsoft so by the end of
this year there should be some internationally agreed upon standard
for doing secure money transfers, banking, and buying - it's just
going to go right up through the roof.

Doc: Any parting comments, oh great Zen Master of the Internet?  :-)

Brendan: When people ask me "Is the World-Wide Web it for the Net?" I
have to tell them no, because it's just like if they'd asked me two
years ago if Archie and Gopher were it.  It's only limited by the
human imagination and there's no way that our imaginations are going
to stall on something like the Web.  And now we've got Java coming up.
There's always something new coming.

There's no way anybody can be exactly up to date unless they sit in
front of their computer with ten other people typing simultaneously.
I've been saying if people wanna use the Net, go in and use it now -
don't wait for it to get better.  It's going to consistently get
better and you're never going to find a stalling point.

The Internet itself is going to have to change soon, because we're
running out of addresses.  There is a proposed 128-bit addressing
scheme and people on the East coast are experimenting with a gigabit
connection now.  So yeah, it's gonna really transform, but there will
be a lot of constants.  E-mail will still be e-mail, probably very
similar to the format it is now.  We'll see a growing up and a firming
up.  Even if you look three years ago at the way things stood then
compared to now it's amazing.

It's funny when you hear Vint Cerf (one of the chief architects of the
TCP/IP protocol) talk now - he can't believe the way some of the
things have grown.  And I'd love to know what Marc Andreessen really
thinks about what Mosaic turned into, other than the fact that he's a
billionaire now...

Connecting With Brendan Kehoe

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