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Drawn to Knowledge: The Internet

By Shamus
on Friday Dec 3, 2010
Filed under:


“A five-minute, non-technical explanation of where the internet comes from, how it works, and what it has to do with nuclear weapons.”

Link (YouTube)

In an ideal world, I would have posted this a few days ago to assuage our sorrows from lack of Spoiler Warning this week.

This project began last week when my mother asked me about the internet. This is basically the answer I gave her, although I didn’t have a chalkboard on me at the time. It seemed to satisfy her, and I thought others might find it useful or interesting. I know a lot of this stuff will seem remedial to the folks that visit this site, but it’s my hope this will be passed around to those that are a little less tech-savvy. It went over well with my kids, at any rate.

Share and enjoy.

Comments (131)

  1. Sharnuo says:

    All I can think of is that episode of the IT crowd where they try to convince Jen that this little black box is the internet.

    Great explanation! I found it very interesting.

    • Lanthanide says:

      The elders of the internet know my name!?!?!

      Good job Shamus, although the microphone was a bit poppy on your plosives, and delivery was perhaps a little fast to fully take in what you were explaining and uneven timing and volume in places. The chalk drawings didn’t also sync up nicely to the audio either, sometimes they seemed to drag behind, other times race ahead, and only part of the time did they seem really in sync.

      Also I think you could’ve explained what IP addresses are. Generally a really good analogy for routing systems is like the postal service: you address a letter to some city on the other side of the country, and you just go dump it in a mailbox and it gets taken care of by the postal service. Each step in the postal service has a hierarchy of immediate knowledge – the post office in San Francisco doesn’t know how to get to Wilmington St in New York, but they do know that to get to New York city they have to first send the letter eastwards, etc.

      I’m a software engineer who writes embedded C code on L3 switches and routers, so this is kinda my thing :)

    • Meredith says:

      I love that show and that was a really funny episode.

    • kmc says:

      Lol, that is absolutely the first thing I thought of.
      Great video, Shamus! I’m sending this to all my mom’s friends. THEY NEED TO SEE IT.

  2. vukodlak says:

    Hey, that was really good! I kinda half-knew some of this stuff, but your explanation was very clear and easy to follow. You seem to have a real knack for explaining complex concepts to a lay audience.

  3. Lex Icon says:

    This would be an amazing series. Clear, concise explanations combined with entertaining visuals and your pleasing speaking voice make for a great video.

    Are you going to be making more of these? And if so, can we vote on the topics? I’ve got a few I’d like to see broken down so I can use them to save time explaining things over and over.

  4. NonEuclideanCat says:

    I wish I could explain shit like this. I’m really bad about using jargon, acronyms, et cetera, with people who wouldn’t know it.

    For instance, I volunteer at my local library as an IT guy. Today, a woman wanted to get her laptop onto our WiFi. Because of the quirkiness of our system, your OS determines what steps you have to take to get on. So I immediately asked her “What’s your OS?”. She gave me me quite a “What?” look.

    One of these days I’m going to have to master the art of thinking a bit slower when it comes to explaining technology. And creating really clever metaphors.

  5. BeamSplashX says:

    This is good stuff, Shamus. I’d love to see more, but this even stands on its own quite well.

    Though a Spoiler Warning crew educational seminar would be brilliant

  6. scowdich says:

    Loved it! A very concise explanation, simplified things without telling any outrageous lies (at least, ones that I noticed). Shall refer friends/family to it next time questions about teh Intertrons come up.
    “The Internet was invented so that, in the event of nuclear attack, the military’s leaders could still have access to pornography.”

    • Veloxyll says:

      *The internet was invented by Al Gore so that, in the event of a nuclear attack, the military’s leaders could still have access to more pornography than they can view in their lifetime.

  7. Psithief says:

    Am I the only one that wants to know what software was used in the making of this video?

  8. PhoenixUltima says:

    “Time To Live” would make a good title for a spy movie centered around internet shenanigans. “This summer, James Bond’s Time To Live… is ZERO!” *a giant computer explodes in the background*

    • anaphysik says:

      I would watch this.

      Great presentation, Shamus; I too am curious what you used to do the excellent chalk drawing animations. Zooming out to the whole board was an excellent ending, too.

    • kmc says:

      Woot! I can see it now:
      _Time to Live_
      Bond: Shamus Young! I should’ve known you were behind this.
      Shamus: Do you know who really sent you, Mr. Bond? Your precious office is now secretly under the heavy hand of a certain… Bobby Kotick!
      (dramatic music)
      Bond: No! Your mind is twisted. I’ve simply been sent to make you write nice things about the developers. Activision has nothing to do with this!
      Shamus: Ahh, it is you who has been twisted, only you are blind to it. And WHY DOESN’T ANYBODY USE SILENT PROTAGONISTS ANYMORE? I swear, hearing you speak is like watching a terrible cutscene. Fortunately, the button I have in my hand will allow me to deal with you once and for all. PRESS X TO DIE, MR. BOND! (Shamus laughs maniacally.)

  9. Andrew B says:

    Likewise, I too love this. Really like the style (both visual and informational). Despite already knowing what you were talking about. More please! (You know, while you’ve got the spare time kicking around…)

    And I presume I’m not the only one watching this and thinking “ohh, that would make a nice techie accompaniment to Extra Credits on the Escapist”?

    • Jakale says:

      Yeah pretty much, especially after the failed attempt to pitch Spoiler Warning put the idea that he could in my head.

      • Aldowyn says:

        Why not start doing all start of informational, but still interesting, videos, as supposed to all the comedy they have there now.

        Like the weekly issues in video form. The problem is it’s hard to find a topic that you can do weekly for months or years.

  10. Adoil says:

    I like to consider myself to be a rather intelligent person (130+ IQ, straight A’s with zero effort, etc.), but I’m currently rather drunk at the moment so I’ll measure myself as a mundane, normal person at the moment (have I mentioned I’m also rather elitist :P) and your video was still clearly understandable and informative (even especially if I was sober). So props to you Shamus for the. . . uh . . . universality (?) of your explanation in this video. I loved it.

    Now I’m gonna sign off before I make an even bigger ass of myself. G’night.

  11. Primogenitor says:

    Really Shamus, because Josh’s computer is broken is not a good reason to start yet another project, even if it is a really cool one.

    One thing that bugged me though was the US-centric wording in your commentary; “how WE could defend OURSELVES” rather than “how the USA could defend itself”. Particularly ironic when talking about the internet.

    Also, could you speed up some of the drawing parts? It was better once it got going, but I felt the title was a bit drawn-out. (he he, drawn-out, he he)

    • Lanthanide says:

      “Particularly ironic when talking about the internet.”
      The internet was invented by the US for this purpose, and the US still has control over the main DNS servers and a large chunk of the tier 1 routing system. All the main internet standards bodies are American, too. So it’s not ironic at all, it’s appropriate.

      • Jan says:

        DNS servers: See the map on the operators website. I’d guess most are in Europe, then in North-America, then Asia.

        The US does not have control of the tier 1 routing system, this is done by individual companies, of which (according to wikipedia) about 2/3rds are US based.

        Standards bodies are also mixed. ANSI is of course US, but ISO not, and I cannot find an affiliation for IETF.

        But the whole point was of course that the “We” will turn off non-US viewers. Yes, the US made the internet, but most of the people on it today aren’t citizens of the US. They might be interested in this very well done presentation.

        • Simon Buchan says:

          Well its the “International Electronic Task Force”, isn’t it? Also, as a non-US viewer, I just interpreted “We” as “Shamus and his buddies in the Pentagon”. It’s perfectly acceptable to refer to yourself in the first person most of the time :)

          EDIT: Bah, the “*Internet* Engineering Task Force” – 3AM not good for my memory :(. ietf.org does say they are international though.

        • Jakale says:

          Why should talking about the internet in the context of the past insult the people who weren’t considered in its initial conception?
          At the time it was US defense they cared about, not the rest of the world.

          The word “We” would just tell international viewers where Shamus and his intended audience is.

        • Galad says:

          “But the whole point was of course that the “We” will turn off non-US viewers.”

          You know, I’m one of those non-US viewers, and while I normally notice this kind of stuff, somehow Shamus’ voice entrances me to pay no attention to this (often) petty kind of thing

        • Lanthanide says:

          If you look on the list of the DNS servers, you will see that most of the ‘Global’ ones are based in the US.

          As for tier 1 routing, I said ‘a large chunk’ of which I think 2/3rd composes. Note I didn’t say it was controlled by the US government, just ‘the US’ which includes US citizens and companies. Anyway, if you think the US government can’t direct private companies on what they should do, you’re dreaming (ex: Amazon recently shut down the hosting of Wikileaks…).

          IETF is mainly run by Americans and American companies. ICANN is in charge of dolling out IP addresses and is very tightly held by the US government – there have been calls in recent years for it to be made international, but these have been rejected. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/ICANN

          Anyway, rather than quibbling over specific details, the point of my post was to inform Primogenitor, who seemed to believe that the internet was some international beast wholly free and open to all humanity, that actually the US still has a great deal of control over it, and it seems unlikely to change any time soon.

          • Shamus says:

            At any rate, using “us” in the video was for flow and ease. My first couple of paragraphs originally had the U.S. / Soviets explicitly defined, and it felt cumbersome.

            Saying “us” and “we” flowed more naturally. If I was having a conversation with someone it’s how I would say it, trusting them to sort out the “us” stuff for themselves. Saying “THE UNITED STATES” or even “the you ess” a half dozen times was annoying.

            Interesting that this was the biggest complaint. I really expected criticism from the technical simplifications I did, not on saying “we”.

            Interesting how perceptions change when your format changes. I’ll have to remember this if I do another one, although I certainly don’t want to take on some stodgy documentary style, either.

    • guy says:

      Shamus lives in the USA. The first-person pronouns are justified.

  12. DaveMc says:

    Fantastic! Excellent work, sir. I do hope we see more of these, and I second the motion that a “making of” would be fascinating.

    If I were The Escapist, I would take this on as a new video series in a heartbeat. I’m not The Escapist, but you know, if they ask for my opinion, that’s what I’ll tell ’em. “Take this on in a heartbeat,” I’ll say.

  13. AngryPanda says:

    This is absolutely fantastic. Unfortuantely it is also in English meaning exactly the sort of people I’d like to show it to won’t be able to understand it. I’m going to have to do a word by word translation because even as simple text this would be great to have for some of my family.

  14. Legal Tender says:

    Very nice S!

    Was this done with Prezi? I’ve been dabbling with it a bit and the effects and transitions I’ve used look very similar to yours. Although, now that I think about it, Prezi only has 3 or so themes IIRC, hmm.

    Bonus points: I heard about Prezi after watching a ME2 video-y thingy done by Christina Norman about the changes made from ME to ME2 :D

  15. Raygereio says:

    Wait, I’m confused. Where are the tubes in all off this?

  16. lazlo says:

    Looks really cool. The one that I always have trouble explaining to people is the difference between bandwidth and latency (and sometimes jitter), because they *are* related, just not in really obvious ways.

    “Yes, adding bandwidth will decrease your chances for congestion and the link serialization delay, but it’s not going to change the speed of light.”

    • BlackBloc says:

      It’s easy to explain by analogy. Bandwidth is the number of lanes on the highway. Ping is the time of the trip.

      If every day there’s massive congestion on the highway between Toronto and Montreal, adding new lanes will accelerate traffic, but at the end of the day if you go at the speed limit the trip will at best still take 6 hours.

      Now if someone wants to know why larger bandwidth brings their movies in quicker, tell them the company that’s sending him a movie is parcelling it into a million packages and sending it over in a million cars on that highway. If the road that connects him to the highway is very narrow, a large part of the time he’ll wait for his movie will be because all the messengers are blocking the road because there’s so many of them.

      • Atarlost says:

        It’s more like early mail. You write a letter in one city to someone in another. You leave it in an inn and hope someone trustworthy shows up to take it in that direction, but they can leave it in another inn for another traveler if they’re only traveling part way.

        The internet no more has individual travelers than radio has a cat so it looks no different if one traveler goes the whole way stopping at a bunch of inns for sleep and sustenance or if a whole bunch of travelers each take the letter a little ways.

        In both cases total strangers might be reading your mail. This is why you never send anything that can be used to defraud you without encrypting it.

        Bandwidth is analogous to the number of travelers willing to schlep other peoples’ letters. TTL is kind of like the wear on the physical letter. At some point it’s so worn it starts falling apart and someone just trashes it. Since packets don’t fall apart on their own they have a counter that simulates it so they don’t clog the network with undeliverable mail.

  17. Jarenth says:

    I don’t particularly like to throw around exaggerating qualifiers all the time, because I feel it cheapens the impact of those words when you actually want to use them. So please understand what this means to me when I say that this video was absolutely brilliant, and I really hope you can find the time to do more of these.

    • Aldowyn says:

      I agree. With the second part, obviously, but also with the first part.

      Case in point: The word “awesome”, and to some degree “epic” as well. They aren’t as strong as they used to be. I admit I use awesome all the time, but I try to use epic only when I really, really mean it.

  18. eri says:

    Cute video. :3 How long did it take to put it together?

  19. Ermel says:

    Pretty damn cool, Shamus. Thank you.

    Now if only this were in German, so I could use it to enlighten my Dad …
    well, maybe a German voice track … if and when I get around to it …

    Yours, Ermel.

  20. Mari says:

    Take it as read that I will be using this as a teaching tool with my own kids this weekend.

  21. Meredith says:

    All I can do is echo the others and say this is really well done. You really could make a career out of explaining technical stuff to non-techy people.

  22. Jeremiah says:

    Excellent video, Shamus.

    You have an impressive knack for making blog posts or videos like this where people at vastly different levels of understanding can still enjoy it.

  23. Thom (talzaroff) says:

    Love both the explanation and the typical Shamus-like presentation. Great work :)

  24. Factoid says:

    Very well done. Did you do the art animation yourself? What program did you use?

    A small constructive criticism: I would have ended the video at “really awesome accident”. The jargon part felt like a separate topic and could have stood on its own as a video or as part of a larger video.

    Also if you’re going to be making more of these I would do what you did with Spoiler Warning and put the credits up front to encourage people to watch all the way to the end.

    • Jon Ericson says:

      I agree the jargon section seems out of place. To be honest, I didn’t know what TTL meant, though I do remember it being one of the values that could be twiddled back when TCP/IP variables could be productively tweaked. It’s useful information, but sort of out of place. Consider the raft of acronyms and technical words that could have been explained as well: IP, bandwidth, URL, tier 1, DNS, routers/switches, HTTP, and so on. Not all of them are directly related to the topic at hand, but they seem more likely to show up in casual conversation. The description of the mechanisms was interesting without the need to introduce jargon except (possibly) in passing.

      Also, while you did explain what ping means as a verb, you didn’t make clear how it functions as a noun. (It’s the return packet, right?) Perhaps you could have left out the noun reference.

      But there’s no question this is an incredibly well-done and informative video. I love the chalk effects. Here’s to you finding a way to get paid for your work! (You might try shopping this around to the publishers of educational TV shows or training curriculum. It’s miles better than the slop we endure for work-related training.)

      • Lanthanide says:

        I agree, suddenly talking about TTL out of nowhere was a bit odd.

        As for ping as a noun, he didn’t explicitly explain it, but basically it’s when people saying “my ping is xxx” when they’re in an online game, or “you have a crap ping”.

        Just for completeness, TTL isn’t something you really want to tweak in general. The default value for most packets is 127, and generally you won’t get more than about 40 or 50 hops to reach any particular destination on the internet, so making it longer doesn’t help, and it’s already short enough to stop indefinite loops. ISPs might tweak TTL themselves, but it’s generally not something an end-user would bother changing. TCP window framing is the main one that people used to tweak in their registries and such.

        • Jon Ericson says:

          Ah yes. I wasn’t thinking in gamer mode.

          As for TTL, we’re talking about the early growth stage of the internet: the mid-nineties. My “ISP” was the university modem pool I dialed into to download crappy shareware and use “electronic mail”. If I recall correctly, the advice for speeding downloads at the time was to reduce TTL (from 127) to speed the process of giving up on failed packet delivery and try again. In those days, the socket library and TCP/IP stack were third-party packages that the end user had to install and configure themselves. Without some serious investigation I wouldn’t be able to make any sort of adjustment these days and everything more or less works out of the box.

          I feel old. (Get off my lawn!)

          • Lanthanide says:

            Ahh, right, back then.

            Still, theorizing of what I know about TTL, it shouldn’t make a big difference to you anyway? If a packet is going to get lost, such that the TTL decrements to 0, then naturally you aren’t going to get a reply to it at all. So whether the TTL is set to 64 and it gets dropped after 10 seconds, or whether the TTL is 127 and it gets dropped after 20 seconds, either way your client still isn’t going to get a reply to that packet, so a greater or lower TTL shouldn’t affect the workings of your client. Unless the client also had some other ‘timeout’ timer that was tied to the TTL, and reducing the TTL reduced the ‘timeout’ timer as well.

        • Rosseloh says:

          Yes, “ping as a noun” can refer to that general measure of latency, but it’s also the ICMP echo request/reply process as a whole. You know, instead of saying “ping that”, say “I’ll use ping to test connectivity”.

          Or something like that.

  25. Kibbin says:

    Just gonna agree with everyone else, I know very little about computers or the internet and so would lovet o see something like this, that explains it to me in nice easy to understand terms and a few jokes and so forth

  26. Another Scott says:

    A perfect example of something I knew that I needed to know, even though I didn’t know until the moment you started talking about it.

  27. Awesome Shamus, next you should probably do: Computer+Monitor+Keyboard+Mouse (aka the PC Box),
    then Operating System,
    then Web Browser/Surfing/Browsing/etc..

    That should cover the basics of daily PC “stuff”,
    Beyond that I’m not sure right now.

  28. mad_wolf says:

    awesome vid, it looks really good.
    the visuals are clear and enjoyable and the narration fits.

  29. ngthagg says:

    I think this is a really important project. After all, understanding how the internet works is a key component of getting the jokes in xkcd.

  30. Joe Cool says:

    ARGH! It’s KILLING me! How did you do this? What program? What tool? Are you really actually that good of an artist and animator? I would love to find out that, no you’re not and there’s some magical tool you used that turns mere thoughts into clever and amusing drawings on a chalkboard.

    With my current tool- and skill-set, this would probably take me months to do. You talk like “oh, it’s something I just threw together, y’know, cause my mom asked about it and there was no Spoiler Warning last week.”

    This rocked.

    • Shamus says:

      The answer is even worse than you think.

      The program used to make this is something I wrote this week. It lets you draw little doodles, save them, and play them back at different speeds. It’s super-rough and the code is an abomination right now. (I used my comic making program as a base, and there are vestiges of that scattered all over the place.) I did the doodles, then recorded the whole thing with Fraps.

      I spent nearly all of yesterday watching and re-watching the thing, changing the duration of the doodles to get them to line up with my talking. If I stick with this project, Job #1 will be coming up with a way to do this without needing to watch the WHOLE THING every time. Ugh. I’m pretty sick of hearing myself talk by now.

      • SteveDJ says:

        Sounds like a new project for your Let’s Code series!

      • Manny says:

        Wow, for something written within a week it gives really polished outputs. I like the “camera” movements, zooms and the background texture. Really neat. I bet people would pay to have access to this kind of software.

        Also, the doodles are nice. I hope you had some undo function so that you didn’t need to start over when you messed up a stroke.

        • Shamus says:

          The project is broken up into distinct drawings. Sputnik was one, earth was one, the word INTERNET was one. If I make a mistake, I can hold down the delete key to un-draw everything in the reverse order it was drawn. So a bad stroke is easily removed, but If I notice a mistake later I have to get rid of everything I added to the drawing since the mistake.

      • guy says:

        I am envious of your superior mastery of black coding magic.

      • Piflik says:

        Are you going to (finish and) release the program? I am currently looking for a little application that would allow me to capture what I am drawing in realtime to a video (or single frames), but I don’t even know what to look for in Google… ;)

        I know I could capture me painting using Fraps (or similar), but then I would have my cursor on every image…and zooming would kill the resolution…

  31. Neil Polenske says:

    Okay. Things to note:

    1) Not too long ago you were looking for a new job (i.e. source of consistent and sustainable income for you and your family)

    2) You currently have a blog that is well known enough to allow you connections and contributions with a professional internet magazine organization. This was accomplished with little to no advertising that I’m aware of.

    3) This popularity has been commented on to be the result of intelligent discussions, successfully understanding and executing humor and a focus on topics that are popular among your fan base (i.e. “The Vidja-games”).

    4) When you diverge from your common topics to focus on technologically complex issues/events/etc., it is even more commonly commented on that you personally excel at making said topics digestible for people with no experience in those fields and entertaining to listen to.

    So the obvious question (which has no doubt already been asked and to my ignorance may very well have been answered) is thus: Ever think of becoming a teacher?

    • Keeshhound says:

      I suspect he wants to be able to support his family. I don’t know where you’re from, but here in The Great United States Of America! teachers’ salaries are a joke. It’s all very sad.

      • Shamus says:


        My mom and Dad were both teachers. My wife was a teacher. Both of her parents as well. (My sister was educated as a teacher, but doesn’t use her degree.)

        “How much teachers make” can be seen as low or reasonable, depending on how you think of those three months off. Their salaries are decent for nine months of work. But of course, you can’t just snap your fingers and find high-paying work for the other three months. So they make less, and work less. That’s good if you want to be an author or enjoy some sort of outdoorsy work for summertime, but if you just want a steady job that can support you (which is reasonable) then teaching doesn’t offer enough hours to do that comfortably.

        Salaries are also governed by school district, which are (at least in Pennsylvania) funded through property taxes. If you live in a rural area with lots of low-value property (farms and trailer parks) then the school will struggle. If you live in a high density, high-value area, you end up with schools that have more money than they know how to spend usefully and you wind up with a lot of shameful waste. Then there are government grants which favor the struggling schools with equipment and grants they don’t need. Case in point: My father-in-law worked at one of those farm-and-trailer-park schools, and their salaries were indeed a joke. But government grants bought them an incredibly lavish computer system, and they weren’t allowed to use the plentiful computer money to solve their more immediate salary problems.

        I only bring this up because the US out-spends everyone on education per-student. When people say “we don’t spend enough on education!” it’s like getting a papercut. There are many tragic problems here, and many shortages, but I cringe every time someone suggests it would all be fixed if we just SPEND MOAR MUNY!!11!

        At any rate, being a public school teacher would be impossible. As I understand it, it simply cannot be done without a degree. I maybe could teach at a college, though.

        • Amarsir says:

          I know you don’t want to get into a thing, but the national totals for school funding have only 40% local, with 50% state and 10% Federal. So while there certainly is a property value effect, rural/poorer areas are left hanging far less than they used to be. Waste and want are much more a matter of the gross misallocation you mentioned. (Which IMHO is inevitable with a centrally controlled economic model, but now I’m really starting something.)

          More on-topic: people often say to me that I might consider teaching – particularly after some public speaking occasion. My attitude is that there are ways to educate and inform without locking into the traditional classroom structure. Your blog for example reaches many people, and now they know!

        • Aldowyn says:

          Well, you could always teach a technical/computer class. I’m at one of the best schools in the country (seriously, that’s not even an exaggeration), but the computer program just sucks. Seriously, seriously SUCKS.

          It’s to the point that the teacher in my Java class is actually detrimental to my learning most of the time.

          Also, it being a new field, a degree isn’t nearly as necessary, and your experience pretty much counts.

      • Corran says:

        “America believes in education: the average professor earns more money in a year than a professional athlete earns in a whole week.”
        — Evan Esar

    • Shamus says:

      “Ever think of becoming a teacher?”


      You know, those were the exact words out of my mother’s mouth when I gave her the above explanation.

      I don’t have a degree. I wonder how you go about becoming a teacher?

      • Deoxy says:

        To teach at a public school generally requires an education degree (the quality of which is unimportant… leading to a WIDE disparity).

        I was going to write thoroughly on the teacher salary thing, but you covered that decently, so I’ll just say that my wife’s first year on the job, she was making more per work day than I was after several years as a computer programmer. (Yes, that was in a higher paying district than same, but not grossly so.)

        The real problem is that there is no discretion in salary – it’s controlled almost exclusively by years on the job. Also, the hours spent on the job vary enormously by A) subject/classroom type and B) whether the teacher cares or not.

        That is, a “just getting by” teacher, especially in years past, does NOT put in 10-12 hour days as so often gets mentioned (my wife put in at least 60 hours EVERY WEKK the whole d— year), but just “gets by”, leaving when school gets out and not touching anything (especially after a year or two to get their curriculum passable) in the evenings. And they get paid just the same as good teachers who bust the butts everyday.

        So yeah, college might be a better idea for you. But then, unless you do it full time, that pays quite a bit WORSE, usually.

        (To your exact question, if you have a bachelor’s degree, some states have relatively short education tack-ons – some can be done in a single full-time semester, I think, or even a very busy summer. This info is some years old at this point, though, and may no longer be valid.)

        You would make a GREAT teacher, Shamus, but I don’t think you would be able to do so at almost any public school. Make of that what you will.

        • BenD says:

          Really, whether ‘Don’t dooo it’ is a good response regarding teaching in public schools depends largely on your school district and the state in which you teach (and we’re all assuming the US here, and I’ll just keep right on in that vein). A good administration in a district with good priorities in a state that focuses on student learning rather than a bunch of vote-begging buzzwords made up by politicians can be a great place to teach and I think you might enjoy it.

          I also don’t have any idea where public school teachers make more than computer programmers. That is sure not the case here, or most of the rest of the west coast as far as I know – the teacher makes about half to 5/8 what the programmer does, assuming 10-15 years experience in both cases. And right now, schoolteachers are in pay freezes all over the place.

          Public school administrators on the other hand are often grossly overpaid.

      • Rustybadger says:

        That’s what contracting is for. I was self-employed for over a decade, and wasn’t asked for credentials ONCE. The assumption is that if you fail to deliver, you fail to get paid, so who really cares about some goofy piece of paper?

        That being said, Shamus, you already ARE a teacher. You teach, and you do it well. You may or may not be able to monetise that in a public school setting, but you definitely CAN monetise it in some way, even if it’s simply by putting stuff on YouTube and pulling in a bit of ad revenue (any idea how much the “Did You Know” series of videos has made that way? A Lot.)

        Anyhow, I work in a public school district, and knowing what I know about your personality, I think that environment would quickly destroy your love of teaching. So please, for the children- stay away!

        Also, if that cobbled-together piece of software you used can be marketed, it’ll sell like hotcakes in those very same schools!

        • Larryboy114 says:

          “That being said, Shamus, you already ARE a teacher.”

          Hear, hear!
          I’m a grad student and in the years I’ve been in school I have rarely learned more per unit time in a classroom (or with a journal article) than I do on your site. Always informative and interesting, presented in a way that is easily approachable. Keep up the good work!

    • asterismW says:

      Dude, I’ve thought this for years. You explain things really well, and your explanations are simple while still sounding smart, and highly entertaining. If Bill Nye was still on the air, I’d vote for you as his replacement.

  32. AR says:

    As someone’s who has read a lot on nuclear war, weaponry, and survival thereof, I have to say that you’re grossly underestimating the survivability of a nuclear attack, especially with access to a hardened bunker.

    Specifically, when you describe a nuclear attack on a hardened server bunker as likely resulting in the death of personnel due to radiation poisoning, hunger, and thirst. Matter of fact, 3 feet of packed dirt is enough shielding to survive the fallout, which will decay away to survivable levels within months, which is not that much time in terms of stored food and water. Submarines can stay submerged for that long.

    This is not that much of a consideration for military targets, which are likely to receive direct nuclear attacks from surface burst or ground-penetrating weapons, but for the civilians in the surrounding area, the common perception that nuclear attack is not survivable is surely one of the greatest obstacles to doing so.* It’s not as though such preparations are unprecedented. In modern Switzerland, for instance, fallout shelters are a standard feature of almost every building made there, making them the most prepared nation for nuclear war, despite being among the least likely to actually be involved in one.

    *Besides, you know, the nuclear detonations.

    • Zak McKracken says:

      Ok, I hav none such eductaion on the topic, but according to emergency procedures in Germany, the fallout shelters here were (during the cold war) meant to keep the decision-making part of defense ministry and army alive for long enough to use the part of the army that’s still alive to deliver what little blow they could deal and then die.
      Any civilian personnel of those shelters would be “sent on leave”, as one officer (who used to be responsible for one of those bunkers) put it in a documentary. The “decontamination chambers” were just placebos, but mostly unnecesary, because everyone would be dead two weeks after the attack anyway.
      This is no “hard information since I gathered it through documentaries, and maybe German bunkers are not the same as the ones in the US, but I see no reasons why they could not be build as solid as the US ones, after all Germans had lots of knowledge about concrete after WW II. Maybe they didn’t bother to build them more solidly, because Germany was probably goig to be overrun by the Russians anyway in case of a war? No idea.

  33. chabuhi says:


    Become a teacher through your site. Seems to me that a good deal of your audience is interested in learning from you – and coding seems to be the hot topic. Develop a curriculum, produce the videos, sell for a reasonable price, ???, profit. I know that’s easier said than done, but I know of more than a few people out there who have quickly turned something they were already doing for enjoyment into something at least somewhat lucrative. And a guy with your talent and passion has the best opportunity to do that.

  34. guy says:

    I’ve read that the internet was just designed for passing around research data between various major research centers easily, but I’m not entirely sure I buy that.

    • wtrmute says:

      That’s actually true, in the sense that the Internet evolved from the Department of Defense’s DARPANet, which connected several Universities involved in the eponymous Advanced Research Projects. Over time, with the end of the Cold War, and with the evolution of computing power, the DARPA applications were dwarfed by first the non-DARPA-related University research and then, finally, by the commercial ventures started by Uni graduates.

  35. Lanthanide says:

    Shamus, if you’re seriously investigating this “become a teacher” thing, then you should probably look into Khan Academy: http://www.khanacademy.org/

    They do online videos for actual school subjects (maths, economics, science, etc). Google donated them a whole chunk of money recently.

  36. Grey_Cap says:

    Great, pedagogical video! I don’t even have anything valuable to say, except that you deserve praise…

  37. Nekokirin says:

    Awesome! This is short enough to keep it interesting to someone that just uses Facebook or something, and it steps up the complication slowly. I’ll be using this next time someone in my family asks me how Facebook gets its pixels on the glowy rectangle.

  38. asterismW says:

    I absolutely loved this. Fun, educational, and high production quality. I’m constantly amazed by the talent people have. And the title? Perfect. Here’s to hoping this is the first of many.

  39. porschecm2 says:

    My thoughts on this have already been pretty well covered by others, but I’ll just sum them up by saying: I loved it; please do more.

  40. Nathon says:

    Sorry to be the latecomer pedant, but the Internet was not designed with nuclear war in mind. Wikipedia is unreliable, so here is their source.

    • Shamus says:

      The nuclear angle is something I heard about long, long before I heard of Wikipedia.

    • Neil Polenske says:

      This has always been a source of confusion for me. I’m not a computer savvy fella. I have enough understanding to navigate a PC beyond someone who doesn’t have interest in it as a basic concept. That is to say, I understand it to be more than just a magic box that holds the internet, but for the most part I’m still an outsider looking in.

      As such, I was always under the impression that the ‘internet’ was a recent invention. I assumed it had been created around the same time it was provided publicly (i.e. the late eighties/early nineties). It wasn’t until a few years ago I came to realize that the majority of the internet as we know it was developed and created in the early sixties. So twenty some odd years before I was born, the internet was essentially already kicking around.

      I can understand the internet not being available publicly until the PC boom of the 80’s, but that still leaves a decade where the internet is there…but no one has it? It just strikes as remarkable that something that we now know to be as powerful culturally as the internet has become…was essentially this giant that had been asleep for almost four decades.

      I guess the question would be: What woke it up?

      • Shamus says:

        The internet was mostly used by academics and government workers. Regular people used BBS’s. Then BBS’s sort of went commercial with services like AOL, Prodigy, and so on. Those services hooked into the ‘net, giving the masses access to the World Wide Web. From there you had a positive feedback loop: More people made more web pages which made the web more useful, which attracted more users.

      • Lanthanide says:

        What you are thinking about as ‘the internet’ is more likely ‘the world wide web’. Yes, they are two different concepts entirely.

        The internet is used to carry lots of different sorts of communication, of which the World Wide Web (eg, webpages) are one of. What else runs on the internet, you ask? The obvious and familiar answer is online multiplayer games – these aren’t using the web, because you don’t go into a webbrowser and type in a URL that begins with www to play them. Other things that you are familiar with but are also not “the web” but are run over “the internet”: email, skype, instant messaging and FTP. Basically anything that isn’t a website with a URL, HTML pages and used through a web browser is not “the web”.

        Before “the web”, which is basically HTML pages + web browsers was created, there were other information searching services, like GOPHER. I never actually used GOPHER, but it seems like a really basic form of the web where sites had to register themselves in a directory, and everything was text based – no embedded graphics or free-linking, which are the two main things that HTML brought onto the scene and makes the web what it is.

        • BenD says:

          Gopher was more of an information organization system – a filing protocol, if you will – and search engines worked with it, like WAIS, Archie, and Veronica. I vaguely, barely remember using Archie to hunt for stuff on Gopher. So it’s basically analagous to the web, but the web didn’t really evolve from it.

          This information may be somewhat inaccurate due to my fading memory.

  41. Wolfwood says:

    OMG i love you man! thanks for teaching me what TTL means! XD awesomesauce and keep up the great work Shamus!

  42. Tobias says:

    Being a mainstream media tech journalist myself, I can only say this is damn good work. It explains the matter in a way easy to understand to laymen without dropping important aspects. I stand in awe.

    One thing, though: You might have wanted to shut the ARPA origins a bit short, that could have been explained in maybe three sentences (the drawings are sweet, though). And I’m not really sure whether it was such a good idea to focus that much on jargon like “ping” or “lag”, because other than gaming folks and the people who alredy know that stuff anyway, no one will ever have come across those terms. I still agree that it’s important to cover basic packet characteristiscs, but it would have been nicer to just explain the stuff and just drop the jargon as an afterthought.

    Still, brilliant job – I’d like more episodes of that. I’m dying to see how you’ll explain IP and DNS :)

    • Zak McKracken says:

      I have to disagree on the “ping” issue. As an engineer who uses networks for computing and stuff, my job involves regularly typing “ping” into the console to deal with network problems. And “lag” is actually “latency” for everyone outside of network gaming, and it’s an important thing around here, too.
      I also whish more gamers knew the difference between “lag” and a framerate. “That game has gigantic lag on my machine, I need a new graphics card”. *shudder*
      I think knowing these concepts can’t hurt because it will eventually help you understand on problem or another or why certain things are better not run via the interwebs.

  43. Shamus, about teaching—I am a college professor and I have friends who teach in the public schools. Regarding college, if you have no PhD, you are relegated to “adjunct faculty.” This gig is even worse than teaching in a rural school district with no money: no job security, terrible hours, heavy workloads, and insultingly low salary. Regarding public school, here in Massachusetts the salaries are fairly high, but the union controls hiring, and getting in without an education degree is highly unlikely. An interesting option available in New England is to teach at a private high school. The good private schools don’t care if you’re certified; they want somebody who can do the job. I’ve had a few former students go that route, and they’ve all liked it. But you need to live in an area that supports an ecosystem of relatively wealthy private schools. I don’t know what areas of the country outside New England might have enough such schools that you would get a chance to latch on.

    In any case, keep up the good work!

    • Shamus says:


      From your home page:

      “I focus on reusable, low-level programming-language infrastructure; I want to make it easy and cheap to build the programming languages of the future. I also work in functional programming and programming-language design, including the design of special-purpose languages for solving problems in distributed systems. ”

      I am constantly amazed at how diverse and esoteric this discipline has become, and how large the field is getting. These little glimpses always make me aware of just how tiny any one person’s corner is. Of course, this is natural and healthy, but it seems like it happened so fast…

  44. Rosseloh says:

    That was great!

    That said, I wonder if you shouldn’t have differentiated between computers, servers, and routers when discussing the processes of routing, TTL, etc. Just a quick aside to say that a router is a special type of computer, designed specifically for moving packets around, is what I’d use.

    Sorry, experience trying to explain these things to my friends and family speaks out a bit…

    • Lanthanide says:

      I don’t think saying “a router is a special type of computer” is really the right way to go. Of course that is a reasonable description, however people these days have things in their house that they refer to as the “wireless router” or just “the router” that connects them to the internet. So they know that a router is a small little box that you plug wires into directly, whereas if you tell them “a router is a special type of computer” they might think of some big desktop machine with a monitor sitting somewhere in a room somehow routing packets, but that’s really not what they are at all.

      Saying a router is a “specialised piece of networking equipment which actually contains a computer inside it, but is more the size and shape of a DVD player” would get the reality of them across a bit better.

      Also in general one thing that used to confuse me a lot, and I’m sure it does a lot of other people – what exactly a ‘server’ is. You could do a full 5 minutes on this topic fairly easily, I think. Lay out the basic foundation – that a server is just a computer that sits there and responds to specific types of requests. Then give examples of what servers can be – an old desktop machines sitting in someone’s house that they’ve re-purposed, up to dedicated blade servers and other $$$ devices that don’t bear any resemblance to consumer electronics.

  45. […] Drawn to knowledge “The Internet”: This is absolutely awesome. I have to learn how to work with vids because I’d absolutely need a transaltion for this one. Sadly the same people who don’t understand the net also rarely speak English in other parts of the world. […]

  46. Abnaxis says:

    Yay for leaving comments late! Ah well, I know you nhave a feed so you can see it…

    On thing that bugged me for the longest time, even after I had already learned all these things like ISO models and packet headers and communications protocols, is how one goes from “shiny happy computers holding hands passing packets” to “you need to pay an ISP to connect to the internet.” It always struck me odd, that supposedly all these computers are supposed to talk to each other just by plugging them in, yet you still need to pay someone for service.

    Of course, I know how and why this works now, and it is remarkably simple reasoning (companies controlling high capacity backbones regulating who connects to them), but it is missing from pretty much all introductory literature that talks about the internet.

    I dunno, maybe it’s just me, but that bugged the hell out of me for years.

    • Lanthanide says:

      You don’t even have to get into the specifics of networking, eg bandwidth and such, as to why your ISP charges you money.

      I mean, sure, if you’re just imagining that your ISP is a bunch of computers sitting in a ring and you plug yours into it and it’s nothing more complex than that, then you might think paying money wasn’t warranted. But I would say that is pretty naive way to assume any business in any field would operate.

      Compare it to electricity for example – sure there’s power lines going into your house, but you know that somewhere out there are power stations, distribution grids, power lines, substations, all sorts of monitoring equipment and then engineers and maintenance people being paid to keep it all working. Note that I haven’t even mentioned the electricity that you’re actually paying for, just all of the capital required to actually run the business. You should similarly imagine the same with ISPs: they have much fancier computer systems than you initially thought, and they have to employ a whole lot of people to keep the thing running and rent or own a building to house it in etc. Again that’s only talking about the capital required to actually run the business.

      • Abnaxis says:

        The electricity example doesn’t work, unless everyone is generating their own power and sharing it. With electricity, the company makes it and you consume it. With the internet, individuals make the consumable information and ISPs just hook them to other individuals that consume the information they produce. It seems silly to pay for this if I can just pass packets to someone else sitting next to me and not pay.

        IMO, stressing decentralization is a confusing way to go about it. For example, with the note passing thing Shamus showed, you pass the note to Sally, who passes it to Rick, who passes it to Ben, who passes it to Chris, who is the intended recipient. If Ben is out sick, it just goes to Tim instead and keeps going.

        That’s not how it works (well, not completely). When I make a TCP connection over the internet, I don’t connect to my next-door neighbor, then to his neighbor, etc, etc. until I get a Connection to Russia. I connect to an ISP network, which I pay for, which connects to another ISP, which connects to Russia, which they pay for. Yeah, the routing and the correcting for failed nodes happen in between, but there’s no routing around the ISPs completely, for the most part. It’s not “hook a bunch of computers together and the internet magically appears” it’s “a few ginormous companies make a network that everyone else piggy backs on and this is the backbone of the internet.”

        Maybe it’s stupid, and maybe it’s me, but the way it works is much more centralised than it is portrayed here. It isn’t “everyone serves everyone” like in the diagram, it’s “a few machines serve everyone.” My home router makes no contribution to routing packets between other networks. It was a big distinction to me when I was a newbie, and every single newbie book acts like the internet is some magical cloud and every individual contributes to the infrastructure between nodes.

        Regardless, I was just pointing it out as a possible criticism. If no one else ever had this issue learning, then I guess disregard it.

        • Lanthanide says:

          Right, I see where you’re coming from now.

          The answer is there is no technical reason why you can’t connect to your neighbor, and they connect to their neighbor, and so on in a big daisy chain to Russia. That would technically work (for various definitions of ‘work’).

          Economics is why it isn’t done that way – it’s far more economical to connect to an ISP and have the ISPs connect to each other. It’s also much better service.

          It’s the same as the postal service – sure, you could deliver your letter to someone living in New York City personally, if you didn’t mind driving across the country. Or maybe you could give it to your neighbor who was going that way. But the more reliable and economic way is to just pay 40 cents for a stamp and give it to the post office and have them do it. Economies of scale and all that.

          The post system is really a great metaphor for explaining how internet routing works, because it is really the same concept – you have some information that you want to get from point A to point B, and you use this networked system of post offices, mailmen and letterboxes (with street addresses = ip addresses) to do it.

          I guess what the newbie books failed to emphasise, is that while information is shared between all connections between people (and this is what happens on a switch in a LAN, but not on the hosts), you as a consumer have only a single connection to your ISP, and therefore you actually can’t do any sharing with anyone else.

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  1. […] Drawn to knowledge “The Internet”: This is absolutely awesome. I have to learn how to work with vids because I’d absolutely need a transaltion for this one. Sadly the same people who don’t understand the net also rarely speak English in other parts of the world. […]

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