Pubnix Admin Interivews - #1, Ben Harris,

This is the first edition of Pubnix Admin Interviews in which I will be
interviewing pubnix system administrators far and wide.

This inaugural interview is with Ben Harris (~ben), a software developer from
Michigan who started just over three years ago and who also founded
the Tildeverse collective of federated servers.  Because this is the first
interview to be published, I chose to start off with an easy one; easy because
I've known Ben for a few years now and he has even graciously allowed me to
help out with some of the admin support.  (That's the full
disclosure part of the intro.)

In addition to, Ben tag-teamed with ~deepend to revive,
which he continues to help administer.  Ben is also a part of the team of
admins running of  With all these activities, Ben is getting a
well earned reputation as a very experienced sysadmin.

HISTORY AND CONTEXT OF TILDE.TEAM is Ben's main project and is one of the biggest of the new breed of
public access Unix systems called "Tildes".  Tildes were first inspired by Paul
Ford's in the early 2010s, and were of course preceded by older
*NIX shell communities more generally called Public Access Unix Systems
(pubnixes).  Examples of pubnixes can be found as far back as the early 1980's
-- yes, back before the commercial internet; back when people had to use modems
over POTS lines to dial directly into pubnix servers (ask me more about this;
I'll talk your ear off).  Tildes are a continuation of this history, but they
feel like a new era in that history, and Ben's work on and the
Tildeverse has contributed a lot to this new era.

I remember stumbling across some time in Spring of 2018 when you
could still log in and see nobody but ~ben logged in.  At that point in time,
the system was a lot closer to a stock Ubuntu system, with not much more than
an added web server (nginx), email (postfix/dovecot) and a Mastodon server.
Since then, has added many new services including gopher, Gitea,
irc, vnc, gemini, a separate FreeBSD server and a lot more.  And has
grown from a handful of users to over 500 users.  Just as importantly, as
mentioned above, Ben was an early advocate for federation among tilde-like
servers, and this support turned into what is now the Tildeverse.

And now, on to the Q&A!  These will be formatted in the simplest way possible,
with questions prefixed by a "Q:" and answers prefixed by an "A:".  Two dashes
will separate each Q/A pair.


Q: Ben, how did you first get into computers?  And multi-user system

A: I've enjoyed playing with computers my whole life. My mom works at a university
and has had a university-issued Thinkpad for as long as I can remember. I had
mostly free reign to mess around on those until I got my own computer.

My first experience on a multi-user system was the shared server for the
computer science department when I was in undergrad. I found SDF for a short
while around the same time, but mostly forgot about it as the shell was
extremely limited.


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

A: My first experiences were the CS department server and SDF.


Q: Whas was the CS department server like?

A: [It] was a standard ubuntu box that lived in a professor's office under the
desk. Everyone gets a shell account and some webspace at ~username.  I was just
a user - never got involved in the maintenance etc.


Q: What pubnixes were you involved with before you started your own?  What were
your thoughts about them?

A: I didn't hear back from of for a long time when I
originally signed up.

SDF was too limited and I found the lack of options a turn-off.


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

A: At some point in 2017, I was catching up on podcasts and listened to
where I learned about for the first time. I immediately joined the
waiting list to get an account, but heard nothing back.

By then I was obsessed with the idea of a shared system and the possibilities
of a non-commercial space for socializing and creating. I looked around
for other tildes at the time and signed up for as well.
After several weeks of hearing nothing about my signups to and,
I resolved to make my own and started looking for tilde-related domains.

I ended up registering and spinning up a small 1gb linode vm.
And the rest is history I suppose. is still running strong, with
now over 500 members. We've created a collaborative community among tildes
called the tildeverse, and since September 2019, deepend and I have revived
the original!



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

A: It's a computer that I and a bunch of people around the world log in to together
to socialize, create cool projects and art, learn and teach about computers.

It's a non-commercial, open, and caring community for people to gather.


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

A: Dealing with interpersonal conflicts is likely the biggest challenge. Moderating
chat is rather time-consuming.

Other than that, dealing with external attacks and abuse is not all that difficult
given the tools we use (namely fail2ban and the like).


Q: What does a typical day as an admin of look like?  Since you have
a full time job in addition to your work on ~team, I assume you do a lot of

A: Most of my time is just chatting on irc. Other than that, I usually check
emails and github notifications for any new releases on software that we run.
I've got most things set up to require little regular intervention outside of
doing updates and upgrades.


Q: And what about days when things hit the fan on  Describe what a
"bad" day looks like.

A: We haven't had a "bad" day in quite some time luckily :) One of the worst
was when our hosting provider detected a supposed DDoS attack originating from
our server. It was a lot of coordination and scrambling to figure out what
happened and how to get our network access restored.

1. Comply with the terms of service of your hosting provider
2. Don't use an email address hosted on your server to log in to
   the hosting provider

I wrote a post-mortem of that incident:


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

A: Most of the things that I run on and for are pre-existing pieces
of software.  I've written a handful of tools and websites for managing users
etc.  Personal favorites would be:

- the signup flow (parts in the website, as well as the makeuser script)
	* the php form on the site validates the user's input, appends the makeuser command
	  to a file on disk, and emails the admin team. then we just have to check the signups,
      comment out any suspicious signups, and then execute the signups file as a shell script
      since it has the correct makeuser incantation on each line

- tilde launcher: a small tool for submitting and discovering user programs
	* the tilde command allows users to submit their own programs for use by others.
	  it's a neat way to share and see what your fellow users are creating.

Beyond a few things made from scratch like these, the rest consists of reusing
and configuring existing parts.


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

A: I spend a lot of time with my dog, Hope. Lots of nice long walks in the woods!

I also sail in the summer and ski occasionally (downhill) in the winters.

Beyond that, I really enjoy going to trivia nights at some of the local pubs.


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

A: I enjoy playing video games on occasion, but this varies in frequency depending
on time of year and mood.

If I find a suitable hobby project, I might spend some time programming.  My
most recent little project was porting an irc client library from python to C#:




Q: What, if anything, would you do differently if you were to set up your pubnix
from scratch?

A: More automation and better documentation!!!

Automating everything from scratch would be disruptive and time-consuming.
Documentation is something that I have been passively meaning to work on, but
never make time for...


Q: What do you envision will look like 10 years from now? Including,
 do you have any specific plans that you're willing to talk about now?

A: I'm super happy with the community that has sprung up around and
hope to see it grow and stay friendly and caring.  It's been an incredible
learn-by-doing experience for me and I love sharing that with everyone else.

I don't have any specific plans at the moment, but I'm looking forward to
making cool things and teaching and learning!


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

A: I'd like to see more sharing and collaboration among pubnixes.

We have started a pretty good culture of this on and on our irc
network, but there's a lot that could be done to encourage collaboration.

Beyond that, I see pubnixes as a great way to learn about computers and escape
the corporate attention mill that is the rest of the web.


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

A: Yes.

For me, the most nostalgic part of the old internet was the tight-knit
community.  But nowadays, we have the tools to make our own small communities
like tildes.

Seeing people get excited about small-internet stuff like tildes warms my heart
and gives me hope for some good parts of the internet!




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

A: I'm on irc all the time and it's the best way to get in touch with me.  I
use the nick 'ben' on and I'm also 'benharri' on freenode.

I have some links to git repos etc on my tilde page:


Thanks Ben!  You have been a great guinea pig for the first published interview
in Pubnix Admin Interviews.  

Readers: if you have any feedback on the interview, or want to suggest admins
for future interviews, please send me email (cmccabe AT, find me
on Tildeverse IRC, or toot me (@cmccabe) on SDF's Mastodon server.  The
interview series will be an interative process, with feedback from each
interview improving subsequent interviews.

Several more interviews are already in the bag, and others are in process.  But
there are many, many pubnix admins out there, especially looking back
historically.  More to come!


The systems and communities referenced above include: (representing many Tilde systems)