Lambda Moo in the Wayback Machine

Lambda Moo

The Web BeforeTime

Back in the early days of the web, there was an effort to make online communities. They called them “dungeons” and since there were usually more than one person involved in the server, they added multi-user on the front of it. Put together, you had a multiuser dungeon or a MUD. These dungeons hosted programmed content that created a virtual world. This was rather like a primitive version of Second Life with no graphics. It was a world served via a protocol called telnet and you simply had to point your client at the appropriate link to log on. One such MUD was called Lambda Moo.

The Event For Consideration

I was introduced to the Moo by someone who had previously used it at a university they had attended. The host for the Moo I poked about on was a purple crayon server which I think was originally hosted somewhere at MIT. I came to the scene a bit later than the event that I will here examine although the event under consideration did overlap with some of my earlier experiences of the web. This Moo that is Lambda Moo was not the Moo I inhabited, but it was within the community of Moos that existed like an ecosystem before the web as we know it now. The date for this event is December 23, 1993.

The Infamous Date

This date is famous for a bad reason. This is probably one of the first recorded cases of internet hate speech/assault. You can read about the event in detail here. The really short version of all this is that this Moo had something called a voodoo doll type of avatar, which allowed a user to be in the room but also not be in the room. It also, with some modification, allowed a person to take over and control the avatars of other users. One of the users somewhat confusingly had a Haiti-voodoo name that was called Legba. Therefore, we have a situation where the users and the reality and what was virtual became highly entangled. Yet, all the users after what is here described as “virtual rape” appeared to suffer a sense of trauma as their avatars were forced to do sexual things to one another in text form.

Back In ‘93

So back in the early nineties, people apparently still had sensitivities to the virtual act of rape. Nowadays we would simply call this trolling. How did we get from the point where we are back in the early nineties to where we are today, when this sort of interaction would probably hardly faze or surprise anyone? Were we more innocent then, or had we simply figured that the internet was somehow inherently safer than reality? What is especially interesting about the event is the reaction. There are many case studies of the ordeal. In the end, they discover it is some lone guy in NYU being egged on by what are probably his frat buddies. This sounds a lot like the plotline to “Porkies” or something, so what was it that caused everyone to recoil so violently in 93 whereas in the world of today we probably would hardly blink?

Loss of Innocence?

My theory is that we have lost some innocence in the intervening time or else been desensitized to stories like this because they have become so common. We are awash in a world at this point of a thousand sexual acts of questionable morality. So, when someone does something twice removed from reality, we are even less moved by it than we are if it happens in reality. The female participants involved in the above ordeal seem to feel as though that the virtual rape was tantamount to actual rape. I am sure women who have been physically raped would likely disagree, but that is not the point. The point is that in the early web, the feeling of having been raped was not really possible to distinguish from actual rape at least in this case.

Other Meanings of Lambda

An interesting extra point to the discussion is that Lambda has a lot of connotations. One source has this to say on it:

Historians believe that the lambda symbol was adapted from the Phoenician alphabet called ‘lamed’ or ‘lamedh.’ Lamed/ lamedh is the twelfth letter in the Semitic abjad system – a type of prehistoric writing systems in which glyphs or crude drawings were used to signify different consonants. Lamed looked like a slightly tilted version of the Latin alphabet ‘L’ that we use in modern English. If you rotated it 90 degrees clockwise so that the two sides were pointing downwards and away from each other, the symbol would be congruent to lambda letter as used in an uppercase font.

The lamed sign was said to be inspired by a goad. A goad was a type of pastoral staff that was traditionally used for guiding livestock on the field (e.g. to round up cattle or prod oxen that were plowing the land).

However, other semioticians suggest that the lambda symbol in the Greek alphabet is derived from ‘Lam’ in Old Arabic. This is probably because lam bears close resemblance to an inverted ‘L’ and hence, by extension, the Phoenician lamed as well.
Quite interestingly, variations of the lambda symbol can be found in other ancient languages. For instance, in the Cyrillic alphabet, the eleventh letter El (denoted by the symbol Л) is said to be derived from the Greek lambda. Moreover, the Roman letter L was also adapted from the lambda symbol.1

They further distinguish that in the Greek alphabet Lambda is the eleventh letter before Mu. Moo?

Here are some other uses of Lambda from the same page as the above:

In modern physics, or even math and engineering for that matter, the lowercase lambda is officially recognized as the shorthand symbol for wavelength i.e. it corresponds to the shortest distance between two consecutive points on a wave that are in phase with each other.

It can also be used to signify the linear charge density. In nuclear studies, small lambda symbol refers to the radioactive or exponential decay constant, whereas, in microelectronics, lambda refers to the channel length modulation in MOSFETs (a type of transistor devices).

Lambda particle, sometimes also called lambda hyperon is a term used in particle physics. It corresponds to an uncharged particle having a mass equivalent to that of 2,183 electrons combined together.

The lambda symbol is also employed in statistics. It is one of the main parameters for calculating Poisson distribution, where it indicates the probability of the occurrence of a certain event in a given period of time.

Lowercase lambda letter is the symbol for latent heat in Chemistry.

You might be surprised to know that the lambda sign is also used in criminology. It shows the total number of times that an individual has committed an offense.

Since 1970, the lambda sign has been associated with the gay civil rights movement. Its use to denote the rights of the gay and lesbian community was first popularized by Tom Doerr, who chose lambda as the symbol for Gay Activists Alliance in New York.

You might come across people wearing the lambda symbol on pendants and charm bracelets to show solidarity with, or identify themselves as members of the LGBT community.

An interesting use case from Hebrew is that Lambda is most often associated with things that have to do with teaching and/or learning. So if we examine everything above, we could say that the Moo community in question didn’t learn anything and have people re-offending as per all the different meanings of Lambda alone. What is the offense and what is the time that must be served? Clearly, use of sexual energy and perhaps herds/groups of people. Is everyone going to keep repeating the same story till the cows come home?

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JB Schirtzinger

Jacksonville, USA
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Conveniently this entire site is about me. I do some technology, and I do some astrology.