LMB hack days: Brian Leroux

An interview with Brian Leroux at the CERN line-mode browser hack days. 

Brian Leroux at the CERN line-mode browser hack days (Image: Dan Noyes/CERN)

Name: Brian Leroux
Nationality: Canadian
Travelled from: San Francisco, USA, by a roundabout route.
Profession: PhoneGap project at Abobe systems

Why did you come to the line-mode browser hack days?

To see CERN mostly! [laughs] I was also interested in the origins of the web and the line-mode browser. I'm a vintage-computing geek and digging into that code was a huge treat. To be able to meet some of the originators and be at the place where it happened is a humbling experience given what I do for a living.

What sparked your interest in vintage computers?

I guess because I had some of them as a kid and now they're considered old. I've seen where it all started – I collect old books. There's an awesome bookstore in Portland called Powell's Technical Books. Well, nowadays you don't really need to buy a book; you can just get the digital edition or whatever. But if you go to Powell's there's these old computing textbooks that are, like, 30 years old, and you can get them for a buck or two. It's where it all came from.

A lot of computer scientists don't realize that our craft hasn't changed very much. Things have gotten better, things have gotten prettier, but the underpinning to everything we do has been figured out for a very long time. Looking back we can learn about a lot of how we can move stuff forward.

Were you using the line-mode browser back in the day?

Definitely not! My first browser was probably Mosaic. I remember when I first saw the web, it would have been in late 90s and I thought it sort of sucked. I was using BBS's back then and they had almost richer graphics at the time. I'm ashamed to admit it, but I remember saying to a friend "I just don't get it!" [laughs.]But I get it now!

It's day two of the hack days – what have you built?

I paired with Remy on the server stuff. It was built in 2 days. We had to do a lot of basically dumbing the browser down and turn it into what it was like in its original form. We did a mini node module that stripped a lot of the browser capabilities and allowed us to proxy. Browsers today have a "same origin" policy so you can't just request any website from a website. So we circumvented the complete model of web security! Which may come back to bite us – hopefully not! [laughs]

Looking back at the old code, what were the things that jumped out?

When we first started, we got an early copy of the original browser. I started to read the source and there was surprisingly little of it. And I found what I think could be the first declaration of a style sheet. The first web browser didn't have style sheets - there was a block, a set of structs that would denote what the indentation would be for different elements: like an h0, an h1 or whatever. Well, we found that and we couldn't believe they called it a stylesheet. This was way before CSS! That was one of the cool moments for sure.

What do you want people to take away from the experience of the line-mode browser?

I think they should just start poking around in this old code themselves. Especially if you're a programmer, recognize that browsers since the very beginning were fundamentally open source. That's a huge opportunity even today. You can participate in the web in a very open way. Anybody can jump in and read the source, and contribute to the web and make it better. I think that's a powerful thing. 

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