"The folly of mistaking a paradox for a discovery, a metaphor for a proof, a torrent of verbiage for a spring of capital truths, and oneself for an oracle, is inborn in us."
-- Paul Vale'ry, 1895
Once upon a time -- around 1975, actually -- an ACM member known as Peter Langston wrote a groundbreaking new program to be included in the "psl games" distribution for the Harvard Science Center's research V5 Unix system. Called the "oracle", the program would accept questions from anonymous users. It would then send out these questions to other anonymous users to be answered, and the answers would be forwarded back to the original asker. This program was rewritten and expanded in August of 1989 by Lars Huttar, who posted it to alt.sources. A sysadmin and graduate student from Indiana University named Steve Kinzler found Lars' program interesting, and installed it on a server there.
Thus, the Internet Oracle was born. Originally titled The Usenet Oracle, the core software for the current version of the Internet Oracle was written by Ray Moody, a graduate student at Purdue University. But it has been Kinzler who has maintained the system from the beginning.
The oracle is a sort of distributed humor service, in that the objective of users is to come up with the funniest answers possible to the submitted questions. Questions and answers are submitted via email, with the server automatically forwarding the submissions to the appropriate people. Unanswered questions reside in a queue awaiting processing; it is generally considered good form to leave a received question unanswered and let it reenter the queue if one can't think up an answer to do it justice. Those who request large numbers of questions and respond with drivel are known as queue drainers.
Periodically, the best questions and answers are distilled into postings known as Oracularities -- a task originally performed solely by Kinzler, and now managed by a "hardy and loyal band of volunteers" known as the Priesthood. These Oracularities are further distilled into the Best of Oracularities digests. As of this writing, there have been over 1,238 digests.
Over the considerable amount of time that TIO has existed, a large number of inside jokes and slang definitions have cropped up. Here is an attempt to explain some of them. Direct quotes taken from the "Not Quite Newbie TIO User FAQ" are in italics.
askme -- mail sent to the Oracle when a user wishes to be given a question to be answered, named such because the mail has "ask me" or "askme" in the subject line.
D1K -- the faked D1K Digest, with the number #000, was created by Kinzler and the priests as an April Fools' Day joke, and contained absolutely awful questions and answers. It was later followed by the true 1000th Digest.
Delphic Research, Inc. -- the ladies of Delphic Research were created as a "Tired New In-Joke" by a group of conspirators who hijacked the Oracle one night, flooding the queue with DRI-related questions and responding to them with prefabricated answers. Some considered this coup brilliant; others frowned upon it as a misuse of the Oracle. More information about them can be found at http://www.delphicresearch.com.
Digest -- Each set of Oracularities is known as a digest. They are released periodically; that is to say, whenever there are enough good answers to warrant posting one. Being digested is an honor, as it ensures that your question or answer will be recorded for posterity.
grovel -- traditionally included at the beginning of a question. At some stage in his early career, the Oracle took on the aspect of a vengeful Old Testament style god...to be on the safe side, supplicants started to grovel.
incarnation -- one who answers Oracular questions, i.e. the person currently embodying the Oracle.
Kendai -- the Oracle's pubescent intern. There isn't much else to say about him, other than the fact that he exhibits all of the usual qualities that teenagers excel in. Kendai first appeared in Digest #977, Question 9.
Lisa -- the Oracle's girlfriend, and proclaimed net.sex.goddess. She is supposedly the epitome of desire, the sum of male fantasy. Lisa has been around for a long time -- her first appearance was in Digest #32, Question 10.
null question -- a question containing no text. This appears as ">" when sent to be answered, since the question text is quoted. Usually a newbie mistake. Occasionally, excellent digested answers have resulted from null questions.
Oracularities -- sets of Oracular questions and answers, collected by the Priesthood and distributed periodically.
Priesthood -- a collection of volunteers who sort through every single answer that passes through the Oracle, separating the wheat from the chaff.
queue -- the storage area where questions waiting for answers are held. If a question sent to a person is not answered within twenty-four hours, it is returned to the queue for someone else to answer.
queue drainer -- someone who rapidly submits askmes to empty the queue of questions. There are two types of drainer: one lets the questions sit, in which case they return to the queue in a day. The other, more common type fires off a bunch of junk answers (such as "ZOT") to the questions.
queue flooder -- someone who rapidly submits questions to the queue without answering any. These "questions" are typically junk, serving only to fill up the queue.
RHOD -- short for "rec.humor.oracle.d", the Oracular discussion group. It has been noted as being not recreational, not humorous, never about the Oracle, and usually devoid of actual discussion... but individual opinions vary widely.
Staff of ZOT -- see ZOT, below.
supplicant -- one who asks questions of the Oracle.
tellme -- another name for a question submitted to the Oracle, named such because the mail has "tell me" or "tellme" in the subject line. Submitting a tellme also returns a question that needs to be answered; this way users are deterred from submitting questions without attempting to answer any.
TOIJ -- stands for "Tired Old In-Joke", and used to refer to Lisa, Zadoc, ZOT, and a myriad of other overused Oracular standbys.
woodch*cks -- the story goes that the Oracle, having lived for a good long time, heard variations on the "how much wood..." question so often that he grew to hate not only the question, but the rodents in general. The word is almost never spelled without an asterisk masking one or more characters. Referring to the rodents or the question will often earn you a ZOT.
"You owe the Oracle..." -- originally added to Oracular answers automatically, it is now the traditional way to end an Oracular answer, almost always having something to do with the topic at hand. Compare it to the final "throwaway joke" scene at the end of a sitcom when all the characters laugh, there's a freeze-frame, and the credits start to roll.
Zadoc -- the Oracle's right-hand man. Zadoc is pictured as a sniveling toady, created as a sort of homage to the Oracular Priesthood (though whether this reflects well on the Priesthood is a matter of opinion). Zadoc first appeared in Digest #750, Question 8.
ZOT -- Over time, it was decided (in that odd way that consensus tends to occur in a group) that the Oracle's method of punishment for bad questions was a ZOT. This eventually evolved into the Oracle's "Staff of ZOT", his preferred weapon of choice. The first recorded instance of a ZOT is in Digest #209, Question 8.
Send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org with "help" in the subject line.
References: About the Internet Oracle (http://cgi.cs.indiana.edu/~oracle/about.cgi), the NQN TIO User FAQ (http://www.ibiblio.org/herbmed/rhod/info.html), the Oracular help file (http://www.cs.indiana.edu/ftp/oracle/help), the Zadocularities (http://www.molerat.demon.co.uk/zadoc.htm), and of course, years of participation and lurking (primarily the latter) in RHOD (news:rec.humor.oracle.d).