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My first venture into Usenet (1991)

© August 2005 Tony Lawrence

I found this in the same pile of old writings I've pulled other things from. This documents reading Usenet in 1991 - a whole 1600 newsgroups to choose from, apparently. I remember it grew pretty fast after that.

This was written 4/16/1991 and originally titled "Hello World". It was published in the long defunct Boston Computer Society's "PC Report" magazine.

The World (Software Tool and Die) is still in business, still offering dial up Unix accounts. I put up my first web page there on 04/22/96. A few other things have changed since then..

Admit it: you just love Unix. You sit there in Emacs, like a spider in its web, piping your greps out to sed's and expr's, maybe tossing in an awk script now and then..

Whoops. Wrong magazine. PC REPORT readers don't love Unix. They love DOS. Or is it Windows? OS/2? Probably not. Maybe Geo? Well, there must be something PC people really get into. How about Bulletin Boards? We must love 'em; there sure are enough of them. Compuserve, Source,GEnie, Bix, PC-Link, Prodigy.. just to name a few.

So how about a Unix bulletin board? Actually, most boards you sign into probably ARE running Unix - it's just carefully hidden from you. They wrap you up in a nice little protective program that insulates you from those awful Unix commands so that you can wile away hours of time negotiating easy to understand menus. The "better" systems provide some command language that lets you bypass the menus but that's just another language to learn that serves no purpose anywhere but on that particular system.

The World is a place where you actually sign onto an unshrouded real Unix system. It's a source of news, bulletin board postings, source code, CB style chatting, and (don't wince) learning Unix. I know, I know, you don't want to learn Unix. It's too cryptic, it's too hard to understand, it's just too incredibly Not DOS. I promise: you only have to learn the teeniest little bit about Unix to use this. Really. Probably less than you'd need to learn with any new system. I promise. Of course, if you did want to learn more about Unix, this would be a good place to do it.

Let's just take a quick tour and see how much Unix is required. I'll setup my modem for 2400,E,7,1 and I'll need to do a VT100 or ANSI emulation. I'll dial (617) 739 9753. My modem and their modem exchange mating calls and after a line of welcoming text, I see "login:". I type my login and password and..

I'm in. Some introductory messages scroll by and I'm told that I have mail waiting. The next thing I see is "(vt100)", which is an admittedly cryptic way of asking me if I'm using a VT100 emulation. If I were using something else, I could type that instead of just pressing ENTER.

A moment's digression here. The Unix philosophy does lean toward the short and sweet. Messages and prompts tend to be chary with both words and letters. While you may rail against that, consider that once you know what you are doing, would you want something like this:

Please type in the generic name of the terminal emulation you wish 
to use for this session.  Examples: vt100, vt102, wy60,
ansi, kimtron.  

Please understand that:

1: Your software may not be emulating this terminal perfectly
2: Our software may be imperfect in its understanding of that terminal
3: We may know nothing at all about your terminal or may spell it 
differently than you do 

Should you have any trouble, please try a different emulator.  If 
vt100 is OK, just press ENTER.

You'd get tired of that pretty quickly.

Back to the tour. I'm "logged in" now, and my prompt says "world%". That's "%" is a good clue that I'm using "csh" as my shell or command interpreter. There are several other shells I could use, but this will do for now. I want to read my mail, so I type "mail". This is yet another example of Unix using ridiculous, impossible to remember commands for the simplest things, but you will just have to get used to that.

I see that the first three mail messages are from "owner-sco-list", which is a discussion group about SCO Unix and Xenix that I get by email. I file those away in a disk file by typing "s 1-3 scofile". That "s" is VERY hard to remember, but I use the mnemonic of "(s)ave" and can usually remember it. The next message is from my partner in Seattle. I read that by typing "4" (it's the fourth message) and see that he is telling me about a conference he attended and that his one year old son is growing like a weed and all that newsy kind of stuff. I reply to him by typing "r". He doesn't use the World; he has his own similar service in Seattle. What both of us are doing is connecting to the "Internet", the thousands of interconnected commercial, educational and government computers which produce, filter and store millions of electronic communications. Our little email exchange is just part of that.

I have more mail, but I won't read it now. A "q" brings me back to the "world%" prompt. I now want to jump into bulletin board postings. This is Usenet News, and you have to remember that it isn't The World that is providing these. Messages come from all those "Internet" computers. Right now, The World has approximately 1600 different news groups that you can read. There are different software programs that let you do this; I use one called "rn" (for Read News). I read a few articles from "comp.sys.ibm.pc" and then quit back to the "world%" prompt again.

There's a lot more here. Typing "help" brings up a menu of topics like how to send mail outside of the Internet, such as to a Compuserve or MCI mail address. There are instructions on using ftp to get source code (gigabytes of it!) from other computers, including one in Holland! Yes, the Internet is world wide. There is even world-wide CB or chat, called "irc" (Internet Relay Chat). Amazingly enough, none of this costs any more - $20.00 a month covers up to 20 hours of connect time no matter what you are doing.

I signed off on this listing the various addresses I could be reached at, which included my new internet email address at the World, a Compuserve address (70023,2371) and one at Prodigy (HNPT6A). Those addresses don't work any more.

Got something to add? Send me email.

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-> My first venture into Usenet (1991)

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More Articles by © Tony Lawrence

Thu Aug 11 15:19:34 2005: 964   BigDumbDinosaur

I'll setup my modem for 2400,E,7,1 and I'll need to do a VT100 or ANSI emulation.

2400, eh? You should hang that modem on the wall right next to your eight inch floppy disks. Early this year I was performing a major spring cleaning (that is, throwing out much accumulated computer junk), when what to my suprise, I found a long-buried box containing my old SmartTeam 1200 modem (Hayes compatible, naturally), which I bought at CES Chicago in the summer of 1985. Just for old times' sake, I connected it to an unused serial port on my shop server to see what 1200 baud looked like again. I cu'd into it, got a response to the ATI4 command and then tried dialing into a client's UNIX box that has a diagnostic modem (definitely *not* a 1200 baud model). Sure enough, the SmartTeam 1200 howled and squealed like a happy pig and a log-in prompt appeared, although it waltzed across the screen with the alacrity of a sleepy snail. I only spent a few minutes playing with it -- 1200 baud is incredibly slow compared to what we have now -- but I did show my wife how we did it in the good old days. She wasn't in the least bit impressed and tactfully suggested that maybe the 1200 modem would feel much more welcome in the garbage, along with the ancient 80 meg (not gig) SCSI hard disk I unearthed from the same box. Women!

What both of us are doing is connecting to the "Internet", the thousands of interconnected commercial, educational and government computers which produce, filter and store millions of electronic communications.

Well, the Internet has grown some since you wrote that article, although not necessarily for the better.

I think something important comes out of these old articles that Tony has been dredging up. They illustrate not only how much computing in general has changed, but how much our perception of what is (or isn't) good about computing has been altered by time. Fifteen years ago, E-mail of any kind was always welcome. Now, the bulk of it (and I do mean bulk) is crap that can constipate your mail client. Fifteen years ago, MS Windows was a cute abberation of the computing landscape -- a knockoff of the Mac and Commodore Amiga, whose windowing systems didn't include GPF's and all other sorts of annoyances. Today, Windows is a blight, the Mac has substantially improved, and the Amiga is a "classic" computer (whatever that may be). UNIX is still UNIX, however, and virtually everything I learned about it some 28 years ago still works. I guess having to type mail to read mail isn't so hard after all.


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