HeadLine Dial now for Jerry Garcia's tie: Andrew Brown delves into Internet, a wide-ranging network with something for everyone in the global village
Publication Independent Date 16/11/1992
Byline ANDREW BROWN Source
Page nos Edition
Section Supplement
Picture Story no Picture Caption
Copyright Flag no Copyright Info
Legal Warning no Legal Warning Info

Word Count : 1061

INTERNET is so big, powerful and pointless that some people find it a complete substitute for life. In fact, it is a network of all the important public computer networks: something like a central switchboard of the world. Once connected to one computer on the 'Net', you can connect to any other as easily as if they were in the same building, and interrogate them for information and files. Most of the time, it works.

There are now two firms in London offering dial-up connections to the Internet for users of personal computers with modems. Demon Systems, in Hendon, has a service that gives full access for a fixed fee of pounds 10 a month. The Cix conferencing system in Surbiton has just opened a slightly more limited gateway, which has the advantage that ordinary communications software can be used to access it.

One way or another, all the important computers on the planet are linked. Of course, the really important machines, including those that run the credit-card networks, are as insulated as the real rich are from any contact with the unwashed masses. They talk only to each other. But most large networks can now be accessed from any phone socket.

When I needed to discover Bill Clinton's position on family values in a hurry one Sunday morning, I was able within 10 minutesto find the full text of a substantial speech he had delivered in May on that theme, and email it back to myself for printout and perusal. I don't know where it was physically stored before then: it was obtained for me by an information-finding program in Maryland called the Gopher, which I was able to reach by dialling Hendon and typing 'telnet info. umd. edu'. I didn't need to know more, and that is how information retrieval ought to work in the global village.

It doesn't always work that way. There is so much information out there that it can be impossible to get a clear grip on it. Much of it is scientific or technical; and much that isn't costs extra. But even so, the list of university libraries whose computerised cataloguing systems are available is immense. In the UK alone, a recent listing gives 52 university libraries, among them Oxford, Cambridge, London, Edinburgh and Aberdeen.

Since its beginnings at US universities in the Seventies, Internet has grown haphazardly and with a tradition of absolute free speech. This has some pleasingly paradoxical consequences: Senator Al Gore, Bill Clinton's running mate, has sponsored a plan to enlarge Internet with government money. At the same time, his wife, Tipper, a noted campaigner against pornography, would be appalled at some of the things to be found on the Net. Whatever you believe in censoring - whether it is pornography, blasphemy, or incitements to racial hatred - can be found on a computer somewhere, and if that computer is plugged into Internet, these opinions can be distributed throughout the global village. Sometimes they are even correctly spelt.

It must be said that unless you know what you want from the Net, the Demon Internet gateway demands slightly more dedication and a lot more time than most people have to spare. The first problem is hardware. Although you can plug almost anything with a hard disk into the net - Ataris, Amigas and Macintoshes as well as PCs - it is not worth subscribing to the system, except for the most limited purposes, unless you have a modem that operates at 9,600 bits per second or faster. Even unapproved modems capable of that speed cost almost pounds 300 in this country.

Then there is the software involved. Demon runs professional software, as it must, but the people who join are given, or are recommended to use, a program written originally by an enthusiastic ham radio type. Ordinary communications programs software will not do the job, although they do work with the Cix gateway.

The program authorised by Demon, whose name, ka9q. nos, is as friendly and comprehensible as anything else about it, has been rewritten by users and helpers until it can work without users knowing anything about it. This is just as well, because you will never learn anything from the manual.

The helpline at Demon is unfailingly courteous, prompt and knowledgeable. None the less it is spooky to have a query answered by a man who is not looking in a manual but puzzling out the answer from the program code in front of him. On top of ka9q, other programs are needed to read and send news and mail. These, too, are in a constant state of flux and improvement. A reasonably experienced computer user needs about two hours to set everything up reliably.

But that is just the start of the time you can lose. The Usenet news, especially, is addictive. It is a world-wide gathering of clever people with time on their hands. So you find on it a man who works at the Swedish National Tax Office and wants to get hold of a tie designed by Jerry Garcia, guitarist in the Grateful Dead. 'I'm almost sure it's impossible to get them here in Sweden so I probably have to mail-order one. I were tie occasionally (sic, as in 'I were wolf some nights') and I would love to have a Jerry-tie,' Tomas Ruden writes, adding: 'Opinions expresses above are my one and are not necessarily shared by the Swedish Tax Administration.'

There are some facts, as well as fancies, in the chat. But it is not really facts that the Usenet news exists for. My favourite message of the past week describes a New Zealander's view of evolution: 'The coathangers are actually the larval form of bicycles. Or shopping trolleys, depending on the tide levels. If the tides are high, then the coathangers migrate to just offshore and do their metamorphosis into shopping trolleys. The larval stage is very dangerous - while most coathangers survive, many get bent, folded, mutilated or turned into car radio antennae. This naturally is seen in the many lame and injured mature trolleys about. Otherwise they just turn into bikes. Then they generally hang around airports and get sucked into jet engines.'

Demon Internet Systems is on 081-343 3881 (voice).

Cix is on 081-390 8446 (voice); 081-390 1244 (modem).

Science and Technology Page 017

2 of 2
Front Cuts Book Back