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Usenet

Comms Plus! / January 1990
By Paola Kathuria

Q. What is Usenet, isn't it a bulletin board?

Usenet has been described as "a loose but effective informal association of computer users forming a network for distributing electronic messages. Messages are broadcast as general news items, not point-to-point." (Norman, Shaprio & Anderson, Toward an ethics and etiquette for electronic mail, National Science Foundation, 1985).

Networks are as small as a company or college and are included in the UK network (UKNET). Usenet isn't a bulletin board because the news is not held at one site which people access. Instead, sites subscribe to certain groups which are then fed to them. The news comes through the UK backbone site at the University of Kent (UKC) and sites in the UK subscribe to any of the groups that UKC carry. Like a bulletin board, each news-group contains discussions on various topics.

Q. Where did it come from?

From a monthly posting to the net intended for new users (news.announce.newusers) I obtained the following history. Usenet began in late 1979 when two US students thought of hooking computers up to exchange information with the Unix community. Versions of news software appeared which could cope with the increasing volume in news and offered more functionality. In 1984 moderation of news groups began -- submissions are posted to a moderator who acts like an editor, rejecting articles or suggesting changes. The moderator then posts the accepted articles to the 'net, perhaps individually or in batches (a mailing list is similar except that the messages are sent to the participants by electronic mail). Screen-orientated news reading interfaces were developed, a popular one being rn by Larry Wall. There are currently an estimated two million people reading the news on the 'net.

Q. What kinds of groups are there?

At my site, I have access to over 600 groups although, world-wide, there are thousands of groups; many are local to an institution or geographical area. I am subscribed to about 50 groups.

Groups are arranged in a name hierarchy. Here are some examples:

comp
Computer discussion groups include in the next level, ai, lang, society, bugs, binaries, mail, os, protocols, sources, std, sys, theory and unix.
misc
Miscellaneous discussion groups, which don't otherwise fit in the hierarchy, for example misc.jobs.offered.
news
Discussions about Usenet, itself. news.announce.newusers is used for monthly postings for new users. news.newusers.questions is where new users can ask any question about the news. news.announce.newgroups is used to post suggestions and charters for new groups. Fourteen to thirty days are allowed for discussion and then not less than twenty-one days for voting to a volunteer. If there are at least one hundred more yes votes than no votes and at least two thirds of the total number of votes are in favour, the appropriate control messages are sent out and the new group
rec
Recreation and groups include, at the next level arts, games, music and food.
sci
Science and technical groups.
soc
Social groups include the soc.culture hierarchy as well as groups such as soc.women, soc.men and soc.singles.
talk
Debate oriented groups.

In addition there are groups local to geographic area, like the uk groups. Besides Usenet groups there are alternative groups which are carried by those sites which request them. These include the alt hierarchy, which tends to include cult debates, bionet, biz, clarinet, gnu, inet/ddn, pubnet, unix-pc, u3b and vmsnet. I believe that some of the alternative hierarchies have to be paid for. alt.flame is where people tell other people exactly what they thought of their articles and opinions. This group is not meant for the faint-hearted!

Q. What's Netiquette?

The net writing style which people are encouraged to adopt. The above mentioned article and news.announce.newusers list some rules for writing to the net.

  • Create single-subject messages whenever possible
  • Use descriptive message titles
  • Assume that any message you send is permanent
  • Keep the list of recipients to a minimum
  • Separate opinion from non-opinion and clearly label each
  • When expressing emotion in a message clearly label it
  • Be selective in broadcasts for information
  • Do not insult or criticise third parties without giving them time to respond
  • Avoiding responding to a message while emotional
  • If a message generates emotions, look again
  • Only post a message once
  • Read all follow-ups and don't repeat what has already been said
  • Rotate material with questionable content (jokes likely to offend, spoilers to films, games). The standard rotation (encryption) method is to rotate each letter by thirteen characters ("a" becomes "n"). This is known as rot13 on the net.
  • Be brief, and don't write exclusively in upper case

Q. So, how about some games?

During January, a new group appeared in the alt hierarchy called alt.mud. From what I can gather, some people at Carnegie-Mellon University, in the States, (CMU) have developed something called TinyMUD. It comes with a demonstration database world but is essentially user-extendable. Sites have been listed from where this can be downloaded but I haven't managed to have a look at it yet and am still porting the code.

Discussion in this group is 90% about this game and related (I assume) games, TinyHELL and TinyMUCK and are mostly technical. The rest are about aberMUD. A few days ago someone posted an article to news.groups to propose the group rec.games.mud saying that Multi-User Dungeons started with TinyMUD at CMU (1989). Others replied saying that there are only ten versions of TinyMUD in "the country" with about sixty players on each, so that it didn't seem worth while creating a group for six hundred people.

I wrote a calm reply (!) saying that there were perhaps more than six hundred multi-user game players and that they weren't all in America. There's a MUD CON I being organised on the East Coast for June where the emphasis will be on aberMUD. I find it annoying that some American players think that they are the only people who play such games. According to a reply to my article, the first game of its kind was called Public Caves and ran at the People's Computer Company in the 1970s. During 1979-1980 a version was implemented at Berkeley. I shall have to look into this ...

Q. Does Usenet have the answer to Life?

Sure! An Oracle has appeared on Usenet at Indiana State University. If you mail oracle@iuuvax.cs.indiana.edu with a question it will reply. The answer to life has been posted to the net already to demonstrate the talents of the oracle but I shall include here a question and part of an answer sent by someone at the company I work at.

The Usenet Oracle has pondered your question deeply.
Your question was:
> Why can't I get toothpaste back
> into the tube when I've squeezed
> out too much?
>
> 			Baffled,
> 				vic
And in response, thus spake the Oracle:

My son, truly one of the great mysteries of life. It really
is quite simple.

There is a Law in the universe, the Law of Entropy. (Or the
Law of the Messy Room)

   ALL THINGS TEND TOWARD CHAOS.

Toothpaste is actually a frigid crystalline structure. When
you squeeze it, you heat it, causing it to expand. The top of
the tube is actually a small energy trap, which uses the energy
differential to generate electricity. Late at night, the tube
extends lines to the socket and sends electricity back to the plant.
(and so on)

Q. That's all very well, but will it get me any doughnuts?

Well, funny you should ask but, yes, you can. Over a year ago there were a spate of articles appearing in misc.misc from people asking "if you read this message please send one dollar to a poor student". The stories of poverty and suffering grew more and more extreme as people tried to outdo each other. I wrote in and said that people were wasting their time asking for money and they instead should ask for the things that they'd buy with the money. I asked for all readers of my message to send me a jam doughnut. Two days later a jam doughnut arrived in the post.

Q. Hmmm, but I bet you can't find Ms/Mr Right on Usenet?

It's rare but possible. The reason I started reading misc.misc was because a friend had said that someone was posting some good poems. One day I wrote in asking, for no reason other than pure curiosity, what word in English had the most number of consecutive consonants. I received responses from about four people, and I struck up a correspondence with one of them. Three months and a couple of hundred messages later we met and things have never been the same since.

To anyone in a similar situation I'd say allow more time getting to know people on a computer than you would in person. I believe that we get to know people inside-out on a computer so the more you talk the more you move towards the outer levels and the face-to-face meeting them completes the person you think, yes, think you know.

Q. What, aren't you going to do any ranting in this issue?

Oh, all right then. Jokes are posted to rec.humor (rec.humor.funny is a moderated group where the funny jokes are posted ...). There are lists of jokes about sorority girls and one titled "Why cucumbers are better than men". In this list are two 'jokes' which I find puzzling. One is A cucumber won't mind if you're a virgin and another is A cucumber won't tell anyone that you're not a virgin. It's quite common to find women ridiculed like this. Since these two cover all of womankind they could be reduced to A cucumber won't tell anyone that you're a woman. Some people think that any statement in joke form is acceptable; some don't.

Finally, for your pleasure, here's one of my favourite poems, reproduced with permission, originally posted in misc.misc by Douglas Clark (all twenty poems available in book form in Horsemen published in 1988 by Benjamin Press, Bath):

Sunshine

Fritz Cat loves the sunshine.
He rolls on his back on the concrete path
To communicate his joy to the sun.
He is not just scratching his back.
In the icy days of winter
He sits huddled in the sun's rays
Beside the heater at the top of the stairs.
His mind floats on a sunbeam.
He is not a daft cat.
He just loves the reflection
From the gold of his eyes
To the gold of the sun.