Harley Hahn's
Internet Advisor

Chapter 2...

An Overview of the Internet

The Internet is a global information and communication system that is used by millions of people all over the world. Once you start to use the Net, you will be astonished by the amount of imagination and creativity you will find. In this chapter, I will take you on a guided tour of the Net. Along the way, I will introduce you to some of the important words and terms we use to talk about the Internet and its resources.

If you are new to the Net, you may be wondering what everyone is talking about. Let's start by talking about what the Net has to offer to you.

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What Can You Do on the Net?

I explained in Chapter 1 that the Internet is based on technology developed in the late 1960s by ARPA, an agency of the U.S. Department of Defense. The original network (which later became the Internet) offered a single service: you could use the network to run programs on a remote computer. Soon after, two more services were added: you could copy files from one computer to another, and you could send messages by electronic mail.

Over the years, the Internet has expanded enormously, and you can now use the Net for many different things. Here are some examples:

  • Send and receive electronic mail
  • Access information on just about any topic you can imagine
  • Talk with other people
  • Play games (by yourself or with other people on the Net)
  • Read the daily news (and the comics, weather and sports)
  • Take part in ongoing discussions
  • Do research
  • Get free software for your computer
  • Shop for just about anything
  • Buy and sell stocks
  • Display maps and driving instructions
  • Look up someone's address and telephone number
  • Do your banking and check your credit card accounts
  • Make payments
  • Buy and sell using online auctions
  • Listen to music, radio, concerts and other live events
  • Plan a trip, make reservations, buy tickets
  • Study, learn, take classes
  • Watch video
  • Visit imaginary environments
  • Gamble

All the activities I mentioned above are built on just a few basic Internet services. In this chapter, I will explain these services and teach you the most important words and technical terms you need to know to use the Net well. My goal is to give you an overview of what you can do on the Net, so for now don't worry about the details. We will cover them later in the book.

— hint —

When it comes to the Net, just about anything you can think of is out there somewhere.

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A Quick Overview of Email

(We will talk about email in detail in Chapters 5 and 6.)

ELECTRONIC MAIL is a facility that allows you to send messages to anyone on the Internet. In addition, once you are on the Net, anyone else can send messages to you. Electronic mail is usually referred to as EMAIL or, more simply, MAIL. Both words are also used as verbs, for example, "Would you like me to mail you an invitation to my sausage party?"

Everyone on the Internet has an email ADDRESS. In order to send mail to someone, you must have his address. Similarly, if you want someone to be able to send you mail, you must give him your address.

Standard messages consist of regular text you type using your keyboard. However, you can also ATTACH a file of data to a message, and the file will be delivered along with the message. (The file is referred to as an ATTACHMENT.) For example, you can send someone a word processing document by saving it to a file and attaching the file to a message. In general, you can attach anything that can be stored in a file: a picture, a program, a voice message, and so on.

To have mail service, you arrange for an account on a MAIL SERVER. This is a computer that acts as a local email post office for a group of people. When someone sends you a message, it is stored on the mail server until you pick it up. The company that provides you with Internet access, your INTERNET SERVICE PROVIDER or ISP, will also provide you with mail service (including an email address).

As I explained in Chapter 1, you access Internet facilities by running client programs on your computer. For email, you use a mail client, commonly referred to as a MAIL PROGRAM.

The job of your mail program is to send and receive messages on your behalf. When you send a message, your mail program looks at the address and then delivers the message to the mail server that accepts mail for that address. To accept incoming messages, your mail program contacts your mail server and checks to see if any messages are waiting for you.

On the Internet, when people use the word "mail", they always mean email. When it is necessary to talk about post office mail, people will sometimes refer to it as SNAIL MAIL (the implication being that post office mail is slow compared to email). For example, you might tell someone, "I'll mail you the marriage proposal, and if you like it, I'll send you the final copy by snail mail."

In everyday conversation, we use the word "email" (or "mail") in two different ways. First, to refer to the idea of electronic mail in general:

"Mary uses email for everything, even accepting marriage proposals."

Second, to refer to actual messages:

"Martin's mother wouldn't let him see the movie until he had answered all his email."

In general, it sounds better if you do not refer to messages as "emails". For example, do not say, "I received several emails yesterday," or "Please send me an email." Instead, say, "I received several messages," or "Please send me email." Here is a real-life example to show you what I mean.

Overheard in the fruit and vegetable section of a grocery store...

MR. WRONG: Excuse me, ma'am.


MR. WRONG: If you give me your Internet address, I would be glad to send you an email.

MR. RIGHT: Excuse me, ma'am, but I, too, would like your address, so I can send you email.

BEAUTIFUL WOMAN: I am sorry, Mr. Wrong, but I do not give my email address to people who obviously don't know the first thing about the Net. Mr. Right, I would be glad to give you my address, because you are such a cool dude. Also, you may carry my pomegranates.

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A Quick Overview of the Web

(We will talk about the Web in detail in Chapter 7.)

The WEB is an information delivery system that can display many different types of data and allow you to access a variety of services. The Web is unlike anything that has ever existed, and is the most powerful and most popular part of the Internet — so much so that beginners sometimes think the Web is the Net. Actually, the Web is only one part of the Internet, but as you will come to see, the lines that separate the Web from the rest of the Net are often blurry.

The Web is based on the concept of HYPERTEXT, data that contains LINKS to other data or to resources. As you look at hypertext, you can use the links to jump from one place to another. All you have to do is use your mouse to click on a link, and the data you are looking at will be replaced by new data. When this happens, we say that you are FOLLOWING the link. Here is an example to show you how it works.

Let's say you are using the Web to read a hypertext article about gardening. Throughout the article, the author has placed links to related information, such as plant care, pest control, growing seasons, choosing new plants, and so on. Within the hypertext, the links are displayed in a special way so they will stand out (for example, they may be underlined or in a special color).

To follow a link, you click on it with your mouse. In our example, you might click on the "plant care" link. When you do, the article you are reading will be replaced on your screen by an article about plant care. If, instead, you click on the "pest control" link, you will jump to an article about pest control. And within these new articles, there will be more information containing more links.

Thus, the basic experience of using the Web is read, click, read, click, read, click. As you use the Web, you get a definite impression of jumping from one place to another.

What's in a Name?


In science fiction, spaceships need to travel vast distances in a short time. To make this possible, science fiction authors commonly have the ships travel through something called "hyperspace". Traveling in hyperspace allows a ship to jump magically from one side of the galaxy to another in a brief instant. (Actually, it's not a bad way to travel, except there's usually a 30 minute wait for luggage.)

When you use the Web, you click on links to jump from one Web page to another, similar to a spaceship jumping through hyperspace. Back in 1981, a fellow named Ted Nelson wrote a book called Literary Machines in which he coined the word "hypertext" to describe the type of data that might make this possible (that is, data containing links to other data).

In 1989, two scientists, Tim Berners-Lee and Robert Caillau, started work on a project to provide access to hypertext over a computer network. They conceived of their system as a large "web" of information. When the first version was ready, in May 1991, they decided to call it the WORLD WIDE WEB. Over time, as the system evolved, the name World Wide Web was shortened to the "Web".

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The Parts of the Web

When we talk about computers, we use the word "data" to refer to all the various types of information. In broad terms, there are three types of data:

  • TEXT consists of characters: the letters of the alphabet, numbers, punctuation, and so on.
  • GRAPHICS refers to pictures, such as drawings, photographs and illustrations, as well as other visual elements.
  • MULTIMEDIA refers to things that move or make sounds, such as animation, video and audio.

Information on the Web is organized into files called WEB PAGES. Web pages can contain not only data (such as text, graphics and multimedia), but programs as well. Thus, where some Web pages are simple, containing only plain text with perhaps a few pictures, other pages are sophisticated productions with graphics, sound and animation, all tied together with programs that run automatically, doing wondrous things.

— hint —

When you see the word "hypertext" used to describe the content of Web pages, remember that it can contain graphics and multimedia as well as plain text.

Throughout the Internet, there are a vast number of computers called WEB SERVERS that store Web pages and make them available to anyone. There are literally hundreds of millions of Web pages available on the Net, with more being created all the time.

A collection of related Web pages created by a particular person or organization is called a WEB SITE (often spelled as a single word "website"). Many companies and individuals have their own Web sites, and once you get some experience, you will be able to create your own. Once you create some Web pages and put them on a Web server, anyone in the world will be able to look at them.

— hint —

On the Internet, anyone can be a publisher.

To access the Web, you use a program called a BROWSER to act as your Web client. Whenever you request a Web page, your browser contacts the appropriate Web server and asks for a copy of that page. Once the information arrives, your browser displays it for you. (You may have to wait a few moments, especially if you have a slow Internet connection.)

There are many browsers available for free on the Net. However, by far, the two most popular are INTERNET EXPLORER, developed by Microsoft, and NETSCAPE, developed by Netscape Communications (which used to be independent but is now owned by AOL).

What's in a Name?


The Netscape software is actually a collection of programs called Netscape Communicator. Within this collection, the browser is named Netscape Navigator. However, informally, we generally refer to the browser as "Netscape".

Thus, if you are talking to someone about the Internet, he might ask you, "Which browser do you use, Internet Explorer or Netscape?"

Browsers are designed to perform several different jobs. The basic job of a browser is to act as a Web client. As such, your browser displays Web pages for you and follows whatever links you click on with your mouse.

In addition, most browsers are integrated with mail clients and Usenet clients. That means you can use your browser not only to access the Web, but to send and receive mail, and participate in Usenet discussion groups (see below).

The Internet Explorer browser has a fourth function: it can also act as a file manager, allowing you to access all the information and programs on your computer. This is part of Microsoft's plan to make their browser an integral part of the overall Windows working environment.

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Internet Talk Facilities

(We will discuss talk facilities in detail in Chapter 8.)

The Net is a great place to talk to people. You can keep in touch with friends, or talk to people you don't know and make new friends. There are lots of ways to talk on the Net, but before we get into the details, I want to discuss a basic idea: what do we mean by the word "talk"?

In regular life (off the Net), we talk by speaking, whether in person or on the phone. On the Net, it is possible to have voice communication, but much of the time we communicate by typing what we want to say. Thus, when we say TALK, we refer to typing messages back and forth, as well as regular speech.

There are a variety of ways in which you can talk on the Net. You can have a private conversation with one person at a time; you can have a private discussion with a group of people so that everyone in the group can see what the others are typing; or you can talk in a public area, where anyone who wants can join the conversation. Some public discussions are devoted to particular topics, others are for general conversation. You can choose whatever you feel like at the moment.

The most common talk Internet facility is called IM or INSTANT MESSAGING. Instant messaging is easy, and it is extremely popular among teenagers, who like to spend hours and hours talking to their friends. This is especially true among AOL users, because instant messaging is built into the AOL system.

Another way to talk to people is found on the Web. There are a great many public talk areas called CHAT ROOMS. Some chat rooms are for general discussion; others are devoted to specific topics. Using a chat room is even simpler than using IM. You just visit the Web page where the chat room resides, enter the chat, and start talking.

The largest and oldest talk facility on the Net, IRC (Internet Relay Chat), is more complex. There are a variety of different IRC networks, each of which has many CHANNELS. Each channel supports a single conversation, often with many people talking at the same time. You can join any channel you want and be part of the conversation, and you can start your own channels whenever you want. If you like a lot of stimulation, you can join more than one channel at the same time and try to follow several conversations at once.

Aside from IM, Web chat rooms and IRC, there are talk facilities within imaginary environments called muds. A MUD is a text-based world in which you adopt the role of an imaginary character. Most muds are devoted to particular themes, such as fantasy, gothic or science fiction. Since muds are text-based, you don't see any pictures. Instead, you read descriptions of places, people and events, and build your own vision using your imagination (just like when you read a book). But unlike a book, muds are interactive: what you experience depends on what you do.

Muds are multiuser, which means that many people can use the mud at the same time. Whenever you are on a mud, you will be able to see and talk to anyone else who is there. Some muds are devoted mainly to conversation and are highly social places. Other muds are designed more for adventures: killing monsters, going on quests, accumulating points, and so on. Adventure muds can be complex places, and it may take you weeks or months to explore everywhere and become a master.

Like everything you do on the Net, talking requires the use of a client program. The client you use depends upon which talk facility you are using. With Web chat rooms, your client is your browser. To use IM, IRC or a mud, you need special-purpose clients — an IM client, an IRC client, or a mud client — which you can get for free on the Net.

These clients provide a variety of useful services aside from talking. For example IM and IRC clients allow you to transfer files from one person to another, share pictures, and send quick, private messages to someone during a conversation.

I mentioned earlier that most talking on the Net is by typing messages back and forth. This is true, but it is also possible to talk using speech, just like a telephone. Talking in this way can be a lot of fun because you can hear people's voices from all over the world, and you talk as long as you want without having to pay long distance bills. Of course, if you want to talk in this way, your computer will need a microphone and speakers. (Most new computers come with such hardware.)

In addition, there are systems that allow other people to look at you as you talk. Again, you need the appropriate equipment. Aside from a microphone and speakers, you also need a special video camera, called a WEBCAM.

— hint —

On the Net, you never need to be alone. There is always someone to talk to.

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Downloading Free Software

(We will talk about downloading software in detail in Chapter 9.)

There is an enormous amount of free software available on the Net. Most of this software is made available via a system called anonymous FTP. Although you don't hear people talk much about anonymous FTP, it is one of the most important services on the Internet because it allows reliable, worldwide distribution of software and other data. However, before I explain how it works, we need to go over some basic terminology.

Let's start with the idea of a file. On a computer, a FILE is a collection of data (information), that is stored under a particular name. Files can contain any type of data, such as word processing documents, pictures, email messages, Web pages, computer programs, and so on. Your computer has many files stored on its hard drive (a storage device inside the main box). Files are also stored on other types of media, such as CDs, floppy disks, removable disk cartridges and tapes.

One of the basic services offered by the Internet is the capability of copying files from one computer to another. This is important because it allows you to get programs from other computers to use on your own computer.

When you copy a file from a remote computer to your computer, we say you DOWNLOAD the file. When you copy a file from your computer to a remote computer, we say you UPLOAD the file.

— hint —

Here is an easy way to remember the difference between download and upload. Imagine the Internet is floating above you in the sky. When you copy a file from the Internet to your computer, you bring the file "down". When you copy a file from your computer to the Internet, you send the file "up".

The service that provides a lot of the file transfer on the Net is called FTP (the name stands for File Transfer Protocol). FTP can be used in two ways. First, if you have permission to use a particular computer, you can use FTP to copy files to or from that computer. In such cases, you will need a user name and a password to access the remote computer.

An example of when you might use FTP in this way is when you create your own Web site. As I explained earlier in the chapter, to make your own Web site, you create some Web pages and then copy them to a Web server. You design the Web pages on your own computer and store them in files. Once they are ready, you can use FTP to upload the files to the Web server. In other words, you "publish" your Web pages by using FTP to copy them to a Web server where they can be accessed by anyone on the Net.

What's in a Name?


FTP — File Transfer Protocol — is the name of the service that allows you to copy files from one Internet computer to another. On the Net, we also use the word "FTP" as a verb. For example:

Jack: When is the new Web site going to be ready?

Jill: Well, I've made all the final changes. All I have to do is FTP the files to the Web server.

Jack: (who grew up in the Sixties): Far out!

There is a great need on the Net to be able to distribute programs and other files to the general public. All over the Net, there are many computers, called FTP SERVERS, that store files for public downloading via FTP. However, FTP requires that you have a user name and password in order to be able to access the files on a remote computer.

Clearly, it is not feasible to give each person in the world a user name and password for every FTP server. Instead, we use a system called ANONYMOUS FTP that allows anyone, anywhere, to access particular files on an FTP server. This is the second way in which FTP can be used. Here is how it works.

The people running the FTP server set aside a special area to hold files for the general public to download. To access these files, you use FTP to connect to the computer and then specify a user name of anonymous with any password that you want. (The custom is to use your email address as a password. This allows the people running the FTP server to see who is using it.) Once you connect to an FTP server in this way, you are allowed to download any of the files that have been placed in the public anonymous FTP area. However, you are not allowed to access files in the nonpublic areas.

The power of anonymous FTP is that it can allow anyone to download anything. In particular, anonymous FTP is used to distribute the software that runs the Net. This is one of the most important reasons why the Internet was able to grow so quickly. On a more personal level, anonymous FTP provides you and me with free access to a massive amount of software and information.

To use FTP, you need an FTP CLIENT program. All browsers can act as FTP clients for anonymous FTP. In fact, when you download software or other files from a Web site, you are sometimes using anonymous FTP without even knowing it. The browser will take care of all the details automatically (such as specifying the user name of anonymous and a password). All you will have to do is tell the browser where you want to store the downloaded file.

If you need more than anonymous FTP — for example, if you need to upload files — you need a more powerful FTP client. There are many such programs available on the Net.

— hint —

There are many programs you can use to design Web pages. Some of these programs are able to upload the finished pages right to your Web server. Although you may not realize it, these programs are using FTP behind the scenes.

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A Quick Overview of Usenet

(We will talk about Usenet in detail in Chapter 13.)

Human beings love to communicate. We love to talk, argue, share information, complain, gossip, solve problems, tell jokes, spread rumors, ask questions and help one another. In my years of using computers, I have noticed an enduring principle I believe is a part of human nature. Whenever a new technology arises, people will find a way to use it to talk to one another. Nowhere is this better illustrated than with Usenet.

USENET is a system of discussion groups in which people all over the Net participate in ongoing discussion. There are thousands of different Usenet groups. Each group is devoted to a particular topic, and you can join the discussion for free. In its infancy, Usenet was originally designed for the posting of news articles, so you will often see the discussion groups referred to as NEWSGROUPS. Usenet itself is often referred to the NEWS, or sometimes NETNEWS.

What's in a Name?


Usenet was started in 1979. At the time, the Internet had not yet developed. The people who started Usenet used computers that ran an operating system (master control program) called Unix, which had been developed by AT&T.

At the time, there was a Unix users group called the Usenix Association (which still exists). This group had originally been called the Unix Users Group. However, the word "Unix" was a trademark of AT&T, and their lawyers were very picky about who could use the name, so the group decided to change their name to Usenix.

The inventors of Usenet chose the name "Usenet" to sound like Usenix, because they hoped that the Usenix Association would help organize the new discussion group system (they didn't). In retrospect, the name was a good one for two reasons. First, it sounds like the word "Internet", and, second, it looks like an abbreviation for "users network".

Within the various Usenet newsgroups, people discuss every topic imaginable in perfect freedom with no censorship. The topics include serious discussions of science, health, computers, politics and culture; less serious chat about movies, music, sex and television; and lots of jokes, humor, complaining and debate. Literally, any topic you can think of is discussed somewhere on Usenet.

In addition to public newsgroups, Usenet can also be used for discussions within an organization or group. For example, I have a friend who is a professor of mathematics at Cornell University. His classes use local Usenet groups to discuss questions and answers for the course. Usenet is used this way in many schools.

To access Usenet, you use a client program called a NEWSREADER. Both of the popular browsers (Internet Explorer and Netscape) can act as newsreaders. So to access Usenet, you can either use your browser or get a special-purpose newsreader program. (Serious Usenet people often prefer the special-purpose newsreaders.)

People participate in Usenet by sending messages, called ARTICLES or POSTINGS, to the newsgroups. Using your newsreader, you can read the articles in any group. You can also send in articles of your own which can then be read by anyone on the Net. Articles are stored on computers called NEWS SERVERS and are saved for at least several days. Thus, at any time, you can use your newsreader to see what people are currently talking about in a particular group.

If you want to use Usenet, your newsreader must have access to a news server, and it is up to you to find such a service. However, most Internet service providers maintain a news server as a service to their customers, so Usenet access usually comes free with an Internet connection.

Although we talk a lot about the Web, it is not the only important part of the Internet. Throughout this book, I will teach you about the Web, but I also want to make sure that you appreciate Usenet and learn how to use it well. You will find Usenet to be especially useful when you have a question or when you need to find out some information. Just send a message to the appropriate discussion group, and more than likely, someone will read your request and post an answer.

People love to talk, and on the Net, people have been talking on Usenet for over two decades.

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A Quick Overview of Mailing Lists

(We will talk about mailing lists in detail in Chapter 14.)

MAILING LISTS, like Usenet, are used for ongoing discussions among people all over the Net. However, with a mailing list, all the messages are sent via email. Instead of using a newsreader client to access a Usenet news server, you simply read the messages that appear in your incoming mailbox.

There are many thousands of mailing lists that cover just about any topic you can imagine. Like Usenet, mailing lists are free. However, you do need to join a list in order to participate. When you want to stop receiving mail from the list, you need to remove yourself from the distribution.

How do mailing lists compare to Usenet? Both Usenet and mailing lists are used for public and private discussions. In the same way that there are local Usenet groups, there are a great many private mailing lists that are set up for a select group of people.

However, there are some differences. Mailing lists tend to have more serious, longer lasting discussions, while Usenet newsgroups are like open forums where anybody can show up and say whatever they want. On the other hand, Usenet is better for browsing. You can check a newsgroup and see what articles happen to be there whenever you feel like it. With a mailing list, you have to join the list and wait for messages to arrive in your mailbox.

Finally, compared to Usenet newsgroups, mailing lists have much less trouble with unsolicited advertisements, called spam (see below). This can be an important consideration.

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Advertising and Spam

As you use the Net, you are going to have a huge amount of in-your-face advertising forced upon you, particularly on the Web. Personally, I don't like it one bit (and I hope you don't either), but the economics that drive the Net are based in large part on advertising revenues, and there's not much anyone can do to change that. From time to time, people do come up with programs to filter out the ads, and I will discuss such programs in Chapter 7. Still, for the foreseeable future, advertising on the Web is here to stay.

However, there is another type of advertising, called spam, that people are doing something about. SPAM refers to unsolicited advertisements that are sent to people's personal email accounts and to Usenet newsgroups. The people who send such ads are called SPAMMERS.

As an Internet user, you will notice spam in two important ways. First, if your email address gets on a spammer's address list, you will begin to see advertisements in your mailbox. As time passes, this will get worse and worse, as your address is passed around and sold from one spammer to another.

Eventually, you will find that you are receiving a great deal of unsolicited advertising. Whether or not this bothers you depends on your temperament. It doesn't cost you anything to receive email, and it is simple to delete any unwanted messages. Still, no matter how genial your personality, I predict that, when the spam gets bad enough, you will start to complain. By then it will be too late. There are brokers who sell lists of addresses, and once your name is on a list your privacy is gone for good.

The second way in which you will notice spam is on Usenet. As I explained earlier, Usenet consists of a great many discussion groups (called newsgroups). Traditionally, Usenet has afforded people as much freedom as possible. In particular, anyone is allowed to send an article to any newsgroup, and some people send a lot of articles. But this is nothing compared to the spammers who use automated programs to send advertisement after advertisement to every Usenet newsgroup. This means, for example, that if you want to read the articles in a newsgroup devoted to pets, you may have to wade through a lot of advertisements offering ways to "make money fast".

Spam is bad for the Internet (and for you) in two ways. First, unsolicited messages are irritating, whether you find them in your mailbox, in a Usenet newsgroup, or on a mailing list.

Second, when the spam count gets high enough, the junk really starts to get in the way. A lot of spam is carefully crafted by experts to look like important mail (just like postal junk mail), and you may have to look at many bogus messages to make sure you don't accidentally delete a real one. However, unlike postal junk mail — which requires paper, printing, envelopes and postage — spam is electronic and costs very little per message. Thus, spammers have no economic motivation to remove you from their mailing lists or to target their advertising to only those people who want it.

This problem has choked many Usenet newsgroups to death. As part of my work, I maintain a master list of Usenet newsgroups. From time to time, I go through all the groups bringing the list up to date. I have seen many groups that have been rendered unusable by high amounts of spam. In fact, more than any single thing I can think of, spam has really hurt the Usenet community.

Fortunately, there are a lot of anti-spam nerds on the Net who have developed two types of anti-spam software. One type, used for email, filters messages as they arrive in your mailbox. Messages that look like spam are thrown away automatically. The second type of software is used on Usenet to eliminate spam before it gets into the newsgroups. The Usenet software has worked particularly well, helping to make Usenet a lot more pleasant to use.

What's in a Name?


Spam is a canned meat containing pork shoulder and ham, first produced in 1937 by the George A. Hormel Food Company (now Hormel Foods). The name Spam was chosen to mean "spiced ham".

On December 15, 1970, the Monty Python's Flying Circus television show had a skit in which a woman and man in a restaurant find that every dish on the menu contains Spam, Spam, and more Spam.

Some years later — because of this skit — the word "spam" was adopted on Usenet to refer to articles that were sent to many different newsgroups. The idea is that, no matter which newsgroup you choose to read, you will have spam forced upon you, just like the people in the Monty Python skit.

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TELNET is a service that allows you to connect to a remote computer and run programs. Telnet was the first service developed for the original Arpanet (the network that grew into the Internet). In those days — the late 1960s — the only way to use a computer interactively was via a device called a TERMINAL. A terminal had a keyboard, a monitor, and not much more, and had to be connected directly to the computer, which was called the HOST. To use the computer, you would turn on the terminal and LOG IN by typing a user name and a password. You could then use your terminal to type commands which would be carried out by the host.

Telnet was developed to allow people to log in and use a remote computer over a network. Without telnet (or something like it), you could not interact with a computer unless you had a terminal that was physically connected to the host.

To use telnet, you run a TELNET CLIENT program on your computer. The telnet client connects to the remote host and then begins to act like a terminal. (In computer talk, we say that the telnet program EMULATES a terminal.) You can now log in by typing your user name and password.

In general, you can't use telnet unless you have an account (a user name and password) on a remote host. In years past, there were computers on the Net that would allow public telnet access for certain specific services, such as library catalogs or BBSs (bulletin board systems). Nowadays, though, most such services have moved to the Web, where you can access them by using your browser.

What's in a Name?


The ancestor of the Internet was called the Arpanet (named for the Advanced Research Projects Agency, a part of the U.S. Department of Defense). The first goal of the Arpanet researchers was to create a way for people to access remote computers. Here is an excerpt from one of their early memos (named RFC-5), written on June 2, 1969:

"The initial ARPA network working group met at SRI [Stanford Research Institute] on October 25-26, 1968. It was generally agreed beforehand that the running of interactive programs across the network was the first problem that would be faced."

Telnet was formally proposed in a technical note (RFC-15) written by C. Carr and dated September 25, 1969, and as I mentioned, telnet became the first service offered over the new network.

The origin of the name "telnet" is unknown. My best guess is that Carr chose it to incorporate the words "teletype" (an early device that was used as a terminal) and "network".

The word "telnet" is often used as a verb, for example, "In the olden days, people would telnet to a computer in order to use it remotely."

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Making Sense of It All

There is a lot to do on the Internet, and there is a lot to learn. To make sense out of it all, just remember these three basic ideas:

  • The most important services on the Net are mail, the Web and Usenet.
  • The Internet is based on a client/server system. You run client programs on your computer. Your clients connect to various servers on the Net in order to carry out your requests.
  • The most important program you need to learn how to use is your Web client, called a browser. The most popular browsers, Internet Explorer and Netscape, are integrated with mail and Usenet clients, so you can use one main program for almost everything.

For reference, Figure 2-1 contains a summary of the clients and servers we have discussed. The fact that you understand this summary means that you now know more about the Internet than almost everyone else in the world.

Figure 2-1: Important clients and servers used on the Net

Client Server
MailMail programMail server
The WebBrowserWebserver
UsenetNewsreaderNews server
FTPFTP programFTP server
IRCIRC clientIRC server
MudMud clientMud server
TelnetTelnet clientHost

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