Computers: Getting the news from Maine to Texas: Matthew Hoffman wonders whether travelling on the Internet is more interesting than what arrives, in a step-by-step guide to joining for Mac users

About a year ago I first started to try to dial in to the Internet, the worldwide information network, with my Apple Macintosh PowerBook 170.

Even with several years experience of using communications on the Mac, I had a lot of trouble linking up with the Internet: it took me about nine months of fiddling and only became possible in the end because new software and documentation helped through a tortuous maze of language and configuration settings. When I began I was using a slow 2400 bits per second fax modem. A few days on the Internet persuaded me to get a new high- speed 14400 bps modem.

However, I can now give a step-by-step guide to how Apple Mac users in the UK can start 'surfing the Net'.

Begin by telephoning Demon Internet Services on 081 349 0063. For pounds 11.75 a month, Demon will provide you with unlimited access to the Net at sites in London, Warrington or Edinburgh - you must, of course, pay your telephone bills.

You must also order from them a copy of a book by Adam C Engst called Internet Starter Kit for Macintosh. This book came with a disk of software and Demon also included another disk, 'MacTCP kit for DIS' for pounds 31.98.

When you sign up with Internet you must invent a 'site name' for yourself and a password. I chose the name of the street where I live, 'Healey'. You will then have a proper Internet address: mine is healey. demon. co. uk and even if you are the only person using that address, you must specify a user name as well: so my full Internet address is matt@healey. demon. co. uk. It means there is a person called Matt, who is at a computer he calls healey, which is provided with an Internet service by Demon Internet Services, which is a company in the UK.

Engst's book is written with a delightful vigour, but it is long and already slightly dated: it is being overtaken by new software and new services on the Net. Nonetheless, you will want to read much of it, for here is where you can find a full explanation of the vocabulary, together with other vital information. But as computer users are too impatient to wade through a 640-page book before getting started, this is what you do right away.

Insert the Internet starter kit disk in your computer and double click on the single file icon to expand it. Now do the same with the DIS disk and double click on the installer. There are Read Me documents on both disks that you should read before going further. Between these two disks you will have all the software you need to make connections to the Internet and to work with many of the facilities available there.

You will also be able to download more software from Demon and other sites. Almost all of the software supplied uses Macintosh user-friendly interfaces, so you will not have to learn the unintuitive command-line jargon that kept me from functioning on the Net for nearly a year.

In trying to follow the instructions in the Read Me files, remember that first you must assure your connections to Demon and only then worry about what to do on the Internet. There are two programs that are needed for this first task: MacTCP - which enables a Mac to use the Net's 'transmission control protocol', and PPP - which allows your modem to conect with the Net through 'point-to-point protocol'. These show up as control panels in the system folder, but you need only ever look at the latter, which you use to dial Demon and to hang-up the connection.

Most helpfully, the DIS installer sets almost all of the parameters in both programs. Once you are 'on board', turn first to NewsWatcher on the starter kit disk. NewsWatcher is one of the 'clients' that enable you to access a 'host' at a site on the net. In this case, the client enables you to participate in newsgroups. Follow the instructions in the book and immediately join up to the newsgroups run by Demon, particularly the one called demon.ip.support.mac. There you will find discussions, which you can join, about the problems - of terminology, configuration and so on - you will be experiencing by now.

You can also learn about the newest software and other developments of interest to Mac users of the Internet.

One of the greatest difficulties in using the Net is the vast amount of linked, new vocabulary the novice must absorb. When you start to read literature about the Net, you quickly come across ftp, FAQ, ping, telnet, archie, gopher, host, domain, Bitnet, UUCP and URL (the most recent acronym I have come across: it stands for Universal Resource Locator). The writers of most beginners' guides try their best to explain everything as they come to it, but they soon tire of this and leap into a dense forest of technical jargon.

I sympathise with them. After getting the hang of using the new vocabulary, you quickly forget how little you knew just a few weeks before.

Another difficulty is that this whole field of worldwide communications via modem from home is evolving rapidly and continuously. It is new, unformed and changing so rapidly that books are rapidly out of date. When the automobile was new, drivers had to keep a mechanic or master the rudiments themselves. There was not yet a network of garages or road maps; there were not even signs outside towns to tell you where you were. So it is now with electronic communication.

The moral is that even if you can get on the Net by following my idiot's guide, you will still need your wits about you if you are to go further. You must be like one of those intrepid mechanic-drivers who pioneered the use of the car. There is an electronic service station on the horizon, however; once you are able to communicate with other users on the Net, you will be able to ask questions and get answers to the new dilemmas.

As to the other purposes for joining this global network, besides the hobby of making your computer turn fancy tricks, I keep thinking of what Henry David Thoreau wrote in the middle of the 19th century: 'We are in great haste to construct a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas; but Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate . . . (It is) as if the object were to talk fast and not to talk sensibly.' There will never be a primer available to resolve that conundrum.

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