Home Computer: Friendly Demon at the gateway to a bewitched world: Richard Davy is initiated into the secret rites of global information networks and travels twice across the Atlantic to check that his books are in stock at the local library

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The Independent Online
PEOPLE who spend too much time with computers seem to cross into a parallel world. They are charming and helpful but they have become enmeshed in magic.

I use computers, but do not understand them. It was with these qualifications I was asked to explore the outer reaches of 'Internet', or even just the inner reaches if I could find them.

Internet is a vast, global electronic network full of library catalogues, information on everything under the sun and computer buffs chattering away to each other day and night. It is the future and partly it works.

A random sample of information available includes Buddhist texts, digital images of the planets, biotechnology, agriculture, aboriginal studies, the Koran, molecular biology, cooking recipes from Stuttgart, oceanography, astronomy, correspondence courses, information on trees, a newsletter on feeding infants, the complete works of Shakespeare, the CIA World Factbook, Chinese classics, zymurgy - and a dictionary in which to look that up.

My first task was to consult the catalogue of the Bodleian library, which happens to be just down the road from where I live. But I was to do nothing as simple as getting on my bike. I must first gain access to the University of Maryland and through it back to Oxford, crossing the Atlantic twice to arrive a mile or so down the road.

The first step was to get in touch with some people in London called Demon Systems who are nice, but not of this world. They are guardians of one of the many 'gateways' into Internet. Pay them pounds 14.70 to sign on and pounds 11.75 a month and they give you a key in the form of a password and software. There are no more charges beyond that, except your telephone bill while connected to London or Warrington - even if you are exploring California all calls are charged at the same rate.

Demon said they would send me some written material. I sighed with relief. But when it arrived, much later than promised, it was largely useless. I had meanwhile tried to become a subscriber by telephone. A cheerful voice told me that they preferred this way because everything was changing so fast.

After a struggle at my end, a mass of stuff started churning down the telephone line into my computer. Included were many pages of rambling instructions which failed to tell me the only thing I actually wanted to know, which was which keys did I need to press to make the thing work.

When it does work, the software dials into the Demon system, inspects your password and then opens the gateway to Internet, allowing you to send messages, receive software, play games, explore data banks or gather news from a list of 'news groups' under categories that scroll endlessly down your screen. I never reached the end.

As you connect, Demon automatically collects any personal electronic mail that is waiting for you, plus news groups in which you have registered an interest, and delivers them to your machine to be read at your leisure - if you have any left.

But all that lay at the end of a long journey on which Giant Despair became my constant companion. Over several weeks - yes, weeks - I appealed frequently to Demon for telephone help and received it from a series of charming people, some of whom, however, groaned audibly when they discovered the depth of my ignorance. a man of monumental patience called Nick took me slowly through the processes.

Gradually the system began to work, but lines to Demon were often engaged, especially at pub closing time, providing insight into the lifestyle of computer addicts. Occasionally, I would gain access to Internet, only to wander in a small circle back to the entrance. The thing began to obsess me.

Eventually, feeling like a participant in an adventure training scheme lost on the moors, I sent a distress call to the editor of this page and asked to be lifted out by helicopter.

After metaphorical blankets and hot toddy had been provided down the telephone, the friendly old Oxford library system suddenly appeared on my screen, apparently in the hands of a being from outer space called Starmaster. But just as I was about to locate my own works in the catalogue - why else go to all this trouble - the whole computer seized up and had to be restarted.

I then turned to the Demon people for rescue. After half an hour of telephonic diagnosis we discovered that the fault lay not in Demon, but in my communications hardware and the configuration of my modem - on which subject, however, their instructions were remarkably vague.

Some days later, to my amazement, as if instructed to abseil down a cliff, I found myself wielding a screwdriver and installing a new serial port - the socket which allows data communications equipment to be attached to a computer - and a new cable to the modem, the hardware which translates computer data into a form that can be transmitted by telephone. At last, no hardware errors.

I set off again through Internet. I asked for a news group promising jokes in German, only to find it empty. Then I tried the University of Maryland, but got lost in a maze of menus. I even asked for White House press conferences - but they were two weeks old and stopped after a few paragraphs.

Then I tried the Colorado Association of Research Libraries, friendly Carl, but in that vast wilderness even my new communications equipment slowed to a painful crawl. I lost patience and switched off.

Feeling an article coming on, I decided I had better test my electronic communications with the Independent. No go. The new system does not recognise it and paralyses the entire computer. I tell it about my extra serial port and try 'reconfiguring' things - reconnecting and resetting equipment in various ways - without success. Groaning, I plug the modem back into the old port and the Independent pops up on the screen. Sighs of relief. But now I cannot reach Internet without switching the plug again. I feel myself grinding to a halt. Will I continue my subscription to Demon? I don't know yet.

If you want to do research or pursue some other practical aim, Internet may be useful. But to get the best out of it you need a faster computer than mine, with its ancient 286 central processor - two generations behind the current state-of-the-art 486.

Even then you will probably need to seek out a tame computer expert to help. Alternatively Demon could produce some basic instructions for beginners. They should grab someone from a bus queue, put him or her in front of a computer and write down all the instructions they require to make the thing work. Then print these on paper and send them to new customers. The Demon people are lovely, but they have been bewitched.

Oh yes, and there is a 376-page book called The Whole Internet User's Guide and Catalogue by Ed Krol. It tells you more than you want to know and in parts it is comprehensible. I do not think I can face trying to find it in the Bodleian.


System: Various


Hardware: PC286 (minimum) or similarly powered non-PC format machine; modem; telephone socket

Software: Demon systems

Publisher: Demon systems 081 343-3881

Availability: from the publisher

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