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Published in The National on June 23, 2000

Network of global scale

The Internet is, literally, a worldwide phenomenon. Tok IT endeavours to explain this wonder of human ingenuity.

By Daniel Lam
The world
today has indeed shrunk. People can get from one place to another in less time than it would 50 years ago.

Technological advancements are such that one can easily have a conversation with people half the world away, something Alexander Graham Bell may have only dreamed of when he invented the telephone.


What is the Internet?
The Internet as we know it today is the global network of computers that are linked ("online"). If you can imagine a Local Area Network, which is essentially two or more computers in the same building linked via a server or a hub, then the Internet is really just many, many times bigger (we are talking millions of computers here).


What is the World Wide Web?
The World Wide Web (WWW) is NOT the Internet. And the Internet is NOT the World Wide Web.

The WWW is a collection of graphical documents available on computers around the world called servers.

A server is a computer that makes information available and delivers it upon request, like a waiter delivering food in a restaurant.

The WWW is not the physical wires and networks that make up the Internet. It is just a collection of documents that are viewed "online" with a browser. The Internet is the massive network that enables you to "access" the WWW.

The WWW is where you find information about anything and everything - as long as it was "posted" on the WWW by whoever concerned.


Newsgroups
Also referred to as Usenet. Actually, newsgroups do not contain "news" at all. They are discussion groups sorted out according to subject matter.

You may find lots of useful information from other like-minded individuals out there - experts and otherwise - but you have to know where to look first.

Once you have found an appropriate newsgroup for your interest, you may choose from among the list of "messages" or "postings" put up there and/or contribute your say.

This is a great way to make friends who share your interests even though they are worlds away.


Electronic Mail (e-mail)
The transmission of computer-readable messages from one user to another user's electronic mailbox. You can send not only text messages to anyone with an Internet address, but also photos and files containing both texts and graphics.

Nowadays you can even send voice messages via e-mail.

There is also Internet Relay Chat (IRC) whereby you "chat" in real-time ("live") either by typing out your words or speaking through a microphone attached to your PC.

In between e-mail and real-time live chatting, you have "instant messaging" - where your "message" is sent and received instantly, but in "parcel's" of text which get sent only when you click the "send" button.


Online conferencing, shopping and gaming
With widespread expansion of businesses outside of their home countries comes the need for efficient and cost-effective telecommunications.

The Internet makes communication so much so much faster, cheaper and effective than even the telephone.

Besides e-mail, businesses now have the option of teleconferencing where corporate personnel hold a meeting of several individuals located in different places.

No more expensive airfares to get people together, no more boardrooms, no more logistical delays. That's efficient decision-making in a whole new perspective!

For increasingly many people, especially in developed countries, the Internet has revolutionised shopping.

Imagine having your purchases sent to your doorstep with just a few clicks of the mouse. No more dressing up to go out, no more braving traffic jams, no more driving round and round looking for a parking lot, no more touching cash, no more going from shop to shop comparing prices or searching for a hard-to-find item.

For some people, the draw of the Internet lies also in online gaming - where you play games "live" (say, chess) with other players located at another PC elsewhere.

You could find yourself playing chess with strangers in Russia, Africa, America, Switzerland, Egypt, China ... et cetera all at the same time!!

These are so far the most common uses of the Internet in today's world. Tok IT will discuss them in greater detail next week.


In the beginning....
Almost 40 years ago, when computers started making headway in terms of computing power and usability, several scientists began visualising a method of allowing computers to "share" information.

At that time, the uses of computers were mainly for scientific research and military applications.

Way back in 1962 Joseph C.R. Licklider of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) postulated a global network of computers.

The whole idea then was that once the computers are linked, scientific information could freely shared.

Later that year he joined the US Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (Darpa) to develop this global network.

Then MIT's Leonard Kleinrock developed the theory of packet switching (see sidebar), which formed the basis of Internet connections.

In 1965 Lawrence Roberts, also of MIT, connected a Massachusetts computer with another in California over telephone lines. The experiment was a success, and confirmed Kleinrock's theory.

Roberts moved over to Darpa in 1966 and developed his plan for Arpanet.

Arpanet was what the Internet was known as at the time.

Under a contract by the renamed Advanced Research Projects Agency (Arpa, hence Arpanet), Arpanet was brought online in December 1969.

It linked four major computers located at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), Stanford Research Institute, University of California, Santa Barbara and the University of Utah.

In June 1970, other universities including MIT and Harvard University joined Arpanet. As time passed, more institutions and organisations came in.


Born out of fear
The Internet was designed mainly to provide a communications network that could withstand a nuclear strike. An exaggeration, perhaps, but that was the whole idea.

If one or more sites were destroyed, which meant a direct route for a message was unavailable, routers would direct traffic around the network via alternate routes.

The Arpanet was at first used by computer experts, scientists, engineers and librarians. It was not user-friendly.

Since the personal computer (PC) as we know it was unavailable at the time, anyone who used the Internet need to be trained on how to use the complex system.

Computing and the Arpanet then were definitely not meant for fun.

 

Sidebar: Harnessing chaos

Next: The World Wide Web


 

 

 

Published in The National on June 23, 2000

Harnessing chaos

By Daniel Lam
Paul Baran of the RAND Corporation, an American Cold War think-tank, came up with the RAND proposal in 1964.

The RAND proposal has to do with the plans for what would soon become the Internet as we know it.

In the first place, the network would "have no central authority". Furthermore, it would be "designed from the beginning to operate while in tatters".

The principles were simple. The network itself would be assumed to be unreliable at all times. It would be designed from the get-go to transcend its own unreliability.

All the nodes in the network would be equal in status to all other nodes, each node with its own authority to originate, pass, and receive messages.

The messages themselves would be divided into packets, each packet separately addressed.

Each packet would begin at some specified source node, and end at some other specified destination node. Each packet would wind its way through the network on an individual basis.

Basically, the packet would be tossed like a hot potato from node to node to node, more or less in the direction of its destination, until it ended up in the proper place.

The particular route that the packet took would be unimportant. Only final results would count.

If big pieces of the network had been blown away, that simply wouldn't matter; the packets would still stay airborne, literally flying wildly across the field by whatever nodes happened to survive.

This rather haphazard delivery system might be "inefficient" in the usual sense (especially compared to, say, the telephone system) - but it would be extremely rugged.

After all, how do you deal a crippling blow to something that cannot be crippled?


 

 

 

Published in The National on June 30, 2000

The World Wide Web

Tok IT continues on its introduction on the Internet.

By Daniel Lam
Last
week we learnt that the Internet started out as a military-funded project, linking computers with the idea that a decentralised "network" would be impervious to attack.

What began with four computers, located at four US universities, has now expanded into millions of computers, worldwide.

As usual, things were not always problem free.


What's that gibberish?
Linking one computer with another was not a problem at first, since at the time the computers were based in the US. But as the circle of linked computers grew, the fact that some computers are better than others became a problem.

Arpa (Advanced Research Projects Agency) developed the Network Control Protocol (NCP), a standard to which all computers linked to the Arpanet had to adhere to.

That means the computers had to "speak" the same language. With the NCP, any computer that could keep up with the protocol could be a member of the Arpanet.

Unfortunately, because the NCP was not exactly an open (that is, freely available) code, Arpanet was very much an elitist circle.

It probably didn't help that the military masters had in mind a network for military purposes.


All about protocol (aka the Death of Arpanet)
As time passed, the NCP was superceded by a superior protocol, known as TCP/IP.

TCP, or "Transmission Control Protocol", converts messages into streams of packets at the source, then reassembles them into messages at the destination.

IP, or "Internet Protocol", handles the addressing, seeing to it that packets are routed across multiple nodes and even across multiple networks with multiple standards - not only Arpa's pioneering NCP standard, but others like Ethernet, FDDI, and X.25.

As early as 1977, TCP/IP was being used by other networks to link to Arpanet.

Arpanet itself remained fairly tightly controlled, at least until 1983, when its military segment broke off and became MILNET. But TCP/IP was the thread that linked them all.

Arpanet, though it was growing, became a smaller and smaller neighbourhood amid the vastly growing galaxy of other linked machines.

In 1990, a (happy?) victim of its success, Arpanet was decommissioned and its network joined the rest of the gang in the Internet.


One big, happy family
As the 1970s and 1980s advanced, many very different social groups found themselves in possession of powerful computers.

It was fairly easy to link these computers to the growing network of networks. As the use of TCP/IP became more common, entire other networks fell into the digital embrace of the Internet, and messily adhered.

Since the software called TCP/IP was public-domain, and the basic technology was decentralised and rather anarchic by its very nature, it was difficult to stop people from simply "crashing the party" and linking up somewhere-or-other.

In fact, nobody "wanted" to stop these gatecrashers from joining this branching complex of networks, which then came to be known as the "Internet".

After all, connecting to the Internet cost the taxpayer little or nothing, since each node was independent, and had to handle its own financing and its own technical requirements. Hence the more the merrier.

Like the phone network, the computer network became steadily more "valuable" as it embraced larger and larger territories of people and resources.

Why so? Well, a fax machine remains a novelty until there are thousands or more in use. That is when fax machines truly change the way we live and work - making them "invaluable" in modern living.


The World Wide Web (WWW)
Now the World Wide Web is relatively young. It started in 1989 when Peter Deutsch and his team at McGill University in Montreal created an archiver program for FTP (file transfer protocol) sites, which they named Archie.

This software would periodically reach out to all known openly available FTP sites, list their files, and build a searchable index of the software. The commands to search Archie were Unix commands, and it took some knowledge of Unix to use it to its full capability.

In 1991, the first really friendly interface to the Internet was developed at the University of Minnesota.

It stemmed from a debate at the university. The university had wanted to develop a simple menu system to access files and information on campus through their Local Area Network. A debate followed between mainframe adherents and those who believed in smaller systems with client-server architecture.

The mainframe adherents "won" the debate initially, but since the client-server advocates said they could put up a prototype very quickly, they were given the go-ahead to do a demonstration system.

The demonstration system was called a "Gopher" after the university's mascot - the golden gopher.

The programming team, led by Mark MaCahill, described Gopher as "the first Internet application my mum can use".

The Gopher proved to be very prolific, and within a few years there were over 10,000 Gophers around the world. It takes no knowledge of computer architecture to use.

In a Gopher system, you type or click on a number to select the menu selection you want (somewhat like what we are familiar with today).

Gopher's usability was enhanced much more when the University of Nevada at Reno developed the VERONICA searchable index of Gopher menus. It was purported to be an acronym for "Very Easy Rodent-Oriented Netwide Index to Computerised Archives".

It searched Gopher menus around the world, collecting links and retrieving them for the index. It was so popular that it was very hard to connect to, even though a number of other VERONICA sites were developed to ease the load.

Similar indexing software was developed for single sites, called JUGHEAD (Jonzy's Universal Gopher Hierarchy Excavation And Display).

Deutsch, who developed Archie, always insisted that Archie was short for Archiver, and had nothing to do with the comic strip. He expressed disgust when VERONICA and JUGHEAD appeared.

Also in 1991, Tim Berners-Lee of Switzerland posted the first computer code of the World Wide Web in a relatively innocuous newsgroup, "alt.hypertext".

The ability to combine words, pictures, and sounds on Web pages excited many computer programmers who saw the potential for publishing information on the Internet in a way that can be as easy as using a word processor.

Marc Andreesen and a group of student programmers at the National Centre for Supercomputing Applications, located on the campus of University of Illinois then moved to develop a graphical browser for the World Wide Web, called Mosaic.

In 1993, Mosaic, the first graphics-based Web browser, became available.

One year later Andreesen and friend Jim Clark formed Netscape Communications Corp.

In 1995 James Gosling and a team of programmers at Sun Microsystems released an Internet programming language called Java, which radically altered the way applications and information can be retrieved, displayed, and used over the Internet.

Thus the World Wide Web, as we know it today, was born.


You've got mail!
You have seen it in the movies. You may have even tried it yourself. Far faster than ordinary mail (now known as snail mail), and cheaper than a telephone call if the destination lies overseas.

Yes, we are talking e-mail (electronic mail).

It started way back in 1972 when a Ray Tomlinson adapted what came to be known as electronic mail (e-mail!) for Arpanet.

Soon the users of Arpanet were more inclined to use the network for communicating with one another rather than just for exchanging scientific information. This turned Arpanet into a virtual post office.

When the "world" outside of Arpanet caught on to e-mail, there was no looking back.

Today, hundreds of millions of people all over the world use e-mail each day as a means of communication.

Next: Discovering e-mail


 

 

 

Published in The National on July 7, 2000

Discovering e-mail

One of the main, and most practical, uses for the Internet is electronic mail (now just plain e-mail). Tok IT managed to muscle a regular e-mailer to recount her introduction to e-mail.

By Lena Liew
I FIRST came across "electronic mail" (e-mail) way back in 1990. My high school classmate Jennifer had returned on vacation from university studies in Britain.

When she announced that she was engaged to a Hong Kongite she had met at university, I asked her how she was going to survive one year of separation from her fiance, who had graduated a year ahead of her and gone back to Hong Kong to start work.

Aside from the talk about the one year separation being God's trial of their love, Jennifer told me of keeping in touch with her fiance easily and quickly NOT through costly international phone calls.

Sketchily, she explained that her university offered an "electronic postal system" whereby she has an "e-mail account" which served as her personal P.O. Box at her university's "server", which in turn served as a sort of post office.

On his end in Hong Kong, her fiance would subscribe to an Internet Service Provider (ISP) for a certain monthly fee. This meant he could "access the internet" and have his own e-mail account with the ISP.

The ISP was then like a post box for her fiance, as long as he could obtain the use of a Internet-capable PC (which he soon bought for himself so that he could access the Internet anytime in the privacy of his own room).

All they had to do was remember each other's "e-mail address" and pay a small fee for the service at their respective ends. And then write or type in their mushy sweet nothings on a PC that was "configured to access the Internet".

Twice a day, Jennifer would write to her hubby-to-be. Each time, with a click of the mouse, her message of love and longing would zip through the hundreds and thousands of kilometres separating them in mere seconds.

Then he would reply the same way. Most times, they would arrange to "chat" - which meant a few hours spent in front of their PCs e-mailing one another, back and forth.

Although it was less interactive than talking with him over the phone (which she did when she missed the sound of his voice), it certainly was a far faster and cheaper way to communicate internationally.

This little lecture meant little to me at the time and was easily filed away at the far recesses of my mind. I was far more thrilled with Jennifer getting married so young ... and being the first among us friends to get married.

After all, I never dared to make expensive overseas phone calls; and I had no reason at that point in my life to communicate any faster or easier, or cheaper, than the faithful old postal system allowed me to.

Five years later, I left home to pursue further studies more than 250km away in the capital city. I missed my sister terribly ... and outstation phone calls home once a week soon wiped out my bank account.

The postal system proved frustrating as well because by the time I got a reply from home, I would have solved the problem myself or forgotten what it was that the reply was answering to!

It was then that a fellow outstation student, Jasmine, "re-introduced" me to the Internet and e-mail - at a cybercafé near our college.

Jasmine left a boyfriend back home, so it was naturally a priority for her to find a cheaper alternative to outstation phone calls.

As pricey as it was then, the equivalent of K4 per hour of Internet access at a cybercafé still beat an outstation call costing the equivalent of K48 for the same duration.

On our first visit to the cybercafé, Jasmine helped me register with Hotmail ("http://www.hotmail.com"), a free e-mail service. As a backup, I registered also with Yahoo Mail (http://www.yahoo.com), another free e-mail service.

Free e-mail services meant I didn't have to pay any subscription fee for an e-mail account. In return, I allowed myself to be distracted by the dozens and dozens of very attractive advertisements posted with Hotmail or Yahoo or the countless other free e-mail service providers.

I soon found myself going broke again because I was spending so much time at the cybercafé, discovering the Internet and the World Wide Web, and getting distracted into clicking on this and that and thus "surfing the web"!

I was assured that no one could go into my e-mail account because as part of my registration, I gave a password which appeared as "********". Only if the "username" and "password" matched would Hotmail or Yahoo Mail display my e-mail account.

If I suspected that someone might have somehow uncovered my password, I could choose to change on password through the Hotmail or Yahoo Mail website. I believed that that meant my secret password was just between me and the Hotmail or Yahoo server.

Among my earliest discoveries was the free web subscriptions offered by Hotmail.

With fervour I signed up for everything - daily news and entertainment, healthcare and medical features, social and women's issues, business and finance, culture and lifestyle, fitness and beauty tips, travel and adventure, science and the environment ...etc.

That meant my "Inbox" (somewhat like an in-tray) was full everyday, with stuff that I simply could not finish reading even if I didn't eat, sleep or go to the toilet!

I was soon forced to "unsubscribe" from most of the online publications because Hotmail kept displaying the warning that my Inbox had "exceeded its 3MB (megabyte) limit" of storage space (Free e-mail service usually allows you only a limited amount of space to store your stuff).

When I began receiving e-mails with "attachments" - usually involving laid-out pictures and graphics - I began to experiment with writing my letters in more sophisticated fonts and colours and then sending them as attachments.

That way the design and layout is displayed intact, instead of being reduced to the most basic of typefonts for the purpose of minimising the kilobytes of space required.

When some photos I "snail-mailed" home to my family went missing in transit, I embarked on an experiment to "scan" the photos and e-mail them.

On the receiving end, the photographs would be displayed "on-screen"; or the receiver could print them out if he/she had a colour printer.

On my birthday, Jasmine sent me an "e-card". By clicking on a "link" (usually a hypertext markup language, or HTML, link that leads to another web page), an animated birthday card slowly appeared in full colour, followed by a personal message and an invitation for me to return the gesture, free of charge, by clicking on the next button.

I soon found myself in "http://www.bluemountain.com" where there was a wide selection of e-cards to choose from in celebration of every occasion imaginable.

Excited with a whole new "cyberworld" that had just opened up to me, I phoned home and told my sister to get herself to the nearest cybercafé and register with Hotmail and Yahoo Mail. She had no PC at home then.

A cybercafé is basically a computer lab with, say, a dozen PCs - like you would find in schools and colleges.

The difference is that drinks and snacks are sold like in a restaurant ... so that customers can enjoy themselves as they use the e-mail facilities, "surf the Net", and/or play online games with one another. Usually, there is also a television showing music videos ... for customers to while away the time while waiting their turn to use the PCs.

Remember, Internet access was not commonly available where I lived five years ago.

Firstly, PCs were expensive equipment found only in offices, for professional work. People who had PCs for their personal use at home were either IT professionals or well-do-to families. By the same measure, Internet access was also expensive and thus limited to a minority of people.

Today, there are dozens of cybercafés near my former college; compared to just one five years ago. And the rates charged have dropped to the equivalent of K1.60 per hour.

Practically every university or private college offers access now; even medium-sized businesses can't do without PCs and Internet access. The number of ISPs have also grown.

With PCs costing a quarter of what they cost five years ago, many individuals and families have found it affordable and worthwhile having a PC and Internet access in the comfort and privacy of their home.

See how a technological advancement that began as an exclusive application for the purpose of exchanging scientific information has been "reduced" to exchange the simplest of life's pleasures - love and friendship.


Next week: Discovering Online Chat


 

 

 

Published in The National on July 14, 2000

Making virtual friends

By Lena Liew
I used to work in a government agency where many of my colleagues stayed on at the office well after working hours. And I'm talking about finishing work at 4pm and staying back till 10pm or even midnight.

No, they were not extra-hardworking civil servants clocking paid overtime. They were just taking their liberties with the office Internet facilities to chat online.

They were obviously addicts - I have never known civil servants to voluntarily stay back at the office without overtime pay EVERY NIGHT.

And possessive too, they were. On the rare occasions that I found one Internet terminal unoccupied and tried to check my e-mail account, I would "overhear" snide remarks like: "Hey! People from other sections have no right to use these terminals you know."

I guess I wasn't piqued enough by this phenomenon to explore online chatting for myself because I had already formed a bad impression of the activity from my regular visits to check my e-mail at cybercafés.

Now, since the PCs are almost always lined up against the wall in a cybercafé, people walking past behind the Internet users can see the display on the monitor screens. And inevitably you'll see "chat windows" saying things like: "Are you a boy or girl?" or "Do you like sex?" or "Want to meet?".

As if online chat was a cheaper, free-for-all alternative to the sex trade. I have better things to do, I thought.

Along the way, however, I began to read about or come across people who say they have gained genuine quality friendships and even real love and romance from online chatting. A colleague who is a regular "chatter" put the figure at one in 20, with chances being higher in chat rooms on specific interests.

Each time he speaks of his visit last year to see his "chat mate" in the United States, this colleague's eyes would sparkle with fondness for the online friend with whom he exchanged poetry for feedback and encouragement.

A lady friend who used to feel fat, ugly and thus undesirable, finally found love online with someone half a world away who fell for her personality because he never knew what she looked like. Online chat allowed her to present the wonderful person she was inside of that ugly body.

Another friend who has a fetish for bondage sex says he finds comfort and companionship among people who share an interest in what he is ashamed to reveal in his everyday life. This fellow says it gives his tortured soul a kind of release, and enables him to stay the nice, mild-mannered "mummy's boy" that people know him to be. After all, online chatting is definitely safer than submitting oneself to the real dangers of getting physically abused.

It was only last year that I "re-acquainted" myself with online chatting. As with e-mail, it was for the purpose of cutting down on long-distance phone charges to my sister. It was she who sent me an "invitation" though my e-mail account to register with ICQ (I seek you!) at its website (http://web.icq.com) ... free of charge.

Unfortunately, there was a lot of waiting around for a response; and we kept getting cut off every few minutes. Frustrated, we soon gave up.

Nevertheless, I learnt that ICQ offers each member the following ways to communicate:

    • Real time chat - two or more people "talking" by typing. Your words will appear almost immediately, word-for-word ... no "send" button involved;
    • Instant messaging - sending a short message only after you click the send button;
    • Voice chat - just like real time chat but the chatting parties are talking ... as long as the PCs have a microphone and speakers;
    • Paging service - similar to the paging service in the real world;
    • Message Board - Just like the notice board in school or at the office;
    • E-mail; and
    • E-cards; plus many other features.

With my registration came an ICQ identification number called a UIN (Universal Internet Number). I chose to use a "nickname" and gave minimal personal information.

By trial and error, helped by the "guided tour" given on the website, I learnt to "invite" my regular e-mail buddies to register with ICQ, and then to "add" them to my "contact list".

Subsequently, my sister and I made countless appointments to chat but the chat sessions failed to go smoothly.

In between, I started going into "random chat", which means I am open to be "matched" by ICQ to any other ICQ member online anywhere in the world at that time.

Indeed, nine out of 10 people who "turned up" said very mundane things, or very quickly didn't want to talk to me anymore (even though I said I was female aged 24!). The 10th person would then be vulgar or foulmouthed!

Slowly, slowly, I got the hang of it and learned a thing or two from the strangers who were polite enough.

However, being someone who does not makes friends easily, I soon got fed up with the transient and superficial level of interaction.

I guess it takes lots of luck to find real friendship in the vast virtual world.