On the Boards
Why limit use of your computer to sequencing and librarian functions? Roly Pickering explains what bulletin boards are, how you get onto them and what they can do for you.
Bulletin boards are often regarded as a "computer hackers club" where outsiders are unwelcome - but they're open to computer users everywhere and have a lot to offer.
REMEMBER THE FIRST synthesiser you ever owned? Remember how you tried every trick you could to get the most out of it? Then you bought a computer and the game began all over again? Well, if you've got a phone, another informative and useful application is only an arm's length away.
It's a bulletin board - the rather dated name given to a computer that has a program running on it which allows other computers to talk to it. It does it not by a MIDI lead, but over telephone lines. But it's unusual to find a BB that's just an electronic notice board; most, if not all, have games and huge amounts of software for you to download. Providing of course that you have the appropriate privileges. The person who runs that computer or maintains it is known as the sysop - or System Operator - who decides if you get in, how long you stay, and what you can or cannot do while you're there. He also determines your level of privilege, but as boards rely on callers as their life blood, it's as much in their interest to get you to call back, as it is in yours to show that you won't abuse the system.
In general there are two types of board: free and commercial. A free BB costs you the price of the call while the commercial ones require you to pay some sort of subscription. Subscriptions vary from a nominal annual fee to hundreds of pounds with a charge for every character that you access on top of that. If your day is incomplete without the closing price of Widgets on the Hong Kong stock exchange, there's a commercial service somewhere that will help.
The first boards were run by hackers who used them to spread information thoughout the land. The "hacker" can still be found on bulletin boards, but the chances are that he or she will be in a closed user group (CUG) that's invisible to the casual caller. Once you're known by the sysop, access may be given to these CUG's if that's your interest.
Today's bulletin boards are specially written pieces of software that can connect your Atari to the hard drive of a PC at the other end of the country which is storing a program on it, that it got from a board in America the night before while the sysop and you were sleeping. It will transfer messages between you and another caller living in Australia or Japan, just as if it was down the road.
YOU'RE GOING TO need a computer - anything from a Psion Organiser to a Mac will do. If you're using it for games as well as music (or is that music as well as games?), you probably have an Atari, Apple, Amiga or IBM, all of which are catered for by various boards. There are sequencers, editors and utilities available via the boards, and new releases of music software demos can also be found in the files.
You'll also need a phone. From tests carried out by users who have access to both BT and Mercury networks, the preliminary results seem to indicate that Mercury is cheaper and clearer on long distance boards and Telecom better on local calls.
To connect phone to computer you need a modem. You'll also need communications software to push the data around and ensure that it gets to the right place at the right time. Normally a computer talks to the outside world via an RS232 serial port. The next piece of hardware down the line is a modem (MODulator/DEModulator) which converts your computer's operating methods into a language different computers understand - well, that's the plan.
Modems may have various bells and whistles like auto-dial and auto answer facilities. Error correction is used to minimise the effect of poor phone lines.
This can tend to slow down the transfer of data, as it has to check what has been sent and if it's arrived OK. The latest modems also have the ability to "talk" at various speeds. Generally, the more complicated the modem, the less buttons and dials it has, as most of the decisions are made in software.
THE SPEED AT which the computers will talk to each other is measured in BAUD. This is how quickly the characters can be pushed down the line. It may also be shown as Bits Per Second - each character or letter that appears on the screen takes 11 bits to get it there. The various comms standards go something like this...
V21 is not the German's answer to Basil Fawlty, but the slowest commonly used format - 300 Baud full duplex. Although it's slow, it's the most reliable and until Telecom upgrade the power behind the button to System X, V21 is the way to get around the worst telephone lines that litter the country. A blip of noise occurring at this speed will show up onscreen as a couple of foreign or strange symbols. When V21 is working at full speed you send and receive just over 27 cps; (Characters Per Second).
V22 isn't the next fastest, but the one after - 1200/1200 baud. Here life is much easier. At these speeds downloading software over the phone is far more economically viable - V22 transmits at 110 cps. But that blip of noise will now put four times as many spurious characters onto the screen.
V23 follows the tradition of finding out what everyone else uses and then doing something completely different. V23 receives at 1200, 109cps, but transmits at a narcoleptic 75 cps (you can type quicker with two fingers). Despite being used by some of the larger commercial services about, V23 is slowly falling out of favour. Some American comms software ignores split rates, only allowing you to use the same speed for transmit and receive.
V22bis; at 2400/2400 baud this gets big programs across very quickly - at a staggering 218cps, or 1K in under ten seconds. A year ago anything using faster speeds than this would have been a rarity, but as the technology advances and the prices come down, more boards are using modems capable of handling these speeds. V22bis is now considered to be the most desirable of the various available.
V29/V32 are the half and full duplex versions of 9600/9600. They're fast, with prices to match. They do, however, shift 872cps which can be a lot of software, but are only viable for very good or digitised lines.
Other parameters you will need to set, either on the modem or in software, are data, parity and stop bits. The most common arrangement seen is "8n1" - 8 Data/No Parity/1 Stop bit. Again, vast quantities of obscure foreign symbols indicate a problem. The Viewdata systems use 7 Data/Even Parity/1 Stop bit.
ALWAYS BE POLITE. Any user depositing slanderous, obscene or libellous messages on boards will find further access to that board denied. Sysops talk to each other, and most boards have some simple questions for you to answer before they let you in. Telecom could also prosecute you for sending obscene matter across the phone lines, if they really wanted to. Good manners are still found on BB's - it's still a bit like CB before legalisation.
Remember that somewhere there's a phone line and an expensive computer system being used for nothing but your convenience. On top of the cost of a computer and hard drives, the sysops are also renting the phone lines, so if you thought the service was worthwhile, stick your money where your modem is and send them some. Thank the sysop for the use of the system. Contribute - because BB's rely on users to keep them alive. Nothing harms a board like a user who logs on, grabs all the new programs, looks at the messages and goes.
THE SKY'S THE limit, or rather the bill is the limit. If you get the urge to ring one of the many boards in the USA, you may well find that, as the American love of the British extends into boards, full privileges may be given to you almost on arrival. It's not cheap, but usually well worth the effort. A little closer to home are the Tower-Net boards. This is a British piece of software renowned for being user-friendly - four letters will get you around most of the system.
<S> Save; Store the message you have sent.
Most boards work along the same lines, with all boards having some form of help available, either in the way of typing "HELP" followed by a return, or in a file explaining the rules of the board, what commands do what, and how to get the most from the system.
There are many other types of board available, GT Power, FoReM, Fido, WildCat and Opus to name a few. Each has its own flavour in the way that it works, stores and displays the messages.
ONCE YOU'VE SIGNED on to your first board, find the Mail system and let the sysop know who you are, what your interests are and the sort of computer you have (if the system hasn't asked you already). Explore the system, but be warned, there are some very large systems out there. At some point you should fall upon an option called "Chat mode" or "Page the Sysop". Use with care, as some Sysops prefer to "Chat" more than others.
MIDI as MIDI is a convention of its own already. It's easy to move great lumps of MIDI data around across the phone lines with no chokes, glitches or errors. A modem just looks like a long MIDI lead - but don't try to play live using it unless you are of stout constitution or have the urge to live very dangerously.
Experts, especially computer experts, abound on bulletin boards (which may have something to do with the way University communities attract modems). Should you need to know how to write a System Exclusive dump or where you can find a copy of the latest hit from the Silicon Symphony Orchestra, there's usually someone on a Bulletin board who knows.
A multi-user board is one that has more than one phone line into it, so that you can chat to other users or play multiuser games. The MUD's or MUG's tend to be large, rather bloody affairs, set either in dank dungeons or in alien-infested deepest space and fraught with devilish puzzles that often lead to a hideous death.
The level of success and treasure you gain is in direct proportion to the amount of money you spend on the phone. Games can be an expensive way of enjoying yourself, as the cost of the call adds to the pressure of your "life and death" decisions.
All the files that you see on a board, or anywhere else for that matter, that are marked "ARC" have been "ARChived", which is another way of saying that they have been compressed by up to 45%. The programs will not run in this form; they need to be "UN-ARChived" or "Restored" to their full size again. Bulletin boards have the necessary software available to do this.
Various methods are available to allow you to download or upload software; you can transfer via XMODEM, YMODEM, JMODEM, ZMODEM, and KERMIT. All have their advantages, and it's the method of error-checking that makes the difference - help files are the first place to look for more information. If you have some software to pass on to the BB or a large program that you want from the board, most sysops will gladly send it to you on receipt of a blank disk and return postage.
Although boards are not libraries, updates to Public Domain and Shareware do get transferred more via electronic means than by any other. This may be where you get your modem to pay for itself - the word processor this article was written on and the communications package it was transferred with, are from American BBs. The editor I have for my DX7 is a French one, my sequencer Canadian and my disks are formatted and catalogued with a program written by a German living in Switzerland. All are Public Domain or Shareware programs. Up-to-the-minute advice on any viruses, what programs are suspected of carrying them and the best place to get help and get the damage repaired if the worst does happen can also be obtained from BBs.
Social occasions are sometimes organised by the users of the boards so that you can meet and chat to the people whose computer alter egos you communicate with. Beware however, there is not a pub called "The Fiasco" anywhere in Kew.
MONEY HAS TO be the dark cloud over the bulletin board. Telecom do not give discounts to modem users, so you pay the same as if you were talking on the phone. Consequently, they do take some stick on the BB networks, and Telecom employees that use BBs tend not to let on. To call a local BB and spend about an hour in it at cheap rate will cost you 50-60p. If you use it for an hour a day, you may see an increase in a quarterly bill of about fifty quid.
A V21/V23 modem can be found secondhand for a similar amount. An acoustic coupler, the oldest type of modem, used two rubber cups that you press over the phone. These can be traced for £20 or less in the small ads, but they're not the bargains that they might first appear to be. It's the speed of the data that determines how much information you transfer in a given time. The higher the speed and the initial expense, the lower the time used to transfer the same amount of information. This point is best illustrated by comparing the times needed to download a 100K program and adding 10% to the total to allow for errors and line noise.
|V21||300/300||about 68 mins|
|V23||1200/75||17 mins plus|
|V22||1200/1200||about 17 mins|
|V22bis||2400/2400||about 10 mins|
|V29/32||9600/9600||about 2.5 mins|
THERE ARE COMPILATIONS and plugs for other boards on every board, but to start you in the right direction here are only a few of the thousands of boards available.
Crystal Tower: (Contact Details). Sysop: CG
Music Lair (IMB): (Contact Details). Sysop: Mark Shasby.
The Village: (Contact Details). Sysop: Martin Wybold.
Power Tower: (Contact Details). Sysop: Jim Bates.
Micromola: (Contact Details). Sysop: Tom Goodfellow.
Applecrackers: (Contact Details). Sysop: Mike Jones.
The boards listed here are all run by sysops who are good at what they do and who are more tolerant than some to the "newer" user. All have general interest areas under one name or another, with other specialist areas such as Virus, Comms, Apple systems, Atari systems, IBM clones, Amigas, Music, Mail and Hackers. All are catered for to a greater or lesser extent. The Lair is the odd one out, in that it is an "Independent Music Board" that has a general interest side to it. It's also linked via a network to the USA and this enables you to chat to and exchange software and ideas with, some very knowledgeable musicians across the pond.
Dial with care but dial anywhere.
Feature by Roly Pickering
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