your fans


close encounters



...and the same to you, you're probably thinking. Well, at least they're not four-letter words!

E-mail is wonderful: contact all over the world at the press of a key. But wait, there's more -- there's direct contact.

People on BBS (bulletin board systems) and those with terminal programs (ZTerm etc) have been doing it for ages, but now it's well established on the Internet, and has really excellent user interface

(read: it works all over the place, I like it and I find it easy to use, even on my fuzzier days).


Internet Relay Chat

IRC is Internet Relay Chat, and works rather like a tree diagram, where different twigs can talk to each other, relayed through branches or even the trunk.

(You only need to remember this analogy when you get 'link breakage', where a branch has lost contact temporarily, leaving one whole group of twigs etc. isolated until the problem is fixed.
It will only ever be temporary: all the branches can link together again.)


starting from your end

If you already have an Internet account, you know you have an ISP (Internet Service Provider).
Your computer uses communications software (usually TCP/IP) to connect via its own little telephone, your modem (which is where you are), along a phone line to one of their modems (which is where the ISP is) and thus get onto their server, which is a mammoth HDD (hard disk drive) with the amount of RAM (Random Access Memory) that we can only salivate about, and various other bits and pieces that help it run a 24-hour Internet connection, at phenomenal speed (nowadays most of them join on from there via faster technology
[see the FAQ for information on data-transfer]
to an even bigger server down the line somewhere.


closer is faster

So you know that when you connect to your ISP, you can get your mail (which is waiting on their server) pretty fast;
you can get the newsgroups they subscribe to (also waiting on their server) pretty well;
you can get their home page and website and anything else based there (also on their server) pretty fast,
and you can also quite quickly call up commonly-used pages or pages you have used recently, even though they might be based elsewhere, because your ISP has cannily saved them on its proxy server (to save Telstra/satellite charges down the line ;-).


saving travel time

The proxy server works like the cache in your browser (Netscape, Internet Explorer) to save time by storing things locally that you have often asked for (like that bit of bench next to the stove where you keep all the cooking things it really isn't worth putting away!).

Bear in mind, though, that your cache copy, or indeed the proxy copy of that page, on your ISP's server, may not be the most up-to-date copy of that page, so if it's likely to change often (for example, the latest satellite weather picture of Australia)

James Cook University Meteorological Satellite: latest view of Australia

it's a good idea to Reload/Refresh the page, and you'll notice your progress line (at the bottom of the browser page) telling you that it's going back to the page's own server to see if anything has changed.


further away is slower

Any links or pages which are not stored on the proxy, which have to come from another server, tend to arrive depending on how far away that server is, what the traffic is like in between, and whether there are any traffic jams or even breakdowns.

Imagine ordering a pizza in a major city at rush hour.
Your pizza page will arrive much faster when the route is clearer and has less users, and fewer people ordering pizza!
Thus we experiment, and find times when downloads come through more quickly, when certain servers in different places respond faster, etc.

BTW (By The Way), there are pages on the Net for ordering pizzas, depending on where you live.
Definitely worth a bit of Searching.
I'll have a Family Size with everything, especially anchovies and olives, please.

OK, you may not agree with my taste, but let's move on to this direct contact stuff, which really has something for everyone.


the IRC network

IRC (Internet Relay Chat) has its own servers, so it's not held up or affected by the massive mail/news/web traffic.
You can do chat on your browser (my kids started in chatrooms in Netscape) but it is much slower, and you have much less control over your environment.

There are several IRC networks, some of them well-established, and they vary in reliablity.
You may have heard of Undernet, EFnet, DALnet.

I'd recommend AustNet, because it started here, and because its server response has been excellent.
They have a webpage, lots of information and support:

Each IRC server carries a wide range of channels, which (like the channels on your TV) you can select according to your interests.
Unlike the newsgroups, here you can watch and contribute straight away.
It's *live chat*, and can be a lot of fun.
You can have a nickname, you can find people from all over the world who share your interests, you can just find a bit of company or diversion.
It's all there.


the right program for the job

Now, like all other 'getting on the Net' things (mail, news, webpages), this requires its own application (program), and works much better if it does have its own application.

IMNSHO (In My Not So Humble Opinion), the biggest problem with the current bloated browsers (Netscape, Internet Explorer) is that they try to do everything, and thus are cumbersome and do nothing particularly well.

OTOH (On The Other Hand) for mail only, Eudora Light

is free, incredibly well-behaved, has full balloon-help (with a good sense of humour thrown in), and is lean, mean and effective for both Macintosh and Windows platforms.

MacSOUP is a dedicated offline newsreader for Mac (shareware) that does the same for news:

and Forte Free Agent is a similarly dedicated offline newsreader for Windows:

What (I hear you asking) is lean, mean and effective for IRC on your Mac?

Ircle, a little shareware application that seems to run happily (incessantly, with my teenagers) on any 68k or later Mac.


Ircle for Macintosh

I note from the ReadMe that it asks politely for minimum 1.1MB free RAM, which is endearing in these days of 'featuritis', when each new program is bigger and greedier and heavier, demanding more and more of your computer.

So, where can you find Ircle?

although I'm sure you'd find it via FTP (File Transfer Protocol) and Anarchie, that great FTP application written by Australian Peter Lewis:

on a local Australian FTP site (Anarchie comes with Bookmarks for all sorts of sites).

Once you have Ircle, you simply connect to your ISP in your usual way, and then in Ircle connect to the IRC server of your choice.
There, you choose a channel, or open/make up one of your own (to talk to a friend with whom you have arranged to be on at that time)... and chat to your heart's content.
With Ircle, you can be on a channel with others, then using DCC (Direct Client Contact) you (or s/he) can request a private chat, send/receive a file, etc.

Ircle teaches you a lot about how the Net actually works, as you take your time doing what you want.
There are buttons for practically everything, and the screen gives you an input line (where you write what you want to say); a console where you see what the server says, channel lists, and what other people are saying on your channel; and other little windows which you can use to change connections, do DCC, etc.
It can be as busy, or as peaceful, as you want.


mIRC for Windows

mIRC is a similar program for Windows users, and can be downloaded from Austnet's website at their URL quoted further up the page.
mIRC appears to be fully as flexible and user-friendly as Ircle, and offers all the same features for communicating as much or as little as you like.


before connecting...

All IRC servers have their own rules about how you can behave 'on channel'.
These rules are probably not so much for you as for the very small number of people who want to spoil other people's experiences.

In general, people writing robot programs, clone programs, people crashing each other's computers, are not welcome.
You'll be glad to know that on a Mac, you are immune to most, if not all, of that kind of behaviour.
People using Windows, MS-DOS, Unix or any other operating system with a command line interface, need to be careful of accepting any file or direction from a stranger.

To start with, just as in normal downloads from FTP or through your browser, you should virus-scan any files you receive.

'Disinfectant' for Macintosh

'Virus Scan' for Windows

Scripts (using AppleScript in Mac System 7.5, but written to the command line in Windows etc machines) are used in IRC, but are entirely optional, and the writer of the program supplies you with various helpful ones.

Like anything else, you wouldn't accept a script over the net from someone you really don't know, and run it, would you?
Would you buy a used car from Bill Gates?

My son told me of an incident early in his IRC career.
Naturally, he hangs out in teenage-minded channels, and this sort of behaviour would be virtually unknown on social/mature channels.
Anyway, a bloke was showing off, and told all these kids (over 200 of them on the channel, uncommon again in more social channels where a small group is comfortable) that he was sending them a script, and that they should run it.
My son ran it, nothing happened, then he watched in horror as the other kids all dropped off the channel.
The bloke waited, then asked uneasily why my son was still on channel.
"I've got a Mac ;-)" he wrote with great satisfaction.
You can do sound effects, e.g. a raspberry, and I imagine he did!
The script, of course, was written to the command line of a MS-DOS based/Windows machine.


tailored to your needs

Both Ircle and mIRC have been developed to make the experience of Internet Relay Chat as quick, easy and pleasant as possible.
Lots of useful little sounds come with Ircle (e.g. it coughs politely if you've gone to read your mail while it accesses the server you want, and it is ready!) and with Speech Manager or similar, it will even read out what you and others are saying!
Both programs allow "face" files, where you can collect little pictures of your online friends, which load automatically when a friend is online and talking to you.
You can keep it simple, or you can rearrange it to suit your changing needs.
IRC with these programs is intuitive and comfortable.


I seek you

Now, what could be more direct than IRC? It's been available for Windows for some time, and now a trial version for 68kMacs and PowerMacs:

of ICQ ('I seek you') has been released by Mirabilis.

You may have already heard of it, and certainly people you know may have it.
Simply, it is a pager for your computer.

You register with Mirabilis' network, and anyone also on the world-wide network can page you, either when you are offline (in which case a message comes up on the screen the next time you connect) or when you are online (when ICQ makes its own little sound and asks for your attention for the incoming message!).

ICQ has a cute little flower icon that stays on your desktop, and when clicked will bring up its own little windows, showing a list of people whom you have put on your own personal connect-list, and various options for you (which include privacy, so that ICQ will ask you first if you want to talk to the person who is paging you).

It is very straightforward, as is Ircle, and yesterday I was using both of them online, and reading my mail as well, at the same time.

You can click between Ircle (or mIRC), ICQ and Eudora perfectly smoothly, and thus be available and active in e-mail, IRC and direct contact simultaneously.
I still find it amazing.


basic and efficient

All of this on a little Powerbook 140 (laptop), with a B&W screen.
OK, I've upgraded to 8MB physical RAM, got RAMDoubler, and upgraded to 120MB hard disk.
But that's still not much, compared to what the salespeople (one hopes not knowledgeable salespeople) will tell you is 'the absolute minimum for today'.

Today, I am running Mac System 7.1 (about the age of Windows 3.1.1), Eudora Light 3, ICQ, Netscape 2.02, PPPop (a great little button and program that works with MacPPP, MacTCP and InternetConfig for connection), SimpleText (quick word processor), Threshold (battery-monitoring program) and Ircle, all at once.
And it runs like a dream.

You too should be able to enjoy IRC and ICQ - simple but effective ideas with a low (shareware) pricetag - without straining your brain or your budget.


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