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The world is just a phone call away. With a computer and modem, you'll be able to connect to the Internet, the world's largest computer network (and if you're lucky, you won't even need the modem; many colleges and companies now give their students or employees direct access to the Internet).
The phone line can be your existing voice line -- just remember that if you have any extensions, you (and everybody else in the house or office) won't be able to use them for voice calls while you are connected to the Net.
A modem is a sort of translator between computers and the phone system. It's needed because computers and the phone system process and transmit data, or information, in two different, and incompatible ways. Computers "talk" digitally; that is, they store and process information as a series of discrete numbers. The phone network relies on analog signals, which on an oscilloscope would look like a series of waves. When your computer is ready to transmit data to another computer over a phone line, your modem converts the computer numbers into these waves (which sound like a lot of screeching) -- it "modulates" them. In turn, when information waves come into your modem, it converts them into numbers your computer can process, by "demodulating" them.
Increasingly, computers come with modems already installed. If yours didn't, you'll have to decide what speed modem to get. Modem speeds are judged in "bps rate" or bits per second. One bps means the modem can transfer roughly one bit per second; the greater the bps rate, the more quickly a modem can send and receive information. A letter or character is made up of eight bits.
You can now buy a 2400-bps modem for well under $60 -- and most now come with the ability to handle fax messages as well. At prices that now start around $150, you can buy a modem that can transfer data at 14,400 bps (and often even faster, using special compression techniques). If you think you might be using the Net to transfer large numbers of files, a faster modem is always worth the price. It will dramatically reduce the amount of time your modem or computer is tied up transferring files and, if you are paying for Net access by the hour, will save you quite a bit in online charges.
Like the computer to which it attaches, a modem is useless without software to tell it how to work. Most modems today come with easy-to-install software. Try the program out. If you find it difficult to use or understand, consider a trip to the local software store to find a better program. You can spend several hundred dollars on a communications program, but unless you have very specialized needs, this will be a waste of money, as there are a host of excellent programs available for around $100 or less. Among the basic features you want to look for are a choice of different "protocols" (more on them in a bit) for transferring files to and from the Net and the ability to write "script" or "command" files that let you automate such steps as logging into a host system.
When you buy a modem and the software, ask the dealer how to install and use them. Try out the software if you can. If the dealer can't help you, find another dealer. You'll not only save yourself a lot of frustration, you'll also have practiced the prime Internet directive: "Ask. People Know."
To fully take advantage of the Net, you must spend a few minutes going over the manuals or documentation that comes with your software. There are a few things you should pay special attention to: uploading and downloading; screen capturing (sometimes called "screen dumping"); logging; how to change protocols; and terminal emulation. It is also essential to know how to convert a file created with your word processing program into "ASCII" or "text" format, which will let you share your thoughts with others across the Net.
Uploading is the process of sending a file from your computer to a system on the Net. Downloading is retrieving a file from somewhere on the Net to your computer. In general, things in cyberspace go "up" to the Net and come "down" to you.
Chances are your software will come with a choice of several "protocols" to use for these transfers. These protocols are systems designed to ensure that line noise or static does not cause errors that could ruin whatever information you are trying to transfer. Essentially, when using a protocol, you are transferring a file in a series of pieces. After each piece is sent or received, your computer and the Net system compare it. If the two pieces don't match exactly, they transfer it again, until they agree that the information they both have is identical. If, after several tries, the information just doesn't make it across, you'll either get an error message or your screen will freeze. In that case, try it again. If, after five tries, you are still stymied, something is wrong with a) the file; b) the telephone line; c) the system you're connected to; or d) your own computer.
From time to time, you will likely see messages on the Net that you want to save for later viewing -- a recipe, a particularly witty remark, something you want to write your congressman about, whatever. This is where screen capturing and logging come in.
When you tell your communications software to capture a screen, it opens a file in your computer (usually in the same directory or folder used by the software) and "dumps" an image of whatever happens to be on your screen at the time.
Logging works a bit differently. When you issue a logging command, you tell the software to open a file (again, usually in the same directory or folder as used by the software) and then give it a name. Then, until you turn off the logging command, everything that scrolls on your screen is copied into that file, sort of like recording on videotape. This is useful for capturing long documents that scroll for several pages -- using screen capture, you would have to repeat the same command for each new screen.
Terminal emulation is a way for your computer to mimic, or emulate, the way other computers put information on the screen and accept commands from a keyboard. In general, most systems on the Net use a system called VT100. Fortunately, almost all communications programs now on the market support this system as well -- make sure yours does.
You'll also have to know about protocols. There are several different ways for computers to transmit characters. Fortunately, there are only two protocols that you're likely to run across: 8-1-N (which stands for "8 bits, 1 stop bit, no parity" -- yikes!) and 7-1-E (7 bits, 1 stop bit, even parity).
In general, Unix-based systems use 7-1-E, while MS-DOS-based systems use 8-1-N. What if you don't know what kind of system you're connecting to? Try one of the settings. If you get what looks like gobbledygook when you connect, you may need the other setting. If so, you can either change the setting while connected, and then hit enter, or hang up and try again with the other setting. It's also possible your modem and the modem at the other end can't agree on the right bps rate. If changing the protocols doesn't work, try using another bps rate (but no faster than the one listed for your modem). Don't worry, remember, you can't break anything! If something looks wrong, it probably is wrong. Change your settings and try again. Nothing is learned without trial, error and effort. Those are the basics. Now on to the Net!
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