Computer Diskussions This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine.

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   The topic I will discuss today is modems and how they can be used in our daily lives. Already, international computerized networks are used for everything from storms to Star Trek. On these networks, companies exchange sales information and research. Files are obtained and used by students. Friends enjoy a "conference call" thousands of miles away. And all you need in order to access any of these services is a computer and a modem.

The word "modem" stands for Monumentally Overpriced Data Eating Machine. (All kidding aside, it really stands for "MOdulator/DEMod-ulator.") The modem serves as a phone connected to your computer that transmits signals that only another modem can understand. The slowest modem runs at 50 baud (a term indicating speed), and the fastest runs up to 67,200 baud with compression.

You can use your modem to connect to other modems. Two types of services that you can access with your modem are Bulletin Board Systems (BBSs), and large networks. It does not matter whether you use an IBM to call a Macintosh service, or vice versa the signals sent over the modem are universally compatible if you have the right software.

Bulletin boards allow you to communicate with other people through public and/or private messages ("electronic mail" or "e-mail"), exchange files, and play games. Public messages are often group discussions on topics of mutual interest. By contrast, private messages (e-mail) allow you to communicate privately with any other individual user. E-mail, unlike public messages, cannot be read by anyone but the person it has been sent to and the SysOp (the operator of the BBS).

Bulletin boards also allow users to exchange files. These files are generally shareware, newsletters, pictures, jokes, and text files. Shareware programs are distributed freely by the programmers on the condition that if you use the program, you will pay the programmer a small fee (generally $1 to $30). In some cases, shareware programs (especially arcade games) may be of higher quality than commercial programs. The role of the bulletin board in the distribution of shareware is that, in effect, the system is allowing users to utilize his/her hard drive to store the shareware files so they can be accessed by other users. Consequently, the bigger the system's hard drive, the more shareware files will be available.

Lastly, BBSs are a great place to play games with other users without having to spend a fortune on software. Some games, like "Tradewars 2002," allow all users to participate in a futuristic struggle for galactic dominance.

BBSs are not the only type of service you can reach with your modem. Large commercial networks can be accessed all over the world. The difference between a network and a BBS is that 1) a network usually offers more services, and 2) networks have phone numbers in most major cities, so it is possible to make a local call and to speak to someone in a different state through the phone lines of the network. To call a BBS in another state, however, you must pay long distance phone bills.

Two commercial networks you can call are CompuServe and Prodigy. CompuServe offers a wide variety of information including news, sports, entertainment, business, and weather. CompuServe also offers an on-line library with an encyclopedia and an online medical reference source. It offers an electronic shopping mall, current stock quotes and mortgage information, movie reviews and games, e-mail, and a travel agency. It uses icons and pictures (in other words, a graphic interface) which I find easier to navigate than other networks based on text. Rates vary depending on baud, length of time spent on-line, the specific features used, etc. Prodigy is a good network for beginners. Although it is somewhat slow (based on personal experience), its graphic interface is superior even to that of CompuServe, and it tends to cost less. Prodigy offers many, if not all, of the same features but it places a special emphasis on educational resources.

Out of nearly all the networks available to the public, Internet is the largest, the most powerful, and the most complex. Internet was created in 1969 by linking a few universities and defense research laboratories. Now, it supports approximately 20 million users around the world. Most major companies and government agencies can be accessed through the Internet, including Citibank, NASA, Timesharing, and General Motors. Users of Internet can utilize mainframes for complex calculations and access archives of scientific, military, and government research. Internet has the most comprehensive, far-reaching e-mail system in existence. It has thousands of gigabytes of files available through FTP (file transfer protocol). It allows users to chat with people around the world. During the attempted Russian coup in the summer of 1991, it was the only way that Americans could contact Russia when the phone lines were jammed. Internet service is available to nearly anyone affiliated with a research university, large companies, or government agencies. The public may gain access from companies like Brookline's Software Tool & Dye for a fee.

Well, folks, for now, that takes care of some of the basic principles of modems, how they work, and what they can be used for. I can be reached through e-mail by modem (call 617-863-8502 and e-mail Unknown Man).




This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine. This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.






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