Washington Apple Pi

A Community of Apple iPad, iPhone and Mac Users

March 1996 General Meeting

by Lawrence I. Charters, Vice President, Macintosh

Computers are communications devices. Many people use them as toys, playing video games, and a few rare souls actually use them to "compute" something, but for the vast majority, computers are used to write letters, read and write E-mail, transfer files, and deforest the planet via high-speed printers.

At the March General Meeting, TIAC (The Internet Access Company) devoted its entire presentation to using Macs as communications tools on the Internet. TIAC is an Internet Service Provider (ISP) with an enviable reputation in New England, and it has recently moved into the Washington Metro region to offer its communications services.

Enteractive, a computer "multimedia" company, devoted its presentation to using Macintosh computers as tools for communicating environmental information to junior high and high school students. Located in both the Washington Metro region and New York City, even Enteractive's name reflects their goal of allowing the user to become an integral part of the communications process.

Meanwhile, back in the non-computerized world, the projection system wasn't quite up to par for the meeting, giving the audience at Northern Virginia Community College (NOVA) a dim view of what they could have seen if they could have seen it. As an added insult, someone had swiped NOVA's wireless microphone a few days earlier, making it harder to hear what couldn't be seen.

Despite the difficulties, many people stopped by after the meeting to say how much they enjoyed it. Warping a famous quote, it appears you can do a good job of communicating your message even if your medium is still a bit rare.

Network: a chain of connections

Mike Newman (djay@machead.com), Director of Marketing for TIAC, opened the meeting. Using the Pi's Power Mac 7100/66 and his own U.S. Robotics Sportster modem, he dialed up over an ordinary telephone line into the Internet. Once connected, nothing happened.

Which, as Mike pointed out, is exactly what should have happened. The Internet is not like a computer bulletin board; once you connect, there is no opening banner saying "Welcome To The Internet." The Internet (note the capital "I") is merely the largest collection of interconnected networks on the planet. It isn't owned or controlled by any one group, so there isn't any entity to greet you. It is constructed much like a garage sale of book vendors: information is all around you, organized in the covers of books, but nobody is in charge and, unlike a library, there is no card catalog or other directory to lead you to books you might want to read.

But there are some parts of the Internet that are somewhat organized, and the most famous part is the World Wide Web. Mike launched Netscape, the best-known Web browser, and entered TIAC's Web site (http://www.tiac.com/), which just happens to be one of the most intelligently designed and maintained Web sites offered by any Internet Service Provider. Their Web server can either provide copies of critical software packages for using the Internet, or provide current links to sites with appropriate software. The Web server also has extensive information on TIAC's pricing, critical phone numbers, E-mail addresses of key TIAC personnel (including customer support technicians), personal Web pages of TIAC employees (you can check out Mike's at http://www.tiac.net/staff/djay/djay.html), and tons of neat "stuff."

While jumping around on the World Wide Web, examining different sites, and downloading a few items, Mike detailed why he thinks TIAC deserves the attention of Pi members. As his "machead" E-mail address suggests, he is a Mac fanatic. More to the point, TIAC makes a point of employing support personnel familiar with the Mac, and provides TIAC subscribers with software preconfigured to get their Macs on the Internet with minimal fuss and effort. If there are problems, the support personnel can actually help Mac users rather than suggest they abandon their Macs and buy UNIX machines.

While I'm not a TIAC subscriber, it was easy to check out this claim. I sent a message to info_dc@tiac.net, asking why a Mac user should consider using their services. Within the hour, I had multiple E-mail messages giving thoughtful reasons on why they were a cut above most providers. About a week later, I sent a message to one of their support addresses, asking a highly technical question on how to configure Open Transport, Apple's new networking software, to work with their software. Again, within the hour I had two responses. Even more astounding, the responses were clear, understandable, and accurate.

For more information on TIAC, consult their ad in the Journal, send an E-mail message to one of the addresses shown above, or give them a call at (202) 822-6032. Mention that you are a Washington Apple Pi member and you will qualify for a discount on their services.

Exploring the Earth

Pi member Paul Chernoff (chernoff@enteractive.com) mentioned last year that his employer, Enteractive, Inc., had created an interactive encyclopedia about the environment for Apple, called Earth Explorer. Intended for an audience 10 and older (including adults), Earth Explorer combines a wealth of raw data with pictures, sounds, movie clips and graphics, all focused on one of the broadest topics imaginable: the Earth.

Unfortunately for Paul, everyone trained in doing presentations was unavailable for the General Meeting and, after a briefing the day before on how to do a demo, Paul was selected as Enteractive's representative for the meeting. He mentioned right at the start that his job was supposed to involve running Enteractive's computer network and communications, not doing public presentations.

With this pro-forma disclaimer out of the way, Paul immediately immersed himself in the subject. Earth Explorer has, on one CD-ROM, 90 minutes of sound and video clips, over a thousand photos, and 433 original, interactive articles on the environment. This great mass of data was reviewed by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and the development was partially funded by the National Science Foundation.

Aside from impressive credentials, Earth Explorer is also a showcase for what "multimedia" can offer in education. While movie clips and sound offer flash and dazzle, Enteractive also went out of its way to involve the user in environmental issues through "what if" simulations and simulated public debates (complete with consequences). Not only is data presented, it looks and sounds good, and actually does something.

Paul proved to be a great public speaker, rapidly moving from topic to topic and responding well to audience questions. One question he couldn't answer, however, was "how much does it cost?" Since it is sold by Apple in an Apple-labeled box, he didn't have an answer.

Paul attempted to show a second title, Ask Isaac Asimov About Space, but ran into difficulties. Dr. Asimov is known as one of the great science fiction writers, a great popular science writer, a highly prolific writer, and a dead writer, having passed away several years ago. Either the configuration of the Pi's Power Mac (often abused by various people for various purposes) or the deceased state of the Good Doctor kept the software package from loading properly. Paul tried several times, but got an error each time.

While the audience didn't seem to appreciate it, I was impressed with Paul's troubleshooting skills. He immediately zeroed in on likely suspects and, even with the pressure of a couple hundred eyes staring at him, quickly and efficiently attempted to overcome the problem. He failed, and went on to other things, but the process was flawless.

The following week he posted a public message on the TCS, the Pi's computer bulletin board, tracing the problem to an obscure bug in the program's installer which created a conflict in certain rare configurations of Power Macs. This public disclosure was praiseworthy, though I was a bit disappointed it couldn't be traced to something more interesting, such as Asimov's ghost.

Bugs aside, Ask Isaac Asimov About Space is a dual-platform (Mac and Windows) CD-ROM that features a "holographic" Asimov guiding the user through various activities dealing with astronomy and space science. It looks like a lot more fun than my science classes.

Drawing Winners

Drawing prizes are donated by vendors, usually, but this month two prizes were donated by members. Stuart Bonwit, sbonwit@tcs.wap.org, donated the Electronic Marker Pad (see his Journal article on the pad, Mar./Apr. 1996, pp. 55-56) and Michael Phelps donated Game Parlor, which features a game he wrote (contact Michael at Aspen Gold Software, aspengld@netcom.com).

R:Base T-shirt (Microrim): Eric Crane
The Macintosh Bible Guide to Games, book and CD-ROM (Peachpit Press): Harlan Nygren
The World Factbook 1996 Edition, CD-ROM (Wyzdata): Don Essick
Electronic Marker Pad (Kurta): Myron Harrison
Game Parlor, CD-ROM (MacSoft): John Fridinger
Ask Isaac Asimov About Space, CD-ROM (Enteractive): Andy Anryshak
Ask Isaac Asimov About Space, CD-ROM (Enteractive): Don Franklin

Send meeting comments to: lcharters@tcs.wap.org.

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