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Surfing the Internet

Copyright © 1997-2000, 2002-2005, 2007, 2010-2012, 2014, 2017, 2019-2020 by David E. Ross

The Internet includes four main forms of communication:

Other Topics:

No, the Internet is not the Web or the browsers (e.g., Firefox, Chrome, Internet Explorer, SeaMonkey) used to view the Web. The Internet is not E-mail. The Internet is definitely not social networks, Twitter, or a phone service. Instead, the Internet is all of that plus the electronic communications network that transfers the files of a Web page from a server to your browser, that transfers a message from your E-mail application to your friend's E-mail application, and that transfers other packets of data around the world.

The Web

animated Mad HackerAs a communication medium, the World Wide Web (WWW) is similar to television with a phone nearby. People compose Web pages collected into sites. These are broadcast to whoever chooses to receive them. I mentioned "a phone nearby" because some Web pages provide the viewer with the ability to return data to the Web server.

The tool for receiving a Web page is a Web browser, a client application that connects to a Web server. FireFox (and it various clones), Edge, and Chrome are three of the most popular Web browsers.

A number of commercial Web sites — search engines, national and regional ISPs, shopping sites — expend significant effort trying to get us to designate them as our browser's home page. Large sums of money are spent on entertainment and information content for these portals, and some are quite attractive. However, the page I want to see most often is my bookmarks file, which is what I now use for my home page. I can always visit any portal, and I have a few within my bookmarks.


Often called Chat, IRC is similar to communicating at a cocktail party. Everyone is talking at once; often it is difficult to follow a particular conversation. At least you know who is talking. Or do you? Everyone is identified by a nickname that may have no relationship to a person's E-mail address or real name. IRC is real-time. You see messages as they are sent (or within a minute or so, depending on the transmission lag) and you send messages. Only if someone has bothered to capture the flow of messages can anyone recall the communication later. Otherwise, if you are not connected while the messages are in transit, you do not see any of them.

On the other hand, for a very small group (two or three persons), IRC can be better than E-mail for conducting a conversation, providing the lag is relatively small. IRC can also be used for an on-line meeting, with the chairman exercising control through operator commands (which include the ability to remove an uninvited participant or to "silence" someone who keeps interrupting). And, yes, the flow of messages can be captured to provide the secretary of a meeting with a record for use in preparing minutes of the meeting.

For details, see Internet Relay Chat (IRC) Help, which covers the spectrum from very basic information for the novice to highly technical details on the inner workings. This also contains comprehensive lists of IRC servers in several networks as well as IRC commands.

There are also onversational systems that include both audio and video, such as Skype and Zoom. However, both of those have questionable privacy and security issues.


A newsgroup is similar to a bulletin board. You post a message that is very much like an E-mail message. Anyone who sees the message can then post a reply for everyone else to see. For this, you use a news reader that connects to a news server (just as a Web browser connects to a Web server).

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Sadly, newsgroups are fading as a platform for public discussions. In the late 20th century and early 21st century, many newsgroups held robust, on-topic discussions. Often, it became difficult to keep up with such discussions as many messages would appear in an hour on merely a single topic. Today, days might elapse without a single message in an entire newsgroup. Nevertheless, I still think newsgroups are superior to forums. The recent shutdown of Yahoo forums strengthens that belief.

13 December 2019

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Almost all newsgroups are organized by subject. Newsgroups fall into several categories. The "big 8" (Usenet) have prefixes of comp.* (computer), sci.* (science), soc.* (society), news.* (newsgroups as the subject of conversation), talk.* (discussion groups), rec.* (recreation and hobbies), humanities.*, and misc.* (miscellaneous). These Usenet newsgroups are generally carried by most (if not all) news servers and are considered by some as the official newsgroups. These are the ones that require a formal action to create. The alt.* category include commercial and pornographic newsgroups as well as those with too limited an audience to justify the formal creation of a new Usenet newsgroup. Then there are national and local newsgroups, such as ca.* (Canada, California), austin.* (in Texas), etc. Finally, some computer companies maintain their own news servers with their own public newsgroups, relating to their products.

Some newsgroups are moderated. That means someone — often a member of a committee — reviews each new message to ensure it complies with the purpose of the newsgroup. Messages reach the newsgroup only after they have been approved. For many moderated newsgroups, an individual might receive automatic approval of all messages he or she submits without each message being reviewed; this happens when the individual has proven to be a responsible participant.

Participating in a newsgroup requires that a user have a news reader application. Many E-mail applications are also news reader applications; I use Thunderbird for both E-mail and newsgroups. Participation also requires that a user have an account with a newsgroup server. There are a number of both fee and free servers.

Some individuals seem to prefer Web-based forums over newsgroups. However, forums have some disadvantages not found with newsgroups.

Newsgroup Etiquette

For a newsgroup to be a medium for informative and enjoyable discussion, certain conventions should be followed. While occasional violations of these rules are often ignored, repeated abuse of a newsgroup can lead to all kinds of unpleasant reactions. In some cases, messages have been posted with forged headers to cancel an abuser's messages — not merely the abusive messages but all messages from that individual. Complaints can be made to an abuser's ISP, which might cancel the abuser's account.

Also see Netiquette Guidelines (RFC 1855).


animated frog eating mail

To me, the best feature of E-mail is that I deal with message when I want, not when the sender wants. E-mail does not interrupt my dinner or wake me in the middle of the night. When exchanging messages with my daughter, who lives two time zones away, we each read and respond when we are available without regard for whether the other is also available.

The worst feature of E-mail is mass-mailed commercial advertising ("spam"). The only surfing involved in E-mail is the collecting of addresses for spam. If you do not like spam and want to fight back, visit my Spam Web page.

E-mail is very much like a post card. It could be read by anyone along the path it takes from the sender to the recipient. If you want secure E-mail — more secure than sealing a letter in an envelope — you should consider using PGP.

Since I favor the benefits of dealing with E-mail on my own time, not on the sender's time, I really do not like the various instant message tools (e.g.: AOL's Instant Messenger (AIM)). Unfortunately, too many people want to treat E-mail the same as instant messaging. They get upset if you do not reply immediately to their E-mail messages. They do not care that you might be eating, showering, or sleeping.

Once a word has been allowed to escape, it cannot be recalled.

Horace (65-8 bce)

Some caution is necessary when using E-mail.

Obviously, you should really be sure of the thoughts you have written and that you want someone else to see them before you send an E-mail message. Can you trust the recipient not to distribute your message further? Would you be embarrassed if others saw how you ignored spelling, grammar, and punctuation? Would your comments cause trouble in your family or at work?

The moving finger writes; and, having writ,
Moves on: nor all your Piety or Wit
Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,
Nor all your Tears wash out a Word of it.

Omar, the Tentmaker
(died ca 1123 ce)

What's Missing Here

Note that I have not mentioned social networking (Facebook, MySpace, etc), business networking (LinkedIn), tweeting via Twitter, blogs, Internet phones (voice over Internet protocol, VoIP), Skype, or YouTube.

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In an email exchange with privacy blogger Dan Tynan, Columbia law professor Eben Moglen referred to Facebook as a "man in the middle attack" — that is, a service that intercepts communication between two parties and uses it for its own nefarious purposes. He said, "The point is that by sharing with our actual friends through a web intermediary who can store and mine everything, we harm people by destroying their privacy for them. It's not the sharing that's bad, it's the technological design of giving it all to someone in the middle. That is at once outstandingly stupid and overwhelmingly dangerous." Tynan is a critic of Facebook, but he thinks Moglen is overstating the case.

Source: Slashdot
6 February 2012

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Twitter logo in a red circle with a red diagonal slash Facebook logo in a red circle with a red diagonal slash

We both thought Twitter was pretty stupid and pointless. … "Who cares what Ashton Kutcher bought at the supermarket?"

"I just don't see the point in putting your life on the internet [i.e., Facebook] for everyone to see." he said. "If you want to share things with your friends then share it with them in person like normal people and if you don't live near your friends you can always use phones, email or instant messaging. The whole things just seems like a place for people who don't have any real friends to put together a list of people that they say are their friends so they don't have to feel bad about nobody liking them in real life."

Everything Will Be Alright
© 2011-2012 by Saber Peak Ranch

I do not tweet or participate in social or business online networking. Twitter, YouTube, and the various networking sites are all part of the Web and thus do not require any separate discussion. In any case, the 140-character limitation on tweets is far too restrictive for me. (As I said elsewhere, "Why use 10 words when 1,000 will suffice?")

Both the ISP for my cable modem and Southern California Edison have proven too unreliable for me to consider changing my land-line phone service through AT&T for a VoIP phone service. Too often, Edison's service fails, leaving us without electricity from a few minutes to many hours. When Edison fails, the cable service for my ISP — powered by Edison — also fails, including any VoIP through that cable service. Of course, an Internet connection becomes useless when I have no electricity for my PC. (Some local cell phone towers are also powered by Edison; others have poorly maintained emergency generators. Thus, cell phone service often dies with Edison.) On the other hand, AT&T powers its own land-line phone service. When Edison fails, I can use AT&T to call Edison and report the failure.

Actually, I do use Skype. I use it as a one-on-one variation of IRC, texting my daughter at her job, when she needs to leave her phone free for work-related use. I can also use it for VoIP phoning, but (as explained above) it will never replace my land-line phone service. Of course, my wife and I use Skype with a webcam to see our granddaughter, who lives in another country and whom we see in person only once a year or less often.

Also, I can send and receive text messages through Thunderbird without using a cell phone.

Internet Software

I have collected a number of software tools useful when surfing the Internet. Some are mainstream (e.g.: Netscape), and others are esoteric. I moved the information about these tools to a separate Web page to speed the loading of the page you are now reading (by reducing its size). That page contains both descriptions and download links for those tools. I also have a glossary of the Internet terms I use not only in the descriptions of those tools but also on this page and elsewhere in my Web site.


Connections to the Internet are generally rated in terms of bits per second. At one time, modems could handle data at 9,600 bits per second (9.6 Kbps, where the K indicates kilo, the Greek prefix for thousand). With eight bits in a one-character byte, a 9.6 Kbps modem could handle 1.2 KBps (using b for bit and B for byte). When the only data being sent were brief computer commands and the only data received were one or two lines of computational results, this was sufficient.

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There are various Web tools to measure the speed of your Internet connection. These measure the rate in which bits or bytes (8 bits) are downloaded and uploaded. Some or all track the user's location, often to determine what remote server should respond to queries. Among these are: There are others.

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With the advent of the Web with not only text but graphics, greater speeds became necessary. The small animated graphic near the beginning of this page is over 60,000 bits. With four other graphics and more than 20,000 characters of text, viewing this page requires the downloading of almost 640,000 bits. A 9.6 Kbps modem would require more than a minute for this relatively small and simple page. When I bought my first PC, 28.8 Kbps modems were quite common, but I got a more advanced 33.6 Kbps modem. At that time, few ISPs supported even that speed, let alone the 56 Kbps that now seems to be the limit for dial-up modems. Through a 56 Kbps modem, this page would download in less than 12 seconds.

I use a cable modem with about 100 Mbps (M indicates mega, the prefix for million) for downloading and 10 Mbps for uploading. Often, however, I cannot get those speeds, again because of limitations on the servers with which I am communicating. As noted below, "Internet distance" also affects speed.

Yes, we all seem to want faster downloading. (Verizon — when it was still GTE — advertised instant downloading; but that is impossible.) But there is a limit, and the speed of your Internet connection is not the only constraint. You also need a fast modem and router to deliver the flood of bits, a fast pocessor on your PC to handle that flood, a large memory to hold them, and a fast hard drive for the excess when a very large Web page exceeds memory. You have all that? It still is not enough, but it is all you can do.

One other consideration before adapting to a faster Internet connection: Most faster connections are permanent (not dial-up) with fixed IP addresses. While a permanent connection means you avoid the effort and delay of connecting through a dial-up modem, it also means that you need a good firewall (software that creates a barrier against outsiders from accessing your computer) to protect you from hackers. Also, a fixed IP address gives snoops (including advertisers) the ability to trace your Web-surfing activities back to your specific computer; that is, your ability to maintain privacy while Web-surfing is impaired. My own cable modem connection has an IP address that remains fixed.

Internet distance significantly affects speed. UCLA is only 30 miles from my house. However, I discovered that I could obtain a faster response from a server in Sunnyvale, California (more than 300 miles away), than from a server performing the same function located at UCLA. The two servers operated at about the same speed. However, a trace of the route taken by data between my PC and those servers showed that messages — from me requesting data and from them replying — traveled through twice as many routers and intermediate servers for UCLA than for Sunnyvale. In terms of Internet distance, Sunnyvale was half the distance to my PC than was UCLA although the former was more than 10 times the physical distance. Some very popular Web sites have mirror sites, copies that are available in order to reduce the traffic to the main site. Selecting the closest mirror site — in terms of Internet distance — can result in a noticeable improvement in performance.

Last updated 18 April 2020

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