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Bringing Student Governments Out of the Stone Age
What Inter-Campus Computer Networking Can Do For You

by Derek K. Miller, AMS Researcher
Student Union Development Symposium
June 1993, Whistler, B.C.

This is an archive of my 9 June 1993 presentation about the Internet: what it is, what it was good for, how it worked. I gave the talk and distributed this article at a meeting in Whistler, B.C. of university student government representatives, which was hosted by my then employer, the Alma Mater Society of the University of British Columbia. I was 23 years old, and considered an old-timer expert on the Internet, since I had been using it for over two years.

Notice that the World Wide Web gets only a very brief mention near the end of the piece. That's because the Web was only a little over two years old at the time (less than that in public view), with only a few dozen sites in total, none of which had any graphics. This posting appeared on the Web on 28 January 2003, nearly ten years after I originally wrote it. I long ago killed off the e-mail address listed in this essay (dkmiller@unixg.ubc.ca) because it received nothing but spam.

On the morning I wrote this piece, I received messages from student government officers at Carleton University, Brown University, the University of Lowell (Massachusetts), and the University of California at San Diego, as well as from students and others at universities, colleges, and other organizations in Canada, the U.S., New Zealand, Australia, and Finland. I replied to many of them. I spent no time on the phone, and all of it cost me less than a dollar.

The messages I received were electronic mail, and I got them over the Internet, the worldwide computer network to which UBC, all other universities and most colleges in Canada, and many institutions around the world are connected.

Some of you undoubtedly use the Internet already. You already know how useful it can be, and much of what I will say in these few pages will be preaching to the converted in your case. Many others of you might use electronic mail within your office computer networks, and know what it's like, but don't know of the more generalized information resources available over the Internet. Some of you don't have a clue what I'm talking about. In any case, please read on.

Explaining the Internet

Your student association has access to one of the most remarkable achievements of the last two decades: a worldwide, decentralized, constantly changing web of information called the Internet. Chances are your college or university has a direct link into this network. If not, some sort of connection is fairly easy to obtain. (More about that later.)

The Internet is not easy to explain. It isn't the stereotypical science fiction "data bank" where you plug your computer into a massive central machine which knows all and sees all, like university mainframe computers used to be. It isn't even an organization which runs an information service, like CompuServe. It is the amorphous group of interconnected computers and computer networks transferring information along phone, data, and fiber optic cables across North America and around the world.

No one is in charge of it. No one can control it. No one, if they wanted to, would even know where to begin. For example, during the attempted coup against Mikhail Gorbachev in the Soviet Union (while there still was one), television, radio, newspaper, and postal services were disrupted. Communication via the Internet continued.

All sorts of information flows around in the Internet and between it and a few other services, such as BITNET, CompuServe, university libraries, and other facilities. It includes electronic mail, electronic discussion groups (called the "User network," or "Usenet"), academic journals, graphics, statistical data, computer software, interactive electronic games, marriage proposals, stolen electronic property, pornography, and hate literature.

As you can see, the fact that no one is in control means that the sorts of information transmitted are not always wonderful. Fortunately, the majority of stuff carried around the world is interesting, polite, or at least dull. The more pungent stuff is a consequence of what is in effect electronic, informational anarchy.

Okay, you ask, there's all this junk out there, whizzing around in incomprehensible complexity. What's in it for me?

Electronic Mail

Student governments traditionally haven't been very good at talking to one another. The establishment of the Canadian Federation of Students some years back was an attempt to rectify that situation, and has met with mixed success at best. Many post-secondary institutions, especially larger ones such as UBC's and U of T's student associations, do not belong to it. Even those who do may communicate with the CFS regularly, but not with other members. The SUDS meeting you are attending is one of the few events during the year when student government people meet face to face. (I'm on vacation in the U.S., so mine isn't one of the faces you see.)

Electronic mail over the Internet provides an easy and nearly free means of transferring information or merely chatting between student associations. I can, for example, type up a letter to the University of Alberta Students' Union and have them receive it within about 15 minutes. They can reply with similar speed, with no paper wasted and no stamps bought.

E-mail can be sent to individuals, groups of individuals, organizations, and mailing lists, which distribute stuff sent to them to anyone who subscribes. One of particular interest to those at SUDS is the Student Government Association network, or SGAnet, which talks exclusively about things to do with post-secondary education, and has subscribers from Canada to South Africa.

Let's take a look at a fairly typical (and nicely topical) recent set of messages from the SGAnet:

Date: Tue, 8 Jun 1993 05:08:16 EDT
Reply-To: ae446@freenet.carleton.ca
From: Nigel Allen <ae446@FREENET.CARLETON.CA>
Subject: Student Government Shuts Down The Ubyssey
X-To: sganet@VTVM1.CC.VT.EDU
To: Multiple recipients of list SGANET

The following message was posted to another mailing list that
I receive, and I thought you would want to see it.

 From: Graham Cook <cook@unixg.ubc.ca>
 Subject: Student Government Shuts Down The Ubyssey
 Date: Tue, 8 Jun 1993 07:01:50 GMT

Press release

    The Alma Mater Society, the University of B.C.
student council, has voted to shut down the UBC student
newspaper, The Ubyssey, after 74 years of continuous
    The Society, at a June 2 special meeting, voted to
delete all references to the newspaper from its Code of
Procedure, the organization's constitution.
    Current Ubyssey staffers are being allowed to use
their editorial office temporarily until the
establishment of an AMS Publications Board, which will
directly control all general interest UBC student
publications. The Ubyssey can apply to exist again, but
the Publications Board is not obligated to ensure there
is a student newspaper at UBC.
    The Publications Board will take over The Ubyssey's
old office, room 241K of the Student Union Building, and
allocate the space to various AMS publications as it
sees fit.
    The board will have total financial power over all
publications, the power to fire editors, ban students
from writing for the newspaper, control ad-to-copy ratio
for publications, halt printing of a publication for up
to two weeks, allow publications to exist on a
probationary basis and shut down an AMS publication. If
The Ubyssey is permitted to exist again, it will have to
work under these and other conditions.
    The board will have the following membership: three
UBC alumni, selected by the UBC Alumni Association and
ratified by the AMS, three members of the AMS Student
Council, two UBC students at large and up to two
representatives from each publication. Decisions would
be made by majority or two thirds vote.
    The staff of the now former newspaper are actively
pursuing ways to attempt to restore a democratic,
editorially free newspaper so that they can continue
UBC's  tradition of student journalism. They are worried
that the "solution" the student government has pursued
may be used as a model at other universities.
Ironically, the Ubyssey would have turned 75 years old
this October.

    For further information, if you deem this
newsworthy, the following have been delegated to speak
to the media:

Siobhan Roantree
(who would have been the Photo Co-ordinator for 1993-94)
(O) (604) 822-2301

Graham Cook
(who would have been the News Co-ordinator for 1993-94)
(O) (604) 822-2301
(Internet e-mail) <cook@unixg.ubc.ca>

Handy facts about the late newspaper (R.I.P.?):

--Famous Ubyssey alumni: Pierre Berton, Allan
Fotheringham, Peter Worthington, Joe Schlesinger, Pat
Carney, John "Chick" Turner.
--The Ubyssey published twice a week from September to
April, once weekly during July and early August, with a
press run of 15,000
--Current staff are 90 per cent students of UBC. Ubyssey
editors, until now, were selected by the staff of the
newspaper each year.

Nigel Allen, Toronto, Ontario, Canada 


Comments: Warning -- original Sender: tag was
From: Ron Steriti <steriti@DRAGON.CPE.ULOWELL.EDU>
Organization: UMass/Lowell Center for Productivity
Subject: Re: SGA Shuts Down The Ubyssey
To: Multiple recipients of list SGANET

     Press release

     The Alma Mater Society, the University of B.C.

     student council, has voted to shut down the UBC
     student newspaper, The Ubyssey, after 74 years
     of continuous publishing.

I presume, although you don't mention it, that there
must have been some problems with the content of the
student newspaper. Indeed there must have been something
quiet contraversial to cause such a reaction.

If so, Could you please elaborate? What were the titles
of the "offensive" articles?

On a similar vein, we at UMass Lowell had a problem with
the University Newsletter (published by the university
and seperate from our school newspaper). In one issue,
we had a really great story about our teaching asst
union and the TA protests. I thought it was very well
written and presented both sides factually. The author
wrote it as part of her job (newsletter staff) and as a
journalism assignment (part time student).

The university reacted by having a serious talk with
her. Any more stories like that and she's out of a job.
Further, all articles now have to be approved by one of
the vice chancellors.

Today the University Newsletter still goes on, but in my
opinion, it's really only a four page university
advertisement. There is no real news in it.

And, yes, i've heard that the school newspaper has had
it's problems too. But i'm not involved enough to know
the real story.

Any other schools have similar experiences?

Is this political correctness? Or is it just a violation
of freedom of speech?

(i'm not really sure what pc is, beyond these new names
like verbally challenged i.e. Stuttering John)


You can see that the messages are on a topic of interest to most of us -- how student governments deal with student newspapers -- and that they're posted in plain English, not some obscure computer user jargon. That's because electronic mail facilities are sufficiently easy to use that the people who do are to a large degree not computer geeks but human beings like the rest of us too. (My apologies to any computer geeks out there.)

Internet e-mail addresses are even set up logically, if somewhat cryptically. If you look at the underline "From:" line in the first message above, you see the phrase: Nigel Allen <ae446@FREENET.CARLETON.CA>. This tells you that the person who sent the message is named (surprise!) Nigel Allen, and that his e-mail address is ae446 (probably his User I.D. on the computer he sends mail from) at the Carleton University FreeNet in Canada.

In other words, anything to the left of the @ sign is the "mailbox" of a given person (or organization, or whatever), and anything to the right of it is the "location" of that mailbox -- in Internet parlance, this is called the "domain name." The domain name system (DNS) runs from least specific to most specific from right to left -- in this case, Canada (CA), Carleton University, and the FreeNet computer. Similarly, my electronic mail address, dkmiller@unixg.ubc.ca, describes me as the user dkmiller in Canada, at UBC, on the machine "Unixg," actually a computer in the UBC Computer Science building which I connect to over the phone line from my desktop Macintosh.

So you can now interpret electronic mail gobbledigook to figure out where people are mailing from. Even the address for the SGAnet itself makes sense: SGANET@VTVM1.CC.VT.EDU translates to the SGAnet mailbox at an EDUcational institution in Vermont, U.S.A. (VT), in some department called "CC", at the "VTVM1" computer.

Once connected to the Internet, then, all you need to do is use an appropriate e-mail program to type up a letter, then tell it to send the letter to a domain name mailbox, say dkmiller@unixg.ubc.ca, and within a few minutes or hours, depending on your connection, I will receive it. Most e-mail programs would let me automatically reply within a similar period of time. In most cases only text can be sent, but some programs (such as the one I use for the Mac) allow users of the same kinds of computers to transfer disk files, pictures, and other information too.

You can probably see already how useful this could be for student governments. Need to know something about how UBC's Alma Mater Society runs its pub? Want to ask them about those nasty rumour about shutting down The Ubyssey newspaper? Send an e-mail message instead of a fax, letter, or phone call, and you'll probably have your answer by the end of the day. Not only that, but if you set up things right you can even check to see if they've read their mail -- no excuses of "oh, I didn't get that message."

You can also probably see that the traffic of e-mail messages and mailing lists could get ridiculously heavy very quickly, and that someone in each student association could spend hours sifting through tons of superfluous mail to keep track of the useful stuff. That's why the User Network, or "Usenet," comes in so handy.

Introducing Usenet

Usenet is the term used to describe the plethora of electronic discussion groups out there in Internet Land (or cyberspace, as some savants prefer to call it). They are somewhat like mailing lists, but rather than being sent to individual e-mail addresses of people who subscribe to them, those interested in reading them simply connect to a site which keeps them on file and reads them, rather like perusing magazines in the library. Once again, there is no central site where Usenet groups (or "newsfeeds" and "newsgroups") are stored; many places around the world store them. Each time someone posts a message to a group, it is sent to almost every computer connected to the Internet, and those which store that group make a copy and keep it on file. Otherwise it vanishes into electronic vapour.

Usenet groups are arranged by topic, in a descending hierarchy. I'm a drummer, and one group which I read is called rec.music.makers.percussion. It is named because it is a recreational group, is about music, is read primarily by those who make music or who are interested in the process, and is about drumming and percussion. Similarly, the group sci.astro is the science group on astronomy, the group comp.sys.mac.hardware is about Macintosh computer system hardware, and so on. Let's look at an example of Usenet discussion, from the group soc.college:

Article 13059 (248 more) in soc.college:
From: rsklar@nyx.cs.du.edu (Robert Sklar)
Newsgroups: soc.college,md.general
Subject: Anyone at University of Maryland, Baltimore
Date: 8 Jun 93 05:58:45 GMT
Distribution: usa
Organization: My Organization, Inc. - Los Angeles, CA
Lines: 17

I am interested in learning information regarding UMBC. 
I will be moving there this summer for Grad School
starting in the fall.  What about the school, social,
housing, etc...

Also info on the area around the university would be



Robert M. Sklar                 rsklar@nyx.cs.du.edu

"Why is it a penny for your thoughts, but you always
have to put in your 2 cents worth? "


Article 13060 (247 more) in soc.college:
Newsgroups: bc.general,can.general,soc.college,
From: ae446@Freenet.carleton.ca (Nigel Allen)
Subject: Re: University of B.C. student council shuts
         down student paper
Organization: Echo Beach
Date: Tue, 8 Jun 1993 09:02:05 GMT
Lines: 66

The following message from the Ubyssey explains the
situation a bit better.

 From: Graham Cook <cook@unixg.ubc.ca>
 Subject: Student Government Shuts Down The Ubyssey
 Date: Tue, 8 Jun 1993 07:01:50 GMT

Press release

    The Alma Mater Society, the University of B.C.
student council, has voted to shut down the UBC student
newspaper, The Ubyssey, after 74 years of continuous

[Rest of message deleted. Same as above.]

Nigel Allen, Toronto, Ontario, Canada 


Article 13061 (246 more) in soc.college:
Newsgroups: bc.general,can.general,soc.college,
From: hwt@bcarh11a.BNR.CA (Henry Troup)
Subject: Re: University of B.C. student council shuts
         down student paper
Nntp-Posting-Host: bcarh11a
Organization: Bell-Northern Research Ltd., Ottawa, Canada
Date: Tue, 8 Jun 1993 13:06:07 GMT
Lines: 4

So, what inspired this crack-down?

Henry Troup - H.Troup@BNR.CA (Canada) - BNR owns but
does not share my opinions This is a virus-free signature


Article 13062 (245 more) in soc.college:
From: turnerbl@ucbeh.san.uc.edu
Newsgroups: alt.bitterness,soc.college,soc.culture.usa
Subject: Re:college money...
Date: 8 Jun 93 09:30:39 EDT
Distribution: world
Organization: Univ of Cincinnati Academic IT Services
Lines: 80

In article <ELM.93Jun7151011@terrorism.berkeley.edu>,
elm@cs.berkeley.edu (ethan miller) writes:
> In article <1993Jun7.172152.3722@ucbeh.san.uc.edu>
> turnerbl@ucbeh.san.uc.edu writes:
> =>I'm sorry, but this whole thread makes me not really
> =>sorry for anyone.
> =>
> =>1) Ok, so you are at Berkley.  Great, congrats.
> =>But just because you are smart enough to get in does
> =>not mean that the world owes you *shit* If you can't 
> =>afford Berkley, than transfer to another school
> =>you can afford.
> Berkeley is (supposedly) a public institution, as is
> the rest of the University of California.

The original poster mentioned *only berkeley*  I don't
hear him whining about cal state fullerton.

> As the original poster mentioned, fees here
> have skyrocketed in the last few years.  When I started
> five years ago, fees for grad students were about
> $2000/year.  They're now over $2500 per SEMESTER.
> That's over 100% increase in five years.

Grad students, now you want people to feel sorry GRAD
STUDENTS! most of whom don't pay anything to go to
school, and some who GET PAID to go to school!? 
wouldn't that be a kodak moment from hell.  sorry to
sound nasty but 90% of the world regards grad students
as a plague, the other 10% being grad students

...and so on. Note that the discussion of The Ubyssey, from SGAnet, also appeared on this and other newsgroups.

Each message in a group as a topic heading, and most news reading programs will enable you to read messages on the same topic (called "threads" of conversation) in succession, and ignore topic which don't interest you. Thus, on rec.music.makers.percussion I can follow and participate in the talk about cymbals when I'm looking to buy a new one, but ignore the discussion about Indian tabla drums, which I don't play.

There are more than 1500 Usenet groups, on topics ranging from the mapping of the human genome, to lesbianism, to The Ren & Stimpy Show. You need only read the ones which interest you (such as soc.college, the "college society" group), or only pop in on occasion to check out ones which might have a currently interesting discussion (that thread on alt.activism about how to storm the campus administration office at a university).

Both e-mail and Usenet can be very productive, but can take up a lot of time if you're not careful. Worse yet, there are more Internet services available which can broaden the scope of your computer usage even more.

Gopher and Beyond

One Internet service which is quickly spreading around the world is something called "gopher." Gopher is a program which enables someone to negotiate the various highways and byways of the Internet using simple on-screen menus. If your campus has a gopher program installed, you can use it to connect easily to computers worldwide, accessing on-line dictionaries, remote library catalogues, academic journals, entire books, and, as an example the computer at the Helsinki Technical University in Finland. (I connected to it a few months ago. Most of the information is in Finnish, unfortunately.)

Most of the time, all you need to do to use gopher is to connect to your campus network (such as UBC's UBCnet) and type "gopher." You're then presented with a menu like this:

             Internet Gopher Information Client v1.11

                 Root gopher server: gopher.ubc.ca

 --> 1.  About View UBC/
     2.  What's New on View? (last update: June 4, 1993)/
     3.  What is UBC?/
     4.  Computing at UBC/
     5.  Libraries and Information Sources/
     6.  News and Weather/
     7.  The Campus: University of British Columbia/
     8.  The Community: Greater Vancouver and Region/
     9.  The World: British Columbia and Beyond/
     10. Word Search of Menu Items <?>

From there, you can move on to similar menus inside and outside your institution. The neat thing about gopher is that once you've selected something outside your campus, (e.g. "The World: British Columbia and Beyond") you are directly connected to that gopher machine, not your own anymore, through the Internet. It's rather like being able to travel from Vancouver to Helsinki to Pretoria to Melbourne, all within minutes.

There are other services available too. Wide Area Information Servers (WAIS) enable you to look up indexed information on databases across the Internet. The World-Wide Web is the beginnings of a "hypertext" Internet package, where you can select almost any word in a piece of text and automatically be cross-referenced to others related to it. File transfer protocol (ftp) programs let you grab software from computers at other institutions and around the world over the Internet. The Telnet program lets you connect to other computers like they were your own.

Once connected to the Internet, all you have to do is explore. You'll be surprised who and what you can find, and how much of your time it can take. It can be a very valuable tool for student governments in networking with one another, organizing activities, and searching out information.

Okay, How Do I Get Connected?

For those of you at universities, connecting to the Internet should be pretty simple. In most cases, you should be able to call up your institution's Computing Services department (or equivalent) and just ask. You might be pleasantly surprised and discover that all you need is a personal computer, an interface card, and some cable to plug into the wall, along with some software. If so, you're exceedingly lucky.

Chances are you might need to get a modem for your computer instead. (You'll always need a computer or terminal of some sort.) Then you'll dial in to your campus (or another one if yours doesn't have a connection) and go from there. If you have money to burn, you might even be able to pay to have a data cable wired into your offices, so you can work at the high speeds available from direct connection.

Regardless, you'll have to learn how to use some new computer programs. If you're dialing in to your university's system, you might have to learn some arcane commands. If you're fortunate, you can get programs for your Mac or MS-DOS machine to do those commands for you and present you with a friendly, windows-based user interface.

Finally, I should recommend a book to you. It's called The Whole Internet User's Guide and Catalog, by Ed Krol, and it's published by O'Reilly & Associates Inc. (its International Standard Book Number is 1-56592-025-2). Most bookstores carry it, since it was published recently, and it tells you everything I just have and tons more, only better and more accurately. It also has an index of some of the services available. I have excerpted the "service providers" section from the back of that book as an appendix to this report, so you can contact the organizations listed if calling your Computing Services department doesn't work.

That's it. I hope I've been able to give you a bit of a taste of how useful the Internet can be to a student association. If you have any questions, feel free to phone me at (604) 822-6868, fax (604) 822-9019, or, better yet, send me some e-mail at dkmiller@unixg.ubc.ca. Good luck.

Derek K. Miller
AMS Researcher
June 9, 1993

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