TFM:The Usenet News Service

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The Usenet News Service

Piers Johnson


Describing Network News to someone who has never encountered it before is exceedingly difficult. For this reason I choose not to and will instead give you a brief overview of trade restraints within the Hansa League in the Middle Ages.

The Hansa League and Trade in the Middle Ages

The Hansa League, as most of you at this seminar well know, became one of the major economic forces of the Middle Ages. Much of Scandinavia, the Baltic states, northern Germany and Poland had their foreign trade controlled by the League; an assemblage of merchants who combined for their common good in order to control exports and imports...

Return to the Fold

OK, back to the news. Really, news isn't that hard to understand. It is the propagation of articles of general or specialised interest to a worldwide audience through the medium of the Internet (and understanding news administrators). Through it you, gentle reader, may garner access to all manner of information, be it useful news, useless arguements, theses, press releases, apologies from Microsoft (I don't think so..), apologies to Microsoft (never!), source code, binaries of that code, binaries of a more prurient nature, images (of a suprising range of subjects), politics, and a myriad of diuerse obiects.

The groups that you've heard about in Google Groups are in fact news groups.[1] This is where it all started.

Useful news jargon

  • Thread: subject matter - articles on the same subject (usually as follow-ups to other articles) are said to have the same thread. Also applicable to mailing lists.
  • Spam/spammed: an article which is posted to multiple mewsgroups, especially if posted several times, is said to be spammed (from the Monty Python joke).

The merits (and otherwise) of different news readers

You can use Pine to read news. I wouldn't; the interface is terrible and most ordinary news actions other than reading are difficult to perform. The only person I know who uses it does so only for saving articles as standard mailbox items (You may wish to read about mail elsewhere to understand what the hell I'm talking about). Actually, it's good for Base64 encoded files, if they're in one part.

We will be talking about two news readers for Unix-based systems -- tin and nn. These cater for different kinds of Unix users:

tin is highly configurable, and your average geek will spend hours, days, even months tweaking their tin configuration to get the most out of it. They will probably never actually get around to reading any news with it, but will have fun anyway. My major complaint about tin is that it seems to create fictitous news groups which you enter only to find that there are no articles in them, despite the main index's claim that it has 7193 articles in it. tin arranges articles by thread, and you have to read all of it to read any of it.

nn is plain nice. It starts up by just throwing you into a news group, and you can read whatever you want. Threads are not collated as in tin, which means you have pages of articles to wade through, but at least you can see them, and choose those you want to read. You can configure nn to collect articles in the way that tin does. Any newly created groups which have appeared at your site are automatically subscribed to, so you will find your range of groups changing slightly each time you read. You can always unsubscribe from these new groups when you enter them by typing U.

Instruction in the ways of News

Getting started with news is easy: type the command for your preferred news reader, and away you go! Subscribed newsgroups will automatically be presented for your perusal whenever you read news. When you first read news, all newsgroups will be subscribed to and you will have the choice of either unsubscribing from them one by one, or using the option nn -a0, if you use nn, to update newsgroups (you will have had to have read news at least once to be able to do this), or you can edit the .newsrc file which appears in your home directory using your favourite editor. Or by typing:

 mv .newsrc .newsrc.bak
 sed 's/:.*/\!/' .newsrc.bak > .newsrc

Most news readers let you do the same things:[2]

read articles

Select them by their identifying numbers or letters, then return over highlighted article in tin or Z in nn to read. When reading the articles, you can return to the index by pressing q in tin or = in nn. In nn, if you wish to go back to an article, p will take you there; if an article bores you, n will take you to the next one as quickly as possible.

have your say

(respond to articles) There are a lot of ways to do this: (nn/tin: r to reply privately to the author; f to reply to the newsgroup newgroup at large; m to send some amusing or entertaining news to your nearest and dearest. This all works in the same way as writing ordinary e-mail, except that you'll be using vi to do the editing.

be original and creative

Nothing could be easier! (unless you suffer from writer's block) In nn, you will type :post (the initial colon is important). nn will then ask for a group. If you want to post to the current group, just press return; otherwise, enter the group to which you wish to post an article. The same procedure as for replying to articles. In tin you use w to post to the current group.

hoard treasures

(saving articles) Again, there are many options here. tin and nn let you save them as standard unformatted text files. nn has three ways of doing this (apart from using m to forward an article to yourself): S saves the article with all of its headers. The headers tell you who posted the article, where from, etc. There are occasions when this information is useful (but not many). O saves the article with minimal headers and footers (who from/where). W saves the article after stripping the headers, which can be very useful. To save several articles into different files is difficult in nn - tin is better for this. tin allows you to save to a file with the s command. You are prompted for what you want to do with the saved files by tin.

Here follows a recording of an nn session, followed by a tin session; the two annotated for your greater edification:

 user@niflheim:~$ nn
 Connecting to NNTP server news ...
 Connecting to NNTP server news ... ok (posting is allowed)

[brief pause while nn gets its head together, drinks some coffee and wakes up]

If you've never used nn before, or have thoughtlessly deleted your .newsrc files and the .nn/ directory, you'll see this:

 Welcome to the nn news reader                           Release 6.5.0 (NOV)
 Unlike the other news readers you might be familiar with, the ultimate
 goal of nn is "not to read news"; actually, "nn" is an acronym for "No
 News", and the motto of nn is:

No news is good news, but nn is better.

 I hope that you will enjoy using nn.
 Three levels of online help is available:
 ?      gives a quick reference guide for the current mode.
 :help  explains how to get help on specific subjects.
 :man   opens the online manual.
 Use Q to quit nn.
 Have fun,
 Kim Fabricius Storm
 Texas Instruments A/S
 Hit any key to continue

After that introductory screen, you will enter news as normal, and see something a bit like this:

 Release 6.5.0 (NOV),  Kim F. Storm, 1991
 [blank space deleted]
 Enter alt.usage.english (193 unread)?

nn is asking me if I want to continue reading the group I was reading when last I read some news. If I type y, I would see the following:

 Newsgroup: alt.usage.english                     Articles: 194 of 7080/57 READ
 a.Truly Donovan    21  >Nouns becoming verbs
 b.Steve Hayes      20  >>
 c.Geist             8  sick as a dog
 d.J.M.King         13  >
 e.Dave Gardner     88  >>>Political Use of Language

However, I didn't want to do that, so I typed n, and was taken to the first group in the index which I am subscribed to and has at least one unread article:

 Newsgroup: alt.activism                               Articles: 1 of 10551/142
 a Jeremiah A Blatz 59  Dangerous Gun thoughts lose On InterNet
 -- 11:38 -- SELECT -- help:? -----All-----

But! I didn't actually want to read this, so I decide to GOTO another group, so I press G [note upper case]. The bottom line of the news (-- 11:38...) changes to:

 Group or Folder (+./~ %=sneN)

I've typed in the name of the group in full above, but I could have truncated it. (e.g. taran ) nn in this case would have prompted me with:

 Goto ? 

If I pressed n, I would have been given the message:

 No more groups matching `taran'

If I pressed y the bottom line would change to:

 Number of articles (juasne)  (j) 

and at the bottom of the shell there would be:

 Use: j)ump u)nread a)ll @)archive s)ubject n)ame e)ither or number

I chose j to see only unread articles, and move the current group marker:

 Newsgroup:                         Articles: 46 of 10505/135
 a Skander Halim    27  >Serious Discussion!!!!!
 b Nigel Floyd       8  >Pulp Fiction is art
 c JOHN MCDONALD     8  bubbles in syringe
 -- 11:42 -- SELECT -- help:? -----Top 20%-----

[A short time later, I'm reading food groups..]

 Newsgroup:                        Articles: 24 of 10459/134
 a M Al-nuaimy      32  >>can anyone id this chocolate bar?
 b Peter Gainsford   7  >
 c M Al-nuaimy      84  >Still Looking for DOWN UNDER
 d Jenna Bishop     14  >*REAL* Chocolate covered cookies.

I'm going to forward through groups one by one expilictly now. I press A (to advance to the next group, even if unsubscribed). The bottom line becomes:

 Enter (UNSUB) ?  (ABGNPy) 

The options in brackets are A - advance to next group B - back to previous group G - enter name of group (Goto - see above) N - advance to next SUBSCRIBED group P - go to SUBSCRIBED group before that listed y - go to the listed group. If you press ESC, you will return to reading. return is the same as y.

You can always press ? for a context-sensitive help screen.

I then press Q to leave nn (I could use :x to quit without saving any updates, or start with nn -x to start in No Update Mode). Read the man page for nn - it will tell you all about the command line options.

[shortly afterwards, I start a tin session...]

 user@niflheim:~$ tin
 rtin 1.2 PL0 (c) Copyright 1991-93 Iain Lea.
 Connecting to
 Reading news active file...
 Reading attributes file...
 Reading newsgroups file...
                 rtin 1.2 PL0 (c) Copyright 1991-93 Iain Lea.
 Welcome to tin, a full screen threaded Netnews reader. It can read news locally
 (ie. <spool>/news) or remotely (-r option) from a NNTP  (Network News Transport
 Protocol) server. tin -h lists the available command line options.
 Tin has five  newsreading levels,  the newsgroup  selection page,  the spooldir
 selection page,  the group index page,  the thread listing page and the article
 viewer. Help is available at each level by pressing the 'h' command.
 Move up/down by using the terminal arrow keys or 'j' and 'k'.  Use PgUp/PgDn or
 Ctrl-U and Ctrl-D to page up/down. Enter a newsgroup by pressing RETURN.
 Articles, threads, tagged articles or articles matching a pattern can be mailed
 ('m' command), printed ('o' command), saved ('s' command), piped ('|' command).
 Use the 'w' command  to post  a news  article,  the 'f'/'F' commands to  post a
 follow-up  to  an existing  news article and the 'r'/'R' commands to  reply via
 mail to an existing news articles author.  The 'M' command allows the operation
 of tin to be configured via a menu.
 For more information read the manual page, README, INSTALL, TODO and FTP files.
 Please send bug reports/comments to the programs author with the 'R' command.
 		  -- Press any key to continue --

Upon pressing a key, I am presented with the main index screen, below:

 	       Group Selection (  241)             h=help
      1        alt.activism                              Activities for activi
      2        alt.artcom                                Artistic Community, a
      3        alt.boostagogo                                                 
      4    81  alt.cult-movies                           Movies with a cult fo
      <n>=set current to n, TAB=next unread, /=search pattern, c)atchup,
   g)oto, j=line down, k=line up, h)elp, m)ove, q)uit, r=toggle all/unread,
     s)ubscribe, S)ub pattern, u)nsubscribe, U)nsub pattern, y)ank in/out

I see that alt.cult-movies has some articles in it (the second column reads '81'), so I decide to read them. I move my cursor down to that line, and press return.

 		       alt.cult-movies (69T 81A 0K 0H R)                  h=help
    1  +    Most Depressing Film                            Ken Merrell       
    2  +    Blood Sucking Freaks.                           thomas conroy     
    3  + 2  I'm on my way home to watch Suspiria            thomas conroy     
    4  +    Pulp Briefcase                                  Gregory Paul Boeme
   <n>=set current to n, TAB=next unread, /=search pattern, ^K)ill/select,
   a)uthor search, c)atchup, j=line down, k=line up, K=mark read, l)ist thread,
   |=pipe, m)ail, o=print, q)uit, r=toggle all/unread, s)ave, t)ag, w=post

The cryptic top line, "(69T 81A 0K 0H R)" means that there are 69 threads in 81 articles, and some other stuff nobody seems to understand[3]. Don't worry about it. I don't.

I decide to read thread 3 I'm on my way home to watch Suspira. I move my cursor, and press return. If I wished to read more than one thread, I could tag the index entries (using t), and press return when I wanted to read them all. I see the first message in the thread:[4]

 Tue, 31 Jan 1995 13:25:14       alt.cult-movies             Thread    3 of   69
 Lines 3             I'm on my way home to watch Suspiria    8 Responses                               thomas conroy at Boston University
 I am really excited to have found this at the video store since it is said to
 be brilliant. I'll certainly post my reaction, but feel free, one and all, to
 say anything about this flick.
   <n>=set current to n, TAB=next unread, /=search pattern, ^K)ill/select,
   a)uthor search, B)ody search, c)atchup, f)ollowup, K=mark read,
   |=pipe, m)ail, o=print, q)uit, r)eply mail, s)ave, t)ag, w=post

The bottom lines show you (some) options. There are more than these; I tend to use n to read the next article, rather than TAB.

You can press h at any time in tin to get a help screen. The general screen you would get here is two pages long, so I shan't include it here.

I now finish reading the thread. I then return to the group index. Notice that it has changed slightly:

alt.cult-movies (68T 77A 0K 0H R) You have mail

    1  +    Blood Sucking Freaks.                           thomas conroy     
    2       I'm on my way home to watch Suspiria            thomas conroy     
    3       Pulp Briefcase                                  Gregory Paul Boeme

The + 2 for Suspira has disappeared, because I've read the thread. The top line has changed to indicated how many threads and articles have been dispensed with. Strangely, one other thread, Most Depressing Film, which had one article in it, has also disappeared, which is why Suspira is now No. 2 instead of No. 3.

tin just does this stuff by itself - articles vanish without trace before your eyes, and that spammed article will not go away no matter how many times you delete it. Maybe I should send them a bug report...

  1. And the news that you've heard about in Google News has nothing to do with usenet news at all.
  2. A comprehensive list of functions appears at the end of this chapter.
  3. Okay, the R tells me I'm only reading unread articles. Try using the toggle r to see what happens to it.
  4. My pet hatred of tin: Why do I have to read the whole thread when I only want a couple of the articles in it?
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