Redundancy exists in BIOSCI

macrides at macrides at
Wed Apr 28 18:51:16 EST 1993

ajt at (Tony Travis) wrote:
> Re-distribution of USENET news in the UK is strictly controlled by
> agreements between sites who obtain their newsfeed from UKNET and are
> not permitted to redistribute news to sites that do not contribute to
> the cost of bringing the feed over the Atlantic.
> There are, of course, several alternative USENET newsfeeds available
> commercially and I *could* make a case to the management here for us to
> subscribe to one of these, or for us to join UKNET.  I've also had some
> helpful discussions with Alan Bleasby and others at Daresbury about
> this but, on balance, it is easier to use the email distribution.

kristoff at NET.BIO.NET (Dave Kristofferson) wrote:
> As to the long term support of e-mail, we will continue to monitor the
> situation closely.  Right now, close to 60% of the respondents to the
> last survey (Oct. 92) were already using news.  We don't want to leave
> anyone in the lurch, but on the other hand we don't want to encourage
> people to persist with comfortable old habits.  This unfortunately
> creates a certain amount of dynamic tension which I don't think should
> be resolved currently.

smith-una at (Una Smith) wrote:
> Also, there are a number of LISTSERV features that I'd like for the BIOSCI
> lists, including automatic distribution of files when updates are received
> (sort of a custom periodic subscription separate from the mailing list). 
> This would be good for distribution of long documents.  I am still not
> comfortable distributing my 20 page FAQ to the bionet.general e-mail
> subscribers each month.  They should have the option of specifying whether
> they want to receive updates or not.  This feature could of course be used
> by Usenet readers as well.  I'd also like to be able to see who the e-mail
> subscribers are, or how many there are, or get a copy of the charter for
> only the group I'm interested in.

	Una is describing the fileserver component of the LISTSERV software.
There are specific fileserver packages which can do all of this and more
Though I'm not familiar with those for Unix, I doubt that a fileserver for
FAQ's, subscriber lists, etc. would be difficult to set up in BIOSCI (without
necessarily reviving LISTSERV lists as a component of it).

	Alternatively -- for those of us on the Internet -- several of these
things are already available, and much more could be, via gopher (a
menu-driven, easy to use, NEWS-reader-like Internet utility) and its gateways
to FTP and WAIS.  So we're back to the "dynamic tension" associated with
personal judgements about how, and how much, and how quickly, to push people
toward paying the additional costs associated with "premier" communication
systems (helping those systems expand and thereby reducing their per user
costs) -- versus servicing those who simply find email mechanisms more
"convienient" ("comfortable," "easy") -- versus not leaving those who *truly*
have no better alternative in the lurch.  How *does* the per user cost
associated with joining UKNET to get a USENET feed (and all the other Internet
services) presently compare with the *total* per user cost (not just local
cost) of continuing email subscriptions and having a local gateway to a NEWS
reader?  That's a very different question, with a very different set of
considerations, than "How can one maintain access to USENET while doing field
research in the Amazon?" or "How can I access USENET when my institution
cannot, or will not despite *serious* efforts, come up with the higher direct
institutional costs of Internet?"

	Ugh.  The more one tries to think this through (instead of doing
"productive tasks" 8-), the more complex it seems!

	Perhaps, within the context of this discussion and its background, our
own case history may have some instructional value.

	I set up an email-subscription-to-NEWS-reader local gateway system,
as Tony is advocating, years ago here, when we had become WANers in the
cheapest possibly way (via BITNET) -- so that we could access BIOSCI and
LISTSERV lists via a "sophistocated" and "convenient" (from my perspective)
NEWS reader.  And for years it remained a service primarily for post-docs and
students who came here already familiar with NEWS readers.  The "activation
energy" associated with learning the reader's command structure was too high
for the great majority of our faculty to switch from personal email.

	Among those who did use the reader, few if any who needed to read FAQs
actually read them if they were longer than a screen page or two.  It's much
easier and faster to email the FAQ to the system administrator.  If one
directed them back to the FAQ, the typical reply was, "Well gee, all I want to
know is ..."  There were some wonderful exceptions, but this was the rule, and
I suspect it is the rule not just here.  It's not "bad" people or "fools" who
follow this rule.  It's expected behavior from people under chronic pressure
to produce.

	What finally got us on the Internet?  When *prospective* post-docs
started asking whether they'd have access to Usenet and other Internet
resources if they accepted the offer and came here --  when it became clear to
enough of our faculty and administrators that having such access had become
part of an institution's "competitive edge."

	And then what happened?  Initially nothing.  So I broadcasted a
message about gopher, "explaining" that it was going to become the principal
mechanism for electronic communication with the GRANTING AGENCIES, and for
accessing and searching DATABASES, would in short time REPLACE our email
shells for these services, blah, blah, blah, exaggeration, exaggeration,
exaggertion, "so you'd all be WISE to start learning how to use it."

	Then users, including "middle cheese" and some "big cheese" faculty
members started playing with gopher -- really, just "playing," and were
intrigued.  It has a simple command structure, easy to master, and can lead
you down surpisingly interesting paths (though also just to garbage).

	Here's an interesting sequence of events.  One of our best faculty
members (IMHO), while "playing" with gopher, tried submitting "drosophila" as
a search term to Veronica.  He came up with numerous "interesting" hits and
started doing this regularly.  Based on what he read, he requested email
subscriptions to the drosophila and some other BIOSCI lists.  After reading
messages for a while via (rinky-dink) MAIL, he yesterday asked me for a
tutorial on using the NEWS reader, and for *explicit* instructions on how to
cancel his subscriptions in a manner which would not offend any of the
"stuffed shirts."

	He, and others who ought to read the BIOSCI FAQ are actually reading
it now.  Why?  Because Rob Harper broke it up into indexed *and* menu
accessible subsections on his BIOBOX.  It takes users only a few seconds to
find and read what they "only" want to know.  And in the process, they'll read
a few other things that they wondered about, but wouldn't have bothered to ask

	What's my point?  It's about the importance of play and having fun for
human beings.  How does something new and strange become familiar and
comfortable -- and useful?  By playing with it.  Typically, it's only after an
initial exploration of the new and strange, just playing with it to see what
it can do and can't do, that we start using it seriously and creatively to
enhance our "productivity."  That's how it works developmentally, and that's
how it works thoughout our lives.  An effective teacher understands and "takes
advantage" of this, and ceases to be as effective if he or she losses sight of

	I haven't followed what's happening in the MOO.  Is it's use by
biologists expanding rapidly, or did it become too serious and professional
too quickly?

	USENET has a tradition of combining recreation with serious,
professional communication.  Email lists emphasize the latter.  BIOSCI has its
origins in email lists, and is seeking to migrate as fully and quickly as
possible to a more premier technology while preserving its traditions of

	But I still think that the biggest hole in BIOSCI, and an impediment
to its yet more rapid growth, is that it has yet to create an "anything goes"
chat group.

	Nobody at our site will have read this far down into a message.  I
wonder if anybody is reading?

	I still haven't seen explicit answers to the most important (IMHO)
questions I asked.  What exactly are you seeking to nurish and make grow?  And
what's in a name (at the top of a hierarchy, or an FAQ, or a grant proposal)?
Are these meta-questions, or just questions we must each answer for ourselves?

	I love Steve's signature:  Lighten up, it's just a computer [and
uncertain funding] that doing this to you.


 Foteos Macrides           Worcester Foundation for Experimental Biology
 MACRIDES at SCI.WFEB.EDU     222 Maple Avenue, Shrewsbury, MA 01545

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