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Letters to the editor by computer: How we did it

technofile  by al fasoldt

Columns and commentaries in a life-long dance with technology
 

Simple gray rule



Letters to the editor by computer: How we did it 


By Al Fasoldt

Copyright © 1990, The Syracuse Newspapers

Technology came to the editorial page a few months ago. The newspaper launched a new service that I created so readers could send letters to the editors electronically.

In some ways, the Syracuse Newspapers Telecommunications System is the best of all possible worlds: It allows readers with office PCs and home computers to send letters directly to us, bypassing the U.S. Mail and assuring instant delivery; and it makes our jobs easier by providing editors with letters that are already in electronic form—in other words, they don't have to be "typed up."

But the newspaper telecomm system is not what some callers think it is—a computer BBS. And it does not, at least at present, allow two-way communication.

To give you an idea of what the telecomm system is and how you can use it to best advantage, the editorial-page editors asked me to write this explanation. Clip this out and save it so you can use it when you call.

First, some background. As you may know already, typewriters and typing paper aren't used any more in the news business. Everything that appears in the paper has to go through a computer. All the words and even some of the pictures that we use are made up of computer data.

These computer-data words are written, stored, edited and set into type electronically. We use small computers just like the ones that you or your neighbors have to write some of our stories on, but we mostly use large computers—the kind that are as big as refrigerators—to do our editing and typesetting.

Stories and other things like stock-market lists come into our big computers by outside connections. Sometimes these connections are fed by satellite dishes (and you can see one right in our parking lot if you look closely), but sometimes they come in over regular telephone lines.

But these large computers are dumb when they use the phones. They don't talk back—in computer terms, that is—to the outside computers that are calling in. That's fine when everyone using the computers is experienced, but it spells disaster otherwise.

So I created a smart system, one that talks back when you call. It tells you exactly how to send a letter or a note, and it even lets you look up explanations of words or terms that you may not recognize. And of course, like any good telecommunications system, it has instant help on-line in the form of menus and short descriptions.

This is what the caller sees. But what the caller doesn't see is even smarter. Unlike any other setup in use around the country, the Syracuse Newspapers Telecommunications System automatically stores and passes on the letters and notes it receives—after first verifying that everything has arrived in proper shape.

If you don't mind my own back-patting, I'd like to say that I'm especially proud of the way the telecomm system keeps all calls separate from those big, dumb computers at our office. There is no physical connection at all, and there isn't any way for a prankster or sinister hacker to worm his way into our mainframe computers by calling the telecomm system.

But this also means there is no way that our mainframe computers can lose the letters you send, since they are stored separately on the telecomm computer. And you can also be assured that there is also no way that anyone else can read your remarks while they are being stored.

All you need to send us a letter electronically is a computer with a modem. A modem attaches to your computer by a wire or sometimes can be plugged into the inside of your computer, out of sight. Any kind of computer will do—an Apple II, an IBM compatible, a Macintosh, a Commodore 64, a NeXT, a genuine IBM, an Amiga, an ST, an Adam, an Atari XE, a TI, an Eagle, an old Kaypro—anything. It doesn't even have to be a personal computer or home computer, since you could even call our system from a mainframe computer or a work station such as a Sun or an Apollo.

If you don't already have a modem, you will need to buy one. You should buy one that is Hayes-compatible if you have a PC in the IBM-compatible class, a Mac, an ST or an Amiga. You might be able to use a Hayes-compatible modem with other home computers, depending on how it is hooked up. (Check your local store to find out.)

Your computer needs a software program so that it will use the modem properly. Sometimes, such programs come on discs packed in the modem box. And sometimes you get the software free from a friend who already has the same kind of computer. (But don't take it if it's not a freeware or shareware program, since it's illegal to copy commercial programs.)

Since software should make your computer easy to use, not hard, I recommend that you stay away from programs that require a degree in calculus or electronics. My favorites are Procomm and Procomm Plus for the IBM and all IBM-compatibles, and Microphone II for the Macintosh. Procomm is a shareware program; the other two are commercial.

I've set up the newspaper telecomm system so that it works like a computer bulletin board system—a BBS. But it's not a BBS in the strict definition of the term, which means a central computer system that allows callers to share messages and files. You can send texts to our system, and you can even send messages to me, but for now, at least, you won't be able to get any answers. It's not a two-way system as presently set up. (I may add a limited message-handling program later if it seems necessary.)

You also can't send or receive files as you can on a BBS. This may change in the future, if there is a demand for it.

The other aspect of our telecomm system that is unlike a BBS is something called duplex. This odd word—which sounds like a real-estate term—refers to the way computers talk back and forth. Full duplex means that the computer on the other end is sending your computer's own keystrokes back to your screen; half duplex means that this out-and-back connection is bypassed. (This explanation may not sound like the way duplex is described in your modem or software manual, but it's correct.)

All BBS systems run in full duplex, but the newspaper telecomm system runs in half duplex. Be sure you set the duplex properly, either in your software or your modem, before you call.


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