October 6, 2012

Make Usenet pan out: the Pan newsgroup reader, part 1

Make Usenet pan out: the Pan newsgroup reader, part 1
Figure 1
Figure 1: Pan’s set-up screen.

I originally planned this as a stand-alone article, but instead have decided to post it on the blog in three parts. Here’s part one; part two will be coming soon!

Internet social networks and online forums have become quite popular in recent years. However, there’s one online network that’s been around for quite a few years, and even pre-dates the World Wide Web itself: Usenet. Usenet is an Internet bulletin board forum-like discussion network that was created in 1979 by then-university students Tom Truscott and Jim Ellis. Usenet quickly become popular among Internet users as a means of online discussion, and stayed popular through the 1980s and into the 1990s. Usenet is also where some familiar online concepts and terms originated, including “spam” (though email also played a part in popularizing the term) and “FAQ” (frequently asked questions). It’s also where Linus Torvalds 20 years ago announced the introduction of his Linux project.

While the rise of the World Wide Web in the 1990s (plus the rise in the 2000s of social networks such as Facebook and Twitter) have diminished Usenet’s previous popularity, Usenet still may appeal to some as a discussion forum. (Yes, there’s piracy as well on Usenet, thanks to its support for binary files, but I won’t be discussing that here…) Usenet access was once an ubiquitous feature offered by commercial ISPs; however, many ISPs have ceased carrying Usenet in recent years. There are, however, a variety of private companies that offer stand-alone Usenet access, such as Giganews.

While modern email software such as Thunderbird can access Usenet newsgroups, there’s also various stand-alone Usenet newsreader programs available. One such program is Pan, a newsreader available for the GNOME desktop in Linux, but also has versions available for Windows, FreeBSD, NetBSD and OS X systems.

Installing Pan

Pan is included with many Linux distributions’ repositories. Use your distribution’s software installation procedure or program to install Pan.

Pan Set-up

Upon launching for the first time, Pan will popup a box allowing you to enter your Usenet server’s information, including: its address and port; your user name and password; and several connection settings, including the number of connections, when old articles should expire, and whether this is a primary or secondary server.

For the Usenet server, enter your Usenet provider’s server address in Pan’s address blank (example, “news.metropolis.com”), then enter the user name and password you set up with the Usenet provider (if it requires such, which most will). The connection, old article and primary server settings may be skipped for now.

Afterwards, the default Pan interface will appear (see Figure 2). Available newsgroups will be downloaded into Pan from the Usenet server. Once this is completed, you may use Pan to read desired newsgroups.

Figure 2
Figure 2: The default Pan interface, with a newsgroup and article selected.

Pan’s Interface

The default interface includes various menus and a toolbar, as well as three panes: “groups,” “headers,” and “body.” The groups pane lists the available newsgroups, as well as a list of “subscribed” newsgroups (a feature similar to bookmarks in a web browser). The headers pane lists all available articles within a newsgroup, while the body pane displays the text of a selected article. Similar to email programs, articles by default are displayed by Pan in a threaded format, with all responses to an article organized in a hierarchical manner.

The toolbar offers some functions, including: searching within the groups pane for a desired newsgroup(s); searching within articles; advancing to the next unread thread/newsgroup; or filtering articles based on unread status.

The menus consist of: File (including the ability to read stored articles offline); Edit (selecting articles, entering a Usenet server, editing your posting profile, adjusting general preferences for Pan); View (displaying read/unread articles, etc.); Go (advancing to the next thread, group, etc.); Groups (refreshing articles within a group, etc.); Articles (creating custom filters, saving articles to your computer); Post (posting a new article to a group); and Help, which simply opens Pan’s homepage within a browser; however, at the time of this writing, Pan doesn’t have a manual or much online documentation.

Reading Newsgroups

Figure 3
Figure 3: The popup box that displays when selecting a newsgroup.

To read a newsgroup, select from the groups pane a desired newsgroup, either by scrolling through the (usually lengthy) list of groups offered or by using the upper-left search box to narrow down the range of groups. For example, if I wanted to read rec.arts.tv (a group dedicated to discussing television programs/broadcasting), I’d either scroll down through the list, or enter the newsgroup’s name (or part of its name, such as “tv”) into the search box. Once the newsgroup is selected, Pan displays a popup box asking how many days’ worth of articles you wish to download (see Figure 3). This may be useful depending on how busy the newsgroup is; some groups feature heavy numbers of new posts per day, while others few. After clicking “OK,” Pan will display the newsgroup’s articles.

In part 2, I’ll discuss using Pan to post articles to Usenet.

Tags: LinuxnewsgroupsPanTechUsenet