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Use the Internet for Your Club

Most clubs, family groups, or neighborhood associations are held together by one loyal volunteer who does all the work. This limits the scope of the club to what one person is able to do in spare time. When that central person gets tired of it or moves away, things tend to fall apart. In the spirit of encouraging more volunteerism, this article suggests some ways the home computer can easily automate the normal drudgery of running a club. Having just performed this task for the local computer society, I can report it takes about two hours to put it together. If I did it three times, it would take forty-five minutes. A rank beginner, who doesn't even know what the words mean, might take all day to do it, but no more than that.

Most of the programs a club would need were first developed for people on the go, like a salesman who visits several cities, or a college student who commutes. It's an easy step to imagine different club members in different places instead of one person in several places. Electricity travels so fast that connecting computers together over the whole world's Internet can be thought of as essentially creating one big computer. For practical purposes, it doesn't matter whether a piece of information is in two parts of one computer or in two different computers hooked together by the Internet. The whole process is so cheap it might just as well be free.

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The new Macintosh Mac Mini
is designed for people who already have a keyboard and monitor,
such as existing PC users, who might want to switch.

Selection of Computer and Operating System. Over ninety percent of the world's home computers are based on the Windows operating system, but Windows is having a lot of trouble right now with viruses and spam. Right now is Apple's big chance, because the Apple OS X operating system, based on Unix, seems to be immune to viruses and spam. So, if you are buying a new computer, I suggest you look at Apple's headless version. That's a little six-inch box to which you attach the monitor, keyboard and printer that presumably you have left over from some Windows system. Times will change, but right now this five hundred dollar little headless job is worth the money. That's for the club secretary; all the club members can use any kind of machine they happen to have, at least for read-only use.

Router. If you have several computers on one telephone line, you need a router to send the right signals to each machine. Because the router changes the identification numbers every time it is restarted, it tends to foil the buccaneers out there who are trying to find your credit card. Therefore, it's not a bad idea to have a router attached, even if you only have it connected to a single computer. Security folks say it takes about fifteen minutes for some buccaneer to find a newly installed computer, and most banks get several hundred break-in attempts every hour. That's because everybody is getting automated these days, including criminals.

Choice of Browser. After you get set up and organized and all, you need to download the Fire fox browser, which right now is faster and more spam-proof than either Internet Explorer or Netscape. Go to some other browser and enter http://www.mozilla.org/products/firefox/ . There's no harm in having several browsers sitting on your computer, including Opera if you like, but right now Fire fox is the one to use. A browser, in case you care, is a program that takes a stream of Internet data and translates it into the image on your screen, sort of like translating Morse code into a telegram. Some browsers are lean, mean and fast, while others are loaded with a lot of bells and whistles that slow them down. If you can't see any difference by trying them, go with the one that gives you most spam protection.

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You can have a personal calendar by clicking on
http://calendar.yahoo.com

Yahoo Calendar. There are lots of computer calendars, but right now Yahoo offers one that is somewhat better for public use by clubs. For an illustration, take a look at the Philadelphia Orchestra calendar that can be located on Philadelphia Reflections in the lower left column, by first clicking the Philadelphia Calendars button, and then clicking the link to the Orchestra's schedule. Naturally, the Orchestra doesn't want people changing their public schedule, so the calendar is read only. You can create a calendar like this for your club or organization by going to www.calendar.yahoo.com and entering an identifier and password. You can only change the calendar if you have the password, so be careful who is allowed to have it. If you make a misjudgment about this, just abandon the calendar and start a new one. You can of course create a personal calendar for yourself; it would be nice to merge your calendar with organization calendars. Calendar-merge programs do exist, but presently are a little primitive. Even nicer would be the ability to drag and drop individual events from one calendar to the other, but that's mostly on the wish list.

Yahoo Address Book. There are zillions of address books, but Yahoo provides a public one, if you allow club members to know the password. On the one hand, it's a big convenience for the secretary to have everybody fill in his own data. It can take ten or fifteen minutes apiece to complete all that information. On the other hand, if just anybody can have all this data, you can expect to get lots of unwanted solicitations. Naturally, you want to keep intruders from altering the data, but whether or not you make your membership list public is your own decision. So, probably you want to transfer the data to a list that you keep private, using a system of letting people enter data, and then erasing it after it is transferred.

Listserv. A very handy tool is to create a listserv, which is a system of e-mail that is sent to everyone on the list, and everyone can chime in with comments. It makes for a lot of local excitement, and it keeps families together, including reunion classes from all the schools you went to, 'way back then. If the Rs and the Ds get to bashing each other on the Listserv, you will learn the value of designating some sober soul to be list master, given the power to exile people whose mouths get too noisy.

Minutes and History as Blogs. Most clubs keep minutes, and after a while they start to record their history. It's a lot of work, and often gets lost; furthermore, it's hard for anyone but the author to read. We suggest you create a blog, and hang it on the Internet.

While there are a dozen programs and systems for creating blogs (that's short for Web logs), Google has bought blogger.com from that company, and has pepped it up quite a lot. Like the rest of these ideas, this one is free, and there are several million of these in existence. Sometimes people write poetry in the form of blogs, and some other people put up some pretty raunchy pictures or commentary. Apparently Google doesn't care, so they shouldn't mind if you publish the minutes of the East Whipswitch Cooking Society as blogs. It's very easy to do, and their canned templates produce some pretty elegant web sites in minutes. That's right, minutes in minutes.

Finances and Newsletters. Clubs typically collect dues or charge for luncheons, but financial stuff on the Internet is more complicated and must be dealt with in a later article. Similarly, you can publish a newsletter using RSS that is very spiffy indeed, but that's really hard to explain, and must be described in a separate article, too. Anyway, these preliminary items are enough to keep a new club busy for a few months.

Fast User Switching. Other operating systems will surely imitate it, but Apple is at present where you have to go to make a separate computer section for your club. Apple originally had the idea that several people would use the same machine, and want to keep their data secret from each other. So, they have a system in which you can click the upper right corner of the screen, and you can place yourself in a secret room with its own password. We suggest that it would be better to see this as a new desktop. All graphical interfaces of all computer operating systems use the metaphor of a desktop, which is what suggested to me that the club needs a desktop like my own. That is, it's littered with half-finished business of a dozen sorts, suddenly abandoned when the phone rings or a visitor arrives. You would like to be able to come back to your desktop and take up your work where you left off. For that, you probably need several desktops, and that's what fast user shifting provides you. Not vitally essential, but very convenient.

Favicons. Especially if you have fast user desktops specially designated by work topics instead of people, you can really use the favicon, or favorite icon, feature. A favicon is the little miniature do-hickey to the left of the webpage URL in the URL box. Maybe you never noticed it, but it's usually there. If you take your mouse and drag the favicon onto the desktop (you may have to shift something to create some blue sky desktop room) a new icon will appear on the desktop. Close up and click on that new icon, and you will open up a browser and go right to the page you were using when you created the icon. This is such a real neat feature that your desktop is apt to fill up quickly with a lot of web pages you happened to come across. It doesn't take long for the favicons to choke the desktop into uselessness, so this feature is at its best in a system where the topics of general utility to the user are sub-set by fast user switching.

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Apache has the largest share of the market
and is available for most computers.

Your Own Website. Apache. Your club will soon get the idea that you need your own website, but in fact you already have several of them. Your calendar, address book, club minutes blog, club history blog already add up to four websites. To most people, having their own website means consolidating all this material into one elegant page, with photos and artwork. You can do that, but it's much harder, and you first need to see if you really have a need for that. By far the easiest way for amateurs to have a website is to pay somebody a couple hundred dollars to write the code for it, and pay an Internet provider ten or twenty dollars a month to display it for you.

But for advanced players, like a club of computer professionals and particularly if that club runs a little on the snooty side and highly prizes its privacy, it might want to consider going all the way and becoming its own Internet provider. In that rather special case, it brings us back to Apple, since the OS X system includes a free copy of Apache, the program for running your own site on your own computer. Now, that's really a big undertaking, far beyond the average club. So if privacy of that order is mandatory, you may have to hire someone to set it up for you. But Apache sure makes it possible, if that's where you feel you want to go.

Your Own Newslettter. First, take a look at what you are trying to achieve, and a handy example would be http://www.yahoo.com/.

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Yahoo

You will see it is not a daily or a weekly, it is continuous. The page of the newspaper is a montage of ten or twelve blocks on a page. For example, one block might display the month's schedule, another shows sports scores, another shows the stock market, etc. Each one of those blocks is probably updated at a different time, making this a continuous newsletter. Of course there is a way provided to individualize the blocks of space, change the color schemes, etc. Since this newsletter is on the Internet, anyone can read it from anywhere in the world, at any time. That is, they can read it if they know the password, which some clubs want to keep private, and others prefer to skip because it is a nuisance when people forget what the password is and call you up at home after midnight to ask for it.

What underlies this process is a technique known as RSS. Each block of space in the newspaper is operating on a different scheduling, and each blocks "polls" a donor site every so often, for example fifteen minutes. The polling program calls the URL of each donor site at a preset time, where a record is kept of the last time the site was modified. If the site has been changed since that last visit of the polling program, the new site is downloaded to the newsletter page. If there has been no change, the polling program simply goes on to the next-scheduled site. In effect, the polling program is acting as a "robot". Modifications of this system, with considerable elaboration, are at the heart of the Google robot and other robots for other purposes. Generally speaking, the ordinary user doesn't have to know how to construct one of these robots, or modify one. No doubt, there will be extensive elaboration of this concept in the near future, but that's essentially how you can construct a usable newsletter in short order.

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