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Newsgroups–MP3s the Hard Way

There is another way in which the wily hunter might track down the elusive MP3 song. This is using the newsreader built into your Internet browser. In a nutshell, this is a primitive way to get MP3s or any other type of file. Newsgroups, which communicate over a worldwide network called Usenet, are a leftover from the earlier days of the Internet when it was entirely text-based and its primary use was the exchange of notes, messages, and other information that could be expressed by the alphabet, numerals, and ordinary punctuation.

MP3 Fiend provides Billboard magazine's latest charts for rock, rhythm and blues, rap, country, dance, and adult contemporary songs.

The "news" part of the name is a misnomer. They are really message groups–electronic bulletin boards where everyone reads and replies to everyone else's messages. Each new message can start a thread, which is a linked string of answers and replies. Each newsgroup has a specialized area of common interest. For example, alt.binaries.sounds.mp3 is a newsgroup devoted to MP3s. The topics can get endlessly specific, such as alt.sounds.mp3.80s.billyidol.albumsonly. The "alt" means alternative, but not alternative music. Instead, it describes a type of newsgroup that doesn't have all the rules and moderation that other newsgroups have. Binaries tells you to expect to find binary files–non-text files that include computer-readable-only data, such as MP3 files, graphics, or software. You can find newsgroups on practically any subject. It's not unusual for a news server, where the messages physically reside, to have 50,000 topics going at the same time.

Although news servers are designed to handle text only, someone figured out how to use newsgroups to distribute binary files, which use codes other than those that represent the alphabet. The trick to distributing MP3s via newsgroups is to translate binary codes into combinations of alphanumeric characters. The result, when you open such a message, looks like nonsense to us, but a computer on the receiving end easily converts the gibberish into usable code or data.


I don't want to give the impression that newsgroups are used only for distributing bootleg Britney Spears songs. They're also used to distribute nude Britney Spears photos–or at least pix that make that claim–along with other, more genuinely raunchy stuff.

If this seems a roundabout way of doing things, you're right. The advantage of newsgroups is that you can leave a message asking for some obscure song, and someone else with your weird tastes in music, just to be nice, might post the song there. This would probably all be very touching if fundamentally we weren't talking about violating federal law. With the exception of some MP3s from bands, such as the Grateful Dead, which encourage taping of their concerts and so fall into a legal limbo, you can be certain that any popular song you find posted on a newsgroup is illegal.

Not that I care. I'm just going to show you how to find MP3s in newsgroups. In the next chapter, you'll see how to download and decode them. Then you're on your own.

Finding News Servers

If you haven't set up any newsgroups before, that's your first job. When you signed up for Internet service, whoever's providing that service should have told you the name of its network news transfer protocol (NNTP) server and whether you need to log on and use a password to get to it. There are three types of news servers:

Free News Servers aren't necessarily free by intention. These are often servers that have been configured incorrectly so that they don't require usernames and passwords. Other servers are free intentionally, but might allow you to only read messages, not post them.

Commercial News Servers charge a subscription fee monthly, quarterly, or yearly. In return, they provide faster service, more reliability, and a wider range of newsgroups than do public servers.

Web-Based News Servers have integrated the drab text of traditional news servers with the graphic look of a Web page. Messages are easier to navigate using the ol' point-and-click. Deja, at deja.com, has done the best job of civilizing newsgroups.

Even if you already have a news server, you can tap into others. Not all news servers have the same contents. This means that if you can't find the song you want in one server's newsgroups, maybe you can find it in another's. To find some news servers that will let you hitch a ride, go to http://www.newsservers.net/ and click on the Servers tab. Then scroll on down past the text and click on Complete List of Free News Servers. Or, just go directly to http://www.newsservers.net/news_servers/complete.html. (Another good site is http://usenet.startshere.net/.) You'll see a list similar to the one shown in Figure 3.9. The list of free connections at Free Usenet Servers includes the numerical name of the site in the xxx.xxx.xxx.xxx. format, followed by the site's text name. For example, the first listing in this screen– (dp-news.maxwell.syr.edu)–identifies an open server at Syracuse University. The list also gives you information about the site so you can determine if the site is fast enough, big enough, and stable enough for you to link to.

Figure 3.9 News servers. Whether you use a news server associated with your Internet provider or one of the publicly, if unintentionally, free servers, you must add the server to your newsreader. Many newsreaders are available as shareware. We're going to stick with one that comes with Windows in the form of Outlook Express, which also handles email.

Outlook Express–not Outlook, which is a more powerful program that comes with Microsoft Office–provides a Wizard that steps you through the process. Launch Outlook, click the Tools menu, and choose Accounts. In the Internet Accounts dialog box that pops up, click the News tab. You'll be presented with a list of any news servers to which you've already created links. To add a new news server, click the Add button and then News.

This starts up the Internet Connection Wizard. Most likely, the wizard will already have the first two items it presents for you to fill in: your display name and email address. Change them if you want to be more mysterious. The third wizard screen asks you to type the name of your Internet News (NNTP) server. Fill in the name you received from your Internet provider or one that you've found in a list of free news servers. The name you type will look something like that in Figure 3.10. Don't check the box about requiring a password unless you've been told to by your Internet service provider.

Figure 3.10 News wizard. You're not limited to only your Internet provider's news servers. There are others, and they're free for the picking.

Click Next and then Finish. The wizard sends you back to the Internet Accounts dialog, where the news server will have freshly appeared on the list of accounts. The name of the newly added server also appears in the menu on the left side of Outlook Explorer's main screen.

Close the Internet Accounts dialog box. Because you haven't used that news server before, you're asked if you'd like to download newsgroups. Yes, you would. In a few moments, Outlook Express displays a Newsgroup Subscription list that starts off much like the list in Figure 3.11, where newsgroups named with numbers have been sorted to the top of the list. Page down through the list a couple of screens just to get an idea of what it's like. Each one of the items in the list is a separate newsgroup, filled with messages and replies on whatever topic is suggested by the newsgroup's name. Newsgroups are organized into subject hierarchies, with the first few letters of the newsgroup name indicating the major subject category. Major subject categories are news, rec (recreation), soc (society), sci (science), and comp (computers). The names of sub-categories are separated by dots.

Figure 3.11 Newsgroup subscriptions. When Outlook Express's Internet Connection Wizard prompts you, enter the name of a news server to which you want access.

With tens of thousands of newsgroups, you need to narrow down the list by typing "mp3" in the box beneath the instruction "Display newsgroups which contain:". Checking the box to the right, "Also search descriptions" will be more thorough in dredging up groups associated with MP3, but it greatly increases the time the search takes. Most of the time, you can safely leave it unchecked. That way, it takes Outlook no time at all to display a shorter list in which every entry has "mp3" somewhere in its name, like these examples:












If a newsgroup sounds interesting, double-click it to subscribe.

On my computer, as I'm writing this, the complete MP3 list contains 286 newsgroups, with a variety that runs from Beatles to bluegrass, jazz to ninja, acid rock to gospel.

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