I have to confess that I’ve been playing hooky from blog posting for a few days because of a new guilty pleasure I’ve taken up: newsgroups. What, you say? Newsgroups? Didn’t they go the way of the dodo bird a few years ago? Weren’t they supplanted by discussion forums? That’s what I thought until I discovered BINARY newsgroups. They still have a lot of the quirky, semi-functional personality of newsgroups of old, but they have a new capability that makes them fairly irresistible if you’re an inveterate collector as I am (well, I’m not a fanatic about it but I do allow myself to get carried away).
Binary newsgroups are (and this is my perspective based on my limited experience) an alternative to peer to peer networks. I’m guessing that a combination of the poor quality, limited selection and availability, and interrupted downloads of the P2P networks plus the looming copyright infringement lawsuits against many providers encouraged folks to look for alternatives. And binary newsgroups are one such alternative.
Binary newsgroups are NOT like standard text newsgroups. You upload files of various types (jpgs, video, mp3s, etc.). So you cannot use a standard news reader like Outlook Express because it will only read text files. You have to purchase a binary news reader like Newsbin. Actually, calling it a news reader is a bit of a misnomer since its primary purpose is to download the binary files posted in the newsgroup. But since there isn’t very much, if any standard text to read in these posted files, I guess it doesn’t much matter.
But let’s get to the good stuff. I love world music and traditional music of all kinds. So I found alt.binaries.mp3.sounds.world-music and was amazed by what I found. Files of the most rare and wonderful music imaginable. And not just individual songs as you find on P2P networks, but entire albums. And also unlike the P2P services, downloads (even large ones) using Newsbin take mere moments (since you’re dependent only on your own download bandwidth and not on the other party’s as with P2P). Though I don’t know much about the technical aspects of binary files, I’m guessing that the fact that each individual song is divided into separate packets for upload (I think this is something like how Bittorrent works, isn’t it?) speeds up both the upload and download process.
Imagine if you will record racks containing thousands of albums long out of print. Ones you remember from decades ago. Ones that you last heard on LP and have long given up hope of ever hearing again. Well, that’s alt.binaries.mp3.sounds.world-music. It contains the long forgotten, the classic and lost, and even the current hot world music records. And they’re right at your fingertips. Here are a few of the songs I’ve found there:
‘Gold Dust’ Live at the Royalty, Sandy Denny & Fairport Convention, Who Knows Where the Time Goes
Dublin To Dakar – A Celtic Odyssey, Alan Stivell With Youssou N’dour, A United Earth I
Sharon Shannon, Anachie Gordon
A Few More From the Folk Shelf, The Fugs, Nothing
In my particular case, the world-music newsgroup is a godsend because I’m always looking to post world music for my mp3 blog. It costs a damn lot of money to buy every CD which has a single song you need for your blog post. If the album’s an import it can go upwards of $25. Often, I just bite the bullet and buy the record. At other times, the artist might agree to allow you to offer the file for blog listening. In return, I always write a review about the music and performer with a link to his or her website. I also provide an Amazon link so readers can buy the music and support the artist. But I have to admit that in some limited cases where there were no good options for obtaining a song, I used methods that some folks (doubtless I’ll be hearing from them in the comments thread) would disapprove. Binary newsgroups are another such option.
Of course there are drawbacks. The group is only as good as its posters and the material they upload. So you find pretty eclectic choices. Some music that really warms the cockles of your heart and some will make you yawn or in a few extreme cases throw up. In addition, some members can get downright nasty when they feel you’ve committed a serious faux pas. For example, in trying to be a good newsgroup citizen I uploaded a few individual songs and two albums to the group. One person, who another member in a subsequent post called a “netcop” sent me an e mail complaining I had violated group protocol by posting wma files. She’d also reported me to my ISP’s abuse department. And I didn’t even know such a rule existed! I’ve subsequently discovered that it’s generally accepted practice to send only mp3s to groups with ‘mp3’ in their name. But there are 200 wma files posted in this newsgroup over the past 30 days.
Further drawbacks: to find a specific song or post you can only go back as far in time as your ISP’s news server allows. For better file retention rates, you need a special news server like Giganews which costs bucks (it’ll take you back 70 days). For example, the way I first stumbled across binary newsgroups was in a Google search for music by the late, great 60s female folkie group, the Pennywhistlers. The Google cache came up with a series of Pennywhistler songs which were posted by Quantum Libet on January 27, 2005. After hours of trying to figure out if there was any way to retrieve them, I came to understand that the answer was probably no. You can post a message to the group asking someone to repost a previous upload. And if they’re reading the group and see your message, then you might get your file. So far, various attempts to contact the Pennywhistler poster have failed. By the way, anyone reading this who can help me find their music would be doing a big mitzvah (good deed) and I’d be eternally grateful.
And there are technical complications. Newsbin’s creators have decided that the most recent version should focus on download capability. Thus, it’s jettisoned the previous versions’ ability to upload song files and text files. Now, you have to use yet another utility to do this (and that utility only performs ONE of those two functions). I think it’s downright awkward to use two separate programs when a single one could perform both features. But that’s Newsbin’s development strategy given the limited resources it has.
I’m using PowerPost right now to upload files, though I’m not wild about it since it only allows you to upload the song files but no text files. Text files can be useful if you want to add an explanatory note about what’s in your file or convey a message to another member.
A word of warning: make sure in whatever utility you use to post files to newsgroups you do not use your real e mail address. Mask your address or use a fake one. I can’t believe that knowing what I know about the web I made this mistake. I’ve fixed the issue for future posting. But a few posts are out there with my real address. The spam has increased markedly in only two days. I’ve just updated my Outlook spam filter. We’ll see if that helps at all.
So, it’s not the most elegant or functional system in the world. And it’s by no means for the technially faint of heart. But it still does some pretty amazing things.
All that being said, I have to ask some cold, hard questions. How much real use and value will I personally find in this new gizmo? To tell the truth, after I figure out how to use the damn technology and spend a few days or so taking it for a few hair-raising test drives, it won’t be the first thing I think of when I wake up and the last I think of when I go to sleep (though it may be that for some). But it could really come in handy if you need to find that one rare, unusual song (or that one very popular song) without which you might die. And there are some of us crazy folk who swoon over a piece of gorgeous music and need to have it for themselves. If you’re a serious music collector, then binary groups are a godsend.