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PERMANENTTM, (R) Conference Mail,
WWW Curatorial Site

by Mark Prado and David Kantymir

Note: This was written back in the 1990s and is obsolete in a few places; nonetheless, it covers the fundamental merits and applications of web-based networking between professionals, as compared to attending conferences in-person. The main thrust of this article is the philosophy, practical merits, and conceptual features of our website.


Abstract


The PERMANENT (r) World Wide Web curatorial site at http://www.permanent.com focuses specifically on space industrialization using asteroidal and lunar materials. A recent addition to the site is a conference mail system which will bridge the gap between in-person conferences, and make the latter more productive. The conference mail system is a WWW messageboard gatewayed to an e-mail mailing list, thus providing users their choice of medium, and a user-friendly online archive. This paper briefly covers the purpose, content and structure of the PERMANENT WWW site, and expands upon the conference mail system which is useful for jointly further developing the website and our common interests. The site offers many potential benefits to those in R&D, managers, investors and producers of public relations materials.

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Introduction


PERMANENT (r) is a nonprofit organization which has been maintaining a curatorial website specifically on space industrialization using asteroidal and lunar materials. P.E.R.M.A.N.E.N.T. is an acronym for Projects to Employ Resources of the Moon and Asteroids Near Earth in the Near Term. The website covers the concepts of ISRU; reviews of the published literature spanning many different conferences, other collections of papers, and contractor reports; and consolidates various other sources of information. The site is at:

http://www.permanent.com

In the course of this work, we have developed a message conferencing system on the internet which we think will be quite valuable to scientific researchers, engineers, managers, prospective investors, producers of public relations materials, and regular in-person conference organizers. The message conferencing system is the main focus of this paper.

Personal computers, and now the internet, have become mainstream tools for people all over the world, from scientific researchers and engineers in the trenches, to top level executives and investors. The ability to use a PC and the internet in a practical way is becoming vital for keeping up in one's field, staying competitive, and pursuing new opportunities.

PERMANENT has developed a curatorial site so that people anywhere in the world can quickly come up to speed in the field of utilizing asteroidal and lunar resources via the internet. It has added a new kind of internet message conferencing and message archiving system which allows users to contribute to the development of ideas and processes, in a user friendly, convenient and timely way. All of these internet services are publicly accessible and free of charge.

The PERMANENT system offers a message conference interface in either WWW format or plain e-mail format, whichever the user chooses. The two formats are gatewayed to each other, i.e., a message posted to one medium is also distributed via the other medium. The WWW format serves an additional purpose: an online archive of historical discussions.

This paper discusses the potential benefits of using the PERMANENT system, the general internet concepts which it uses, and how it all works.

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Background


The three main applications of the internet are:

  1. private e-mail
  2. World Wide Web (WWW) (now including the old FTP)
  3. "group mail"
The first two applications are generally understood by most everyone and are beyond the scope of this paper. The third application may require some clarification, and includes our new kind of communications system.

What could be categorically called "group mail" includes a variety of alternative systems whereby a group of people with a special interest can read and post public or semi-public messages. Any messages posted in this medium go out to everyone in the group, not just one recipient or a particular user's cc: list. Likewise, group members receive a copy of others messages on the same discussion topic even if they are not addressed personally (which is usually the case).

There are different mechanisms for operating a group mail system, including:

  • e-mail "mass mailing lists" run manually by an individual (i.e., a moderator sends to a list of cc: addresses and everyone replies by e-mail to the moderator)
  • e-mail "mass mailing lists" run automatically (using a server running software such as MajorDomo or ListServ)
  • the enormous UseNet public network which runs automatically (except for the minority of moderated newsgroups, which require special software and skill on the part of the moderator)
  • new World Wide Web based message systems, most of which run automatically, unmoderated.

There are advantages and disadvantages of each, characterized by such factors as:

  • control over quality of content
  • volume of messages
  • access to archives of old messages
  • user software requirements
  • user friendliness
  • features

In the past decade, the author has used various group mail systems in setting up networks for such diverse applications as defense conversion planning (for ARPA under a President Clinton directive), United Nations emergency operations, USAID and NGO groups in the field, and various private groups and multinational corporations. Most of this was performed by taking off the shelf software and modifying it, often by contacting the software author(s) and sometimes paying for modifications in order to improve user friendliness and add features.

The main problem was that most of the people using these systems were not very skilled at all in using computers (indeed, some had a PC pushed upon them for the first time solely for e-mail and group mail communications!), and the challenge was making the system as user friendly and practical as possible.

What PERMANENT set out to do for its own conference mail system is create its own software (which is transparent to the user) in order to improve the group mail system and combine it with the World Wide Web, in order to provide a user friendly and feature rich system. This improved system is we will call "PERMANENT conference mail".

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The value of ConferenceMail to users


Conference mail has been a valuable business networking tool for:

  • meeting people of common business interest regardless of geography - "outreach"
  • finding information relevant to one's business - "research"
  • getting esoteric news in one's specialization as it happens, not much later when (and if) it is published on paper and circulated (if it's deemed to be of interest to a large number of people)
  • synergy among participants -- developing and critiquing concepts interactively

Within an already established network of people, conference mail has sometimes been proposed as a substitute for expensive and time consuming travel to attend in-person meetings and conferences, or to lead up to more productive and well prepared face-to-face meetings, as well as a tool for attracting or convincing more people to attend a face-to-face conference. Experience has indicated that conference mail increases the success of in-person meetings and conferences.

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The problems with group mail to date


Group mail has been popular on the internet since the 1980s. However, its popularity has been limited by the following issues:

  • Publicly available discussion groups (e.g., UseNet, majordomos, listservs) are usually not moderated and controlled, leading to junk messages and/or a high volume of messages
  • Both public and private discussion groups usually do not have their information organized except chronologically - they are just a long series of subjects and messages
  • Past information is often inaccessible, and all people get is new messages (which also leads to the same things getting discussed over and over)
  • Automated mailing lists are often technically too difficult and cumbersome to use for most people who simply want relevant information and are not interested in becoming technically versed in all the features and commands of the mailing list, e.g., in accessing archives of past messages by sending cryptic commands to a cryptic address -- or even figuring out the commands to get off the mailing list when they've had enough!!
  • Poor maintenance of mailing list servers due to neglect or carelessness by the person who initiated or insists on controlling the mailing list. (For example, a basic user sends a command to the server and gets back a cryptic error message due to a fault with the server, though the user thinks it's their fault and gives up. These systems were usually created by a person with an "at the moment" interest in setting up a discussion group.)
  • Users suffer from "spamming", i.e., advertisers collecting e-mail addresses of conference participants, sending them junk mail, and reselling the e-mail address list to other spammers
  • People lose privacy of e-mail address via many mailing list servers

New conferences suffer from a "chicken and egg" situation in that people don't participate if the messagebase is small, but the messagebase will never be large until people participate.

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How the ConferenceMail system works


PERMANENT did not offer WWW based conference mail until after the website was well developed, which solved the chicken-vs.-egg situation.

Each conference created is associated with a well developed textual section of the website. For example, the conference on processing lunar materials is introduced in the web section on processing lunar materials, and the conference on interorbital transportation is embedded in the table of contents of the webpage on interorbital transportation. It is expected that people will have read or browsed the section before they read or post messages. For those people familiar with UseNet, the webpages correspond to the FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions) file. Redundant messages never get posted due to the moderator.

From time to time, information from the message discussions is extracted from the messagebase, moved into the webpages, and referenced to the source.

People can read and write messages in either of two ways:

  • by e-mail, using their own e-mail program, after they "subscribe" to the conference (there is no fee)
  • by WWW browsing on PERMANENT, reading messages by navigating with a mouse, and posting a message by clicking on a form

The typical user will link up to the PERMANENT page, browse the webpages of interest, browse the messages to date to see if the topics are of interest and of sufficient quality, and then subscribe to the conference(s) of interest. By subscribing, they will provide their e-mail address to the system (which is kept strictly confidential). Thereafter, they will receive by e-mail the new messages posted by others and approved by the moderator. They will not receive any of the pre-existing messages by e-mail, but they can always go back to the WWW message archives for that.

If a user chooses to not subscribe, then they would have to visit the WWW site again to read new messages. Each time, they would have to browse the messagebase to find which messages are new and which are old, which is rather tedious and time consuming. The WWW messagebase is really intended mainly as an introductory tool and an archive of messages that's simple and easy to browse.

The e-mail system and the WWW messageboard system are gatewayed to each other. In other words, if a user posts a message on the WWW form, that message will be posted both on the WWW messageboard and be sent to all subscribers by e-mail. Likewise, if a subscriber sends a message by e-mail, that message will be relayed to all other subscribers by e-mail, and will also be posted on the messageboard. All after moderator approval.

When a subscriber receives a message from a conference, it is clear which conference it came from by the message's sender address. For example, messages from the transportation conference will be from transport@permanent.com . To post a message to the conference, the user just replies to the message, or the user can post an entirely new message by addressing it to the same. For the advanced user, this makes it easy to automatically sort incoming messages to a folder of their own making, a feature offered by most modern e-mail software.

Every conference is moderated, which means that new messages are not relayed to all subscribers nor posted on the WWW messageboard until they are approved by a moderator. This is to both maintain quality of content and also to prevent "spamming".

The traffic in the conferences to date has been light, which means that subscribers' mailboxes are usually not hit with many messages in a given week.

Subscribers also have the option of receiving messages in "digest" form, which means multiple messages combined into one message, so that they receive less e-mail, and receive e-mail less frequently.

Unsubscribing is done simply by sending an e-mail message with one word in the subject or the first word in the body of the message: unsubscribe.

If a user wants to quickly find any discussions on a particular topic, they have the option of using a search engine which will search for keywords in the message text. There is also a search engine for the entire PERMANENT site. With these two tools, users can quickly find even the most esoteric information on the website in a minimal amount of time.

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The long-term potential of ConferenceMail


Within an already established network of people, conference mail has sometimes been proposed as a substitute for expensive and time consuming travel to attend minor conferences, or to lead up to more productive and well prepared face-to-face meetings, as well as a tool for attracting or convincing more people to attend a major face-to-face conference.

Some of the advantages of conference mail over travelling to meetings and conferences:

  • Travel to conferences takes precious time
  • Travel and hotels cost a lot of money, often better invested otherwise
  • Travel has its hassles
  • Travel takes you away from your office and home resources and conveniences
  • Conferences often don't fit all of your colleagues' schedules, and people are almost invariably missing
  • It's not possible to hear or participate in all the group discussions and personal conversations that go on at a face-to-face conference

Message-based conferences are also sometimes called "non-real-time conferences" -- "non-real-time" meaning that the members of the group do not interact with each other at the same time, but read and create messages at their own convenience and schedules. At any one time there can be a dozen or more discussions going on in a group, which anyone can follow and contribute to. Each person is guaranteed to have "time to speak" (though one can choose to ignore or read only messages by certain people).

While messages are slower to type, they are usually more thoughtful and constructive. It is also much faster to read or scan what others have typed than to listen to them talk. You are often more likely to get better responses from a group than from talking with one or a few individuals.

Further, discussions are recorded, not lost to the thin air. An interesting sequence of message replies (a "thread") can be compiled and edited by a moderator and stored as a webpage for reference, to be made available to newcomers in the future who wish to join in on the discussion and come up to date, as well as for a project report itself. Good efforts don't fade away in the air as voice discussions often do, nor do they remain in a small group, if so desired. Such computerized archives are sometimes called "institutional memory".

The ultimate goal of conference mail is development of projects and documentation.

Archives, both public and private, should become quite popular in conferencing networks. They may contain not only message threads, but also papers, reports, proposals, budgetary data, electronic rolodexes, small note files containing little tidbits of special information, etc., which can be reviewed and updated over time.

Anytime you need something, it is available at that moment, when you need it, via the internet World Wide Web, not next week via regular "snail mail", nor is there any bureaucracy involved in ordering it. Just request it from the databank and it comes to your hard drive immediately, via internet. It beats Federal Express' mail next-day service by a day, so you can truly get today's business done now, when you're focused on the task at hand. It's a productivity issue. And you don't even have to involve anyone else.

In addition to public file databanks, private file databanks can be set up, e.g., for co-authoring of papers, proprietary work, etc. Many private file databanks can exist within a more public network, inaccessible by unauthorized people.

Research reports used to sit in the queue for many, many months before being published in a particular journal. Due to the internet, researchers don't have to wait any more to get drafts and final copies from their intimate colleagues. Also, works which are not created for formal publishing but are worthy nonetheless for certain others in an esoteric field can be "published" electronically at practically no expense or hassle. There have been numerous times that someone has found small, unpublished pieces of research that are of great value to another researcher, but the two parties would not have linked up without a fortuitous third party as a medium. This has prevented cases of "reinvention of the wheel", both concurrent and nonconcurrent. The internet has often resulted in great joy and synergy when researchers have crossed paths along the same logical lines of the next immediate stages of development in their fields of interest, even though separated by continents and institutions.

The internet should not be seen as a complete substitute for traditional ways of doing business, but as offering valuable enhancements. Interactive voice calls, face to face meetings, and in-person conferences are still necessary for developing one's professional community.

Indeed, message conferences often lead to voice calls and regular conferences, occasionally even setting the framework for meetings between people who made initial contact on the internet. internet and in-person meetings are synergistic.

Having spent much of the 1980s in the trenches performing scientific research, and almost all of the 1990s developing communications networks for government bodies and multinational corporations around the world, the author believes it is clear that in order to compete most successfully in the 1990s and beyond, organizations and individuals will need to learn how to benefit from 1990s technology in the field of personal computer communications, internet and conference mail.

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Acknowledgements


This work was performed 100% by volunteers. The authors would like to acknowledge use of Matt Wright's WWW messageboard scripts in a previous, nongatewayed incarnation of the PERMANENT messagebase (kindly made available to the public at http://worldwidemart.com/scripts/ ) before we reconceptualized and rewrote the entire messagebase system from scratch. The authors would also like to thank Robert Goff of Sandia National Laboratories for volunteering his valuable assistance in the early development of the gatewaying effort, the technical helpdesk of our internet service provider, internet Quality Services (IQS), for their timely advice, and Iru Chowdury and Ye Tun for assistance in setting up an initial testbed on his Maia and Taygate internet servers in Thailand near the primary author's previous residence in 1995-96.

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