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Big Scary Daemons

Finding Help on IRC


The FreeBSD community has three major components: mailing lists, conventions, and IRC. I hang out on the mailing lists as much as I can. Conventions cost money, and there's no way I can hit them all anyway. So, one day I decided to track down the IRC. I specifically wanted to lurk on #freebsdhelp, to see what sorts of things people were having trouble with. (Despite what you might think, I do try to make these articles useful!)

For anyone who isn't familiar with IRC, it's an online chat system that predates ICQ, AIM, and most of the other "instant messaging" systems. I first encountered it in the late 1980s, and used it to kill time in the computer lab while waiting for someone to get off a Macintosh so I could use the building's only laser printer. For me, IRC lost its charms about 1990 or so, about the same time as the university bought a high-volume laser printer, and I hadn't touched it for more than a decade. I remembered IRC as a more rough-and-tumble environment than email; people tend to be less formal, speak before thinking, and make a variety of comments that would shame their mothers. It's somewhat like geek CB radio.

FreeBSD includes a whole slew of IRC clients under /usr/ports/irc. A few Web searches gave me the vague idea that BitchX was decent, so I ran portinstall bitchx, waited for the install to finish, and typed "BitchX". (Reading documentation for a new program is such a complete waste of time, after all!) The program took over my xterm and printed out a nice multicolored ASCII display. After I trimmed out the fancy graphics, I got some useful information.

BitchX: Auto Response is set to - mwlucas
Connecting to port 6667 of server [refnum 0]***)- Looking up your hostname...***)- Found your hostname (cached)***)- Checking ident...***)- Checking for open socks server...***)- No ident response; username prefixed with ~***)- No socks server found (good!)...

So I can talk to the server. The server can find some things on my system, and can't find others. A little later I see:

 [total users on irc(248)]
 [unknown connections(1)]
 [total servers on irc(6)] (avg. 41 users per server)
 [total channels created(54)] (avg. 4 users per channel)
 Current Local Users: 48  Max: 245 
 Current Global Users: 248  Max: 994 
 MOTD File is missing 
 Mode change [+x] for user mwlucas
 Mode change [+iw] for user mwlucas

According to the FreeBSD FAQ, I want to be on the channel #freebsdhelp. Should be simple enough, no? Dusting off some very rusty memories, I type

/join #freebsdhelp
 mwlucas [] has joined
[@mwlucas   ]
 Channel #freebsdhelp was created at Thu Dec 6 16:51:16 2001
 BitchX: Join to #freebsdhelp was synched in 2.928 secs!!
 mode/#freebsdhelp [+nt] by mwlucas
 [04:52pm][@mwlucas(+iwx)][Mail: 30] [#freebsdhelp(+nt)]
 [Lag ??] [O/1 N/0 I/0 V/0 F/0]

This cannot be correct. It says I'm the only user, but #freebsdhelp has been kicking around for years. Something isn't right. It's time to go back and read the documentation. Oh, well.

Internet Relay Chat is pretty simple. Central servers relay messages between each other and distribute them to users. A collection of servers tied together is called a "network." Many of these servers only allow connections from a certain group of IP addresses or users. If you're talking to one network, you will only see messages from that network. EFNet is perhaps the best-known such network, but there are others, such as DALNET and Undernet. IRC frequently (but not always) requires some minimal authentication and identification from the client, as provided by the auth service found on TCP port 113. IRC commands are all prefaced by "/"; things you type without the leading / are echoed onto the channel.

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