If you're trying to solve a tough problem, you might call some colleagues for advice. Better still, you might even arrange an expensive international conference call between several parties.
Or you can turn to the Internet. A special service known as Internet Relay Chat allows you to hold live electronic conferences with any number of global participants who have access to the Net. IRC is sort of an electronic CB system spanning at least 20 countries, without long-distance charges.
To use IRC, assuming you have Internet access, type "irc" at the prompt (but don't type the quotation marks). Once you're inside IRC, commands must be preceded by a / mark. Two useful commands are "/help newuser" and "/help intro."
One of the most popular IRC servers is at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. To connect, type "irc" and then, once inside, type "/server irc.mit.edu." You'll get a list of channels in use; each is for an ongoing discussion of some special interest.
You can create your own channel; just make an appointment with your friends and agree on a name for a channel. For example, you might agree to meet at 8 p.m. on a channel you'll call confer. (On the IRC, all channel names are preceded by .) Each of your friends would connect to the IRC server for MIT at the appointed time and type "/channel confer" to connect. You may notice lengthy pauses at some points during your conference as the load on the host fluctuates.
Change channels by typing "/channel name." To list active channels, type "/list." To disconnect, type "/quit."
For more information, send e-mail to "irc-admin@MIT.EDU".