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Chapter 4

FINDING INFORMATION


Get ready to switch gears on the infobahn! Instead of communicating with people, we're going digging for informa-tion. What is available on the Internet is as varied as life itself. Almost anything you can think of is there for the taking--graphics, software, books, library catalogs, bulletin boards, data, sounds, movies, journals, newsletters, newspapers, and magazines. There are many thousands of independent databases, archives, and online services available via the Internet, making it one huge virtual library.

Unfortunately, this electronic library is not as well organized as a real library. There isn't just one card catalog where you can check to find what's available or where things are located. However, graphical interfaces and user-friendly tools have entered the scene, and can help you chart a course through what at first may appear to be a vast and unnavigable info-jungle.

Of course, not everything is online yet, but the amount and diversity of information available online is increasing so rapidly that today you can find quite a bit of what you are looking for. The Internet landscape is constantly changing, and enumerating its resources is next to impossible. The first edition of this book reported an impressive number of free public offerings, most of which were found in the academic and research domains. Since then, an increasing number of commercial organizations have begun offering free online catalogs, manuals, brochures, services, and software. Additionally, more and more commercial providers of info-goods are popping up all over the Net. For example, Dialog Information Services, Inc., provides online newspaper and professional articles, the Official Airline Guide, financial services, and pharmaceutical directories--all accessible to subscribers. The Lexis (for legal research) and Nexis (for business, financial, and general news) databases from Mead Data Central are also accessible. A company called ClariNet Communications Corporation transmits Associated Press (AP) and Reuters news feeds. The Online BookStore (OBS) sells books, and many virtual malls have recently opened their doors.


"Libraries are the last democratic educational institution . . . the most important and democratic source of information . . . and the last refuge of those without modems."

--Gloria Steinem, speech at the American Library Association in July 1992.


There are too many useful information resources to list. This chapter will help you take advantage of the Internet by engaging it as an external brain, a vast storehouse of information resources. Already there are applications that utilize distributed hypertext; they link related resources together, allowing users to travel a never-ending web of information.

What are the implications of having such widespread, ready access to timely information? Businesses and governments have been built and destroyed based on the information they had available to them. The U.S. government is working to ensure universal--affordable and accessible--services for Americans on its National Information Infrastructure. The world is on its way to becoming everyone's information oyster and, therefore, the ways we learn and do business will probably change. People who will succeed in tomorrow's world will be those who can learn, discern, and deal with issues rapidly and intelligently using information tools. This requires a fundamental change in the way we operate our business and schools.


Everything You Know About
Intellectual Property Is Wrong

Thus, the rights of invention and authorship adhered to activities in the physical world. One didn't get paid for ideas, but for the ability to deliver them into reality. For all practical purposes, the value was in the conveyance and not in the thought conveyed.

In other words, the bottle was protected, not the wine.

Now, as information enters cyberspace, the native home of Mind, these bottles are vanishing. With the advent of digitization, it is now possible to replace all previous information storage forms with one metabottle: complex and highly liquid patterns of ones and zeros.

Source: John Perry Barlow, "The Economy of Ideas: A Framework for Rethinking Patents and Copyrights in the Digital Age (Everything you know about intellectual property is wrong)," Wired magazine, March 1994.

There are some things to keep in mind while accessing information over the Internet. In reality space, there's no guarantee that what you're hearing or reading is one hundred percent correct. It's the same on the Internet. However, on the Internet you can obtain information from a variety of sources to cross-check and form your own opinions. As for the validity and accuracy of documents, keep in mind the plausible situation in which a document has been archived, downloaded, annotated, edited, and saved by a friend before being emailed to you. Unless the document contains complete attribution, checking its source and authenticity might very well be a nightmare.

The following pages will walk you through the most basic Internet information access and retrieval tools: remote login and file transfer. It's useful to know about these applications and how they work, but with the proliferation of graphical and menued front ends, you may not need to pull them out of your info-toolbox. The new applications on the block are painting the Internet neighborhood in bright colors, essentially giving it a face-lift. The latter half of this chapter explains how to get started with information discovery and retrieval applications such as archie, Gopher, WAIS, WWW, and Mosaic.


CAN YOU GET THERE FROM HERE?

Reading this chapter may tantalize and frustrate those who have only limited access to the Internet. You may be able to reach all of these resources, or only some of them. If you're on an outernet network, you're limited to using email servers--where they exist--to retrieve files and access services. Technical, economic, and political barriers are factors that can limit Internet access, but--fortunately for us--nothing in life today changes faster! Your system or provider may add Internet services or connections tomorrow or next month. So experiment and find out what you can and can't get at. If you really need access to a particular resource, your system gurus or provider may be able to offer you another path. Once you know what's available, you may find that you need better access. If so, shop around for a connection that offers what you need. Chapter 7 tells you about Internet connection options.


USING ONLINE RESOURCES AND SERVICES

There are several classes of info-tools described in this chapter. All of these tools require that you have a direct connection to the Internet--meaning, you're not on an outernet. Also--and this is part of the Internet standard disclaimer--the tools may operate differently on your system, so be sure to read local documentation and any instructions shown on the screen. In some cases, you have to type the commands; in others, you may use a straightforward menu system; in others, you may be clicking icons. The examples used in this chapter will, for the most part, be from a command-level perspective, showing the commands (most of them in lowercase) as you would type them on many computers. If you understand these basics, it shouldn't be hard to use an icon-based system.

The first info-tool class includes the very basic, low-level, devices you can use to access just about anything. They're called remote login and file transfer. The second class consists of information discovery and retrieval tools. These present archives and databases in a user-friendly format, and let you search or peruse them. These tools are archie, Gopher, WAIS, and WorldWideWeb. The third class can be considered not as a tool, really, but as a tool shop. These are interfaces, applications that present the Net as a graphical environment, using icons, which when selected will call up appropriate tools and select the right resources. One such application is Mosaic, and it's explained at the end of this chapter.

Keep in mind that the services explained in this chapter will most likely not be located on your own computer. You're not transmitting and receiving communication as you were in the last chapter; you (or your applications) are going out and actively getting information from other places all over the globe. The explanations here refer to the location of a desired service as the remote computer. A remote computer isn't necessarily thousands of miles away. It could be in the same room; it could be four countries away. The point is, on the Internet, it doesn't matter where it is, nor do you need to know in many cases where it is.

Let Me In!

Despite system differences, you will usually need to know a few specific pieces of information, such as the name of the computer or host that you want to connect to, perhaps a login id, and a password. Some computer systems require that you know the magic word to "be let in" to an account, and usually "please" won't work. What's an account? It's like your own room in a hotel. You have a key that lets you into your room (the account), where all your treasured possessions (files) are stored. On a computer, the key is most often a combination of a unique id and a secret password. The id (also known as a username or userid) lets the computer know who you are, and the password (which only you should know) proves it's really you.

If you live in Amsterdam, it's unlikely that you're going to have an account on a computer in Tokyo, unless you have some type of special arrangement with an organization there. But many people do have accounts on remote systems, for various reasons.

Public Services

If you don't have any accounts on other systems, you may be wondering what you can use these tools for. You will have occasion to use them--more than you may realize at first. Lots of organizations are providing services, such as public information archives and databases. To use them, you don't need a personal account on the computers where they reside. (If you do need an account, you're usually given an opportunity to apply for one.) All you need to know is the login id or name of the service, and that's usually easily available or very well known. Most of these services don't require passwords or, if they do, they either publish them, accept anything as a password, or request that you type in your email address or some other information that lets them track who's using their resources.

A word on the hospitality of people and organizations providing publicly accessible services, file transfer sites, databases, and other resources. Many of these services are made available by volunteers, so act politely and try not to hog resources. Sometimes it's requested that you use a service after working hours; if so you should respect that rule, keeping in mind the time zone as well.

Different Environments

When you are accessing remote services, you are connecting to another environment that may look very different from what you're used to using on your own system. It should be obvious by now, but there isn't just one way to do things in the Internet world. Different organizations, different computers, and different operating systems all provide different services. Each remote system and service is going to have its particular look and feel.


Bienvenidos a Mexico!

Sometimes the benefits of networking come in subtle packages. The Bush School in Seattle, Washington, is one of the first schools in the world to give Internet accounts to all the students, not just the teachers. Fred Dust, the school's Headmaster, relates how the Internet plays a very important role in learning, professional development, and parental involvement at his school. "All the teachers, students, and parents are encouraged to participate," he says. "The results have been tremendously positive." For example, two ninth graders were experimenting one day with online library access. Not content with the local libraries, they connected to a catalog in Mexico. To their surprise, the interface greeted them in Spanish. "That floored them," said Dust. "They'd lived their lives in English-speaking Washington State, had taken classes in Spanish, but hadn't realized it was actually used somewhere. They also realized their entrance into other countries wouldn't be blocked by the technology, but by language barriers. It was a very powerful discovery that they made on their own. This experience couldn't have been duplicated in a traditional classroom setting."


The interface--the face that the other computer presents to you--will probably be different from the one you're familiar with. The words may even be in a foreign language. Don't worry; the public interfaces to these systems are pretty robust, so you won't harm anything if you make a few mistakes. Keep in mind that things change on computers, too. Information is added and deleted. Interfaces change. Most of these online services don't come with manuals, so you'll need to read the instructions and use the help screens that are shown when you sign on. It doesn't hurt to make a few notes. A contact name is sometimes listed with the description of the service or on one of the initial login screens; if you have problems, you can email or call. Remember that you're accessing another computer, so your own system gurus may not be able to assist you.

Error Messages

Occasionally you'll get an error message or just not be able to get to that computer. One or more things may be wrong. First--and most likely--is that you misspelled or mistyped the name of the computer, in which case you'll get a message such as unknown host. If that happens, check to be sure you have the right hostname. If you're sure you have the right name, then it's possible that this computer simply doesn't exist anymore.

If you know that the computer exists and that you have the correct name, and you still get an error message, you can try something else. Remember from Chapter 2 that the Domain Name System (DNS) allows you to use computer names instead of IP addresses. It could be that your computer is having a hard time figuring out what the remote computer's IP address is. If this is the case, and you do know the IP address, you can always try substituting it for the computer name.

If you have the right computer name, and the remote computer doesn't respond after you initiate a connection using an information tool, there may be problems with the network or the remote computer may be "down"--that is, not working or available. Just try again later. If the problem persists, contact your network provider or system administrator for more clues.

ACCESSING INTERACTIVE SERVICES

Remote login is a basic tool that lets you "fly" electronically all over the world, reaching your destination in a fraction of a second. This section will tell you how to connect to other computers and services using remote login.

How It Works

Remote login on the Internet is a lot like using your modem to dial into another computer, but it's usually much faster and you don't actually have to dial a phone number. The name of the protocol that enables remote login is Telnet, which is also the name of the command on many systems to allow you to login to other computers. (Don't confuse "Telnet" with "Telenet," a public data network that was around for a long time.)

When using Telnet to login to a computer, just issue the telnet command followed by a space and the name of the computer. (You can also issue the telnet command without the computer name, at which point you'll be in command mode. When you see a telnet> prompt, you can type commands or help for more information.) For example, if you want to check out an online book order service called Book Stacks Unlimited, Inc., type the following:

telnet books.com

The Telnet program will make a connection to the books.com system. In this particular example, you'll be asked to type in your full name, pick a password, and specify your contact information (email and address). You can then use the menu system to search and order books (over 240,000 titles are offered), and participate in a book discussion group.

Now, when you telnet to most other systems, you are usually greeted by a computerized "Who goes there?" routine. The typical prompt is Login: or Username:, at which time you type your login id or username followed by the {RETURN} key. If you already have a username, type it in; you'll then be prompted for your password. When you supply the password, don't worry that it doesn't appear on the screen. It is not shown because your password is supposed to be secret, and you don't want any folks kibitzing behind you to see what it is.

In some cases when you connect to a resource, you'll have to specify an additional identifier called a port number. There can be many services running on a single computer; the port identifier serves to keep them separate. When a port number is required, you usually don't have to type in a username or password. Let's test-drive this command:

telnet madlab.sprl.umich.edu 3000

Here it was necessary to specify the port number, 3000, because it identifies a specific program. Resource guides always include the port numbers with the instructions for accessing resources, so if you don't see one, don't worry about it. In this case, you're connecting to the "Weather Underground," a service provided by the University of Michigan's College of Engineering. The Weather Underground has a menu system that's almost easier to use than your automatic teller machine. There's something for everyone, such as local weather reports, snow ski reports for some parts of the country, earthquake reports for other parts, and hurricane reports.

Sometimes when you login to another system, you'll be asked about your terminal type. In most cases, you can say you're emulating a "VT100" (or something similar) terminal, and you'll do just fine. Some resources, such as online library catalogs, are running on IBM mainframes, however, so you might have to use a different version of Telnet called tn3270 (if it exists on your system) in order to emulate an IBM 3270 terminal. It works similarly, though the keys may not correspond exactly to what you're used to; just substitute tn3270 for telnet.

Backward Forward Copyright © 1994 by Tracy LaQuey and Editorial Inc.


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