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The Internet, part 2 (of 3): What can you do with it?

Last issue we discussed how to connect to the Internet, now we’ll discuss why you might want to. For most people this can be divided into two parts: 1) e-mail and other communications such as chat rooms and bulletin boards and 2) searching for information and "surfing" (which implies a more undirected looking to see what’s there).

E-mail

As mentioned in the last issue, e-mail in a regular dial-up account (called POP mail) is stored at your ISP (Internet Service Provider). When you call your ISP it is downloaded to your computer and erased from the ISP’s server. You read your e-mail with your browser (Microsoft Explorer comes with Outlook Express as e-mail software and Netscape includes Messenger) or with specialized e-mail software such as Eudora or Pine. Some ISPs (AOL, Juno etc.) have their own e-mail software but this is generally similar to browser based e-mail (often a modified version of Outlook).

Another kind of e-mail account is web-based like hotmail.com, altavista.com or others: it is stored on the website until you call for it. Since it can be accessed from any computer rather than just through your ISP, it is, in theory, more possible for someone else to guess your password and receive or send from your account. I haven't heard of this happening. Web-based e-mail usually has size restrictions and other limitations which make it less than ideal if you are sending lots of large attachments (defined below). Many people have a regular account for their friends and important contacts, and a web based account to use in registering for things. If the web based account gets too much spam (junk e-mail), you can just close that account and start a new one.

From this point onward we’ll discuss options directly relevant to regular e-mail and Microsoft Outlook Express (MO) or Netscape Messenger (NM). They may work in other software.

Setting your options for sending e-mail: under Tools, Options (MO) or Edit, Preferences, Mail and newsgroups (NM).

1. Leave on server: useful if you are accessing your mail from several machines or sharing an account and want 1 machine to have copies of all mail received. For example, I read my mail on any of 5 machines at work but only fetching it from the machine at home clears it.

2. Send in text vs. HTML: some people can’t read HTML e-mail. Often this is intentional for virus prevention. The difference is that HTML allows Bold, Italics, font and point size variation and all those other goodies we’ve grown used to with word processors while plain text does not.

3. Receipts: you can have the receiving computer automatically send a message when the e-mail you sent is received or when it is read. If you don’t want your computer sending receipts to others (why let a spammer know he’s got a live address), you can control it. (MO full version “Tracking”, NM “Return Receipts”).

4. Digital IDs: identity theft is becoming a big deal. If you want to be sure only the recipient reads the mail you sent and that the receiver knows it is from you, not someone pretending to be you, you need a digital ID. Please call us if you need further assistance with this or any of the many other options.

Many folks have questions about attachments: those files you create in another program and want to send via e-mail. Usually it isn’t the mechanics of the process that causes problems but what files can be read by the receiver and how. For this reason you should mention the kind of attachment (program that created it, kind of file or what program you use to read it) in the main body of the e-mail message you send. To send an attachment you address and compose a message as usual, click on the paperclip symbol, find the file on your hard drive and click on it. This attaches the file to your message. To receive, you open the message, click on the attachment and the viewing program starts or you are given the option to save the file to disk. If you definitely don’t want the viewing program, right click and choose to save the file to your hard disk (on a Mac, click and hold without moving mouse for 5 seconds and a menu should come up but this doesn’t work in all browsers). If you get a message about not reading MIME encoding, save the file to disk and then open it with Winzip (Windows shareware at winzip.com) or Unstuffit (Mac freeware at stuffit.com). If you can, upgrade your browser to one that reads MIME (current versions of MO and NM). For graphics files, if it isn’t a MIME problem, try saving the file to disk and importing it into your word processing program: open the program, go to insert or import and find where you saved the file on your hard drive.

Addresses: you can probably figure out how to add one person to your e-mail address book. You can also add groups — this can be a bit harder to figure out. If you don’t want everyone to see each other’s address you can “Bcc:” (blind carbon copy) instead of “To:”.

There’s too little space left to discuss list servers (if your group wants to e-mail each other check out egroups.com), newsgroups (discussion groups like seattle.jobs.offered: see dejanews.com), chat rooms (CB radio-like “talk” to whoever is there) and other uses. Please call if you have questions: 206-523-0872

Searching for information

No, there are no complete “yellow pages” for the Internet: it changes too fast. Search engines constantly scour the web looking for new pages but even they can’t keep up.

If you know the address of the web page (known as the URL, uniform resource locator), you enter it in the top part of the browser and press enter. The problem comes when you don’t know the address. You can often guess: a company is usually http://www.companyname.com. Hyphens are allowed but not spaces or other symbols: we’re computer-workshop.com because computerworkshop.com was taken. Organizations are .org, government .gov and educational .edu or so it was planned but it grew too big and they are running out of names. No one is verifying that .orgs are non-profit etc. and there are many new categories being proposed. Then there are all the country codes: .ca for Canada, .uk United Kingdom etc.

If, after trying a few things, you can’t find what you want, you turn to a search engine. There are many out there but they are basically two types: those who maintain their own database of pages like altavista.com, yahoo.com and excite.com; and meta search engines like google.com which compile the results of several of the first class of search engines. In theory, meta search engines bring the more useful pages to the top of the list. I alternate between google and altavista. Google is better for changing current information like travel, finding stained glass companies etc. and altavista is better for straight information like what kind of plastic is best for skylights.

In many search engines you can modify how it searches: +knit means it must have this word too; -knit means it can’t have this one (useful in omitting rock group names and songs); quotes around a phrase like “knitting needles” means the words must be together; an asterisk, as in knit*, means you want knit, knits, knitting etc. For other suggestions see the help file of the particular search engine.

Once the search engine comes up with a list of links, realize that you can download new pages while you read one. Just use “open in new window” (Windows: right click, Mac click hold and don’t move to get the menu) on several of the links in succession. If you find something you want to come back to, make a bookmark (Netscape) or favorite (Explorer). If a link is broken, delete the part of the URL back to the previous/ and you may get to a page from which you can find the new location of the page you want. (Next issue: running your own website.)

Give us a call at 206-523-0872 if you have further questions.

copyright 1998 Karen Seymour

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