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To Leonard's Grossman's home page,The ModemJunkie's Portal.  * where you will find links to pages he has created, search tools, free software, and other items of interest.

ToThe Chicago Tribune



By James Coates, Tribune Computer Writer.
Published: Sunday, April 2, 1995
Page: 1

Using a computer he bought in a pawnshop, Leonard Grossman of Oak Park worked an Information Age miracle for his homework-laden daughter.

The 15-year-old, Sarah, had to write an essay about poet Maya Angelou and time was short. So Grossman, a Chicago attorney, clicked on an icon and logged his aging Intel 386-based computer onto the Internet.

Within minutes, he found Angelou's complete works; audio recordings and photographs of Angelou reading her acclaimed poems; and dozens of dissertations and term papers discussing her genius and life's work.

It was far more than Sarah could ever use in her essay-she could easily have put together a multimedia presentation-and yet it was gathered in far less time than could have been imagined only a few years ago.

Leonard Grossman, with a less-powerful computer than those sold every day in the electronics emporiums of America, is among those who have learned to use the Internet. He knows what terms like "Unix" and "Gopher" mean-and understands how to use these electronic tools to search the network.

"I am absolutely delighted with this new power," he said. "What we did with that little school project is just the glimmer of what's possible."

The power Grossman talks about goes well beyond simple e-mail, or the newsgroups and listservs discussed earlier in this series. While those are powerful ways to share information, either between individuals or among large groups of people, other tools must be understood to fully grasp the Internet.

These come with names like FTP, World Wide Web and Veronica, and they allow people like Grossman to mine a vast landscape of on-line information.

Had the subject been coral reefs, Grossman could have found a film clip on tropical fish. Had it been Beethoven, sound files from the composer's symphonies would have been available. Had it been archeology, photographs of artifacts from the world's great museums could have been downloaded on his computer.

The Internet beckons with resources from all areas of academia, offering databases as trivial as lyrics to Monty Python's "Dead Parrot" comedy sketch and as majestic as the complete works of William Shakespeare.

And the educational opportunities are only a beginning.

The network opens the gates to countless government files from the Census Bureau, the Government Printing Office, the Library of Congress, the Securities and Exchange Commission and many others. It makes available thousands of files from U.S. corporations. And even if such files serve the companies' purposes, and often cost a fee, they still provide valuable data.

Make no mistake, however. The Internet is a frontier just now opening to the masses, and the further one explores this computer network, the more difficult the journey becomes. The ease of using e-mail can vanish quickly when trying to find an obscure document hidden away in a government archive.

Each step along the way has its hurdles. For starters, it can be tough to link your PC with an Internet service provider, especially at peak times when phone lines are busy. Once on-line, it can be difficult to decide which of the millions of Internet files to search for a given topic.

And when a search does begin, waiting can be the hardest job of all. If you're using a slow modem at a busy time, you'll likely encounter a sleeping cursor and such frustrating messages as "too many connections, try again."

In an IBM commercial, nuns "surf the Net" with ease, using something called Mosaic. But in real life, you can bet the good sisters will be tempted to talk like longshoremen after watching the computer's cursor turn into a tiny ticking clock every time they make a move.

The computer industry has tried to help with an endless stream of how-to books, yet many of them overwhelm newcomers with jargon they don't understand. The on-line services try to remedy the situation with user-friendly software or 800 help lines. The software, however, isn't friendly enough, and the 800 lines often involve long waits.

So if you fail, don't be intimidated. You're not alone, and it's not necessarily your fault. Most important, don't give up.

You might view the experience as something akin to replacing a kitchen faucet for the first time. You're not sure where to start, your tools are wrong and the pieces don't fit. Then, when you return to the hardware store, the clerk makes you feel stupid because you bought the wrong fixture.

Still, when you finish the job hours later, it occurs to you that the next time you change a faucet will be a breeze-now that you know what you're doing.

The beauty of an Internet search is that once you learn the skill, you'll find endless opportunities to use it.

This is the climate in which Leonard Grossman's search for information about a famous poet becomes a tour guide to the Internet.

Grossman tapped in to the network via a Chicago-based company called Macro Computer Solutions Inc., or MCS Net, one of a booming new breed of enterprises called Internet service providers. He pays about $22 a month for the service.

However, most of what he did to ferret out on-line pearls about Angelou is available on the home-oriented on-line services of CompuServe, Prodigy and America Online.

When Grossman's PC was linked via modem to the MCS Net computer, he was confronted with a screen with a flashing cursor alongside a $ symbol, similar to the infamous DOS "C:" prompt.

This is the command line for the Unix computer system, the underlying software that makes the Internet possible.

While Unix can be extremely complex, people who use it for Internet searches need learn only about a half-dozen commands to do things like call up directories on remote computers and gain access to those files.

Increasingly, Internet providers are creating on-screen icons to replace the Unix commands. Prodigy, CompuServe and America Online, for example, all use icon systems to search the Internet.

These services are easy to use and are probably a good choice for most Internet users, especially beginners.

Yet Unix has advantages, the biggest being that its searches are much faster. Because so many people subscribe to the more popular services-an estimated 7 million-their Internet features are almost always congested. Unix providers tend to have only a few customers on-line at any one time.

So at the $ prompt in Unix, Grossman typed the word "gopher."

Gopher is an Internet search tool developed at the University of Minnesota. It is named for the school's sports mascot and for its ability to burrow into the inner precincts of the Internet and "go fer" information.

On America Online one clicks on an icon showing a picture of a buck-toothed rodent to run Gopher. CompuServe requires a click on a cartoon of a floppy disk wearing sunglasses to conduct searches using yet another Internet tool, called FTP, for File-Transfer Protocol. Prodigy requires a slightly different approach via a program called a World Wide Web Browser.

All, however, take you to the same place.

In this instance, that place is a treasure trove of data about one of America's most beloved poets and a glimpse of her collected works.

After typing the command, Grossman had to wait only seconds before the computer presented him with a series of "menus," or a list of options designed to narrow the search. Each option calls up yet another menu of choices, each homing in closer to the desired information.

A couple of menus into his search, Grossman was at a screen called Veronica. This is the easiest to use among several Internet tools named after characters in the Archie comics, including Archie, Jughead and Betty. On most popular on-line services, an icon calls up the Veronica search.

With Veronica, you simply type in a search word and let the computer find all references to that word among the millions of files on the Internet. Grossman typed "Angelou."

He was rewarded with no fewer than 4 screens listing more than 60 files about the poet. He had the text of Angelou's poem "On the Pulse of Morning," written for President Clinton's inauguration, along with a large selection of essays dealing with that poem and the rest of her works.

There even was a huge, 800,000-byte sound file of Angelou giving a reading for Grossman to download.

There's no guarantee, of course, that an Internet search will go this smoothly, especially for a beginner. Grossman, a longtime computer hobbyist, knew just what he was doing. Yet a newcomer need not feel helpless, as there are numerous resources to go to for help.

Though many Internet books are confusing, many others are well-written. In addition, most Internet services include lengthy instructions. Also, for a decade now college students have been receiving Internet e-mail accounts and other access from their schools, so advice can be had fairly readily.

Perhaps the best advice of all is to simply spend enough time playing with your Internet search tools to figure out how they work. Experiment. Be intuitive. Don't go looking for anything in particular, just see what's there. If there's any "geek" in you at all, it will probably be fun.

Remember, your perseverance will be rewarded. Just look at what one command-gopher town.hall.org-brings to your screen.

It leads to a computer site called the Internet Town Hall, furnished by the National Science Foundation and the New York University School of Business. There, data is available from the U.S. Patent Office, the Federal Reserve Board, the General Services Administration and the Securities and Exchange Commission.

The SEC area can be put to a wide variety of uses, from getting information about companies for school papers to preparing briefs in lawsuits.

Through a federally financed project called EDGAR for Electronic Data Gathering, Analysis and Retrieval, such SEC reports as corporate 8K and 10K filings are available in full text.

Once hooked to EDGAR through town.hall.org, users employ a Veronica-style search in which they type a company's name and the data are fed into their computers. Here you can find a wealth of office gossip, such as the salary of a company's CEO, along with more useful information.

Other computer networks, all accessible to home users who have learned the needed search skills, offer the full text of thousands of books.

This material is as diverse as the King James Bible and the "canonical light bulb jokes," a massive file that lists hundreds of jokes and grows continually as others pour in.

Also available are the works of Chaucer, the entire output of Arthur Conan Doyle, the Greek dramatists, modern poets, novels by everybody from Jane Austen to Colin Wilson, along with uncounted thousands of research papers on these works and more.

Stories like Sarah Grossman's homework project and the Internet Town Hall point to the massive changes that most experts think are on the horizon as millions of people discover this new on-line dimension.

"You simply can't overstate the significance of the digital transformation of our society," said Nicholas Negroponte, director of the Media Lab at the Massachusetts Institue of Technology.

In his newly published book, "Being Digital," Negroponte emphasizes that neither the public nor world leaders have fully grasped the significance of a world in which every imaginable type of information comes in the binary 0s and 1s by which computers store information.

In an interview, he said: "There is no better way for the general public to grasp what's available now and, more importantly, what's going to utterly revolutionize their lives in the future, than to pay attention to what's going on on-line."

Copyright 1998, The Tribune Company. Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.