Web Can Make You An Expert

Computer Life column for May 15, 1999

Richard Gordon

Some people assume that, just because I write this column, I must know everything about everything. I've had people e-mail me questions about the technical specifications of one brand of computer monitor or another. I've even been asked why NASA and other agencies won't fund research into certain theories.

Fortunately, the Web can make anyone look like an expert, if you know where to look.

Last Wednesday, I found voice mail from a colleague who teaches courses in the University of Delaware's Continuing Education Computing Certificate program: "My daughter's going to Japan to do some research and I have a few computer questions."

I called her back to tell her that I couldn't help her.

As we talked, and as I protested ignorance about everything she was asking me, I opened up Netscape on the chance I could find some clues.

She was trying to figure out an inexpensive way for her daughter to have access to word processing and e-mail as she did her research in different areas of Japan.

Her first question was whether there were any Internet Service Providers in Japan that her daughter could use.

"How should I know?", I barked. Then, as c|net's Web site (www.cnet.com) was opening, I advised her what a faculty member who travels regularly to exotic locations like Israel, California, and Elkton had found: ISPs like CompuServe usually have a point of presence overseas.

Meanwhile, I'd gone to c|net's ISP topic area (www.cnet.com/Content/Reports/Special/ISP/) and searched for ISPs in Japan. One was listed, but the home page appeared to be in Japanese. My colleague said her daughter would be able to deal with the language issue.

"So what about a computer?", she asked. As I protested that I wouldn't dream to tell her what to buy for her daughter, I opened up c|net's Computers.com (www.computers.com), a well-organized repository of reviews and prices for computer hardware.

Since her daughter would be travelling and since she would, like most graduate students, be on a tight budget, I searched for notebook computers under $1,000.

To my surprise, a handful of computers were available in that price range-including a couple of systems with 233MHz processors and 12.1" screens. We discussed the models listed, discarding the palmtops and Windows CE systems as not powerful enough. My colleague decided to investigate a small Toshiba system.

But as we talked about the extra cost of power adapters and software and other things, she suddenly asked me what I knew about cybercafes--shops where you can drop in and use a computer for e-mail, Web browsing, and sometimes other applications--her daughter might be able to visit while travelling in Japan.

"Nothing!", I blustered as I typed "cybercafe" in Netscape's location window then watched as a search tool for cybercafes around the world opened up before my eyes (www.cybercafe.com). We searched for cybercafes in Japan, without specifying a city, and were told that "only the first 50 matches" would be displayed.

We narrowed our search to some of the cities her daughter would be visiting and indeed found several places her daughter can visit to check her e-mail. Some even had familiar American names like Kinko's.

My colleague thanked me profusely; however, I make no claims at being an expert in Japanese computing!

Tip of the week

Looking up a computing term

Since 1993, millions of people have used Denis Howe's Free Online Dictionary of Computing (wombat.doc.ic.ac.uk/foldoc/index.html). It is still one of the best ways of looking up a computing term.

Another resource to try is Whatis.Com (www.whatis.com). This site, started in 1996, has less of a shareware feel to it-if you can get past the horrid Web design.

Both sites contain thousands of good definitions.

Copyright © 1999, The News Journal Company

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Richard Gordon helps support faculty, staff and student computing at the University of Delaware. E-mail questions, comments or suggestions to richard@inet.net, or write him at The News Journal, Box 15505, Wilmington, DE 19850. Although each note cannot be answered individually, reader comments and questions will often be incorporated in future columns.