What can the Internet do for me?

The Internet is a means to exchange information. You can't transfer material goods over the Internet, but you can place an order and get a receipt from it. It's greatest strength, and worst weakness is the huge amount of information available. There is more information on the Internet than you could ever find in a library or some other way. The combined experience and wisdom, or naivete and stupidity of millions of people are all in one place. Not that libraries are going obsolete; Libraries have books and periodicals that aren't about to be placed on the 'Net any time soon. In addition, Libraries often provide access to the 'Net, making them happening places to be for the intellectuals and dreamers among us.

The problem, unlike a library, is that the information is everywhere in no discernable pattern or grouping. There are vague, general groupings, but in general, it's unpredictable where or how a site will be hosted. The problem isn't lack of information, it's finding it.

To that end, there are a variety of useful tools for sifting through all the piles of hay and getting to the needle you want. One set of important tools is the Search Engines. Search engines are special databases of Internet sites that can rapidly sift through thousands of sites per second and show you only the sites that seem likely to have the information you want. There are several search engines available:

Altavista - My favorite site, this one seems to return the most useful information. It often returns several sites when other engines come up empty.
Lycos - Big, and a little slow. I used to use this one a lot. It has lots of information, but seems to take longer to find it than Altavista.
Webcrawler - AOL's pet search engine. If you can configure it to only display titles, and to show you 100 titles at a time, you can rapidly sift through the sites it brings back. This one seems to come up blank more often than the others. But that may only be my opinion.

All the sites present you with a box to type in. Type a few important words that you want to look for. The strategy is in choosing which words to use- the engines will show you pages that contain the words you specified. If you want to know about seashells in Tahiti, don't type "seashells in Tahiti". The word "in" will be on millions of pages. Smart engines would filter it out for you.

On Altavista, you can specify which words are mandatory with a plus; If you say "seashells +Tahiti", then the pages displayed MUST contain the word "Tahiti". Otherwise, it'll just do it's best to find likely pages with as many words as possible. Likewise, if you want to NOT display pages with certain words, specify them with a minus; "seashells +Tahiti -conch" would filter out all the pages that mentioned the word "conch".

If you'd rather not search, but just browse a library, some people take it upon themselves to selectively go through Internet sites, categorize the better ones and present the results.

Yahoo was one of the first to do this.

On Yahoo, you start by clicking on broad categories, then narrow your way down to a specific topic you're interested in. Good for the bored.

The Internet also provides excellent eMail services. Hopefully, it works smoothly and intuitively. You can't blow up your computer by clicking on things and experimenting (at least, not with computers I've ever seen), so feel free to give it a shot first, and ask questions later. (Collective groan from experienced Tech Support people here... ;) )