The Internet (A Treasury Of Computer Knowledge And Links)

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Here I explain what the internet really is, all the kinds of services available on it (and types of software that access those services), and to use and not abuse the net.

The Main Divisions On This Page (so far--it's incomplete):
o What The Internet Really Is
o The World Wide Web
---A Web Overview
---Finding Information On The Web
---Optimizing Your Browser
---HTML: HyperText Markup Language
---Java and all that
---Under The Hood
---Miscellaneous Web Resources
o Usenet ("News")
o E-Mail
o FTP
---Archie
o Telnet
o Gopher
o Miscellaneous Tools
---Ping
---Finger
---WhoIs
---NSLookUp
---TraceRte


(This page is currently in its initial building stage and not yet complete even as a first iteration;
please be patient, and do check back periodically. Thank you!




What The Internet Really Is

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Here are several lengthy--meaning quite complete--guides to the internet as a whole. You should begin by perusing each, even if you think you already know quite a bit (there's always something more, and it's often important). Between these and the links that they in turn will point you to, you can become quite an expert in a reasonable time.

One thing that I noted as I surfed the net putting together this section of the Treasury: there are a lot of information resources out there that are badly out of date. The internet is a remarkably dynamic phenomenon and information about it that is more than, oh, say a year or two old is going to be pretty hopelessly incomplete and, likely, misleading. As you scan around yourself, be very, very sure to pay attention the when any material you consult was created or last updated.

I have provided an unusually large number of links on the general-internet topic, because there are so many ways, at so many different depths and widths, of explaining what is likely one of the defining developments of all human history.

The Netiquette Home Page: "Netiquette" is proper, civlized behavior on the internet. What you don't know can and will hurt you--conduct that may seem perfectly reasonable to you can be a flagrant breach of what the net community thinks right and decent. Since you're reading this on the internet, your need for the rest of the information here is not critical; netiquette, however, always is. Don't be in doubt for a minute. Research the material on that site now.

Introduction To The Internet: an absolutely first-rate site. This is course material from a British University for introducing students to the internet. It is very clear, well-paced, and at just the right depth for a good first overview. Highly recommended.

Internet Fast Facts: a very thorough explanation of the internet as an entity and as a collection of tools. Another highly recommended source. (Beware: I found it consistently slow to load--be patient.)

County Of San Diego WWW/Internet Help: by gum, something useful from a government. A lightweight but easily absorbed overview of the major internet tools and features.

Life On The Internet - Beginner's Guide: An well-maintained and comprehensive set of logically arranged links to give you long hours of useful and interesting instructional reading. It's nice to see that they put some emphasis on the history of the internet.

Explore The Internet: From the University of Oklahoma comes this solid, up-to-date (if needlessly jazzy--their Java banner can really load a CPU) starting point for finding out more about the internet.

Newbie U.: An on-line "university" for "newbies" (newcomers) who want to learn about the internet. It's "courses" omit some older but useful tools like Gopher and Archie, but it looks like a good resource. It is obviously kept right up to date.

Explore The Internet: Another meta-site with a fine collection of links to sites for learning more about the internet. It too is kept up to date.

An Internet Tutorial: from a college in London (England). This one is for utter novices. (I can't date it, but it looks reasonably contemporary.)

The Internet Encyclopedia: learn all about the internet (not for absolute beginners, but close). This one is not obsolete, but at about a year and a half it's getting into the obsolescent zone.

The EFF's Extended Guide To The Internet: This one is dangerously old--1994, you can tell by the ignoring of the web--but it's such a comprehensive information source about basics (including material on now-less-used tools) that I include it anyway.



The World Wide Web

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[I expect to add bunches here, but this lot will get you going.]



A Web Overview

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The web is not the internet. The "world wide web"--or just WWW or web--is only one of many ways of transferring information across the internet. Nevertheless, to many folk it seems as if the web is the net. That is understandable: it was the development of the graphical-interface "browser" that caused the veritable explosion in internet use, taking it from a technogeek refuge to a toy half the world plays with.

The foundation on which the web sits is a "protocol" ( a set of definite rules) that allows plain-text files to tell suitable software (browsers) how to not only display the text of a document, but how to add all sorts of display enhancements (this and this and this and this and this and this, and so on); but above all, what makes the web the web is the ability to provide "hyperlinks"--all those click-on phrases and pictures that suddenly jump you to somewhere wildly else on the internet. You can, with a few clicks, go from reading a document on your own computer to one in Sweden to one in New York City to one in Australia to one in Kansas, and on and on and on, in the way we are all now so familiar with that for too many the wild wondrousness of it all has faded to routine acceptance.

Here's one web introductory tutorial, this from the University of Georgia, that you may find helpful if you're new to all this. And here's a whole list of on-line Web Tutorials that you can use as a jumping-off point to find others.

Because the primary focus of so many users, and of the net itself these days, is on the web and corresponding software tools, there is a mighty heap of information to be passed on for even the basics to be covered. So, here we go (keeping in mind that you must already know enough to have gotten to the point that you can access this web site and read this document!).



Finding Information On The Web

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The first and in many ways foremost problem a web user faces is where to find what. You know that it's highly likely that the information you want--a bibliography of Lord Dunsany's short fiction, or alternate ways to frame external corners in house walls, or a list of congenital diseases of German Shepherd dogs, or genealogical information on your family name, or whatever--is almost certainly available somewhere on the web; but where? To answer that question, "search engines" were invented. Such engines, through the deployment of resources so vast it boggles the mind coupled with techniques of exquisite inventiveness, comb through, collect, sort, and make available through more or less (it varies) easy-to-use interfaces all (truly, all) the resources of the internet.

Now that task is so huge and the ways to present the results so various, that the many search engines out there do not by any means give the same answers to identical questions. Each has its virtues and its failings. Ideally, you will use several engines when looking for something important; for casual searches, just one of the better ones will do. Or--the latest thing--you can use a "meta-engine," a "multi-threaded" engine which works by simultaneously querying several of the other engines. At the WWW Search Engines Guide from the Asian Studies WWW Virtual Library, comes a comprehensive, well-arranged, scrupulously annotated, frequently updated master list of all the search engines there are (and there are a lot of them, many quite specialized) ; I simply cannot conceive of a better compilation existing anywhere.



Optimizing Your Browser

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OK, so you can find things by surfing the web. But are you surfing it as well as you could? Do you have your browser set up optimally?

In general, the best place to look for help and advice about your browser is from the company that produced it. Netscape has several resources that you can click to right from the Help word in the "toolbar"--the row of words that's always displayed across the top of your screen when you use the browser. But for a more central, begin-at-the-beginning sort of approach, you're best to go right to the Netscape Support Site.


I presume Microsoft has similar options, but I wouldn't know because I'd never use a product from a company that utilizes that product as a tool with which to sneak into my computer, skulk about taking notes about what's on my hard drives, and send those notes back to its corporate headquarters for permanent recording (yes, Microsoft really has done just that to great numbers of people through its net browser--"all the better to be able to help and serve you, my dear," as someone or other said to Little Red Riding Hood).

Don't let the fact that your browser seems to be working OK deter you from doing a little fine tuning. For example, in Netscape Navigator if you click Options in the toolbar, and then General Preferences, you can set several things that may make your life easier. Try, just as one for-instance, clicking on the Fonts tab of what appears when you have selected General Preferences, then in turn clicking on the Choose Font button on that notebook page (be sure to use the button corresponding to the Proportional Font. While you can, and sometime should, try out some different fonts, for now just play with the Size drop-down box: whatever you find it set to, increase it by one notch. Then back out, clicking OK all the way. You will then find that the size of the text that your browser uses to show you pages has increased. You may like it better that way, you may want it larger yet, or you may want to return it to what it was or even scale it down more. But the important thing is that you control it. And you can control lots more stuff. Play around! Just note where you found things, so you can always put them back if you don't like what you get.



HTML: HyperText Markup Language

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HTML is somewhat like a car engine: an essentially simple and easily understood set of principles can become bewilderingly complex when embodied in reality. Here's a pretty good HTML starting point from the Web Design Group. This site is--especially taking into account all the fine links from it--probably the only HTML resource location you'll need, no matter the zillions of others (how to write HTM may possibly have generated more web sites than any other single internet, or even computer, topic).

There are great numbers of competing programs that promise to make authoring web pages in HTML mindlessly easy. The mindless part, yes; the easy part, maybe. Since you ought not to dream of putting up a web page that you have not carefully reviewed by eye for appropriate, optimum, standard-conforming HTML, you should know HTML anyway. That being so, all you need to do is create your web pages with any convenient text editor while monitoring them locally with your browser. Every time you add or change anything, just hit the browser's Reload hotkey (or icon) to see what you've done. You don't need fancy-pants "authoring" software.

Beyond the sheer mechanics of authoring HTML are the numerous points that separate a bad web site from a good web site. I refer you to my own Top-10 HTML Tips, a guide to creating web sites that visitors will enjoy and return to.



Java(tm) and all that

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Mystified? Try this Java(tm) introduction.



Under The Hood

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Now if you'd like a little better idea about the underlying mechanisms--those "protocols" I mentioned earlier--for communication between browsers and web servers (the HTTP protocol), look at this exposition of the HTTP Protocol. You don't have to know how it works, but if you're interested in what your browser is saying and being told when you click on a link, that is a detailed but accessible rundown.



Miscellaneous Web Resources

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If you like to waste computer power on pretty screen backgrounds, Texture Land is hog heaven.

CGI scripts: if you know what they are, here's a treasure trove of free ones at the famed Matt's Script Archive. For those with the savvy to make use of it, this is one of the most wonderful resources on the entire web.



Usenet ("News")

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While most modern web browsers have a built-in news-reader feature (as well as a built-in e-mail feature, both of which you need to configure in your browser's Settings area before you can utilize them), most netizens prefer to use a "news reader" program specifically designed for the task. Or, nowadays, you needn't bother at all with a "news reader"--dedicated or intra-browser--owing to the existence of Deja News (explained and linked below).

Deja News: here's probably the easiest and best way to access usenet--and it's web-based! DN collects and archives all (well, very nearly all) usenet messages posted anywhere and collects them at one searchable, easily used web site. Do take the time to read all the information and help pages on this site, and be sure especially to make good use of the "Power Search" facility. Forget "newsreader" programs; Deja News is the only way to fly. (Although their site's front page is awfully--as the interior designers put it--"busy.")

Deja News - Usenet new-user Groups: You could get to this page from the Deja News site front page, but I put it in here as a quick jump-ahead to get you started learning more about usenet. When you arrive, click first on news.announce.newusers, which is under the heading Usenet Forums (there are technical reasons why I can't just link you to that page from here).



E-Mail

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As with usenet, so with e-mail: while your browser probably has a built-in mail facility, just about everyone prefers one or another of the popular programs designed entirely as mail handlers. They offer all sorts of bells and whistles that are convenient to have available. Normally, you will use your browser's built-in mail ability only when responding to a web site that has a clickable "e-mail us" link right on the web page.



FTP

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"FTP" is an abbreviation for "file-transfer protocol." It is a method, normally implemented by a specific program on your computer called an "ftp client," that makes contact with and negotiates communication and file downloads (and uploads where allowed) between you and the particular ftp server site you seek.

Once upon a time, you had yourself to know and type in all the various text commands that are involved in setting up a file transfer. Today, jazzy software makes all that transparent to you; you click a little here and a little there and hey! presto! files are delivered to your machine. Many such programs have all kinds of built-in smarts to help you, such as the ability to resume a broken-off download midstream instead of just starting again (many a veteran of the net will recall the agony of having a 5+ Megabyte download abort with about 10K left to go!).

Nevertheless, here is a little basic background so you have some idea what's going on when you want to find and get files from somewhere.

What Is Ftp?: from the Internet Bulletin for CPAs, a short and sweet yet thorough explanation of the basics.

What Is Ftp?: another short & sweet summary (notice how inventive these page titles are?), but with useful hyperlinks to further explanations of terms it uses.

Mr. Knowalot's "What Is Ftp?": This is part of a page on Gopher, Veronica, Jughead, (yes, yes, really) and ftp.



Archie

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So you can use ftp to download files: swell. But how do you know what ftp server where might have the file you want? You find out by using Archie.

Here's a fine, thorough Archie guide.

And, in the interests of thoroughness, here's an older but still useful (and extensive) explanation of what Archie is and, to some extent (very Unix-oriented) how it is used.

Despite the intimations in those documents, Archie client programs exist for virtually every operating system. Moreover, most of those programs are sophisticated enough to make their use pretty simple (as by having most or all known Archie servers preset for you), as long as you have some idea of what you're actually trying to accomplish.

Or, if you like everything web-based, here's a web-based ftp search engine which I presume from its look and function to be an Archie access (if not, it does the same things).



Telnet

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(Note that it is telnet and not telenet.)

Telnet is a program allowing you to "log on to" some other computer also connected to the internet and then operate that computer as if you were running it and not your won.

For all that to work, the remote computer must, of course, permit Telnet access; further, you will have to supply an identification (logon name or userid or some such) and possibly a password (which may be publicly known or may be confidential, to restrict Telnet access). "Open" Telnet sites generally have a "guest" facility: that way, you can be logged on to the host computer, but with reasonable constraints on the things you can do (so you cannot, by accident or design, damage their system integrity); "restricted" Telnet sites are for such uses as telecommuters logging onto a business computer.

The major drawback to Telnet is that once logged on, your ability to use the host computer is largely set by the degree of your intimacy with Unix and its rather cryptic command set. Here's a quick guide to Telnet which gives you at least the bare bones.

Today, Telnet is largely a specialized resource for special purposes. If there's some good use you could make of Telnet, you'll normally know it and be told by the host (perhaps your place of employment) what to do and how to do it.



Gopher

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Far back in the distant days of yore--maybe even as much as four or five years ago--before the development of the graphical browser and the sudden explosion of the web there was Gopher. Gopher was an information mine: with a Gopher client program, you could access the thousands of Gopher servers around the world for documents, data files, graphics, all sorts of data, and each Gopher server could pass you along to other Gopher servers with related data. If that sounds like hypertext and links, it wasn't but it was close; but when the real thing arrived, it dominated almost instantly.

Today, almost--but not quite--all of those many Gopher servers have gone dark. It is a net technology that the newcomer need not even know about (and even less does he or she need to know about Veronica--to Gopher what Archie is to ftp--or Jughead, names that will soon be, if they are not already, merely answers to trivia questions).

If you have a Gopher client and want to fool about, fire it up--but be aware that most of the sites likely to have been preprogrammed into it aren't there any more. Be aware, however, that your Swiss Army Internet Knife--your browser--can almost certainly be used as a crude Gopher client (as it no doubt can as a news reader, ftp client, e-mailer, and possibly can opener and toilet scrubber). Of course, a dedicated Gopher program will make things much easier, with more convenient screen displays and click-on controls, but for fooling around just use your browser.

As a demonstration of your browser as a Gopher client, and to sample the current feeble state of the art, here are a few still-functional Gopher sites I dug up these working sites:

--IBM Almaden Labs
--USC
--NIST Security Gopher
--NITA -- IITF (duplicates the above server)
--Panix
--National Criminal Justice Reference Service
--Wiretap
--Educational Resources Informational Center

I call them "functional" with caution: all that means is that they still respond. On just about every one, the "late news" has dates like 1993 or 1994. Gopher is settling down into a warm, comfortable place on history's scrap heap, so you don't worry too much about mastering it.

Or you can try "Gopher Jewels", a web site purportedly listing and linking hordes of Gopher sites categorized by subject focus; I didn't have the patience to try them, based on my other experiences. The page ends with "Last Edit: November 16, 1994," but that doesn't mean all the listed servers are necessarily gone. But it does not look hopeful.



Miscellaneous Tools

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Quite a number of ancillary programs are comprised by the typical internet software package. Many of them are used by the major applications--your browser, for example--to carry out certain specific communication tasks. Most of these ancillary programs are things that you need not, and indeed, unless you're an expert, should not fiddle with.

That said, there remains a core of useful little toys that can at times be helpful. (That is quite aside from the many other handy internet-related toys that you can usually pick up as shareware or freeware--things like a little graphic in/out byte-rate meter, and the like.)

I here mention a few of those usually present tools that can sometimes be quite helpful, normally as diagnostic tools when you have a little problem.



Ping

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Ping is a tool for seing if a location on the internet is actually "alive" at any current moment and, if so, how good or bad your internet communication with it is. Ping can help settle questions when you are having a problem reaching a site by browser, ftp, or whatever else. If you can Ping it OK, the problem is almost certainly at your end; if not, almost certainly at their end.

Here is some nice information on Ping (plus some other toys) from a FAQ at Virginia Tech. There is a link there to a browser-based access to ping, but that access seems to be broken.

If you don't know where your own Ping program is, or how to use it, there is a working web-based Ping guide and web-based access available; it runs a 10-packet Ping, which is a pretty small sample, but one cannot expect a public resource to do any more. Use your own real Ping program and watch it for a couple of minutes to see if there are any "dropped" (missing) packets--they're numbered sequentially, so it's easy to tell. Remember, Ping not only tells you if the remote site is alive: it tells you how well you're communicating with that site, by way of packet round-trip times (in "ms." or millisecnonds--more is worse) and number of dropped packets (they're never "lost," but they do have to be re-sent, further slowing communications). And be sure to use the further Ping link on the page I send you to.

Keep firmly in mind that if you use a web-based access to Ping, you are not tracking the route from you to the target: you are tracking the route from the friendly web site to the target. For accurate timing and packet-loss information, you need to run Ping yourself, from your own computer (that is also true of TraceRte).



Finger

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Finger can get you information about a particular person or about a particular server on the internet. Here's an explanation of Finger with links to sites you can use for web-based access. And here is a direct link to a web-based Finger access.

But you should have your own Finger program and it can do all the same things without the overhead of a browser (or the chance of the site disappearing some day).



WhoIs

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Domain names are, for now, all registered by one monopolistic service, InterNIC (the quality of whose work, and the monopolistic nature of whose business, has been questioned). Because they are the sole holders of domain-name records, they have a complete database; in theory, the public can freely access that database, and the commonest way is a simple program named, like the database itself, WhoIs. I say "in theory" because quite recently InterNIC has, under cover of protecting the database from excessive abuse by spammers "mining" it for names and e-mail addresses, severly restricted access. Most days, WhoIs just hangs and hangs.

You can access WhoIs directly on the net; here is InterNIC's WhoIs web site. Or you can use the much faster web-based WhoIs access at the delightful SoftAware ISP site (also referenced here under Ping and DNSLookup). Be sure to use the further WhoIs link on the page I send you to.



DNSLookUp

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Here is some nice information on DNSLookUp (plus some other toys) from a FAQ at Virginia Tech. Somewhere on your computer, probably in the directory holding the other "executables" associated with your basic internet connectivity, you will have a DNSLookUp program. NSLOOKUP.EXE is a likely name; if not, it will almost certainly be sufficiently similar to be recognizeable.

Civilized programs of the kind too small to have their own DOCfiles--much less manuals--will all respond with some information if invoked with -? or /? as the parameter. That is, entering at a command line--

NSLOOKUP -?

should (no guarantees!) get you a screenful of output which explains, briefly, how to use the program.

Understand that DNSLookUp programs don't get their information from ethereal waves; they get it from a specific DNS ("Doman Name Server") somewhere on the internet. Normally, that DNS is one provided by your ISP ("internet service provider"), but there's no law saying it has to be. There are many public DNS's in the world, and you're free to use any of those. (To do so, you'll have to identify one you want to use, then enter that DNS's IP "dot" address in whatever way you first did when you signed up with your present ISP and entered their DNS's numbers.)



TraceRte

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Here is some nice information on TraceRte (plus some other toys) from a FAQ at Virginia Tech. And here, again from the nice people at SoftAware, an ISP, is an explanation of and web-based access to TraceRoute (the full name of what I call TraceRte, because that's how the executable program file on your computer is most often named). Be sure to use the further TraceRte link on the page I send you to.

Keep firmly in mind that when you use a web-based access to TraceRte, you are not tracing the route from you to the target: you are tracing the route from the friendly web site to the target. For accurate TraceRte information, you need to run TraceRte yourself, from your own computer (that is also true of Ping if you want anything beyond a dead/alive report on the target).




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(Last updated: 17 October 2000.)

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