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POSTCARD FROM CYBERSPACE / DANIEL AKST

The Cutting Edge: COMPUTING / TECHNOLOGY / INNOVATION : Need Info? Let Your PC Do the Walking

November 16, 1994|DANIEL AKST

Cyberspace is a great place to kill time. You can spend hours arguing about arcana with a 14-year-old in Fresno, or flaming poor spellers and newbies in your favorite discussion forum.

On the other hand, cyberspace is also a great place for saving time--especially if you use on-line services for something they're very, very good at, which is finding things out.

On-line services are just about the best way to look up published material of almost any kind, especially if your time is valuable enough that you can't afford to waste it, but not so valuable that you have a staff to do your research. Cyberspace can thus become indispensable to anyone whose livelihood depends upon information--and more and more of us are in that category these days.

There are several ways to find things out using a PC and a modem. The first and most time-honored method is to simply ask. That is, find a forum or bulletin board system where people knowledgeable about, say, photography, tend to congregate. Then scan the postings to see if anyone has already addressed your question, and if not, go ahead and post it yourself. Chances are you'll find out what you need to know.

For anybody with more serious information needs, I suggest a subscription to CompuServe. The granddaddy of the big on-line services is simply unsurpassed in its research offerings, and indispensable to anyone--a lawyer practicing alone, a writer, a more-than-casual investor--with an ongoing need for specific research.

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CompuServe's "basic" service costs $8.95 a month, which includes some very handy research tools: an encyclopedia, a fine mutual fund database, the ability to look up stock prices and ticker symbols, Consumer Reports, and an excellent health and medical database called HealthNet.

For slightly more per month, you can enroll in CompuServe's Executive News Service, which, among other things, functions as an automated clipping service. Let's say you're interested in trade with Senegal; you can tell ENS to comb its various news sources--including the Washington Post newspaper--for "trade" and "Senegal," and it will pull any article mentioning both terms. There are hourly charges for reading the material, though.

CompuServe also offers several ways of locating individuals or businesses nationwide, including PhoneFile and Computrace; at 25 cents a minute, they can be cheaper than directory assistance, especially if you don't know the city.

Where CompuServe really shines is as a gateway to major databases of all kinds, which you can search for a fee. For investors and others interested in business, there are a host of resources, from reports on individual companies to demographic data. Of perhaps more interest to lay users are the roughly 3,300 publications CompuServe offers through a variety of commercial databases. Although some of the databases are frighteningly expensive, some of them are not.

Besides, how expensive is a $10 or $20 database search? When I visit any of the UCLA libraries, for example, it means an hour round-trip in the car, to say nothing of hunting down hard copies or microfiches of the articles I need. And don't forget the dollar's worth of gas and $5 that UCLA charges for parking. Using my computer, I can get what I need in minutes, without leaving home.

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The array of CompuServe's extra-charge offerings is truly gigantic. Just browsing those beginning with the letter F, you'll find FCC Report, the Federal Register, Fertility and Sterility, Fiber Optics News, Financial Analysts' Journal, the Financial Times, Finnish Trade Review, Fish Farming International, Floor Covering Business, Flame Retardancy News, Forbes, Fortune, the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, the Fresno Bee, Frozen Food Age and many others.

Let there be no mistake: You can spend a pretty penny searching through back issues of Progressive Grocer on CompuServe. In some databases, in fact, you can run up charges of hundreds of dollars awfully fast. But there are ways to save. My two favorites on CompuServe are Knowledge Index (GO KI) and Magazine Database Plus (GO MAGDB).

Knowledge Index is the first place to check for most things, because at 40 cents a minute it is much cheaper than the other databases. "A 15-minute search on KI, costing $6, could cost 10 times as much using other CompuServe sources," wrote Glenn and Ruth Orenstein, authors and publishers of a very useful book called "CompuServe Companion: Finding Newspapers and Magazines Online" ($29.95, (617) 444-1154).

KI has something like 700 periodicals available on-line, including many major (and not so major) newspapers. It's also easy to use. The catch is that you can only use it nights and weekends; during business hours there is sufficient demand for the Dialog information retrieval service, of which KI is the after-hours offspring.

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Magazine Database Plus, according to CompuServe, "contains the full text of articles from more than 140 general-interest publications, including U.S. News & World Report, Entertainment Weekly, Forbes and Motor Trend." It's also easy. Searching is free, and each full-text article you view, print or download is $1.50. For $4.50, I recently located and downloaded three articles I needed, including a long one from Scientific American. Overall, says Ruth Orenstein, CompuServe carries 3,300 titles, with only a few glaring gaps.

Daniel Akst, a Los Angeles writer, is a former assistant business editor for technology at The Times. He welcomes electronic messages at akstd@news.latimes.com but regrets that he cannot reply to them all.

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