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Beyond Surfing: Using the Net

July 15, 1996|DANIEL AKST

People often ask me how much time I spend surfing the Internet, anticipating a mind-boggling answer on the order of "all my waking hours." In fact, I sometimes log off for hours on end and recently had several in-person conversations, although they did make me awfully uncomfortable.

Joking aside, "hours and hours" just isn't how I use the Internet. In fact, the longer I use the Internet, the less I surf--yet the more things I find myself actually using it for.

To convey some idea of this, I kept track of what I did on the Internet for a while. It's not exactly an Internet diary, but it should provide an idea of the usefulness of this medium, especially for people like me who are self-employed and spend a lot of their time at the computer.

For instance, a few days ago, in considering ways to bolster our paltry nest egg, I decided to explore real estate investment trusts, or REITs. Using Yahoo (, I quickly found an interesting AP-Dow Jones article about tax considerations and other aspects of REIT investing. It turned out to live on Teleres Online (, which specializes in news of commercial real estate and offers links to the National Assn. of REITs at, which had a good deal more information. Then I visited NetWorth, at, where I was able to get some basic stuff from Morningstar on a couple of mutual funds that invest in REITS.

But I really hit a home run when I left the Internet and logged into America Online. There I headed straight for the Motley Fool (keyword MOTLEY), where I learned more about REITs in an hour than I ever imagined knowing. Run by a former finance professor and his brother, a former financial journalist, Motley Fool is an incomparable resource for anyone interested in investing. It shows why AOL continues to thrive as a separate service despite the competitive allure of the Internet. (Those without AOL access can reach the Motley Fool Web site at, but it doesn't begin to approach the depth of foolishness, in Motley Fool lingo, of the AOL area.)

While I was on AOL, I was also able to look up relevant articles in BusinessWeek, and I was able to obtain reports on specific REITs from Morningstar--reports that aren't available on the Web.

Several days earlier, in a rare foray out of my home office, I had lunch with another scribe in a local Indian restaurant. He reported that he's received a diagnosis of ankylosing spondylitis, an arthritic spinal disorder, and wanted to learn more about it. Since he's pretty Net-savvy, I sent him to, which now makes the vast Medline database (more than 8 million references to journal articles in all fields of medicine and related disciplines) available free of charge. I should note that my friend has since found a wealth of other relevant material on the Internet too. I didn't ask him how, but my first stop on such occasions is, a frighteningly comprehensive and fast way of scouring the World Wide Web and the discussion forums known as newsgroups.

Bargain air fares motivated me recently to use Alta Vista to gather information about New Zealand for a possible vacation. Then I read through some of the New Zealand-oriented newsgroups, including nz.general and In misc.transport.rail.australia-nz, I asked if anyone could recommend great train trips. Within hours, I had several recommendations from New Zealanders and experienced visitors. (The consensus is that the "Transalpine" run from Christchurch to Greymouth, traversing the South Island, is not to be missed.)

The thing I do most on the Internet is, of course, e-mail. I have the usual personal and business correspondence, but last week I also e-mailed friends in various parts of the country to ask them to keep their eyes peeled for reviews of my book in their local newspapers, which I can't get in Los Angeles. (Of course, I regularly use Alta Vista to search the title, in case a review is posted on the World Wide Web.)

Tiring of posting the same updates to different people again and again, and even forgetting to whom I've told what news, I made up a quick Internet mailing list of friends and others who have asked to be kept apprised of readings and the like. Now I can get the word out by sending a single message. Creating such a list is easy with any of several e-mail programs. (I used Pegasus, a terrific free mail program you can obtain at I was careful to set it up so that recipients don't see a long list of addresses atop my messages, and I'll be careful to send no more than a few such mailings in the months ahead.

Not long after, the need arose to phone an editor at a large Midwestern daily. Rather than call directory assistance and pay 85 cents for the number, I used one of my favorite Web sites,, to look up the number for free.

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