An information journey that doesn't go anywhere

November 29, 1993|By MIKE ROYKO

Because I don't like airplanes, I drive on most trips. I've been coast to coast, border to border and lots of places in between. Most of the time, I need nothing more than a simple road map. Stay awake, watch the road signs, don't mess with big trucks and you can get anywhere.

But I have just returned from a journey that left my eyes bugging, my head spinning and me being hopelessly lost.

Don't flee. This is not a travel article about the price of motels between here and Florida.

I have been bumbling around an eerie place you may have read or heard about. Or maybe you have even been there.

It is Internet, the global information superhighway that has been getting a lot of publicity lately because of the boom in home computers.

All you need, the pitch goes, is a computer, a modem and a telephone line.

Then off you go. You can merrily cruise this data superhighway and have access to just about everything about anything that's worth knowing, and lots of stuff that isn't.

There is more information on the electronic superhighway than you could absorb in 1,000 years of reading. There are universities, libraries, government databanks and thousands of other sources here and abroad.

And all of this fascinating knowledge will come leaping out of your computer screen, into your eyes, onto your brain and make you smart as the dickens.

Assuming, of course, that you have the time, the patience and the inclination to become a computer nerd. The computer experts don't tell you that. Of course not. They want a world of computer nerds so their daughters might find suitably nerdy husbands.

Because of my work, I've been forced to learn the basics of computing. I can use a computer for writing, tracking my wife's spending and sending obscenities to electronic billboards.

But only recently did I rev up and peel rubber onto Internet, the information superhighway that is made up of thousands and thousands of info-spewing databases.

As far as I can tell, I didn't get half way up the first entrance ramp.

After getting a cordial welcome on my screen, I was given the "Sig menu." I didn't know who or what Sig was. The last Sig I knew played right field on my softball team and could drink beer like an elephant sucking water.

The Sig menu gave me another menu of places Sig might take me. I picked one and got another menu. Then another and another. I thought I was in a French restaurant. And I still wasn't anywhere.

At one point, I had my choice of places like WAIS, WHOIS, WWW, HYTELNET 6.6, InterNic X500 Directory Service and other exotic destinations.

Every time I chose one, it gave me even more menus. But finally, I arrived somewhere and prepared my brain to absorb something profound.

Instead, this is what I got:

"In the archie system version 3 the telnet and email clients accept a common set of commands. Additionally, there are specialized commands specific to the particular interfaces. See the Interactive Interface and the EMail interface sections below for a list of these commands.

"Arguments to commands shown in square brackets '1/8 3/8' are optional; all others are mandatory.

"Prog (pattern). This command produces a list of files matching the pattern (pattern). The (pattern) may be interpreted as a simple substring, a case sensitive substring, an exact string or a regular expression, depending on the value."

Well, who would have thunk it?

I quickly put my computer in reverse and tried a different route.

What I found, so help me, was this set of instructions:

"This directory is provided by the sipb.mit.edu Gopher server, for querying whois servers throughout the Internet.

"The whois servers are those on the list available via anonymous FTP in sipb.mit.edu:/pub/whois/whois-servers.list."

I felt as if I had just gone over an enormous pothole and lost all four hubcaps. So I changed directions once again. And this time the message was:

"Please log in as: wais

"Trying Quake.Think.Com,0 (192.31.181.1,0). ...

"Escape (attention) character is '1/4.'"

I once drove through hilly Chattanooga late on a Saturday night during a sleet storm. Many of the local drivers appeared to have been sipping home-brewed moonshine. That was a lark compared with the electronic superhighway.

But again, I switched directions and gave it one more try. And on my screen came these words:

"If you are getting a binary file, you must type BINARY and enter it before you get the file. Examples of binary files are any .exe, .zip, .tar, .z, .taz, .arc, .arj, .com, .gif, and most types of graphic files. . . ."

I swerved, hit the brakes and tried to escape.

But I found myself staring at this message:

"You can telnet to sites that are not on the menus by typing telnet followed by the internet address, for example: telnet stis.nsf.gov."

Forget it. I have never been to "telnet stis.nsf.gov," and I don't plan on going. It probably doesn't have a decent bar.

So if you are planning to plunge into the high-tech age, take my advice: Try Super Mario Brothers instead. It won't make you a genius, but you won't blow any electronic tires.

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