Caught in the net

25th October 1996 at 01:00
Imagine the scene. Your school has just set up an Internet account, the modem has whined into action and all the necessary signs of life are showing from your computer. Your "browser" (the piece of software that lets you navigate through the Internet) has shimmied on to your screen and the whole of the on-line world is waiting for you like a door ajar.

But where do you go next? How do you know where to look? If this were television you could flick through the channels. If this were radio you could wind the tuner until you found what you wanted. The anorak down the road might have told you there was a really good Internet site for NASA, but how do you find it without having to ask him?

The most direct route to a specific site is to key in the Internet address - the electronic equivalent of a phone number (these are known as URLs or Unique Resource Locators in computerese).

You've probably seen these addresses hovering around the small print of advertising, in the details at the end of newspaper articles or in the letterheads of major corporations.

These are the http:www.this-that-and-the-other addresses that seem to have proliferated everywhere from the front page of The Times to the even more depressing news on my credit card statement.

It's more than likely that you won't know or won't want to know these long strings of semi-English - so how then, for example, would you find the NASA site? There isn't any equivalent of the phone directory, because there isn't any overall body responsible for running the Internet. What you need to use is a "search engine", the dray horses of the Internet, software programs that haul masses of information back to you on whatever subject you specify.

These search engines, which act as an ad hoc referencing system for the Internet, will come as part of your browser, whether it's Netscape or Microsoft Explorer.

When you click on the "search" button you'll be given a list of search engines, with names such as "yahoo" and "alta vista", each of which will give you a panel in which to key in the details of your search.

In this case, we're looking for NASA. So in the panel provided we would key in "NASA", or if it seemed more appropriate, "the National Aeronautics and Space Administration" - and then click the search button.

While you sit in the comfort of your chair, the hyperactive search engine will ransack the Internet for any appropriate matches, which will then be presented as a list.

If you fancy looking at any of the returns, just click on the item you want and you'll be taken directly to the Internet site that holds the information.

Using Alta Vista, my search for "NASA" produced no fewer than 666,318 matches, ranging from the hundreds of pages provided by an official NASA site to pages run by specialist departments within NASA or fan-club type sites holding information about the United States' space programme.

If you're interested in the main NASA site, with its galleries of space mission pictures and video clips and its accounts of technological development, then you can use your browser to "bookmark" the site as somewhere you can get back to whenever you want.

The bookmarking process is very straightforward. You can simply have to click on a menu saying "bookmark" or "favour-ite", but it is very useful, because soon you build up a regularly-used list of sites that you can return to without having to know the Internet address or use a search engine.

Schools that use the Internet regularly will have developed their own lists of bookmarks for particular subjects, so that NASA could be added to an approved list of sites for science and technology. And Explorer even lets you build up "folders" of bookmarks, so you could build up a subject-by-subject guide.

If you are interested in travelling to NASA on your own computer, you could try http:www.nasa.gov. Ideas or suggestions are always welcome, send e-mail to tesnet@tes1.demon.co.uk.

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