SAN FRANCISCO (03/03/2000) - Search engines get all the press, trying to outdo each other at tracking down absolutely every Web site dedicated to the study of early-twentieth-century Hungarian cinema or the mating rituals of Amazonian tree slugs. But even if these search sites could index every single Web page, they might still set you barking up the wrong tree. When it comes to arcane or highly specific material, you might have better luck searching Usenet--the ownerless, amorphous, ever-expanding collection of ad hoc newsgroups that proliferate daily across the Internet. Some newsgroups are maintained by companies offering tech support (for example, any group name that has a moniker such as microsoft.public.access is hosted by Microsoft Corp.), but most of the Usenet forums out there are run by devoted enthusiasts.
The problem with Usenet is its size. There are thousands of groups, and each may contain thousands of messages at any given time. Even if you're an expert with your newsreader (Microsoft's Outlook Express and Forte's Free Agent or Agent programs are my personal favorites), you can easily waste hours scanning the Usenet universe in vain for an explanation of the correct use of the Mixolydian mode in ancient Greek music.
Fortunately, several search sites let you focus exclusively on news messages.
The best is Deja.com, which not only archives and indexes Usenet and other newsgroups, but lets you post your own news messages as well. Originally called Dejanews, Deja.com has tried to downplay its close connection to Usenet, but that remains the site's strength. To start searching, simply type what you're looking for into the Quick Search window in the upper right-hand part of the screen. If the search engine returns too many matches, try adding more specifics to the search string; if you get too few matches, broaden the search by reducing the number of required terms. Use the Power Search link if you want to narrow your search down to certain newsgroup categories (jobs, for sale, or adult, for example), specific groups, time periods, or message authors.
Deja.com provides another handy free service, too. When you post messages to a newsgroup, you invite spam. Though you can take steps to hide your real e-mail address from spammers, such action makes it harder for other Usenet denizens to respond to your postings. By registering with Deja's My Deja service, you receive a spam-free address (something like email@example.com) that appears in your postings. Deja.com screens your incoming mail for postings and notifies you at your real e-mail address of new messages of probable interest to you.
This service is free (ad-supported, that is). The only information you need supply is a valid e-mail address and your zip code. Deja.com also will provide you with full-blown ad-free news server accounts for $10 a month--you should consider one of these if your ISP's news server is overloaded, carries too few newsgroups, or expires messages faster than you can download them.
Deja.com hasn't cornered the news market, however. Another search site, RemarQ (www.remarq.com), offers practically the same free searches and pay services that Deja.com does. It even calls its personalization service MyRemarQ.
Many Web search engines give you the option of searching newsgroups instead of or in addition to the Web (usually by borrowing the service from Deja.com or RemarQ). AltaVista (www.altavista.com), allows you to find search results in News rather than via the Web, but you'll most likely do better if you choose their Discussion Groups (AltaVista's euphemism for newsgroups) instead. The news option only looks for your search terms among the day's current wire stories.
GETTING STARTED WITH A NEWSREADER
Deja.com offers a quick and easy way to find something on a newsgroup, but regular participation in discussion threads requires strong tools. If you don't want to miss part of an important thread, you will need a program that tracks what you've read, downloads and saves new postings for offline reading, and helps you weed out unwanted chatter and spam (yes, like e-mail, newsgroup postings are cluttered with junk messages).
If you use Internet Explorer, you already have a decent newsreader installed on your system. In addition to its e-mail capabilities, Outlook Express lets you create multiple news server accounts. Forte's Free Agent (a free download available from PC World Online's FileWorld or at www.forteinc.com) increases your control over message downloading. The company's $29 Agent adds a complete e-mail client. Netscape's Messenger also incorporates a newsreader, though its interface is somewhat clunkier than those on Microsoft's and Forte's services.
In practice, I use both Forte's Agent and Microsoft's Outlook Express--Agent for managing the newsgroups I follow closely, and Outlook Express for those I browse only occasionally. To activate your newsreader, all you need is a news server address and permission to use it. Most ISPs provide such addresses--just call and ask what yours is. If your service doesn't provide you with one of these or if performance is lackluster, you can pay for access from Deja.com or RemarQ (see above). Or try one of the free news servers on the Internet; Smith Barley Software's $10 NewSeek utility will help you find them (smithbarley.webjump.com).
TOPOGRAPHY HITS THE WEB
Need driving directions from your hotel to a client's office? Customized maps are among the most useful free features available online. MapQuest has long made road navigation a piece of cake--just point your browser to the service's site (www.mapquest.com), click the driving directions link, and enter the addresses of your starting point and your destination. MapQuest will display a map with the driving route marked for you. All you have to do is print it out and hit the road. Yahoo (maps.yahoo.com) offers a similar service.
But what if you prefer the road less traveled? TopoZone (www.topozone.com) is the first map site to offer U.S. Geological Survey maps of the entire country--including coverage of those big empty spaces between the freeways--for free. Though you can't currently download maps at TopoZone (a fee-based service should be available by the time you read this), you can locate the map of your choice simply by entering a place name--a town, a national park, a lake, or the like. If you find yourself a mile or two in the wrong direction, just scroll to the correct spot. TopoZone stitches together the thousands of USGS maps into a single seamless view--so you can mouse your way from coast to coast if you wish.
Though TopoZone's concept is good, I recommend taking the USGS maps with a grain of salt. The map of my town, Boulder, Colorado, still shows street names, railroad tracks, and other features that vanished decades ago.
LOOKING FOR OUTLOOK'S OUT-OF-OFFICE ASSISTANTIN THE "Rules and Filters" section of the December "Postmasters" article (www.pcworld.com/dec99/email_tips) I noticed what I think is an error. In answer to the question "How can I create an automatic reply when I'm away?" for Outlook 98/2000 (page 214), you provide a long list of instructions requiring the user to "Take a deep breath" before starting and then breathe a sigh of relief when finished. Although your instructions will get the job done, there is a much easier way to do it. Simply choose Tools*Out of Office Assistant, click I am currently out of the office, type your out-of-office message, and then click OK.
Name withheld by request
You are right, but only under certain circumstances. Outlook runs in one of two modes, depending on whether you get your mail from an Exchange Server on a corporate LAN, or from a POP3 server (the mail-server protocol that most ISPs use). The above method will work when Outlook is running as an Exchange Server client because the Out-of-Office Assistant appears only in that mode. So, lucky you!
One word of warning: According to Microsoft, Exchange Server 5.5 by default blocks all automatic replies to addresses outside the LAN (see support.microsoft.com/support/kb/articles/q181/6/36.asp for complete details).
If correspondents outside your company are not receiving your out-of-office messages, you'll have to sweet-talk your mail administrator into enabling that feature for you.
Find files mentioned in this article at www.fileworld.com/magazine. Send your questions and tips to firstname.lastname@example.org. We pay $50 for published items.
Scott Spanbauer is a contributing editor for PC World.
Never a Dull In-Box
TIRED OF ALL the cheerful, tasteful, pre-digested e-mail newsletters filling your in-box? For a change of pace, try Keith Bostic's deadpan mailing list, Nev/Dull (a geeky pun referring to the UNIX directory Dev/Null). Bostic's missives document the misdirected e-mails, improbable Web sites, and potpourri of jokes, hoaxes, and breaking stories that characterize the Internet. This is weird, disturbing, and true stuff (with no ads). To subscribe to the list, just send Keith a request at email@example.com.