Let's take a look at some tools that cost nothing and that help us make a little more sense out of the information explosion.
I dropped by eToys' Web site the other day for about the dozenth time, wondering whether I might find an unsold Furby. Ha. What an optimist. I was about fed up with trying; easy as it is to bookmark the page, it is just plain irritating to keep returning to a bare cupboard. In months past, I would have given up. But I was ready this time. I copied the URL and proceeded to www.netmind.com, where I set a NetMind agent the task of watching just the portion of the page that said "Out of Stock." Four days ago, the NetMind agent delivered the Furby page right to my e-mail program with the news that it had changed. A click later I was placing my order. It should come today, complete with batteries.
OK, Furby watching isn't what On the Horizon is about, but event spotting is, and sometimes those events may be heralded by the change of a page on the Web. I've watched Thomas for new legislation, EDGAR for new Securities Exchange Commission filings, and a number of professional organizations' Web sites for news. For those search facilities where the search is expressed as a URL, NetMind will regularly rerun the search for you and let you know if there is anything new. I use it with a couple of the abstract databases to watch for new publications on particular topics. It saves a huge amount of timeso much time that if you are the proprietor of a Web site, you should consider installing a link to NetMind that will permit your visitors to be advised when your page changes. There are a number of options, [[AUTHOR: Options for what, specifically? This reads as though you are referring to permitting visitors to be advised. ]]ranging from the extremely easy to the very techy, but NetMind's service and directions are as conscientious as I have seen anywhere on the Net. NetMind is funded by advertisers, but the ads are unobtrusive.
Netscape WebMail[[AUTHOR: Please be sure that the capitalization is OK here. ]]
Time was, if someone had told me there would be a huge amount of interest in Web sites offering personal, anonymous e-mail, it would have conjured up visions of people trying to indulge in a rich fantasy life out from under the prying eyes of the boss or the spouse. How shortsighted can one get? There are any number of good reasons to have a Web-based place to send and receive e-mail that make the aforementioned pale by comparison. For example, if you are an AOL member, it's still a pain to receive attachment in MIME format. Open a free account at Webmail.netscape.com, [[AUTHOR: Capital "W" correct? ]]and you will face no such limitations. You can use your AOL browser to go there, log into your account, and send and receive to your heart's content.
If you are starting an outside business and don't want to burden your employer's servers with unrelated e-mail, a private Web-based account is the answer. If you would like to know that you can check all your e-mail, even what you get at the office, from anywhere in the world that you can get access to the Web, this kind of service is for you. It can check your main e-mail account for you, or, if you would rather and your organization's e-mail system permits it, you can have a copy of your e-mail forwarded to Netscape.
WebMail [[AUTHOR: Capitalization OK? ]]offers five megabytes of storage and a range of free services, including junk mail filtering, multiple directories, autoreply, and vacation messages. It promises premium services, including selective mail forwarding, but I've yet to see the promises bear fruit. I've tried a number of the free services, and for features and customer support, Netscape's WebMail beats them all.
Just as there are excellent reasons for a separate, Web-based e-mail account, so are there good reasons to run listservs that have no business being hosted by your employer. With the extremely easy to use wizards at www.listbot.com, you can set up lists that work just like the others, only better, because the setup and administrative interfaces are graphic and filled with help options. No more sending off e-mail to a robot in hope of getting the syntax right. You can control who gets to subscribe, who gets to post what, how it is promoted (if at all), and dozens of other variables whose importance becomes retrospectively obvious and immediately manageable as soon as you actually get started. You may moderate or not, let people see the list of subscribers or not, and the only price is a paid ad at the end of the message.
As one's personal Web site grows to include copies of papers, organizational documents, and other materials, it becomes increasingly tedious to maintain a structure that will allow people to navigate to what they want. Moreover, there are sites out there that you would like to search but that will always appear on the two hundredth page of your Yahoo! results, no matter what. Enter FreeFind, at www.freefind.com. It will "spider" (yep, it's a verb!) the URLs of your choosing and give you the HTML code to paste into your pages to make your own Web site, or other Web sites, searchable. It respects the special code that people install when they do not wish to have their sites searched.
There are limits on the total number of bytes FreeFind will store as indexes for you, but if your site is that big you should have you own internal search engine anyway. I've noticed, by the way, that some universities have added the ability for students and faculty to spider their individual Web sites. I think it's a great idea.
This continues to be my uncontested favorite for powersearching the Web. The free version, from www.ferretsoft.com, is great, the paid version even greater. WebFerret is constantly updated with the latest search engines and the latest search protocols, which seem to vary from engine to engine in almost random fashion. I've given up trying to know how to do advanced searches with each new one that comes along. WebFerret spares you the search engine experience on the information highway that makes you feel like you're driving into someplace that's a cross between Las Vegas and Camden, New Jersey. Just a very fast clean list of hits on a large number of search engines, with relevance scores that are pretty realistic and reliable. It works better with some engines than with others, but unlike the Web sites that perform multiengine searches, it leaves you with your own file of URLs that you can save to disk and reuse or with which to continue exploring as time permits. The paid version permits fancier searches, using Boolean operators, for example. I only wish FerretSoft were willing to take on places like Medline, EDGAR, and Thomas directly, as they are rarely well represented in the usual commercial search engine.
That's enough for this column. But as you go through your workday or wander the Web, please pass along any useful tools you encounter. I'll see if I can include them in a future column.