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Volume 15, No.2

Editorial: Dedicated to my
Unforgettable Cat

by Stefano Lanzavecchia

I love the Internet.

I am sure that people have already written hundreds of books on the phenomena but I don’t buy this kind of books, so here is my point of view. First of all I’d like to point out that with the term Internet I am referring to anything that is delivered via the TCP-IP protocol and not just the World Wide Web; among the others: real-time and delayed messaging, file archives, chat forums, video and audio streams, online commerce.

You will certainly have noticed that the bibliography accompanying my last editorial was exclusively made of Uniform Resource Locators (URLs in short), whereas a couple of years ago it would have consisted of titles of books and references to chapter or page numbers. Even the editorial itself can now be found on the revamped Vector web site [1]. In my opinion this is an amazing step forward.

How much can be found on the Internet? This is a challenge to me: give me something on which you want some information and one hour to find it on the internet. I hardly ever fail. If I do fail, the reason is that the piece of information required is too recent to have already been put on the net. It is just a matter of time. Hundreds of new sites are being added every hour and one will probably be devoted to your new area of interest, whether it is only curiosity or a business issue. I will give you an example. Only a couple of weeks ago I was asked the meaning of a Spanish word. You will be surprised to know that Spanish is not as close to Italian as it seems and that I do not want to learn Spanish. For these reasons I was not able to give a translation on the spot. But in less than ten minutes I found an online Spanish-English dictionary on the Web, and found a couple of translations for the word. Since the context from which the word had been extracted was the description of a piece of software, it was easy to choose the right meaning.

Was I lucky? Am I really that good with search engines? Neither, but more about this a bit later. What can be found on the net? I am very tempted to reply “everything”, but since this would be a meaningless answer, I will produce a short list of things that I looked for (or stumbled into) and found on the big Net: multilingual dictionaries including a Japanese to English online dictionary; lessons to learn the Japanese language; an excellent free Japanese Word Processor; a radio with live broadcast from Singapore; the specs of all the internet protocols in use now, with the history of their development; the theoretical explanation behind ray-tracing algorithms and the source code to implement them; discussion groups in Italian about the works of Rumiko Takahashi; the lyrics of the songs from a record by “The Divine Comedy”; new friends; old friends I had lost; the latest patch to Microsoft's Office suite; the beta version of Internet Explorer 5; the English translation (online!) of a novel very difficult to find in Europe; the recipe for Spaghetti alla Carbonara; a detailed map of London; the satellite picture of the beach I used to go to when I was a kid...

How does one go about finding all these wonders? Sure there are a couple of tricks that must be learned before one can find his way in an archive without index, which now contains several terabytes of data [2]. Have patience, be brave (bytes don't bite), keep your mind opened, feel the links. I will return to the qualities of the perfect Web surfer another time, but the main point remains that the Internet is simple.

Why am I so excited about the Internet? There are many reasons, but to me the most attractive reason to spend time on it is that the quality/cost ratio is fantastic. All the examples I have given are of completely free stuff. In general I stay away from sites that ask for money to give me the information I need. I know that there are some intrinsic costs associated with the surfing but apart from the price of the computer (which we need anyway), and of the telephone call (almost irrelevant in “civilised” countries like the U.S.), the only real cost is the time. Can we, busy professionals, afford the time to learn new technologies, new ways of thinking, new ways of searching, collecting and assimilating information? I consider it an investment for the future. And if your answer is “no” why are you reading Vector ?

  [1] Vector’s magazine home page:
  [2] Alexa in the news:

© 1998 British APL Association & Stefano Lanzavecchia

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