Required Reading
More Email News

This Month: Required Reading – More Email News

Welcome to yet another installment of my often pointless, sometimes worthwhile, and rarely inspired column of monthly musings and random ramblings. Glad you could make it. Now, as for what’s on my mind this month…

‘Net Books on Paper
The Internet has spawned a new genre of written material, and it can be found at your local library or bookstore. There is a fast growing number of Internet-related books, and a couple of them are darn good reads. This past Christmas, my family decided that two of these books would be perfect gifts, combining my love of the ‘Net with my love of reading. The two books were both paperbacks, Clifford Stoll’s Silicon Snake Oil and America Off-Line by A.J. Jacobs.

Both of these books deal with online addiction or over-reliance on the Internet, but they each take a totally different approach to the subject. (Wait a minute… maybe these books were meant to be not-so-subtle hints, rather than “perfect gifts.”)

Stoll’s book was originally published in 1995, and the paperback edition has been around since April of last year. Silicon Snake Oil (Anchor Books, $14.00) is subtitled Second Thoughts On the Information Superhighway, and is basically just that. The book’s thirteen chapters (fourteen if you count Chapter 12 1/2) are a series of anecdotes and illustrations reflecting on why the ‘Net isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. He presents to us the problems involved with reading in bed using a computer (at least he makes the attempt by reading a HyperCard stack on his PowerBook), learning programming languages and system interfaces, communicating effectively using email or Internet chat, online shopping, and over-reliance on technology, such as online card catalogs in the library. His points are well-argued and, for the most part, enjoyable to read. However, I think Mr. Stoll misses the boat in one crucial respect.

Stoll warns us against putting all of our eggs in one basket. He provides instance after instance where the online world cannot compare to real life. My problem with this is that he sounds as if he expects us all to view the Internet as a replacement for real life. He expects all cyber-savvy people to view books and newspapers as inferior to Web pages, or shopping in a mall as second-rate when compared to making your purchases online.

That’s flat-out ridiculous. Anyone who thinks the Information Superhighway (if and when it gets here in all its glory) is going to replace everything in life that has taken hundreds of years to build is off his rocker. I love email, I love Web-based or DOCMaker-based magazines, and I love catching news updates and sports scores from my desk. But none of these things have replaced, nor will they ever replace, the postal service, my local newsstand, or ESPN and cable TV.

In that regard, I agree with Mr. Stoll. My only complaint about the book, though, is that it doesn’t talk to the masses, it talks to the addicts and the obsessed among the ‘Net-savvy crowd. (I hope those people are in the minority, anyway!) Perhaps we could all use a wake-up call such as the one Stoll tries to provide, but with a little less attitude. Still, Silicon Snake Oil is a fairly good read for anyone interested in the impact of the Internet on society.

Taking a more humorous approach to the subject of online addiction is America Off-Line, by A.J. Jacobs (Cader Books, $8.95). Anybody who has read the brochures or seen the infomercials for America Online can relate to the way AOL tries to make everything sound as real-lifelike as possible. AOL tells us how we can access electronic editions of hundreds of printed magazines using its service, or how we can send unlimited email to anyone we want to. We can even design our own home page.

Jacobs takes the mirror-image approach – he tells us how reality mirrors online life. He explains how the proprietary service “America Offline” offers you the best of reality, and how it’s never been easier to enjoy this great service. He tells us how we can read thousands of newspapers and magazines off-line, how we can send unlimited mail to anyone we want to, and how we can even design our own home! America Off-Line even offers you your own word processor (it’s called a pencil)!

Jacobs’ attempts to translate real-life phrases and words into their online equivalents are hilarious, as are his tips for taking part in daily, real-life activities. (The “sex and romance” and “fun and games” chapters are especially enjoyable.) Be sure to check out a new feature at America Off-Line – unlimited access to the Outernet, including the World Wide World! Oh, and just in case you’re not satisfied, America Off-Line provides simple instructions on terminating your account. 😉

Jacobs’ message is clear; this parody and commentary of the hype surrounding the online world is right on target. His sales pitch is not only funny, it’s sometimes terrifyingly accurate. This book is a blast, and it should be on every online user’s reading list. Especially if you can name the last twenty Web sites you’ve visited, but have forgotten the color of your house.

More News Resources Via Email
I hadn’t intended to do a follow-up to last month’s column, but I did omit a few options worth mentioning for those who want to catch the latest headlines via their email account.

I’m not a big fan of Netscape Navigator’s email client, nor am I big fan of starting up the monolithic program just for a quick mail check. However, those of you who do use Navigator’s 3.0’s mail capabilities might want to check out Netscape’s free news service, In-Box Direct. It delivers into your mailbox updates of Web pages and HTML-formatted email, giving you direct access from the top stories from such Web sites as The New York Times, Sports Illustrated, Mercury News, CNET, and SportsLine. There are about a dozen different sources who currently offer this free service, and the quality of the content and the presentation has been enough to persuade me to use Netscape as my email client – for my second email address (, anyway. (I’m still sticking to Eudora Light for my primary email address, though.) Sign up for the service at Netscape’s home page,

I also failed to mention the fact that America Online offers a news clipping service for its subscribers. In my brief tenure on AOL, I never experimented with it at all, so I can’t comment on it. However, there are enough AOL members reading this, that I thought it was worth mentioning. Their brochure tells me you can select up to five topics per screen name to be delivered to your mailbox. Check it out on AOL at Keyword: NEWS PROFILES.

I was going to finish up with that, but I can’t resist a few gripes about my low-tech and rural location in the country. The local theaters refuse to carry Star Trek: First Contact or anything else of the sci-fi genre (as of mid-January, anyway), opting instead for “sure-fire” moneymakers like, oh, 101Dalmations. Also, my local Internet provider has announced it has no plans to upgrade to the 56.6 Kbps standard when it becomes available. To top it off, my hometown’s been experiencing snowstorm after snowstorm, which really wreaks havoc on rural roads. The storms always seem to come on weekends, too.

So, to all you city people out there, with your multi-plex movie theaters, cutting-edge ISPs, and apartment complexes: count your blessings. I’d be willing to be stuck in a traffic jam or two if it meant I’d be able to see out of my living room window. And have a selection of more than three movies to choose from.

Thanks for letting me get on my soapbox there for a moment. If you’re still with me, I hope you have a Happy Valentine’s Day. All the best to you, and I’ll see you next month.

Mike Wallinga (

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