Wednesday, May 10, 2006

This Information Highway is Super

I am constantly amazed at the power of the Internet. I had an experience today that reminded me of some of my very first Internet experiences.

In the mid-1990s, I was just starting to figure out what all the Internet stuff was all about. I had been programming mainframe computers for years. We had always noted with a certain amount of pride that computers were like “islands”. They had a vast amount of processing power within them. And, oh yeah, if you wanted to move data between them, that’s what tape drives were for.

But now I had my brand new Packard-Bell computer, complete with Windows 3.1 and a 2400 baud dial-up modem. A friend of mine had shown me a really cool program called “Netscape”. I was ready to impress people.

Of course, the easiest person for me to impress was my mother. So I hauled her into my office. I was going to show her this Information Superhighway that Al Gore was talking about.

I only knew about one site, a search engine called “WebCrawler”. Look, Mom. All you have to do is type a topic into this screen and it will go out to the Information Superhighway and find out everything there is to know about it.

I will never forget what happened next. Of all the things that I could have demonstrated to my mother, for some weird reason I picked — are you ready? — “Meg Ryan”. Look, Mom. Let’s see if there’s anything at all out there about “Meg Ryan”.

I pressed “enter” and 3.276 seconds later, a list of Meg Ryan pages came on the screen. Dozens and dozens and dozens of pages. I thought she might be mentioned in one or two places. But there they were. There were Meg Ryan pictures. Meg Ryan movies. Meg Ryan scripts. Meg Ryan fan clubs. There was a whole universe of Meg Ryan in my office in front of my eyes and Mom’s eyes.

I don’t know who was more surprised, me or Mom. No, it was me. Mom responded with a polite “That’s nice, dear.” My eyes were huge and my chin was on the floor. Oh, my God. What has just been invented, and I didn’t even know about it?

That was my first omg experience with the Internet.

In the intervening years, there have been several others. But for the most part, I have come to expect that literally the world of information is at your fingertips if you have an Internet connection.

Just think of the places to have your questions answered. You want a real expert to answer? Go to, pick an expert, type in your question, and you’ll have a response in a couple of days.

Can’t wait? Type your question into It’s like yelling a question into a room crowded with people. Within minutes, half a dozen people will have responded.

Want to clarify the meaning or spelling of a word? Mr. Webster is waiting for you at

Want to read a more seminal article about just about any subject from aardvarks to zymology? Check out My son has done research for complete homework assignments without ever leaving the Wikipedia site.

Which brings us to my current astonishment. A few days ago, a friend of mine told me a joke. I wanted to re-tell it, but I wasn’t sure exactly how it went. Could I possibly find something as mundane as an insider musicians’ joke on the Internet, knowing only the punch line?

Yep. I typed a couple of words of the punch line into my favorite search engine (I’m a Yahoo! guy — Google is for snobbish wimps. Real men search with Yahoo!), and there it was. Not only the joke, but four or five variations of it. The same joke in slightly different settings, slightly different set-ups, but the same punch line.

I shouldn’t be amazed. I should come to expect it. But I do this stuff for a living and I still don’t understand how it all works.

The Internet gives us jokes, facts, pornography, civics, movie critiques, mp3 files (free and pirated), weather reports, sports scores, driving directions, and advice for the forgotten and the forlorn. All mixed together like noodles and tomatoes in goulash.

I think my generation has done a pretty good job of gathering and delivering all this stuff. It’s up to the next generation to sort it all out.

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