SCIENCE: THE IDIOT'S GUIDE TO CYBERSPACE: 5 INFORMATION

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The Independent Culture
MANY people will be left cold by the idea of the Internet, the international network that links 25 million computer users. They do not want to "chat" with technofreaks in California or Canberra. They are not interested in the myriad special-interest groups available, and they are not impressed by electronic mail, preferring a friendly phone call or letter. Is there any reason why people like this should buy a "modem" to link their computer to an on-line service? There could be. CompuServe and Delphi, for example, offer far more than access to the Internet, like-minded hobbyists and e-mail.

Both these on-line services are sources of a formidable amount of information. Delphi, which belongs to News International, is American but has been more thoroughly anglicised than CompuServe. It has an area called Camden Lock, where you can find chunks of the Times, Sunday Times and other newspapers and magazines. It has continually updated bulletins from the Reuters and UPI news agencies, as well as reference material including an American encyclopaedia called Groliers.

CompuServe has even more information. Some of it, such as up-to-the-minute stock market quotes, is aimed at business users and is expensive. Other paid-for databases include the text of several British newspapers (including the Independent and Independent on Sunday), usually going back a year. This is an effective way of finding a particular article, but watch the cost. If you are not precise enough about what you want, the price could easily rise above £10.

My favourite service is a new one - a complete European rail timetable. Click on the travel icon (displayed on the opening screen of CompuServe's information management software), or type "Go travel". Tap in your intended stations of departure and arrival, the date and time you want to go, and bingo! I asked how I could get from East Dulwich to Bologna Centrale, and was given six choices.

For the more adventurous, there are two similar systems covering air routes. One of them, EAAsy Sabre, even allows you to book flights.

CompuServe also has a big "basic services" area; using it will add nothing to your monthly subscription fee of about £6 (except the cost of the phone call). Some of it is specifically aimed at British users. UK News is based on Reuters Newswire bulletins. Weather forecasts are provided, both written and on maps - it is fascinating to watch a high-quality colour map building up slowly on your screen.

CompuServe also has a link with the AA. You can check on traffic hold-ups, or look up guides to restaurants or golf courses. You will find this motoring information in the travel section: click the icon to find them, then say what town you are looking for. The golf course database is fairly comprehensive, though the restaurant guide gives only those recommended in the AA's own books.

This is just a selection of the data available. There really is an astonishing amount of information, much of which you will come across by mistake by clicking on an icon and seeing what is listed.

The Electronic Mall, also part of "basic services", is a home shopping system. Click on the shopping icon and ask for the list of merchants who will ship outside the US. Choose the type of product you are looking for and see what appears. You are in essence tapping into a series of electronic catalogues run for the most part by mail-order companies: many of these, it must be said, are selling bits and pieces for computers, but you can also buy clothes, electronic goods and gadgets. When you have decidedwhat you want, punch in your credit-card number and the product will - or should - be shipped. Shoppers in America can even use the Electronic Mall to select and buy a car. They can ask for consumer reports, say what options and specifications they want, and arrange for a test drive.

Finally, on-line services can be used to play games. On CompuServe, these include the Grolier Whiz Quiz - a trivia game - various adventure games (wandering around mazes zapping beasties), war games and, strangely out of place, a biorhythm calculator.

If you are really adventurous, you can take on other CompuServe users in "modem-to-modem" games. You could find yourself playing backgammon in the middle of the night with someone on the other side of the world.

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