One of the most frustrating things about life in cyberspace is the lack of a comprehensive "telephone directory" that enables you to look up somebody's e-mail address.
The good news is that there are several simple techniques you can use to find somebody's address. None of them are foolproof, unfortunately, and none of them are comprehensive. But there are some things you can try.
The three big commercial services--Prodigy, CompuServe and America Online--all allow you to look up other users, so that should take care of the service you're on. If you're trying to find someone on, say, America Online and your account is on Prodigy, e-mail a friend at AOL and politely ask him to look her up. These days, fortunately, e-mail knows no commercial boundaries.
Finding addresses on the Internet is a different story. One of the more promising techniques is a relatively new service offered by Michael Santullo and Larry Dreibes up in Palo Alto. Their Four11 Online User Directory is a kind of Internet white pages searchable by e-mail or any World Wide Web browser, including text-based lynx.
They first trolled newsgroup postings for e-mail addresses (you can do this too, but that's another story), and then they opened up their system for people to list themselves. The result so far is a database of more than 500,000 entries, and it's quite easy to use. (Send e-mail to email@example.com to get started.)
Once you enter yourself in their directory, you get a password allowing unlimited free searches. Santullo says that in a couple of months they'll bring out a new, improved version of the service boasting 1.2 million entries and a nicer interface.
Four11 will remove anyone who asks to be delisted and bars what it considers inappropriate use, such as mass junk mailings--which would be hard to carry out anyway, since the system makes it difficult to download listings in quantity.
Although listings and searches are now free, you can pay $20 to join and get a number of additional benefits, including having your public PGP key certified and available--this is for users of PGP encryption, which we'll cover in a future column--but it's probably wise to wait for the new version before joining.
Santullo says the long-term goal is to charge a small sum per transaction or perhaps a small annual fee, thus leveraging the Internet's massive user base. Secure digital cash, when it comes, will make possible fees of perhaps 10 or 20 cents per search--phone companies charge more than that for directory assistance, after all--and Santullo says Four11 is in talks with a major player that is about to launch a digital cash initiative.
Another of my favorite ways to find Internet e-mail addresses is to message or visit the "knowbot." If you want to find three people, for instance, simply e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org with the following:
query Leo Tolstoy
query Ivan Turgenev
query Fyodor Dostoevsky
Needless to say, none of these three Russians had Internet access (which is why they had so much time to write books), so substitute the names you are looking for. Internet users who can't wait can telnet directly to info.cnri.reston.va.us 185 and, if the knowbot isn't too busy, query Tolstoy on the spot.
If you're lucky, the knowbot will know the person you're after. The Knowbot Information Service, as it is more formally known, relies on a standard called X.500, which offers a coherent way of linking Internet address lists. Not too many sites or on-line services are part of this right now, and some listings are outdated, but at least MCI Mail is covered, as are various "whois" databases covering many individuals but especially networking types.
Internet users, in fact, can often use "whois" just by typing whois at the prompt, followed by the name you're looking for.
If you're looking for someone at a university, an easy and effective technique is to use gopher, the Internet multi-layer menuing system. Pick a friendly local gopher--say, cwis.usc.edu, which is at the University of Southern California--and make the following menu choices:
* Other Gophers and Information Resources
* Directories (names, phones, addresses)
* Phone Books--Other Institutions
* North America
Don't worry, this is faster and easier than it looks. Now, from this list of institutions, page down until you find the one you're after (or search using the / command). Hit enter and you'll get a search field. Just fill in the name you want to search for and you should get back an e-mail address, and often a phone number and postal address as well.
Yet another way to find people on the net is to use Netfind. Telnet to eis.calstate.edu (if this is busy, it will suggest other sites) and log in as netfind. Then type the name and the place or domain where your target is located, remembering to replace any periods with spaces.
Using Netfind, you have to know where your target is, and you need the ability to telnet--as far as I know, you can't use Netfind by e-mail. On the other hand, it's easy to use and covers millions of users in thousands of Internet domains all over the world.
Perhaps the best tool for finding someone's e-mail address is simply to ask. I know, I know--shouts of heresy will rise up on all sides, but asking can be effective and saves a lot of trouble. Try the telephone, for instance. Send a fax. Or what the hell, throw the old Postal Service a bone and write a letter. You know, on paper.
BTW: For Quentin Tarantino fans with access to the World Wide Web, the movie "Pulp Fiction" has spawned a Web page with photos and text. It's at http://www.elmail.co.uk/movie/pulp/contents.html.
Daniel Akst, a Los Angeles writer, is a former assistant business editor for technology at The Times. He welcomes messages at email@example.com but regrets that he cannot reply to everyone.
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This year's California storms brought heavy flooding--and a nifty World Wide Web site dedicated to the subject at http://resources.agency.ca.gov/flood2.html. It includes maps and information from a variety of state and federal agencies and is part of CERES, the California Environmental Resources Evaluation System, a state effort to facilitate access to electronic information about California's natural resources. Well worth a visit, even if you're high and dry.