It is probably still true that the best reporters are those with the most worn-out shoes, but most of us spend an increasing amount of time working on the telephone and on the Internet. Here are some thoughts about making the time spent working on computers as productive and palatable as possible.

News flash — all computers are the same

It doesn't matter what computer you use. It doesn't really matter what programs you use, so long as you know how to work them. To explore the Internet, you will need a web browser and an email program that also lets you access the newsgroups. And then you will need something you can write on.

Like most Mac users, I use Safari and Apple Mail, but I also have Firefox for those sites that don't like Safari. Email programs are all much the same as one another. But if you really get into newsgroups you might do better with a specialised "newsreader" (do a search at Tucows and you'll find lots).

Using a browser

The important thing with a browser is how you use it. I'm assuming you know all the ordinary controls: the box for typing in web addresses, known as URLs, the back and forward buttons, and the bookmarks or "favorites".

Bookmarks are as important in their way as your contacts book. They are stored as a simple text file on your computer, called "bookmarks.html" or "favorites.html". If you travel, or you use different computers rather than the same one every day, it may be a good idea to upload a copy to an online bookmark manager, for instance SiteJot. Obviously I would be wary of putting anything deeply private there.

Often you will go to a site and not get through, getting a "404" or "file missing" message instead. If you use Google, this need not stop you: you can usually find the site by clicking the "Cached" link. Otherwise, you can going to the address box in your browser and deleting the bit after the last slash "/" mark: the actual filename. That should take you instead to a page with a link to the file you want.

If that doesn't work, delete a bit more and try again. Obviously only cut back to a slash (/) each time. If the site is still functioning, you should get somewhere.

Most failures to get through are actually caused by wrongly typing the address rather than by missing files or anything sinister. In general, cut and paste addresses rather than keying them in, but make sure you cut and paste the whole thing and not just a part.

Going to the source

You should also know how to read the "source" of a page: you find it via the "view" menu in your browser. The source is the HTML computer code used to create the page, and at the very least it will allow you to extract the text on a page and read it. When a page fails to appear properly in your browser, it may well be because it was badly written or in a way that is not compatible with your computer. If you have a Mac, as I do, you will be familiar with this problem. It also works when there's a simple design problem, like purple type on a black background. You can also find information that is missing from the page you are meant to see.

Sometimes links on a page simply don't work. You can't proceed further than the opening "splash" as it is known. Get the source, paste it into a word processor, and look for anything that ends .html. Chances are it is the link you need to go further into the site. Type the site's name into your address bar, add a slash, and then cut and paste after it the link you have just found. Press "return" or "enter" and it should take you to another part of the site.

You need to be able to save pages efficiently. Very often a page contains frames, or is even inside an invisible frame. When you come back to look at the page you have "saved", you find it is blank or almost blank. There is no warning. If you "right-click" in Windows or hold down your mouse button in the Mac you will get an option to "save this frame", and that is what you should do. If you save as plain text, it will be unreadable without a bit of work in your word processor. If you save as HTML, you get all the words and the bare bones of the layout. If you save as "web archive" you get effectively a photograph of the page. Saving in HTML is enough for our purposes, but you lose any clever layout. Try it with this page.

Protecting yourself

If you are using someone else's computer, remember to clean up afterwards. Go to the Preferences menu in your browser and clear both History and Cache. You don't want everyone to know where you have been and what you have been looking at. This is even more important if you have been picking up your email on their computer.

By the way, it is not necessary to have a hotmail or similar account to read up email via the web. You simply need a "mail to web" site. The one I use is usefully called mail2web. If you can remember your password and email address, you are in business. It can usually guess your "incoming server address" but sometimes you have to supply it: it usually consists of the word "pop" or "popmail" in front of your email provider's domain name: "pop.ntlworld.com" or "popmail.dircon.co.uk".

Email is a great boon, but bear in mind that it is anything but private. Personally, I don't worry so much about the Government's desire to trawl through it for anything subversive or criminal (codeword: Echelon) as the natural tendency of other people to cut and paste the bits they find interesting and send them whizzing around their office or around the world. Your amusing private remarks about someone will be less funny when they are instantly conveyed to their desktop.

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