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Today, the readers take over the column, with questions and comments.
We’ll start with the controversial stuff, where my opinion was
solicited.

Boycott Amazon.com? The Web went ballistic recently when the
U.S. Patent and Trademark Office issued
Jeff Bezos of Amazon.com a patent for the site’s affiliate program (as
it did earlier for its “one-click” ordering). Do I think that applying
for this patent was a dumb idea on the part of Bezos? Yup. Am I going to
boycott Amazon.com? Nope, and I’ll tell you why. While we who shop
online tend to think of Amazon.com as a Goliath, it’s really a David in
the dog-eat-dog world of bookselling. Barnes & Noble (which tried to use
Amazon’s one-click ordering service) is one of the big bullies that has
driven so many wonderful independent bookstores out of business the past
10 years (just like in “You’ve Got Mail”). As a writer and voracious
reader, that makes me very unhappy. So I’m not about to boycott
Amazon.com for making a stupid mistake and to switch to what I see as a
worse alternative. To me, what this debate points out is the need to
bring the U.S. patent system into the 21st century where an affiliate
program is not patentable.

If you’d like to learn more about the controversy — and make up your
own mind on the subject — here are some thoughtful and reasoned pleas
on both sides of the subject:

Amonymous surfing. The discussions of Web privacy and cookies
in this column and the news media the past few months have led to some
asking my opinion about software — free and otherwise — that allows
you to surf the Web anonymously. I’m neutral on the subject. If that’s
what you want, fine. But I suspect that some people are thinking of
taking this route for the wrong reasons. The rhetoric on at least one of
the sites offering such software makes you think that a cookie can
transfer the amount of your bank balance, your name, address, phone
number, credit card information and the birthdate of your first-born
child to any site that puts a cookie on your hard drive.

Not so. Here’s what the World Wide Web Security site’s href=http://www.w3.org/Security/Faq/wwwsf7.html#Q66>“Do cookies pose any
security risks?” FAQ has to say: “Cookies cannot be used to ‘steal’
information about you and your computer system.” What they do collect is
the name of your Internet Service Provider, whether you’re using
Netscape or Internet Explorer as your browser, your operating system
(Windows 95, 98, or whatever) and the URL of the last page you visited.
“Before you panic over cookies, it’s worth remembering that the vast
majority of cookies are benign attempts to improve your Web browsing,
not an intrusion on your privacy.” The FAQ will link you to sites for
freeware/shareware that will intercept cookies or wipe your cookie file
clean, which I tend to think is the best way to go. But it’s up to you.
I’d be delighted to hear from those of you are using, or have used, the
various programs for anonymous surfing.

Where’s the info? A reader has been diagnosed with a medical
condition and is frustrated at not finding the information she needs on
the Web. While the specifics of her search won’t necessarily interest
anyone else, I think we can all learn something about searching the Web
from her experience.

First, she gave me three long names of the problem: Chronic
Neurogenic Bladder, Lower Motor Neuron Dysfunction and Chronic Urinary
Retention. There are two problems here. If you’re searching in general
search engines such as Google or href=http://www.dogpile.com>Dogpile,, you need to either put
quotation marks around the terms you’re looking for (“Chronic Neurogenic
Bladder”) or you need to put AND between all the terms (Chronic AND
Urinary AND Retention), so the search engine knows to look for the
entire term.

But at medical sites, you need to see how they list information.
Often you must look for the big picture first in such cases, then get
more specific. So what I would suggest is to start at sites like the href=http://www.nih.gov/health>National Institutes of Health and
check out the words bladder and urinary in its href=http://www.nih.gov/news/96index/pubincov.htm>health information
index. For a good listing of authoritative health research sites,
try Yahoo Health. That will bring up
many more sites that you can search. At each site, check its recommended
links. While it may be time-consuming to research little-known medical
problems, eventually just about everyone finds what he or she is looking
for on the Web.

However, I got the feeling that this reader was e-mailing sites and
hoping that a doctor will get back to her to explain her problem and
what to do about it. That’s not a realistic expectation. The Web is
great at providing information. Once you have that, then you (or your
physician) can make in-person contact with a medical authority who may
help you. But most websites don’t have the manpower or time to answer
thousands of questions — which is what the Web can dump on them. A few
medical sites are set up for visitors to ask questions that will be
answered publicly in columns. My recommendation is to try one of those
after you’ve found all the research that’s available.

How do I find it again? Successful searching depends not only
on how you make your query and where, but also asking yourself what
you’re really looking for. Newbies to the Web accidentally discovered
information about a late relative, but didn’t own a printer so they
could print it out (and didn’t know how to download the information to
the computer). Now they have a printer and don’t know how to locate the
information again. Look at the big picture here. What you want is more
than the birth and death dates of a relative, it’s genealogy. So you
head to one of the genealogy sites on the Web (there are thousands) and
search for the relative’s name. Try href=http://www.genweb.org>Genweb or href=http://www.ancestry.com>Ancestry.com. Or look at Yahoo’s href=http://dir.yahoo.com/Arts/Humanities/History/Genealogy>guide to
genealogy sites for suggestions of other places to search.

Please note. I am not able to answer specific questions or do
searches for you. I thought that the examples given above had some
lessons for others who may not be finding what they’re looking for on
the Web.

Next week, the column will return to its usual format of
recommended sites.

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