Making the Most of E-Mail

by Charles A. Gimon

Published 1994

Note (November 25, 2003):

This is here for historical interest only. Assume from the outset that any addresses or URLs in this article have long since evaporated, and can no longer be accessed.


Internet talk always seems to turn to the latest toy. A couple of years ago, it was gopher, then it was World Wide Web. Now all the papers and magazines are gushing about Mosaic. Next thing you know, we'll all have real-time video conferencing in our livi ng rooms.

Meanwhile, back in the real world, the Internet link for untold thousands of people remains--a mailbox. While the net-erati skip around in full-color, mouse-driven graphic interfaces, plenty of users are still limited to e-mail access at work, at school, or at home. Let's face it: the most common limiting factor is money. Some people don't have the spare cash to pay for a full Internet connection, which is in the same general price range as cable TV. Tighter budgets in schools and workplaces leave less money to pay for niceties like a T1 line.

You'd think these folks would be stuck in limbo: a step ahead of the unwashed, unconnected masses, but way behind the vanguard in the fashion-forward world of the Net. Yet...there are still lots of interesting things you can do with nothing but an e-mail account. There's a fair number of clever people out there in cyberspace who have come up with all sorts of Rube Goldberg ways to do things on a shoestring. The common denominator in all these tricks is the i secret motto of the Internet: "Let the other machine do the work". This month, we'll look at a few tricks you can do with just an e-mail account.

The undisputed king of info by e-mail is Jason Fesler, who can be reached at

Send mail to this address with the word "help" in the subject line, and you'll get instructions on how to use his setup. Mr. Fesler himself never touches your message--your mail is answered by a "daemon", a program that behaves like a robot, taking your commands and doing them. Tell the daemon to send help, and it will, in a fraction of a second. Most of the information you can get through infomania is stuff that people with a full Internet connection can get by using the finger command with an address. Fesler's daemon does the fingering for you. All you have to do is send mail. You can get weather and ham radio info, a daily almanac, search dictionaries or a music CD catalog. You can have the daemon perform Internet whois or ping commands, or even finger a site of your own choosing that's not in the daemon's list. For that matter, the daemon can filter your text through a "Swedish chef" filter, in case you haven't had your bork-bork-borks for the day.

Another impressive resource you can access by e-mail is the big movie database in Britain. Send mail to

for instructions. Put the word HELP in the body of the letter (by itself, on the left-hand side, in capital letters!). This database is maintained by people who contribute to the rec.arts.movies group on Usenet from several countries. In good Internet fashion, they'll accept submissions from the general population of Net users.

On a more somber note, the National Cancer Institute can send you information on a variety of topics through its CancerNet service. For instructions, send mail to

with the word help in the body of the message.

Al Gore's vision of the "information highway" may be more talk than substance, but if you want to see some early roadbed-grading, send mail to

with the word help in the body of the message. This is the address for Americans Communicating Electronically, and if you can dig through the bureaucratese, it looks like they're trying to set up a system where you can send them mail, and they'll route it to the proper government tentacle for you. A complaint about potato inspections would go to the Dept. of Agriculture, for example. They'll also have a Government Information Locator System, eventually, which will have online databases you can search. I'm not holding my breath waiting for GILS, but this might still be a good address to watch for future developments. Try asking for info again in a few months, and see what's new by then.

If you have e-mail access through work, and you're feeling disgruntled, you could send mail to

for info on the Online Career Center. There's no charge for individuals if you send them your resume by e-mail. Your personal info will be included in a database that net-connected companies and recruiters can search online. You might even get a job with better Internet access.

For a more personal lifestyle upgrade, send mail to

for info on the Oneworld Online NOOK--online personal ads, sent directly to your mailbox. There's a charge for this one, but when has finding a partner ever been free?

The Usenet Oracle is practically a net tradition by now. People who interact with the 'oracle' are actually trading questions and (hopefully witty) answers anonymously. The best submissions are posted to the Usenet group For information, send mail to

with the word help in the subject line.

Sending faxes over the Internet is another neat trick that you only need an e-mail account for. We're lucky that one of the free fax gateways is right here in the Twin Cities, at the University of Minnesota. Try sending mail to


where "Name Name" is the name that will show in the "To:" line, and 987-6543 is the fax number, and the daemon at the U will take your e-mail, convert it to a fax, and zap it away to any number that's within the local calling area. This is a very slick service--it worked within a few minutes when I tried it, and it's supposed to accept stuff in Postscript format as well. For further info, contact

There are several commercial services that offer faxes over the Internet worldwide. There's a charge, of course, but it might be cheaper than making a long-distance call on your own. For info on these, you can mail,, or The last listing promises high-tech services for people with wireless modems, Newtons, HP Palmtops, and maybe even things that haven't been released on the market yet (like the gizmo on the beach in the AT&T commercial).

This is just a selection of the more notable things you can do with an e-mail account. Next month, the main attraction: how to do "ftp by e-mail", that is, how to get files mailed to you from ftp archives if all you have is a mailbox.


Charles Gimon teaches an Intro to the PC class at the English Learning Center in South Minneapolis. He can be reached at


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