Weird and wonderful websites

Russ Kratowicz, P.E., CMRP, executive editor, adds to his collection of weird and wonderful websites.

By Russ Kratowicz, P.E., CMRP, executive editor

During the year, we investigate hundreds of Web sites in preparing this award-winning Internet column. Some are good content sites. Those were the places we recommended you visit each of the past 11 months. We found many more Web sites that, although not appropriate for the given month, certainly had one or two amusing or interesting features. This is the fifth year-end edition of this column in which we explore these off-the-beaten-path "sights" that don't necessarily have any rational relationship to the business life of the plant professional.

Our tax money at work

The decimal metric system was conceived at the time of the French Revolution. By then, unfortunately, this country too heavily vested in the English measurement system to turn back. Nevertheless, the National Institute of Standards and Technology stands ready if we ever go metric. That venerable organization has published a 77-page book that tells everything you ever wanted to know about counting by tens. You can find this definitive work, The International System of Units (SI) at http://physics.nist.gov/Pubs/SP330/sp330.pdf.

On another front, the kind folks at NASA spend tons of tax money doing what they do best. Part of what we get for our investment in this brand of big science is access to NASA's photo album. It's hard to describe in words, so it would be better if you followed along in your own browser. First, go to http://antwrp.gsfc.nasa.gov/apod/image/. This takes you to the index of that part of the server holding the images.

The numbers adjacent to the file folder icons correspond to a collection of photos. Think of the numbered file folders as the batch of photos that came from one roll of film. Clicking one opens it to reveal the individual photos. Also, if you scroll to below those folder icons, you'll see files representing individual photos. It's an amazing collection, truly amazing. Explore and see what I mean.

In my opinion, though, the most significant image is found in folder 0011. Open that one and scroll down to click on "earthlights2_dmsp_big.jpg." It's a composite image of the surface of the earth taken from a satellite at night. What's interesting is the distribution of light, especially on the extreme left side of the image. It makes me wonder if the lighting distribution and all it implies correlates with the state of tension in the world lately.

By the light of the silvery moon

While we're talking things astral, if the phase of the moon makes a difference in planning your outdoor activities, the place to go is the Moonstick Information Site, found at http://www.moonstick.com/. Here you can learn about a slide rule-like device that can determine the moon phase for any date, past (8,000 years) present, or future (8,000 years). In only 10 seconds, it produces results accurate to within 1.5 hours.

If you scroll down the home page, you'll find a link to full-size markings for the device, which allows you to construct your own instead of buying one. Also, you can find out how to calculate the moon phase in your head, but with less precision than with the Moonstick.

Doin' it like MIT does it

The next site is something I've held in my file drawer for more than a year, waiting for it to ripen. In April 2001, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) announced that it would post the materials for nearly all its courses on the Web within 10 years. Last December, they had not yet posted enough material to be credible. Hence, the news never made it into the year-end column.

This year, it's a different story. The MIT OpenCourseWare site offers the syllabus, calendar, assignments, exams, required readings and lab assignments for no less than 36 courses. Included in this pilot effort are engineering (chemical, civil, environmental, ocean, electrical, mechanical), science (aeronautics, astronautics, biology, chemistry, computer) as well as economics, linguistics, philosophy, mathematics and physics. The school expects to post material from some 2,000 courses between 2005 and 2007. So, click your way to http://ocw.mit.edu/index.html and stay tuned for further developments.

Downloads galore

Everybody is looking for a free lunch. It's human nature. Let me whet your appetite with a visit to ZDNet, a site that offers many free downloads. Mouse your way to http://www.zdnet.com/ and click on "Downloads" in the upper right corner of the screen. That will give you access to software for mobile and palmtop units, e-mail, taxes, finance, video and image editing, animation, html editors, site management, tools and editors for Java and Activex, antivirus, file sharing tools and chat. The offerings range from freeware to shareware to outright purchase. When you start downloading, watch what you're doing.

Surreptitious surfing

No doubt, you've heard that it's possible for a technologically oriented nosey person to glean all sorts of commercially valuable information from your computer while you're surfing the Web or downloading those files. For the sufficiently paranoid, there's a way to avoid revealing too much information. It's called anonymous surfing and it's available at http://www.anonymizer.com/. To get a feel for what that not-so-hypothetical nosey person can discover, click on "Snoop Test" at the left of the screen. Then, you can try anonymous surfing by entering your desired URL in the upper left. Or you can download the free version of the software and run it on your own machine.

Tracking the signal

The Internet and Web are pretty amazing inventions, even if Al Gore had nothing to do with it. You key something into the browser page and the next thing you know, some server in Lower Slobovia puts material on your screen. Not that it makes a big difference,we're totally clueless about the route that information took to come to us.

On the other hand, if you're sufficiently nosey yourself, visit http://visualroute.visualware.com/, where you can track the route, identify the geographical location of an IP address, identify the source of spam e-mail and more. Log on to one of the 15 listed VisualRoute Servers and enter your favorite URL. The site then overlays the data path on a map of the world. You can click on a path node to zoom in on the route. Pretty amazing, these computers.

Spiff up your image

Now that the cost of Web hosting has dropped to such low levels, anyone can launch a personal Web site. Using nothing but the tools that come with your browser, and assuming you're satisfied with a "text only" appearance, you can craft a fairly complex site with just a few hours of work. But, then, the Web is a visual medium and most users would prefer to see more than plain words. So, you'd be forced to add some pizazz to your site, especially if you expect to see it reviewed in these pages someday.

One way to add sparkle is with free clip art,those little pictures, arrows, symbols and such that decorate many a site. If you cruise on over to http://www.iconbazaar.com/, you'll find a large collection of static and animated gizmos you can download and place on your site.

The mysteries of the universe revealed

We live in an affluent society, surrounded by things both mundane and amazing. Some people take this standard of living for granted, never giving a single thought to the technology or concepts behind our everyday conveniences. Their lives are poorer for it, especially when their children ask deep questions such as "Why is the sky blue?" Or, "Why do we get light from a fluorescent tube?" Or, "What makes a 9-V battery able to power my radio?"

Well, now you can tell them in clear, simple language, once you've done your homework at http://www.howstuffworks.com/. This Web site seeks to demystify everything around us, and it does a pretty good job of it, judging by the award it received from Scientific American magazine. By the way, did you ever wonder how the Segway Human Transporter works?

For composers

What are you going to do when Euterpe taps you on the shoulder and you realize that you haven't any staff paper handy? Well, my friend, don't let the Muse of Music catch you unprepared. Go to http://www.sheetmusic1.com/MUSIC.RACK.HTML, where you can download and print single sheets of blank staff paper and grand staff paper. Also, you can download free copies of public domain classical piano music.

Election results

It's unfortunate I didn't get this next site to you during the recent political season. I'm sure you've heard radio and TV announcers talking about some popularity poll or another and mentioning that candidate A is leading candidate B by 14 percentage points in a survey of 873 people and the survey has a margin of error of 1.65 percent. Did you ever wonder where those numbers come from?

The math is a bit complicated, but the Sample Size and Confidence Interval Calculator simplifies it for us. It answers two questions: How many completed surveys are needed for a reasonably accurate view of the entire population and how confident can we be that the collected information is representative? Just enter the size of the population and the number of samples collected and let the software do the rest. See it all at http://www.ncs.com/research-notes/index.htm.