Russ Kratowicz finds the weirdest and most wonderful websites

Executive Editor Russ Kratowicz offers up this aggregation of weird, wonderful and useful web sites he's encountered in his web surfing.

By Russ Kratowicz

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During the year, we stumble across many somewhat irrelevant Web sites as we scrounge in the Internet morass for material to include in this monthly column. The sites that had good content were the places we recommended that you visit. But, we found quite a few zero-cost, noncommercial, registration-free Web resources that, although not appropriate for the given issue, certainly had some amusing or interesting features and content. This is the eighth year-end edition of this column in which we explore those off-the-beaten-path "sights" that don't necessarily have a rational relationship to the business life of the plant professional.

Music to my ears
A collaborative effort between Hans G. Kaper at Argonne National Laboratory and Sever Tipei of the Computer Music Project at the University of Illinois has resulted in a software package that might be of interest to the musically inclined out there in readerland. The neat thing about this software package is that while you’re composing your next big symphonic oeuvre, you also can customize the sound of the instruments or invent new sounds specifically for the purpose. There are, in fact, about a dozen degrees of freedom in each sound you wish to use. Not only that, you can adjust the degree of randomness in the composition, which makes it possible for the tune to sound slightly different each time it’s played. Because it’s a Linux distribution, it’s free of charge. If you wish to get out of maintenance and into the bright lights on stage, send your obedient mouse to http://sourceforge.net/projects/dissco, where it will find your key to the psychic rewards due every composer of fine music.

Not just for political junkies
Sometimes it seems that our hired hands in Washington vote incorrectly. Not only is it possible that they know something we don’t, it’s almost a certainty. The researchers and analysts at the Congressional Research Service (CRS) provide members of Congress with reports and issue briefs on the many matters that come before that body for a vote. Examples include reports on Afghanistan, enemy combatants, energy policy, homeland security, identity theft, Iraq, the PATRIOT Act and Social Security. I have no doubt that we could better understand the ramifications of those votes if we had our own copies of the reports. Unfortunately, they aren’t easily available to those of us outside the Beltway because the CRS is rather secretive about its work products. If a congressman doesn’t release one into the public domain, nobody outside of the government knows it exists. Fortunately, that inequity is being righted by the Center for Democracy & Technology and its Open CRS project. The project serves as a repository of CRS output a congressmen released at the request of a constituent, who then submits it to the Open CRS project. You might as well investigate www.opencrs.com/. After all, it’s your tax money at work.

For your reading pleasure
Soon, most of the country is going to be covered in snow and most of us will find a long winter’s nap indoors to be more cozy. Now is the time to unplug your television and investigate the Project Gutenberg Free eBook Library, whose mission is encouraging the production and distribution of books in digital format. The effort is the brainchild of Michael Hart, who invented e-books in 1971. If you choose to take advantage of the offerings, you’ll find that you have access to 16,000 free e-books, audio books and sheet music, most of which are available in a variety of formats that accommodate anything from a PC to a PDA. This collection of material, all of which is in the public domain, is merely a click away at www.gutenberg.org/. For something that will do your heart good when you get to the site, seek out FAQ #1. You’ll be proud of the folks involved with Project Gutenberg. If only the rest of American business would adopt the same philosophy, work life would be more pleasant.

A bit of culture
We’d do well to heed the proverbial advice about smelling the roses. It could be a pleasant reprieve from the norm, depending on what odoriferous products your plant might be producing. One cultural rose to investigate is brought to you by James Skvarch, an artist from Syracuse, N.Y., who posts his etchings and paintings online. Skvarch has collections of his art in more than a dozen places around the world. He has exhibited in forty-plus venues and his visual efforts garnered something like 35 awards since 1974. Some of the architectural vistas he contrives are reminiscent of the works of M.C. Escher. But, you decide for yourself. Go to www.jskvarchetchings.com/ to pass judgment.

When selling on eBay
The fact that we can ship nearly anything nearly anywhere cheaply and quickly is a valuable support that holds up the standard of living we enjoy. Free commerce is a good thing, especially if you happen to be trying to augment your salary with a bit of off-hours entrepreneurialism. Many of your contemporaries are doing just that and marketing their goods and services through eBay. And, like the rest of the business world, they’re trying to improve their bottom lines by cutting costs, which includes shipping. I just hope they’re using iShip, a wholly-owned, independent subsidiary of United Parcel Service, found at www.iship.com. It’s a Web-based, multi-carrier shipping service that allows everyone to price, ship, track and manage their shipments using the Internet. To get competitive prices from Airborne Express, UPS, USPS and others, simply click on “Price It,” enter the package’s weight and dimensions, and a few other variables. You can even tie the info to your eBay page so potential buyers can calculate their own shipping costs.

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