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

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.

Everyone’s favorite commodity
While some argue that gasoline prices are already way too high, others claim it’s rather cheap -- once you take inflation into account. Nevertheless, fuel in any form has been predicted to be a budget-buster this winter. To help you with one facet of our national preoccupation with generating carbon dioxide, I offer you some Web sites that show where you can buy lower-priced gasoline. You enter a ZIP code or other geographic identifier, then specify a radius in which to search. These Web sites rely on spotters to report gasoline prices. I suspect that they note local prices during the morning commute and then report from the office. The prices are aged, that is they’re color-coded to tell you how old they are. The most accurate prices are less than three hours old. Those older than three days are unreliable. Anyway, drive your mousemobile to www.gaspricewatch.com or www.gasbuddy.com.
Do you wonder why the EPA gas mileage for a specific vehicle is always so much greater than you get when driving it in the real world? Well, for one thing, the test protocol claims that measuring the amount of carbon in the exhaust is more accurate than measuring the volume of gasoline that was burned. We recognize that an internal combustion engine doesn’t operate at its best efficiency until it’s at its normal operating temperature and about 26% of the EPA test has elapsed before the engine gets to a steady-state temperature. I’m curious about the acceleration rate the EPA uses. It’s probably somewhat different from what happens in the real world. But, I digress. You can get the full scoop if you gas up your mouse at www.fueleconomy.gov.

The ultimate zoom
Engineers rely on the concept of powers of 10 to express relative sizes and magnitude differences. It’s the only convenient way to comprehend the size difference between intergalactic space and the subatomic particles that constitute it. You can get a visual grasp of that difference by visiting an interesting site hosted by Michael W. Davidson, director of the Optical Microscopy Division of the National High Magnetic Field Laboratory, which is a joint venture of The Florida State University, the University of Florida and Los Alamos National Laboratory. Go to http://micro.magnet.fsu.edu/ and click on “Secret Worlds: The Universe Within.” You’ll be rewarded with a sequence of images that differ from the adjacent one by a power of 10. On one end of the scale is the galaxy. That’s where you should start to get the full effect. Click the appropriate button and one-tenth of the current image expands to fill the screen with a new image. Each subsequent click brings a progressively magnified view –- soon, the earth is in view, then you see leaf structure, then DNA-scale images, which leads to the atomic views.

Spies are everywhere
There’s no doubt the technology that helps to maintain our standard of living is eroding our sense of a right to personal privacy, assuming such abstract concepts still have any validity. It’s scary to think that there may come a time when every aspect of our lives will be duly noted in that great ledger in cyberspace for everyone to read and analyze. It’ll be similar to living in a tiny hamlet, where everyone knows your business before you do. George Toft, a chief technology officer from Anthem, Ariz., is passionate about Internet security. In an obscure corner of his site is a brief presentation that gives us a taste of what the future might hold. Dispatch your nosy mouse to http://georgetoft.com/presentations/information_privacy/pizza_order.swf and enjoy the presentation. Then, worry.

Turing test
In his 1950 article, Alan M. Turing described "the imitation game," which has since evolved to something known as the Turing test. Its purpose is to answer whether machines can “think.” The typical test configuration has a human interrogator using natural language to interact with two unseen candidates via computer terminal. One candidate is human, the other a computer. Based on the responses to the questions, the interrogator is supposed to differentiate human from machine. If the determination is wrong, the machine passed the test. Thanks to the good folks at A.L.I.C.E. Artificial Intelligence Foundation, Inc., Philadelphia, you can interact with a robot that will try to answer your questions. If an unseen human can respond similarly, an interrogator might have a difficult time making a valid distinction. Ask your mouse to go to www.alicebot.org and have it click on “Chat with A.L.I.C.E.” Enter your questions in the space provided, hit “enter” and wait a few seconds for the machine to respond. At the current state of the art, it’s no contest, but it’s a bit of fun.

Smarter and smarter
Artificial intelligence has been applied to the venerable old game of 20 questions. The version you’ll find at www.20q.net asks the questions and gives you a range of possible responses. Read them carefully, click on the best one and wait for the next question. The machine is adaptive in that it remembers answers to questions and learns from each person who plays the game. If the robot can’t identify what you’re thinking of, it gives you a list of possible items and you indicate which is correct. That loss bolsters the underlying database and comes into play when someone else has the same object in mind. This is a genuine case of continuous improvement brought to you by Robin Burgener in Ottawa, Ontario.

Without comment
www.darwinawards.com/darwin/
www.answers.com/

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