Web Hunter: The best weird websites of 2007

Executive Editor Russ Kratowicz explores off-the-beaten-path "sights" in this month's Web Hunter.

By Russ Kratowicz, Executive Editor

The 11 months of diligent, intense Web research that produces this column often uncovers quite a few totally irrelevant Web sites. These online resources are in keeping with the basic philosophy we’ve followed for more than 10 years: zero-cost, noncommercial, registration-free Web sites only. I hope you find something useful in this exploration of the off-the-beaten-path "sights" that don't necessarily have a rational relationship to the business life of the plant professional.

The visual treats

Maybe you’ve heard about the phenomenon sometimes called Web 2.0, or social networking. These Web sites feature content that is provided by the users, not those who own or host the site. A typical example is YouTube, which offers users the chance to upload their homebrew videos for the world to see. Most of them have video and audio quality that really isn’t ready for prime time. But, I digress. Even if you have no interest in such worldwide fame, you might find a need to use video in your own plant for training purposes. If so, remember a reference video called “How to Make a Video” that offers tips that can help make your cinematographic exploits more professional. Simply aim your eyeballs at www.askthebuilder.com/How_to_Make_a_Video.shtml for the full story.

Then again, you might prefer still photography. Inexpensive digital photo media offer many advantages. The cost is near zero, so rookies can waste unlimited exposures in search of that one good keeper image. Suppose you’re attending some one-time event and think you got that great shot, only to discover that it’s a little blurry, everyone has redeye, the background is bad or some irrelevant bystander got into the frame. The software that came with your camera allows you to edit and manipulate the images, but I’ll bet the online photo editing capability you’ll find at www.picnik.com is better. After you upload an image, use the “Edit” tab at the top to rotate, crop and otherwise make basic tweaks. The real power, however, is found under the “Create” tab. Apply any of 24 effects, add text, add shapes, whiten teeth -- supercharge the appearance of your image. Warning: The software’s response to your commands will appear to be sluggish because a computer somewhere is sequentially processing individual pixels from your mega-pixel camera.

Speaking of mega-pixel cameras, most of them have a telephoto feature. Even though the image clarity remains outstanding when you zoom in, you lose overall perspective. You might be able to frame a distant window in your viewfinder, but it’s out of context if you can’t see the rest of that building. How would you like the best of both worlds – a wide-angle photo that allows you to zoom in anywhere to see incredible detail? That’s what you can find at www.gigapan.org. Start with a high-quality digital camera. Set the lens to max zoom. Mount the unit on an ultra-steady tripod. Shoot thousands of overlapping images. Alternatively, you can use a robotic mount that automates the entire process. Then, use software to stitch those images into a single large-scale panorama image that has, perhaps, billions of pixels. Check the examples on the site. You can find sources for free software by searching the Web for “stitching software.” Include the parentheses in the search box entry. The overall effect is similar to the map feature in Google, where you start with a map of the entire United States and zoom down to the rooftops of individual houses.

Speaking of maps

You can’t get there from here unless you have a map. So, take advantage of the Maptech Charts Application at www.sailmag.com/charts. It offers online access to nationwide set of USGS topographic maps, NOAA nautical charts and aeronautical charts. The site doesn’t appear to have many of the navigational photos it promises. Select a location, pick the type of map you want and zoom in for whatever level of detail you need. In the lower right you’ll see the latitude and longitude of the cursor position in any of several formats.

Pick up a quick $25 million

All you need to do is come up with a commercially viable way to produce a worldwide net removal of manmade atmospheric greenhouse gases each year for at least 10 years without producing any negative unintended consequences. The contest was launched by Sir Richard Branson (of Virgin Airline fame) and Al Gore. The rules and entry forms for the Virgin Earth Challenge are available at www.virginearth.com. If you’re going to get in the game, you’d best do it quickly because the deadline for submitting your entry is Feb. 8, 2010.

Forming long-term attachments

In the bad old days, when a maintenance technician needed to connect item A to item B, it was likely that some sort of mechanical fastener was involved. Fast forward to better living through chemistry. Now, we’ve dispensed with screws and nails. We simply glue things together. But, with so many materials and surface textures to be attached, with so many tubes, bottles and cans of chemical goo available, selecting an appropriate adhesive that provides a reliable bond is more difficult than it used to be. As you’d expect, the Web comes to the rescue with www.thistothat.com, a relatively unpretentious site dedicated to the proposition that one can glue anything to anything else. Use the two drop-down menus to specify the type of material to be bonded, click “Let’s Glue!” and follow the advice it reveals. Before you leave the site, check out the material listed under “Trivia” and under “News” for a quick, interesting read.

Better than Boeing

It is with total whimsy that this entry appears. A guy named Michael O'Reilly claims that he has a design for the best paper airplane in the world. All you need is a piece of 8.5 by 11 paper and the instructions posted at www.zurqui.co.cr/crinfocus/paper/airplane.html. If you take a whack at this feat of origami, you’ll probably get hung up at steps 16 through 18, which are the critical steps. Although he tries to clarify the specific folds with an animation and detailed directions, it might take you a while to noodle out what needs to be done at that point. You can find a video that shows how to execute the critical steps at http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=2768368762284821227. The printable directions, though, have some interesting quotes, jokes and anecdotes at the bottom of each of the six pages. The finished product actually flies nicely. Enjoy.

Pushing backward

Bruce Simpson, a resident of New Zealand, has a hobby that should be of interest to anyone with a technical bent and access to some tools. Working with a vertical mill, lathe, drill press, MIG welder, gas welder and air compressor, Simpson builds jet engines that he uses to power go-karts. His Web site has photos that lend credence to his claims of possessing a lot of knowledge about gas turbines, turboshaft engines, pulsejets and valveless pulsejets. The latter class of hardware represents the simplest engine you can imagine - it has no moving parts. It’s basically a large U-tube device into which he dumps relatively large quantities of liquid propane fuel. Simpson gets something on the order of 100 lbs. of thrust out of his models, which is sufficient to push a go-kart along at a pretty good clip, and he’s posted videos to prove it. Check it out at http://aardvark.co.nz/pjet/valveless.htm and commandeer the maintenance shop to build one in your spare time.

No chair and whip

It’s said that music can soothe the savage beast, even a beast old enough to remember music from half a century ago. The next Web resource is aimed at that cohort, who will find the Playa Cofi Jukebox at www.tropicalglen.com. This is a free online music streaming service developed by some retirees living in Puerto Rico. The bulk of the material consists of hits that were popular in the years 1950 to 1984. Although it has content for just about any genre you can name, the default is popular music. The tunes play in random order continuously throughout the day. Instead of dropping a quarter in the jukebox, simply click on the icon corresponding to a year. This offers you 10 song titles on which you can click to enter the random stream that lasts three to five hours. When you start hearing too many repeats, you can go back and select a different year. Alternatively, you can pick your genre and go through a similar exercise. The site’s licensing agreement prohibits downloads to portable digital devices and users don’t get to determine the playlist. These are minor restrictions that won’t affect your ability to achieve a musically-induced inner calm during the work day.

An offbeat Goldberg

It was in 1914 that Rube Goldberg began publishing the cartoons showing the complex devices that made him famous. Each of his “inventions” had a simple goal that was achieved only through an unnecessarily complex sequence of steps. On the other hand, a site that we at Plant Services central uncovered shows a complex machine that has no particular purpose other than serving as a piece of interesting eye candy. The Blue Ball Machine is now operating reliably at www.blueballfixed.ytmnd.com. There’s a lot of activity on this single-page site, so admire the creativity that went into it. If you choose to visit, make sure to turn down the speakers connected to your computer.

Poetic license

My favorite poet is Les Barker. Many of his topics are a bit on the absurd side and his timing and delivery are that of a standup comedian. His wordplay is delightful and he plays the English language to its limit. Merely telling you about the poems wouldn’t do them justice. You really should hear them yourself to get the full effect. Fortunately, that is possible and the place to do it is http://cdbaby.com/cd/lbarker6. Tune in and you’ll be able to hear some of his shorter poems and perhaps 90 seconds or so of some longer ones. Scroll down, the poem titles are on the left. If you’re pressed for time, take a shortcut and listen to “Go, Stay and Fetch” and “I don't like my boomerang” to get the essence of what Barker does with words.

Without comment

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