Potpourri VI

Dec. 15, 2003
It's time again for the annual collection of weird and wonderful Web sites

During the year, we investigate hundreds of Web sites in preparing this Internet column. Some were 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 issue, certainly had some amusing or interesting features and content. This is the sixth year-end edition of this column in which we explore some off-the-beaten-path "sights" that don't necessarily have any rational relationship to the business life of the plant professional.

Regular meals

Successful fishing trips depend, of course, on the willingness of various piscine creatures, preferably large and lively, to willingly suspend their disbelief and chomp down on your lure anyway. If making such events happen regularly is one of your passions, you might want to know about a Web site recommended by Fred Bryson of Woodhill Communications in Bay Village, Ohio. The site, River Smallies, is a work of art dedicated to the proposition that catching smallmouth bass puts an angler in Nirvana. It's also a strong proponent of catch and release. The site claims to have had more than 1.4 million visitors.

So, if you need a glossary of fishing terms, general info about smallmouth or a discussion of the best gear to use for catching them, this is a site to consider. Check out the list of fishing tips and photos sent in by site visitors, review the proper way to catch and release, and drool over the photographs of wet and dry flies. Also, there are links to outfitters, fishing resorts, books stores and other fishing-related materials. So, drag out your fishing gear and cast a mouse in the general direction of http://www.riversmallies.com/.

Let's hear it for X-rays

On the plant floor, tracking infrared radiation is a common way to monitor the health of physical assets. Directly across the visible part of the electromagnetic spectrum you'll find X-rays. And nobody knows more about X-rays than the Chandra X-ray Center that the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Mass. operates for NASA. Launched on July 23, 1999 and still circling high overhead in a highly elliptical orbit is Chandra, the largest man-made satellite ever sent into space. This beast observes X-rays from high-energy regions of the universe, such as the remnants of exploded stars and other such energetic objects.

Send your astro-mouse onto orbit around http://chandra.harvard.edu/ and you'll be rewarded with a wealth of information about this technological wonder. The false-color photos and video clips are remarkable, considering that the subjects are so far away and depicted with a resolution that's 50-fold better than what was available five years ago.

Flying around

Eavesdropping on the daily life of distant celestial bodies is a natural outcome for mankind's insatiable curiosity about trying to make sense of life and the environment in which we find ourselves. Relying on a remotely-operated instrument, such as Chandra, is fine, but getting a first-hand view is better. That's why, for more than 40 years, we've also been launching people into orbit. The first, John Glenn, spent a whopping four hours, 55 minutes and 23 seconds in the void riding the Friendship 7 Mercury capsule. Since then, our intrepid explorers have had many adventures, some more successful than others.

NASA, of course, has chronicled the entire effort on its Web site. Anyone who has wondered about zero-gravity meals, sleeping arrangements, bathrooms and so many other common things we take for granted down here definitely should visit http://spaceflight.nasa.gov/ to access the archive. It contains more text than you can read; hundreds of still images, MPG videos and animations; as well as audio files of interviews, astronaut wakeup calls and mission communications for most NASA programs, including the shuttle, space station and Skylab, and the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo missions. Reserve some time to explore this site. Each click you make there will uncover many interesting opportunities for getting sidetracked.

Who you gonna call?

This pesky Internet. It's everywhere. Can't get away from it, or so it seems. But it does have a few good points. For example, the servers for many Web sites presented here are located in other countries. Yet, while you're accessing, in some cases, large files that are delivered to you through your phone line, your heavy-duty Web browsing incurs no long-distance charges. Curious, no?

Jeff Pulver, founder of Free World Dialup, Melville, N.Y., figured out a practical way to exploit our favorite Internet. His contribution to the big scheme of things is using Web interconnectedness to place long-distance and international calls for a per-minute toll cost of approximately zero. There's a hitch, of course. Subscribers must purchase a special Internet telephone instrument to place the calls, and they can talk only to other subscribers connected to Internet service providers that established a business relationship with Pulver's company. Nevertheless, he claims to have more than 60,000 subscribers in 150 countries. If the numbers work, subscribers can find themselves with a rather healthy return on investment. Have your mouse call http://www.pulver.com/fwd/ and http://www.pcworld.com/news/article/0,aid,47204,00.asp for additional details.

The beautiful sound

You might recall that in December, 1998, we gave you the lowdown on a music-authoring software package called abc2win. With it, a composer can key a string of characters into an ASCII text file, which the software then interprets to produce sheet music in the standard notation we all know and love. It also allows you to play the tune you composed. Although it's effective, using that software isn't the most efficient way to become a rich and famous composer. Correcting mistakes and tweaking your melody requires locating a single ASCII character in a long string that corresponds to an erroneous note on a page. That's way too hard for lazy songwriters.

A better music-authoring tool eliminates that problem and several others. The package I'm now recommending is Finale NotePad 2003. Using it is so much easier and the results are better. If you have a sound card, you can score both piano clefs as well as several other instruments and get them to play together. In any case, one uses drag-and-drop to move notes from a palate of note types at the top of the screen directly to the staff for each instrument. Piling several notes on a single stem forms chords. Tweaking the tune is, of course, a matter of identifying the offending note, but then using drag-and-drop again to reposition it properly. Conduct your mouse while it plays http://www.finalemusic.com/notepad/index.asp. You won't be disappointed.

Slice, dice, chop

In 2000, we put our tax money to work by having our hired hands in Washington gather census data. As you would expect, 288,368,698 of us crawling over the landscape results in quite a bit of data. Thanks to the computational power of some central processing unit housed in the nation's capital, our personal data is available for analysis by anyone who wishes to access it.

No doubt, you remember the many personal questions census takers were asking us at the time. Well, there must be at least 10 times as many ways to slice, dice and chop the aggregate into bite-size pieces. Because there's insufficient space here to detail the resulting ways the data can be presented, I'd recommend you send your mouse to do the counting at http://factfinder.census.gov/.

Chatty browsers

You've had pop-up ads appear out of nowhere when you browse the Web. Clicking on the standard X box found in the upper right corner of the pop-up window makes them vanish. Although pop-ups are annoying, what's even more insidious are spyware and adware, the snippets of code inserted into your computer for the purpose of monitoring your browsing, sending you customized ads and reporting your activities to the entity that spawned them. Spyware and adwaresoftware bacteriacan infect your machine when you download free software. Given the digital biocides available on the standard PC, finding and deleting these bacteria is not easy.

Ironically, it's possible to purge your machine of this nastiness by downloading additional software. This time, however, it comes from what is generally recognized as a trustworthy sourcethe good folks at CNET Networks, Inc., San Francisco, Calif. If you sneak your mouse into http://www.zdnet.com/, click "Downloads" near the top of the screen, enter the word "adware" in the search function, click "Go" and scroll down the resulting page, you'll no doubt find something to sterilize your computer's digital guts. Most of the offerings have a price tag, but several packages that will do the deed are totally free.

While you're at it, after you shut your browser down for the night, you might want to delete the cookies.txt file in the browser subdirectory before shutting down completely. Don't bother doing it while the browser is operating, because it makes a copy for itself when it's running.

Piotr Walczak, a freelance programmer living in Bangkok, operates another site you might visit for downloads of related freeware. His efforts can be found at http://www.pjwalczak.com/.

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