This Week's Web Picks: overcalculating; substances disabused; knots so fast; making fun of the news
Editor’s note: This is the next installment of a weekly column by Paul Wiener designed to point readers to cool or useful websites.
Does anybody really need a website that points to over 24,300 functioning online calculators? And even if you desperately needed a geomagnetic field calculator or a Greek racial calculator, why would you ever look here?
The point of showing you Jim Martindale's amazing site is that it's only a small part of his much larger site, Martindale's The Reference Desk, an unbelievably inclusive site of topical, mostly science links maintained and updated almost daily as a labor of love by one man: journals, dictionaries, organizations, videos, atlases, histories, statistics, textbooks...
Witnessing such dedication can be pleasantly unsettling. Luckily you're in a chair. Visiting his site is like seeing the Grand Canyon for the first time: you don't know where to start or why it's there, but you can't stop looking. Everywhere you see something unexpected and useful to a world you'll never master.
Beautiful, superbly organized, comprehensive beyond anyone's imagining, yet oddly unsearchable, Martindale's blue brainchild showcases one man's obsession with disciplining the disciplines, from weather, anatomy, mineralogy, and cardiology to copyright, fashion, paleontology and nutrition.
Is it possible to read about mind-altering substances without getting spun silly by religion, politics or culture warriors? On Erowid it is. Here, cannabis is almost beside the point. This serious, superbly organized, attractive site contains more than 50,000 documents covering nearly every drug, chemical, plant, medication and behavioral technique known to seekers — from mushrooms to alcohol to opiates to ambien to drumming to K2. Even an event can be mind-altering.
Judgments are suspended, but medical reporting and anecdotes aren't. It's amazing how many things alter the mind. Coffee, anyone?
Pictures, legal documents, personal narratives, civil rights issues, chemical structure diagrams, drug testing procedures, statistics are only part of what this site offers in the name of openness and education. Erowid is about fact and disclosure; its editors aren't hiding. Not everything on the site is up-to-date, but when so many efforts are made every day to obscure, exaggerate, sell or invent drug-related information, how could it be?
Quick: Tie me a Munter Mule! What? Imagine a website that is as useful as it is inventive, fascinating and fun. Maybe you knew there were hundreds of types of knots, created and used for all kinds of purposes.
But did you think you'd ever see a website that could show, in slow-motion animation, how to tie them? Like the Monkey's Fist? The Dropper Loop? The Diamond Lanyard? Fishermen, boaters, rescue workers, climbers, decorators and, yes, scouts, use specialized knots, to accomplish various tasks requiring strength, flexibility, security and appeal.
There's lots of knot and rope dope here as well. Even without merit badges, there are not-so-knotty experts who sling knot terminology with the best, and advise us laymen on knot safety. How did all this escape your attention?
The site exists as an app as well, so if you're dangling over a 1200-foot precipice wondering how to attach yourself to your future, all you need to do is pull out your cell and look for that Munter Mule!
Fark? What is that supposed to mean? Just hold on. Aren't we all more than a little sick of the news? How much sameold heartbreak, outrage, fear and guilt can a person take as a daily diet? But, heaven help us, we need to hear something. Anything. What's happening? Enter Fark.
Fark is the word Drew Curtis invented in 1997 for his concept of "news that's not really news" — and the website that features it. While the Seven Deadly Sins churn our stomachs every day, Fark makes room for the rest of humanity's mere transgressions, serious goofs and head-scratching missteps. All the world's an Alka-Seltzer.
"Cannibal suspect claims 'I'm a people person.'" "Teen wanting to impress boyfriend dresses up as Tinkerbelle." "German court rules that U.S. spoils of war do not include a $4 million vintage Mercedes."
All of Fark's wry news articles and videos are selected from user submissions. They change daily, come from every kind of source, big and small and are documented and archived, though of course many of the old links have long since expired. This small stuff can be easy to swallow, deceptively tasty, like popcorn, and you don't know you've had too much until you've had too much.
Paul Wiener of Ann Arbor was a librarian for 32 years at Stony Brook University, in Long Island, N.Y., where he managed the English Literature, Art and Film Collections and taught internet research. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.