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Posted on Sat, Mar 24, 2012 : 6:58 a.m.

This week's web picks: Learn how stuff works; get smart with Edge

By Paul Wiener

How Stuff Works

As a native Easterner, one of the first things I learned years ago was that Midwesterners know how things work. How I envy them! Since I know there are many non-natives around here, this one’s for you. It’s not only about how automatic transmissions work. It’s about anemometers, nuclear bombs, the NFL draft; dehumidifiers, internet radio and credit default swaps.

Using excellent photos, videos, graphics and ultra-clear explanations, the site gets you to believe that everything, well, works. And how! You even get to believe it's interesting and that you understand it. And no matter how much you learn, there are still more things that work in mysterious ways — but look out, there’s an explanation.

How Stuff Works has appeared as several books, and is a thriving Discovery Channel series as well. But for those who want to choose their own poison, this site can be an endless source of fascination. Haven’t you ever wondered why chocolate turns gray sometimes?



Why does chocolate sometimes turn gray? You can find out at

The title says it all. Not The Edge, not Edgy, not On the Edge. Just the single absolute syllable, like a pinprick hole in the cosmos. Edge is for the unabashed, out-in-the open intellectual, the people who like to read, and talk, and think, and argue, and write and read instead of write. “To Err Is Primate”; “When We Cannot Predict”; “Neuroscience and Justice."

Long, brilliant conversations abound in essays, lectures, interviews, slideshows, videos. Even Woody Allen would be impressed. Topics can be searched, but do you dare? Try "cosmo" or "nano." "Democrat" is searchable; "technocrat" isn’t. Go figure.

Perhaps Edge’s greatest attraction is its Annual Question, which is so big that each year’s answers are published as a book. In 2009, it was “What Will Change Everything?” It had 152 contributors: they were all right, in a way. Edge takes informed opinion, the future and itself very seriously and even sponsors real-life dinners and seminars. How about a master class in “Rebooting Civilization II?” It’s not a joke. Be prepared.


Can a website have as much impact as a book or a newspaper? If it can, why don’t websites get Pulitzer prizes? Surprise: Politifact did, in 2009.

Mounted by the St. Petersburg (now Tampa Bay) Times, this site actually competes with other media by monitoring them and checking the statements publicists and pundits feed them to circulate as common wisdom or received knowledge. Their truthfulness — or not — is displayed on a virtual meter. Sounds hokey, but hokey doesn’t get the Pulitzer.

Facts proven or disproven by researchers are backed up by detailed essays, charts, sources and related news stories. Which stimulus bill promises has Obama kept? Was Bush really the least popular president in history? Do most of us live within 50 miles of a nuclear plant?

This time-honored Florida news organization will keep you honest. You can search for news items and political hype by subject, pundit, leader, state and truthfulness. Who is watching the watcher? Ask the Pulitzer Committee.

Google Dashboard

How would you like to know what Google search you did on July 17, 2008? You wouldn’t? Not everybody has a Google account, I know, but a lot of you do. If you use Gmail, you do. If you’re connected with the U of M, it’s practically mandatory. Yet Google hides Dashboard and its many tracking functions.

If you have a Google account, you really can see almost everything you’ve ever searched for, all the YouTubes you ever watched or posted, all the mail you’ve sent, your AdSense account, your customized search engines, or the music and photos you posted on Picasa or Google Play. You can edit your privacy settings and look at summations of these and other Google functions you may use, all on this one site.

Why doesn’t Google tell us about Dashboard, even on its main products page? Possibly because they don’t want to scare us.

Many people already wonder what Google does with all the information it gathers about individual online activities. But if you’re that afraid, then just don’t Google from home, or use Gmail, or your mobile device. Or try disabling cookies whenever you feast online.

Dashboard doesn’t do much you can’t do in other Googly ways. But it does provide the only way to see what you Googled years ago, and that can be oddly surprising. Why was I looking at bulkcandystore at 5:42 pm on Oct. 30, 2009? I’ll have more Google tips in future columns.

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. He may be reached at



Mon, Mar 26, 2012 : 9:23 p.m.

You had me with the picture of chocolates!! Lovin' your column.


Sun, Mar 25, 2012 : 1:13 p.m.

Great info! I look forward to looking up all these sites. Dunno about Dashboard tho... Thanks for the great article!


Sat, Mar 24, 2012 : 2:31 p.m.

My FAVORITES list is filling up fast, Paul. I just added EDGE to it--what a fantastic site! The perfect antidote to the celebrity-soaked culture in which we are all forced to wallow, whether we want to or not. I was reading the list of names of contributors who have responded to the annual question, and I realized I didn't know any of these people. What a relief not to see "Kardashian" anywhere! I am now officially looking forward to your column every Saturday.


Sat, Mar 24, 2012 : 2:21 p.m.

Mr. Wiener, I cannot decide which I enjoy more: your web picks, or your writing style. Thanks for both; I already look forward to your weekly column.


Sat, Mar 24, 2012 : 12:40 p.m.

I think that we in the Midwest look at the world as a puzzle. Most of us, at least in the old times, worked on our own cars and motorcycles. I was always fascinated by how things work. The television show with that name is one of my favorites. We are just a curious bunch. We usually have a full winter to research this also.