Tangled Webs

   Two Sites that Get It
Issue 3.04
May 01, 1998

Perhaps it's because I've just returned from vacation. Perhaps it's simply because spring is in the air. Whatever the reason, I find myself feeling exceedingly positive about the Internet these days. This article will be a bit of a departure from my standard fare. It's certainly not that the usual suspects are not up to their usual subterfuge. I just thought I would give the wicked a rest, and take look at two sites that are worth knowing about.

The Learning Kingdom

There is no question that the serendipity has gone out of surfing. Two years ago, you could follow a trail of links and stumble across a well done site about a topic that you had never before even considered a topic. I remember trying to dig up information on a particular NT security hole and getting sidetracked into a site dealing with the history and practice of the didjeridu. Admittedly, this was not the most productive diversion at the time. However, those small daily discoveries made using the Web far more enjoyable. With the increasing size and specialization of the web, however, these random finds are now few and far between.

The Learning Kingdom's "Cool Fact of the Day" mailing list restores a bit of the fun of discovery by delivering an interesting, but completely useless, fact to your mailbox each day. Reference URLs are included so you can investigate the matter further if you wish. The Learning Kingdom bills itself as a K12 learning center, but don't let that put you off. Why should kids have all the good toys?

Some cool facts of days past dealt with where the center of the rainbow is, the world's fastest animal (it's not the cheetah, by the way), 66kg rodents, elephant's teeth (they only have four functional ones), the world's oldest tree, the coldest inhabited village, why comets have tails, and Mt. Everest's current growth rate of 4cm / year.

Granted, scheduled serendipity is an oxymoron, but I often find myself looking forward to my daily email from the kingdom. You can sign up at http://www.tlk-lists.com/join.html.

The Library of Congress

It's hard to believe that the same government that brought us the CDA, cryptography export restrictions and the Clipper Chip (versions I to III and counting) is responsible for the Library of Congress Web site, which I consider in some ways to be the best site on the web.

You can browse through Walt Whitman's handwritten notebooks rendered into JPEGs, view digitized historical film footage, inspect high-resolution copies of hundreds of historical maps, or view one of their many photographic exhibitions such as Around the World in the 1890's. You can view photographs, transcriptions and translations of the Dead Sea Scrolls, or click through the special Harry Houdini exhibit containing 140 separate artifacts including video clips, photographs, and Houdini's personal writings.

By far the most impressive exhibit area of the site is the American Treasures Collection. In this collection of exhibits, one can view Thomas Jefferson's handwritten draft of the Declaration of Independence, listen to Jelly Roll Morton's early works, or see the earliest known baseball cards. There are dozens of exhibits in this collection; all will descriptive, definitive commentary.

The web site's research section not only provides a web-interface for searching the Library of Congress's mind-bogglingly huge catalog, but information on what bills are being discussed in Congress or in committee and what their current status is. Information on Senators and Congressional representatives is also provided.

By most standards, the LoC site qualifies as a cool site, but why potentially the best on the web? After all, it is often ignored in reviews. Reviews, unfortunately, always seem to focus on the use of the latest technology, entertainment value or utility in day-to-day life. In these terms, the site is nothing special. However, I know of no other site that realizes so much of the potential for civic good that the Internet makes possible.

At a single site, we see government being made more transparent and accessible. We see historical artifacts and commentary being placed where everyone on the planet can see them. We see the ability to search the largest library in the world from anywhere in the world. All of this is done without political agenda, partisan posturing, or pretentious flag waving.

Next time you read an article about how the Internet is a bastion of hackers and pornographers or about how the future of the Internet will depend on this week's hot technology and vacuous marketing hype, you might what to head over to http://lcweb.loc.gov to remind yourself what the Internet allows us to do when we put our minds to it.

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© Copyright 1998, Tim Romero, t3@vanguardjp.com
This article fist appeared in the April 29, 1998 edition of The Japan Times.
Tangled Webs may be distributed freely provided this copyright notice is included.
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