Not too long ago a friend commented that I always seemed to find cool and interesting places on the Internet. He asked me why I didn’t have a section of my web page devoted to my favorite links. Honestly, the thought had never occurred to me.
I’ve rarely found the huge list of links that some people put on their web pages very useful. In theory, it sounds like a good idea to organize, categorize, and publish your bookmarks for the enlightenment of the online masses, but I never can seem to find a good implementation. One of the most annoying virtual experiences is to click on a link that someone professes to be worth your time… only to have a 404 error show up in its place.
Relishing my propensity to type, I thought I might take a different approach to sharing my favorites with you. Instead of supplying a list, I thought I would take some extra time to tell you why I link the site is worthwhile. (Apologies to those who come across this web log entry 10 years from now when all the URLs are broken.)
I chose Slashdot as my home page because the content is always changing. Slashdot calls itself “News for Nerds, Stuff that Matters,” and it’s a compilation of relevant newsworthy events that I frequently find interesting.
Here’s how the site works: Anyone can submit a story for posting Slashdot, as long as they can get the moderators to deem it worthy. If they accept your submission (which isn’t likely since they get thousands of submissions a day and only post 1 or 2 an hour), a short synopsis of the information is presented on the main page. Slashdot readers can then follow the links to obtain the information directly from the source. Often, this results in the “Slashdot Effect,” the merciless pounding upon of servers by millions of nerds hell-bent on not being left behind, information-wise. It’s not uncommon for a site to reach its bandwidth limit in a matter of minutes after being linked from Slashdot.
Also, each article typically attracts a huge discussion, but I rarely participate in the forums. Slashdot is simply my news sources for hi-tech gadgets, computer games, science fiction, virus news, book reviews, the war on spam, privacy rights, astronomy, and a dozen other topics.
Every Day Useful Links
Even though I’ve got my own domain now (and with it my own mail server), I still use my Hotmail account frequently. I originally obtained my free e-mail account in 1998, just before going to Ecuador. I needed to be able to have an e-mail address that could be accessed anywhere in the world, and Hotmail fit the bill. For the price of the air you breathe, you can get 2MB of storage space. It’s usually enough, if you don’t want to risk missing e-mails when your limit is exceeded, you can upgrade to 10MB for about $12/year – not bad for only a dollar a month.
The only drawback is that there’s a lot of spam nowadays. I guess this is a problem anywhere, and at least Hotmail tries to stem the tide with its junk mail filters.
I’ll also hold onto my Hotmail account just because it’s my login for MSN Messenger. Messenger is an online chat tool with so much more built in – file sharing, audio/video conferencing, games, and even application sharing. It’s another great free tool and I use it every day. Want to talk to me online? Add me to your Messenger contact list: a_midgett @ hotmail.com
Google is the best search engine on the web, hands down. Once you learn the tricks to narrowing your search down with good keywords and Boolean logic, Google will quickly find just about any site out there.
If your name’s rare enough (as far as I can tell, I’m the only Arlo Midgett on the planet!) submit an ego search by putting your name in quotes. Get a few hits? Cool. Now try clicking on the “Images” tab to see if any pictures of your smiling mug appear – Google finds three of mine. Think that’s it? Search for my name in “Groups” and you’ll see some frighteningly dated posts I made in Usenet over a decade ago! Input someone’s name and zip code and there’s a good chance Google will supply you with their address, phone number, and a map straight to their home!
Google also has a lot more to offer than just what’s on the front page. If you find yourself searching a lot on the Internet, you owe it to yourself to download the Google Toolbar. It will create a new toolbar in your browser that makes searching for other pages even easier (you don’t have to go to Google first), and it has a ton of other useful features, such as pop-up ad blocking, too. I highly recommend it.
Google’s caching system is yet another feature that makes elevates it above other search engines. If a site Google links to is down or has been removed, you can still click on the cache link to at least see the web page as Google saw it when it was cataloged. If you’re looking for information – any information – on the web, start with Google.
Having a dictionary within reach all the time isn’t very practical, but if you’re online you’re only one step away from Dictionary.com. In fact, if you download their toolbar, you can look up any word with a single click! Without costing a cent, Dictionary.com will give you multiple definitions, etymologies, and a pronunciation key. For a small fee, you can upgrade Dictionary.com to get audio pronunciations, illustrations, and a distinct lack of banner ads. Really, I should do that.
I visit Thesaurus.com and Spanish Dictionary far less than Dictionary.com, but they’re still valuable online resources. Thesaurus.com works well when Word fails me, and Spanish Dictionary is great for a quick check to make sure I have my Spanish words spelled correctly. Spanish Dictionary will also give you audio pronunciations, if that’s what you’re after.
Anywho is run by AT&T. It’s a decent way to look up a phone number or address for just about anyone – as long as they’re listed in a phonebook somewhere. Actually, the reason I end up at Anywho most of the time is for their reverse lookup feature. Just type in that perplexing phone number you found on your caller ID and you should get a name back. Unfortunately, cell phones are not listed in the reverse lookup, but I have a hard time faulting Anywho for that when Oksana was able to track down a Siberian relative’s phone number on their site!
Wil Wheaton Dot Net
Wil Wheaton was a Hollywood child star. You may remember him from such films as Stand by Me and Star Trek: The Next Generation. Now, let’s get one thing straight: I was not a fan of Wesley Crusher on TNG. Excepting, perhaps, Wil’s “sneering confused face,” I don’t think it was the actor’s fault – rather, the writers had the 15-year-old character saving the Enterprise about ten times too many for me to be able to suspend my disbelief.
Anyway, a funny thing happened about a year ago. As I was just beginning to get interested in Slashdot, I came across a Slashdot interview of Wil Wheaton. In it, he answered ten of the best moderated questions from the nerd crowd and, low and behold, he came across as interesting. Of course, he plugged his own web site and blog, and I, being a dutiful Trek fan, visited it once or twice. Like a soap opera, it was hard to get involved at first, but once I learned the characters, I was hooked.
Wil’s site is well written, often funny, and sometimes a little whiney. To be honest, after seeing the kind of readership he was able to build, he became a sort of inspiration for the blog you’re reading now. (Don’t worry. There’s a voice in the back of my head that lets me know I’ll never gain his Hollywood fame-fueled number of hits on my own site.)
To his credit, Wil was also the one who introduced me to Homestar and Strong Bad.
Homestarrunner… it’s dot com! Homestarrunner is a fascinating site that will either grab a hold of you… or not. The concept is simply a bunch of rejected children’s book characters that have found an unlikely home in Flash animations. It might not seem like much, but when you consider the weekly updates are created solely (writing, voices, animations, music, etc.) by two brothers, it’s nothing short of amazing. The humor is decidedly juvenile – take that for what it’s worth. (Personally, I love it!) If you look at nothing else on the site, I heartedly recommend the Strong Bad E-mails. If you “get it,” I fully expect you to buy a Trogdor or Stinko-Man T-shirt just like mine!
Penny Arcade is the place I go for video game information. Run by two guys, Gabe and Tycho, it’s another web site that might take you some time to grow accustomed to. Once you’re privy to their quirks, though, you’ll be hooked.
PA is updated every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday with one comic strip and one article. Tycho writes and Gabe draws. The comics are funny enough if you’re into jokes encompassing video games, but often you need to be current with the industry news to understand where they’re coming from. If you’re the kind of person that needs the punch line spelled out for you, Tycho’s articles usually do a fine job. As a bonus, they are exceedingly well written… I dream of the day when I can turn a phrase like Tycho.
One potential problem with Penny Arcade (potentially your problem, not mine!) is their propensity for vulgar language. If you’re one of those assho*es that can’t handle a four-letter word, then you best stay the hell away from their site! Oh, and they lean a bit too much towards consoles games for my tastes, too.
I love movie trailers. I believe that they are the earthly manifestation of pure, elemental video editing. Can any old editor distill the plot, introduce the characters, and build sufficient hype for a movie without spoiling anything in just thirty seconds? No. Trailer cutting is an art form.
For years now, Apple has been showcasing their QuickTime video codec with movie trailers. Their trailer page may not be the best place to get information about upcoming movies on the web, but they update it consistently, keep the interface clean and simple, and do the best they can to provide the finest quality video clips. If you like trailers as much as I do, bookmark their site and check the “Newest Trailers” section daily!
You can do anything at Zombo.com.
Photo.net is a great site. I only wish I had more time to participate in the communities that spring up there. Besides being able to get all the photography information you might need from your virtual peers, you can critique other people’s photos while soliciting requests for comments and ratings on your own. It’s been awhile since I posted any new photos of my own, but I still visit the site a couple times a week to marvel at the technical skills, digital creativity, and eye for light of other photographers.
The best way to get acquainted with the site is to hit the main page and look for the “Top-rated Photos” link. Want to see the best of the best? Change the browsing parameters to: “Rank = Sum of Ratings” and “Period = All.” Prepare to be amazed.
What do you do with all those photographs after you’ve snapped them? Take them online for printing, of course! In the last couple years a lot of services have sprung up on the web and they all want your business. Ofoto is one of the first I tried, and I still think it’s one of the best.
Here’s what you do: Set up a free account on Ofoto and upload your digital images – any digital image will do, whether it be from a digital camera or a scanned print or negative. Once Ofoto has it on their web site, you can choose what you want to do with it. Typical photographic prints range from wallet size to poster size and the prices are reasonable (29 cents for a 4″ x 6″ print, $22.99 for a 20″ x 30″ poster.) You can also create cards, calendars, and even archive your images to a CD.
Ofoto’s interface is intuitive and responsive. It’s quite simple to give your friends and family access to your online portfolios so that they can pick and choose which of your prints to order. But the best thing about Ofoto is their service. Every time I’ve placed an order with Ofoto, they’ve sent me an e-mail within an hour or two to tell me that my order has been shipped. This isn’t just a confirmation e-mail, mind you. They’re telling me that FedEx already has it on the way!
Sony’s Imagestation is almost exactly like Ofoto – they’re just not as good. While Ofoto’s image handling interface is simple and easy to use, Imagestation’s is often slow, confusing, and convoluted. Where Ofoto has excellent customer service and quick shipping, you can expect to go a week or more before getting an e-mail from Imagestation (and they and don’t offer you any sort of tracking information through UPS or FedEx – in fact, you can’t even tell when they shipped your product in your account’s online order history.)
But still, Imagestation has a lot going for it. The calendars have more options and can be larger than Ofoto’s. They have a nifty, as-yet-unseen-by-Arlo, vinyl photo book where you can have them print individual pages of your text and photos. If that’s not enough to convince you, Imagestation is the only place I’ve found where you can get your photo printed on a mouse pad, a night light, a coffee mug, a lollipop, a T-shirt, and a Rice Krispies treat!
Zazzle is my newest, favorite site. Basically they do the same things Imagestation and Ofoto do on a smaller scale. Where the other two let you print on everything under the sun, Zazzle sticks to T-shirts and photographic prints. By concentrating on only two things, they sure can do it well.
I dismissed Zazzle a few months ago because it looked like the only way to deal with them was by setting up a public shop for your items. I wasn’t interested in having my own prints sold online at a place where I only get a tiny commission. But when I looked at it again, I discovered that you can set your product to “private” and no one but you will know where it is.
That reassured me somewhat, but the clincher came when I actually started playing around with the shopping interface. After uploading some images, I was able customize T-shirts and art-quality prints to my heart’s content. Want your logo to go on the back of a T-shirt? No problem. Front. Sure. You can even have it placed on the pocket or sleeve… Heck, you can decide at the last minute to put it on a sweatshirt instead. Or a tank top, baby doll, casual nightie, basic raglan… the list goes on. Quite a bit more control than Imagestation’s “You’ll get a square photo on the front of a plain T-shirt – and you’ll like it!” attitude.
And the prints! Oh, the prints… Upload a large enough digital image and you can have a “colossal” print made for you. Is six-foot, six-inches tall good enough for ya? Would you like three different colored mattes, a silver brushed-metal frame, and UV resistant glass for your archive quality photographic print? No problem – it’ll just cost you a pretty penny. I found it very easy to go over $500 for a single framed print, but at least with Zazzle’s intuitive interface, it’s easy to cut back on a few items and whittle the price down to something that’s a little more reasonable.
If, like me, you spend a lot of time in Photoshop, you owe it to yourself to check out Zazzle. Just be ready for the ensuing war between the contents of your wallet and your desire to obtain physical manifestations of your digital creativity.
Digital Photography Review
Before I bought my digital camera, I did a lot of research on the web. The best site I came across for reviews, specifications, and suggestions for digital cameras was DP Review. They put cameras through every test imaginable and carefully weigh the pros and cons of each so that you can spend your money with confidence.
Look for the full reviews of the more popular cameras and browse the forums to read debates on the merits of the rest. Compare any camera’s specs, side-by-side, with its competition. View full-resolution samples of pictures taken with most models. They only thing you shouldn’t do is buy a digital camera without visiting DP Review first!
Shopper, Pricewatch, and Pricescan
Before buying just about any piece of technology, whether it’s a laptop, more RAM, or a digital video camera, I’ll run the model number through each of these price search engines. I’m not necessarily looking for the lowest prices – those usually come from suspicious web sites. But getting a big list of prices will give you a good idea of the “street price” for any given piece of high-tech gadgetry. Each of these sites will point you right to an online store ready to sell you whatever you need. I’ve never been burned on an online purchase yet, but maybe that’s because I never order from e-commerce sites that use blink tags and animated .gifs!
Tiger Direct is cheap and reliable – but you can’t expect to configure your own perfect computer on their site.
Mwave, on the other hand, is all about configuration. Choose only the equipment you want and have them assemble and test everything for a modest fee. If you like to build your own computer but don’t like the time it takes to do so, check these guys out.
Dell and Sony are the two computer makers I have some laptop experience with. I trust any computer made by these companies because I know that if there’s a problem, they’ll make sure it’s fixed. Even in Juneau, Alaska, Dell will find a way to get a technician to your house to work on your computer – now that’s service! Also, Dell and Sony will let you tweak the configurations of a number of base computer packages. Not quite as well (and inexpensive) as Mwave, but a good deal nonetheless.
And finally, if you already have a membership to Costco, I recommend them if only for their phenomenal return policy. I personally know people that have returned a computer to Costco ten months after purchasing it… for a full refund. In a world where your computer is outdated by the time you get it out of the box, that’s got to be worth something. It’s just too bad Costco seems to be partnered with mass-market computer manufacturers, HP/Compaq.
I used to host my web site on my workplace’s web servers (the University of Alaska, Southeast.) I felt guilty for breaking the rules by redirecting arlomidgett.com traffic to my student account, but I so enjoyed the perks of fast uploads, unlimited bandwidth, and flexible file space allocation! It wasn’t until I wanted to start a web log and put a commercial web site together that I started to look for another host.
After much searching and reading of reviews, I settled on ICDSoft. I’ll be the first to admit it’s not for everyone, but it’s good enough for me. Their business offices are located in England, but the servers in which my copious web data lives are in Hong Kong. That may seem sketchy, but based on the speed of the transpacific path these words likely took to reach you, would you have even guessed? I thought not.
For $5 a month I get 333MB of disk space, my own mail server (and web mail interface), 5 sub-domains, 5 Gigabytes of bandwidth per month, statistics tracking, a MySQL database, personal cgi-bins, and a 30-day money back guarantee. They even registered my domain name for me! If you can stand not having a command line interface and can live with only e-mail tech support (They claim an under-ten minute response time, but I’ve never even needed to use it), check out ICDSoft.
Winamp makes a good mp3 player, but they make my list of favorites because they keep a great listing of Internet radio stations on their web site. When my workplace gets too loud and distracting to get any work done, I’ll click on over to Winamp’s site, put on some headphones, and have them serve me up some streaming hot music. Feel free to choose your music by genre or search for a specific song or artist that’s on the air presently. Just remember that unless high fidelity is a foreign concept to you, stay away from the 28.8 modem streams!
I guess I’m still surprised that TV Guide has accurate listings for Juneau on their web site. Just punch in your zip code and tell them whether you have cable or a satellite dish and you’ll get the whole schedule in two-hour increments. Even better, search for your favorite syndicated show and TV Guide will give back a list of each and every time it airs in the week. Which is great and all, but I really only watch about three TV shows anymore.
My Favorite Site
And finally we come to the last site on my list – but unlike a big jar of Jelly Belly jelly beans, I’ve saved the best for last!
So, what incredibly entertaining or exceedingly useful sites did I leave out? Where on the web do you find yourself visiting a couple times a week to stay current? What am I missing?!