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From the Christian Science Monitor:
Wednesday, September 23, 1998
 
Roller Coasters: The Useless Information Homepage

By Jim Regan

Much, if not most, of the information we absorb each day could be safely classified as "useless." I refer to 'facts' here, as opposed to sensory information of the kind that tells us how far the glass is from our mouth - that kind of data can save a world of embarrassment. And of course, not all useless information is necessarily bad - personally, I'm quite content to know that the Battle of Hastings took place in 1066, regardless of whether the knowledge will ever add a day to my life or a dollar to my net worth. The great majority of this material, however, is the kind that gives useless information a bad name, the kind that entire programs (such as Entertainment Tonight) are devoted to, and the kind that has millions asking the media, "Do we really need to know this?"

Well, Steve Silverman, a high school science teacher in Albany, New York, is out to restore the good name of useless information with, well, The Useless Information Homepage. Given the author's occupation, it won't come as a surprise that this site is something more than a simple catalog of trivia - what is surprising, given a full-time job, is that he finds the time to maintain such a thorough and entertaining site.

Useless Information is a site without gizmos, (there's no need for them) and the use of low-bandwidth cartoon illustrations instead of more complex images ensures that everything loads quickly and without incident. Scrolling down from the 'welcome' logo, the visitor is immediately presented with brief descriptions of roughly a dozen of the site's most recent and popular investigations, while a link to the site index allows access to the full compliment of over 60 stories (so far).

Pages for each specific story also include -- where applicable -- links to other sites dealing with the subject in question, copies of newspaper stories of specific events, and lists of related books and other reference materials, so you'll know he's not making this stuff up. Frankly, some of the material is so fantastic, it's a good thing that documentation is included. While an explanation of the secret behind Grecian Formula might be accepted at face value, the claim that George Washington was in fact America's 8th president could elicit a certain amount of scepticism.

Other investigations include:

THE 1904 ST. LOUIS OLYMPICS - Which was such a disaster that the IOC was forced to hold an "interim Olympics" (Athens, 1906) to try to redeem the movement.

AMERICA'S FIRST SUBWAY - (with period illustrations) Provides a lesson in how things got done in a day when politicians had names like Boss Tweed.

THE MURDER OF MICHAEL MOLLOY - Which makes Rasputin's assassination seem a very quick and uncomplicated affair.

CITIBANK TOWER - Revealing how close this New York landmark came to literally blowing over, and how the nearly fatal flaw was discovered, not by the architect, but by a college student studying the design.

And, in a nod to Titanic-mania, there is the story of Violet Jessop, who not only survived the disaster on that ship famous in story and song, but on both her sister ships (Olympic and Britannic) as well. Finally, FAST FACTS covers tidbits not large enough for their own page, though no less entertaining. (Try to read about Malaysia's anti-mosquito crusade without the words of, "There was an old woman who swallowed a fly..." coming to mind.)

This is a dangerous site. At first glance, it looks attractive if not dazzling, something worth a quick visit to one or two of the more promising stories. Then you're done for. You'll stay to find out why chickens are being fitted with contact lenses, or how P.T. Barnum changed the English Language, and titles like The Flubber Fiasco and The Great Boston Molasses Disaster demand investigation. This site will take hours, so bookmark it and pace yourself. After all, we can only be expected to absorb so much useless information at a time.

The Useless Information Homepage can be found at http://home.nycap.rr.com/useless/contents.html.

  • Jim Regan provides 'Today's Links' to the e-Monitor. He lives in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada.

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