Viewpoint -- Personal Computing: Learning The Facts Of Life Via The Web

Online resources can answer many of life's questions, if you know where to look.

Say you're writing a report and need to double-check a fact or two. Or say you just heard something on TV or the radio and want to make sure it's correct. What do you do? In the past, you reached for an almanac or encyclopedia or headed to the library. Today, in the Age of the Internet, these facts are as close as your computer screen. To check a fact, you might be tempted to fire up Google, the best general-interest Web search engine. But despite its sophisticated search technology that helps you home in on relevant information, Google can still be too scattershot an approach when fact checking. Nothing beats an almanac for quick facts on everyday items, and nothing beats InfoPlease.com as a source for free online almanacs. It offers a range of almanacs on world and domestic issues, history and government, business, society and culture, biography, health and science, arts and entertainment, and sports, not to mention a dictionary, concise encyclopedia and atlas. For more meaty material, you should surf to a full-fledged online encyclopedia. Britannica Online includes the full text of Encyclopedia Britannica, the world's best encyclopedia, along with a dictionary, thesaurus, atlas, audio and video clips, and links to other Web sites. You can read the first few sentences of encyclopedia articles for free, with full access costing $10 per month or $70 per year. Other excellent online encyclopedias include MSN Encarta and Encyclopedia.com. Encarta, however, can be overloaded and slow, and some of its articles require you to buy the CD-ROM version. Encyclopedia.com, along with providing free encyclopedia articles, includes links to eLibrary, a compilation of articles from thousands of newspapers, magazines, and TV and radio transcripts, with a subscription costing $25 per month or $125 per year. The best biographical encyclopedia on the Web is Biography.com, with more than 25,000 articles on both current and historical figures. If it's word wisdom you're after, Dictionary.com may have it. It offers a dictionary and thesaurus as well as translation tools for Spanish, French, German, Italian and Portuguese. The site also includes links to foreign language, medical, science and other dictionaries. An even more comprehensive translation site is AltaVista's Babelfish. It handles the above languages plus Russian, Chinese, Japanese and Korean. Another good word site is YourDictionary.com. Along with English language and foreign language dictionaries and various thesauri, it provides links to 60 specialized glossaries, from business and computing to law and medicine. Say you come across an acronym that you can't make sense of. Acronym Finder offers definitions of more than 242,000 acronyms, abbreviations and initialisms. If it's technology related, CMP's TechEncyclopedia may be an even better choice, with definitions of more than 20,000 acronyms and other terms related to computers and the Internet. Sometimes you want to know in detail how something works. The appropriately named site HowStuffWorks provides descriptions, diagrams and photos of more than 2,500 devices and processes in categories from automotive and electronics to health and money. If it's a statistic you need, check out Statistics.com. You'll find numbers from government and other sources on a range of different topics, though you'll be more likely to find regularly published data there than private market research. Another good site is the University of Michigan's Statistical Resources on the Web. Two excellent sites for checking general health information are Harvard University-affiliated InteliHealth and MayoClinic.com. RxList and the National Library of Medicine's Medline Plus Drug Information both provide information about brand name and generic pharmaceutical drugs. A number of sites compile links of reference materials. The best overall is the University of Michigan's Internet Public Library. There you'll find links to almanacs, calendars, dictionaries, style and writing guides, quotations, biographies, encyclopedias, atlases, books, magazines, and newspapers, among other materials. Another good general reference site is Researchville. It conveniently lets you do "meta searching" of multiple sources at once with just a single query, though it doesn't combine results on a single page. You can search multiple almanacs, encyclopedias, dictionaries, newspapers, newswires, magazines, health sources, education sources, government sources, and discussion forums. Finally, you might think that UselessKnowledge.com is fairly useless. But this whimsically named site is a great trivia resource, letting you search for arcane information by keyword. Reid Goldsborough is a syndicated columnist and author of the book Straight Talk About the Information Superhighway. He can be reached at [email protected] or www.netaxs.com/~reidgold/column.

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