Barely a year ago, the World Wide Web was an obscure corner of cyberspace, little known even to many denizens of the Internet. But easier access, including links from Prodigy, CompuServe, and America Online, has brought millions of explorers to the Web. The quality of what they find is getting better.
True, I still find the Web awash in self-indulgent junk, such as the picture of a commons-room coffeepot at Cambridge University. But amid the clutter lurks a great deal of useful, interesting, and entertaining material. Although the Web has always been diverting, it is gradually becoming a tool I--and my less technically inclined colleagues--use regularly at work. While my needs and interests are probably different from yours, a tour of my favorite Web sites may give you some idea of what's out there.
More often than not, I have only a foggy notion of where to find something when I set forth on the Web, so my first stop is usually a site that helps me locate other resources. Carnegie Mellon University's Lycos search index (table) allows me to scan millions of Web documents for key words.
SERVER LINKS. While Lycos points you to specific documents, the Yahoo search tool guides you instead to sites that that specialize in the subject you're interested in. Yahoo offers an opening menu of 18 general categories that are repeatedly subdivided until, with luck, you reach the individual Web server you are seeking. Neither Lycos nor Yahoo offers any cool graphics, movies, or audio clips--just tons of useful information.
One feature of a first-rate Web site is helpful links to other servers. And two of the best starting points are run by the Small Business Administration and the Library of Congress. SBA Online offers a lot of information on federal programs to assist small business. But its real glory is a long, well-organized list of links to other, mostly government-run, servers of value to business, from the Securities & Exchange Commission's EDGAR database of corporate filings to the Central Intelligence Agency's handy World Factbook.
The Library of Congress offers a mixture of information and entertainment. Its main attractions are the Library's massive catalog, a database tracking the status of legislation in Congress, and the full text of the daily Congressional Record. But it also provides digitized tours of present and past Library of Congress exhibits, including the newly rediscovered Walt Whitman notebooks and Renaissance treasures of the Vatican Library.
If your business is considering putting up its own pages on the Web, you might want to look at some companies that use the technology particularly well. General Electric Plastics offers its customers thousands of pages of specifications and technical information--data that once had to be mailed or faxed. And Novell Inc. provides a wealth of information on its products, including complete online documentation for its NetWare networking software.
All work and no play would make me a dull columnist, so I surf the Web for fun, too. I've always been interested in meteorology and find newspaper and television weather maps frustratingly uninformative. The Web allows me to get the latest satellite pictures from around the globe and provides a marvelously detailed current-conditions map of North America. Of the many sites offering meteorological data, my favorite is the Michigan State University weather server.
MATH, TOO. I realized early in my studies that I'd never make it as a mathematician, but I've retained a deep interest in the subject. Mathpro Press, a publisher of specialized math books, offers a Web site that's filled with problems, puzzles, and other games. There's also a catalog and such serious math stuff as journal articles.
Admittedly, a math server, even a lighthearted one, isn't everyone's cup of tea. More popular entertainment can be found at the Web site run by ESPN, the cable-TV sports network. The server offers sports news, box scores, schedules, chatter with other fans, and the opportunity to ask questions of sports celebrities.
Last but hardly least on my list of favorites is the hero of downtrodden office workers everywhere-- Dilbert. Scott Adams' comic strip doesn't show up on the United Features Web archive until a week after it's been in the newspaper, but that's of little concern to fans in Dilbert-deprived cities such as Washington.
As you explore the Web, you'll find that, out there among the amateur fiction selections and the students checking in to see when Coke machines are empty, you'll also be able to find pearls of real value. Let me know your favorites.
My Favorite Web Sites
-- Library of Congress From the Congressional Record to Walt Whitman's long-lost notebooks. http://www.loc.gov
-- Yahoo A topical index of the Web. http://www.yahoo.com
-- Lycos A keyword index. http://lycos.cs.cmu.edu/
COMMERCE AND COMMUNICATIONS
-- Small Business Administration Government programs for small businesses, with links to other useful sites. http://www.sba.sbaonline.gov/
-- General Electric An example of how to distribute technical product info. http://www.ge.com/gep
-- Novell A model of online tech support. http://www.novell.com/
-- Weather Nationwide forecasts, plus gorgeous satellite images and weather maps. http://wxweb.msu.edu/weather/
-- Mathpro Try the "Unsolved Problem of the Week." http://www.mathpro.com/math/
-- Dilbert For fans of the hero of downtrodden office workers. http://www.unitedmedia.com/comics/dilbert/
-- Sportzone ESPN statistics and news. http://espnet.sportzone.com/