Whatever your interests, somewhere on the Web there's a site -- maybe several -- that will lead you to a treasure trove of information about your pet obsession. Here are some of my favorites.
Patents and Trademarks
Ever wonder if there was any truth to the ancient rumor that tobacco companies had trademarked names like "Panama Red" against the day when marijuana would be legalized? You can get a definitive answer from the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office's Trademark Electronic Search Service. (It turns out that a number of live and dead trademark claims exist for Panama Red, but the only one involving smoking is a 20-year-old abandoned application filed by someone named Michael Katz of Perth Amboy, N.J.)
How do TV commentators know that baseball star Barry Bonds' batting performance in the first two weeks of May was the worst ever by a player who had hit over .400 in April? The Web offers an embarrassment of riches in sports statistics, and the American Statistical Assn., which normally concerns itself with weightier matters, offers a portal with links to a couple dozen statistical sites covering sports major and minor.
Math and Science
Given the Web's techie origins, it's no surprise that technical fields have particularly rich resources. Wolfram Research, publisher of Mathematica software, provides Mathworld, a comprehensive encyclopedic dictionary of mathematical terms, from Abelian group to z-number. More recently, Wolfram has added Scienceworld, but this is a work in progress and much less complete than its math counterpart.
The cost of scientific journals generally limits their availability to university libraries or expensive online subscription services such as the American Mathematical Society's MathSciNet. But a large number of scientific articles -- some published, some not -- are available from ArXiv, a service operated by Cornell University with funding from the National Science Foundation.
One of the oddest sites around is the On-Line Encyclopedia of Integer Sequences, the brainchild of AT&T Fellow Neil A.J. Sloane. Type in 1,3,6,10,15,21 and you'll learn that those are the first six terms of sequence A000217, the triangular numbers (think of the arrangement of bowling pins.) The indexing of thousands of such sequences may seem like the ultimate in mathematical trivia, but researchers in discrete mathematics often encounter such strings of numbers, and Sloane's database can save them countless hours in identifying what they have.
You remember that painting of the naked Venus emerging from a clamshell. But what's the title, who painted it, and where can it be found? Enter the keyword "Venus" in the search box at Artcyclopedia , and the first hit you get is for Sando Botticelli's The Birth of Venus at Florence's Uffizi Museum. You can search by title, artist, or museum. Most of the world's major museums and many lesser ones are covered, but you'll miss works such as Leonardo da Vinci's The Last Supper and Michelangelo's Moses that are found outside of art museums.
This is a category to approach with extreme care, if at all. The Web is loaded with search sites that purport to supply the (often unintelligible) lyrics to popular songs. Most of these sites aren't too scrupulous about copyrights, and lyrics are protected just as much as the songs themselves. As a result, lyric sites tend to pop up and disappear like rock 'n' roll's one-hit wonders.
A bigger problem is that many of these sites try very hard to download toolbars and other dubious software to your computer, and you can get hit even if you're careful. I spent an hour or so getting rid of one of these toolbars that tried to load itself every time I logged in, and without knowledge of some arcane Windows tricks, I'd be stuck with it still. (Sites associated with artists are generally O.K., but often don't provide lyrics.) So maybe you'll never figure out the words to Smells Like Teen Spirit, but you're better off without them.
By Stephen H. Wildstrom in Washington, D.C.