Here is a resource that should be in everyone's bookmark list. You specify an acronym, and a program looks it up in the master list and tells you what the acronym means. You can also search the list of meanings for a particular word or expression. If you have a friend who thinks he knows everything, ask him what MMOSPRED means.
In the Woody Allen movie Radio Days, there's a scene where a father, mother and son are visiting the zoo, and they run into a young boy who is a celebrity because he appears on a radio show. The show is called The Whiz Kids, and the young boy is a child prodigy who answers difficult questions on the air. (Woody Allen modeled this after a real-life radio show called The Quiz Kids, which was popular when Allen was young.) When the father (played by Michael Tucker) meets the boy, he says, "Quick, what's 1,754 divided into 13 million?" Well, of course the boy doesn't answer, but if he had a Web browser he could have found the answer in a flash by using an online calculator. Aside from the highly technical calculators you might expect -- mathematics, science, engineering and computer stuff -- there are all kinds of special-purpose resources. You can calculate retirement benefits, taxes, calendars, wedding costs, cooking measures, child support payments, sailboat performance, and much more. By the way, here's an easy way to look très cool. Rent the Radio Days movie with a bunch of friends. When you get to the part where Michael Tucker says, "Quick, what's 1,754 divided into 13 million?" casually give the answer (7411.630558722919). It won't be long before your friends are showing you the respect you deserve.
It's handy to have a calendar around just to make sure you are doing the right thing on the right day. For example, how would you feel if you completely missed the St. Swithin's day celebration because you had gotten it mixed up with Martha Stewart's birthday? Here are some resources to make sure you never get your dates mixed up again.
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Center of Statistical Resources
I have found another important but little-known use for the Net. As you are playing a trivia game, make an excuse and sneak off to your computer, where you can use the Net to find lots of statistics that will help you beat your friends into submission. For example, wait until you get a question you can't answer, and then say, "Oh, just a second, I have to go the bathroom." While you are gone, you can quickly visit this Web site, where you will find a staggering compilation of statistics on many, many topics. When your friends express admiration at your extensive knowledge of trivial subjects, you can tell them that eliminating toxins from the body really helps to clear one's mind.
Quick. Pick a word, any word. Type it into a form, press a button and presto, before you can say "my onerous oneiric tendencies have been keeping me up all night," your very own definition will be waiting for you. These are resources I use a lot and every day, in every way, my vocabulary is getting better and better.
Here are words you will never see in a regular dictionary: various types of slang. For example, suppose you are in Quebec and someone says to you "Accouche qu'on baptise". Or let's say you are on the east coast of Scotland and a fellow comes up to you and asks if you are a Weedjie. Whatever are they talking about? Check with the Net and find out. Hint: If you find yourself working too hard, remind yourself (as they say in Holland) not to buffelen, or you may become besodemieterd zijn.
Dictionary of Cultural Literacy
In 1987, an English professor named Eric Donald (E.D.) Hirsch, Jr. (1928-) published a book called "Cultural Literacy". I remember reading the book at the time and being impressed and stimulated by Hirsch's ideas.
"Cultural Literacy" was a manifesto regarding what Americans should teach their children. Hirsch began by suggesting that "our aim should be to attain universal literacy at a very high level". However, he explained, being literate requires more than reading, writing and speaking skills. To be truly literate, one must understand a large number of specific facts and ideas.
Why is this? In any culture, people share a large, common body of knowledge. That, in large part, is what makes them part of the culture. For example, literate Americans know the significance of Abraham Lincoln, World War II, the Old and New Testaments, the FDA (Food and Drug Administration), quasars, DNA, type A personality, Chapter 11 bankruptcy, abstract art, and on and on, literally thousands of different facts and ideas.
In his book, Hirsch discussed the theory and practice of education as it applied to literacy. However, he did not actually list all the facts he felt literate Americans should know. That would be an entire book in itself.
In fact, it did become an entire book in itself. In 1988, Hirsch collaborated with two other professors, Joseph Kett (an historian) and James Trefil (a physicist), to publish "The Dictionary of Cultural Literacy", a list of thousands of facts and ideas, along with a short explanation of each one.
"The Dictionary of Cultural Literacy" is one of the best reference books ever written. Whether or not you are American, this is a wonderful book to use, browse and explore. It contains thousands of short entries, each of which explains the minimum you need to know about a particular idea. The writing is clear, authoritative and friendly.
So, do you wonder what you should know about Abraham Lincoln? Or World War II, the Old and New Testaments, the FDA, quasars, DNA, type A personality, Chapter 11 bankruptcy, and abstract art? This book will tell you, and it's available online for free.
Take a moment to check it out, and I bet you'll like what you find. My guess is that, after you explore the book online, you'll want a copy of it for your own personal library.
In the future, you won't have to haul yourself down to the library and deal with a lot of heavy books just to check something in an encyclopedia. You'll be able to look up anything you want right on the Internet. Well, the future has already arrived. (Was that fast or what?) From now on, you and the Net are partners in knowledge.
The Farmer's Almanac is a venerable American publication that has been produced annually since 1792. The Almanac is a treasure of useful information for day-to-day living. This Web site contains some of that information. In particular, you can find information and predictions about the weather, gardening, the sunrise and sunset, the phases of the moon, and astronomical events such as eclipses. There are various other features that are changed regularly so this is always a good place to visit when you have a few spare moments.
Geographic Place Reference
What do you do when you are reading something and you see a reference to a place you have never heard of? Use this tool and you'll be able to identify that place and find out basic information. If you are curious, pick any name and see what places have that name. For example, I found out that there are three towns named "Harley" in the United States (in North Dakota, Ohio and West Virginia), and four towns named "Hahn" (in Idaho, Missouri, New Mexico and Texas). I also found out that Harley is the 526th most popular male first name in the country, and Hahn is the 925th most popular last name.
Grammar and English Usage
When someone is reading your work, there are various demands you can make. You can ask your reader to recreate various thoughts, feelings and emotions within his or her own mind. You can expect your reader to pay attention to new words (if you explain them properly) and to follow a chain of ideas, from one point to the next. What you can't expect is for anyone to exert mental effort figuring out what you are trying to say because you didn't use the generally accepted writing conventions. Imagination is great, but not when it comes to grammar, punctuation or word usage.
Maps for Driving
Imagine you're living in the future. You have to go visit a place you've never been before, so before you leave, you type the address into your computer, which connects to another computer and presents you with a map of the area, as well as detailed driving instructions from where you are right now to your destination. Well, the future arrived yesterday.
Measures, Units and Conversions
There are two basic systems of measurement used in the world, the imperial system for the United States and the metric system for everyone else. Within each system there are a large number of different units. If you ever need help with converting one type of unit to another, the Net is ready to oblige. I used it just the other day, actually. I was figuring out how fast I could go on my bicycle and I had to convert from kilometers per hour to furlongs per fortnight.
Find that person -- now! Here are electronic phone books that cover the United States and Canada, plus many other countries around the world. Here's a hint on how to be very popular. Look up all your old friends -- wherever they are in the world -- and call them right now. Tell them Harley says hello.
Population Statistics and Demographics
Population refers to the number of people living in a particular area. Demographics refers to the characteristics of those people in the aggregate. For example, the population of the United States is 277,000,000; the population of Canada is 23,000,000. As an example of demographic data, I can tell you that the average age of women at the time of their first marriage is 25 years in the United States and 26 years in Canada. (Having lived in both countries, this makes sense to me. If you are thinking of marrying a Canadian, it's a good idea to take some extra time to make up your mind.)
Postal Codes and Mail
No matter where you need to send mail, the Net can help. Here are some resources to help you find postal codes from many different countries. If you need more information, you will find links to post offices around the world. For U.S. and Canadian mail, I have included special resources, including a handy U.S. postal rate calculator that I use all the time. Postal trivia: In the United States, postal codes are called "ZIP codes". The name stands for "Zone Improvement Plan".
Have you ever tried to dig through public records looking for a particular piece of information? For example, let's say you are interested in researching the details of a bypass that the town is planning to build through the middle of your house. You go to the local planning office but, after a long search, you still can't find what you want. What you didn't know is that the plans were on public display. All you had to do was look in the bottom of a locked filing cabinet stuck in a disused lavatory with a sign on the door saying "Beware of the Leopard". Fortunately, times have changed. Now you can find a huge amount of public information on the Net. Take a moment and browse. I promise you will be astonished.
I have a friend, Mary Axford, who's a wonderful reference librarian. It used to be that whenever I had a question that needed special reference material, I would call Mary. She has all the reference books you can imagine: dictionaries, thesauri, phone books, atlases, encyclopedias, statistics references, and so on. I could call Mary at any time to ask her, say, "What is the capital of Madagascar?" or "What is the most common female name in America?" Now all of that information -- and a lot more -- is on the Net, available for free, twenty-four hours a day. My life as a writer is certainly easier. The only thing is I don't get to talk to Mary as often as I used to. (By the way, the capital of Madagascar is Antananarivo, and the most common female name in America is Mary.)
In 1852, Peter Mark Roget published the first edition of his Thesaurus of English Words and Phrases, on which he had been working for 50 years. Throughout successive editions -- which were supervised by Roget, his son, and later his grandson -- what we now call a thesaurus has become a standard reference work of the English language. The purpose of a thesaurus is simply stated: you use it when you know the meaning of a word but do not know the word. Roget arranged all the words in the English language and their idiomatic combinations, not in alphabetical order as in a dictionary, but according to the ideas they express. If you care at all about writing, please take some time to become familiar with this classic reference and how to use it. Treating a thesaurus as if it were nothing more than a dictionary of synonyms is like using a collection of Mozart CDs as a paperweight.
You wake up in the middle of the night and look at the clock -- it is 2:18 AM. You close your eyes and try to go back to sleep, but all of a sudden a thought comes into your head: what time is it in Bangkok? And you know -- you just know -- that there is no way you will get to sleep until you find out the answer to your question. Here is all the information you need to find out what time it is now anywhere in the world, as well as learning about time zones and the details of our world time system. It's not really all that hard once you realize that time is merely a means for keeping everything from happening all at once.
Tracking a Package
If you ever send packages or letters overnight, here are some resources you will use again and again. When you send the package, be sure to keep the receipt with the tracking number. You can then use the Net to track your package every step of the way. I have included the appropriate Web sites for Airborne Express, DHL, FedEx, RPS, UPS and the U.S. Postal Service. Hint: When you send an especially important package, email the tracking number to the recipient, along with the Web address of the site at which he or she can check for the package. This will make you look so cool, people will just naturally want to pay you lots and lots of money for no reason at all.
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