New tools on the Web
Nothing ever stands still, and this is a thousand times truer for information technology than for any other field. And what epitomizes information technology more than the Internet? As soon as you discover a useful website or tool on the Web, it changes, moves or disappears altogether. However, some tools are more persistent than others. Here are a few new tools that you might get some use from before they disappear.
The biggest mover and innovator on the Web currently is Google. Originally just a search engine, it has become far more — a quick look at its ‘More’ page shows a total of 25 services and tools. Many of these are free — just remember tanstaafl (there ain’t no such thing as a free lunch): somehow somebody pays. One example is the ads that appear whenever you do a search on Google — they are from companies that pay Google to place them on a results page when the user looks for something relevant to their product.
One of the most amazing tools is Google Earth, a truly impressive depiction of the globe as seen from space. It allows you to view (almost) any area in the world from any height ranging from orbit down to a few hundred metres, allowing you to pick out cars. In popular areas, the view is clear even below 100 m, allowing you to pick out people. Besides the ‘wow’ factor, what can this be used for? I viewed a mine at which I was going to be working to see the layout of buildings and effluent ponds, affording me a better concept of its positioning. Some limitations are that the information is old (up to three years), and many remote areas are not very detailed. The view of Yellowknife, NT, is quite blurry from less than 10 km altitude.
Translation tools are available from several sites, though my favourite is, again, Google’s. Some of the information that I find on the Web is in another language. Google will offer to translate this for you automatically, if you do your search with Google, using a link labelled “Translate this page” after the main link. Also, you can cut and paste text into their language translator. A weakness is the translation of technical terms — for French I recommend “le grand dictionnaire terminologique”, a website from the government of Quebec (www.granddictionnaire.com).
One more Google tool. ‘Alerts’ are a tool that will continuously search for news articles or web postings on a particular topic. It is an automated web search that sends a summary of the results to your e-mail address according to keywords you specify. So if you wish to keep track of news on customers, suppliers, markets or any other topic that might appear in the news or on the web, it is easy to set up an alert.
Another useful tool is online file storage. A presentation with several detailed photos, graphs and diagrams can easily ‘blossom’ into 10, 20 or even 30 Mb — too large to e-mail, and too slow to burn a CD and send via conventional mail. However, if you post it to your online storage and allow the recipient temporary access, the only delay is the length of time required for you to upload and him to download — an easy work-around for the 5-Mb limit on most e-mail accounts. Of course, the same is true in reverse, allowing you to receive oversize files. These storage accounts are available free in small sizes — generally up to about 50 Mb. For larger needs, accounts in the tens of gigabytes are available, for a fee.
There are dictionaries (Dictionary.com, Merriam-Webster Online), encyclopaedias (Wikipedia for free, several others on a subscription basis), atlases (Natural Resources Canada’s site is amazing), converters, clip art and references for any conceivable use. I am a great supporter of libraries for their reference resources, but I have to admit that I have become almost a non-user of any paper reference. The Web is becoming my one stop for all reference materials, with even the major reference works available online.
Freelance writer Dan Davies can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.