The Candy Apple
Gadgets in the Toolbox
I have a friend with whom I cannot have a phone conversation without one of us needing to sit down at a computer and look up a word, a word origin, or a factoid about whatever we’re discussing. One e-mail exchange had him claiming to be an “ungenius polyunfatuated.” I spent twenty minutes trying to figure out what that was. Answer is at the end.
One evening we both started on the same Web page, and an hour later had each been through a dozen more pages in different directions. We began on a page about American Vice Presidents. I ended up reading about Messerschmitt engines while he was checking to see if The Stratosphere really is the tallest building west of the Mississippi River. We related what we found, and an hour later, had each learned a dozen more tidbits of information. We could not have had these kinds of conversations a few years ago, not at this level of detail, but there are tons of tools available now that make learning efficient and fun. Here are some of my favorites.
Google—Without a doubt this is the page I visit most often. Even on a word definition or etymology question, I often end up at Google. Google remembers how many visitors stay on which pages, and which pages get the most hits and incoming links. Then it adjusts the results of your search to reflect how useful various sites are. Genius. If you practice with phrasing a search you can make this tool even more effective—judicious use of quotes around words forces the engine to look for specific sequences, which will refine your results.
Merriam-Webster and dictionary.com—Need to know what a word means now? It’s here. My favorite part of looking up words, though, is finding out what they used to mean. It helps me get a handle on how they have evolved. Knowing what a word meant to its original users gives its current meaning more depth. One of my favorite conversations in which this came home was when my friend described the hoopla surrounding the Super Bowl. He finished his sentence and waited for my answer, but I was looking up “hoopla” and left him hanging. Go look it up. It’s fun. It’s French.
Babel Fish—As a translation device, it is far from perfect. It is free and sometimes helpful. It’s sometimes fun to see how a literal translation can make something awkward. Ask it to convert this phrase from English to French: Take it like a man. Then cut and paste the translated bit into the new window, and ask it to go from French back into English. I read somewhere this is how they came up with the delightfully stilted backward syntax for Yoda in the Star Wars films, by the way—they had one student translate the lines into Japanese, and then another from Japanese back into English.
The Fifty States—There’s a wealth of stuff here. Click on the state you want to learn about, and find out the state fossil and state beverage, if they have one. It has all sorts of other good stuff about state history and notable residents.
The Phobia List—OK, this one’s more for fun than actual research. I don’t want to make fun of anyone who suffers from these, but some of these phobias are really pretty funny. At least the names are funny. Who knew alektorophobia was a fear of chickens?
The Internet Movie Database—It’s not perfect because it’s a volunteer project which does include occasional errors, but mostly these tend to get corrected over time. If you’re watching TV and see an actor and can’t figure out where you’ve seen him before, this is the place. It also shows awards, goofs, and links to other reviews. It covers movies and TV shows both; there’s tons of info here.
World Atlas—This page has lots of fun stuff, lists of all sorts. Aswan, Egypt is the driest inhabited place; Buenaventira, Colombia, the wettest. Vatican City’s population is 770. The largest cool coastal desert is the Atacama. Maps. A link to Olympic host cities. Stuff like that.
Absolute Shakespeare—Plot summaries, characters, quotes, study guides, and lots more.
Guinness—Oh, just wander around for a while. You never know what’s in here.
Oh, and the “ungenius polyunfatuated”? Here was my guess at what it meant: “Merriam-Webster online isn’t equipped for you. I’ve got the ‘ungenius’ part, I think—it looks like you’re trying not to get a big head. But ‘polyunfatuated’ is proving difficult. INfatuated, I can find. POLY, I can find. FAT, I can find. A-ha! FATUOUS is silly or simple. So I’m betting that you are in many, many ways (poly) NOT silly or simple.
“So you are claiming to be appropriately complex. But humble about it. I like it. But I don’t think it will fit on a vanity license plate.”
He responded that he is a walking vanity plate and a bunch of other stuff including a perched loon. With which I could hardly argue. When pressed for the meaning of “ungenius polyunfatuated,” he said…
“I made it up. Don’t take everything so seriously.”
Which is a good thing to be reminded of now and then.
Also in This Series
- On Temptation · July 2010
- Beyond Pen Pals · July 2007
- Just Because We Can Do a Thing, Does Not Mean We Should Do a Thing · March 2006
- Google Tells Big Brother to Take a Hike · February 2006
- Wikipedia Is Not the Lovefest We Thought · January 2006
- Star Trek Gadgets Have Arrived · December 2005
- The Silver Screen Keeps Shrinking · October 2005
- It’s Just Business · July 2005
- Age Has Its Advantages · June 2005
- Complete Archive