The Picks: Sperling's Best Places Columbia World of Quotations Brainwave. (Peter's Picks & Pans)

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The picks include the spiffy Sperling's Best Places site that offers highly customizable ranking of cities based on the users' preferences, and Columbia World of Quotations, the largest quotations dictionary, made available free of charge by Bartleby.com. The pan is the Brainwave site that offers database access with limited software capabilities, erroneous help information and only partial results, often for a price that is definitely not a good deal for the customer.

SPERLING'S BEST PLACES

Sperling's Best Places (www.bestplaces.net) is a sterling site with the best content and software in this genre. Rating cities by certain measurable criteria has been a specialty area of demographics--and several magazines, such as Forbes and Money--for more than a decade. The success of Places Rated Almanac, Frommer's Retirement Places Rated, and many copycats, encouraged other magazine publishers to run at least one story about the best places to live with your cats, the best places for online searching, or the best places for left-handed accountants. Lists of city rankings certainly became devalued. Sperling's Best Places site gives them a good name again.

Bert Sperling is certainly not a neophyte who just jumped on the city ranking bandwagon. He wrote his first software for ranking cities by user-weighted criteria 15 years ago. Happily, this software is now available free of charge on the Web for anyone. Relocation is far more a part of life in the U.S. than anywhere else in the world, so this is a very useful resource for a large number of potential users. Money magazine licenses the data, but uses a slightly different software and set of criteria.

The Best Places site includes very detailed tabular data about climate, crime, and cost of living for 3,000 U.S. cities and lets you compare them with information presented side-by-side for easy comparison. I picked the most powerful component of the site, the Find Your Best Place database. If I were the site designer, I certainly would boldface the word Your because that is the best feature of the database, allowing the most flexible customization of criteria.

There are two search modes, a quick and a full version. The former has about 15 criteria; the latter has 70 that users can weigh to reflect how important these are for them. These are grouped under nine major categories: Climate, Economy, Housing, Education, Health, Crime, Recreation, Arts & Culture, and Transportation.

The number of criteria ranges from two to more than a dozen. For example, Crime has only two criteria: Violent Crime and Property Crime, and you can assign a weight on a scale from 1 to 10 to indicate how important low crime rate is for you or, in the unlikely situation, tell the software to ignore these criteria. Recreation has ten criteria, but you may choose one of the predefined user types: Single, Active Couple, With Kids, Empty Nest, and Retired. These have the weights assigned to each criteria based on the typical preferences, or you can start with a clean slate. After the first round, you can easily refine your criteria, rethinking perhaps how important the number of dance companies really are to you.

From the result list, click on a city to see its detailed profile. The national average is automatically listed parallel to your city's data. You cannot compare two cities in this module, but there is a separate new module for city comparisons where you can compare two cities' parameters, although they are not exactly the same, as in the Find Your Best Place database. No wonder that an increasing number of Web sites license Sperling's database--it certainly will increase their traffic.

COLUMBIA WORLD OF QUOTATIONS

Quotation collections are perennially popular reference sources. No wonder most Web directories bave a long list of quotations sites--good and bad alike. Once again, Bartleby. com made a welcome move, without much press coverage, by mounting a top-notch ready-reference source-- Columbia World of Quotations (www. …