Not 'Just In.' but Just Interesting. ; Three Websites Offer the Entertaining Distraction That Comes from True, Though Not Necessarily Relevant, Accounts of Man, Nature, and History

Article excerpt

Just about every newspaper and broadcast news organization understands the value of placing the occasional 'soft' or human interest story into a line-up of more serious and more timely reports. Granted, it's important to be aware of significant local and global events, but there are times when we need a break from the real news, and would rather hear about a 'human camera' currently residing in England, of giant aircraft carriers made of ice and the "Troubled history of beards," or perhaps even the US military's secret 1934 plans to invade Canada. (Just an academic exercise ... they say.) There are also times when all we want is the entertaining distraction that comes from these true, though not necessarily relevant, accounts of man, nature, and history - and it just so happens that this space is featuring three such sites this week. These stories may not make the cover of Time, but there's a definite entertainment value in the story of "The great sheep escape."

Of the three sites, Damn Interesting is the cleanest and most aesthetically pleasing production. (It's also the one that most clearly sums up the site's purpose with its title.) With a simple black text on white background layout, introductions to recent stories are gathered on the site's home page, with a paragraph or two of lead-in and a single large-ish image per story to break up the text. Links take surfers to new pages for the complete essays, which are complemented by additional illustrations, website suggestions for those interested in more detailed enlightenment, and comments left by previous visitors. (The latter feature is sometimes of debatable educational value, but it occasionally compensates as a source of amusement.)

In a nice touch for surfers that have JavaScript enabled on their browsers - when you click on a story after having read its introduction on the home page, the story page automatically opens at the first line of new content after the introduction. Thanks to this simple bit of functionality, you don't have to skim a second time through the first few paragraphs of the piece when the new page opens. (Another nice touch is that, unlike so many sites today that simply assume that surfers are leaving their JavaScript permanently turned on, Damn Interesting actually checks your browser and posts a small advisory about the advantages of enabling the feature if you've got it switched off.)

Older stories (dating back to the site's launch in September of 2005) can be accessed through a choice of Sections, which include such standard categories as "History" and "Space exploration," as well as "Your Tax Dollars at Work," "Random Story," and "Greatest Hits" options. Entries can also be browsed by month or uncovered through a keyword search.

And that's all there is to the site - except of course for the content, and this is what makes all these sites worth visiting. A sampling of Damn Interesting's recent articles include a look at the validity (or lack thereof) of handwriting analysis, the consideration given during World War II to developing piloted battering rams for use against enemy bombers, and current efforts to devise a permanent and 'timeless' way to warn humans, a thousand years from now, of the presence of nuclear waste sites. Slightly older entries look at "Operation Mincemeat" (a British plan to keep the Germans confused about the D-Day landings), "The reporter who out-spied a spy," and airbags for motorcycles - or more accurately, their riders.

Newer to the scene, the Proceedings of the Athanasius Kircher Society is a project named after a 17th century Jesuit scholar whose publications and interests spanned such a wide variety of subjects that he has been compared to Leonardo da Vinci and referred to as "the last renaissance man. …