Not everything on the Web is useful--and that is certainly part of its appeal. With an estimated 6 million sites, it's easy to stumble upon something interesting, quirky or just downright weird.
Thanks to some intriguing suggestions from readers, this week's column is a random walk through cyberspace:
* If you think your life is a disaster, check out the Disaster News Network at http://www.disasternews.net. This site covers natural calamities ranging from Hurricane Mitch in Honduras to floods in Texas. Visitors can also go to a map and click on a state to read news coverage of disasters there (we've got floods and mudslides in California). But not all of the news is disastrous. The site suggests useful ways for visitors to pitch in, including helping with cleanup efforts and sorting through donations of used clothing. There's also a map to guide people to volunteer opportunities in their areas.
* If your schedule--or budget--doesn't allow for an exotic vacation, take a quick trip to Geographia (http://www.geographia.com) instead. From Egypt's Sinai Peninsula to the Mulu Caves in Borneo, this site combines rich photography and locater maps with history, folklore and even audio files of international music. There are also historical features on a variety of topics such as Caribbean pirates and British naval heroes.
* If you are in fact heading to a foreign country, stop first at Foreign Languages for Travelers at http://www.travlang.com/languages/. Select your native language, then click on the language you'd like to learn. There are 65 choices, ranging from Spanish, German and Japanese to Arabic, Swahili and Bosnian. Vocabulary lessons are broken down into categories such as basic words, places and numbers. Sound files are available to help with pronunciation.
* Election season may be over, but that doesn't mean you can't still add your voice to the political debate. If Not Now (http://www.IfNotNow.com) tracks issues ranging from campaign finance reform to food safety to budget spending to protecting the environment. After reading up on a particular issue, you can send e-mail (either a form letter or an original message) to your representatives in Congress. Simply type in your ZIP Code, and If Not Now looks up your elected officials for you.
* What a Way to Go (http://www.geocities.com/Area51/Vault/3746/) is a collection of interesting deaths and close calls compiled from mainstream news reports. There's the one about a Toronto lawyer who tried to demonstrate the strength of his office window by lunging into it--and ended up plunging 24 stories to his death. There's the story about the Idaho man who was killed when a keg in his refrigerator exploded and struck him in the head. There's even an account of a death row murderer who, after having his sentence commuted to life in prison, electrocuted himself while watching television.
* Want to go back in time? Visit Ancient World Web at http://www.julen.net/aw/. This comprehensive site directory covers topics on all continents, from mythology to ancient law to warfare. One page contains a list of recipes from ancient Rome, such as pear souffle and seafood fricassee. Another interesting section explores nontraditional topics in ancient history, such as the fabled underwater kingdom Atlantis. Visitors can discuss what they read on the site's message board.
* The holidays are upon us, and it's time to start eating. For the latest news in healthy eating, visit the Food and Drug Administration's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition at http://vm.cfsan.fda.gov/list.html. In addition to the regular bureaucratic information, this site has updates on food recalls and research on the ability of certain foods to prevent disease. A consumer advice section answers questions about food-borne illnesses, dietary supplements, food labeling and women's health.
* If your tastes are more exotic, check out Iowa State University's Tasty Insect Recipes at http://www.ent.iastate.edu/misc/insectsasfood.html. How about a loaf of banana worm bread, with a quarter of a cup of dry-roasted army worms? Or a tasty dip with 1 cup dry-roasted root-worm beetles? Then there's chocolate chirpie chip cookies, with half a cup of dry-roasted crickets. The site has a handy table of the nutritional value of various insects. Not sure where to find these ingredients? The site offers help for that too.
Karen Kaplan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Site suggestions are welcome at email@example.com.