Despite flashier commercial finalists, last week's Yell Awards chose as Site of the Year this personal account of avian comings and goings in a Wilmslow back garden (above). Confined to his home due to illness, Phil Barratt has recorded the changing ecology of his suburban plot for several years now, creating an ornithological site with admirers around the world. Opening with birdsong and painterly shots of his lawn, the site logs the passage of meadow pipits, spotted flycatchers, bullfinches and even a great spotted woodpecker, with tips on protecting a birdtable from squirrels to taming a robin using sausage meat. Phil is undeniably a birdwatcher, but no trainspotter: there's much humour as he worries about whether his descriptions are species-ist or even plumage-ist, and an "eccentric homepage" proves that he can view the natural world with a webmeister's eye: "A goldfinch is just a brilliant design - whoever's responsible deserves an award!"
A recent study in the science weekly, Nature, suggests search engines are rapidly getting less and less useful, accessing only a small percentage of the 800 million or so searchable pages, returning a tiny proportion of potential hits. Strategies for keeping up include new software and server combinations such as Fastsearch (http://www.alltheweb.com/). Others, like the newly launched Yureka, take the metasearch approach, riding piggyback on a half a dozen or so other services and consolidating results. This site hopefully redesignates itself a "find engine", and removing duplicate entries from the final list: it also offers a plain-English, sentence template for queries.
Perhaps the most creative way to search the Web, this employs other people to look things up for you. "Tony" himself coyly refuses to say if he really exists, except in the animated version winking from screen. But human volunteers, "experienced web users", are sought to spare an hour or two a week answering questions from those who are baffled by the search engines, or just too lazy to use them directly. "Tony" claims to have given personal responses to 500 queries in his first few days of operation, including such puzzlers as "which came first, the chicken or the egg?"
Human memory is the subject, but a sheep's brain is on the table. Once a valuable human specimen has peeped briefly from its formaldehyde, it's Damien Hirst time for actual descent into hippocampus, cerebellum and basal ganglia. Video clips are brief but incisive. More fun than those two-a-penny online frog dissections, this site originated in a San Francisco Exploratorium exhibit earlier this year. Less clinical sections include a fascinating compare-and-contrast between an artist's re-creation of his childhood haunts and the reality; some memory games and doodles; and sobering evidence that memory may be more retrospective than we think: "Who you are is shaped by your memories, but [they] are shaped by who you are."
The Artwalker Project
It sounds innovative: a walk-through fine art rendition of the world, and even beyond. "By the year 2006AD, [most] scenic locations on or near planet Earth can be experienced through the work of artists." No VR breakthroughs or immersive artworks here, alas, just rather average paintings. So far 10 countries are included, with the UK represented by Harrods, Walthamstow etc. The chance of a stroll among tasteful watercolours of Stanford university may be a minor thrill.
McDonald's Trip Planner
For Europeans still in love with the American open road, some of the directions here are evocative. "Continue on Interstate 80 and go West for 2,879.6 miles". But this site punctures the romance, by punctuating the trip with hamburger joints. Travellers who enter starting point and destination will receive, along with route and mileage details, a list of every McDonalds en route. The list of Big Macs takes a while to download for longer expeditions, of course.
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