Sometimes less is more

It's an unfortunate fact that the very features that make many exceptional websites worth viewing contribute to the viewer's impatience, as he or she waits for large files to trickle their way down the Internet pipeline. This week's review will introduce a pair of sites that are a bit friendlier to dial-up modems – one providing amusement and the other enlightenment – and will close with a special case that proves that some material is worth almost any wait.

First is a site that sets the standard in low-bandwidth interactivity. 5k is an annual contest where designers are invited to create websites or web applications using HTML, JavaScript, Flash, or whatever they want – as long as the complete project weighs in at less than five kilobytes. (Which means that you could fit more than 250 of these experiments on a single floppy disk.) Leading by example, even the host site is minimalist in appearance, using only two colors (black and white) in its design, leaving it looking a bit like a late-'80s Macintosh interface.

Now in its third year, 5k attracted 366 entries for the 2002 competition, and some of the results are genuinely impressive. The collection of winners includes an experiment in single-cell reproduction (as well as a multi-cell flagellate simulation), a kaleidoscope, and a rather unique version of Pong.

The grand-prize winner was a simple but attractive browser "toy," activated by dragging one's pointer across the screen. My favorite was Night Waltz, an app that allows the surfer to "dance" with trees. Each entry is given its own page, with scoring statistics, an introduction from the author, and an area for public discussion of the merits or shortcomings of the design. Links to the 2000 and 2001 competitions are available at the top of each page.

Unless you're a designer, you're not likely to spend a great deal of time here, and there's a good chance that not all the entries will work on your computer (even the website's own links to the previous years' competitions had a way of randomly changing from buttons to nearly invisible lines as I toured the site), but it is interesting to see that so much can be done with so little. And it's always satisfying to be able to spend more time viewing a page than waiting for that page to appear.

Next, is the The Memory Hole, a site dedicated to "rescuing knowledge and freeing information." The Memory Hole makes an interesting complement to the better-known The Smoking Gun, but while The Smoking Gun favors uncovering sources of amusement (certain stars' unusual contract riders) and personal transgressions (an America West pilot's bar tab), The Memory Hole deals with documents that governments and corporations would rather that you didn't see.

Launched in July, The Memory Hole is another basic black-and-white site (with just a touch of red), so it's as easy to view as 5k. Examples include:

- A less than encouraging report of a GAO test of security measures at federal office buildings in Atlanta, Georgia. "...They were able to move freely and extensively throughout these facilities during both day and evening hours and were not challenged by anyone..."

- An article which was posted, and then removed, from the NewsMax website, in which a CIA official calls for "Sending SWAT Teams into Journalists' Homes," to combat leaks of classified documents

- A map of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (deleted from the USGS site) that depicted caribou calving grounds in areas that the administration wanted to open to oil exploration

In each case, the material is described in brief, with links to relevant websites and related information. In addition to the Memory Hole's own collection, the site also provides offsite links to similar coverage in the commercial media, such as an Atlantic Monthly piece about the long history of attempts to destroy embarrassing information – linked to Enron's recent paper shredding spree.

The Memory Hole demonstrates how powerful a tool the Web can be when it comes to the retrieval and dissemination of information (especially information that certain parties would prefer to suppress), and this final offering demonstrates the same principle, albeit in an entirely different context.

While I'm not aware that Leonard Nimoy is actively trying to inhibit the online display of his '60s music video The Ballad of Bilbo Baggins (which I stumbled across at MetaFilter), there's a good chance that he would rather it had vanished along with go-go boots and Nehru jackets. And yet, while the Web exists, so shall this unfortunate attempt to step out of Mr. Spock's shoes. The QuickTime movie won't load as quickly as 5k or Memory Hole, but if you need a laugh, this will definitely be a case of time invested rather than time spent.

Jim Regan is a writer and humorist who lives in Halifax, Nova Scotia. He has been the links producer for csmonitor.com since its launch in 1996.

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