HALIFAX, NOVA SCOTIA — As we know, the Web is an almost limitless source of news, history, science, literature, and other useful information of all kinds - a place where we can learn, work, and communicate in a manner consistent with the best intentions of the Internet's visionaries. As we know, the Web is also a place where surfers can deliberately squander relatively small or staggeringly large blocks of time, pursuing absolutely pointless goals for entirely impractical reasons - and the latter is the focus of this week's installment. If you've been feeling a need for some thoroughly unproductive activities, we have a few helpful suggestions, such as building one's own little corner of the world, or playing golf with a vacuum cleaner. (This public service is provided because we don't want you to have to waste any of your valuable time looking for a place to waste your valuable time.)
After choosing from three city templates (modern, medieval, or snowbound), visitors are presented with a 'blank slate' of freshly expropriated screen space, and invited to use the innovative construction method of drag-and-drop to assemble their metropolises. (Or is that metropoli?) The 'dragging' part of the operation is facilitated by tabbed access to such elements as buildings, people, vehicles and roads, as well as a series of click-and-load backgrounds. And if your architectural impulses lean toward the nonconformist, you can actually overflow your construction outside the frame provided, and introduce a virtual form of urban sprawl to your browser.
When you're done, you can save your work for future generations or even e-mail a copy of your city to friends and family who think you haven't accomplished anything with your life. (Registration required for that last option.)
If you'd rather make your mark in virtual history through a more visual medium, the Historic Tale Construction Kit allows surfers to tell their true-life story (or any life story they think they can get away with) by creatively rearranging elements of the Bayeux Tapestry. Originally a record of the Battle of Hastings, between King Harold of England and William the Conqueror (you can guess from the names who won), the 231-foot-long embroidery has been electronically reduced to its rudimentary parts and posted as a blank canvas for 21st-century reinterpretations.
Operation of the site is much like City Creator, with a tabbed palette of elements (this time including such options as Folk, Beasts, and such miscellany as Halley's Comet) which can be dragged to any location on the screen. Unlike City Creator, the Historic Tale Kit uses Flash for its interactivity - which provides more flexibility and allows icons to be flipped, layered, or resized to suit the artist's needs. Movable, scalable, and colored text is also available, so you can add captioning to avoid potential misinterpretations of your masterpiece. (There's just no telling what later historians will make of your artwork.)
The Historic Tale Kit can also accommodate multiple scenes in a single project, so you can, to use the webmasters' analogy, create your own medieval "comic strip" and tell some fairly complex tales. (Longstanding family feuds, memories of years of corporate serfdom, or even right- and left-wing interpretations of various political debates are just a few of the possibilities.) Finished projects can theoretically be e-carded to friends or submitted to an onsite gallery, though these features seemed problematic during my visits - so you might also want to preserve any works of high sentimental value through screen captures.
This week's last stop shifts from creative expression to creative thinking, and presents an attraction for puzzle-solvers, provided by a...vacuum cleaner company. Dyson is an appliance manufacturer in Britain that decided to take an unusual approach to promoting its "Telescope" compact cleaner online. The resulting Telescope Game is an interactive animated amusement in which the user expands and contracts a combination of telescoping vacuum cleaner arms to maneuver a ball around a grid and into a hole - think of it as golf for the exceptionally tidy.
The first few introductory levels may have you thinking that this is a game for preschool children, but they're serving more to familiarize you with the tools than to test your skills. Before long, the challenges become difficult enough that you'll be preceding each attempt with a serious planning session, and cursing the "Move Counter" as it compares your efforts with "Par." There are six sets of online skill levels (including a "Christmas" set, where you're disposing of a wayward tree ornament, and a "Block" set, where a moveable obstruction is added to the equation), and if you'd rather not tie up the phone line while playing over a dial-up connection, sets can be downloaded for playing offline.
So is reembroidering history or vacuuming as a sport the best use of your time online? Probably not. But not all our reading is educational, and not all our television watching is PBS. If you're looking to add a few R&R options to your bookmarks, these three will have you off to a nice start.
Now if you'll excuse me, I have to go try to outsmart a vacuum cleaner.