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.)
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." While the depth of the Proceedings' research may not match that of its namesake (or indeed, Damn Interesting), the breadth is still impressive - with articles on the current home page including such subjects as "Ferrofluid sculpture," "A short history of aquatic ambulism" (ie., walking on - and under - water), and "The highest parachutist." (In 1960, Joe Kittinger stepped out of a balloon at 31 kilometers altitude and then embarked on a 29 kilometer plummet before opening his main parachute. During that descent, he also broke - or approached, depending on who you ask - the speed of sound without the tedious requirement of an actual aircraft).
The Kircher Society's entries are brief, usually taking only a paragraph or two before moving on to another subject - but those few lines of text are liberally salted with links to more detailed information and dedicated websites. Meanwhile, the Society's brevity is balanced by the inclusion of more images and even the occasional video clip (including film from Kittinger's freefall). Older stories can be accessed through Archives (dating to February '06), or through a constantly changing collection of 'teasers' which are posed down the left side of every page.
Narrower in focus but much more extensive in coverage, Common-Place is dedicated to early American history and culture, and positions itself as being "A bit friendlier than a scholarly journal, a bit more scholarly than a popular magazine...." The practical upshot of that approach is that articles in Common-Place frequently number in the thousands, rather than hundreds, of words - some closing on the limit for comfortable onscreen reading. Fortunately, the quality of the writing is more than enough to keep readers engaged, while the brown text on faux parchment background mitigates eyestrain from the longer essays.
There is less of the eccentric in Common-Place's content (and none of the overlap that commonly occurs between the first two sites), but there is still much of interest - such as a comparison of presidential biographies in the inaugural, September 2000 issue, to the print newspaper's place in American culture, and an internet appreciation of P.T. Barnum. While most issues in this quarterly publication cover a variety of topics, there are also 'Special Feature' editions, including a survey of "Early cities of the Americas," and the current issue's focus on money - from "California gold discoveries" and a time when American paper money was a good deal more artistic, to a mid-19th century flirtation with "North American monetary union."
Given the historical period covered by Common-Place (pre-1900), there isn't much in the way of 'on-the-spot' photographs or video to complement the text, but the articles are nevertheless abundantly illustrated - with woodcuts, engravings, paintings, and more recent photographs of historic subjects. Like the week's other sites, Common-Place does have a keyword search, and there is a limited selection of general purpose external links in the Web Library.
You won't find anything in the way of cutting-edge Flash interfaces or interactive animations in any of these three productions. In fact, when it comes to design, there's nothing here that you couldn't have seen on the Web five or more years ago. But these sites are all about the content, and if you're looking for a break from 'hard' news, and perhaps a story or two worth forwarding to your fellow surfers, all three are rich resources.