Home Depot is hawking more than two-by-fours and power tools these days. The everything-you-need-to-do-it-yourself retailer has started selling its own stock [NYSE: HD] directly at its Web site. Click here for details. I suppose this means not only can you eschew hiring a professional carpenter or plumber, you can skip using a professional broker to purchase your Home Depot shares, too. Service fees aren’t much different from what you’d pay at an online discount broker like Datek or Ameritrade, so your actual savings are likely to be negligible, but that hardly seems the point. If this trend spreads, God only knows what effect it’ll have on the stocks in question, the market at large, or the American shopping experience in general. I can just see it now — a whole new line of Extra Value Meals at McDonald’s: “You want shares with that?”
Y2K find: Self-powered radios, flashlights
Power outages are a reasonably likely aspect of the problems Y2K is expected to cause. They may or may not be widespread; they may last just a day or two or stick around for a week — or longer. There’s really no way to know in advance. But if your own power goes out that night — even for just an hour or two — you’re going to want to be able to get an idea of what else is happening out there. That’s why this is one of the most sensible Y2K prep offerings I’ve come across on the Web. These Freeplay self-powering radios by BayGen are reasonably priced — and run on hand-cranked or even solar power. Adding solar or shortwave capability costs $10-30 extra. They won’t break your back — one minute of cranking provides about half an hour of radio functionality — and you won’t have to worry about using up your household stock of batteries. Also available are lanterns with batteries rechargeable either by hand cranking or by hooking up to an AC/DC power source.
Freeplay technology was invented to facilitate communications through vast rural swatches of Africa, where batteries are scarce and power lines and telephones are scarcer; they’re endorsed by a long list of humanitarian organizations. And some of their products are pretty funky-looking, to boot.
When the computer is your friend
Sylvie — downloadable as a free demo — is a “verbally enhanced chatterbot”: a virtual character with a finite ability to understand and speak English through natural-language technology. Artificial intelligence experts have been working on creating computer “personalities” capable of holding conversations since the sixties. Early, text-based attempts included Eliza, who gave psychotherapist-like responses when you told her your troubles, and the paranoid psychotic Racter, who produced a book of surrealist poetry called “The Policeman’s Beard is Half Constructed.”
You can learn more about Eliza and Racter, including what happened when they encountered each other, here. The contemporary Sylvie, who requires 32 MB RAM, a Pentium 166 processor, and Windows 95 or Windows 98, has considerably more functionality than these classic prototypes; she can read text files and be programmed to recognize and pronounce the names of your friends or your favorite subjects.
Bons mots to go
As an anonymous wit once observed, “Theft from a single author is plagiarism. Theft from two is comparative study. Theft from three or more is research.” At Aphorisms Galore! you can dig up the perfect quotation or turn of phrase, whether to soften up the audience at your next presentation or to tack onto your emails as a signature file. Search by author (748 are offered, from Douglas Adams to Carl Zwanzig, in addition to a hefty “Unknown” section) or by category (Wealth and Poverty, Men and Women). Just be sure to attribute where attribution is due.
Making voyeurism pay at Levi’s
Here’s a clever e-commerce twist. Levi’s Semester Online gave three college students a generous allowance of $500 a week to buy everything they needed for the semester online. The only catch: All their purchases get posted on the Web for nosy you and me to investigate — and imitate, should we be so inclined. Log onto the site to check out what the kids have been shopping for lately.
A horoscope with a difference
The Nepalese tradition and lunar calendar give rise to an unusual type of horoscope determined not just by birth date but by the sound of the first syllable in your name. Check yours at the Nepal News. The English can be a little clumsy, but, hey, you get to find out the Nepalese for “Gemini.”
Cats at work
Shopcat.com is a cute little home-baked site devoted to “shopkeeper” cats: those cats, many of them formerly homeless, who now live in offices, bookstores, libraries, nursing homes, etc. Many hold down important positions as stress relief officers, nurses’ aides and toddler liaisons. Submit your local working cat’s story and browse others by state — 156 of them, at last count.