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- How to cheat at Crosswords
Once the hard work of Christmas Day is over, and you sit replete and grateful on Boxing Day, the only alternative to exercise is quizzes, or crosswords. Cryptic crosswords remain a skill that computers can't be taught any more than they can make robots walk. But the kind of general knowledge crossword you find in the Financial Times or the Daily Telegraph on Saturdays, and the quizzes that appear in the papers over Christmas, are excellent opportunities for Internet-assisted research, also known as "googling" to the young, or "cheating" to the old.
It is only ten years since the first web page in the United States appeared. There are now perhaps three billion around the world, of which maybe half have been indexed by search engines. This is a very rough estimate but it does suggest both the huge amounts of information out there, and the extreme difficulty of finding the bits that are any good.
The simplest method of cheating is simply to type the whole clue into Google. The only real trick here is to ensure that words which belong together are joined in the question by a full stop. You can put double quotes about them instead, but full stops between the words are quicker and easier. So if you want to know who invented the full stop, you would try "inventor full.stop" (mind you, that still gets 351 pages returned). "who.invented.the.full.stop" only returns one answer, and it's a bunch of teenagers quarrelling about a game; but the principle is clear enough.
When Goggle fails, there are two directions to go in. If your question is related to computers, or to the sort of interests that people form clubs about, then it is worth using Google Groups, which is a service that indexes the Usenet discussion service. Most of these groups are a howling wasteland, full of lunatics, crooks, and pornographers. But there are islands of technical and fannish discussion in which Google Groups will find the most extraordinarily arcane and detailed information. For instance, if you wanted to follow Ruth Gledhill's career as a ballroom dancer, there is an extraordinary amount preserved there.
For more detailed historical information, most broadsheet newspapers have archives going back to the mid-Nineties. Some of these are still free, though the Times has started charging. Any quiz questions about the previous year are probably best answered using the hugely comprehensive Financial Times global search. Further back than that, the next best place is RefDesk, a huge collection of encyclopaedias and dictionaries which was set up – oddly enough – by the father of Matt Drudge, the notorious Internet gossip columnist.
Refdesk offers leads to Encyclopaedia Britannica, which has recently started charging for full-length articles. But it also offers access to three other encyclopaedias, four mapping services (for finding places), two quotation dictionaries, a legal and a medical specialised dictionary as well as the complete text of the rather dull American Merriam-Webster dictionary.
The quickest way to discover which author wrote what is to look in the Library of Congress Catalogue, which contains, to a first approximation, every book ever published in English, and is easier to search and find than rivals (Cambridge University Library, for example, ahs a much clumsier interface). That way, when you need to find a novel written by Sir Arthur Quiller Couch it takes only ten seconds to find there are 26 to choose from. Still, that narrows the field down.
To privide ammunition for theological arguments, the single overwhelming resource is the Ethereal Library of Christian Classics. This started off as a collection in Wheaton College Library, but has now moved to its own web site. I keep meaning to browse there and being distracted by things like audio files of the sermons of Jonathan Edwards, read by a woman.
I haven't put any links into this piece, because you can find everything I have referred to simply by looking from www.google.com
This stuff written and copyright Andrew Brown. If the page looks bad, that's my fault, unless you're using Netscape 4.x. Then it's yours. Upgrade, and do yourself a favour.