The Nuts and Bolts
HowStuffWorks.com might not be the sexiest site out there, but it is easily one of the best put together, most informative places on the Web. Its great appeal, for me at least, is that it leverages two great qualities of the Internet: the practical and the whimsical. This means that you can both get the answers to perplexing questions (How exactly does an automatic transmission work?) as well as waste hours of time (If they were re-casting the original Star Trek series with today’s actors, who would win the role of Spock?).
The special niche that How Stuff Works has carved out for itself is the “how.” You want to know who, what, where, or when? Go to Wikipedia. You want the nuts-and-bolts—the process? This is the place to be.
That perspective lends itself to the “techie” side of things. For example, in their critique of The Da Vinci Code, “How the Da Vinci Code Doesn’t Work,” they begin by talking about how the GPS receiver the French police plant on Dr. Robert Langdon has trouble tracking someone if there is tree cover blocking the satellites, let alone when a person is indoors. Likewise, when it comes to examining the art symbolism and religious speculation in the novel, they begin with the disclaimer that both areas are “by nature imprecise. It can be impossible to determine an artist’s actual intent for a particular piece or the exact meaning behind a particular religious passage.” Given all the hoopla surrounding the book, I find such reasonableness refreshing.
That techie bent does make me wish I was more computer-savvy, or at least did more with my Mac (I don’t do much besides write, edit, and surf), because their “computer stuff” section looks like it contains some of their best—and best-regarded—articles. “How Does Bluetooth Work?” “How Do Computer Viruses Work?” and even “How Do Motherboards Work?” are all current articles I wish I could find the time to read. But I’ve been more interested in their lead “entertainment stuff” article, “How Parkour Works” (parkour being the French pseudosport that has people jumping off urban buildings like something out of a Spider-Man comic book).
These examples should give some idea of the range of topics How Stuff Works covers. But whether they’re covering the finer points of safecracking or the history of the Sith order, the writing is always clear and straightforward. Even when covering the latest technology, they rarely descend into technobabble. And for those readers who want the greater depth and can handle the greater complexity, they have a Google-based search engine built right into each page.
Criticisms? Well, it’s a bit advertising heavy, and you will run into the occasional product placement. But hey, everybody’s got to earn a living, right? And of course, if you’re curious about the reasons behind it, you can always go to “How Web Advertising Works.”
Copyright 2006, Steve Spaulding
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