Site-Seeing -- ''The Urban Legends Reference Pages''

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XXX 1/2 "The Urban Legends Reference Pages" Barbara and David Mikkelson -------------------------------

The story goes that a man bought hundreds of expensive cigars and managed to get them insured against fire. After smoking through his supply, he filed a claim, which the insurer disputed. A judge ruled the insurer was obligated to pay, and the company did so. When the man collected the sum, he was arrested for arson.

Or there's the one about how hydrogen beer served in Japanese karaoke bars help would-be singers reach the high notes and shoot blue flames out of their mouths.

Or how about this: Bill Gates is offering $1,000 to anyone who forwards a certain e-mail message to others for the development of a program that tracks e-mail recipients.

Each story has something in common: None is true. But they've been passed by word of mouth so much that they're certifiable urban legends.

Now, the Web has accelerated the certification process. Dubious, but plausible, stories course through data lines around the globe at heretofore untold speeds.

"Urban Legends Reference Pages" is just as its name implies: a site that deconstructs an endless supply of urban legends, trying to get to their source, their truthfulness and how they're transmitted.

In this, the site does a superb job. Moreover, it effectively uses the abilities of Web technology to enhance explorations into these legends.

All of the big urban legends, it seems, are here: the man who wakes up in a hotel bathtub filled with ice only to find his kidney removed; the cookie recipe for which Neiman Marcus charges $250; the availability of $500 savings bonds to parents as a result of a legal settlement with Gerber Foods.

Most of the site, though, is taken up by lesser-known legends.

Whatever their popularity, the site neatly categorizes the stories into a handful of sections, and brief blurbs link to full-blown analyses by Barbara Mikkelson.

The site also includes accouterments unique to online technology. There is a threaded newsgroup-like discussion, for instance, among site users. There is also a way to subscribe to a listserv that delivers unmoderated urban-legend news and perspectives to your e-mailbox. It even has a randomizer; click on this icon and a random story appears.

It looks like new stories and information are added to the site pretty regularly, a plus in this day of quickly dated Web sites.

Parents should note that there are portions of the site that merit a PG rating or stricter. That's to be expected, given the subject matter.

The Web often is accused of being a mindless diversion. "Urban Legends Reference Pages" can outwardly seem mindless. But, in a larger sense, it's a fascinating reflection of popular culture.

You could do worse than spending a rainy afternoon here. - Mark Watanabe Personal Technology editor