Off-Beat Digital Delights

In a classic psychology experiment, rats are given the choice between a cage with no stimuli or a cage where they can zap themselves with painful electric shocks. The rats go for the pain. Like rats, humans will do almost anything to avoid boredom. Of course, in what passes for civilization these days we have far more ingenious ways than electric shocks to administer pain. Thankfully, our species has also invented a few instruments of pleasure to relieve the unrelenting tedium of existence. Computers, as Windows 95 incontrovertibly proves, have the dubious honor of belonging in both the pain and pleasure categories. However, like the pain-free cage the rats eschewed, computers can also be dreadfully dull. The holiday gift suggestions that follow should help minimize dreary digital moments. However, don't let these somewhat eclectic suggestions limit your search. Thousands of other software titles are out there, and an impressive number actually do something besides crashing your system. All products mentioned should be available from retail and mail-order computer outlets at prices close to those quoted.Love and Haight Arriving in Berkeley in the mid-'60s I was so unhip I didn't know Berkeley was hip. Then I strolled through the doors of perception, and by 1967 my psyche was primed for San Francisco's Summer of Love. It's no surprise, therefore, that HAIGHT-ASHBURY IN THE SIXTIES! (Windows/Mac, $50) triggered a giant nostalgia bomb in my brain. The two-disc CD-ROM set, produced by Tony Bove and Cheryl Rhodes in cooperation with San Francisco Oracle founding editor Allen Cohen, combines photos, sound tracks, and video clips to transport you on a trippy tour of those far-out times. Absorbing it all -- the psychedelic poster art; Timothy Leary urging the congregation at a human be-in to "turn on, tune in, and drop out"; the music of a young Grateful Dead -- I flashed back to the highs but also felt the pain of seeing and hearing the many brothers and sisters who've left us. Most poignant was a video of Abbie Hoffman declaring that death would be preferable to living in an American empire with no prospect of change. Don't assume Haight-Ashbury in the Sixties! is just for aging hippies -- it's for anyone who'd rather make love than war. Flower power alone won't run Haight-Ashbury in the Sixties! -- at least 8MB of RAM and good graphics and sound cards are a must. For information, call 1-800-261-6109, E-mail, or check out the Web page at survival Reading a Dr. Seuss book to a youngster can be great fun, but after a dozen repetitions you're ready for a nap. You hate to disappoint the child, but another reading of Fox in Socks may drive you to eat your young. Living Books will solve your dilemma. Boot up the tot's DR. SEUSS'S ABC CD-ROM (Windows/Mac, $40), plant him or her in front of the computer, and take a break. From Aunt Annie's Alligator to the Zizzer-Zazzer-Zuzz, the animation and sound effects are letter-perfect in this multimedia Dr. Seuss debut. Even adults will be tickled by such marvelous silliness as the quartet of quacker-oos quacking for the Queen of Quincy. Dr. Seuss's ABC matches the high standards set by the other Living Books releases, all of which will enthrall your young gift recipients.Picking up a pen Broderbund's AMAZING WRITING MACHINE (Windows/Mac, $40) may not be the budding author's ticket to an instant bestseller, but this CD-ROM has enough idea-generating tools to smash any writer's block to bits. Inspired by the Machine, in less than an hour I knocked off a haiku on a spider, a business letter to Madonna (the Machine has an address for her), and a tale of horror titled "Charlotte's WorldWide Web" that I had the Machine's "secret coder" translate into pig latin. Then I relaxed and had my story read back to me by the voice of Frankenstein. If Frank is too scary, try one of the seven other charming voices in the CD-ROM's superb text-to-speech translator, licensed from Berkeley Speech Technologies. Digital literature If you've got a special passion for an author, a CD-ROM containing the fully searchable text of the writer's work and incorporating multimedia background material can be rewarding. OF MICE AND MEN (Windows/Mac, $50), the CD-ROM of John Steinbeck's 1937 masterpiece set in his birthplace, the Salinas Valley, augments the full text of the novel with biographical information, maps, photos, interviews, music, scholarly analysis, and links to Steinbeck Internet sites. You can view stills and clips from the novel's stage and film incarnations and hear songs from the 1958 Broadway musical version. I was also fascinated by the description of Steinbeck's Vietnam War years, during which he went full circle from dove to hawk and back to dove.TROUBLE IS MY BUSINESS: THE RAYMOND CHANDLER LIBRARY (Windows, $50) is a binary shot of the renowned novelist and his hard-drinking shamus, Philip Marlowe. Along with the searchable text of eight of Chandler's best-known books are personal letters, clips from Chandler films, a biographical timeline, and a map of Los Angeles that is linked to period photos of Marlowe's haunts. Reading Chandler you'd think the snappy dialogue and imaginative similes poured out effortlessly, yet browsing through his letters you find him complaining, "I am a fellow who writes 30,000 words to turn in five, and that is a lot of work." Trouble Is My Business does have its troubles, however. In particular, the film clips and letters are poorly documented. Nonetheless, the disc has plenty to make any Chandler fan happy. Magical megabytesI'm sure a mortified Houdini will escape from his grave (if he's really in there) when he realizes that practitioners of legerdemain violate their sacred magician's oath and divulge the secrets of their tricks on three new CD-ROMs. LEARN THE ART OF MAGIC (Windows/Mac, $40) stars Jay Alexander, a long-haired, wacky showman who demystifies 26 card, coin, rope, and other tricks. Props for six of the tricks are packaged with the CD- ROM, so junior magicians can quickly take their vaudeville act on the road. Alexander's entertaining shtick is the major plus on this disc, and his manic performance patter was a big hit with my preteen testers.INSIDE MAGIC (Windows/Mac, $45) focuses on teaching the skills of sleight of hand, from beginning to advanced techniques. Your magical mentor, Peter Grand, lets you observe his hands close-up, from front and rear views, as he executes more than 50 tricks. You can also watch his prestidigitation in slow motion to better scrutinize his subterfuge. Inside Magic's kit bag holds props for 14 of the tricks the CD-ROM details. (Inside Magic's WorldWide Web home page is at AN INSIDER'S VIEW (Windows/Mac, $40) discloses only 14 relatively simple tricks and has no magic kit. However, the disc's maestro of magic, Harry Anderson, does provide a slow- motion peek at his moves from various camera angles. Although Magic: An Insider's View doesn't explain many tricks, its strong suit is the material on prominent magicians and the history of magic, including vintage film clips.Einstein on the byte When it comes to people that virtual kinds of people dig, Dr. Albert has to be way up on the list -- just below Bart Simpson. THE ULTIMATE EINSTEIN (Windows/Mac, $50) can fill the black hole in any multimedia CD-ROM collection. The disc contains the fully searchable text of Ronald Clark's authoritative biography, Einstein: The Life and Times; a laboratory in which the Paradox Twins demonstrate why the special theory of relativity is so special for anybody traveling at the speed of light; and a rare 1940 radio interview in which Einstein expresses his hopes and fears about humanity's future. It's often easier to coax students to swallow their science if it's blended with a bit of humor. THE CARTOON GUIDE TO PHYSICS (Windows/Mac, $50), the CD-ROM version of Larry Gonick and Art Hoffman's book of the same title, successfully employs this approach to help aspiring scientists digest what's often considered a difficult subject. The guide's four sections include an introduction to mechanics, an interactive workshop, a glossary, and a look at the lives of 12 eminent scientists. Did you know that when the principles of buoyancy first floated into Archimedes' consciousness, he was so pumped up he ran buck naked in the streets of Syracuse shouting "Eureka!"? Another CD-ROM worth checking out is OPERATION: WEATHER DISASTER (Windows/Mac, $45). Produced by the Discovery Channel people, this disc entices players into learning some elementary meteorology. Such knowledge is necessary to vanquish the Evil Weatherman who's sowing meteorological havoc throughout the planet. Your allies in the battle are the Team Xtreme scientists and Millibar, who calls herself an "infobot with chutzpah." Her database has the facts on everything from the cause of fog to the origin of hurricanes. Silicon scatology In the beginning was the primitive blank screen saver. Billions of bytes later came Flying Toasters to save our monitors. And now another technological triumph from Berkeley Systems: Flying Toilet Bowls. Yes, the main attraction in the Boeing of Berkeley's new screen-saver collection, TOTALLY TWISTED (Windows/Mac, $30), is a squadron of winged plumbing fixtures who gracefully flap across your screen with newspaper-reading passengers on board. Memory for trivia isn't my forte, so I didn't expect to get as much of a kick as I did from Berkeley Systems' adrenaline-pumping YOU DON'T KNOW JACK (Windows/Mac, $30). Despite my being regularly clobbered by my opponents, the tacky subject categories (such as starvation and insect marital troubles), the quizmaster's nasty commentary, and the bizarre sound effects and animation delivered lots of good (and not so clean) fun. Party-game types will go for this one.

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