Lost Chords Office

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The Independent Culture
You may remember the magnificently-named Efrem Zimbalist Junior from such television shows as 77 Sunset Strip and The FBI. But what of Efrem Zimbalist Senior? Thanks to the Unknown Composers Page, a Web catalogue of musical obscurity, we learn that he was a composer, "and not a bad one at that". Author Steve Schwarz describes the one work he has heard, a violin sonata, as "very attractive and very Prokofiev-like". Other featured artists include Richard Yardumian, "one of those poor shnooks caught between the 'no music after 1900' and the 'no music before 1975' know-nothings"; and Richard Wagner, lesser-known works by famous composers also being included. Elsewhere on the site, audio files reawaken a few lost chords.


Once upon a time "Encyclopaedia" meant "Britannica", and it was a household name. In recent decades, though, the growth of knowledge made Britannica editions too compendious and too expensive for the home. The idea of personally owning a proper encyclopaedia became a thing of the past - with a few exceptions such as Finland, where an encyclopaedia is apparently to new householders what an airline is to a newly independent nation. Then came Encarta - and families with CD-ROM drives could own an encyclopaedia for pounds 50. Britannica retained the prestige of its name, but in ordinary life, "encyclopaedia" now meant Encarta.

Now, at long last, Britannica is joining the battle. Its new encyclopaedia Britannica CD 98 is similar in configuration to Encarta 98's Standard Edition: two Windows 95 disks, one carrying a heavy load of multimedia. Britannica also comes with a separate installation disk: its interface is based on the Microsoft Explorer Web browser, cannily trading on Microsoft's strategy of making Explorer an integral and familiar part of Windows. Microsoft's encyclopaedia strategy looks equally unbeatable, since it is Encarta's publisher as well as the source of Britannica's front end.

Encarta is also available in a Deluxe Edition with a third disk, a research organiser for writing reports. The idea is that since cutting and pasting from Encarta has now become standard procedure for school- children with home computers, they might at least be encouraged to organise the material properly. This will prepare them for a future in which 1 per cent of information professionals will be producing "content", and the other 99 will be repackaging it.

For its own packaging, Encarta has stuck with the excellent display that has made previous editions a pleasure to use, and is far superior to that of its competitor. Britannica's search facility has a few tricks up its sleeve, though, inviting its users to ask it questions in natural language, rather than issuing it strings of keywords. For instance you can type in the Big One: "What is the meaning of life?" It proceeds to disregard "what", "is", "the" and "of", so you might as well have saved yourself the extra keystrokes. The results are both substantial and eclectic: the 25 articles itemised include "gnotobiosis" (a condition in which only known organisms are present, or "germ-free" to you and me), "philosophical anthropology", "religious experience: situational contexts and forms of expression", "Gestalt therapy", "whiskey", "atheism", and "Godard, Jean-Luc". Searching on "meaning" and "life" in Encarta produces a useless bag of over 700 motley articles, while "meaning of life" throws up 13 articles, among them "The Bible", "Geological Time Scale", and "Monty Python".

Britannica's strength is not just in depth but in sheer quantity of text: 44 million words in 72,000 articles, compared to Encarta's 10.5 million words in 30,000 articles. If you just want to check a fact, Encarta is far nicer to use, and runs much faster. (Britannica's system requirements also include a large screen size of 800 x 600 pixels, a regrettable demand on hardware also made recently by DK's Eyewitness Children's Encyclopedia.) If you want depth of knowledge, Britannica still sets the standard. Now that it is challenging the commercially dominant brand, the market will probably split. The more academic, and more affluent, households will spend pounds 125 on Britannica. Those who prefer their looking and learning to be a tiny bit more like television will stick with Encarta, at the traditional pounds 49.99 for the Standard Edition or pounds 79.99 (with pounds 20 refund to existing Encarta owners) for the Deluxe. And in the smarter schools, a new sort of streaming will emerge, between the children who cut from Encarta and the ones who paste from Britannica.


Dramatis personae: Granny, who lives in the attic; her relatives the Crotony family, who torture animals; an insane Rabbit, who has pursued revenge against the family by cutting up their house and neighbourhood to create a series of planets; his Rabbit Agents; the Plants, sentient creatures whose dominant sensation is fear of the Great Rabbit; a group of inconsiderate Trees. Interiors: the Conran Shop on acid. Mission: unclear, but involves Granny's cookbook. System requirements: Win 95 and plenty of RAM for the five CD-ROMs (Telstar, pounds 39.99).


Lest parents think that anything on a CD-ROM has to wear sneakers and bray like a game show host, The Jolly Postman's Party (DK Multimedia, Win/Mac, pounds 19.99; for ages four to eight) shows that there's a place in multimedia for the homely subtleties of Janet Ahlberg's artwork (above).


The online wing of the Cambridge bookshop Heffers is getting seriously competitive with the street trade, if only for the Christmas season. Postage and packing on all orders is free until 31 December, so it doesn't cost any more to let the books come to you.