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IS MICROSOFT heading down under? Pandora was told by one Microsoft employee that information technology engineers were to be based in Australia for New Year's Eve 1999 to watch the millennium bug in action. The idea, apparently, is to have advance warning of what the bug will or won't do before it reaches computers in later time zones. Microsoft's PR machine has yet to get back to Pandora on this one. Maybe the bug has hatched out early?

MEANWHILE, MICROSOFT'S mogul Bill Gates is giving away 17 per cent of his value to charity. The endowment of a foundation overseen by Gates and his wife Melinda has been raised to $17bn. Observers of the wealthy such as Randy Jones, editor of the gauchely-titled Worth magazine, says: "What a difference two years and a strong wife can make. Gates has raised the bar for all other fabulously wealthy Americans." But all is not sweetness and light. US journalist Neal Travis cites a magazine article which suggests that Gates's generosity has more to do with the anti-trust case against Microsoft. You pays your money, you takes your choice.

THINGS ARE indeed fraught in Northern Ireland. Pandora hears that the special adviser to the Assembly's Speaker, Lord Alderdice, had to take time off work this week to be vaccinated against rabies. Little wonder, with all those mad dog politicians roaming round.

FRED ASTAIRE and a condom? Not the image that most people have of the late actor-singer-dancer, and one not shared by his widow, Robyn. After the posthumous appearance of Astaire (pictured) in a condom advertisement Robyn began legal action to curb commercial exploitation of dead celebrities. This action looks likely to result in the "Astaire Bill", which would prevent commercial exploitation of stars' names and likenesses. Fine for the US, but what about us? When Pandora contacted the actors' union, Equity, much concern was expressed about the notion of "synthespians" and "vactors" but no legislation is imminent to back up the industry's concern. Lack of protection for celebrities may not end with film stars. What about former members of the Royal Family?

STAFF AT the Welsh National Opera claim to be singing a better tune than their counterparts at Covent Garden Opera House. The outdoor exploits of Covent Garden's management team were the subject of a feature in another paper recently, where tales of "all-action weekends", canoeing, rafting and abseiling, were recounted. The Welsh National Opera says it needs no such incentive to bond, telling Pandora that its "thrown together" team has just won the Fairbridge Charity Dragon Boat Festival in Cardiff Bay. They were also voted the team with most "gob" - Cardiff slang for having a lot to say. Delightful, darlings.

THE LIB DEMS' mayoral hopeful, Susan Kramer, pledges to walk every high street in the capital to find out what Londoners want. With an electorate of about five million, and allowing for a polite five minutes with each voter, Pandora figures this ambitious pavement politics will take her more than 47 years. Good luck, Susan.

SEAN HUGHES'S new novel, It's What He Would Have Wanted, makes particularly disturbing reading in the final chapter. A character named Orwell blows up a national newspaper called the Daily Angel. The Daily Angel just happens to be based somewhere in the Farringdon area (where a newspaper called The Guardian is, coincidentally, based). Pandora cannot, of course, condone any such wanton acts of destruction and would not encourage anyone to leave boxes of Black Magic at the offices of any such newspaper, as Orwell does in the novel as a warning of the impending atrocity.

BELATED BIRTHDAY felicitations to Radio 1 DJ John Peel, who celebrated his 60th birthday this week. Peel's humility is one of his most engaging assets. Even at 30, he was a humble chap, once remarking, "DJs are superfluous really - only, thank God, the BBC as yet hasn't quite realised this."

Contact Pandora by e-mail: pandora@independent.co.uk

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