Sunday 10 May 1998
When the masses brought their written tributes to Diana's sacred grove in Kensington Gardens last year, among the countless notable details was the way in which many people felt that high technology was appropriate to their message. Perhaps office fax machines and printers seemed to give their words a suitable formality, like black shoes and a tie. But nowadays people also seem to feel that computers are appropriate tools for the ordinary and joyful celebrations of family life, particularly children's parties. Among the middle classes, the home-printed invitation is becoming as prevalent a social token as thank-you letters used to be. Whether it's a means of outdoing the neighbours or an indication that people feel comfortable with their computers, those of us with a professional interest in these matters tend to find ourselves wondering what software the proud parent used.
While standard home computer packages offer a choice of fonts and basic drawing facilities, the dedicated home publisher may prefer PrintMaster Gold Deluxe version 4 (Mindscape, Windows, pounds 49.99; the slimmer Printmaster Publishing Suite is pounds 19.99, while the range is due to be topped in June by the Platinum edition, at pounds 69.99). You can base your design on over 30,000 graphics, searching the database by subject and tone to find something to suit the occasion or recipient; better yet, you can touch up photos. Besides assuming that you have a colour printer, PrintMaster points to a future in which every home also has scanners, digital cameras and Internet access. As a product designed to connect to other products, though, it is flawed by its refusal to save designs in the standard formats used on the Internet. So if you forgot to post a card to your cousin in Poland, for example, and you were racing to create an electronic card to e-mail him before he left the office, you'd have to scrap it and use Photoshop instead. And some of us have got work to do.
After Technofile brought you Judaica clip art and the Java-based rosary, you might have been wondering if we had an exclusively monotheistic editorial policy. Far from it: check out Mohan's Hindu Image Gallery, which contains downloadable images of Hindu deities, and links to other Hindu sites.
This is the way it should be: people raise questions, other people offer answers, with no thought of reward beyond the pleasure of imparting knowledge. Caltech student James Lin noticed that in newsgroups devoted to transport, the discussion would sometimes turn to the shapes of US highway signs. "When someone would say, 'Oregon's is kind of an upside- down triangle, but rounder,' or 'Utah's is a beehive,' I wondered, 'Wouldn't it be great if someone had a Web site so we could see these things for ourselves?'" Nobody did, so Lin made one, featuring road furniture designs from all 50 states of the Union, all 10 of Canada's provinces, the District of Columbia, the Yukon Territory, the 1940s, and a smattering of counterparts from other continents. Road signs are at the forefront of functional design, particularly in typography, since their first task is to communicate instructions at high speed, while projecting the image of the authority behind them comes second. These priorities have rubbed off on James Lin, whose pages adhere to the highest ideals of the road sign, being both immediate and aesthetically pleasing. They also make the site worth a detour for anybody interested in design. The other reason to pay a visit, even if you're not curious to know what highway markers look like in North Dakota, is to grab a bunch of images to use as icons on your computer screen. If there's nothing in Lin's cornucopia of signage that appeals, then the site to go to is the home of SignMaker 1.9, a Java applet which allows you to design your own freeway signs. Once the virtual machine has worked itself up to cruising speed, you can choose from a selection of layouts and enter your own destinations, such as "Further" or "Nowhere".
Whatever text you choose, though, you are fitting your ideas into an American template. This process of roadside homogenisation is exactly what Alain Guet, of Paris, has set out to oppose through his Portuguese Pedestrian site. On a visit to Portugal five years ago, Guet's eyes were opened to the culture of signage. A comparative late-comer to the EU, Portugal remains a haven of diversity in road furniture. Here pedestrians are represented as people (see bottom row above), not dummies standardised in Brussels. For Guet, they serve as symbols of a threatened public culture, rather as Britain's red phone boxes came to symbolise pre-Thatcherite public values during the 1980s. His Portuguese Pedestrian Manifesto denounces modernisation that leads to loss of identity, replacing it with "US-style malls and McDonald's franchises", the "French road services' obsession with standardized waysides", which has had calamitous effects on wildflower species, and of course French road signs: "pedestrians, workers and schoolchildren, but for the odd survivor, have all become round-headed lifeless dummies one would gladly run over". Long live the Portuguese pedestrian, he cries; long live "biodiversity, the right to be different, devolution, and quiet driving on countryside roads!"
Sceptics might point out that it's not the road signs which ruin the dream of quiet driving on French country roads, but French drivers. Nevertheless, Guet's vision is that of a truly Communautaire Europe; a rich mosaic of diversity that can reconcile the needs of public safety with characters such as the Portuguese pedestrian silhouette snapped in Estoril, larger than life and visibly excited. Like the Cerne Abbas Giant, El Hombre Grande de Estoril is a graphic gesture of contempt for the buttoned and the uniform. He popped up in Portugal despite the hegemony of the Catholic Church. Will Brussels succeed where Rome failed?
Research-It, "your one-step reference desk", contains a battery of forms allowing you to address queries to a variety of Internet reference facilities. Among these are rhyming, pronunciation, computing, biographical, quotation and conventional dictionaries, two thesauruses, North American phone directories, an exchange rate converter featuring currencies from the Albanian Lek to the Vietnamese Dong, and a Bible. There's also a translator called LOGOS, based in Italy, which aims to translate between any of its featured languages. It ranges wide - Latvia to China - but thin, as it depends on its visitors' lexical contributions.
TECHNOFILE IS COMPILED BY MAREK KOHN
YOU'LL FIND LINKS TO ALL THE WEBSITES MENTIONED IN TECHNOFILE ON ITS HOMEPAGES AT: http://www.poptel.org.uk/technofile
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