Technofile

It's official: as well as becoming the first computer peripheral to sport bright purple fur, Barney the dinosaur is the devil himself, according to an Irish Web site. Technofile joins the crusade, and airs some home truths about the BBC
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The Independent Culture
BARNEY BUNDLED

Parents love to hate Barney the purple dinosaur for two excellent reasons: one, he is proof positive that their children have no taste; and two, he is the most shameful expression of the Faustian bargain they strike with the children's entertainment industry - he may make you sick, but you are secretly grateful that he gives you a break. In this respect, Barney has something in common with Microsoft: everybody uses its products, but nobody has a good word for it. It's therefore most apt that these symbols of Western evil have come together, giving parents two more reasons to hate Barney. One is that an animated version of him is now in the toyshops (costing around pounds 100) and the other is that Microsoft is behind it.

When his hand is squeezed, Barney will emit his endearments and sing his songs in an adenoidal gurgle, waving his arms arthritically. If he is near a PC running one of the several Barney CD-ROMs in the PC Pack (which will cost you another pounds 50) he will echo the lavish praise the games' characters bestow on children as they solve the puzzles. He is almost certainly the first computer peripheral covered in purple acrylic fur, which gives a whole new meaning to the term "software".

The situation is not as alarming as it sounds, and can in fact be turned to advantage. One solution, offered by Tiny Computers, involves buying Barney as part of the Early Learner System (pounds 1056.36, including VAT). This is a PC package with a specification that should be more than ample for ordinary home users (333MHz, 64MB, 4.3GB) - colour printer, scanner, modem and plenty of family software, from upscale Dorling Kindersley titles to cheap-and-cheerful Sesame Street stuff. The manual bends over backwards to be non-techie (though unfortunately doesn't pay similar attention to spelling and grammar) and the system is very easy to set up.

First unpack the Barney box and hand the monster over to your children, who will then go off and trail it around the house. In Technofile's own test environment, the item was taken on repeated visits to the toilet for simulated defecation - which suggests that there really isn't anywhere that you can be certain you won't encounter a Microsoft product. Undisturbed, you can be on- line and searching out Barney hate sites within an hour.

Another option is Early Learner Plus (pounds 1408.83, including VAT), a system with a higher specification (350MHz, 128MB, 6.4GB) which includes a DVD- ROM drive. This can be used to distract your children with DVD movies. But it's not as neat as the Barney solution, which turns the purple pseudosaur into a decoy that gives parents freedom to monopolise the shiny new "family" computer.

THIS HALF LIFE

Half Life (Sierra, Windows, pounds 40) continues the tradition of first- person games, with a view seen as if through the protagonist's eyes, devoted to running around shooting everything in sight. These days the message is slightly nuanced - you don't kill absolutely everyone - and Half Life is set in an underground research facility, surroundings less unsavoury than the Dungeons of Doom usually associated with these affairs. A New Labour shoot-'em-up, in others words: just as brutal as the old lot underneath, but better groomed.

HOME TRUTHS PAGE

All media are converging, as we know, but BBC Radio 4 is ploughing its own distinctive furrow into the digital future. Since upgrading its technology, it's become as unreliable as the Internet, with awkward silences as common as "File Not Found" messages from Web servers. So it's a good job it now has Web sites as backup. These also come in handy when the problems are at the listener's end, nowhere more so than for Home Truths. Since this programme is devoted to home life and goes out at 9am on Saturdays, the signal to a large proportion of its audience is jammed by TV cartoons, local internecine warfare, packets of cereal being emptied onto carpets, and the wailing and gnashing of teeth. Despite this, it has allowed the authentic voice of the Radio 4 listener to be heard across the land. These are not the armchair editors that quibble on Feedback, but citizens of the true Middle Britain, whose preoccupations are slugs, or hanging clothes on the washing line in a particular order, or why people don't whistle any more. In other words, they are Internet kind of people.

Some of them do take advantage of the Home Truths site to contribute to the discussion forums. But the site as a whole leaves something to be desired, and that something is the programme's personality. Home Truths is one of the best programmes on the radio because it is the best vehicle John Peel has ever had for doing what he does best; shoving the script aside and striking up a rapport with his audience. The Web pages have a copywritten tone, and are squeezed into a standard corporate framework, not to mention a cramped layout. If ever there were a case for independent production at the BBC, this is it. They should hand it over to the listeners, who will festoon it with audio clips of "Blaze Away" before you can recite one verse of a slug poem.

EVERYBODY KILL THE DINOSAUR

The definitive anti-Barney Internet institution is the alt.barney.dinosaur.die.die.die newsgroup. There is also a number of Web pages, including one from Ireland, which proves that Barney is Satan, and another which allows you to "attack" drawings of the saurian with a variety of weapons, including an Uzi, a shotgun and a motorcycle.

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