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The Independent Culture

Now this is what Technofile calls hypertext. "Romantically Linked", an educational diversion brought to you by Mr Showbiz, is a searchable database in which each famous name is accompanied by a string of other names with which it has been associated. Some of these names are themselves links, so you can play celebrity contact tracing. The phrase "romantically linked" is used advisedly. It means that the parties were linked in gossip, not necessarily in fact, and that the linkage was not necessarily physical. That caveat out of the way, we can take it that this is basically a flow chart of who's had whom.

The maps are distorted by the libel laws, which make it appear that living persons have much less connectivity than the dead. Even where like can be compared with like, though, yesteryear's greats put today's celebrity lovers in the shade. Madonna is linked to 13 men and two women; Tallulah Bankhead is linked to a dozen men and seven women. Madonna's list includes Jack Nicholson and John F Kennedy Junior; Bankhead's contains Marlon Brando and Winston Churchill, as well as Greta Garbo and Billie Holiday. Bankhead also gets an epigram: "My father warned me about men and booze, but he never mentioned a word about women and cocaine."


The hackneyed cover art of the Atlas of the Ancient World (Maris, Win/Mac, pounds 29.99) suggests yet another shallow multimedia package with an educational veneer and too many pyramids. It badly undersells a solid piece of work which is sensible in tone and appears reliable.

The one structural shortcoming arises from the approach the Atlas takes to diversity. In trying to avoid putting any continent or culture before others, it inadvertently encourages users to think of the regions of the world in isolation from one another. This may create a misleading impression about how the world used to be. As the title implies, there was just one ancient world, even if not all parts of it were connected to each other. Trade and other sorts of exchange are fundamental to much of human prehistory, as well as history. Some things also make more sense if comparisons are made between different regions: farming, for example, which emerged in different ways under different ecological conditions.

And sometimes similarities are as notable as differences. According to the audio section, which presents the reconstructed sounds of ancient music, the Scythian harp sounds rather like the African-American banjo.


Scientists love John Brockman, the literary agent who is to science books what Bill Gates is to computers, because he has added a zero or two to the advances they receive from publishers. Brockman has his sights on more than percentages, though, seeing himself as an entrepreneur of contemporary thought. In the toe-curling cast-list of "Digerati" that features on his website, The Edge, he is billed as "The Connector", alongside familiar dropped names such as Kevin Kelly, "The Saint", and John Perry Barlow, "The Coyote". In less technical times, he would have been labelled "The Host". The Edge also contains two other salons, The Third Culture, representing what Brockman argues is a new intellectual movement led by scientists, and The Reality Club, where Digerati meet Third Culturists.

John Brockman's strength is in depth. The Edge is far more than just a hangout for names the wired public knows, or ones the bookstore public buys. On topics such as "Organs of Computation", kicked off by evolutionary psychologist Steven Pinker, or "The Three Dimensions of Human History", discussed by the distinguished archaeologist Colin Renfrew, Brockman can pull in commentaries from the experts' experts. Despite its gauche poses, The Edge is an essential bookmark for anybody interested in how science, technology and culture can make sense of each other.


In the Magic Wardrobe (Iona, Win/Mac, pounds 19.95) there is a spinning flower that takes a little girl back in time, allowing her to meet counterparts from Ancient Egypt, Imperial China and Raj India, among others points east, west, north and south. She learns about their lives, and she dresses them up in their native costumes. Although the convention is that she is equally at home in any place or time, this is a multimedia production which would be received particularly well in respectable Victorian circles. Dressing up games are its idea of how a girl should have fun, and it firmly believes that fun should be improving.

Fun and improvement don't always chime together. Our time traveller gets to design an outfit for a Southern belle, but the accompanying historical figure is Harriet Tubman, the escaped slave who helped 3,000 other slaves to freedom on the Underground Railroad. Tubman is not presented as a role model, but as an example of greatness in other peoples. The time traveller tours a rainbow world, but wherever she goes, she stays white with blonde hair.


Following last month's Techno-file piece about the NetChannel service, which puts the Web on television sets, Url has written to clarify his role. Url, you may recall, is an animated character based on the assumption that today's adults want their tech-nical support to be delivered as if they were toddlers. The target market "truly are `Couch Potatoes' ", Url confirms. "Mr and Mrs Couch don't want to surf," he or she continues. "They want single key access to find Coronation Street Chat, or the WWW site of the advert they're watching."

And, of course, the Independent online, which comes as part of the NetChannel package. We evidently have a vegetable audience the market research people have missed.



Devices which try to help you out when you're lost are numerous, from the simple compass to computerised systems which can spot traffic jams. But this small, chunky handheld navigator (shaped like a Toblerone with an LCD screen) connects you to the stars, or satellites, anyway. By calculating its distance from four of the 24 Global Positioning Systems constantly orbiting the Earth the Garmin III (pounds 458) determines its location exactly, anywhere in the world. It interprets the data to reveal your longitude, latitude and even altitude. This information can be viewed on a map of the country you're in, and, if you're in a city, can zoom in right down to street level with details of nearby railway lines and other landmarks. It'll also help plan your journey, and, if you're travelling by car, even work out how much fuel you'll need. Clever, compact and cool. Call 01794 519944 for stockists. David Phelan