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The Independent Culture
From 20th-century paintings to 19th-century French poetry, Technofile finds that even the most sensitive art forms can benefit from a brush with your hardware. And while it may stretch your mind, the growth in free Internet providers means surfing shouldn't be too harsh on your wallet


Art 20: The Thames and Hudson Multimedia Dictionary of Modern Art (Windows and Mac, pounds 70) is finally ready. Just as well: another year, and they would have had to re-title it Art 20/21. And yes, it was worth the wait. If even half the CD-ROMs on the market reached half the standard of this one, the multimedia revolution would have happened after all. Art 20 is quintessentially Continental in style. The framing is perfect, with crisp blue lines evoking the electric thrill of 20th-century art, and the presentation is exquisitely poised, with discreet markers to navigate around the 3,500 images without obtruding upon them. Excellent value, and thanks to its lengthy gestation period, it will run on an early 20th-century 8Mb machine.


If your computer has a modem waiting to be plugged into the phone socket, but you're not sure whether you really want to be on-line, free Internet access providers now let you try out the Net without demanding credit card details up front. These free services may also be useful if you are leaving a college or an office, and losing your Internet access in the process.

Free e-mail has been around for a long time: a site maintained by Edwin Hayward gives links to the providers and guidance to the levels of service provided. You may spend more in phone charges as you download your mail from the website, you may be subjected to adverts, and sales sites may not consider your address secure enough for e-mail orders; but the bottom line is that you can send and receive mail via the Web without paying for a mailbox.

You do need an Internet connection in the first place though; and this is what the new free access providers are offering. The big hitter is BT, whose Click+ service offers a browser and e-mail in exchange for a penny a minute on top of the local phone rate. Dixons has taken a different tack with Freeserve. It offers lots of features, such as Web space, and access at the local rate, but technical support comes at a swingeing pounds 1 a minute.

As with all computer products, tech support eats into profits, and it may be unrealistic to expect much of it from a free service. One of the smaller players in the free market, Aardvaak [sic], advises the less technically competent to opt for a conventional service provider rather than its Connect Free facility. If you know what you're doing, look at services like Freeserve, Connect Free and Freenet. If not, Click+ may be the safer option for the nursery slopes.


So Mia the mouse's granny gives her some sparklies to go to the shop and buy her medicine. Mia promptly gets mugged by Romaine Rat, and we have to help her earn more sparklies by playing various improving puzzles. Magical realism, you could call it. Technofile applied its evaluation procedures with its usual rigour, exposing Mia to an exclusive sample of one toddler, who was immediately captivated. Mia: The Search for Grandma's Remedy (Ransom, Win and Mac, ages 4-9, pounds 20).


We could all do with fewer icons and more symbolism. On our desktops, icons are indispensable; in journalism, they are generally indefensible, since the word is not a synonym for "minor celebrity". Desktop icons help keep things simple; media ones keep things trite. Either way, they smooth over life's nuances.

For an antidote, or if you need a reminder that digital technologies are eminently capable of conveying the ambiguous and the elusive, A Faun's Afternoon is now on- line. Five years ago, Alan Edwards translated Stephane Mallarme's L'apres- midi d'un faune, with a view to conventional publication. That has not yet happened, but the centenary of the poet's death came around a few weeks ago, and Edwards has now published the text on his website by way of commemoration. This gives those with limited French skills a chance to join in the on-line celebrations, though most of the action is on the strictly Francophone centenary site.

Edwards' accompanying essay is suitably modest, but nonetheless succeeds in implying that foreigners have a license to translate Mallarme. It was granted by TS Eliot, who described the Godfather of Symbolism as "one of the most obscure of modern poets

Tradition would maintain that the natural medium for words such as these is paper, as palpable and dense as possible. But for a poem about an immaterial condition experienced by a mythical creature, there is no reason to regard mats of compressed plant as superior to pixels. It all depends on how the mosaic of the screen is treated. An artist as well as a writer, Alan Edwards has made his icons more like symbols, and his pages are headed with cameos in which forms that might be nymphs glimmer from under rippling water. Paul Verlaine appears among the accompanying essays, declaring: "Nothing is more precious than that half-light in which the undefined and the precise meet - what we want is nuance, not colour." You want Netscape Navigator 4 on a monitor set to at least 16-bit colour, advises Edwards.