TECHNOFILE; ALEXA FILES

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When you walk along a path through the woods, the Alexa FAQ observes, you are benefiting from the experience of others, whose trials and errors made the trail the shape it is. Alexa uses this pleasant silvan metaphor to explain its modus operandi as an aid to Web navigation. You download the Alexa software, which manifests itself as an untethered toolbar on your desktop. When you call up a Web page with your browser, Alexa sends the URL off to its own servers, which send back information based on previous requests by Alexa users for that page. You can then pull down a menu from the toolbar which gives a rating for the weight of traffic to the site, its loading speed, and its freshness (based on how long ago the most recently updated pages were posted).

The toolbar also offers a couple of links to sites which may be of related interest, generated either by reference to patterns of movement across the Web recorded from Alexa users, or by suggestions they have explicitly made. Another button gives access to online reference sources: the Britannica In- ternet Guide (now renamed eBLAST), and the Merriam-Webster Dictionary and Thesaurus. If a page request results in the all-too-familiar 404 Not Found message, the toolbar offers access to Alexa's archive, containing "snapshots" of the Web taken at different times.

Encouraging recommendations and monitoring browser paths is far more internetaire than eBLAST's pretensions to authority as an arbiter of truth on the Web, the results of which frequently come a poor second to the use of a search engine and one's own critical faculties. In keeping with the spirit of the Net, it is a collective endeavour facilitated by technology (and some input from Alexa while they wait for a user base to accumulate). That depends on fair play: voting for your own site is one thing, but an organised clicking campaign by a religious cult would be another.

With a solemn promise to respect your privacy, by keeping information about your browsing separate from information about your identity, Alexa affirms the highest ethical standards - and it's free. Where's the catch? I discov- ered one by checking the Technofile links pages, which are an oddity in Net terms since most visitors presumably reach them via this newspaper page, rather than from other pages on the Web. Unsurprisingly, they only have about a dozen links to them from other Web pages. Yet Alexa advised that they have no less than 3,639 such "backpointers". It also classified their speed as "slow", although they have almost no graphics, and their freshness as merely "good", though their weekly updates should qualify them for a "very good" or "excellent" rating. Looks to me as though it's measuring everything held under the auspices of www.poptel.org.uk, which means that its idea of a website is different from common human usage.

Alexa's other drawback is its potential to encourage a chart mentality, in which people judge a site by how many visitors have been there already. It's a different medium from print or CDs, and it deserves a more discerning attitude.

WHERE THE BIG BYTES ARE

Alexa now has 8 terabytes - 8 million million bytes - of data in its Web archive. By its reckoning, that compares with:

- 2 terabytes (TB) in a single "snapshot" of the Web

- 3TB in a local public library

- 8TB in a typical video rental shop

TECHNOTIP

Latest addition to the Office of Fair Trading website is the Office's Personal Finance Guide, which joins pages of advice on how to buy used cars, get electrical goods repaired, and of course complain. The Guide won't tell devotees of Radio 4's You and Yours anything new, and if you don't know plenty of it already, you probably don't have a computer, never mind an Internet account. But if you can't put your hand on your heart and swear you understand the difference between with-profits, unit-linked and unitised with-profits endowment mortgages, there will be moments in your financial life when you'll wish you had this site bookmarked.

TYPING WITH TIMON

Would you have learned to type better if you had been helped by a meerkat and a warthog? Disney is now offering your children the chance you never had, through Adventures in Typing with Timon and Pumbaa (Windows/Macintosh, age 6 and upwards, pounds 30). The program appears to be pretty well identical to that of Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing (the popular typing software reviewed here earlier this year), combining exercises and animated games to turn the world's dullest vital skill into entertainment. Only the front end is different, featuring the Lion King characters in the jungle instead of the smart Ms Beacon in her office setting. This title is an example of how good Disney multimedia can be. It looks charming, its graphic design is assured, it works a treat, and it teaches children something they really ought to know.

A TEAR TO THE EYE

The archives of The Onion, "America's Finest News Source", prove that it has an ear for the American headline like Steve Nallon's ear for Margaret Thatcher, whether it's:

HUMAN INTEREST

Chinese Woman Gives Birth To Septuplets: Has One Week To Choose

MEDICINE

Taco Bell Launches New "Morning After" Burrito

TRENCHANT OP-ED PIECES

We Can Put A Man On The Moon, But We Can't Make Killer Robot Police?

THOUGHTFUL LEADERS

The Federation Is Too Lenient About The Prime Directive

LIFE FEATURES

It's Not A Crack House, It's A Crack Home

SCIENCE

Super Monkey Collider Loses Funding

THE FAMILY

Study: Children Of Divorce Twice As Likely To Write Bad Poetry

AND THE AMERICAN ZEITGEIST

Christopher Reeve Placed Atop Washington Monument

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