TECHNOFILE: COUNTING ON WORD

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A little while back I bumped into a famous scientist who is working on a big-ticket popular science blockbuster. "How's the book going?" I asked him. "Eighty-six thousand seven hundred and twenty-six words," he replied, if I remember correctly. This is as honest an answer as an author will ever give to that loaded question. Jenny Diski says as much in Skating to Antarctica (Granta) "I like the idea of being midway through a book, of being in the midst of work," she observes, "but the reality is that I'm constantly checking the word count and doing sums to see how soon I will finish the thing."

As the question is a particularly sensitive one for me at the moment, the first thing I wanted to know about Word 98 Macintosh Edition, the latest version of Microsoft's ubiquitous word processor, was how quickly I could call up a word count. I suppose writers only have themselves to blame for keeping their vice secret, but Microsoft still hasn't devised a special word-count button for the toolbar. However, as with Word 6, it's the work of a few moments to assign the command to a key on the keyboard. Choose "Customize" from the Tools menu, select Commands from the dialogue box, click the Keyboard button, choose Tools from the Categories list, then ToolsWordCount from the Commands list, making sure that the Save Changes In box is set to Normal, press the key of your choice, choose Assign, then Close, then get typing. And people say word processors have become too complicated!

The measure of Word 98 is that this quibble is about the worst thing I can find to say about it. After the gloomy interface and ponderous labours of Word 6, such a step backwards after the businesslike Word 5.1, 98 is like a sunny day. The toolbars are light and lean; the look and feel are attractive throughout, right down to the new file icons and the little arpeggios the program emits as it goes about its work. It even seems to scroll more gracefully. Best of all though, it includes a feature I've always wanted on screen: a tool that imitates a highlighter pen, with a palette of 15 colours.

Word 98 has been released as part of Office 98 Macintosh Edition (pounds 374 plus VAT or pounds 199 plus VAT for an upgrade), together with the Excel 98 spreadsheet, the PowerPoint 98 presentation software, and the tasty-looking Outlook Express e-mail program. Its political significance is as a substantive demonstration of Microsoft's commitment to Apple, following the dramatic demarche in which Microsoft took a stake in its floundering rival. For once, Mac users get some really major software long before the Windows masses, who don't yet have a target release date. Just listen to us changing our tune.

Its wider significance is that it furthers Microsoft's strategy of integrating ordinary documents with the Internet and with intranets, the miniature Webs used within offices and companies. Users are encouraged to link ordinary documents to each other with hyperlinks of the kind used on the Web, which could make hypertext as familiar a part of everyday office life as the memo. That could do more to popularise the Internet than any amount of online shopping or Web access for TV sets. Hopefully Microsoft won't overlook the niche markets as the revolution unrolls, though. If I may make a little suggestion, perhaps they might expand the Word grammar checker's settings, which currently offer choices of Standard, Formal, Technical and Custom, to include Literary. Then I might be able to tolerate its impertinence.

ALL POWER TO THE IMAGINATION

It's May again, and this one is the 30th since the spectacular tumult of May '68, when radical students thought the world was teetering on the brink of a delirious utopia. Under the pavement lay the beach, according to the Parisian slogan of the day. It was subsequently commemorated in a piece of gallery wit at a Metro station platform, in which a beach scene was displayed in a showcase.

The archetypal '68 Maoist went on to enjoy a successful career in the glossy uplands of the French media, and the sites of anti-capitalist struggle have likewise changed. In the real world, the struggle continues in the Chiapas region of Mexico; in the virtual one, the Frente Zapatista, the insurgents' civil counterpart, now has its own website. In the US, an outfit called the Electronic Disturbance Theater has issued its call to arms: "May 68 the Streets, May 98 the Net". Next Sunday is the date set for "electronic civil disobedience" to "Stop the War in Chiapas". Having spread the Zapatista rebels' words via the Net, some of their supporters are now convinced that they can take direct action sitting at their keyboards.

A "dress rehearsal" was held last month, centred on a site called Flood Net, which enlists its visitors' browsers to make unreasonable demands on the servers of other websites. The designated target was the Mexican Presidency site, an impressive example of Web design, with judicious use of animation and lashings of video. Its texts, however, are as stodgy as you would expect from a government run by an "Institutional Revolutionary Party" that has been in power since the 1920s. In a discussion document posted on a site devoted to electronic civil disobedience, Stefan Wray notes the theoretical justification for Net activism: capital has become electronic and mobile, so its opponents must do likewise. He does not point out that this will enable them to avoid all risk and all effort. It was not until I'd read through the Flood Net page that I realised I was taking part in the action - or rather, my browser was - simply by hooking up to the site. Under these conditions, the slogan "Todos Somos Zapatistas" - "We are all Zapatistas" - becomes almost perfectly vacuous. Whatever was under the streets, under the Net there is nothing.

SORTED FOR E'S AND GIFS

The Health Education Authority's new Trashed site takes a more sophisticated approach to getting on the kids' wavelength than the usual cartoons and coolspeak. The texts deliver no-nonsense infor- mation about drugs from cannabis to crack including details of each one's effects, health risks and advice on what to do in an emergency, and they're all framed by little animated icons that you could gaze at for hours if you were - Perish the thought.

WORLD WIDE WEB

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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