Computers: Confessions of a cultist: Isabel Hilton follows irrational impulses and is initiated into the wonderful world of multimedia, CD-roms and Maddog McGree

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The Independent Online
Let me begin with a confession. Mine is a house in which Autoexec. bat is thought to be a flying mammal with a briefcase and my other half's idea of debugging software is to rub the computer screen with a cut onion and bury it beneath a crossroads. This is not a household that slides down the leading edge of technology for fun.

I do not mention this out of perverse snobbery, only to point out that anyone can be seized by irrational impulses - in my case an uneasy feeling that I was missing something wonderful in failing to grapple with CD-Rom.

The question was posed: was there enough in it to warrant the outlay of more than pounds 1,000 on the hardware. The client group consists of two adults, both of whom use word processors professionally - and two children aged eight and five who had become at school, if not quite computer literate, at least rather handier with a mouse than either of their parents.

Tentatively, I began to make inquiries. It was like uncovering the traces of a cult. Mention CD-Rom to the initiates and they talk for hours: the huge storage capacity, the wonders of multimedia publishing, the educational bonus, the coming publishing explosion.

There were, by last autumn, according to TFPL's CD-Rom directory, nearly 5,000 titles; by Christmas there would be 6,000. And I had not seen any of them. 'There's a lot of rubbish out there, mind you,' said one of my calmer interlocutors. 'So-called travel pieces that are just holiday snaps with music. But there's some wonderful stuff too.'

So what did I need to join the revolution? Patrick Gibbons of Maris Multimedia filled me in. 'The basic decision is Mac or PC with Windows. If you go for a PC, you need a minimum standard colour machine, VGA with 256 colours and 640 by 480 pixels. You will also need an audio card and preferably speakers. You should have a minimum of a 486 processor and, if you are upgrading an existing PC with a multimedia pack, it is worth checking the performance of the CD-Rom drive: they vary in speed of access and data transfer rates. If you go for Macintosh, they are intrinsically multimedia capable and there are already several with CD-Rom drives.'

And why should I bother? In the first instance, to gain access to software that gave me multimedia encyclopedias, language learning and children's talking books. I began to fantasise about my children being so fascinated with the medium that they learned Spanish painlessly in six months. That was how I came to be surrounded by large cardboard boxes.

Nestling inside was a Gateway 2000 486 computer system, with CD-Rom drive and Soundblaster audio card. At least, that is what they said. Piled on the desk were samples of the brave new world: Microsoft's Musical Instruments and Dinosaurs for the eight-year-old, the Encarta encyclopedia for the parents and Bruderbond's talking books - The Tortoise and the Hare, The New Kid on the Block, Arthur's Teacher Trouble and Grandma and Me for the five-year-old. Two pairs of wide eyes fixed on me. 'When can I see the dinosaurs, mum?'

'Later, dear,' I said, suppressing my panic. Let us fast forward to the point where it was all plugged in and switched on. The man who despatched it to me - sorry about this bit, Matthew - had promised it would come with everything installed and with all the hardware and software I needed. In this, Matthew was economical with the truth, but I did not know enough to know this. So I read my way through copious documentation; I fiddled; I experimented; I despaired. I could not work out how to run CD-Rom from Windows. Why don't the manuals ever tell you what to do?

By this time, one pair of eyes had abandoned me and gone off to watch a video. The second pair was looking at me with reproach. 'Can't we ring the man up?'

'No, it's Saturday.'

'Well aren't there any games?'

I left him playing Solitaire and went to make my Christmas pudding.

Come Monday morning, I got on the telephone. Eventually, I found Derek, in Dublin. Derek works for Gateway 2000 technical support and if you ever feel like suicide I strongly recommend you give him a ring.

I explained that I had failed. 'Never think of it as your fault,' said Derek. 'Blame the machine. That's what everybody else does.'

I confessed that I could not work out how to get the CD-Roms to do whatever they were meant to do. I had mastered putting them into the right slot, but then what? Intensive therapy followed. Derek instructed me to find the file manager. It was not there. No, honestly, it wasn't. That little filing cabinet just was not there. Nor would the machine recognise the D drive, which is where the CD-Rom was. After a bit of toing and froing, we - I mean he, of course, but by this time Derek and I were a team - reinstalled Windows from the CD supplied. It was quick and painless and lo, the D drive came up nice as pie.

We were nearly ready to start. Stick Grandma and Me into the slot, load it and away we go.

That was when we discovered we were missing the hardware - the sound card to be precise, without which we were listening to a mute talking book. Pretty Zen.

'Ah,' said Matthew, when he returned from lunch. 'Just a bit of a misunderstanding. I thought maybe you could run them without sound.'

'You can't,' I said.

'Oh well, you'll be able to tell your readers that they need a sound card,' Matthew said.

Readers, you need a sound card.

'I'll get one sent over,' he said.

Two weeks later, he did. It was a 16-bit Soundblaster and I had to take the machine apart to put it in - this is by way of reassurance that any idiot with a Philips screwdriver and Gateway 2000 on the line can do it. It was Sean this time. Now, at last, we were operational.

Or were we? Child A had had two weeks of playing Solitaire, Minesweeper, and mute dinosaur movies and was anxious to get up and at it. We decided to try Bruderbond again. Unfortunately, the machine told us we did not have enough colours in the palette, so I followed the intructions to change the VGA monitor settings. I should not have done that really. It gave me blue and pink stripes.

Fortunately telephone lines to Dublin were in good working order. Now at last . . . well, yes, as far as Bruderbond was concerned. It worked a treat. Sound, pictures, things that went bump, whizz and flash, real American music. Truly enchanting, both children and at least one parent totally captivated.

Now for the Microsoft range. Dinosaurs - in tune with the eight- year-old's current obsession - had been explored without sound. Now we could play the video parts with sound, but still could not get the sound to work within the text. Musical Instruments had no sound at all, which more than defeated the purpose: the allure of it, I am told by those who have made it work, is that you can click on any instrument and hear it played.

Encarta had sound on the quick guide, but not from within the text. I tried the Microsoft helpline - this throw away remark covers hours of engaged numbers and long waits listening to recorded announcements, all at my expense, in working hours - and we ran through a range of options until technical support was stumped.

I tried The Space Encyclopedia: no sound at all, but at least their helpline knew why. My Soundblaster, they explained, not without regret, was too sophisticated. Unless I could find a machine with an 8-bit Soundblaster or wait until their Windows version was ready - in a few weeks, he said - there was nothing to be done. I began to realise that I was an unwitting pioneer.

Back at Microsoft, they explained that technology was moving so fast that all these problems would seem distant in six months time. I was still trying to solve them in the here and now. I switched off and went to work.

I still have not cracked it, but in the meantime another wonder CD- Rom has come into my son's life. It's called Maddog McGree and I am not sure that it has any redeeming virtues at all. But it is enormous fun. So as I watch him shooting the baddies, I sigh occasionally for the mute musical instruments and the wonders of space. But by now it is too late to give up. The children have not learned Spanish, but their mother has joined the cult.

Was it worth the hours of near despair, that special computer-induced rage? I'm afraid it was. Multimedia, when the blasted thing works, is pretty wonderful.

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