BOSTON DAYS: Burnt Cookie tops bill at feast for cybernerds

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The Independent Online
"Buttocks. (Too fat, saggy)." I contemplate the naked human body on the left of my screen. Its rear end is highlighted and does look, well, a little loose. I reach for my mouse and click again. "Buttock liposculpture - what would you like to do?" I think I'd like to change the subject before it's too late. I can almost feel the surgeon's scalpel stirring in the seat beneath me, so in awe am I of the power of cyberspace. Click. Click.

This looks more like it. Let's eat. (Never mind calories on the bottom). "Smitty's On-Line Cafe. Click for Menu." Panic returns briefly as I review the choices. There are the usual nonsense coffees - the lattes and cappuccinos. The tea selection is truly intimidating, however. Do I want leaves or bags? Keemun, Raspberry Pale or Fruit Ambrosia? (Wouldn't that be rice pudding?) Finally, I opt for a latte and a turkey sandwich. Two clicks.

Not bad. I have only been here 10 minutes and I have ordered refreshments on the Internet. No longer the hopeless "newbie" I was when I walked in, I must now surely qualify as a veteran cybernerd. Never mind that the food counter is only feet from where I am sitting, or that the waiter has to come over to me anyway because I have failed to indicate whether I want my turkey on sourdough or rye. The fact is, I am cruising the infobahn. At last. And the rest-stop grub is pretty good.

This is me spending Sunday evening at Cybersmith, an on-line cafe recently opened at Harvard University, just across the Charles River from Boston. On these tables of learning, there are no Brontes, Hemingways or Kerouacs. Instead, there are screens, keyboards, mice and the latest CD-Rom offerings. Concentration, though, is no less intense here than across the road in the university library.

I am the perfect Cybersmith customer. Opened last winter by Boston retail entrepreneur Marshall Smith and his son, Jed, it is designed as a friendly place for people who know that the Information Highway is out there but have only the slightest clue about what it actually is and how to set about exploring it. People like me. As Jed says: "We wanted to offer an unintimidating way to introduce the novice to cutting-edge technology."

The first step is to buy a card which allows you to use the terminals. Connection charges are clocked up as you play and you pay when you leave. I stay two hours and the bill comes to about $20 (pounds 12). That is how the cafe makes its money.

On-line cafes are popping up in cities all over America and Britain, but few can match Cybersmith for the variety or power of its different stations. First I savour 10 minutes of destruction in the flight simulator. With my joystick and large screen, I get to choose my aircraft, terrain I want to fly over and even the view from inside the cockpit or of the plane from outside. As I strain my engine to avoid another cataclysmic crash, my seat vibrates accordingly. Kaboom - bungled it again. Only my wanderings in the galactic landscapes of the Viper game on the virtual- reality machine are more disastrous. I never said it would be easy," a voice repeats as I stumble about, the special viewer attached to my head.

Time for a chat with one Burnt Cookie in Oklahoma, the first person I make contact with at one of Cybersmith's two "CU-See-Me" terminals. This is where I am truly impressed. The computers are equipped with speakers, a microphone and a video camera. With the help of an assistant, I get myself on to the Cornell University network to seek out other cyber-techies. Hey presto, a half-dozen human beings take shape on my screen and soon they are talking. Burnt Cookie is among them. "Who is this?" she says, looking straight at me. "This is Cybersmith." "Are you out of state? I hope you're out of state. Are you married?" "Yes," I reply. "Pity, you look cute."

I think I have just had my first cyber-flirtation.

DAVID USBORNE

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