Beer there, done that
Michael Jackson's World Beer Hunter: CD-Rom for Windows - Discovery Channel Multimedia
The whole point of spending 20 years supping the world's best beers is to champion excellence over mediocrity, character over blandness. Michael Jackson's wonderful Beer Hunter programmes on TV showed us the iron-livered one quaffing English bitter, Czech pilsner and Belgian lambic as if it was coming into fashion.
On the CD it's all a bit bland: we merely get a token background hum to make us feel we are in the alehouse and not stuck in front of a computer; the use of video is confined to Michael lecturing us Open University-style; the maps are laughably token. It's still great fun though. If you're a beer-spotter by inclination, there are lists and cross-references and the searches are quick and efficient. It's hard not to like a man who recommends the Swiss Samichlaus (Santa Claus, 14 per cent alcohol) as a beer to accompany a book at bedtime. You'll need a fast Pentium, a couple of bottles and a steady hand.
Jump Ahead Year 2, CUC Software, £29.99, CDRom for PC/Mac
Claiming "over 18 interactive educational modules" teaching 90 skills, this disc takes learning through play seriously. It is intended for six- and seven-year-olds and uses a wide range of games and activities to rehearse skills in arithmetic, writing, vowel sounds, musical scales and basic grammar relating to nouns, verbs and adjectives.
One of the things it does best is draw children into its many locations - like the classroom, club room, ice cave and bone vault - each with its own activity. The ones who tested this program were glued to it for as long as they were let, and protested when taken away. At one level, this is because of the interactivity. All the way through the program are items which squeak, move, jump, fall or do something funny and rewarding when they are clicked. Older children, within its target age group, were motivated more by collecting points and completing challenges.
The user signs in for each session, so the program keeps track of progress and adapts the challenges it offers to take account of the child's progress. A "report card" lists the modules completed and the scores achieved and to keep the interest up successful activities earn stamp points which can be used to send email postcards to children in other countries.
Year 2 is the latest of six titles in the Jump Ahead series, covering ages from 18 months up to eight. This title is billed as being suitable for the British National Curriculum.
Fiachra O Marcaigh
Procomm Plus 32, Quarter-Deck, £132
You bump into a dependable but unexciting childhood friend five years on and discover that he is now a rocket designer, brain surgeon, best-selling author and close adviser to the President. The sensation is similar for a long-time user of Procomm on first starting Procomm Plus 32 for Windows 95/NT. The trustworthy terminal tool for connecting to the Dublin bulletin boards that were the height of online excitement in 1990 has added fax, Web browsing, Internet news and mail, Telnet and FTP (file transfer protocol) to its services. There is more: a viewer for QWK mail packets, remote control of another PC and a scheduler to run tasks unattended.
After the initial surprise, it is good to find that the new tools are pretty good, actually, particularly the drag-and-drop FTP client.
It's surprising that the publisher, Quarterdeck, has bothered to produce its own Web browser when there is such a development race between Microsoft and Netscape that it will be very difficult for its offering to keep pace, but it does mean that one program and interface can be used for almost any online task.
There is so much here that it could seem daunting for comms novices, but power users and those willing to invest some time in learning their way around should find it as much of a "must have" as the original Procomm.
The Aspect scripting language has been updated and extended to deliver more features and a better graphical look for finished scripts. Together with the ability to customise the program's interface this means that Procomm Plus 32 is a good starting point for developing custom communications applications.
However, the language is not particularly well documented and the developer is likely to spend some time poring over printouts from the online help (there's no printed manual) before getting started. One word of warning. Installing the program on a previously reliable NT Workstation 4 machine had unwanted side-effects. When one other TCP/IP application ran the NT machine keeled over with the "blue screen of death". The other program was more important and Procomm Plus was removed, but it has since worked reliably under Windows 95.
Fiachra O Marcaigh
Learning Perl on Win32 Systems, Randal L. Schwartz, Erik Olson & Tom Christiansen, O'Reilly and Associates, 282pp, £21.95
"Greetings, aspiring magicians" begins the preface, as it did for the original Learning Perl and this year's second edition. The original book is seen as the definitive starting point for learning the Perl scripting language. With this new book, apprentice sorcerers working on Windows 95 or NT systems will no longer have to go through the minor mental gymnastics of wondering whether a given file operation or program function will work on their platform as well as the Unix operating system it was intended for. Unix-specific text has been removed, and some sections of particular relevance to Windows NT have been added, particularly manipulating the registry (for the brave) and an introduction to Perl extensions for NT (for journeyman magicians).
Taking two to three hours per chapter, and less than 50 for the whole course, the idea is to bring beginners up to a working knowledge of Perl as quickly as possible. Anyone who finds themselves performing longwinded maintenance chores, scanning event logs, or manipulating text databases under NT should consider looking at Perl as a versatile, powerful and blindingly fast tool for these tasks.
This remains in many ways a model for all programming manuals: well-paced, practical and even fun to read.
Fiachra O Marcaigh
Advanced Perl Programming, Sriram Srinivasan, O'Reilly & Associates, 404pp, £25.95
The latest Perl manual from O'Reilly is strictly for top-grade magicians. Object-oriented programming, graphical interfaces, interaction with C, networking and extending Perl are among the topics covered. According to the editor of the Perl Journal, Jon Orwant, "it is the most advanced Perl book in existence. . ."
Fiachra O Marcaigh
Children of Chaos publisher and price to come, paperback
Until the recent scramble to get PCs onto classroom desks, it seems as though mainstream publications couldn't print the words "children" and "Internet" in the same sentence without mentioning "cyberporn" or "paedophile rings" - or even both. Children are portrayed mainly as victims of computer networks, but Douglas Rushkoff argues the opposite: the people best able to deal with the Net's rapidly emerging, high speed, cut-'n'-paste culture of chaos and fragmentation are. . . its kids.
Rushkoff dubs them "screenagers", likening them to the children of immigrants, who soak up the culture and language far quicker than their elders. He broadly dissects the appeal of screenage popular culture, from Beavis & Butt-head and (arrrgh) Barney to body piercing, gangsta rap, goth parties, Pogs, Power Rangers reruns, Pulp Fiction, skateboards, Star Trek's evolution, and, in one of several inspired sections, that gooey glunk called Gak.
Sometimes the New Age stuff can become tiresome and the longwinded and repetitive analysis can become irritating. But it's refreshing to read a paperback which celebrates playgrounds and Playstations, turning children into active and creative subjects of cyberspace, well able to navigate through it and build it instead of being its passive, consuming victims.