The post-holiday blues: Living with your new PC


By the end of the holidays, millions of Americans will be staring at their new computers and wondering: "What do I do now?"

If you're one of these folks, you have a couple of choices.

You can roll up your sleeves, pull out the manuals and start to work mastering Microsoft Office, or start punching a year's worth of checks and credit card receipts into that brand-new copy of Quicken. That'll bring you down from that holiday high quicker than you can say "income tax time."

Or, you can look around for something really interesting to do with that fancy new machine. Naturally, I have a few suggestions.

These items have nothing in common, other than they are interesting, entertaining and/or original, and will help put off the day when you have to learn how to use that spreadsheet software.

Straight out of left field is Computer Athlete. It's a $129.95 gadget that takes the boredom out of the daily exercise routine by making it part of a huff 'n puff interactive computer game.

Now, how to explain this . . . You take a bunch of plastic pieces, cables, sensors, connectors, push-buttons and other stuff out of the box. When you fit them altogether, which looks hard but isn't, they turn into an electronic eye that you can attach to a exercise bike, treadmill, rowing machine, stair stepper or ski machine. A cord connects the gizmo to the joystick port of your computer.

When you get everything positioned just right and run the ExerCitement software, you'll find yourself in the middle of a race your computer screen.

There's a choice of competition: You can match the race to the exercise machine (a running race for a treadmill) or do something else entirely, such as rowing on screen while you run in reality. Either way, the photocell figures out how fast your body parts are moving and adjusts the speed of your character to your actual speed.

The race is on

Push-buttons mounted on the exercise equipment allow you to turn left and right (on the screen, at least), and you'll win or lose all kinds of points for passing other characters, bumping them off, or getting bumped off yourself.

You can set the speed level from normal to insane, depending on mood and physical condition. The program will also act as a timer for your exercise session.

Computer Athlete isn't cheap (it's less expensive to rent a Bruce Lee video to watch while you exercise), but it is fun. And if you've just laid out a couple of grand for a computer and another thou for that fancy exercise machine, what's another hundred or so?

You also need a certain amount of commitment, including a willingness to keep exercise equipment near your computer.

Of course, if you don't have enough room in your little second-floor office to keep the treadmill near the computer all the time, you can get real exercise by lugging it up the stairs from the basement every day.

Computer Athlete requires an IBM-compatible computer with 512K of memory and an EGA or VGA monitor. For information, contact Computer Athlete Inc., 5193 Brentwood Place, Dublin, Ohio 43017.

For conspiracy buffs

If you're a conspiracy buff whose appetite was whetted by the hoopla over the 30th anniversary of John F. Kennedy's assassination, buy a multimedia kit -- if you don't already have one -- and check out a new CD-ROM title called J.F.K. Assassination: A Visual Investigation.

This package shows off the hardware and software revolutions that have helped PC's break new ground in the way we store, retrieve and manipulate information.

There's plenty of written information here: the full Warren Commission report and the full text of Jim Marrs' "Crossfire" and "The Assassination of John F. Kennedy: A Complete Book of Facts," longtime staples of conspiracy theorists -- all laid out with hypertext cross-references.

What makes this title so chilling and fascinating is a hypermedia blend of photos, sound, video and animation that eerily brings those days back to life. There are digitized videos of four of the seven films taken during the assassination -- including the famous Zapruder film that shows the instant of impact of the fatal bullet and has stirred debate for three decades.

A 20-minute, narrated overview that includes photos, maps and diagrams of Dealey Plaza in Dallas takes you through the assassination, the arrest of Lee Harvey Oswald, and Oswald's ++ murder by nightclub owner Jack Ruby. Using high-powered workstations, the authors also developed animated re-creations of the attack, using various scenarios and theories to track the paths of the bullets that were fired.

Although the text is slanted toward conspiracy theories,

ultimately you have the evidence and can sort it out for yourself. It's an outstanding first effort from a new company that promises more unusual titles. For information contact Medio Multimedia, 2703 152nd Ave., Redmond, Wash. 98052.

Something for the kids

If the PC you bought with the kids in mind has a CD-ROM, invest $12.95 in a subscription to Club Kidsoft. This slick, colorful, tabloid-sized quarterly magazine and catalog comes with a CD that includes simple computer games, puzzles and -- most important -- demonstration versions of dozens of educational software titles. You can use the same disk in a DOS or Macintosh computer.

It's a terrific way to try software before you buy it -- particularly for kids, who are notoriously finicky. In addition to the most popular programs, you'll find excellent titles from major companies that may not be able to fight their way into the store shelves because their market niche is too small.

If you do find a title the children like, you have two choices. You can order it on the phone and receive the full package by mail. Or, if instant gratification is what you want, call up the company and exchange your credit card information for a code that will unlock a full version of the program on the CD and install it right on hard disk.

I strongly recommend waiting a week until Kidsoft can ship the shrink-wrapped version, which includes the original disks and manuals. You'll be seeing a lot of software sold this way over the next year or so.

For information, contact Kidsoft Inc., 718 University Ave., Suite 112, Los Gatos, Calif. 95030.

(Michael J. Himowitz is a columnist for The Baltimore Sun.)

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