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Hang Ups

As all those newspaper articles keep telling us, the Internet is a repository of the world's accumulated wisdom. Every subject from astro-physics to Zen Buddhism is supported by a mind-boggling wealth of text, graphics, video and sound files. With all the best that has been thought and said never more than a mouse click away, it's strange, then, that so many of us who use the Internet never quite find the time to follow the psalmist's advice and "apply our hearts unto wisdom". We're too busy exploring those other multifarious sites which are of no conceivable value to anyone.

An ideal starting point for time-wasters is Steve Berlin's Useless Web Page. It can't be described as the most useless page on the World Wide Web as it fulfils the dubious function of offering a guide to other equally useless pages.

The Useless Hall of Fame, which is constantly being updated, has details of a site devoted entirely to the number 42. Others provide an index of "what's in Brian's sock drawer" and the deliberations of a "Committee to Ban Hydrogen Oxide". There is an alphabetical list of pop bands that don't exist, and an invitation to join a variation of the traditional chain letter in which "you send one alpaca to the person at the top of the list and in two weeks you have a herd of 50,000 alpaca sent to you".

The joy of Mr Berlin's page is that, like all the sites on the World Wide Web, it is written in Hypertext, and adorned with "hot spots". Simply click on a hot spot and you're transported to the listed location. It means you "surf" the Internet without having to know a thing about the convoluted technology that makes it possible.

Start off, for instance, at the Government's home page and you'll find yourself spoilt for choice. You might be irresistibly drawn to the latest news from the Inland Revenue or to the heady excitement on offer from Cheshire County Council's Environmental Planning Services. But before you dash off, peep to see what the Office for Standards in Education (Ofsted) has on offer.

You might be shocked to find the complete text of hundreds of their school inspection reports, all of which can be downloaded to your own computer. You do, however, need Adobe Acrobat software on your hard disc to translate the binary file into ordinary text, and to re-format it so that it's intelligible.

In the old days, a school report was a confidential document strictly for the eyes of staff and the local authority bigwigs. I can see the sense in the "reform" which allowed parents and the local community to be privy to the information, but it seems to me totally outrageous that it should be freely available to any of the Internet's 30 million Nosy Parkers. What if a school feels that the inspectors have been grossly unfair or downright inaccurate? The headteacher can try to remedy matters locally with a letter to parents or published in the newspaper. But there is no way of correcting information once it is broadcast on the Internet.

Feeling suitably incensed, I tried to alert a handful of teachers to the dangers. They were singularly sanguine. A school's secrets are safe on the Internet, they insisted: there is no recorded case of anyone ever being able to get beyond the first page of an Ofsted report. You'd need a program far more sophisticated than Adobe Acrobat to translate the dreary Ofstedspeak into prose that anyone could possibly want to read.

If they are right about that, it won't be long before Ofsted joins Brian's socks and the alpaca in the Useless Hall of Fame.

Various government departments are at Useless Page is at http:www.primus.comstaffpaulpuseless.html Adobe Acrobat: 0181 574 1900

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