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Hang ups

I'm puzzled that so many people enjoy puzzles. I've never had any time for them. So one piece of software that I would never allow anywhere near my disc drive is Sierra Online's much acclaimed The Lost Mind of Dr Brain. I quite like the idea of being able to explore the doctor's grey matter, repairing "the demented regions". The problem is that, in order to do so, wannabe brain-surgeons don't wield digitised scalpels, or take pot-shots at rebellious synapses. Instead, they have to solve a thousand or so puzzles.

Once they have chosen from Novice, Expert or Genius level, they have to guide coloured balls through gates; negotiate mazes; match sounds to symbols; unscramble bars of music; rotate rows of letters to form words - in fact, the sort of thing that reduces my brain to a worse state than that of the poor doctor's. The packaging should carry a health warning. On the contrary, in future it's far more likely to be adorned with a new seal of approval.

It's one of the first programs to be awarded a "Quality Symbol" by the Parents Information Network (PIN), an independent organisation of parents who want to help their children make the best educational use of home PCs. "In the main there is no opportunity to try out software before buying, very little informed guidance at the point of sale, and it's not usually possible to return software if it's not wanted," says Jacquie Disney, one of PIN's founders. So instead of leaving punters to the mercies of the wise-guys who pen those irresistible blurbs, PIN has established its own independent team of teachers and parents to review titles. Programs will need to have a worthwhile educational content, be fun to use and be realistically priced to gain a Quality Symbol.

In addition to Dr Brain, the only recipients so far are KidPix Studio (Br?derbund), The Cat Came Back (CentreGold), and KidWorks Deluxe and Math Blaster 1 (both from Ablac). Expect to see PIN's distinctive Kite mark proudly displayed on more packaging as manufacturers come to realise that its presence is going to be worth acres of the blurb writer's purplest prose.

Software isn't the only thing that is giving PIN's members a collective headache. The survey reveals that many of them - especially women - are turned off by computer jargon.

These findings reflect a general unease with new technology - something that is being addressed by PIN's sister organisation, Life with Technology (LIFT), which wants to ensure that no sector of society is excluded from the benefits of the Information Age. To achieve this, LIFT will have to tackle some major problems - the sort that only those who reach Genius Level on The Lost Mind of Dr Brain should attempt.

* PIN and LIFT can be contacted at PO Box 1577, London W7 3ZT.

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