Hang ups

Some cakes should not be eaten in public. Last time I visited a cybercafe, I made the mistake of attempting one of those choco-late-topped, cholesterol-crammed eclair-affairs.

I suppose it is the sort of delicacy routinely served at Buckingham Palace garden parties, so there must be a foolproof technique for depositing it safely in the cakehole without inflicting undue embarrassment on yourself or having to pay an emergency visit to Sketchleys.

But if there is a knack, I was never taught it. On my first tentative bite, the eclair imploded, propelling a jet of cream at the nearest VDU.

I had better explain for those who haven't yet visited a cybercafe, that they resemble normal cafes except that on each table, in addition to the usual packets of sugar and the sign graciously thanking patrons for refraining from smoking, there is a networked PC. The idea is that customers can, for about Pounds 4 to Pounds 5 an hour, simultaneously enjoy fast food and a fast link-up to the Internet. That is, unless someone with a temperamental eclair, accidentally provides an impromptu cabaret.

The dance routine with which I entertained my fellow-customers was not planned. But when your fingers are smeared with the chocolate from the topping, you instinctively raise your arms above your head, and wave your hands in a way strangely reminiscent of the Black White Minstrels singing about the dear Old Swannee. Your movements become increasingly frenzied as you watch large dollops of double-whipped slither down the screen towards the processor.

You know that before your dance has ended and you have taken your final bow, the cream will have reached the gubbins, and it's the state-of-the-art circuitry that will be down the Swannee. You will have knackered the computer, probably destroyed the local network - and possibly brought about the final collapse of the Internet's tottering infrastructure.

So my technical tip for this week is this: if you are in a cybercafe, stick to the carrot cake. It's crummy, it's boring, but it will ensure that you can spend your time surfing the Net rather than mumbling apologies and trying to appear nonchalant as you scrub the VDU with your sleeve. Take this simple precaution, and you will find that any of the 70 or so cybercafes in the UK well worth a visit.

In a friendly and informal atmosphere, you can take a cautious step into cyberspace without having to worry about modems, Internet service providers or telephone bills.

You will be surprised by how much you can learn in an hour or two. You will get the hang of how "hot-spots" enable you to hop, skip and jump from one World Wide Web site to another. You will learn how to use one of the Internet's search engines to track down information - and find out just how fiendishly difficult it is to find exactly what you are looking for. If you know an e-mail address (and there's one at the bottom) you could send someone a message.

If the cybercafe is one of the many that offers customers poste restante facilities, you might even receive a reply.

But if you really want confirmation that you are now a citizen of cyberspace, spend half-an-hour using Internet Relay Chat which will allow you to have "conversations" with total strangers in far-flung corners of the planet.

And should you encounter any problems, one of the staff will always lend a helping hand - indeed, a cybercafe is the only place where you are likely to find a waitress who is willing to give you tips.

In fact, if enough teachers visited cybercafes, there would be no need to spend the proceeds of Wednesday's lottery on training them in IT. That isn't to say that the occasional in-service training day devoted to patisserie would not go amiss.


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