Hang-ups

18th October 1996 at 01:00
A long time ago, when I still fancied that I was a bit of a dab hand at DIY, I had ambitions to re-wire my already much-battered and Black-and-Deckered home. I outlined my master plan to one of those helpful old gents who used to stand, sucking pipes, behind the counters of small hardware shops, in the days when it was still acceptable to be seen smoking, and there were still small hardware shops to do it in.

I was waxing lyrical on junction boxes, or circuits or some such when he held up a trembling hand. "You know what you want, my son, before you go fiddling with any electrics? A good book, that's what you want."

He disappeared into the back of the shop and I expected him to return with some weighty tome that would explain some of the lesser known implications of Ohm's Law. Instead, he gave me a dog-eared book that had obviously been held in many hands before mine. There was a fading illustration on its cover. It was of a lad with a well-scrubbed face and preposterous shorts who was sitting alongside a bright-eyed spaniel. They were gazing at an electric light bulb. I forget the exact title, but it was something like Sidney and Scamp Find Out All About Electricity.

I naturally took offence, but I also took the book. At home, waiting for some paint to dry, I deigned to read a few pages. In 10 minutes, I'd learnt more about electricity than I had in 10 years at school, and a lifetime of clicking switches. I also learned an important lesson. If you really want to find out about something, the best place to start is at the children's shelves in the library. Don't be put off by the joke-a-page approach, the laboured bonhomie or the words which have been thought-full-y hyph-en-at-ed to make them easier to read.

I don't mind confessing that everything I know about what goes on under the lid of a PC was gleaned from Kermit Learns How Computers Work (Prima Publishing, Pounds 9.45). Unfortunately, the companion volume, Kermit Learns Windows, was rendered out-of-date by the arrival of Windows 95. Even more of a blow has been this computer-literate frog's reluctance to tackle the subject of the Internet.

The task has been left to BoTom. He is some sort of robot - not as famous as Kermit, of course, but he is every bit as knowledgeable. He has larded Kids Rule the Internet (Bloomsbury, Pounds 3.99) with enough jokes, phunny spellings, and cartoons to convince young readers that the World Wide Web could well be the best thing to have happened since the invention of the Christmas stocking.

It's remarkable that he has been able to cram so much into only 90 or so pages. Most books about the Internet are at least five times as long, and, despite introductory protestations to the contrary, are clearly intended for techies, propeller-heads, IT co-ordinators and similar eccentrics.

The book mimics hypertext, the ingenious system of inter-connections which enables Internet users to hop, skip and jump from one Web site to the next. So it's possible to read BoTom's chapters in any order. Footnotes on each page direct readers who don't understand a concept to the page on which they will find it explained.

As well as the basics of e-mail, and the World Wide Web, BoTom has a brave stab at introducing readers to the mysteries of FTP, telnet and Internet Relay Chat. There is a good guide to the free software that's available on-line, and a list of Web sites that every self-respecting child should visit.

There should be a copy in every school library. Probably the children know it all anyway, but their teachers could benefit from it enormously.

uarnoldevanseasynet.co.uk

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