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CD-ROMS With a View

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Cyber Rights: The fight for justice is described on "Amnesty Interactive."

Newly released multimedia on words, films, anatomy and human rights

By Jordan Elgrably

Students, writers and professionals doing research, and just plain opsimaths looking for alternative learning tools now turn to interactive CD-ROMs and online services as well as to books. Despite the recent doldrums that have beset the multimedia industry, there are still thousands of CD-ROMs on the market, many of which are designed to replace our old study tools and resource guides, particularly for those who enjoy some visual as well as verbal stimulation.

(In addition to a CD-ROM drive, all CD-ROMs discussed in this review require, for Mac users, a color monitor, System 7.0 or higher, and a minimum of 4 to 8MB of RAM; for PC, a color monitor, Windows 95 or Windows NT, version 3.51 or later operating system, a multimedia PC or compatible with a 386SX or higher microprocessor, 8MB of RAM, 5MB hard-disk space, and mouse or other pointing device.)

One of my recent favorites is the American Heritage Talking Dictionary (Softkey; $39), which includes a thesaurus and such features as Word of the Day, which you can set at easy, intermediate or difficult. Choosing the difficult setting, for instance, I came across the mellifluous if not all that useful "anadromous," which means "migrating up rivers from the sea to breed, used of fish."

Many entries are pronounced in voice-over, including slang and "obscene" words (access to which can be modulated by a shut-off button). And if you don't know to spell the word you're looking for, the dictionary offers a list of several possibilities. The WordHunter feature, meanwhile, allows you search for words in a variety of disciplines.

Scrabble players and crossword puzzlers will appreciate the Anagram option, and there are also fairly thorough dictionaries of biography, geography and foreign words and phrases. Occasionally the biography dictionary seems misogynous, providing an entry and portrait for Sartre but nothing under Simone de Beauvoir. The dictionary will answer most word searches and is easy to use. You can also import word finds into MS Word or MacWrite files, a supreme advantage when you consider the inferiority of spellcheck and thesaurus options for those programs.

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Movie Madness: "Cinemania 96" makes trivia accessible on CD-ROM.

A good resource for film lovers is Cinemania 96 (Microsoft Home; $59). An interactive guide to movie history, Cinemania 96 includes hundreds of reviews by Leonard Maltin, Pauline Kael and Roger Ebert, as well as the Baseline Encyclopedia of Film, Ephraim Katz's Film Encyclopedia and thousands of movie portraits, stills and clips. You can watch selected scenes from such classics as Casablanca or Citizen Kane on the computer screen, read the biographies of great directors like Cocteau, Welles, Wilder, Lubitsch and Spielberg, or access a feature that enables users to create their own lists of favorites.

Cinemania 96 serves as a visually oriented complement to such printed tomes as Maltin's Movie & Video Guide, and comes with the ability to access monthly updates to new film reviews and recent video releases through the World Wide Web at www.msn.com/cinemania/. Microsoft's online service is offering these updates free until Aug. 31, 1996. And yes, Quentin Tarantino is already featured along with the predecessors he borrows from so shamelessly--David Lynch, John Woo and Martin Scorsese.

For the study of human anatomy and medicine have a look at the new 5.0 version of BodyWorks (Softkey; $49). Lessons in the basics come complete with audiovisual cues; in somewhat gimmicky fashion, a female doctor attired in a Star Trek-style uniform leads a tour of the body. In a soothing voice, Dr. BodyWorks explains everything from the brain to circulatory, digestive, muscular, nervous and reproductive systems, standing in a futuristic room where 3-D graphic movies continually morph from one body part to the next.

Under the Movie List are clips on blood flow through eyesight and even a live childbirth. BodyWorks includes a source guide of national health organizations specializing in the research and treatment of such disorders and diseases as lupus, diabetes, dyslexia, anorexia/bulimia, cancer and AIDS/HIV. Although there is some discussion of toxins such as Agent Orange, little mention is made of alternative medicine, with homeopathy and acupuncture rating only perfunctory entries. There is a complete glossary, however, designed for both the layman and beginning med students. Like Cinemania, BodyWorks can be updated through the Internet.

One of the more recent CD-ROMs from Voyager, the New York interactive company that specializes in progressive, educational and arts titles, is Amnesty Interactive ($10). An impressive work designed with beautiful illustrations by Nancy Nimoy, the daughter-in-law of actor Leonard Nimoy, who also narrates, Amnesty Interactive provides a rich source of information on the condition of human rights around the globe.

There are some stunning photographs of so-called Third World people and places, and the disc contains detailed geographical and demographic information on many countries, discussing figures for unionized labor, national ethnicity, literacy rates and languages spoken. Sound clips bring to life the stories of several former political prisoners from countries such as the United Kingdom, the Sudan, South Africa and Guatemala.

There are also reviews of major human-rights documents, including the Declaration of Independence, the United Nations Charter, the French Droits de l'Homme and much more. The biographies of major liberation leaders such as Sakharov, Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. are placed alongside the venerable figures of humanist philosophy, among them St. Augustine and Rousseau.

The central intent of this CD-ROM is to demonstrate that "every voice makes a difference." There are accompanying handbooks for activists and those who may merely wish to write a letter in an Urgent Action campaign, in order to free a political prisoner or ameliorate a general breakdown of respect for human rights. On the whole, it is an inspiring and beautifully produced title.

To make your way through the maze of educational and entertainment titles now available on CD-ROM, consider the CD-ROM Superguide recently issued from Ballantine ($20). Written by San Jose columnist Mike Langberg, the Superguide's 500 feature reviews tour just about every interest and angle in the multimedia world. Although many of us may find that nothing quite replaces the intimacy of reading the printed page--certainly where fiction is concerned--the interactive/cyberspace revolution has already converted many scholars and even (with some help from the Word of the Day) sciolists into reluctant techies.

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From the March 28-April 3, 1996 issue of Metro

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