HOME IS WHERE THE LAPTOP IS

Last month a state highway crew in Novato, Calif., made a startling find: a stringy-haired homeless man in a roadside tent, hunched over a laptop, surfing the Internet, thanks to a high-powered battery that had recently vanished from the crew's cherry picker.

The man, arrested for possession of stolen property but later released, was 22-year-old Neal Berry. Though employed as a $l,000-a-month shipping clerk at a local mail-order company, he preferred to put his money into hardware rather than housewares. "Rents were just too high," says Berry, who had been homeless for a year before he was discovered. "Besides, I'm shy. When I meet people I can hardly talk to them. How I make friends is on the computer."

Berry went digital five years ago, when he lived in a group home for troubled teens in Sepulveda, Calif. A friend introduced him to online adventure games, and he learned more by reading books. "I'm not a hacker," says Berry, who recently earned his high school equivalency degree, "but I know more than most people." Berry's aptitude doesn't surprise his mom, Donna Berry, 56, an Amtrak reservations agent from Riverside, Calif. At age 3, he unscrewed his crib. "He always had his own way of doing things," she recalls.

For nearly a year, Berry saved a portion of his paycheck and, in December, spent $2,144 on a laptop and $500 on a 28.8-Kbps modem, which he connected to a $350 cellular phone. Fifty bucks a month gets him unlimited local dialing. He began spending 6 to 12 hours a day as shylent@bbs.annex.com. He soon struck up a cyber-romance with an 18-year-old woman from Eugene, Ore., who invited him to come live with her and her mother. He recently accepted. In Oregon, Berry hopes to find a job in computers and, yes, to rent an apartment when he can afford it. "If I ever win the lottery," he says, "I'll buy an apartment building and charge only enough to pay the bills. Landlords are too greedy."

LIGHT MY FIREFLY

If you're the type who digs divas like Madonna and Whitney Houston, will you also like the new Mariah Carey, or is Alanis Morissette a better bet? If your friends can't advise you, it's possible Firefly can. This absorbing new Web site (http://www.ffly.com), run by Agents Inc., a Cambridge, Mass., startup, collates recommendations from thousands of fans and then uses new technology to match your tastes with those of like-minded listeners. Type in the names of favorite performers and rate some recent releases, and Firefly will suggest other discs you should spin. The more you rate, the more personalized the recommendations become. Users have access to musicians' biographies, discographies and the most extensive collection of sound clips in cyberspace. Most albums can be purchased with a few mouse clicks—music to any lazy shopper's ears.

>HIRSCHFELD: GREAT ENTERTAINERS

BROADWAY BELTERS, HOLLYWOOD ICONS, media moguls—you're nobody till you've been lampooned by New York Times illustrator Al Hirschfeld. This stylish CD-ROM, featuring over 1,000 drawings from the artist's 67-year career, delivers an engrossing cavalcade of stars despite its clunky, non-searchable interface and disappointingly jagged printouts.

In addition to viewing caricatures of celebs from Fred Astaire to Sly Stallone, along with bios and photos of each, fans can get to know the affable, 92-year-old inkman himself through video interviews. True devotees can meet the real Nina—Hirschfeld's daughter, whose name he weaves into nearly every sketch. (CD-ROM for PC and Mac, Jasmine Multimedia, $45.95)

  • Contributors:
  • Laird Harrison,
  • Samantha Miller.