Picks and Pans Main: Bytes

updated 02/12/1996 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 02/12/1996 01:00AM

HELP FOR WORRIED PARENTS

As demands for curbing online porn and hate spur cyber-activists to raise alarms about muzzling free speech and stunting a new medium, a handful of software-makers have devised an alternative solution: programs that let parents block access to sites they deem inappropriate for their kids. The products—with such titles as Net Nanny, Cybersitter, SurfWatch and CyberPatrol—have drawn praise from both sides of the heated debate. "They put the control where it ought to be—with the individual," says Christine Maxwell, whose online World Wide Web guide Magellan recently began rating Internet sites for kid-suitability.

The programs block access by a variety of means, which parents can customize to some extent. SurfWatch and CyberPatrol employ teams of professional surfers to search for objectionable sites and offer monthly updates. Net Nanny allows parents to create a dictionary of forbidden words and numbers (a child's name, a parent's credit-card number) that shut the system down if entered or encountered online. Cyber sitter, the most sophisticated of the programs, uses both techniques, adding a utility that checks sites for obscene words. Each of the programs, which range in price from $39.95 to $49.95, also let Mom and Dad play Big Brother, tracking kids' online travels without their knowledge. None of these electronic chaperons is a perfect Mary Poppins, but they're probably enough to keep younger surfers from wandering into red-light districts. As for determined, digitally savvy teens, there's still no substitute for parental supervision.

TV SERIES: THEY DO ROM-ROM

If TV-show "companion" books are too retro a medium for you, now you can spin your fan fun on CD-ROMs. The Frasier Companion includes 70 short video clips, 35 soundbites and a trivia quiz from the psych-spoof sitcom, as well as a form to print your own Frasier faxes and memos, an episode guide and bios of the show's stars.

Be warned, however. The CD, one of several from Byron Preiss Multimedia based on hit television shows, owes everything to the sleekness of its subject. With its one-liners, Frasier bristles with byte-sized nuggets. (In one, he assures a caller, "I'm here for you," then disconnects her.) Other companion titles, including the prime-time soaps Beverly Hills, 90210 and Melrose Place, are not as easily distilled into mini pearls. The Bay watch Companion, with a hodgepodge of jiggly video and a "planner" as interactive as a wall calendar, will satisfy only the most ardent Pamela Lee watchers. (CD-ROMs for PC, Byron Preiss Multimedia Company, $29.95)

ON THE ROAD WITH B.B. KING

Jump behind the wheel of Big Red, an onscreen tour bus, and join famed blues guitarist King on a CD-ROM jaunt through five eras in his colorful career. Users, for instance, can click on an illustration of various '50s storefronts on Beale Street in Memphis, an early mecca for blues musicians, and watch King appear to offer his musical memories. Or, enter a '90s jazz club and choose a 60-second video clip of King performing with the likes of Bonnie Raitt or Eric Clapton.

King's voice-over recollections are often less than enlightening. (In a Beale Street pool hall, for example, he remarks: "You'd go and play pool...just have fun with the guys.") But despite some missed opportunities, the imaginatively realized CD captures the breadth of King's career and is a bus trip you won't mind taking. (CD-ROM for PC & Mac, MCA Interactive, $39.95)

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