Picks and Pans Main: Bytes

updated 12/15/1997 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/15/1997 01:00AM

ANSWER MAN

In a world of uncertainties, Bill McLain appears to have all the answers. He's the guy who responds to all the e-mail sent to Xerox's Web site. Sure, there are plenty of queries about toner and four-color printers. But many are more epic. Sitting in his Palo Alto, Calif., office, McLain, 64, ticks off a few: "Who is the richest man in the world?" "Where did the idea for underwear come from?" "Who invented pizza?" About 350 questions are e-mailed daily to webmaster@xerox.com from as far away as Mongolia. "We haven't been stumped yet," says McLain.

After four decades as a technical writer and publications manager, McLain had been jobless for more than a year in 1995 when Xerox offered him a gig fielding product queries. Recalls McLain: "I said, 'I've been in management all my career, and you now want me to answer mail? Forget it.' " But he acquiesced. Soon after he started, he got "this weird message" requesting the lyrics to "Kum Ba Yah." A boss told him not to bother, but McLain looked up the lyrics and replied. Word spread, and requests poured in for everything from movie trivia to dating advice. Xerox, pleased with the goodwill, assigned him three assistants.

McLain, who ended a 32-year marriage in 1990 and has three adult sons, feels his life experience makes him perfect for the job. "I've been through everything," he says. "When someone has a problem, I try to figure out where they're coming from. I'm not doing anything fantastic. I'm just using common courtesy."

YOU'VE COME A LONG WAY, BABY

In 1992 the Teen Talk Barbie doll was reviled by feminists for chirping, "Math class is tough." Now, Barbie has atoned for her sins by almost single-handedly spawning a hot market in computer games for girls.

Barbie Fashion Designer, a CD-ROM released last year that lets kids design doll outfits, sold more than a million copies and touched off a girl-game gold rush. This Christmas, Barbie maker Mattel is unleashing more cyberwares. The snazziest is Talk With Me Barbie, a $90 doll that can be programmed to speak thousands of phrases, including kids' names.

Prepping the doll (instructions are beamed from the PC to Barbie via infrared rays) gets repetitive. But girls—especially any who have snipped off a real doll's tresses—will have infinite patience for Barbie Magic Hair Styler, a $35 CD-ROM that allows them to make over a virtual Barbie. With Barbie Party Print 'n Play ($20), kids can plan a Barbie-themed bash. The only laggard is Adventures with Barbie Ocean Discovery ($35), a dull treasure hunt. Otherwise parents should welcome Barbie's embrace of plugged-in girl power.

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