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CD-ROM Review - The History of Life - Ransom 

 

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"Life," Marvin the Paranoid Android in the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy* had a habit of saying, "don't talk to me about life." He wouldn't have liked this CD-ROM. It's a neat audio-visual presentation on where we and other living things came from.

The initial menu gives you the choice of an intro, "the brain electric", "thinking", "life games", "time lines" and "ideas". If these seem to be rather more about thought than life, the topic names aren't really a huge clue to the content - so "ideas" includes Darwin, genes, Gaia and more. Everything's worth exploring, and the presentations are done with humour and a light touch, although there is quite a lot of pure talking, and the graphics aren't very exciting, reflecting the fact that the disc was made in 1999.

I love the way you could skip around activities, clicking on little popups that said "I'm bored with this" or whatever when you'd had enough. The "thinking" section was a sort of interactive quizzy thing, while the life games, though not exactly hi-tech were entertaining.

When it comes to content, what there is was good, though I think it's a bit heavily biased towards evolutionary biology. Don't get me wrong, it's the jewel in the crown of biology, and I'm not suggesting there's anything wrong with it, but there's more to the story of life than this - I thought, for instance, that the plants, fungi and friends got a relatively raw deal. Only a couple of small moans about specific content. Admittedly the voice over did say Gaia is a contentious theory, but I think it's more than that, it's a theory that few scientists support, and as such probably has no place here. For that matter I was surprised that Richard Dawkins' rather flaky meme theory is presented as being undisputed fact. But these are minor issues.

The only reason this CD-ROM hasn't done better is that it's showing its age in terms of Windows compatibility. Mostly it works okay under Windows XP, though there's an error message every time you run it, but when you go into the PDA there's real trouble. The PDA is a sort of "where have I been" tracker that lets you navigate back through your achievements. It's a good idea, but it simply wrecks XP. The screen of the PDA flickers, and when you click on a button the whole thing locks up, taking XP with it - the only way out was to call up the Task Manager and kill the process. XP has been around long enough that this shouldn't happen, but if you've still got an older version of Windows it's highly recommended, and the manufacturers should serious consider and updated version to handle the new operating system.

CD-ROM for Windows 3.x and above. Best not run under Windows XP.

* I felt the urge to comment on HHGTTG both here and in the review of the companion product The History of the Universe. It must be something to do with the sweeping titles!

Reviewed by Brian Clegg

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Last update 05 June 2007