Phreaks, fish, Fire Talk

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Autumn is here, and with it comes word that the Web is more intertwined than ever. The scientific journal Nature reports that any two randomly picked Web pages are separated by an average of just 19 links. Thus, like some bizarre high-tech version of the "Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon" party game, anything you might be looking for online is theoretically fewer than 20 clicks away.

But who’s got time for even a dozen clicks? Mindless Web surfing is passé. We want results now. After all, fall is a busy season. School’s in session, there are new TV shows to watch and leaves to rake. We all know how long that takes.

The time is ripe for another Netropolis cybersurvey edition – featuring a fresh batch of recently harvested Web linkage. It’s guaranteed to save you time and make you smile.

Fresh fish: Back before he was flipping us the Bowfinger, actor Steve Martin had a hilarious routine in his ’70s stand-up act where he accused the French of not having the common courtesy to speak English. Translate that Anglocentric attitude into today’s multicultural realm of the Net – with Web pages published in nearly every human dialect – and you’ve got a real etiquette emergency on your hands. The problem is simple: How can we language-challenged (read: monolingual) Americans make sense of the countless sites that don’t communicate in Queen Elizabeth’s native tongue?

Perhaps the solution lies with Systran Software’s Babel Fish. Named after a fictional futuristic translation gizmo from British author Douglas Adams’ classic comedic sci-fi novel, Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Babel Fish is a Web program that instantly translates online text. It works so well that the popular AltaVista search engine has licensed the Babel Fish technology and now offers a free translator service that can convert entire foreign language Web sites into quasi-English versions.

Admittedly, the results are sometimes … fishy. In one translation I tried, the English slang term "poking fun" converted into "amusement pricking." Nonetheless, it’s amazingly useful. AltaVista’s Babel Fish page can translate French, Spanish, German and Portuguese into fairly readable English (and vice versa). Once you get used to it, Babel Fish becomes an invaluable tool for cross-cultural surfing. It’s definitely worth a permanent bookmark.

Fresh phreakin’: In the dark days before the Web, techno joyriders called phone phreaks would hack into the local phone company’s computer to unlock their home telephone’s powerful conference call feature. Then they’d effortlessly dial up a party line conversation with a half-dozen friends around the globe, and leave Ma Bell footing the bill.

Today you can do almost the same thing online, without breaking any laws. A new software product called Fire Talk (a free download) plugs your Internet-connected PC (with soundcard and microphone) into a virtual party line network. You can talk live with dozens of Fire Talkers simultaneously, on channels created by current users. Last week, I found everything from "Married but flirting" to "Thursday night Bible study." You can also invent your own.

Depending on the speed of your Web connection, Fire Talk’s audio quality might take on that quaint man-on-the-moon aesthetic, but the gee-whiz factor more than makes up for the static. My favorite feature? Fire Talk integrates with your browser while you’re Web surfing, and will actually tell you if other Fire Talk users are visiting the same Web pages you are. Then, if you want, you can start conversations with them. When you’re lonely at 3 a.m., this sure beats 900-numbers.

Fresh talk: Almost immediately after its inception a couple of years ago, digital impresario Richard Metzger’s Disinformation op/news site became the poster child of snotty left-sided new media immediacy and smarmy intelligossip fun. Their Net portal magazine format – combining original content with carefully sifted links to outside stories – makes no pretenses about objective reporting. Instead, this is all attitude: conspiracy theories, drug recipes, Big Brother revisionism and the requisite name check of every 50-cent pop culture icon from Aleister Crowley to Throbbing Gristle lead singer Genesis P-Orridge. If it sounds like one big postmodern rant, it often is. It’s also great fun.

Even if you’ve seen Disinfo’s glorious mess, it’s worth paying a return visit to check out its apocalyptic streaming video talk show, "Infinity Factory." Hosted by Metzger himself, this is like "Larry King Live" on crystal meth. Recent guests have included performance artist Ann Magnuson, Moog synthesizer pioneer Gershon Kingsley and X-Rated Bible author Ben Akerley.

"End-of-the-world news, weird music and porn stars," hypes the teaser blurb for "Infinity Factory." "It’s something for everyone." Recommended, of course.

Fresh Frames: Attention Flash animation filmmakers! Netropolis wants your Flash format cartoons, shorts and loops! As discussed in the September 8 Netropolis column, these high-tech flipbook masterpieces are taking the Web by storm. We’re guessing Detroit must have its share of budding auteurs toiling away on what may become the next Steamboat Willie (or even Fritz the Cat). If you think you’ve got the animated goodies to share, e-mail us your creations; we’ll publish the best submissions on

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