Software commentary; a discriminating selection of current releases. (Includes Easy Graph, Road Rally U.S.A. and Smoothtalker) (evaluation)
Easy Graph from Grolier Electronic Publishing is a well-polished introduction to computerized graphing concepts, yet its usefulness in real-life applications is severely limited. Designed for users aged 8 to adult, Easy Graph explains the use and construction of bar graphs, pictographs, and pie charts through a series of menu-driven examples.
With its simple explanations and excellent error-trapping, Easy Graph is a valuable tool for youngsters learning the fundamentals of graphs. There is no need to memorize complex commands or worry about axis or scaling--you simply enter the words and the values associated to them (i.e. Neil's Age...21). Once the data are entered, Easy Graph takes care of the rest.
Unfortunately, Easy Graph can handle only six to eight sets of values, depending upon which type of graph you want. It is not difficult to imagine how this restricts the usefulness of the program. It is, however, impossible for me to imagine an adult actually using Easy Graph for many real world business or mathematical applications.
Easy Graph operates on any Apple II with a minimum of 64K and one disk drive. The only way to save information you may have entered is to print the graph, which requires you to have an Epson dot matrix printer. Apple IIc owners must specify the IIc version of Easy Graph if hardcopy output is desired.
A relative newcomer to the educational software community, Bantam Electronic Publishing should make a big splash with its entertaining educational programs for elementary age children. One of the best is Road Rally U.S.A., a program that puts you in the driver's seat, requiring you to use your knowledge of history and geography to find key locations and earn points.
At the lowest of three difficulty levels, you are told simply to go to a given location--usually a city. At the highest level, you receive more subtle clues and challenging clues: "Make tracks for the MD site of the first Railroad" (Baltimore).
Once you have identified your destination, you consult the map card for the region (New England, Mid Atlantic, Southeast, North Central, South Central, Northwest, or Southwest) you have chosen and drive there. The highways, cities, and points of interest represented on the map are real, and children especially enjoy driving to and through places they have visited.
To add a bit more challenge to the game, Bantam has included assorted hazards (bad weather, landslides, careless drivers) and limitations. The radio on your dashboard (represented at the side of the screen) warns you of some hazards, but if you fail to heed its warning and collide with a truck or a fallen tree, you lose one of the three cars with which you start each round. The limitations, time and fuel, are easier to cope with. Twelve minutes is usually plenty of time for all but the youngest players to find the three to five required locations, and if you run low on gas, you have only to stop at a gas pump to fill up.
Road Rally U.S.A. is loads of fun for the whole family--the sort of game that can be enjoyed by a group of friends, even though only one actually drives the car. The controls are simple enough for young players to master, and the more difficult questions are challenging enough for adults to enjoy.
Smoothtalker for the Macintosh uses what its manufacturer calls Multiple Pole Analysis to creat speech. This flexible proprietary technique is theoretically capable of articulating any word in any language--without precoding or ROM storage.
The package consists of two main software components. The front end translates the English input text into 41 phonetic codes, using more than 1000 characteristics of the English language. The encoded phonemes are then fed to the back end, which tells the Mac to generate the sounds of speech. The phonetic codes can be entered directly as well, which is useful for tweaking the accuracy of the output.
Smoothtalker incorporates a lookup dictionary of oddly pronounced words, abbreviations, and other exceptions, to which you can add your own entries. Input is accepted directly from the keyboard, from an included text editor, from a Mac Write or Microsoft Word document that has been saved in Text mode, from the contents of the clipboard or scrapbook, or from "certain programming languages," including Basic 2.0, Pascal, C, Forth, and assembly.
Once input text is available, you can adjust volume, pitch, speed, tone (bass or treble), and voice (male or female). These adjustments can be applied to the entire document or to only a specified portion. Instructions can be imbedded in the text.
It is not at all necessary to know or learn the phonetic codes to use a Smoothtalker, but they are useful for optimizing pronunciation of tricky words or for improving the inflection of generated speech. In general, the speech is clear, and I find it easy to understand, especially if the Mac is attached to an external sound system.
How can the system be used? President David Fradin of First Byte says that current uses include reading text to the handicapped, education, and proofreading. I can think of dozens of uses just within those categories, and I am sure that imaginative users are already discovering additional applications.
All in all, i would categorize the performance of Smoothtalker as good. It seems fairly priced, and if one of the suggested uses fits your needs, it can be a bargain--perhaps even a godsend. If not, it is still tremendous fun.
Financial Time Machine is an accurate computer model (in game form) of the real investment world from 1930 through 1984. With it you can explore how 32 widely varied investments were affected by peace, tension, war, depression, inflation, recession, and recovery.
The game can be played by from one to four players. You select the starting year of a five-year period and you are off and running. Accross the top of the screen runs a ticker tape which displays current prices of the 27 stocks and five other investments. Just under it is a news wire which displays investment, political, and even entertainment and sports news. The main part of the screen displays the investment portfolios of the individual players (one at a time). As the quarter progresses, players can make investment decisions. Although you have the sense of playing the game in real time because both tickers keep moving by, each quarter takes about six minutes, so there is plenty of time for players to make their decisions. Indeed, with just one player, time seems to drag a bit. An entire five-year game takes about two hours, although you can save a game in progress at the end of each year (every 24 minutes).
The game can be as simple or complicated as you want. You can buy and sell any of 27 stocks, an index mutual fund, gold, bonds, or T-bills. More advanced players can buy on margin, issue limit orders, and place put and call options.
The brief ten-page instruction manual tells you all you need to know to run the model, provides capsule descriptions of each stock, and shows the sensitivity of each stock to the GNP, prime rate, and political factors.
I used the model with a starting year of 1939 and, with 20/20 hindsight, bought stocks of companies like GM, GE, and McDonnell Douglas. I watched the value of my initial $100,000 portfolio soar to over $158,000 by the third quarter of 1940 and then plummet to the $120,00 range when Roosevelt proposed an excess profits of tax and the threat of U.S. involvement in the war became more real.
In addition to play the game over the past 55 years, you can also play it into the future. Imagine my surprise when I saw that the Cubs won five straight World Series, that Iceland was threatening to invade Canada, and that Russia tracked an alien spacecraft near Venus.
For added realism, the program figures in brokerage commissions, margin interest, and taxes. Incidentially, it assumes you are in the 50% tax bracket; perhaps if you play this game long enough, you will be. I felt the game was realistic, accurate, and downright fascinating--recommended!
Products: Easy Graph (computer program)
Road Rally U.S.A. (computer program)
Smoothtalker (computer program)
Financial Time Machine (computer program)