"a fish, a barrel, and a smoking gun"
for 8 March 1996. Updated every WEEKDAY.




Back when things used to be

incredible, there was a show

dedicated entirely to

chronicling their glory, titled,

appropriately enough, "That's

Incredible!" Between pi-spouting

aberrations and Uri Geller, a

reliable standby act was the

human calculator, who invariably

could perform multiplication

feats faster than a digital

opponent. Those were heady

times, but the halcyon days of

superhuman-interest programming

are long past.



Say you substituted scientific

calculator-armed Cathy Lee

Crosby for Tim Berners-Lee

surfing bigbook.com. Arm any

given jarhead off the street

with the Smart Yellow Pages,

click the stopwatch, and Timmy

would soon be stammering

excuses. Even Al Gore knows

better than to suggest using an

online dictionary when a plump

classic is sitting on your




Still, since the early days of

cyber hype, the net has been

extolled as the Swiss Army knife

of the future, and these days

everybody's clamoring to be the

piecemeal contractor of a

utensil or two. Nevermind that

you'd never use a Swiss Army

knife to eat a steak or gore a

wild boar - they make great

gifts for Boy Scouts. (Scouts

being the Web demographic of the

future, at least according to



[Swiss Army Knife]

To indulge the metaphor,

Netscape has provided the red

plastic casing, and the race is

now on for wily startups to supply

the toy bottle openers, toenail

clippers, and micro-screwdrivers.

In the not-so-grand Web

tradition of indexing for

dollars, the new entrepreneurs

are hoping to boot the Baby

Bells to the poorhouse by

offering national (and

occasionally global) database

alternatives to all those hefty

yellow pages, white pages, and

pink pages that magically

materialize on our doorstops

each year. Obviously, even if

there's no need to hammer a nail

in cyberspace, opportunities

still remain to hammer a point.


[Yellow Pages]

So, switchboard.com offers an

only-slightly outdated digital

version of the white pages,

bigbook.com touts its

value-added über-yellow

pages, and four11.com opens its

catalogue of sifted email

addresses. For years, those pulp

doorstops have been a boon even

to those unlucky enough to have

no phone. Parents have used

yellow pages to boost Jr. at the

dinner table, Venice Beach

strongmen have affirmed their

egos by swelling their necks and

tearing them in half, and CIA

operatives have used them to

teach foreign agents

interrogation techniques that

leave no visible scars. Clearly,

some of the perks of yesterday

will vanish. But might

unforeseen bonuses emerge from

the assorted digital information



[Stalker Courtesy of Chuck Magazine]

Four11.com, of course, is a

fledgling stalker's wet dream.

Nevermind that there's still no

reliable method for Rupert

Murdoch to unregister his

fox.com and aol.com email

addresses - there are at present

at least 21 Elvis Presleys ripe

for virtual abuse. Obsessive fan

mail is still an involved and

risky process for rabid Cindy

Crawford fans, but the same

practice is a one-minute miracle

when done virtually. Which is

probably just long enough to

craft an appropriately creepy

message, while short enough to

conveniently block it from one's



[Stalker Courtesy of Chuck Magazine]

Hardcore deviants aside, most of

us will follow our egomaniacal

instincts and plug our own names

into switchboard and four11

search forms upon first use. If

you've moved recently or changed

email addresses, you'll quickly

learn that objects in this

mirror are further than they

appear. But out-of-date info can

be a boon, especially to nomadic

college students looking to

avoid the modern equivalent of

the family gathering, the

relatives' cc: list (all the

more terrifying in that it

never, ever ends). Other than

that, millions around the world

will soon learn that the failure

of lost friends and flames to

call or write was cruelly




The most ambitious of the new

CD-ROM ports is bigbook.com,

whose elegant marketing model

belies the project's

questionable utility. The

premise: unlike private

citizens, merchants might be

expected to hack up petty cash

for a yellow pages listing, and

bigbook is the digital

Frankenstein's monster of the

form. Need to find the address

for the nearest vendor of wooden

nickels? Bigbook'll print maps

to the doors of every grinning

salesman in the country, if you

ask nice. Apropos of today's

tradition of steroid-injected

net.tools, bigbook's genesis is

informed by the assumption that

the merchandising opportunities

for a display of walking on

water more than justify the R&D

expenses. Unfortunately, just as

with the toy magnifying glasses

on the Swiss all-in-ones, it

still takes patience to start a



[Magnifying Glass]

While not prime material for

demonstrations on The Today

Show, all of these services are

at least as worthy of a bookmark

as the latest search engine. As

long as the PR men for the

upstart start-ups don't get

carried away and attempt to race

their services against the

goofus hosts, they might

reasonably expect a smattering

of polite applause. It's less of

a shame that "That's Incredible"

passed away at the altar of

obsolescence than that a similar

fate befell "Those Amazing

Animals." With sales of spare

mouse balls sure to trounce those

of doggy sweaters, the line

between stupid pet tricks and

stupid human tricks has never

been slimmer.

courtesy of the Duke of URL