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November 2000, Week 1 -- On the Mean, the Median and the Average

 Total VB Statistics

   I must confess that I love statistics. I don't mean the results you get with statistics, which are often silly, but the whole process of manipulating a mindless morass of numbers. Computers are very good at manipulating numbers. In fact it's the only thing they're good at.

   The ability to find relationships in numbers seems to impress an inordinate number of people, often leading to raises and other signs of material success. In fact, I knew a guy who worked for a bank in Philadelphia and had no discernible qualities other than the ability to program in Microsoft Visual Basic. So he would write these little programs that would amortize loans and calculate accumulated interest daily and other banking trivia. This so impressed the executives of the bank, who themselves could barely find the power switch on their computers, that he was richly rewarded and given a private office.

 

   Which brings us to the program that caught my eye. It's called "Total VB Statistics, a statistical analysis system for Visual Basic." It's not a catchy title, but it covers the ground. It adds statistical analysis as a plug-in for any Visual Basic program using a database. When a set of data is defined -- like all the people who bought products on sale -- VB Statistics can be called in with a keystroke. The call to VB Statistics is invisible to the user, who thinks they are still in the program they were working with before. This gives that Visual Basic programmer the appearance of having created something very powerful, while doing little more than gathering the numbers.

 

   If you know what you're doing, this can be fun and very useful. Total VB Statistics is $599, from FMS Inc. Phone: 888-220-6234; web: www.fmsinc.com.

 

A Whiz of a Wiz

 

 Calculus Wiz

   "Calculus Wiz" from Wolfram Research works with Windows or Macintosh and handles the problems normally associated with first year calculus. You can type in a problem and the program will both explain the process required to solve it and then take you through the steps to the solution itself. For instance, the rate of change in a progression of events is found by determining the tangent to a particular point in a curve.

   What spices the program up is the display of charts and three-dimensional graphics that are created to illustrate what the calculations are doing. Such visualization is often the key to understanding a problem instead of just memorizing the steps.

 

   Wolfram Research also makes Mathematica, an expensive and comprehensive program for handling all kinds of calculations. Calculus Wiz has a list price of $69.50, but Wolfram typically offers substantial discounts to students and educators. Phone info: 877-949-7697; web: www.wolfram.com/wiz.

 

What's the password?

 

   After you've browsed the web for a few months you'll have accumulated a couple dozen passwords to sites you've joined. Who can remember them? My own solution is to use the same password for nearly every site I sign onto. But some sites assign you a password, usually long strings of mixed letters and numbers that no one can remember. Hopeless.

 

   We've had a couple of expensive commercial solutions offered recently, asking us to promote their virtues in the column. None of them were any better than this one, however, a free program called "Password Agent," for Windows, from Moon Software. It's available for downloading from the usual shareware sites. We got it at www.zdnet.com; search on the key words "password agent."

 

Internuts

 

-- www.epa.gov/oar/aqtrnd99/tables99.html Curious about how your city or town rates in air pollution? Here's where you find the numbers. Some interesting things turn up. For instance, Republican Presidential candidate, George W. Bush, the Governor of Texas, has been slammed repeatedly with the accusation that Houston, Texas, has the worst air pollution of any city in the U.S. The numbers show that it ranks sixth, however, not first. The first three cities with the worst air pollution are all in California.

 

-- www.ehow.com Tips and tricks in dozens of categories: home, auto, decorating, computers, hobbies, etc. How to copy music from your LP records to CDs, for instance, or how to decorate a pumpkin. This is a site that also sells stuff that implement or assist in using its tips. Most tips require no special equipment, however.

 

-- www.quickbrowse.com Check off the publications you normally look at each day and the topics you're interested in, and they come up in one scrollable page with the topic highlighted. Site was designed by a journalist.

 

When in Rome ...

 

 Rome: Caesar's Will

   "Rome: Caesar's Will," is an adventure and an education, from Montparnesse Multimedia, a French company with a large list of fascinating programs, if you can ever find them.

   Beautiful renderings of ancient Rome illustrate the events surrounding the assassination of Julius Caesar. The characters are animated and the player can interact with them in quite sophisticated ways as he or she attempts to locate Caesar's will and influence the power struggle that follows his death. The recreation of the look and feel of the Roman Empire is exceptional, and playing the adventure is an education in itself. The program is $50 for Windows.

 

   Typical of many European companies we hear from, Montparnesse has poor marketing and a loose grip on the language. Brutus, Cicero, Marc Antony and Cleopatra are identified as "mythical" characters, for example, when in fact they are historical; there's nothing mythical about them. We could not find this company's products for nearly a year after they first contacted us. Some are now available at the Barnes & Noble web site: www.bn.com.

 

   NOTE: Readers can search more than four years of columns at the "On Computers" web site: www.oncomp.com. You can e-mail Bob Schwabach at bobschwab@oncomp.com or bobschwab@aol.com.