Bob and Joy
     By Bob and Joy Schwabach

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November 2002, Week 3 -- My Favorite Database



 Alpha 5


    Alpha Five, 5, just came out. This is the latest, hottest version of my all-time favorite database. It's not the biggest database program and not the smallest; but like the bowl of warm porridge in the Three Bears fairy tale, it's just right.

   I've always felt this and FileMaker Pro were the best database programs for small to medium-size businesses, and of the two I easily prefer Alpha Five. Alpha Five is for Windows only, and compared to other database programs it seems like it's practically invisible. I never see ads for it, and though there are about a million copies in use the magazines rarely cover it. The only people who get excited about it are the people who use it.


   I started using the Alpha database nearly 20 years ago on the first PCs and I thought for sure it would disappear in a little while. After all, shortly after the IBM-PC and its clones came out there were something like 30,000 programs written for that operating system, and of those only a relative handful survive today.


   Alpha Five has more preset templates and wizards for constructing applications than any other database for the PC. Commonly used templates like contact management, invoicing, list management and employee records are all ready to go.  You can design any custom report simply by dragging and dropping fields onto a report screen. You can send and receive email directly within the program and you can put data from tables directly into the messages. Data can be compressed and decompressed within the program.


   For those who want to create specialized databases, you can use the wizards or Alpha Five's own programming language: Xbasic. Such specialized databases are often sold as separate programs that suit a particular company's needs. In tests with experienced users, the company claims that custom databases can be created with Alpha Five in about one fifth the time it takes using Microsoft Access. My own experience with the program makes this believable, since I've always found it by far the easiest powerful database to use. Dozens of testimonials from users can be read on their web site.


   Alpha Five, version 5, costs $349 from Alpha Software The user manual is on the program CD in Adobe PDF format; a paper version is available for an extra $20. A companion program for posting databases to the web is in beta testing and a free download is available from their web site, where you can also download a free trial of the previous version of Alpha Five.




-- A different kind of search engine. You can limit your search to online magazines and newspapers, just encyclopedias, dictionaries, discussion groups, quotation books, topics (boats, cars, fish, etc.). The newspaper and magazine search capability costs $15 a month or $80 for one year, but the other searches are free. Tip: A lot of the stories from newspapers are from the AP (Associated Press) wire service, and that web site is free. Reuters is also free

school cash

-- Reference site. Articles on home schooling. Has an encyclopedia, atlas, dictionary, history year by year since 1900, crossword puzzles, other feature articles. Lots of current information. When we wanted to find the federally mandated minimum wage this was the first site that had it right up front. It also listed the top ten national advertisers; six of the top ten were car manufacturers.

-- Sign up any school you want and whenever you shop online with one of this web site's merchant partners, the school gets $4 for each purchase. Partners include Disney, L.L. Bean, Apple, Amazon, Barnes & Noble and other big companies.


A strange device

  PC Mascogt

   What we have here is a six-inch mechanical bird that reads your email out loud. (You think I'm making this up, but I'm not.)

   It's called "PC Mascot," and it reads your email in a mechanical voice that's kind of hard to understand. But then again, I don't think this device was meant to replace anyone. The bird is made of silver-colored plastic and looks vaguely like an owl. When an email comes in, it flaps its wings, swishes its tail, turns its head and opens it's beak to say things like" "Stop! I have an email for you." There are 100 programmable sentences available and you can take and make as you choose.

   The bird comes with a free email account and a copy of Adobe Acrobat Reader. Its perch has a built-in loudspeaker and four buttons for start/stop, forward, backward and one to shut the bird up if you'd rather read the mail yourself. This wonderful creation of modern technology is E59 Euros (about $59), from Mitsumi <>. It plugs into a USB port on a PC.



  Best Web Sites for Teachers


"The Best Web Sites for Teachers, fifth edition," by Sharp, Sharp and Levine; $35, ISTE Publications

Description and Internet addresses for more than 1200 currently active web sites, all checked out by educators and verified just before press time. The sites are grouped by category: languages, art, music, science, etc. Check out, for example, for spectacular photographs from the Hubble Space Telescope, plus related activities and lessons.

NOTE: Readers can search nearly four years of columns at the "On Computers" web site: You can e-mail Bob Schwabach at  or