There are those who make a living projecting an air of professional credibility, people whose very presence is a form of endorsement worth millions to advertisers. If you happen to sell detergent and you want to gain the trust of middle-class housewives, you call Nanette Newman. If the effect you're after is cheerful cheesiness among the home furnishings, Bruce Forsyth is your man. Or if you want to flatter the intelligence of a male audience by relocating their thinking gear to their trousers you will head for the spuriously brainy Carol Vorderman. If she hasn't done it already, one day Carol is bound to be called upon to advertise computers. The preferred stereotype here is the "science personality" and the projected image a mixture of cleverness, warmth and eccentricity (Carol would need to work on some of these). For now, the market in work of this kind has been cornered by Professor Heinz Wolff, the beetle-browed host of the Great Egg Race. The sort of people who believe Professor Wolff really is a scientist can be convinced without too much trouble that the products he advertises really are scientific in some never to be defined way. We trust him because he seems to have an academic enthusiasm rather than a commercial interest, and if he were to endorse a computer we'd expect him to know what he's talking about - even to have given the product a quick once-over and suggested a few improvements. Professor Wolff is currently starring in press commercials for Viglen, something which is causing a certain amount of mirthless amusement in the IT department of one of the country's minor universities where widespread problems with hard disks and operating system software have cast Viglen's advertising in a new and bitter light. What makes the situation all the more galling is that the same campus is also home to Professor Wolff. When he is not starring in television series or doing lucrative advertising work, perhaps the good professor could be persuaded to rally round with his screwdriver. As the computer industry matures it is nice to see old rivalries fading and former enemies pooling their resources to offer the best possible deal for the customer irrespective of personal cost. So it is that in a press release from Norton/Symantec, the company's anti-virus gets a ringing endorsement from Pierre van Beneden, senior vice president of Lotus Development. This is very kind of Mr van Beneden, who seems to forgotten that IBM, the company that pays his salary, also sells a virus scanning product. "Symantec, the anti-virus market leader, provides a solution that not only protects against known and unknown viruses, but one that is also integrated with Notes,'' he enthuses. If there is one person in the world in a position to get one over on Bill Gates, it is the contractor who built his new mansion in the Seattle suburbs. The following is an edited extract from a conversation which, with any luck, is not imaginary. Bill: There are a few issues we need to discuss. Contractor: Ah, you have our basic support option. Calls are free for the first 90 days and 30 bucks a call thereafter. Okay? Bill: Uh, yeah ... the first issue is the living room. We think it's a little smaller than we anticipated. Contractor: Yeah. Some compromises were made to have it out by the release date. Bill: We won't be able to fit all our furniture in there. Contractor: Well, you have two options. You can purchase a new, larger living room or you can use Stacker. Bill: Stacker? Contractor: Yeah, it allows you to fit twice as much furniture into the room - by stacking it, of course. You put the entertainment centre on the couch, the chairs on the table, etc. You leave an empty spot so when you want to use some furniture you can unstack what you need and then put it back when you're done ... Bill: And the electrical outlets? The holes are round, not rectangular. How do I fix that? Contractor: Just uninstall and reinstall the electrical system. Even in the real world technical support continues to have an air of unreality. If you're unlucky enough to own a Roland Color Camm PNC-5000 plotter and you run in to a spot of bother, you might be inclined to reach for a manual. If you can't find it, you might do what a programmer friend of Mole's did and ring the company for a copy. This turns out to be quite a complicated business, which involves first making a written application to senior manager Brian Peckham who will then pass it on to headquarters in Japan, where your security clearance will be checked before someone decides to issue a copy of the highly sensitive document. Or not. Thus it is slightly more difficult to get hold of a manual for a Roland plotter than for your average missile guidance system. This is probably not as silly as it sounds. It's not that plotters are classified, simply that they are deeply boring. Companies that sell hardware that is deadly only in the sense of dull cannot be blamed for trying to add an air of cloak-and-dagger mystery to their activities. Know of a conspiracy that deserves a bit of publicity? If so, tell Mole by email or phone him on 0171 316 9068. The plot thickens, as they say in Japan.
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