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Our new capsule review section. Reviews hed: Tear down the Web dek: Wendy M. Grossman’s “From Anarchy to Power”

Ever wonder what happened to the good old days, when information on the Net was free and easy to access–when the Web wasn’t bogged down by copyright laws, subscription-based content sites, and search engines that give preference to sites willing to pay a premium? In her latest book, “From Anarchy to Power: The Net Comes of Age,” (New York University Press, $24.05) Wired magazine contributor Wendy M. Grossman takes a look back at the early years of the Net and offers some compelling arguments about what the events of the past year can tell us about the future of the digital economy.

Grossman’s perception of the Net’s evolution–from an anarchical gathering space for academics and computer geeks, where information was freely exchanged and issues were ironed out on the Net itself, to a battleground for commercial sites selling products, services, and the idea of community–sets the tone for an informative exploration into many of the issues and problems that plague the Net today, such as privacy, censorship, copyright law, and an inadequate infrastructure.

What will it take for the Net to come back to life? According to Grossman, in order for the Net to thrive, the openness, or “anarchy,” characteristic of its early years must return–in everything from the software that powers it to the sites that inhabit it.

If you’re interested in the reasons why the Net has been fraught with failure and uncertainty over the last year, concerned about the future of the online marketplace, or simply interested in the Net as a phenomenon, “From Anarchy to Power” is a must read. –Christy Mulligan

A dark ride

“Dark Orbit”

There’s talk in the gaming community that the science-fiction role-playing game genre is showing signs of wear. That might not necessarily be the case. Set 150 years into the future, “Dark Orbit” is a sci-fi RPG, but it also has an interesting story and lots of eye candy to keep things moving as you play.

In “Dark Orbit,” you assume the role of a pilot attempting to escape the attacks of aliens emerging from a mysterious 10th planet, Nibiru. On your journey, you accumulate what few resources you can in order to upgrade the travel and battle capacity of your spacecraft.

Does that sound geeky? Well, it is and it isn’t. Even if you’re not a devotee of the RPG genre, it’s fun to uncover new weapons and technologies that are hidden throughout the treacherous planet where most of the action takes place.

“Dark Orbit” was designed by Phil Shenk, lead artist on such games as “Steed” and “Diablo II.” The game’s fast pace and subtle, multiple levels of action bear his stamp, and it should please fans of those games. The game is easy to get into for beginners, but the story is complex enough to hold the interest of accomplished players.

There is no shrinkwrapped version of “Dark Orbit.” The demo level is a free download available via WildTangent’s distribution channels, with the remaining four levels available for purchase. –Dan Heilman

A link to the future

Vox.Link Cell Phone Home Base Station

These days, cell-phone plans have become inexpensive enough-often including free nationwide long-distance–that many people are using a cell phone as a full-time second phone line. In fact, a significant number of people now use a cell phone as their only telephone.

Such a scheme can be made more convenient by a nifty gadget I tried recently, the Vox.Link from Vox2. The $199 Vox.Link is a docking cradle for a cell phone; many popular models are supported. It plugs into a spare phone line in your home or office and into AC power to power the cradle and charge the phone. With the cell phone docked in the cradle, you can make and receive cell calls from any phone on that line, including cordless phones. Pick up a phone and you get a dial tone generated by the Vox.Link–or a busy signal if the cell phone isn’t docked. You may wonder, why spend $199 for the Vox.Link when the cell phone makes a perfectly fine cordless phone all by itself? Besides not having to cart it around with you, one good reason is that, especially indoors, your cell phone signal may vary in quality, and you can locate the Vox.Link anywhere you have access to power, a phone jack and a good signal. Another benefit is that it lets you use the features of connected phones, such as directories and speakerphones.

Voice quality on one or both ends of the conversation varied from excellent to marginal, depending on the phone used. For instance, my worst results were on some (though oddly, not all) calls from a cordless phone that worked fine on a normal line. Using the cell phone directly improved the quality substantially on these calls, so it wasn’t the cell connection. Also, the Vox.Link provides no way to remotely access the directory or speed-dial numbers on your cell phone, and numbers entered from a remote phone once you’re connected (such as to navigate a voicemail system) may not be recognized. The latter situation is due to the way digital cell phone networks compress and packetize transmissions; they sometimes garble the DTMF tones sent by standard phones. These flaws notwithstanding, the Vox.Link has become a fixture in my home office. -Ken Henningsen

A sound investment

Benwin GX-6 Flat Panel Speakers

Computer speakers are all the same, right? Not necessarily–otherwise we’d still all be using those beeping old PC sound cards. Most users, especially gamers and music lovers, need decent speakers to make their computing experience more fulfilling. If you’re looking for an initial upgrade for the speakers that came with your computer (if any did), look into the Benwin GX-6 Flat Panel speaker system.

These affordable ($49.99 street) speakers probably won’t challenge the ones on your stereo system, but they will fill most computer sound needs. The two speakers themselves are inconspicuous, with their flat-panel design allowing them to be tucked into virtually any nook or cranny. Somewhat more problematic is the 5.25-inch woofer, which, at 7.5-by-8.5-by-6 inches, will require some floor space that you most likely would rather not sacrifice.

The speakers, which boast an 18-watt power output and 20-105Hz frequency response, can be on the tinny side when the wrong kind of music is playing. Turning off the treble boost button can clear that up if you don’t mind losing a lot of high end in the process. A separate knob can boost the bass, and the subwoofer can take just about as much low end as you care to give it. If you spend an appreciable amount of time being serenaded while you work, the GX-6 system is a thrifty option. -Dan Heilman

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