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Brenda Laurel’s “Utopian Entrepreneur.”

It’s an unfortunate reality that often, products that profit society on a cultural level don’t necessarily generate the most admirable financial rewards. That’s a lesson Brenda Laurel–a pioneer in virtual reality and the founder of Purple Moon, a software company that provided an educational and fun Web site for young girls–had to learn the hard way.

In her latest book, “Utopian Entrepreneur” (MIT Press, $14.95), Laurel–author of “Computers as Theatre,” and “The Art of Human-Computer Interface”–takes a critical look at the history of Purple Moon and the reasons it failed after only two years. Instead of being discouraged by her story, readers should let it serve as a lesson. She does more than merely outline the many challenges one is likely to face when trying to wed culturally enriching work to entrepreneurship. Laurel does her readers a great service by turning her experience at Purple Moon into concrete suggestions and caveats for those struggling to create a profitable business without having to compromise their values–and, ultimately, the product that ends up on the shelf.

Laurel’s goal was to incorporate two decades of research on gender and technology, interactive fiction, and computer-human interaction into computer games for girls. While it was unsuccessful on a business level, her ability to see its many non-financial successes and objectively re-evaluate the company’s shortcomings makes “Utopian Entrepreneur” a worthy manual for anyone striving to create a successful business model out of socially positive work. -Christy Mulligan

Welcome input

Microsoft’s IntelliMouse Explorer.

If you still insist that a mouse is a mouse is a mouse, you haven’t been paying attention. Exhibit A: the Microsoft IntelliMouse Explorer ($59.95 list; a wireless model is available for $10 more), an updated version of the company’s optical mouse with a new design that features Microsoft’s powerful IntelliEye optical technology.

The Explorer connects directly to a USB or PS/2 port, and runs on both Macintosh and PC platforms. The mouse’s sexiest feature is its five programmable buttons, including the wheel button. Program-specific button assignments enable users to record common keystroke sequences to mouse buttons in different applications. For example, the fourth and fifth buttons can be programmed to Cut and Paste in Word and Undo and Redo in Excel. Accelerated scrolling lets you move through documents, Web pages, and applications quickly without having to click on the scroll bar. It also lets you assign common keystrokes to any of the mouse buttons–for those of us who never learned to write macros in Word, this is a handy thing indeed.

Microsoft touts the Explorer’s ergonomic design, saying it allows the user’s hand to rest naturally on the mouse for maximum comfort. That’s true, but the buttons are sensitive enough to where you can’t really relax your hand on the mouse without clicking a button you don’t mean to click. Until you get the hang of it, your hand will probably continue to hover above the mouse, hardly an ergonomic plus.

Programming the buttons takes some practice, but it’s an undeniably nifty feature once you’ve got the process down. If you’re looking a smooth, versatile mouse, the Explorer could end your search. –Dan Heilman

The big picture

Hewlett-Packard’s HP L1810 flat-panel monitor.

Last month, we looked at an LCD monitor (the Samsung SyncMaster 760v) that had what it took for those who wanted flat-panel advantages at a budget price. This month we’re going to presume that your purse strings are a little looser.

At $1,900 (list price, down from more than $3,000 when it was first released), the Hewlett-Packard HP L1810 is perfect for those who are looking for a flat-panel that will function as more than a space saver.

The L1810 boasts an 18.1-inch (all viewable) liquid crystal display, a 300:1 contrast ratio, and 160-degree viewing angle. Its recommended native resolution is 1,280-by-1,024dpi, and is USB-ready. Video input is analog or digital DVI-D and can be selected manually or automatically. Its other features include plug-and-play setup, security lock port, and a stand that tilts and swivels.

One nice feature of the L1810 is the ability to flip between the D-Sub and DVI video inputs by pressing a button. This lets you use a single monitor with two different PCs, and switching between the two couldn’t be simpler.

The on-screen display control features a versatile button and a scroll wheel function. When the menu is off, turning the scroll wheel one way activates the brightness, and the other way triggers contrast. When you press the button, the full menu system returns.

A small down side is that colors seem faded when the monitor is viewed from certain angles.But as long you’re facing the L1810 straight-on, it’s top-notch. –Dan Heilman

How low can you go?

eMedia’s Bass Method.

Playing bass guitar is like many pastimes: Doing it is easy; doing it well is best left to professionals. Anyone can plunk along in key, but actually developing a melodic technique on what’s essentially a rhythm instument can be challenging.

Amazingly, eMedia Bass Method is the first full software title to teach bass guitar. It’s great for the beginner and OK for intermediate players who want to do more than just keep time. The tutorial features more than 100 step-by-step lessons, an animated fretboard, recorded audio, and variable-speed MIDI audio.

These are supplemented by over 30 full-motion videos of bass instructor John Arbo demonstrating bass techniques. An automatic tuner, recorder and metronome are also included.

Using the tutorial is simple. Just plug your bass into the microphone jack of your computer (you’ll need an adaptor), fire up the program, and begin playing along.

How many of the CD-ROM’s features you use will depend on how advanced a player you are, and to what extent the instrument comes naturally to you. Those with good pitch and passable rhythm will want to disable the metronome and tablature features. And the live-action video portions practically had me snapping my strings: Arbo may be a fine teacher, but watching him play was about 1 percent as effective as just playing on my own.

The MIDI files, which let you play along with familiar songs by such artists as the Grateful Dead, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Bob Dylan, and Steve Miller, are more helpful. But if your method of practicing consists of just playing along to music, you might as well stick with your stereo. –Dan Heilman

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