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Who You Gonna Call?
The '72 Cadillac ambulance arrives without ceremony, lights dimmed and siren silent as it pulls curbside in San Francisco's Lower Market district. Inside, surrounded by empty Marlboro packs and gasoline receipts, John Fenton, dressed in surgical scrubs, is preparing to make a house call. But instead of a black bag, Fenton carries a motley selection of computer tools, screwdrivers, and circuit boards.

Better known as CompuDoc, Fenton is sole proprietor of a one-man computer sales and service company started three years ago with a hospital gown and a clever marketing strategy. Combining high-tech skills with a vintage meat wagon for a billboard, CompuDoc is earning a reputation for his power to heal PCs. Today he's upgrading a customer's 286 to a 486."

A friend gave me the scrubs," explains Fenton, a rough-hewn character transplanted to the Bay area seven years ago. "I had the idea before I even saw the ambulance. You don't have to wear a tie to be successful in today's market."

His bedside manner is gruff, a characteristic traceable to his native Middletown, New Jersey. The good doc smokes between house calls, his stocky build revealing a distaste for regular exercise programs. But business is good, and Fenton plans to certify an East Coast CompuDoc in the Middletown-Red Bank area of Jersey. "For advertising I use the Yellow Pages, fax machines, and the ambulance. I keep my rates low."

CompuDoc's US$50-an-hour fee often takes him into San Francisco's Financial District, where parking a nonsanctioned emergency vehicle - 21 feet long,7 feet high, and painted orange and white - can be a problem. "I'm trying to get a contractor's permit, but the city won't give me one," he says. "In California, you're not required to have a license for computer repair, so I can't get the permit. Yet they'll give one for pest control." He shakes his head in frustration. "It's kind of a joke."

The cell phone rings twice in the hour Fenton spends resuscitating the PC. "Sixty-five to 75 percent of my clients come from referrals," he says between calls. "I went to school for this, but I got most of my experience from just doing it." Fenton tinkers with the 286 until telltale beeps indicate the new videocard is booting successfully. Healed. "Ninety-five percent of the time," he says, holding up the nut driver he's using to reattach the case, "this is all you need."

­ Colin Berry

Griot Gets a Betacam
Michael Smith is not a Hollywood star. But it's not the draw of riches that drives the independent documentary director. It's the message.

Smith, 31, sees himself as the digital incarnation of a griot, the nomadic storyteller of West African lore who carried oral history from village to village. Most black people are shut out of traditional filmmaking because of its massive cost, Smith says. But the home videocamera has helped open up the American mediasphere to alternative viewpoints. Smith's recent film, Jesse's Gone, shot entirely with a Sony Betacam, looks at the life and death of Jesse Hall, a young rapper from Oakland, California, who was killed in 1992.

More important than technology, Smith argues, is the need to nurture basic writing skills within the black community. "We need to teach kids how to write a coherent story before anything else," he says.

­ Charlie LeDuff

Henry Ford Gets Small
Microrobots. Nanotechnology. Peter Will, director of the Enterprise Integration Systems Division at the Information Sciences Institute of the University of Southern California's School of Engineering, spots an opportunity. Will hopes to build a small plant that will do for micromachines what Henry Ford's assembly line did for the automobile.

Will is designing a micro assembly bench based on humankind's most successful conveyor system - intestinal cilia. Cilia are the tiny, hairlike structures that move digested food down the intestines. Will is working to create silicon cilia flexible enough to bend, programmable to move in the desired direction, and strong enough to carry an object.

Will hasn't yet figured out how to make weight-bearing silicon cilia compatible with VLSIchipmaking techniques. But when pressed for a production timeline, he blurts out, "It will be ready for some uses in three years!"

­ Jesse Freund

Internet in a Box
The machine, an ADIC 448 tape robot, looks like a cross between a jukebox and an extra-tall dishwasher. Brewster Kahle pokes at the keypad, and suddenly it whirs to life with 2 terabytes of automated data storage. Kahle, a founder of the legendary Cambridge, Massachusetts-based supercomputer company Thinking Machines, has an idea. "With a little compression," he says, "the whole World Wide Web should fit pretty nicely onto one of these."

There's been talk before of archiving the Net - from Microsoft corporate visionary Nathan Myhrvold to cyberpunk novelist Bruce Sterling. Earlier this year, Kahle, 35, started doing it with a shoestring Internet Archive set up in a renovated US Army hospital in San Francisco's Presidio. "It's like the early days of television," says Kahle, who last year sold WAIS Inc., his pioneering networked data company, to AOL for US$15 million. "Unless someone starts saving it, with every day that passes we're losing the record of one of the great turning points in human history."

Kahle's idea is to build a freely accessible, nonprofit archive with a commercial arm to aggressively develop software for manipulating terabyte-level data. "You don't have time to read all the books in the world," he says. "But your computer does."

There are some formidable challenges, he admits, starting with traditional copyright and privacy law. But to get things started, the archive's first public project is a partnership with the Smithsonian Institute in Washington - combing the World Wide Web for anything related to the 1996 US presidential election, from news coverage and the candidates' homepages to unofficial references and parody sites.

And then there's the question of whether even terabyte-crunching tape robots can keep pace with the Internet's wild growth. "When everyone's camcorder is on the Net," Kahle says, "obviously, we won't be able to keep up. But that's no reason not to try to save as much as we can."

Personal history and ample self-confidence may be on his side. "I usually work on projects from the you've-got-to-be-crazy stage," Kahle says, "but eventually everyone ends up saying, 'Of course.'"

­ Spencer Reiss

Our Man in Cyberspace
Charles Swett is not your everyday technophile. Sure, he spends plenty of time online, but he has been known to overthrow more governments before 8 a.m. than most Net users do in a lifetime.

As assistant for strategic assessment in the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations and Low-Intensity Conflict, Swett is in a position to alter the way the US government views and uses the Internet. Last year, he wrote a treatise, "Strategic Assessment: The Internet" ( /swett.html), which urged the Pentagon to use computer communications more actively in its intelligence work both on American soil and abroad.

Swett's report surveys the Internet's potential as a tool of the state and studies "fringe groups" organizing politically on the Net. In particular, he focuses on left-wing organizations such as the Institute for Global Communications, piquing the attention of those who recall the intelligence community's COINTELPRO excesses - a 1970s FBI probe of leftist groups. Swett argues that his emphasis on the left "does not reflect any personal or institutional bias. The left has simply been more resourceful in its use of the Internet as an organizing tool."

Overseas, Swett believes that the DOD should employ the Internet offensively "to help achieve unconventional warfare objectives." He recommends sending email to foreign government officials to help spread "the US perspective on issues and events." The DOD already uses loudspeakers, leaflets, faxes, and radio transmissions in its psychological operations. Swett recommends adding the (dis)informational power of the Internet to the government's arsenal.

Swett is fundamentally optimistic about the Internet's effect on society. "I see national boundaries dissolving. I see great potential for improving democracy and improving the human condition," he muses.

It should come as no surprise that Department of Defense bigwigs have finally realized the Net's potential as a psychological weapon. The better question is, What took them so long?

­ Jay Sand

Opiate of the Digital Masses
In Amsterdam, cyber cafs have been opening up all over the place, ever since Dutch officials began cracking down on the city's licensed hash bars. Buckling to international pressure (mainly from the US), the Amsterdam city council wants to drastically cut the number of licensed pot-selling coffee shops. Now Amsterdam's coffee shop operators are hoping that Net-addicted tourists will keep them in business as the bottom falls out in the world's can-do drug capital.

Tops, one of Amsterdam's newly christened cyber cafs, hosts 20 to 40 computer users a day. Brownie, the long-haired bartender, doles out the green buds and cheerfully shows customers how to use email. Brownie sums up the view of many small operators who are investing tens of thousands of guilders in new technology. "It's really just a matter of time," he says. "We've got to do something to stay in business."

­ L. S. Loving

Living in the Shadow of Doom
In the years since Doom's introduction, every new 3-D game has had to suffer comparison with id Software's masterpiece. Most are pale clones that make you want more of the real thing. But one game has pulled clear of Doom's pall. With 700,000 full versions sold by mid-1996, gamers everywhere agree: Duke Nukem 3D is the new champ.

Designed by 3D Realms Entertainment (a division of Apogee Software Ltd. of Garland, Texas), Duke takes the basics of Doom and pushes them to the limit. The settings are richly interactive: mirrors reflect, toilets flush, and when you're thoroughly stuck you can throw a pipe bomb and blast your way to another level. But the game's real accomplishment is to seamlessly integrate story elements into the usual 3-D killing spree.

Apogee's founder and president, Scott Miller, says, "We think the reason Duke 3D is so popular is that it offers something no other 3-D action game has: a character." A little personality goes a long way in the gaming world, as Duke Nukem demonstrates by spewing one-liners as he mows down monsters. If you've ever wanted your own little Schwarzenegger to push around, here's your chance.

Miller says he and his partner, George Broussard, grew up in a time when gameplay had to matter, because computer graphics were so poor. In addition to gaming savvy, Apogee is known for pioneering the marketing method in which portions of games are given away free to lure buyers for the full game.

It's no coincidence that id Software owes much of its success to a similar shareware formula. The company got its start with Apogee before breaking away to develop Doom independently. Relations between the companies remain cordial, and Miller says Apogee was encouraged by the upstart's phenomenal success.3D Realms was formed in 1994 to specialize in 3-D action games. Miller remarks, "Now that we've established a talented core group of 3-D developers in-house (including id cofounder, Tom Hall), we're at a point at which no one can remain ahead of the pack for two years."

3D Realms is already at work on Prey, an ambitious game designed to throw a shadow over Duke Nukem 3D. "It's nice to hold the top spot for a few months," Miller says, "but there's always a better game around the corner."

­ Marc Laidlaw

Resurrecting Colossus
In 1943, a team of British scientists led by Tommy Flowers developed Colossus, the world's first large electronic valve programmable logic calculator, to break the Nazi's wartime communications code. Considered by some to be the greatest British technological achievement of this century, 10 Colossus machines assisted British codebreakers by decoding messages sent from the highest levels of the Reich - even from the Fhrer himself.

In 1993, Anthony Sale, former curator of the London Science Museum, started the Colossus Rebuild Project ( working from a series of official photographs taken in 1945. Fifty-one years after the last Colossus was retired, a rebuilt Colossus hummed to life. Now 90 percent restored, the Colossus is on exhibit in Bletchley Park and serves as a reminder to those pesky colonists: The world's first computer was built to save the Queen.

­ Michael Learmonth

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