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PERSONAL TECHNOLOGY | PC FOCUS / LAWRENCE J. MAGID

Bringing Home Some Somber Eras in History

June 17, 1996|LAWRENCE J. MAGID

I love writing about CD-ROMs that are fun and entertaining, but that doesn't mean somber subjects aren't more than worthwhile. This week I look at three CD-ROMs that recount the history of the Vietnam War, World War II and the Holocaust.

It's hard to walk past the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall in Washington without shedding a tear. It doesn't matter if you fought against the communists in the rice paddies of Vietnam or against the war itself in the streets of the United States. The era represented by that memorial was a poignant time in America and one that affects us to this day.

"Beyond the Wall: Stories Behind the Vietnam Wall" (Mac and PC, $29.95) from Magnet Interactive ([800] 996-0011) tries to do on a PC screen what the wall itself does in granite--bring the memory of the war and those who fought it home in a way that heals rather than divides. It offers a tour of the 492-foot-long memorial and stories about its design and construction, along with a brief multimedia history of the war.

Like the wall, the CD contains the names of the 58,196 American soldiers who died or are missing in action from that conflict. At the wall you search with your eyes, but the CD lets you enter a name. The program displays and lets you print out the name along with hometown, rank, service, date of birth and date of casualty. It also shows the location of the name on the wall itself.

Video clips show the construction of the wall and the chiseling of the names into the granite. There is even a section on the competition that led to the selection of Maya Lin's design over 1,420 others. The CD is narrated by Adrian Cronauer, the Armed Forces Radio disc jockey Robin Williams portrayed in the film "Good Morning, Vietnam."

The "About the War" portion of the CD is the strongest section of the product, featuring short video vignettes and articles about the official reasons for the war, its course and who served. The "Homecoming" chapter, which chronicles the vets' chilly reception when the war finally ended, sends a strong message about the need for the memorial and the CD itself.

Like other reference CDs, "Beyond the Wall" is not for everyone, but it's a must-have for libraries and schools, and is clearly of special interest to those whose lives were deeply touched by Vietnam.

As for World War II, most of us grew up seeing documentaries on TV about the heroism of our soldiers fighting nefarious enemies. So, as a nation, we tend to view the war in more historical--and less hysterical--terms than the conflict a generation later in Vietnam. Perhaps that's why there isn't as much emotional catharsis in perusing the "World War II Global Conflict" CD-ROM (Windows, $39.95) from Mentorom Multimedia ([800] 214-3668). But there is plenty of material for anyone who wants to explore the war and its origins through maps, themes, events or interactive videos.

The disc has 45 minutes of video, most from the National Archives, and biographies of key players. The map feature makes it easy to pinpoint what happened in a specific country. For each country, there are basic statistics and an essay on the country's war experience.

Although it is competently crafted, the disc lacks the kind of sleek production values I've come to expect from reference CDs. It's not entertaining, but it is educational--and that may not be so bad considering the subject matter.

"Lest We Forget: A History of the Holocaust" (Mac and Windows, $59.95) from Logos Research ([800] 875-6467) paints a chilling picture of Hitler's impact on European Jews. Using very high-quality video, audio and animation, this disc--at least for me--was the most moving of the three. Admittedly, that may have something to do with my European Jewish heritage, but it's also a testament to the quality of the product.

With archival film footage, speeches, original music, photographs and an original text, the CD uses multimedia to its highest purpose, providing information in a way that couldn't possibly be achieved in print or video alone.

The CD is divided into four sections: "The Jewish People," "Hitler's Germany," "The Holocaust" and "The Aftermath." Each begins with a narrated video summary. I can't imagine anyone being immune to the haunting photographs of starving concentration camp prisoners and the footage of Jews being taken to death camps.

This disc is not appropriate for young children, but it would be extremely valuable as part of a teacher-led curriculum for middle school and high school students.

The publisher's Web site has a page about the product (http://www.logos.com/products/holocaust.htm) that includes screen shots, descriptions and video clips.

My Web site (http://www.larrysworld.com) has an electronic version of this column with links to numerous Web sites about these three subjects.

Lawrence J. Magid can be reached via e-mail at larry.magid@latimes.com

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