Broken Code

In the debate about whether Video Professor's marketing procedures are all they should be, one question is seldom asked: Are the products John Scherer keeps asking everyone to try actually any good? To find out, I decide to test them on a subject who, in his own way, is almost as clueless about computers as Jeff Conaway once boasted of being: me. I'm fine at word processing, e-mailing and Internet surfing, but if you want me to do anything more complicated, you'd better be prepared to wait -- for all eternity.

Marketing communications director Brian Olson is certain Video Professor discs can educate me in a snap and sends me three collections to sample: "Learn FrontPage," "Learn Wireless Networking" and "Learn HTML." Upon their arrival, I ask Sean Sullivan, Westword's resident computer genius, which one I should tackle first. He tells me the FrontPage set is worthless, because the product is essentially obsolete -- and wasn't exactly essential in the first place. "I've been messing with computers since '92, '93," he says, "and I haven't needed FrontPage once." He's even more dismissive of the wireless-networking discs. In his opinion, "if you can buy a wireless router and can read instructions, you don't need the Video Professor to walk you through it." But he gives a thumbs-up to the HTML offering, a three-CD tutorial intended to teach people how to build websites. "Learning HTML could actually be useful -- and fun," he announces.

With this reassurance, I boldly insert the first HTML teaching disc into my computer and immediately encounter difficulty. I minimize the lesson screen to take notes in a Word document, and when I try to enlarge it again, it refuses to cooperate beyond playing an endless audio loop of perky smooth jazz. Even bailing out of every other open application doesn't help; I have to begin again. Great start.

Second time's the charm, and I'm soon listening to an upbeat narrator who informs me that a student named "Suzanne" will be taking a lesson along with me. Then he delivers a mini-history lesson about the Internet, informing us that, among other things, Timothy Berners-Lee and associates at the CERN Nuclear Research Facility near Geneva, Switzerland, are credited with laying the foundation for the World Wide Web in 1989. Fascinating: If Jeopardy ever features a category devoted to "Facts Known Only by Guys Who Spend Saturday Nights Alone," I'm ready to roll. Fortunately, the narrator whips through this material pretty quickly -- but his tempo doesn't slacken when he begins telling me things to do, and I struggle to keep pace. At one point, he asks Suzanne and me to open a browser and type in, the address for the World Wide Web Consortium. Instead, I transpose a number with a letter and wind up visiting the site of the Walnut Creek Church of Christ in Walnut Creek, California. And I thought I didn't have a prayerŠ

Shortly after the how-to portion of the proceedings gets going in earnest, I find myself in Notepad (an application I didn't even know I had, I'm ashamed to say), copying code Suzanne is entering. Trouble is, she types a helluva lot faster than I do when it comes to brackets, equals signs and the like. I'm forced to repeatedly hit the "pause" or "rewind" buttons on the Professor's control panel, slowing the process way down. By being deliberate, I actually succeed at creating a web page for Suzanne's resumé, complete with links to various headings and subjects. But when the tasks don't go as anticipated, the narrator isn't programmed to explain why not. That leaves the most inept person imaginable -- yours truly -- to figure out the problem.

On several occasions, the blame lies with minor typos, like a question mark instead of a bracket. But a glitch concerning a reference page that had seemingly disappeared takes over fifteen minutes to solve, and a "links" document that won't connect to anything other than the sadly familiar "Page Cannot Be Displayed" warning is an even larger mystery. I save and resave, type and retype, all the while using language so foul that even Lil Jon might find it objectionable. Finally, with my brain swelling like an overripe boil, I call Sean for help. The problem? When naming a file, I'd spelled the word "links" without the "i." Which makes me want to poke out one of my own.

At long last, I work my way to the disc's end, and even though the process was painful, I feel proud of myself. I've gone from knowing nothing about creating a web page to building one with a variety of different features, including (yes!) operational links. But my sense of satisfaction dissipates after the narrator says, "Not bad for about an hour of time." It had taken me almost four hours -- and I still have two freakin' discs to go.

The product's not bad, I guess. But it can't work miracles.