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Microsoft has yanked another of its fraudulent user testimonials, in this case a fictitious twelve-year-old boy raving about a fictional homework assignment and the indespensable insights he received from MS Encarta Reference Library in preparing it.

Judging by his phony picture he's one of those fussy, antiseptic, precocious little boys that mothers adore and fathers get used to. This one's a seventh-grader who writes just as a university graduate with a degree in 'communications' (i.e., public relations) would do. Funny that.

He's been assigned not just a report but "a presentation on a historical novel," and has wisely chosen Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities, "a book about the French Revolution," he explains to the proles. Meanwhile he's comfortable with such words as 'insight', 'synopsis', 'thematic', 'compile', 'foreshadowing' and 'mockup'.

And he's absolutely sold on Encarta.

"The [Encarta] guide for A Tale of Two Cities helped me to consider some things about the book that I might not have noticed just reading it once," our little pencil geek confesses with modesty, "like asking me to look for thematic images and foreshadowing like the red sunset falling on the French palace."

Oh, yeah; that one slipped past me when I was twelve, too. Fortunately my older brother pointed it out between innings of stickball and my academic career was saved.

But there's more to Encarta than Cliff's Notes, we're assured. It's actually a fabulous resource for quotable quotes and theftworthy images, which our brat exploits to advantage. He's got to produce a poster to embellish his presentation, and Encarta makes this exercise [sorry, can't resist] child's play.

"Just click Features, Articles, and Quotations," he advises. "I typed 'France' and came up with almost 40 quotes including the perfect one for my poster: 'France, mother of arts, of warfare, and of laws' by a Renaissance poet named Joachim du Bellay." [What? nothing from Corneille?]

Then of course there's a wealth of clip-art, just like himself:

"I should mention that the historical map of France from the Interactive World Atlas and the drawing of Louis XVI from the Multimedia/Photos section, both of which I printed, made a stunning centerpiece for my poster," the little wretch enthuses.

A 'stunning centerpiece'. Martha Stewart will have to lay that one away.

But that's not all. You also get crucial shallow insights into political history with which to flesh out your book-report 'presentations'.

"The Timeline feature was compiled by some of the world's leading historians. Just click Features, Timelines, Timeline Center, and Dynamic Timeline to bring up a timeline for a specific period--in my case, the 1780s and 1790s. By clicking any of the elements on the timeline, you open a new window that gives you a brief description of the event along with a list of related links that offer more information on the topic. This led me to something I didn't previously know about: the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen, which I realized was an important element of the French Revolution and would make a great addition to my poster."

At least, thank God, he didn't call it la Déclaration des Droits de l'Homme et du Citoyen.

So we've learned two things here. One is that the Microsoft marketing and PR departments are experiencing considerable difficulty distinguishing fact from fiction. But we always knew that. The other is that, while Encarta may speed up the synthesis of predictable observations, it offers precious little guidance in matters of taste. That Renaissance quote our fake juvenile over-achiever is so proud of comes from what has to be one of the piss-poorest nationalist threnodies ever written. ®

France, mère des arts

France, mère des arts, des armes et des lois,
Tu m'as nourri longtemps du lait de ta mamelle:
Ores, comme un agneau qui sa nourrice appelle,
Je remplis de ton nom les antres et les bois.

Si tu m'as pour enfant avoué quelquefois,
Que ne me réponds-tu maintenant, ô cruelle?
France, France, réponds à ma triste querelle.
Mais nul, sinon Écho, ne répond à ma voix.

Entre les loups cruels j'erre parmi la plaine,
Je sens venir l'hiver, de qui la froide haleine
D'une tremblante horreur fait hérisser ma peau.

Las, tes autres agneaux n'ont faute de pâture,
Ils ne craignent le loup, le vent, ni la froidure:
Si ne suis-je pourtant le pire du troupeau.

-- Joachim du Bellay, 1558

Note: Reader Patrick Smears sends us this original translation, brimming with enviable literary sensitivity:

France, Mother of the Arts

Oh Arts laws and wars are your hits,
I've suckled for years on your tits,
Now I'm calling to you,
Like a lamb for its ewe,
Disturbing the beasts in their pits.

Though you called me your kid yesteryear
Now you won't even answer I fear.
Cruel country of mine,
Respond to my whine!
But only an echo I hear.

I wander the plains wolves and all,
While winter's beginning to fall,
Wind smelly and cold
Brings horror untold
And it's making my skin start to crawl.

Your other tired lambs all get fed,
And don't fear the wolves while in bed,
You let them grow old
Without wind and cold
So am I the worst one you've bred?

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