Just in time for the start of the new school year, Microsoft has an updated version of its Encarta encyclopedia program, selling as a package with Student. (Must be a coincidence.)

We can make a little fun of it, but this is a well-done program. You can also have a little fun with it. We played “Know Your U.S. History” and “Time Traveler,” learningStudent with Encarta¬†odd facts about the origins of things: Did you know the present Great Wall of China is only about 500 years old? The original, much older wall, is visible only in small parts.

Searching a topic brings up articles, photos, maps and even corresponding quotes. We wondered where the word “bum” came from. We didn’t find the answer, but we did get Marlon Brando’s lines from the movie “On the Waterfront,” complaining to his brother: “I coulda been a contender. Instead of a bum, which is what I am, let’s face it.”

The section on physics includes a discussion of British physicist Paul Dirac’s string theory of just about everything. Without that article we would still be ignorant of the existence of “selectrons” and “photinos,” which sounds vaguely like an Italian fast-service picture kiosk. The full program includes dictionaries matching English with Italian, Spanish, French and German.

Microsoft Student with Encarta Premium, 2008, lists for $50. If you want it without Microsoft Student, it’s $30; you can buy the math section on its own for $20. Find your way

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