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Home > Weblog w/e 25.3.2000


Saturday 25 March 2000, 23:55 GMT
BlowTheDotOutYourAss.com. That's the message of a group of Internet workers who are trying to remind residents at the epicentre of the dot.com goldrush that there's more to life than the Internet. Details from Wired News here.
Google's incorporation of the Open Directory system into what was already a very, very good search engine has made their site even more useful than it was already. Salon has a thoughtful article about how the two, apparently very different, systems for cataloguing the web work together so well and how Open Directory is harnessing the spirit of Open Source to make it easy to find not every site, but the best sites.
The Smart Singles Card offers gadget geeks everywhere a new way to figure out whether it's worth trying to break the ice with that cute guy/girl.
The Microsoft-Department of Justice lawsuit is a waste of money. So say two-thirds of the respondents to a survey commissioned by Americans for Technology Leadership, and 80% of them think the case should be settled out of court. The writer of this report on the survey's findings adds right at the end that "only 17%" favoured a breakup of Microsoft, but considering that a breakup is far and away the most drastic possible outcome I think that is a rather high figure. There are an awful lot of other, less dramatic measures which might help reduce Microsoft's monopolistic power, such as forbidding Microsoft to stop making deals which penalise PC makers for not supplying Windows on a new PC, or forcing them to document fully their file formats and system calls, would help enormously. Actually, insisting that all software suppliers publish full details of their proprietary file formats would be a huge step forward - without this information, we effectively allow software makers to hold our data hostage and enormously complicate the process of moving to a competing product. [Via The Industry Standard's Media Grok]
Friday 24 March 2000, 23:35 GMT
"If nobody values intellectual property, then we'll all be in the insurance business." In all the fuss about Napster and the MP3 revolution we've heard from those who believe that "information wants to be free," from the recording industry, and even from university sysadmins who've found their bandwidth being soaked up by students downloading MP3s as fast as their college's T1 will carry them. However, not much attention has been paid to the views of the artists whose work is at the heart of the issue. Salon has a thoughtful article pointing out the pitfalls of using a medium which allows anyone to distribute an artist's work with no guarantee that the artist will ever see a penny. One theory is that in an MP3 world artists will revert to using recordings to publicise tours, but not every artist can, or is inclined to, spend two hundred days a year on the road. Saying that "real" artists will perform because they need to, not because of commercial gain, is all very well, but if you're a songwriter who sees her best work being translated into flawless digital copies you can understand why you'd be upset. This isn't like home taping: digital copies can be, in principle, a perfect reproduction, so where's the incentive to buy the original CD?
How should web sites deal with flagging that corrections have been made to their content? The case of American radio personality Dr Laura, who has excised a number of controversial anti-gay comments from her web site after a storm of criticism broke recently, points up the extent to which organisations can edit history as recorded on their web site. There isn't any useful mechanism for tracking corrections to the content of a web page: should we regard this as a scandal which makes the web useless as a medium of record, or a sign that everything on any web site is simply a post-modern representation of the face the author wants to show to the world with any resemblance to reality being purely coincidental?
Thursday 23 March 2000, 23:40 GMT
Beaver College, Pennsylvania is seriously considering changing its name because feeding its name to a search engine tends to produce a lot of … er, somewhat less educational … web sites.
It's been a good day for software updates. I've installed version 1.8 of Forté's excellent Agent news reader and Beta 1 of the Opera web browser. Neither programme is exactly high-profile compared to the likes of MS Internet Explorer or Outlook Express or Netscape Communicator, but Agent and Opera are extremely solid products with pretty much all the features you're likely to need for reading Usenet and browsing the web. Crucially, neither is a memory or resource hog, which is a major consideration for users of Windows 95 or 98.
Speech recognition meets Eliza meets the BOFH! Some day all tech support will be made this way.
ADSL is on the way (slowly). The Register provides a good summary of the current state of the various major players in the ADSL market, and reports on problems with BT's installation of ADSL systems for Demon Internet customers. Although Demon's name appears in the headline of the article, I have a feeling that BT are the ones who should be taking the heat, since they're responsible for sorting out the hardware in the customer's home.
Scrambling for Safety was the title of a conference held at the LSE yesterday to discuss the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Bill. Reports from Wired News and The Register suggest that with users, ISPs and the communications industry all asking hard questions about the practicality and ethics of the Bill the government has its work cut out to make a case for the Bill as it stands. Hopefully the efforts of the Stand campaign and the Select Committee which is presently considering the Bill will result in an outbreak of sanity within the government.
Wednesday 22 March 2000, 23:20 GMT
The ultimate in Geekware? Much as I love my Psion Series 5 and find it essential that I have it on me at all times, I just couldn't see myself wandering around the office wearing one of these. [Via Windowseat Weblog]
A very worthwhile collection of reviews of books about various aspects of cyberculture can be found here. [Via Red Rock Eater News Service]
Did NASA know that the Mars Polar Lander was doomed to fail? So says journalist James Oberg, who claims that a forthcoming report into the failure of the mission will confirm that NASA discovered that the lander could not land safely but covered the finding up. Naturally, NASA rejects these claims.
Leave the phone! Forget about the phone, dammit! [Via Metafilter]
It must have been a whole week since the last announcement of an unmetered Internet access offer. This time round it's an offshoot of High Street PC dealers Tiny. Details from The Register.
The name of Teddy Roosevelt has been invoked both Republican and Democrat candidates in this year's US presidential race. The Atlantic Unbound takes a critical look at one of the more overrated presidents.
Why do men like to play computer games as female characters? There's a tentative analysis here which makes for interesting reading. [Via MISCmedia.com]
Patents have been in the news a lot recently after Amazon.com patented their affiliate programme, but copyright is a related area of law which is also being thrown into turmoil by the advent of mass digital media. Unfortunately, it looks as if the big media empires are winning more than they're losing on this front. It's entirely reasonable for the owners (not always the creators by any means) of works to have the right to benefit from their creativity and hard work for a reasonable period of time, but over the long term if their words and images don't become part of a cultural commons then we'll all be the poorer. [Via Arts and Letters Daily]
Tuesday 21 March 2000, 23:25 GMT
Dot.com magazine overload is the subject of an interesting article in Salon today. The last three years has seen an explosion in the number of magazines covering the dot.com revolution. What's most striking about them is the way they've ballooned in size, becoming 300-page monsters packed with ads, making it difficult to find any worthwhile content in between the ads. Even Wired, which was supposed to be about much more than the business of the Internet revolution, is falling prey to this: I used to subscribe, but now I pick up occasional issues as and when I feel like it.
Many writers talk as if broadband is the "killer app" for home Internet access, but in fact broadband is merely the infrastructure which will allow applications and services to be provided to home users. Nobody quite knows what people will want from broadband access, and none of the obvious answers like video-on-demand make that much sense. No doubt there will be a "killer app" at some point, but it'll no doubt come out of the blue and only seem obvious after the fact. I mean, who would have thought that a tool for accountants would be the killer app which turned Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak's garage-born brainchild into an essential business tool? [Via Tomalak's Realm]
As an antidote to the strident revolutionary, get-government-out-of-the-way calls of the Silicon Valley elite, try reading about the Canadian approach to "Community Informatics." A posting to Phil Agre's Red Rock Eater News Service mailing list outlines Canadian work in bringing the Internet to communities and in figuring out that merely providing access isn't enough. The article can be read on the web here.
Computer engineers find some very strange things when they open up users' PCs. The Register has an article describing some of the highlights of a survey of its service centre engineers by Dixons. Supposedly a fuller list is available on the Dixons Group web site, but it was so slow and unwieldly that I gave up trying to find it.
The Stand Fax-your-MP campaign I mentioned yesterday has already resulted in 1,000 faxes to MPs in just a week. If you haven't visited the site and read up on the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Bill yet, go there now. You know it makes sense. [Via The Register]
Isn't it funny how Microsoft change their minds about supporting Internet standards? A year ago they were saying IPv6 (the system which will expand the number of IP addresses available so that we can all have our fridges and cars and personal organisers connected to the Internet on a permanent basis) wasn't worth supporting, but yesterday they released an experimental IPv6 stack. It couldn't have anything to do with the way that several of their rivals (including some Linux distributions) have now released IPv6 stacks. This isn't a huge issue today, but eighteen months from now it might well be a critical issue in simplifying all our lives as 24/7/365 Internet access becomes more prevalent. [Via The Register]
The Observer appears to have a bee in its bonnet about Demon Internet. After an article slamming a Demon director by name for defending Demon's policy on not censoring its news servers, the newspaper published an article claiming that Demon's policy was hampering the drive to stamp out child porn and criticised the Internet Watch Foundation as a failure. It's depressing to see a newspaper advocate media censorship like this.
A new lease of life for the Amiga is promised yet again, as the current owners of the technology announce that they will show a developers' model soon. I hope the fact that this will take place on All Fools' Day isn't an omen.
The developed world needs immigrants, according to a UN report which finds that as industrial societies become "greyer" they may need more young workers to generate the wealth needed to support the older generation. Not a message the British public wants to hear, to judge by the recent furore over immigration. [Via Metafilter]
Monday 20 March 2000, 22:55 GMT
Stand.org.uk, the organisation which has been coordinating a campaign against the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Bill, has reopened its web-to-fax gateway, which allows you to compose a fax to your Member of Parliament about the shortcomings of the RIP Bill and have it addressed and faxed to your MP free of charge. Their site includes plenty of information about the RIP Bill, including a three-minute guide to the Bill for those who don't have time to read and inwardly digest the entire thing. This is important, people: this Bill could be passed as soon as October, and once it's become law it'll be that much harder to get the troubling provisions changed, not least because it provides for people who have been monitored to be gagged for life, so in principle even if you find out that you've been subjected to surveillance then you can't even tell a journalist who might start to look into the matter. How Orwellian is that?
The Economist has an interesting editorial online about a new survey it commissioned which suggests that the British electorate are prepared to pay more tax in return for better public services. "So what," I hear you say, "we see these surveys every year, and every five years we vote for a government which promises not to put our taxes up." That's true, but in part it's because such polls tend to leave it to the respondent to assume that such tax increases will be levied on the better off, i.e. everyone else. It's easy to be in favour of tax increases for everyone else, but when you get into the polling booth you play it safe and vote for the party which says it definitely won't tax you more heavily. However, I wonder if there's another explanation. These polls became a feature of the 80s political scene when we had a succession of Tory governments which plainly didn't believe in public services, and so the electorate didn't feel that higher taxes would be put to good use under the Tories, and it didn't trust Labour not to screw up the economy. Perhaps what we're seeing here is that the public, still believing deep down that Labour are a party which cares about public provision of health, education and so on, is prepared to give this particular government a chance to spend more money if it promises to spend it wisely. If so, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown may have an historic opportunity to prove that people are prepared to pay for better public services. Let's hope they take it.
Slashdot has an article on the use of laptops in exams. The idea is that it's a sort of "open laptop" exam where students are free to bring their laptops and wireless modems into the exam room and search the Internet for material during the exam. There are obvious worries about the possibility that students will simply cut-and-paste information and aren't learning anything, but provided that such exams are limited to topics which require a lot more that just reciting facts this may not be a major problem: I never sat an open book exam where I could have walked in cold and got enough information from the texts in the allotted time to get a decent grade. I do see two problems. First, what's to stop people cheating by emailing the correct answers to their friends (or even incorrect answers to their rivals)? Second, if the use of a laptop will actually make a significant difference to your chances of passing the test, isn't this just another barrier thrown up between the relatively well-off and the rest of the student populace?
Sunday 19 March 2000, 23:00 GMT
There are two British high-tech businessmen in a list of tech billionaires published by Forbes Global magazine. The article mentions one very interesting fact: more than half the billionaires on the list only became billionaires in the last nine months. This strongly suggests to me that the vast majority of their wealth is the result of the current dot.com IPO fever in the States, and that given a good market correction once someone notices how few dot.coms make a profit an awful lot of those billionaires will drop right back off the list.
Malcolm Gladwell has written a number of thoughtful, insightful articles for the New Yorker magazine over the last few years, and now he's put them up on the web for everyone to read. Lots of very interesting material - go read.
The main reason there are fewer entries than usual today is that I spent much of my free time fighting with Windows 95's "Plug and Play" system. Microsoft's attempts to make PCs easy to use by hiding much of what's happening behind layers of GUI can be so frustrating sometimes, which is one reason to be thankful for the existence of the Windows Annoyances web site.

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