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Saturday 1 April 2000, 23:40 BST
Anyone who uses email knows how easy it is to misinterpret the message someone is trying to put across when you've no non-verbal signals to help you interpret the text. As embarrassing as this can be in informal exchanges, it's potentially a costly problem for businesses using email to conduct negotiations. A recent study analyses the problem and suggests means of avoiding a communications breakdown. [Via Techdirt]
E-book readers have been heavily promoted but nobody's quite sure how much they're a product in search of a market. One of Salon's editors recently spent some time using an e-reader (ie an actual PDA-style piece of hardware, rather than a PC software package). I can't quite see e-books taking off as a separate category of hand-held device: given a bit of improvement in screen quality on the next generation of PDAs, surely the way to go is to use those devices to hold your e-books.
Net Nanny need to take a closer look at the banner ads they run. [Via NTK]
As usual, there have been plenty of All Fools' Day spoofs on the Internet. Salon's 1 April issue had a number of goodies: a scoop reporting the infernal plans of Bill Gates and Richard Mellon Scaife to derail the Linux bandwagon, a Brilliant Careers report on Satan, and a shocking admission by their Open Source expert.
Who bombed the Microsoft campus? [Via Metafilter]
The Well is fifteen. It's an atypical online community because it's so strongly centred on the Bay area of San Francisco, but it's also proved one of the more interesting case studies in the dynamics of online communities. Salon, the owners of The Well since last year, have posted a birthday tribute by a variety of Well denizens, including online columnist Jon Carroll.
Friday 31 March 2000, 23:20 BST
A correction regarding the Godfrey vs Demon Internet case I mentioned yesterday: as the Guardian reports today, one of the postings about which Dr Godfrey complained to Demon was in fact posted by a Demon customer. This doesn't alter my opinion that it is crazy to hold Demon responsible for the Usenet postings made or web sites written by their customers, let alone posters whose only connection with Demon is that their news server holds a copy of the article.
Want to read a good e-novel? Jorn Barger has been looking at The Hundred Best E-novels of 1899.
Does the Nationwide Building Society really understand the point of e-banking? They plan to install Internet banking terminals in their high street branches. Am I missing the point here, or are they?
Mount Etna blows smoke rings!
Psion have licensed the Opera web browser for their Netbook, Series 5 and Series 7 systems. This is excellent news: the web browser supplied with the Series 5 is way too limited to be really useful, and Opera's browser for EPOC promises to be as feature-rich but light on resources as the Windows version. Just as soon as I've added a Compact Flash card to provide my Series 5 with a little elbow room, I'll certainly be installing the Open Beta of Opera for EPOC.
Thursday 30 March 2000, 23:50 BST
The big news today is the out-of-court settlement in the Godfrey vs Demon Internet Usenet libel case. I've heard some seriously mixed-up news reports since the story broke, with a lot of reports suggesting that the offensive message was made on a Demon web site (it was a Usenet posting) or that it was made by a Demon customer (which, as far as anyone knows, it wasn't - it just happened to be one of millions of messages of which copies were held on Demon's news servers), or that Demon paid damages of £250,000 (the payment to Dr Godfrey was £15,000, and Demon agreed to pay his legal costs which it's estimated will come to some £230,000). Some reports have been broadly sympathetic to the plight of ISPs, whereas others have been critical of Demon for not having acted when Dr Godfrey first complained.

There's been a lot of debate about how Demon handled Dr Godfrey's request that they delete the posting and whether they overreacted when they started withdrawing Usenet posting rights from posters who provided links to archived copies of the original article. In my opinion Demon's only real offence (especially given that the posting in question wasn't posted by a Demon customer) was to fall foul of libel laws which take no account of the difference between distributing a Usenet posting and publishing an article in print. The libel laws as they currently stand place ISPs in a position where they have to risk being sued for libel if they refuse to censor their Usenet servers' contents at the first complaint from a complainant. ISPs can't investigate every allegedly defamatory posting to establish whether it is in fact true, so in practice they have to ask their lawyers to form an opinion as to whether the company might face a libel suit if the article in question is eventually adjudged to be defamatory. Not even asking subscribers to sign an agreement to reimburse Demon if they post an article which is found to be defamatory and Demon are forced to pay damages would help, since in practice very few Demon subscribers would be in a position to reimburse Demon to the tune of £250,000 anyway.

I'd like to believe that the result of this fiasco will be that the law will be changed, ideally to give ISPs the sort of "common carrier" protection which stops you from suing the Royal Mail if their postal services are used to distribute libellous material, but I can't see the government regarding this as a big priority. As long as the Internet is safe for e-commerce, I doubt Tony Blair is likely to worry too much about protecting a backwater like Usenet.
David Bowie might just have started something when he set up BowieNet, his very own ISP. Now boy band Hanson are following suit with HansonNet. This trend needs to be stamped out now: you just know the next stop is PoshNet, ScaryNet, BabyNet, SportyNet and GeriNet!
Amstrad's new cheap email console which I mentioned yesterday doesn't look like such a good deal after all. The price of the unit is pretty good, but they're going to be charging 12p per session to download email (not too bad) plus 12p per email sent (ouch!) At those prices, it might just be very light email users who'll get much benefit from the system. In these days of "free" Internet access, I suspect that before long Amstrad will announce a switch to funding the service through advertising.
It didn't take long for Stephen King's new story, the first e-book by a major author, to be pirated. It turns out the e-book, which was supposed to sell for US$2.50, only used weak (40 bit) encryption, and within days hacked copies were showing up online. I think this is a pattern the promoters of e-books are going to have to get used to. [Via Tomalak's Realm]
In the week when the corpse of "push" technology pioneer Pointcast was finally laid to rest, it seems appropriate to point to a thoughtful article about the Darwinian process of winnowing which is taking place in e-commerce, as "clicks-and-mortar" firms step up their e-commerce efforts and only those online stores which offer something of real use to their customers seem likely to survive. [Via Tomalak's Realm: access to New York Times article requires free registration]
Wednesday 29 March 2000, 23:55 BST
The ongoing court case brought by Mattel against the authors of the cphack, a utility which reveals the list of sites blocked by Mattel's Cyberpatrol filtering software, is getting more Byzantine by the day. First Mattel bought the rights to the package so they could demand that the mirror sites be taken down. Then it was pointed out that the authors of cphack had released the package under the GPL, which not only permits redistribution but also forbids the authors of a GPL-ed package to withdraw that permission. But then it turned out that if the authors hadn't assigned the rights to the Free Software Foundation in writing the GPL might not be enforceable. However, it turns out that there's also a possibility that a nonexclusive licence given for free might be revocable. The implications of this last possibility are potentially explosive: if it turns out that the GPL can't protect software for which no money has changed hands, where does that leave the GPL-ed parts of a typical Linux distribution? Now that the GPL is at the heart of a multi-billion dollar industry you can be sure that someone's going to test this in court, and probably sooner rather than later. There's a good summary of the current state of the case at Wired News - this is one obscure court case that could have serious implications.
The government is trying to give away money to pensioners. Over the years older people have tended to fail to claim the full amount due to them from the government. The reasons vary: sometimes they're unable to get to government offices to make their claim, sometimes they don't feel that they should claim because others are worse off and need the money more, occasionally they don't want to tell the government the type of information that is required to assess a claim for a means-tested benefit. However, it seems to me that the single most common reason is that the benefits system is very, very complex. Every few years the government of the day reorganises the benefits system and renames some of the benefits, but this doesn't fix the heart of the problem: there are too many different types of benefit, and it's too hard to figure out which one(s) you should be claiming. This is one area where radical reform would be very welcome: bring on a Citizens' Income integrated with income tax, so that you report your income to one government department and that single department then figures out whether you owe the government money or they owe you some back. One largeish bureaucracy would be a lot better than half a dozen.
Are Amstrad about to do for email what they did for word processing in the mid-1980s? Alan Sugar made an awful lot of money by producing a simple, robust computer which gave users enough of the benefits of word processing that they didn't mind that they were using a CP/M-80 system with odd 3" format floppy disks years after everyone else had given up on CP/M and moved on to MS-DOS or TOS/GEM or AmigaDOS or the BBC Micro. Now he's teamed up with BT to introduce a cheap combination telephone and email console. Amstrad's shares dropped after the announcement because the market was disappointed that the console wouldn't allow web browsing, but I'm not sure that's quite the disadvantage you might think. Supporting all the fancy plug-ins and features that a full-featured web browser demands would make the device immeasurably more complicated, and the market for this product isn't people who want to "surf the web", it's people who want cheap, simple email access. If he delivers that at the price point he's promising, I can see this becoming quite popular in some quarters. Dedicated Internet appliances like this are definitely the way to go for an awful lot of people who just don't need a full-scale PC or Mac.
Al Gore never claimed to have invented the Internet, but the meme has entered the consciousness of the digerati. Phil Agre's Red Rock Eater News Service has now distributed a thorough debunking of the myth, which also serves as a penetrating analysis of what's wrong with the news media today. Sometimes instant news isn't worth reading.
Can Ask Jeeves pass the Turing Test? Not quite yet, apparently. [Via Barbelith]
Just because you can move something onto the Web, that doesn't make it a good idea. Salon takes a thoughtful look at the various services which invite you to put your Bookmark/Favourites files online so you can access them via a web browser wherever you are logged in. I can't see the need myself: if you're away from your home PC it's as easy to just feed the name of a site which you know exists into a decent search engine. In any case, why not just put the contents of your bookmark file (or at any rate an abridged version, if you have some links you'd prefer not to share) up on a web page on your own site if you do very much web browsing away from home?
Tuesday 28 March 2000, 23:59 BST
The Police Foundation says that some soft drugs should be reclassified so that the police don't waste time persecuting users. Naturally, a government which is in thrall to the Daily Mail has already rejected this approach out of hand, though it says it'll consider other recommendations of the report. What's amazing is how limited the foundation's recommendations were given the government's response. The report didn't call for the decriminalisation of ecstasy or cannabis, let alone harder drugs. The emphasis was on treating soft drugs as a health problem, not a crime problem. Of course, if you start treating drugs as a problem because of the medical effects then you would have to start asking why legal drugs, such as alcohol or nicotine, aren't criminalised. [Via BBC News Online]
Britain's universities are starting to notice the effect of providing free Internet access to their students and staff on their budgets. The Register reports that according to a story in The Independent the total cost of providing access for leisure purposes is around £450,000, and may come to £600,000 next year. I've been wondering how long it would take for universities to site up and take note of the amount of time their students spend sucking up bandwidth downloading MP3s and the like, but there are two points about this story which surprise me. First of all, those figures are for the entire British university system, and I think that if you divide that among, say, fifty universities, that's actually a pretty paltry sum. However, the figure is heavily influenced by the fact that this is based on an assumption that only 15% of the time students and staff spend online is not study-related. I'd be amazed if the figure is really that low. The big question is, how long will it take before universities stop supplying unmetered Internet access to students, and which bursar will be the first to bite the bullet and be reviled as a Luddite for trying to bill students who abuse their university facilities.
Sad news yesterday, as word spread that Ian Dury had finally succumbed to cancer. RIP.
Keeping a web journal can have drastic effects on your meatspace life, according to an article in Salon. I wonder if this sort of thing will do anything to quell people's desire to put their lives up on the Internet where anyone can find them and try to use them against you. I don't suppose that keeping a weblog is going to lose me any jobs, but if a potential employer looked at this site and objected to, say, my scepticism about the government's drug policy, I'd just have to tell myself that an employer that dumb wouldn't be worth working for. Certainly the people quoted in the Salon article don't seem to regret having put a little of themselves up on the Internet despite the consequences, but the young man cited in the article who has used his (password protected) online journal to express his thoughts about his sexuality because he couldn't discuss the matter with his conservative Christian father might be in for all sorts of trouble if his journal got into the wrong hands. [Via Techdirt]
Monday 27 March 2000, 23:40 BST
Mundane behaviour in lifts is the subject of a surprisingly absorbing essay about the way the strict Japanese social code can be relaxed in the private space of lifts. Don't let the odd lapse into sociological language put you off - this is a fascinating piece of writing, and once Demon's routers have stopped throwing a fit and I can reliably access the Internet again this evening I'll be taking a closer look at the rest of the content on this site. If it's all to this standard it's worth a place in my bookmark file. [Via Bifurcated Rivets]
"While the press releases and treatises of the digerati were of less value to the average American than a plate of singing maggots, the mainstream media always loved them." A distinctly cynical look at high-tech terminology. For an equally cynical daily look at the sayings of the digerati, try www.ditherati.com. [Via Memepool]
Sunday 26 March 2000, 22:25 BST
A potential anti-Napster strategy for the recording industry?
Iain M Banks is due to publish his next Culture novel, Look To Windward, this August. His editor at Orbit, Tim Holman, has released a few details of the new novel to Ottakar's News page. If you don't know what The Culture is, take a look at the Slipstream web site. Roll on August. [Via Kate Nepveu's posting to rec.arts.sf.written]
Papal domains - come and get 'em!
You shouldn't speak too soon about software upgrades. I mentioned the other day that I'd been upgrading my news client and web browser. Well, Agent 1.8 is as rock-solid as ever and is still the single best software purchase I've made, but I've uninstalled Opera 4.0 Beta 1 for now because there were too many niggling little problems for my liking and I don't need any of the new features badly enough to put up with the hassles. I've no doubt the final release will be excellent, but for now I'll stick with Opera 3.62.

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