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Home > Weblog w/e 29.4.2000

Saturday 29 April 2000, 23:15 BST
In the wake of the closure of the Outcast web site, it's been reported that lawyers plan to go to the European Court to challenge the way that UK law presently leads to sites being closed down the second that someone breathes a hint that they consider a site libellous. This isn't going to fix anything quickly, given how long it takes for the European Court to hand down judgements, but at least it's a start.
Now Kevin Mitnick is being told that he can't even accept speaking engagements which will involve his talking about computers, according to a report from SiliconValley.com. This sounds like a clear case of his right to free speech being violated, but there are a couple of important points the article isn't clear on. First of all, if he's been ordered as a condition of his probation to avoid any job which involves computers, and I can see how giving lectures about hacking would be seen as falling into the category of computer-related work. It can certainly be argued that the companies whose systems he broke into grossly overstated the monetary value of the "damage" to their interests, but it's still the case that he (or his lawyers) signed up for a plea agreement that stipulated "no computer-related work for three years" so it seems to me that he's obliged to stick to that agreement unless and until he can persuade a court to change the terms of the agreement. [Via Metafilter]
Is it time to close the Web? Possibly not, but avoiding sites which are so flashy and cramped as to be unusable would help. [Via Tomalak's Realm]
Mixed views on Internet censorship. In Australia, the net visible effect of the new laws which took effect on 1 January giving regulators the power to require ISPs to remove "offensive" material has been that just 31 sites have been affected. Opponents of the law are claiming that the paltry number of sites affected demonstrates that the law wasn't necessary, whereas supporters of said law claim that this same number proves that the sound and fury over the way the law would destroy the Internet were overstated. It seems to me that these arguments take no account of the amount of self-censorship that the law might have prompted, or of the extent to which owners of contentious sites may have moved them overseas in advance of the law coming into force. Wired News has the story.
Sensationalist reports about the effects of Internet use always get a lot of coverage. The Online Journalism Review dissects a couple of examples of stories which were given far more attention than they deserved. [Via Tomalak's Realm]
The all-conquering MP3 format looks a little less invulnerable this week. First of all, MP3.com lost a court case on the grounds of copyright infringement, and it's possible that they'll face a fine so stiff that it'll put them out of business completely. Second, the MP3 encoder itself is subject to a patent, and the owners of the patent have started to enforce their patent. This has led to a drive to develop a patent-free audio encoder, and it's possible that while individual users may not care too much about violating anyone's patents the companies which want to make money making downloadable music available will prefer to switch to a format which doesn't expose them to liability for patent fees. At the very least, these developments open a window of opportunity for someone to introduce an audio compression format which gives artists (and record labels, but nobody is forcing artists to sign with labels who'll act as intermediaries between them and their fans) a chance to let fans download their work while still maintaining some degree of control over their intellectual property. In the long run, the demise of the MP3 format would be a Good Thing, regardless of what the "technology-is-destiny" crowd think.
Tales From The Techs. There are a thousand-and-one "dumb computer user story" sites, but that doesn't mean that none are worth the bother. Some of these stories struck me as extremely worthwhile: "Computers and Cholesterol" was my favourite. [Via Newstrolls]
Thursday 27 April 2000, 23:45 BST
BT finally announced the details of their ADSL package yesterday. Today, The Register has a pretty decent Question-and-Answer article explaining what ADSL is and what the implications of the BT package are.

On the face of it the monthly charge isn't at all bad - and certainly not as steep as had been suggested by some stories since BT's initial announcement of the ADSL trial - but I think I may wait a year and see what happens when BT lose their monopoly of the local loop and other telecom suppliers (ideally, ones without an existing leased line business to protect) can come in and offer better deals.
Amazon UK made a bad mistake on their web site, offering VHS copies of Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace for just 12p, or about £3 including P&P and VAT. As you might expect quite a few people ordered at that price, and Amazon eventually announced that despite it being an obvious mistake and there being no contract of sale until they email you a shipping confirmation they would still send customers one copy each (though some customers had ordered several copies). Amazon are adamant that they aren't legally obliged to fulfil an order if they didn't send a shipping confirmation, but I wonder if anyone's tested that. I know how the law of contract works with respect to bricks-and-mortar sales - the relevant term is "offer and acceptance", and the law as it stands allows a shop which labels a product with the wrong price to refuse to sell it to you when you take it to a checkout - but it would be good to have someone confirm whether the law applies to a web site in the same way.
You Have Been Judged! A Brazilian judge is trying out a system whereby a laptop fed with the facts of a case will hand down a verdict and recommend a sentence (both of which, to be fair, the judge can override if he or she so desires). Naturally, this has led to a spate of "Omigod! Computers handing out justice" stories. However, the report from The Register on this story reveals a far, far scarier fact: the program in question was written in Microsoft Visual Basic. Ghu help us all!
US military bombarded with PowerPoint slideshows. American military officers are facing a new enemy: interminable PowerPoint presentations with incredibly complex slides. The younger generation of officers is determined to use every feature in PowerPoint to drive home points and impress superiors, and the medium is definitely getting in the way of the message. I know Bill Gates was expecting stiff penalties following the DoJ antitrust case, but I don't think he was expecting that the Pentagon would declare war on one of his programs!
Wednesday 26 April 2000, 23:15 BST
A perfect example of why current filtering software can be positively dangerous, and why there will be more programs like cphack no matter how many lawsuits are brought against their authors. [Via Pigs & Fishes]
An inspiring example of form following function - to Hell. It started back in January as a joke in User Friendly. Then Joel Holveck took the idea seriously. Now, tremble before Vigor!
Tuesday 25 April 2000, 23:30 BST
It's ten years since the Hubble Space Telescope was launched, and scientists have been paying tribute to its achievements. For all the early problems with the defects in the original mirror, it's proved an amazingly successful project and has provided some stunning images of the far-off corners of the universe. Naturally, NASA has any number of fascinating and positively awe-inspiring images available on various Hubble-related web sites, but this site probably has the nicest selection in a range of sizes and resolutions, and accompanied by the original press releases and some explanatory articles.
Have you ever noticed the many "coincidental" links between The X Files and Scooby Doo? Spooky… [Via Memepool]
A web-based email company in search of some cheap publicity sent a bunch of New Labour MPs an email purporting to come from Tony Blair and soliciting suggestions for names for the new baby. Surprisingly the stunt backfired, when only 10 out of 89 of the MPs replied, and some of them were clearly sceptical that the email was genuine. Is it that our MPs are more net-savvy than we give them credit for, or just that they haven't got round to checking their email yet?
Assisted Thinking: A Hand For The Head.
The rise of creation science continues to baffle and depress me: how can so many otherwise intelligent people in societies which are the beneficiaries of centuries of scientific achievement disregard the accumulated evidence of generations of scientists regarding evolution? Debora MacKenzie has written an excellent brief history of creation science for New Scientist which tackles the question well. [Via Arts & Letters Daily]
A brief roundup of SF news:

Ken MacLeod's excellent The Sky Road, a haunting, funny and subtle piece of future history, deservedly won the British Science Fiction Association's Best Novel award at the weekend. Macleod is probably the best new British SF novelist since Iain M Banks, and he's getting better with every novel. Run, don't walk, to your nearest bookshop or library and try The Star Fraction, The Stone Canal, The Cassini Division and now The Sky Road (best read in that order, for what it's worth) and marvel at how MacLeod combines science fiction, a black sense of humour and a fair bit of radical politics to conjure up some of the most exciting, invigorating SF of the last half decade. If it wasn't for the way that the Hugo nomination rules and the demographics of fandom work against work first published outside the United States, The Sky Road would be a worthy competitor for Vinge's A Deepness In The Sky and Bujold's A Civil Campaign for this year's Hugo for Best Novel.

Frank Miller is to revisit the territory he first covered fifteen years ago by writing another Batman comic. If it's one quarter as good as Batman: The Dark Knight Returns then it'll be a treat. Miller's darker vision of Batman was a significant influence on Tim Burton's first two Batman feature films, which for my money were the best of the big screen comic book adaptations of the last decade or so.

The planned protest rally outside Paramount Studios by Star Trek fans aimed at pressuring Paramount to base the next Trek TV series around the adventures of Captain Sulu and the USS Excelsior attracted just 30 fans. While organisers claimed that about 500 fans showed up in other US cities at separate protest rallies, this isn't good going when you consider that the organisers had originally hoped that Paramount Studios would be faced with around 1,000 fans. I admire the fans' commitment to the show, but I don't really think that going back to a period of Trek history which has already been covered in the original Trek series is the way to go: I think the show needs to repeat the trick Star Trek: The Next Generation pulled off and jump forward a lifetime or two to show us how the Federation has changed and let it face new challenges. And please, not so many time travel stories next time, guys!

[All via Sci Fi Wire]
Monday 24 April 2000, 23:50 BST
A prayer for those about to venture onto the Internet. [Via Newstrolls]
I wrote the other day about an article in Salon about a turning of the technolibertarian trend in the face of a recognition that there is a role for government and possibly even regulation. One of the organisers of a seminar which was featured in the original article has now written to Salon and taken issue with the original article. [NB/- The letter I refer to is the last on Salon letter page for today.]
The Seattle and Washington protests have given a lot of publicity to the anarchist left, who the New Republic has christened the "New New Left: Bold, Fun and Stupid" in an article which points out some of the weaknesses of the protesters' position.

The article caught my eye because I'm currently reading a fascinating book on this very subject (No Logo by Naomi Klein), but as I'm still part-way through the final sections on the new, less formal anti-corporate protest movements of the late 90s I'll hold off further comment on Klein's work until I've finished it - hopefully later this week. [Via blog]
"She called me up at work and said, 'It's either me or your odd fetish for technology.' I said, 'Can I send you an email about it when I get home?' and that was that." And I thought I was a gadget geek!
If you're a Windows user who's keen to make the leap to Linux but you're unsure whether a Unix-based system will be welcoming to someone used to the Windows GUI and all the little tools and utilities that you've accumulated over the years. Linux Interactive have a new feature called "Screen Capture": if your request is selected they'll locate details of an app which does what you want and will post screenshots, details of the application and a location from which you can download an RPM of the application.

This is a terrific idea: while a lot of Linux users appear to believe that new users should sink or swim, the fact is that a lot of Windows users are aware that there are Linux equivalents of some Windows applications (eg StarOffice for MS Office, Netscape Navigator and so on) but they're not so sure about less high-profile apps and they want reassurance that they'll be able to make the transition to Linux without losing functionality. I know, because I'm one of them: I've got SuSE Linux on my second hard disk but because I haven't yet identified usable equivalents of some of my favourite Windows apps I still spend my days working under Windows 95. Happily the last major barrier to my switching to Linux - the lack of a GUI-based offline news client that matches Forté Agent - looks to have been resolved now that I've found Pan, which looks on the face of it to be as close to an Agent clone for Linux as I could desire.
Sunday 23 April 2000, 23:55 BST 
Further to my comments last week about deep linking, I came across an eminently sensible article by Dana Blankenhorn asking Is Yahoo! Illegal? It seems to me that if people want to keep their content proprietary, they should put it behind a firewall or password-protect it or charge people for it. If it's put on the Internet in the clear, it should be linkable. [Via Newstrolls]
Writers Write has a long, fascinating interview with Terry Pratchett which discusses both his Discworld novels and the process of writing in general. Just one bad thing about the article: it's illustrated with pictures of the US editions of the Discworld novels, and they're uniformly horrible. Why can't they use the Josh Kirby covers the UK editions are blessed with?
One thing I forgot to mention in yesterday's posting about the Hugo nominations: Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace was shut out of the Best Dramatic Presentation nominations. There is justice in the world! (I'd genuinely like to think that George Lucas will surprise the sceptics and make Episode 2 as black and dramatic as The Empire Strikes Back was, but I'm not too confident unless he at least farms out the writing duties to a decent screenwriter.)
Ironic, or what? Wired News reports that the many academics and researchers who have argued alongside the American Civil Liberties Union against the use of content filtering software because it doesn't do what it says it will, are now facing the possibility that the research they have accumulated will be used to justify the use of even more draconian legal measures to "protect" children from erotica on the Internet.
Is there too much SF on television? Writer/producer Michael Cassutt thinks not.

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