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Saturday 13 May 2000, 23:55 BST
Well, I gave in to the bout of gadget-lust I confessed to the other day and bought a Palm IIIx this afternoon. I did consider a Palm Vx (too expensive), a Handspring Visor (more RAM, but no docking cradle included as standard for non-USB users) and a Palm IIIe (cheaper, but less RAM and looks like a toy), but the IIIx looked like the best all-round bet. My first impressions are that Palm have done a brilliant job of figuring out what a PDA really needs to do and bundling that functionality in a small, lightweight package, and that the Graffiti handwriting recognition is extremely usable even with just a couple of hours' experience.

The next step is to install the PC-based software that will allow me to transfer files back and forth, and then I'll have to start checking out the Palm software available on the Web. Not that I've come across any glaring omissions yet in the standard collection of apps, but since every other OS/hardware platform out there has its share of essential third party apps I've no reason to think that the Palm is going to be any different.
"If I were a Microsoft public relations person, I would probably be sobbing on a desk right now." So says Robin Miller of Andover.net towards the end of an article by Andrew Leonard in Salon. He's referring to the fact that Microsoft have demanded that Slashdot remove several articles which it claims breach the Digital Millennium Copyright Act by quoting from Microsoft's copyrighted material. Andover.net (which recently bought Slashdot) has refused, and Andrew Leonard's article does a fair job of explaining just why this might turn into a huge own goal for Microsoft.

I'm not entirely sure Miller is right: while Microsoft's actions in this case (by which I mean their publication of information about their implementation of the public domain Kerberos security protocol, not their action against Slashdot) are pretty sleazy, it's perfectly possible that they will convince a judge that the Non-Disclosure Agreement which they imposed upon those who downloaded the documents in question from their web site gives them the right to control the distribution of this "proprietary" information. Furthermore, it's not as if the sort of people who read Slashdot were exactly big fans of Microsoft anyway, so I'm unclear on how this move against Slashdot will hurt the Microsoft bottom line. [Via RC3.org]
Which is not to say that Microsoft have had a good week. For one thing, as I mentioned the other day the reasoning in Bill Gates' article defending his company against the Department of Justice in Time has been pulled to bits by pretty much everyone not working for Microsoft who has read it. For another, a really big security hole in Internet Explorer has been identified. There are also stories circulating that the Internet Explorer for MacOS team has been disbanded.

All in all, Microsoft seem to be determined to act as if they're completely innocent of all charges no matter how bad it'll make them look, when a little humility and a certain amount of discretion in stamping on rivals and generally acting like monopoly-exploiting bastards would go a long way in helping them fight the PR war. [Both IE stories via Metafilter]
Not that Bill Gates is the only software industry executive taking flak this week. The US Congress has been holding emergency hearings in response to the ILOVEYOU virus, and naturally the likes of McAfee have been severely criticised for not foreseeing the Love Bug after Melissa gave the industry such a nasty shock last year. Nothing I've read about the emergency hearings suggests that perhaps, just perhaps, the real culprit in this mess might be not the anti-virus industry or even hackers in Manila, but a certain Redmond-based software company which insists that its customers force it to ship software with security holes you could drive a truck through, and all in the name of "usability."

On a lighter note, The Register asked its readers for tales of just how their organisations dealt with the ILOVEYOU threat. As you might expect, the responses revealed that there are a lot of boneheaded people in charge of corporate IT systems. [Congressional hearings story via RC3.org]
Metallica have been losing friends online for the last couple of weeks over their attempts to stop Napster users from pirating their music. Now The Brunching Shuttlecocks presents An Open Letter From Metallica.
Great as my enthusiasm for my new Palm IIIc is, it hasn't quite pushed me over the edge. If I ever mention that I've bought one of these, you have my permission to have me put down.
The Web is like a bow tie, it says here. I have no idea what practical use this information is to anybody.
The European Space Agency has started looking to science fiction for advice on how to explore space. Two thoughts:
  1. For every successful technological prediction in science fiction, there are hundreds that were wide of the mark. The ESA appear to be hoping that they'll spot some bright idea which wasn't technologically feasible when a story was written but will be now, but I'm not sure that they'll find enough practical ideas to justify the effort.

  2. If they're really planning to model future projects on what we've read about, I want them to do it right. I expect them to talk to Iain M Banks about building GSVs and Orbitals, not Stephen Baxter about the logistics of a manned Mars mission.
Google commemorates Mother's Day in its own inimitable style.
Thursday 11 May 2000, 23:30 BST
Mattel have issued a cease-and-desist letter to one Matt Lavallee (aka "Matt L"), who owns a web site. His crime? He owns the mattl.com domain, and Mattel feels that this soundalike version of their domain is too close for comfort. Big companies have been playing these sorts of silly games for years off-line (just try opening a restaurant called "McDonalds" and see how long it takes to get a letter from the McLawyers), but even so this sort of arrogance makes them look really, really bad. I can sympathise with an organisation that finds a porn site using a common misspelling of their domain name or even the same name in a different Top Level Domain, but persecuting individuals who aren't running a business of any sort, let alone a rival, is guaranteed to net them nothing but lousy publicity. Not that they particularly care, but they should. [Originally via Metafilter, though it's showed up all over the place in the last couple of days]
As anyone who reads this weblog much has probably figured out by now, I read Salon quite a bit. They employ a number of perceptive, thoughtful writers whose work informs and amuses, and their site is consistently worth a look. However, sometimes they over-analyse a topic, and the result comes out as something very silly indeed. Today sees a perfect example of the latter phenomenon: an article about the effects of the ILOVEYOU/Love Bug debacle seeks to hang a long analysis of the nature of feminine wiles on the slender hook of the possibility that the author of the virus may be female. Here's an excerpt:

"But the virus that crippled the world last week was sheer art, a poem enclosing a disease. Every detail was perfect. Even the capitalization and lack of spaces -- ILOVEYOU -- made the apparent confession seem rushed, urgent, heartfelt. And underneath was the cruel awareness that for love -- or, rather, the promise of love, the thin hint of love -- the defenses of maturity fall away. Love will conquer all, and the lover first."

If you want more of this sort of purple prose, go here.
I'm in lust. I've been a loyal Psion user for years (going right back to the days when they were writing Sinclair Spectrum software), and I've been more than happy with my Psion Series 3a and now my Series 5. However, over the last few days I've been thinking about what I really need from a PDA, and I've come to the conclusion that while my Series 5 is extremely feature-packed, it's overkill for my mobile computing needs. I'm not interested in mobile internet access, and I find that while I occasionally write a letter or use my spreadsheet to juggle a few figures, by and large I'm using the diary function and reading the odd text or HTML file I've downloaded or created using my PC and that's about it.

After work I swung by a couple of stores in Newcastle and I had a bit of a play with a Palm IIIe and took a long, hard look at a Handspring Visor Deluxe. I'm seriously impressed with the way Palm have figured out the essentials of the handheld interface and left out all the junk that clutters up the Windows CE interface. I'm leaning towards the Visor, simply because it looks a better deal and I like the expandability the Springboard slot offers, but as my PC's USB port isn't supported by Windows 95 (and I refuse to "upgrade" to Windows 98 and put up with the horrendous Active Desktop) I'll have to budget for a serial cradle too. The Palm V series is lighter and looks much swisher than the Palm III or Visor, but it's not quite nice enough to sway me. But I reserve my mind to change my mind when I'm in the shop brandishing my credit card.
Wednesday 10 May 2000, 23:55 BST
We've all read the reports that using the Internet may tend to make users less sociable, and lead people to feel more isolated. Well, now CNet reports that the pro-internet brigade finally have a report which contradicts this, and claims that if anything internet users are more sociable, and see more of their families. This is a welcome contrast, and I'm sure that the report will get plenty of play on the Web over the next week or two as the internet users of the world unite to blow a loud raspberry in the direction of the authors of the "anti-internet" reports and their old media contacts who "just don't get it."

Two things struck me about the findings which CNet reported. First of all, they've spotted that for many internet users email and the web are simply woven into their lives as another channel of communication, rather than something revolutionary. This is a good thing: the internet will only really be considered to have arrived when nobody thinks about "using the internet" any more, and email use (or Usenet, or online chat) is seen as just another way to get in touch with friends and family. The second point I noted is that many of the email contacts reported are relatively superficial, with email being used to pass around jokes and make announcements rather than discuss "upsetting or worrisome" topics. That's another sign that users are adapting to the dynamics of this new communications technology, and putting it to appropriate uses. You wouldn't send a relative a fax to say that you were going to have tests for cancer, and you probably wouldn't make such an announcement by email either. [Via Bump]
On the other hand, here's one family which was - temporarily - divided by the effects of using the internet. (I note that the use of a mobile phone is also mentioned, but that aspect of the story is pushed into the background after one passing reference.)
Those scamps at The Register have been writing their own Terms & Conditions for their internet access, thanks to a free ISP which didn't protect the text of their T&C from editing by users accessing their sign-up page before they clicked the I ACCEPT button. I just wish someone was likely to have deep enough pockets to take this company to court to find out whether the revised T&Cs really would be binding.
According to BBC News Online, it's possible that the motivation for the "Love Bug" worm may have been the rejection of a computing student's thesis. On a (slightly) related theme, this story suggests that you really shouldn't get your students aggravated over the rejection of their thesis if you want a quiet life. (That said, I think UCSB were quite right in the latter case: if the student's thesis is approved as it stands and he adds material, the faculty have every right to refuse to let him lodge the revised version of his thesis in the library. Not that anybody comes out of the story looking particularly good, but I think the grad student looks much sillier in the end.) [UCSB story via Bad Hair Days]
Talking of the "Love Bug," The Register reports that a spokeswoman for Microsoft Benelux claimed that the "Love Bug" affected MacOS and Linux users too. I'd guess that what she meant was just that Linux or MacOS users whose email addresses were in the address books of friends and colleagues running Outlook/Windows Scripting could have found their mailboxes crammed with messages saying ILOVEYOU just like Windows users. (Or at any rate, that'll be how MS rationalise her comments when they're eventually pinned down and persuaded to comment properly rather than deny anyone might have said anything of the sort.)

The difference, of course, is that the mail clients used by the Mac and Linux users wouldn't have contributed to the spread of the problem by giving the email free rein to plunder their address books for new victims. Still, it makes MS look ever sillier than Bill Gates' comments on Monday, so the story is sure to get wide coverage.
Tuesday 9 May 2000, 23:15 BST
At last, a razor that will let you know when the blade is becoming too worn to use safely. Almost certainly a damn sight safer than this. [Via Rebecca's Pocket]
AltaVista made a lot of noise about their plans for an unmetered ISP, but The Register reports that there's been little concrete information since, and AltaVista are now within a month of the deadline they originally set for rolling out the service. I wouldn't be at all surprised if they're a bit taken aback at the potential level of demand on the service and the amount of money providing an unmetered service is going to require. I don't doubt they'll launch a service of some sort more-or-less in line with their original schedule, but I wonder whether it would hurt them more to open with a service which is limited to a small subset of the large number of people who asked for information, or to let everyone jump on board from the start and see the standard of service drop to the point where the service may be unmetered but it's also not worth having. I doubt AltaVista will be the first or the last to discover that running an unmetered ISP in the UK is not going to be easy. The words "Demon" and "Hull" spring to mind.
Ever wanted an easy, if rough-and-ready way to measure the relative popularity of two concepts on the web? For example, are there more pages about Party of Five or Dawson's Creek? AltaMeter lets you feed groups of words or phrases to AltaVista and charts the result as a nice, neat bar graph.

For what it's worth, the answer is that sites mentioning Dawson's Creek outnumber those mentioning Party of Five by two-to-one. Shame! [Via Metafilter]
I think combining golf balls and GPS systems definitely counts as technological overkill. [Via Techdirt]
Monday 8 May 2000, 22:20 BST
Micropayments have been talked about for years as a means of getting web users to pay for content without involving them in pages of form-filling for a 10p purchase (the online credit card transaction approach), tying them to a specific vendor (Amazon.com's One Click shopping, which is fine if Amazon sell what you want but useless at non-Amazon sites) or putting barriers in the way of their using/reading the article concerned in its entirety which will deter them from bothering (all those sample chapters and excerpts out there).

So far there's no sign that anybody is going to introduce a decent, widely supported micropayments system, so Dru Jay suggests that someone dive in and create a voluntary, post-facto micropayments system? It wouldn't suit everyone, and it's true that a lot of people would "cheat" by taking the content and running, but it's just possible that a large enough gift economy would develop to support authors while lowering the barriers which stop their work being more widely known. In other words, apply the shareware (as opposed to the "crippleware") approach to intellectual property: try before you buy. I'd have slightly more faith in this idea if there weren't a dozen copies of every non-time-limited shareware program out there for every registered copy, especially since I find that the sort of non-techies who are getting online now are, if anything, even less willing to register shareware than the penurious students I knew the best part of a decade ago. Still, if someone can come up with a good, open, inexpensive micropayments system it's got to be worth a try. [Via Metafilter]
Clearly Bill Gates has a rich, subtle sense of humour. That's the only possible explanation for his latest defence of Microsoft's position in the anti-trust case in Time magazine, as reported by The Register. Apparently the Time article includes a claim that the front line defence against viruses is a continually evolving operating system with lots of developers writing for it. If MS is split up there will be less innovation, fewer developers, and thus a greater vulnerability to virus attacks.

So anyone who thought that the problem with Windows was that a single dominant software developer had zealously promoted a software monoculture based on an operating system riddled with security holes you could drive a truck through was clearly mistaken…
Sunday 7 May 2000, 23:00 BST
Any volunteers to be spammed? The Register reports that OK-mail are about to launch a service whereby users can opt-in to a service which will send them direct marketing emails. Presumably the pay-off for users is that they'll get email directed at their specific interests, but I'm sceptical that this is going to be very useful to the average user. For one thing, unless users bother to constantly update their profile so as to reflect their current interests, they'll just end up with a load of email advertising products or services they're not currently interested in. I'd no doubt be identified as a potential purchaser of computer hardware, but that depends very much upon whether I've got a) the cash, and b) the inclination to spend money on, say, a new 3D graphics card. For about twenty-three months out of twenty-four an email telling me that I could get £10 off the latest ultra-hot 3D AGP card would be of no great interest, and in the one month when I was considering a purchase I'd probably already have checked out the sites which I thought might sell me such a card anyway. Given that in the UK the vast majority of internet users still pay by the minute to download their email, I can't there being see a rush of customers for a service like this.
Strap your favourite blade razor to an 8,000 strokes-per-minute electric motor for a really close shave. Is this contraption a lawsuit waiting to happen, or what? [Via Metafilter]
Set Ali G loose on your web site. Respect! I'm not a particular fan of Ali G, but the duet on Help The Aged with Jarvis Cocker on last Friday's show was a classic. [Via Metafilter]
Umberto Eco on mobile phones:
"Anyone who flaunts a portable phone as a symbol of power is, on the contrary, announcing to all and sundry his desperate, subaltern position, in which he is obliged to snap to attention, even when making love, if the CEO happens to telephone; he has to pursue creditors day and night to keep his head above water; and he is persecuted by the bank, even at his daughter's First Holy Communion, because of an overdraft. The fact that he uses, ostentatiously, his cellular is proof that he doesn't know these things, and it is the confirmation of his social banishment, beyond appeal."
I'm not sure when Eco wrote that, but I think these days you could add laptops to that list. Especially ones used for internet access. [Via Jabberwocky]

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