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Saturday 20 May 2000, 23:45 BST
Stinky meat. Get your stinky meat here! I'm very glad nobody's invented an odour plug-in for my browser yet. [Via User Friendly's Link of the Day]
Microsoft versus Slashdot: the reply. Slashdot's lawyer has responded to Microsoft's letter demanding they delete posts which (according to Microsoft) are contributing to the distribution of a piece of Microsoft's intellectual property. Unsurprisingly, Slashdot are taking a stance which can best be described as "defiant." While the distinctly non-lawyerish tone of the reply went down well with the Slashdot posters, I'm not sure that's actually going to be much help to Slashdot should Microsoft decide to drag them into court.

All the points Slashdot's lawyer's letter makes are valid ones, but it seems to me that they don't really address the narrow legal issues on which the case turns - ie whether the Non-Disclosure Agreement which visitors to Microsoft's site were required to click on before downloading the document in question is binding, and whether the quoting of the document can be covered by "fair use" provisions. The letter reads more like the first salvo in a PR battle aimed at ensuring that Microsoft are threatened with lots of bad press over this affair. You'd think that Microsoft might want to avoid any more bad press at the moment, but maybe they're past caring. If Microsoft persist with this case, we'll see a lot more articles like this one by Spider Robinson. As The Register points out, it almost looks as if both Microsoft and Slashdot are spoiling for a fight.
John Perry Barlow, Grateful Dead lyricist and Electronic Frontier Foundation co-founder, has posted his thoughts on the Napster controversy. As you might expect of someone who has in the past been less than pally with the commercial music industry, Barlow is in favour of the idea that Napster will kill the music business and create the space required for the rise of a "musician business." All of which is fine and good, but it doesn't alter the fact that there's a clear moral difference between using Napster-like software to distribute material which the owners of the copyright have made available for free distribution and using it to copy information which the legal owners (be they artists or record companies) have said should not be distributed in that way. Barlow says that:
"Appeals based on moral principles will avail them little. Cyberspace is and always has been a "gift economy" where sharing is considered a virtue, not a crime. The music industry is generally despised by both music-lovers and musicians, to whom they've been returning about five percent of the retail value of their works."
It seems to me that this paragraph raises two points:
  1. If the owners of the works in question had put them in cyberspace then the notion that cyberspace has traditionally been a gift economy might be relevant, but the works of the likes of Metallica are being distributed in cyberspace against the wishes of their owners, which is a very different matter.
  2. So musicians hate the music industry and it doesn't give them all the money their recordings earn. In that case the solution is for them to not enter into legally binding agreements with these thieves, rather than to do so and then complain about it.
[Via Techdirt]
Writing in Salon, Scott Rosenberg analyses the real lessons for e-commerce sites of the failures of Boo.com and DEN. To sum up: textual content is the key, not broadband-quality multimedia that 95% of consumers can't or won't access.
Friday 19 May 2000, 23:50 BST
This site just has to be a spoof. Doesn't it? [Via Bifurcated Rivets]
Thursday 18 May 2000, 23:55 BST
Wired News reports that a couple of American colleges have begun to insist that applications are made online. While a number of American colleges offer online applications as one of a range of options, the colleges in question claim that online applications are now (in the words of a professor at one of the colleges) "something that we can expect from students." When I read this story I assumed that the colleges in question would be either very upscale Ivy League institutions which tended to cater for well-off students who probably could afford computers, or else specialising in IT. In fact, one of them (West Virginia Wesleyan College) is a liberal arts college.

I'm not sure whether this decision is a sign of the extent to which the internet has penetrated US households, or of the extent to which such colleges attract applicants from better off households. I also can't help wondering how long it'll be before a pressure group representing partially-sighted or blind internet users will sue, claiming that the colleges' web sites aren't fully usable.
Even more stupid trademark games. After the Mattel/Mattl farce, we now have Chiquita Brands, Inc sending letters to artist Jessica Paff threatening dire consequences if she doesn't rename her web site, because the site's title ("Naked Juice") is also the name of one of the firm's products, hence their having registered nakedjuice.com. Note that in this case it isn't even that she's registered the words "Naked Juice" as elements of her domain name: it's just that she's using the term as the title of her site. It seems that the firm believes that anybody anywhere who juxtaposes those two words should be beholden to them, which is simply absurd.

Presumably I can expect a lawsuit somewhere down the line because the title of my site might lead some people searching for an optician away from a genuine optometrist's web site. [Via Metafilter and Rebecca's Pocket]
As the Napster-versus-Metallica furore continues, an article in Wired News ponders the effect of the agreement by Napster to block access for users who Metallica claim have used the site to help them distribute copyrighted material on Napster's popularity. The article outlines the status of various efforts to produce Open Source variants on the Napster theme, only this time making the program less vulnerable to legal action against the owners of a central server the way Napster is. This is all very interesting, but for me the most striking point the article made was that if Napster ends up signing some sort of agreement with the recording industry in order to make the lawsuits go away it may suffer because it'll lose the "outsider" cachet it enjoys at present.

I find it amazing that users who presently use Napster and find it an efficient means of distributing music files might suddenly throw up their hands in horror if the company dares to come to some sort of agreement with the record industry. I'm sure that some of these users have found themselves in a record store that actually stocks CDs from major labels from time to time: do they boycott such stores for "surrendering" to the music industry? A recent story from The Onion seems somewhat relevant.
Wednesday 17 May 2000, 23:55 BST
Apparently the BBC are supposed to be really embarrassed, as they've confirmed that this Saturday they won't be broadcasting Grandstand, their Saturday afternoon sports programme which has long brought the nation the best in sporting action. The reason is that the BBC doesn't have any major sporting events to broadcast: ITV are showing the FA Cup Final and Channel 4 are showing the Lords test match, so all the BBC have is three horse races from Newbury.

While it's certainly a bit of a comedown for the BBC, which used to have the TV rights to both the day's major sporting events, it's difficult to see what else they could do. The rights to major sporting events are fantastically expensive nowadays, so in an environment where there's precisely no chance of a substantial increase in the licence fee and any major BBC commercial activity is regarded as yet another reason why the BBC shouldn't be taxpayer-funded anyway, they're better off spending their income on drama, light entertainment, news and so on. [Via Planet Jon]
I always knew that bloody Microsoft Office Assistant "paperclip" was evil incarnate! It turns out that Microsoft have set it up so that it's "safe for scripting," which means that in principle a malicious script could delete files, rename files and generally wreak havoc on your system. Microsoft have issued a patch, but had no comment to make on the subject according to ZDNet. [Via Metafilter]
First he was Prince, then he was Symbol used by The Artist Formerly Known As Prince, and now he's Prince again. Considering that at his press conference he admitted what some of his fans have thought ever since the original change of name - ie that he was doing it in the hope that it would allow him to evade his commitments under his contract with Warner Brothers, rather than because of some deep, highly personal change of direction - I can see no reason to regard his as anything better than a publicity-seeker. Which is not to say that he hasn't also been responsible for some of the finest musical moments of the last twenty years: his run of albums from For You to Lovesexy contained more brilliant, memorable music than we had any right to expect from one person. It's just that he's spent most of the last decade playing self-indulgent games with the press and producing some of the blandest work of his entire career.
Padraig Harrington looked as if he was in with a serious chance of winning a major golf tournament last weekend, until it was realised that he'd broken the rules by failing to sign his score card and he was disqualified. Jim White in the Guardian used this incident as the excuse for an article mocking the complexity of the rules of the game and the social pretensions of the members of a typical golf club. Granted, a lot of golf clubs are hotbeds of sexism and racism, but that shouldn't detract from the discipline the professionals exhibit: I've always admired professional golfers, like snooker players, for their scrupulous adherence to the rules of the game and their willingness to call their own mistakes. The contrast with, say, football is telling. [Via Planet Jon]
Monday 15 May 2000, 23:30 BST
We live in The Age of the Customer, apparently. Or so it says here, anyway. We customers have the internet to thank for our unprecedented power over businesses that want to sell things to us, and this isn't a fad or a temporary state of affairs, it's The Future. While I've no doubt that the specific companies discussed made stupid decisions which led to bad PR, but I have a problem with this sort of triumphalist approach to e-business. Author John Ellis is very impressed that the financial effect of the decision by 25,000 Time Warner customers to move to Disney's cable service in the wake of the recent disagreement between the two companies about Time Warner carrying Disney content amounted to a loss to Time Warner of some $13 million per year, but that's chickenfeed to a company Time Warner's size, and in time they'll weather the bad PR unless they make a habit of pulling this sort of stunt repeatedly.

The thing is, all those companies Ellis is so impressed with which are throwing freebies at the customer and undercutting their rivals are doing it for a reason: to build brand recognition and market share. What's wrong with that? Well, if they fail and there are still twenty players in a given market five or ten years from now then none of them are likely to be making money, and even the most starry-eyed venture capitalist will eventually tire of supporting a business that doesn't make a decent return on capital. Then again, that might be preferable to the results if the likes of Amazon.com succeed in carving out a dominant share of their market, and they can then evade the competitive pressures that keep prices low and innovation high. If your business relies on actually moving physical goods around - and I know that's a desperately unsexy thing to do nowadays, but that's what an awful lot of e-commerce is ultimately about - then in the long run size and a track record and all those other Old Economy assets do matter at least as much as nimbleness and having a Cool Idea. [Via Metafilter]
Dru Jay, whose Misnomer weblog is well worth a look, has now created BlueGreen, a Slashdot-style site dedicated to distributing and discussing environmental news. At the moment the site hasn't got a lot of content other than that posted by Dru, but as the word spreads no doubt things will pick up. If you're at all interested in matters environmental, you should probably keep an eye on BlueGreen. I wonder if we'll one day talk about the "BlueGreen effect"? [Via Misnomer]
Occasionally Salon's writers can go over the top, but they can also really nail a subject. Back in March they published an interesting article about the treatment of pregnancy and abortion in US teen dramas, pointing out that such shows always treat pregnancy and its results as a function of the moral standing of the character rather than a result of sex pure and simple. Now they're returned to the subject with a perceptive article from Audrey Fisch contrasting the treatment of abortion in The Cider House Rules and High Fidelity, and making a strong case that the latter film is this year's really radical film about abortion.
Contrary to the rumours I mentioned last week, Microsoft have not disbanded the Internet Explorer for MacOS team. They have, however, been moved over into the WebTV group. [Via Metafilter]
Sunday 14 May 2000, 23:55 BST
Will Wright, the designer of the classic god-game Sim City recently released The Sims, a game which lets players guide their "sims" through a simulation of suburban American life. The Sims has been an enormous success, and Wright decided to introduce a wildcard element to the game. It's possible to download additional elements to your simulation, so he released a simulated virus which would be carried by the simulated guinea pigs in the game and which could spread to the human sims with fatal consequences. Wright didn't actually let anyone know that this virus could kill their human sims, and the result is that some players lost their carefully-nurtured sims to the effects of the virus. The question is, was his release of this virus into the virtual environment fair? [Via NetSurfer Digest]
While we're on the subject of deceptive online behaviour, Zeropaid.com are being a bit naughty. They believe that Gnutella, the Open Source server used to distribute files across the Internet Napster-style, is being used to spread child porn and they've decided to do something about it. They've set up their own Gnutella server and used it to make a number of suggestively-named files available and they publish the IP addresses of users who log into their server and download those files.

This sounds all very clever, but there's one minor flaw in their plan: most dial-up users, and even some users with 24/7 connections using DSL or cable modems, don't have a static IP address, so someone could in all innocence be allotted an IP address which had been used to download the faked files during an earlier online session.

This is such an obvious flaw in their plan that I can't really believe that they haven't taken account of it. I can only guess that since blocks of IP addresses are allotted to specific ISPs their real strategy is to build up a picture of which ISPs are home to lots of users who like to search for child porn and put pressure on those ISPs to implement some form of filtering to stop their users from downloading such material. Either that, or it's a rather elaborate means of demonstrating how useless IP addresses are as a means of tracking identity so as to give ammunition to those who'd like to see some form of user identification built into the infrastructure of the internet. [Via Metafilter]
January magazine is a rather good book review site. Their current edition includes worthwhile reviews of Planetary by Warren Ellis & John Cassaday and Get Happy by Gerald Clarke. [Via NetSurfer Digest]
We live in an era when neo-liberalism is lauded as the only viable political philosophy. Writing in The American Prospect, Robert Kuttner puts forward a more nuanced view of the reasons for the robust health of the Right and the differences between the American and European strains of neo-liberalism. [Via MISCmedia]
Dr Godfrey isn't the only litigant who likes the British libel courts. BBC News Online reports that the Law Lords have given the go-ahead for a Russian businessman to sue Forbes, an American magazine, for libel in an English court on the grounds that even though the magazine has a circulation in England and Wales of just 2,000 it's possible that the internet will have been used to distribute the allegedly libellous article to more readers than the paper circulation, thereby damaging the businessman's reputation in England.

The implications of this decision are massive. Nobody seems to have produced any figures demonstrating just how many times (if any) the article was downloaded by English users, so one can only assume that since anything published on the internet could be downloaded in the UK this means that the highly restrictive English libel laws could be used against just about anyone anywhere. As the solicitor for Forbes put it, this decision is "…a shot in the arm for libel tourism." One can only hope that in the event that the case eventually comes to trial in England and Forbes loses the damages will take into account the magazine's UK circulation as a share of the UK newsweekly market and the minor reputation the plaintiffs had in this country prior to the libel case.
The BBC's Political Editor Robin Oakley is to retire early so that his successor, former Independent editor Andrew Marr, can cover the run-up to the general election. Marr is a superb political commentator, insightful and much less interested in the daily spin than in the big issues which drive politics, so I'm delighted to see him elevated to such a high-profile position. With Marr analysing the ebb and flow of political fortune, there's little danger that the trivialisation of politics-as-soap-opera will continue. [Via BBC News Online]
The government is being criticised by the Opposition for not rushing to remove the protection against double jeopardy, which prevents defendants from being tried twice in connection with the same offence. The argument, prompted by the Stephen Lawrence case, appears to be that this protection may allow the guilty to get away with their crimes if stronger evidence of their guilt is discovered after their trial.

BBC News Online reports that the government is awaiting advice from the Law Commission before proposing changes to the law on this point, but I think they'd be mistaken to remove this protection against government persecution of suspects who were felt to have "escaped justice." The point of a system where innocence is assumed and the onus is on the prosecution to prove guilt beyond reasonable doubt is that if you're found not guilty then you're allowed to get on with your life, and if the prosecution's case isn't strong enough then it shouldn't bring a case until it's found more evidence to shore up its case.

The really scary thing is that this attitude that "too many criminals are getting away with it" is becoming more prevalent. There's an assumption abroad in press coverage of high profile cases that "there's no smoke without fire" and anyone accused of a crime is likely to be guilty. That's a very dangerous path for society to go down.
Just how big is the Open Source development community, and how reliant is it on the efforts of a small number of coders? The Orbiten Free Software Survey seeks to answer these questions by analysing the authorship of some 25 million lines of Open Source code. Orbiten Research intends to repeat this survey at intervals in an attempt to profile the size and shape of the Open Source community; the results promise to be fascinating. [Via NetSurfer Digest]

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