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Wednesday 28 June 2000, 22:30 BST
In the face of mounting criticism, the government has proposed some amendments to the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Bill. It would be nice to think that they had been convinced by the arguments of the Bill's many critics, but in fact while the changes (details of which can be found at the FIPR site) are welcome they smack of an attempt to buy off just enough critics to get the Bill through the House of Lords and into law without further delay. The fight isn't over by any means.
Clothing for the gadget-obsessed among us. [Via Techdirt]
Surprise, surprise. The Register reports that BT are delaying the introduction of ADSL yet again. And guess what: they say it's the fault of the ISPs which participated in the trial scheme for not providing them with enough triallists to "flood test" the system. Never mind that the ISPs were deluged with applicants and had to turn away potential triallists - now, at the end of the trial period, BT decides that the numbers weren't big enough? This is astonishing, especially as ZDNet's report of the decision indicates that BT still can't say how many triallists it would need to perform a satisfactory test. Anyone would think that BT didn't want to jeopardise its lucrative leased-line business…
Most Americans say "I love you" every day. [Via Rebecca's Pocket]
Mo Mowlam has apologised for any hurt yesterday's comments about the monarchy may have caused. However, BBC News Online reports that she isn't actually apologising for holding the views she does, but merely for the prospect that the royal family will have been offended by her expression of those views. Why exactly should the position of the royal family be exempt from debate? I haven't noticed Tony Blair refraining from commenting on the shortcomings of the "forces of conservatism" in the public sector and the civil service because he might hurt the feelings of the employees involved. Odd, that.
Tuesday 27 June 2000, 23:15 BST
Yesterday I sang the praises of the early years of the US space program, prompted by an article in Salon. Today, Salon looked at a less creditworthy aspect of the early space program: the fate of the Mercury 13. Shortly after selecting the original Mercury astronauts, NASA tested 26 women pilots to find out whether they had the necessary physical and mental attributes to function as astronauts. Thirteen passed the tests, only to be told days before they were due to report for flight training that their services were no longer required. Some of the rejected astronauts are still trying to get into space to this day.
The latest statistics of browser market share make very depressing reading. Microsoft's triumph isn't entirely their own work, though: like Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s, they benefited from having a singularly inept opponent. [Via RC3.org]
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals have called on the Green Bay Packers to change their name, because the reference to "packers" (ie meat packers) commemorates the slaughterhouse. Salon has a bit of fun with this, suggesting more "appropriate" names for a number of other American Football teams. [Via Looka!]
Mo Mowlam has repeated her suggestion of six years ago that the royal family might like to move out of Buckingham House into more suitable premises, and as was the case six years ago she's been howled down for daring to voice even such a timid republican sentiment. BBC News Online reports that she's expanded on her comment, explaining that she's no fan of the monarchy. My favourite over-reaction came from historian David Starkey: criticising Mowlam for making what he termed "casual remarks" about constitutional reform: "Either it is government policy or it is not - cabinet ministers cannot have personal views." So basically politicians should shut up rather than think aloud about matters of deep constitutional import? Is this really a healthy attitude for citizens of a "democracy" in the year 2000?

My other favourite remark came from Dennis Skinner: "I suggest that they move the royals out to the Millennium Dome."
Hackers are frequently motivated more by boredom than malice. Wired reports on a study of the attitudes and behaviour of hackers, using systems deliberately set up to attract their attention. [Via Techdirt]
Monday 26 June 2000, 22:20 BST
Salon recommends "five great books about the US space program." Even after last year's various commemorations of Neil Armstrong's walk on the moon, it's easy for us to underestimate just how gargantuan a task NASA took on almost forty years ago in response to President Kennedy's challenge. One of the books Salon recommends, Man On The Moon by Andrew Chaikin, was filmed as From The Earth To The Moon. The Tom Hanks-produced miniseries showed up on Saturday afternoons on Channel 4 last year, and did an excellent job of recounting the story of the Apollo missions. I wish Channel 4 had shown it in prime time, because it surely deserved to be seen by a wider audience. (Since I bought a DVD player I've been toying with the idea of buying the DVD box set of the series, but I can't really afford it right now. But I'm very tempted to buy it anyway.)

However, the one truly great book about the US space effort is about what came before Apollo: the Mercury Seven. Tom Wolfe's The Right Stuff is quite simply one of the wittiest books I've ever read. Even though Wolfe had a great time lampooning the absurdities and ironies of the propaganda campaign of which the race to the moon was an integral part, he recognised the enormous courage and dedication of the individuals who made the space program such a technical success. Even though it's easy to see with hindsight that the race for the moon was the worst thing that could have happened to manned spaceflight, that does nothing whatsoever to diminish the magnitude of the technical achievements of NASA and the bravery of the astronauts.

Incidentally, The Right Stuff was adapted for the cinema in 1982 by Phil Kaufman, and the film is very nearly as good as the book. The script did a terrific job of distilling the essence of Wolfe's book, and the casting was flawless: in particular, Sam Shepard as Chuck Yeager, Scott Glenn as Alan Shepherd, Fred Ward as Gus Grissom, and Ed Harris as John Glenn.

OK, I've rambled enough about this. Suffice to say, if you have even the slightest interest in the space race then you should read at least one of the books on Salon's list (I'm going to have to track down Dragonfly by Bryan Burrough: the story of the Mir space station sounds well worth reading.) And whether you're interested in the space programme or not, you really should read Tom Wolfe's The Right Stuff.
Microsoft have found another way to make life more difficult for ordinary computer users. The Register says that Windows Millennium Edition, out in a couple of months' time, will make it inordinately difficult for users to create a simple DOS boot disk so they can apply a flash upgrade to their system BIOS. When you add this to their introduction of "no media" Windows distributions which make it impossible for ordinary users to reformat their hard disk, you have a picture of a company which appears to be determined to drive us all into the arms of the Linux community.
The V-Chip was hugely controversial about five years ago, but I hadn't heard much about it in a while until I read this article in Salon. It turns out that most parents whose TVs have a V-Chip, or whose PCs have filtering software for that matter, don't make use of these tools to control the content their kids have access to. The big question is, why not? According to the report by the Annenberg Public Policy Centre, the problem may be that parents don't understand the rating system used in conjunction with the V Chip. It could also be that the parents with television sets equipped with a V-Chip only have them because it's now compulsory for TV sets with screens of over 13" to include a V-Chip: in other words, they didn't actually want the technology anyway, but the government forced them to buy it.

I can't help wondering if another problem (at least with regards to filtering software) is that it's so utterly ineffective that parents find it more trouble than it's worth.
After the first online ballot earlier this year, a host of companies in the US are hoping to persuade local and state level governments to adopt electronic voting. However, Wired News reports that some hucksters have very little evidence to back their claim that they've run successful ballots.
I commented the other day that a guy who had weblogged the birth of his latest child from right there in the delivery room was perhaps taking this weblogging a bit far. It turns out there are people making a business out of this sort of thing.
Wired News reports on the reasons behind the relatively slow uptake of domestic internet access in Europe. The usual suspects are fingered - the lack of unmetered dial-up access and of venture capital. The former point may be addressed, at least for those of us willing to commit to pay a monthly subscription in return for unmetered access, and the latter is undoubtedly still a big problem. However, I was amused by a comment from the CEO of the marketing firm which produced the survey quoted in the Wired report:
The lack of VC funding in Europe dissuaded young entrepreneurs from innovating and investing time in Internet startups, Hop said. Today, however, Internet-focused VCs such as Newconomy, which funded Hop's company, are slowly replacing the banks that have traditionally acted as Europe's VCs. "They are so conservative," Hop said of the banks. "They want a business plan of 130 pages. You don't have time to do that at Internet speed."
Or, to put it another way:
These silly bankers would like us to explain how we're planning to make money and still be around three years from now! Don't they Get It?
Sunday 25 June 2000, 23:15 BST
After BT's attempt to enforce its claim that it has a patent on the idea of a hyperlink, now we have a company coming out of nowhere and laying claim to the notion of collecting information about customers online and passing it on to a third party. Wired News reports that once again, critics of the US Patent Office bemoan its habit of issuing patents that are so broad and basic that they cover truly obvious ideas. Once again, the company in question announces that it will defend its patent. While Jeff Bezos eventually agreed to use patents defensively (ie to stop competitors from registering them so as to stop Amazon from going about its business), this latest firm clutching a hot patent in its fist is apparently planning to enforce the patent.

Regardless of the eventual outcome of this story, Tim O'Reilly summed it up best: the biggest problem is that "… it will add further to the air of uncertainty, the feeling that you're going to have to check with your lawyers before doing something - either to file your own patent or to make sure someone doesn't have something on you." In other words, the lawyers are going to get rich before anyone else does.
"You mean other countries have a Channel 4 too?" [Shamelessly stolen from NTK]
I'm gradually working my way through the other UK weblogs listed at GBlogs: there's some good stuff there. As well as apropos of nothing, which I mentioned the other day, I particularly like Adrian Hon's Vavatch Orbital. Adrian's commentary and links are generally well worth a look. He picked up on an article from Salon the other day that I meant to mention, but didn't get round to, about the importance of finding a comfortable reading spot.

At the moment I seem to spend far too little time reading, and the only serious fiction reading I get to do is in the bath, with all the risks of damp pages that entails. I must try to tear myself away from my computer a bit more and attack my towering to-read pile. (Mind you, it might help if I could just resist the siren song of Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk: I can't just order one book, I keep thinking that I just have to have two or three, just in case I'm not in the mood for the first book that I actually went there to purchase.)

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