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Saturday 15 July 2000, 22:45 BST
Surely Help Kalki Get Laid is a parody of Walter's Mission ? Isn't it? [Via Metafilter ]
The other week I read an illuminating article in Slate about the way that coverage of news stories, particularly political ones, tends towards cynicism at the expense of the facts and labels commentary as news reporting. The Slate article was about the US presidential election, but I was reminded of it this evening as I watched News From Number Ten , Michael Cockerell's BBC documentary on Alistair Campbell, the Prime Minister's Press Secretary.

Ever since well before the last general election the media has been fascinated, not to say obsessed, by New Labour's "spin-doctoring" and the newspapers have been hugely critical of the attempts by Campbell to control the news agenda. Yet in the wake of Campbell's decision to let his deputy handle the daily lobby briefings of political correspondents while Campbell concentrated on the broad strategic issues, the documentary showed a trio of political correspondents complaining that all of a sudden they weren't getting information from the heart of government, and that the new briefings were too dry and failed to reflect the style and "inner-circle thinking" of the government. Basically, the government can't win.
In the light of recent revelations about the FBI's deployment of an internet monitoring system called Carnivore , is Bruce Cringely paranoid , or is he not paranoid enough?
Some American police departments are starting to put information about patterns of crime online , in the interests of giving taxpayers, neighbourhood watch groups and the like convenient access to information about what their police department is doing on their behalf.

There are obvious issues of privacy protection for victims of crime, and one should bear in mind that these figures will only reflect reported crimes, but it seems to me that this sort of openness by public services is to be welcomed, and I hope the idea is copied over here. [Via NewsTrolls ]
Friday 14 July 2000, 23:20 BST
There's nothing quite like a heartfelt rant about popular music. You or I might be a bit selective about the targets of our rants, but Tanya Headon simply hates everything . She also declares that she hates webloggers who link to her site, but I'm willing to take that risk... [Via the null device ]
A striking image of Stanley Kubrick on the set of 2001: A Space Odyssey , the finest science fiction film ever made. [Via linkmachinego ]
It turns out that the sell-off of Spitting Image puppets I mentioned the other day wasn't the only such auction. Some of the puppets were auctioned for charity recently, according to BBC News Online. Unsurprisingly, some of the politicians and celebrities lampooned by the show were on hand to assure us that they were really flattered and amused by their caricatures. I can believe that Michael Heseltine would be amused by his puppet, but I flatly refuse to believe that Dr David Owen had a sense of humour about the his image (though he might well have liked the idea of having David Steel in his pocket).
Talking of Kubrick's masterpiece, one thing he and co-author Arthur C Clarke didn't envisage was that one day Pizza Hut would be putting their logo on the side of a spacecraft . Clarke's contemporary Frederick Pohl was incorporating that sort of detail in his 50s satires on rampant consumerism half a century ago: I wonder whether he expected to see it happen in his lifetime.
Wednesday 12 July 2000, 21:55 BST
Christopher Lee has confirmed that he will be appearing in Star Wars Episode Two, according to Sci Fi Wire. I hope his part is more substantial than Terence Stamp's brief appearance in Episode One, but in any case it'll be good to see him bringing a touch of class to the enterprise. Mind you, I'm much more excited about Lee's appearance in Peter Jackson's forthcoming three-part adaptation of The Lord Of The Rings. Any film featuring Ian Holm, John Rhys-Davies, Ian McKellen, Cate Blanchett, Sean Bean, Brad Dourif and Christopher Lee just has to be worth a look. (I'm trying hard to forget about Liv Tyler.)
Could you make do with a cheap internet appliance instead of a PC? When his Mac PowerBook was away being repaired Scott Kirsner got a chance to find out. He writes in Salon that after a week he was relieved to get a call from the repair shop saying his PowerBook was ready to pick up, but he also admits that the internet appliance he used had "the most functional and dummy-proof email system" he'd ever seen.

I can't imagine myself using an internet appliance if there was any sort of PC available, but it sounds as if the sort of person who told Which Online that they couldn't see themselves going online could be tempted by a device this simple.
Tuesday 11 July 2000, 23:30 BST
Happy happy. Joy joy . [Via NewsTrolls ]
ZDNet reports that the days of being able to freely save, print and even view web content may be numbered. More than one company is close to releasing a system which will allow content providers to limit the duration of your access to their content, or to make sure that you can't print it or even take a screengrab of the contents. I feel yet another copy-protection arms race coming on, as hackers (and I use the term in its original, positive sense) regard it as a point of honour to find a way to circumvent these restrictions.

I'm all for content providers being able to control the distribution of their work and reap the rewards for their efforts, so superficially this is a positive development. What concerns me is that it isn't clear from the report whether this system is going to be platform-independent. If it isn't possible to view content protected by these companies' software on a wide range of platforms - at least as wide as, say, Adobe Acrobat - then this idea is going to have strictly limited appeal. (Ideally we'd seen the companies submit their protocols to standards bodies so that anyone could implement them on whatever platform they chose, but I think that's highly unlikely to happen in this case.)

The other issue, which is raised in the article, is that if companies use this technology aggressively to protect content to the point where it's difficult or expensive to get at then the net effect may simply be to make free content look good. [Via Metafilter ]
School cheats. The Guardian has an excellent article on the myriad ways in which schools up and down Britain ensure that the statistics on which league tables and decisions about student performance are utterly devalued. Three amazing aspects of this story:
  • The widespread acknowledgement that this sort of manipulation of the figures goes on.
  • The lack of concern by the official bodies which are supposed to be monitoring this process, and which supposedly rely upon the figures as a basis for making decisions about future policy.
  • The total failure on the part of successive governments to understand that teachers aren't wholly responsible for exam results: the level of investment in buildings and teaching material and the level of poverty in the catchment area are at least as significant as the amount of effort put in by teachers and pupils alike.
Just how wired is the UK? Two sets of statistics in two days have painted somewhat different pictures. Yesterday, the Office of National Statistics was reported to have found that while overall penetration of the internet into British homes had doubled over the last year in almost every region, the poorer sections of society weren't getting online at the same rate. Then today, BBC News Online reported that a Which Online survey had found that rates of internet use were growing fastest in low-income groups. The Which survey also suggested that almost 15 million Britons have no plans to get internet access, either because of the cost or because they didn't think there was anything on the internet to interest them.

You'd expect that lower-income families will have better things to spend their money on than internet access, so as long as levels of internet access continue to increase across the board I don't think the fact that better off households are taking up internet access faster is necessarily a problem: the fact is that internet access is still a luxury rather than a necessity.
Several UK ISPs may be preparing to move parts of their operations overseas if the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Bill becomes law in its present form, according to BBC News Online. I wonder how many firms will simply avoid the UK altogether if we end up with a regulatory system second only to that in Russia? As always, for much more information about the RIP Bill and its ramifications, see Stand.org.uk and the Foundation for Information Policy Research .
Monday 10 July 2000, 21:40 BST
I'm 75% of the way to being considered a terrorist. How about you? Apparently the Home Office (not, please note, the Labour Party) tried to get this site closed down within 24 hours of it appearing. I can't imagine why. [Via apropos of nothing ]
OK men. We've thrown 24/7 artillery bombardment at them. We've strafed them six ways from Sunday. We've even played Britney Spears at them for a week. Now it's time to get serious: send in the text messages ! [Via linkmachinego ]
Payphones: the next generation. Wired News reports that various payphone companies think that what we want from payphones in an era where mobile phone use is increasing rapidly is actually internet access.

I'm not sure I see the point of this. I understand that the payphone companies hate the idea of the mobile communications industry eating their lunch, but it's unclear to me that people will want to stand in line waiting for the previous guy to finish his web browsing session. I mean, I'm somewhat addicted to the internet but I manage to wait until I get home to catch up with my browsing without any trouble. How many people truly need to have internet access badly enough to stand around waiting at a payphone kiosk? Cybercafes are a different proposition, in that they let you combine browsing with a bite to eat, but standalone kiosks don't seem like a very attractive idea.

But then, I don't even own a mobile phone, so what do I know about people's mobile communications needs?
Sunday 9 July 2000, 23:25 BST
Looks as if schoolkids have moved on from Pokemon. [Via Daily Doozer ]
Now corporations can track down their online critics. Firms wishing to find out who's been critical of them in a range of online forums can now subscribe to a service which will provide them with details of relevant web sites and chat boards and allowing them to respond. Judging by this report in BusinessWeek Online this might take several forms, from a posting giving the company's side of the story to legal action or even getting a site to remove your messages.

On the one hand this is no different in principle from Kibo grepping his news spool for mentions of His name, and just because it's being done by corporations instead of individuals that doesn't in itself make it wrong. However, the implications are a good deal more worrying when you consider that corporations may try to do a lot more than merely post their side of an argument: trying to identify the individuals behind "screen names" is rather worrying, and the prospect of companies leaning on web site hosts to remove messages is crossing the line between freedom of speech and censorship. Please don't think that only governments can "censor" you - the prospect of fighting a prolonged, costly legal action against a well-funded corporation is likely to be more than enough to silence most private individuals.

That said, I think this is a PR disaster waiting to happen, especially for American companies.[Via Metafilter ]
Did you ever want a puppet of Maggie Thatcher to call your very own? Perhaps you'd rather have Gazza shedding tears everywhere he went, or Michael " I'm mad " Jackson, or Ronald " The President's Brain Is Missing " Reagan? BBC News Online reports that the stock of puppets from Spitting Image is being auctioned off , and at the moment it looks as if Maggie is the most sought-after puppet. Not surprising, really: Fluck and Law nailed Thatcher's image in her glory years.
Somewhere, the ghost of Terry Nation is laughing . [Via NTK ]

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