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Home > Weblog w/e 9.12.2000

Saturday 9 December 2000, 22:10 GMT
MightyBigTV takes a look at the first episode of the Sci Fi Channel's new miniseries adaptation of Frank Herbert's 60s SF epic, Dune. It doesn't sound good.
Ironminds gets hacked - and likes it!
Have you seen the latest TV ad from the Commission for Racial Equality? It features the single scariest image I've seen in an ad in a long time. (The CRE's web site crops the image we see on TV, which is probably a good thing in oh so many ways.)
Want a fast, affordable ISDN line that won't let you down? [Via NTK]
Sci Fi Weekly has a brief but informative interview with Ursula K Le Guin.
At last, a real killer app for the mobile internet. [Via NetSurfer Digest Vol 6 Issue 40]
Friday 8 December 2000, 23:55 GMT
Why are women more attracted to men who are already in a relationship? The New Scientist may have the answer. [Via the null device]
Revenge of the Democratic governors? Apologies to readers who aren't politics junkies for returning to the topic of the US presidential elections, but Dan Conley has written a wonderful piece for Salon about the possibility of a really a neat twist in the saga of choosing Florida's electoral college members. If the scenario Conley describes actually came to pass I guarantee that Dick Cheyney would have another heart attack on the spot.
Web designers versus clients. An hilarious set of anecdotes about what happens when your customers would benefit from the repeated application of a clue-by-four. [Via Metafilter]
Thursday 7 December 2000, 23:58 GMT
The Guardian is making a lot of noise about the monarchy at the moment. The paper's editor has announced that the paper will be challenging the legality of two of the ancient laws which underpin the current regime. The Act of Settlement of 1701 not only specifically bars non-Protestants from the throne but also allows the oldest male heir to leapfrog an older sister's claim to the throne. The Treason Felony Act of 1848 is even more pernicious, since it allows for advocates of republicanism to be deported for life. The Guardian plans to argue that these provisions of the Acts are in breach of the Human Rights Act, and on the face of it I'd say they have a pretty good case.

The Guardian's editor claims that he hopes to stimulate a debate about the role of the monarchy, but for me the question is whether this sort of legal nit-picking is particularly useful. Sure, if the paper wins its case there will have to be a change in the law to bring the older Acts into line with the demands of the Human Rights Act, and this would probably lead to some sort of debate about the reason for having a monarchy at all as part of the process. The trouble is, neither of the major parties seems very likely to risk being accused of vandalising the monarchy for the sake of a few republican votes.

It'll take a much more aggressive campaign to get people interested in republicanism. A Guardian/ICM poll quoted in the Ananova story about the Guardian's initiative found that 66% of people think the ban on a Catholic monarch should be lifted, but that means that 34% either supported the ban or just didn't have an opinion. The real question is, how many of those people, in the absence of a full-blown succession crisis, would really care that much one way or the other? Not many, I suspect. The Guardian would do better to concentrate upon revealing the extent of the monarch's power on political decisions: why should the Queen be able to refuse the Prime Minister the right to hold an election, for example? This sort of legal challenge may raise the Guardian's profile a bit, but it's unlikely to have much of an effect on the average man in the street. [Via the null device]
The New Economy meets the bogeymen of the Old Economy. Workers in dot.coms are waking up to the proposition that they may need to band together to defend their interests, judging by a couple of recent news stories. The Guardian reports that Amazon UK is claiming that it's resisting unionisation not because it's anti-union, but because it's "pro-customer, pro-employee and pro-shareholder." Yeah, right. It seems to me that whether you work in a warehouse for and old-style bookstore or a shiny new online retailer your needs are pretty much the same: no amount of blather about the joys of the "New Economy" can hide the fact that for those at the bottom of the food chain unions can be a major resource in times of trouble. Not so much for the purposes of striking over pay, though sometimes that may be a worthwhile strategy, but because a well-organised union can provide invaluable advice and support for individuals who need to stand up for their rights in the face of management attempts to pull a fast one or act inconsistently.

In a related story, the same edition of the Guardian reported that employees of game software firm Ubi Soft had tried without success to form a union, and ended up with a "virtual union" based around a web site. That sounds very trendy and modern, but as the story notes it was also singularly ineffective: two years later, Ubi Soft still doesn't have a union. The former employee who tried to mobilise the workforce has a novel explanation for the failure:
He believes this passivity springs from a youth spent in front of childish TV shows and violent video games. "This education makes us the ideal population to be led like a flock of sheep, unable to oppose anything. But the paradox is that we are convinced we should not be fooled by the system."
Wednesday 6 December 2000, 22:30 GMT
The Guardian reports that Kevin Costner is writing a Broadway musical for himself to star in, in the hopes that it will revive his career. I know Costner is known these days for starring in and occasionally directing overblown big-budget disasters, but he's also featured in an array of pretty good films. Remember The Untouchables, Silverado, Bull Durham, No Way Out, JFK, Tin Cup: all at least entertaining, and sometimes considerably better than that.

Of course there's a danger here of falling victim to the fallacious notion that the quality of those films was down to their star's charisma, but even once you factor in the excellence of the supporting casts and the quality of the writing and direction you have to admit that Costner's career up until the early 90s was solid and it wasn't all luck. When you look at Costner's first decade as a star (from his turn as the cocky younger brother in Silverado to his excellent portrayal of a talented golfer who never lived up to his ability in Tin Cup there's no obvious reason why Costner shouldn't be perfectly placed now to take over from the ageing Harrison Ford as a solid, dependable male lead for the sorts of films that fill American multiplexes year in-year out. Trouble is, he needs to stop taking over projects: please could somebody get Ron Shelton to write him another good role before Costner is way too old to be convincing as a sportsman.
If cars went wrong as often as computers do there would be corpses piled beside every motorway. Cheryll Aimée Barron writes in Salon about the "good enough is good enough" school of software writing, and wonders whether someone is going to do to the US software industry what the Deming-worshiping, quality-obsessed Japanese did to Detroit in the 60s and 70s.
The 50 Greatest Moments in Simpsons History. Sadly a fair few of these haven't been on the BBC yet, but there are still plenty of moments to cherish. My favourites? Homer In Space (No 41), Lisa Breaks Ralph's Heart (No 30), Kent Brockman Sells Out Humanity (No 28), The Best Treehouse Of Horror Ever (No 12) and Maggie's Great Escape (No 5). [Via linkmachinego]
Mark Sevi, "The King of Roman Numerals," tells all in Salon about just how little fun it is to toil for years, writing scripts for films like Ghoulies IV. Which might have been an OK assignment, except that the production company couldn't afford to use the puppets from the first three films so he had to write a script that didn't actually involve having any Ghoulies on-screen at any point.
Imagine doing "Jurassic Park" without dinosaurs. ("Did you see that giant lizard?" "Where?" "Right there!" "Where?")
Tuesday 5 December 2000, 23:55 GMT
The International Olympic Committee has decided that they won't allow video or audio feeds from the Olympics to be broadcast over the internet for a decade unless internet broadcasters can demonstrate that they can restrict viewing of their feeds to a specific national teritory. The response was entirely predictable: BBC News Online reports that the representatives of new media companies and industry analysts said that the IOC were a) attempting the impossible by trying to crack down on internet broadcasting, and b) foolish to stand in the way of the internet revolution's attempts to service the needs of viewers.

The thing is, I'd say the IOC have a point. While the IOC's attempts to stop individual athletes from so much as posting to a personal web site during this year's Games were pretty silly, I can quite understand that they're not keen to jeopardise the TV rights which bring in hundreds of millions of pounds in order to appease an internet audience of uncertain size.
If you get an unwanted present this Xmas, don't cause a scene. Visit ShittyGift.com and let off some steam. [Via The In Box]
Could it be that the internet boom is over? Not just on the world's stock markets, but in homes and offices too? The Register reports that the research group Virtual Society has found that a significant number of internet users are abandoning the internet. Writing in The Guardian, Oliver Burkeman looks at the possible reasons for this falling away of interest, and suggests that the single main candidate is the slowness of the internet for the average user, followed by the expense involved in buying computers, paying for ISP subscriptions and phone calls.

I suspect the key finding may be that even the teenaged users who are supposed to be the future of the internet are using it, but then stepping away from their PCs and getting on with life off-line. That, it seems to me, is exactly what the majority of adult internet users I know are doing too: they find a few handy online sites (a little e-commerce, the odd reference site for a particular hobby or interest, perhaps a little online job-hunting) and that's about it, they just get on with the rest of their lives otherwise. Not so much ex-internet users as occasional users. The single application that they use repeatedly is email - the original killer app on the internet. [Via Techdirt]
Writing in Salon, Ed Frauenheim takes a fascinating look at the Experimental Computer Facility, a small student-run computer club at the University of California at Berkeley which was home to the creators of the GIMP image-editing software (aka Photoshop for free), NNTP, GTK and more besides.
Monday 4 December 2000, 23:55 GMT
Steven Levy has written a fascinating article for Newsweek about the various efforts to revamp the user interface of MacOS, Windows and Linux, and notes the continued involvment of the Apple veterans who were behind the original Mac interface. It's not an article about the technicalities of GUI design, rather a testament to the way that the Mac revolutionised the way we use PCs. (I know, the Xerox Star got there first, but it didn't end up on many people's desktops. The PARC scientists deserve credit for the original idea, but Steve Jobs & Co were the ones who brought it to the attention of the general public.) [Via Techdirt]
How to make a fool of yourself on national TV in one easy lesson.
The Internet Watch Foundation was set up four years ago to provide a system by which reports of illegal material - primarily, though not exclusively, child pornography - in newsgroups could be collated and acted upon. At the time the Metropolitan Police were bandying about a list of 133 newsgroups which they claimed were overflowing with illegal material and demanding that Something Be Done, so setting up an industry-led body like the IWF to coordinate the industry's response to the problem was a sensible step. Now the IWF has published a paper setting out the issues as it sees them and asking whether three newsgroups (out of 30,000) which it has identified as containing 77% of the potentially illegal material which it receives complaints about should be dropped by UK-based ISPs.

The IWF try to set out the arguments for and against, and the paper emphasises that no decision has been made to recommend that UK ISPs drop these newsgroups, but I'm worried that the question is being raised given that some of the arguments cited are so weak. First of all, individual postings may be considered to be illegal, but even the IWF admits that these newsgroups contain legal material too. Second, having newsgroups devoted to this sort of material at least ensure that the vast majority of that material stays in one place: there's not a single thing to stop those who like this sort of thing from either going to email or else posting to other newsgroups. Third, since the consultation paper acknowledges that the UK ISPs acting alone can't even stop UK residents from accessing this material via news servers outside UK jurisdiction it's hard to see what benefit would be gained from encouraging ISPs to drop the groups in question. If a "solution" doesn't solve anything, what's the point? This looks to me like the thin end of a potentially very large wedge indeed. In a climate where the security services are demanding easy access to all UK telecoms traffic because of the need to fight child porn, terrorists, organised crime and so on, talk of restricting access to newsgroups based on the use of those same arguments, even if the newsgroups being discussed are ones which 99% of internet users would never use anyway, is deeply worrying. Prosecute those who post illegal material to Usenet by all means, but don't trample our civil liberties on the pretext that it's the only way to protect us from bogeymen.

The consultation paper is available online, so if you're even slightly interested in the future of Usenet in the UK you should take a look.
Sunday 3 December 2000, 21:35 GMT
A chicken called Britney?
The latest edition of Signum is up: Brad Wieners writes on TEOTWAWKI, and Brenda Laurel shares what she learned from the rise and fall of Purple Moon, a company devoted to bringing the computer game to girls.
Ladies and Gentlement, I'm pleased to announce that we have a new member of the weblogging community: President-elect(?) George W Bush.
The World Trade Organisation has concluded that multinational mega-mergers may reduce competition and thus be harmful to the interests of consumers. The instinctive response to this sort of pronouncement is to exclaim "Well, duh!" but there's more to it than that.

It strikes me that the WTO isn't saying this because it's now realised that promoting the right of global businesses to trample the regulatory regimes of individual countries is a bad thing. Its argument, if this report from BBC News Online is correct, is that merely national regulators aren't up to the job. If the WTO still supports globalisation, the logical conclusion is that we should have a global regulatory body too, or at any rate a supranational regulatory body. Which sounds fine, except that it seems to me highly probable that said body would end up enforcing lowest-common-denominator policies, thereby reducing still further the ability of national governments (acting, at least sometimes, on behalf of their electorates) to affect the consequences of said mergers.
Man marries TV.
"My telly has given me endless hours of pleasure, without fussing, fighting or backchat."
[Via the null device]

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