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Home > Weblog w/e 17.2.2001


Saturday 17 February 2001, 22:55 GMT
The soundtrack to my day has been Danny Elfman's Music for a Darkened Theatre Volume 1, a compilation of excerpts from his various film and TV scores. It helps that he's Tim Burton's favourite soundtrack artist, but he's done plenty of quality work for other directors: I'd completely forgotten that he was responsible for the score for films like Midnight Run and Scrooged. This first volume takes in 1980-1990, and includes what's surely Elfman's best known theme, which is of course the title theme for The Simpsons, but there's plenty of other excellent material here. I think my favourite theme is either Beetlejuice or Batman, but it's all good. I'm definitely going to keep an eye out for Volume 2.
Contrary to my scepticism yesterday about Microsoft's chances of dominating the delivery of online video and music, The Register spells out a much gloomier scenario.

I don't doubt that Micrsoft has the market muscle and the cash to give this approach a serious try, but I still can't see businesses which shift serious quantities of streaming video moving over to use Windows 2000 for the sake of using Microsoft's media format, particularly if Real Networks sees the danger (as it surely does) and takes steps to prevent piracy itself.
The moral of this sorry tale: not all crackers/extortionists are terribly bright. [Via Metafilter]
I've mentioned how much I enjoy The West Wing on Channel 4. Among other things, it's a fascinating look at how liberals would have liked the Clinton presidency to turn out. Chris Lehmann considers the odd relationship between fiction and reality.
At last, a reason to buy a Playstation 2. 80s Sinclair ZX Spectrum classic games Manic Miner and Jet Set Willy are about to be revived on the new generation of games consoles. [Via NTK]
Friday 16 February 2001, 23:55 GMT
Simon Mayo's last show for Radio 1 this morning marked the end of an era: now only Mark 'n' Lard will give me a reason to listen to Radio 1 on weekdays in daytime.

Mayo went out with a bang: having the Shirehorses play live was fun, but for me the highlight was hearing from The Proclaimers after such a long break. I'm Gonna Be (500 Miles) is a classic, though god knows it doesn't fit in with any modern musical trends.
Sometimes I start to think that I've got this web page design business sussed out, but then I see a site like Webtek and realise that I have so much to learn...
Jim Allchin of Microsoft reveals to the world that Open Source software is downright Unamerican. I'm sure Linus will be so upset.
It looks as if Tony Blair's government might be about to volunteer us all - particularly those of us living in Yorkshire - to be targets for any "rogue state" that wants to slip past America's proposed nuclear missile defence system. Granted Britain was a target during the Cold War, but at least then there was an implicit understanding that America's nuclear arsenal would protect Europe too. I was particularly taken with this quote, which suggests that Tony Blair just hasn't been reading the same reports about the Bush administration that I have:
Mr Blair said he believed that the Bush administration was "sensitive" to foreign worries about the proposals and would discuss the issue with other states in a "serious and sensible" way.
I suspect CND are about to see a return to their glory days...
Damien Cave wonders why Microsoft has failed to crush Real Networks the way it has Netscape and so many other rivals. His analysis - that Microsoft see streaming video as a means of selling Windows NT and this is stopping them from taking the logical step of producing streaming software for Unix/Linux/Solaris - is basically sound, but I can't help thinking that Microsoft's ability to purchase desirable content (and the firm's willingness to build content management features - ie copyright protection systems - into their streaming media products won't win out in the long run. Still, the article is a useful reminder that despite the firm's stranglehold on the desktop market they have a long way to go before they rule the internet.
Thursday 15 February 2001, 23:55 GMT
Bill Gates & co have started to talk up Windows XP, the replacement for the consumer editions of Windows which finally tries to marry the stability and security of the Windows NT/2000 line with the user-friendliness and multimedia capabilities of Windows 95/98/Me. It remains to be seen how well XP works, especially as an upgrade for existing hardware. Furthermore, it's always possible that Microsoft will have fudged in favour of backwards compatability: bear in mind that unifying the Windows codebase was mooted around the time Windows 95 came out, but was postponed because it was a) too difficult and b) would have broken too much of the Windows 3.11 software that was already out there.

David Coursey has written an excellent article at ZDNet about Windows XP, and has pinpointed its single most significant feature: stability and security. Time will tell how far Windows XP lives up to Bill Gates' promises - and I already dislike the new user interface quite a bit even on the basis of a few screenshots - but just having a product that can stay up for days or weeks at a time and can survive application crashes unscathed will be a huge win. It's also what we should have been able to expect from the major consumer operating system from the start, but that's another story...
This art exhibit brings a whole new meaning to the term "per-seat licensing." The Terms and Conditions of Use are particularly choice. [Via Slashdot]
The Marry Me Chrissy guy I mentioned a while back got his million hits by Valentine's Day. Yay!
I heard about Fictionwise some time ago, but was never tempted to try it out until a poster to rec.arts.sf.written happened to mention the prices of some of the stories they have on offer. This is the sort of e-publishing initiative I like: short stories for sale at well under US$1 per story in most cases, and you can download in all sorts of popular, portable formats.

Some of the stories are available online elsewhere for free, but at these prices I think it's worth rewarding the writers and Fictionwise for their endeavours by supporting them.
In the wake of the decision by Andersen Consulting to change the firm's name to Accenture, Mike over at the excellent Techdirt site has received an email from the firm's New Media Team asking him to please change any references to Andersen Consulting at his site to reflect the firm's change of name. What I find amusing is the thought that some poor slob at Accenture was instructed to sit down at Google/Yahoo!/Lycos/Excite and actually email as many sites as he could asking them to make the change: now that's what I call a lousy job.
I didn't know that the Reduced Shakespeare Company had a website until Jon over at Viama's Weblog mentioned it. I saw these guys a couple of times several years ago, and if you ever get the chance you really should try to see their The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged). All 37 plays in 97 minutes, including Hamlet 3 times, one of them backwards! Hilarious stuff.
Ewwww. This is what happens when you give mobile phones a vibrating function. [Via linkmachinego]
tom@plasticbag.org posed a fascinating question yesterday: why not create a weblog written by a fictional character? There are already fake weblogs - I like BushBlog a lot - but it would be really interesting to see, say, a weblog by Buffy or CJ from The West Wing (which programme, by the way, goes from strength to strength with every episode) updated each week according to what's happened in their show. Such a project would essentially be a slightly revamped form of fanfic, but nonetheless well worth a read if done right. Has anyone seen anything like this out there?
Wednesday 14 February 2001, 23:55 GMT
As commercial web sites seem to add extra graphics and clutter with every redesign, Mark Frauenfelder surveys attempts by users to fight back. One way is to access the slimmed-down versions of sites set up for use with PDA-friendly services like Avantgo, and the other is to view sites like Salon via a script or program which strips out all the extraneous junk. [Via Tomalak's Realm]
Q: When is a Spaceship Not a Spaceship? A: When It's a Brain Coral. The sad story of the screenplay for the film of Robert A Heinlein's classic of paranoia and alien invasion, The Puppet Masters.
Now & Again is screened at a very silly time on ITV. I'd heard of the show via some seriously good reviews at TeeVee, but as I knew that it had been cancelled after just the one season I didn't make any special effort to catch it. However, I happened to see the last couple of episodes and I'm very impressed. It's a strange show, a sort of SF/action/comedy/drama, but it's got something. It may not quite live up to creator Glenn Gordon Caron's wonderful Moonlighting, but given time it could certainly have grown into something really special.
Last month's issue of Wired featured the biggest gulf between cover blurb and article I've seen in years. Journalist and historian Misha Glenny wrote a thoughtful, considered piece on the differences between European and American attitudes to the New Economy which highlighted both the cultural incompatabilities between the two approaches to business and the cautious attitude of many European societies towards the social impact of new technology. All good stuff, if somewhat basic. Then Wired's editors ran the story under the headline How Europe Can Stop Worrying and Learn to Love the Future. Better still, the blurb on the front cover announced the story of Why Europe Loves To Hate The New Economy. Sometimes I wonder why I still read Wired, but then they'll pull out a terrific article on micronations or the Mormon interest in genealogy or an essay by Neal Stephenson or Bruce Sterling and I'll be hooked all over again.
Tuesday 13 February 2001, 23:55 GMT
The Revenge of the Disintermediated, or just legitimate attempts by local bricks-and-mortar firms to protect their business from being undercut by out-of-town/state/country firms which appear to believe in their divine right to evade any form of regulation?

Preaching that the consumer's interest is always going to be best served by paying the lowest possible price to an online retailer is grossly simplistic. The cheapest option isn't always the best, especially in the long term if the consequence of going for the lowest price is that you no longer have a local bookstore to browse in on those occasions when you actually need to have a proper browse, or if the margins in a given market are so wafer-thin that firms constantly go out of business and you have to get used to dealing with a whole different firm. This is why I've stuck with Demon Internet as my ISP despite the rise of the "free ISP": I could have changed ISPs umpteen times over the last three years as I chased the "best" deal, but I'm not convinced I'd really have gained much in the long term by doing so.

(Furthermore, price comparisons which don't compare like-with-like - such as the CD-versus-download case cited by one advocate of e-commerce in the article - always make me suspicious.)
Life as a human punching bag. [Via Metafilter]
The achievement of NASA in soft-landing the NEAR Shoemaker probe on the asteroid Eros hasn't received anything like the media attention it deserved. Yes, it's just a novel way to dispose of a probe which had done its job, but it's still one hell of a good shot at that range.
Much media coverage of the end result of Operation Cathedral today. The usual calls went up for the internet to be "controlled" somehow, and when you read chilling interviews like this one in The Register with one of the men who was sentenced today, and you read the bald statistics about the vast libraries of images paedophiles collect, it's easy to sympathise with the desire to do whatever it takes, regardless of the cost.

There may be room for a debate about whether the police should be allowed to try to entrap suspects, but it's vital that we not let the statistics stampede us into trampling everyone's civil liberties "for the sake of the children."
Jim Bryne, writing for A List Apart, looks at the increasingly knotty problem of how to make a web site accessible for users with disabilities while still keeping the design attractive and distinctive. As with so many aspects of web design at the moment, the solution lies in the widespread adoption of various technologies (XML, CSS etc) which are at present less than widely supported by the browsers actually in use in the field.
Salon describes the next iteration of the big-money game show. Donald Trump is going to host a show called Billionaire in which contestants are challenged to spend US$1,000,000 in thirty minutes. The catch: they're plucked out of their real lives at awkward moments, such as inviting a woman to try to spend the cash on the morning of her wedding, or asking a man to nip outside while his partner is giving birth.

Sounds like a bit of a rum do to me. I think they'll get a lot of people telling them to sod off.
Rachel Konrad surveys the uses and limitations of commercial applications of data mining. [Via NewsTrolls]
Kendra Mayfield looks at the vexed issue of how to price e-books so that authors and publishers make money and the public - or at least the early adopters, at this stage in the game - actually buy the darned things. We live in interesting times...
Monday 12 February 2001, 23:55 GMT
Bye bye Napster?
Deja.com sells its Usenet archive to Google. Excellent news, and the critics cited in this Wired story about the sale who are bitching because Google have taken much of the archive off-line while they reformat it need to get a sense of perspective.
Katharine Mieszkowski writes about some very, very paranoid people who think that the Y2K bug actually did have the disastrous consequences they foretold, it's just that the media (and the government, naturally) are hiding the facts from us.
A new issue of The 11th Hour is up, with the usual highly worthwhile mix of reviews and opinion pieces.

I learned one really depressing fact from the Julie Ng's article about Hollywood's habit of producing lacklustre remakes: apparently Spielberg has said that "when he watches Close Encounters of the Third Kind today, he would never let Roy abandon his family to get on an alien spaceship." We should all hope he doesn't get the chance to produce another special edition...
There's a rather good thread on Slashdot about a New York Times story (free registration required) about a scholar's attempt to find a more appropriate metaphor for cyberspace privacy issues than Orwell's Big Brother. Assistant Professor Daniel J. Solove suggests that when dealing with politicians and other non-techie users the use of Kafka's bureaucratic nightmare The Trial to illustrate privacy issues is likely to produce more useful results than would Orwell's vision of an all-seeing, all-powerful state.

Note that Solove isn't saying that we're living in Kafka's world, just that framing privacy concerns in terms of a bureaucracy where the right hand doesn't know what the left hand is doing is more likely to be seen as a reflection of the current state of play, where giving information to Company A is no guarantee that said date won't end up in the hands of Company B, and there's no way for the poor user to know that Company Z (aka Doubleclick?) isn't engaged in compiling a master profile of you based on the information they've acquired from all the other companies, to be put to who knows what uses.

Ironically, the science-fictional world I'd most like to live in (Iain M Banks' Culture) has very little privacy indeed, but the fringe benefits more than make up for that minor deficiency. Sadly, Doubleclick et al aren't run by Minds.
The top 12 things likely to be overheard if you had Klingon programmers working for you, by David Given.
8) What is this talk of 'release'? Klingons do not make software 'releases'. Our software escapes, leaving a bloody trail of designers and quality assurance people in its wake!
[Posted to rec.arts.sf.written]
Sunday 11 February 2001, 23:55 GMT
Writing in Salon, Allen Barra reminds us of an artist who was way bigger than the Beatles in his time, but who's all but forgotten today.
An excellent analysis by Tiernan Ray of the forces driving firms to offer buyers of consumer electronics an ever-increasing range of near-indistinguishable options. (Also, the picture conjured up by the article's title - Get a Load of the Tailfins on That Palm Pilot! - amused me no end.) [Via NewsTrolls]
Also in Salon, Mary Roach tells you more than you ever wanted to know about what happens to people who jump off tall bridges.
Buying a clue is getting very expensive nowadays:
"It cost us about $150 million to fail at Go.com. But now this company is fluent in the Internet vocabulary."

Disney CEO Michael Eisner, on the company's online tuition bill, Salon.com, 7 February 2001
[Via Ditherati]
It's a well-known fact that Americans - even more so than citizens of other First World countries - are fatter than ever before. The most common explanation proffered is the increased prevalance of fast food, but the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention suspect that America's love affair with the car is an even more important factor. [Via the null device]

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