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Saturday 10 August 2002, 23:45 BST
In the Wire is a play about the internet which will make its debut at the New York International Fringe Festival later this month.

Capturing something of the way the internet and computers have changed the way we communicate in a play is a tricky proposition. It sounds as if the authors are paying a bit more attention to the technology than you might expect:
Get sent!
In the Wire drops the audience inside the Internet. The play follows an amorous email through the tangled World Wide Web as it navigates high-speed routers, super-secure Psychromoft, and the hopping Cisco Disco. In the Wire is a love letter to the genius and chaos of the Internet.
Sounds interesting. This article (NB/- New York Times - free registration required) suggests that the writers have made a serious attempt to balance the techie elements with the dramatic ones. Goodness knows, it's a subject that deserves some attention. I'll be interested to read some reviews and find out how well their ideas worked out.

[Via Techdirt]
The Illustrated History of the Roman Empire. A terrific resource for anyone with the slightest interest in the history of the Roman Empire. Not quite up to the exalted standard of the Theban Mapping Project, but then the latter site was recently upgraded.

[Via MetaFilter]
I do like a good Usenet flame.

[Via rec.arts.sf.written]
Could Apple survive without Microsoft? Charles Haddad thinks it could, but I think he's overlooking the extent to which getting PC users to switch to a Mac is contingent upon their being reassured that they can continue to work with MS Office files. While there are a fair number of alternatives to Internet Explorer for MacOS, the same isn't entirely true with respect to Microsoft Office. It's true that most of the alternatives can handle opening MS Office format files, and can cope with a large percentage of Office features. The problem is that even if an alternative application handles importing and exporting 85% of Word features seamlessly, that leaves 15% that turn round and bite you when you least expect it. Even if 80% of users only use 20% of the features in Word, there's a fair chance that there'll be some overlap between the 15% and the 20% for most of us.

Finally, when Haddad says that "Besides, if Microsoft tried to play compatibility games, Mac programmers would strike back by creating their own workarounds. They would probably have little trouble outwitting their Microsoft counterparts. Just look at all the hackers who continue to pirate Microsoft software with ease, even as the company tries to increase its security measures" I think he's kidding himself. The main reason it's so hard for developers in the Wintel world to keep up with Microsoft's file format changes and ever-increasing feature lists isn't that Wintel-based software developers are stupid, it's that anyone working outside Redmond is doomed to play catch-up as they reverse-engineer Microsoft's file formats, by which time Microsoft have finished their work and moved on to the next update.

I'm not saying losing Microsoft's support would kill Apple, but I do think the uncertainty it it would create about exchanging word processor documents and spreadsheets would make it that much harder for PC users to make the switch to Apple.

[Via MetaFilter]
Friday 9 August 2002, 23:55 BST
Michele points out yet another story about lawyers launching a frivolous lawsuit.

On the other hand, sometimes turning to a lawyer is sometimes an entirely reasonable reaction: if I'd been dunked in a tank full of sharks while I was visiting an aquarium I'd have been on the phone to my lawyer just as soon as I'd dried off.

Incidentally, it was most remiss of me not to post before now saying that I'm honoured that Michele has nominated this weblog as one of her Blogparents.
Talking of lawyers, I'm more than half convinced that Sue-It.com is a hoax.

[Via Boing Boing]
The 5K competition is over for another year. Kirsty nominates the Scale Model of the Solar System as one of her favourite entrants, and I agree 100%. Clever stuff.

[Via nocto]
Further to yesterday's posting of a review of Stephen Wolfram's magnum opus, Ray Girvan of Apothecary's Drawer fame emailed me a pointer to Edwin Clark's collection of Wolfram-related humour. My favourite is the article at Ridiculopathy.com:
Pete Fermat, a student at Podunk Community College, could hardly contain his excitement. "The most significant revelations in human history are contained in a book inaccessible to people without an advanced degree and high-end computer power. I bet everyone who beat me up in junior high school is sorry now. Math touchdowns for everyone!"
A Contrarian View on Open Source from Bruce Sterling. Once again, the Viridian Pope-Emperor speaks and the geeks listen.
Stuff like The Cathedral & the Bazaar. Now, I get it about being the bazaar. I'm a science fiction writer, I got no problem at all with bizarre stuff. But commercial software? Microsoft? As a cathedral?

Have you ever seen a cathedral? Cathedrals are medieval religious centers where people do penance and take vows of poverty. They worship relics of the holy dead in there. Microsoft is a commercial software company. It's the commercial software company. It's got to be about the least cathedral-like structure known to humankind.

When you go into a cathedral, you don't read shrink-wrap licenses. There are no developers' documents in there. You've gotta read stuff like the Bible in a cathedral.

And it's an interesting book, the Bible. Not one word about software in it. It's got all these obscure parables and weird war stories and such.

Like the story of Jesus Christ chasing the moneylenders out of the temple. I know this is kinda hard for contemporary people to get their heads around, but Jesus Christ used to beat people up with a whip for being capitalists. He chased the moneylenders out of the sacred precincts. They were extremely alarmed by this. They were screaming stuff, like "Hey wow! The Prince of Peace is beating the living crap out of us!" He didn't even claim that they were crooked moneylenders in the temple, it's not like they were Enron or anything. It's just -- the very idea that there should be any commercial activity whatsoever in a cathedral -- this was enough to make the world's best-known prophet and pacifist philosopher completely blow his top.

This interesting divine perspective is kinda overlooked in Eric Raymond's metaphorical treatments, I'm noticing.


The older Bill gets, the uglier he gets. He's a guy riding a white horse, that turned into a runaway bronco bull, that turned into a scaly crocodile, and now, it is turning into some kind of diseased revenant. It's like the Steed of the Nazgul, those black, flying zombie horses that explode when exposed to fresh water. That's what Microsoft is like now. These guys, these Nazgul ... They used to be kings. They were originally human beings, they had wives and children and futures, they had their own little nations to govern and manage. But then there was the One Ring -- One Ring to Rule Them All. One. And they couldn't resist. And they gave in.

It's not even about "Fear Uncertainty and Doubt" any more. The flavor of it has changed. If you look at it, it's all about Fear Uncertainty and Hate. "Where do you want to go today -- to give us some money, OR ELSE?"

And the answer -- the popular American answer, really a kind of consumer uprising here -- is: "I wanna go steal some MP3s!" That's the answer. "I wanna go pirate some Hollywood movies and keep 'em for myself, please!" And the reaction is: "Gee, our customers are criminals! They must be spied upon, lest they hurt us, and one another!"

The result is 95 percent market domination by Microsoft. But that's not a market economy. That's not even capitalism. That is a state-capitalist, state-sanctioned monopoly that Mussolini would have smiled on. Mussolini used to give the people of Italy free radios. But they would only tune in to the fascist station. This was supposed to be the only kind of radio that people in Italy understood. This was the entirety of Italian radio as a medium. Mussolini's radio had just one big dial on the front that said "Radio Zone."

The devices we're looking at now have that vibe to me. The contemporary PC, this is like hostility and paranoia made into a plastic consumer device. By Intel, and Dell. And Bill -- I don't sense that he's happy about this. The man seems troubled. He has a guilty conscience. He's vaccinating kids in Africa who don't have telephones, while kids in the USA who have Pentium 4s are spewing his viruses.
There's much, much more good stuff, but I'll refrain from just quoting the entire article.

I used to wish that Sterling would do a little less journalism and write a few more novels, but his good run of interviews, film reviews (NB/- New York Times article - free registration required), Viridian Notes and speeches so far this year (excepting only his uncharacteristically credulous piece on US Space Command for Wired a few months ago) has persuaded me that his next, non-fiction book, Tomorrow Now: Envisioning the Next Fifty Years is going to be every bit as enjoyable as a new novel could be.

[Open Source article via MetaFilter]
Thursday 8 August 2002, 23:10 BST
Stephen Wolfram's A New Kind of Science is reviewed by a customer at Amazon:
A New Kind of Review, May 20, 2002
Reviewer: A reader

Why you are reading this review

I can only imagine how fortunate you must feel to be reading my review. This review is the product of my lifetime of experience in meeting important people and thinking deep thoughts. This is a new kind of review, and will no doubt influence the way you think about the world around you and the way you think of yourself.
There's much more in that vein. Scroll down this page to the entry headed "A New Kind of Review" posted on 20 May 2002 to see the full review.

[Via Boing Boing]
Car-azy Paving. I'm speechless.

[Via The View From Here]
PixelDécor. Seriously pretty pictures and icons for your desktop.

[Via /usr/bin/girl]
Wednesday 7 August 2002, 22:45 BST
Shatter Attacks - How to break Windows. At first glance, this looks very nasty indeed.

[Via Ben Hammersley.Com]
Ars Technica has published a very fair review of Mozilla 1.0.

I don't share their low opinion of the mail client - I find it's acceptable for the odd occasions when I need to read HTML mail, though none of the features are going to tempt me away from Forté Agent's combined mail client/offline news reader - but they're right that the user interface of the browser is less slick than it might be. Those features which have been well implemented, such as the Gecko HTML rendering engine itself, the ability to control pop-up windows and the general robustness of the browser are far more important to my daily life on the internet. If they'll just tweak the implementation of tabbed browsing so that I can tell Mozilla to open all links in a new tab unless I explicitly ask it to do otherwise then I'll be blissfully happy.

[Via rc3.org]
Things My Girlfriend and I Have Argued About by Mil Millington is renowned as one of the funniest sites on the web. I hadn't read the page for a while, so I was delighted to discover that he's been doing some updating.
This isn't entirely relevant but, let's be honest, it's not like any of you are anxious about time management issues, is it? So... A short while ago, Second Born asked Margret for a pudding (which, for the American readers, is a general term for any sweet thing eaten after the main meal, equivalent to your 'A dessert. Dude.') and she went off into the kitchen to make something. Second Born returned to the table carrying a bowl.

'Do you want some too?' he asked First Born, showing him the contents.

'What is it?'


'No, it's not.'

'Yes, it is.'

'No, it's not,' insisted First Born. 'I know it's not, because I'm not frightened of custard, but that scares me.'
The Minority's Report:
Bob? Hey, how ya doing. Lily Wong here, of Wong and Associates Industrial Design Consulting Group. I got your vid-message, I wanted to thank you for the tour of the Pre-crime Center yesterday - it was neat-o. Really. Anyway, I think I understand where some of your problems might lie, and I'll just give you some of my thoughts - you know, off the top of my head, some first impressions if you will. We'll be sending you a more formal report later this week, but here's a few things that occured to me.

So let's start with the control center room, you know where you guys get the data streams from the pre-cogs? Now, I'm no computer expert, but your UI seems a little weird. Wouldn't it be easier to not have to gesture so much to retrieve data? Doesn't it, you know, get a little tiring after a while? Here in the office we have a virtual keyboard that works the same way as your system except we trigger it with tiny finger movements and vocal codes. Oh, I know, I guess you guys are all so macho or something, right? [laughter]. Anyway, you might want to look into a more efficient design.
Classic stuff, though if you haven't seen Minority Report you should probably steer clear.

[Via Boing Boing]
Tuesday 6 August 2002, 23:50 BST
Men In Black II is a severe disappointment. The original was smart and snappy and short. The sequel retains the latter quality, but in other respects it's woeful. The plot would fill about one thirty minute sitcom episode, most of the jokes are retreads of ones from first tine round (and the one notable exception to that rule - the inflatable driver - was thrown away in the trailer), Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones seemed to be on autopilot, and even the normally reliable Rip Torn made very little of his extended cameo. And that's before you throw in a lacklustre love interest, an uncharismatic villainess and some ropy special effects.

At least I enjoyed a couple of the trailers. The teaser for the Matrix sequels reminded me just how much I'm looking forward to letting the Wachowski brothers persuade me to forgive them for that stupid "human battery" storyline. To my surprise, XXX looks as if it could be a lot of dumb fun. I enjoyed Vin Diesel's performance in The Fast and the Furious, and I think he might just be able to carry off an extreme-sports-meets-James-Bond epic.
Danny O'Brien has been putting his spare brain cycles to good use. The one time a total stranger emailed me out of the blue like that about a topic I had no particular reason to know anything about, I think I was being wound up. I fired off a rapid response giving some initial pointers and asking for further information, and never got any response.

For all that, I'd do it again if asked. In the final analysis, all the wind-up cost me was a few minutes of my time. As I was unemployed back then, this wasn't a major problem (though spending time looking up information and composing a response did make me late to sign on that morning.)
Ever wondered what it would be like to date a superhero? Meryl Yourish has.
Daredevil: A blind lawyer with really great acrobatic skills and extra-sensory perception. Hm. Potential. Brings new meaning to the phrase "read my lips." Three stars.
In turn, she brings to our attention the answers to the much more important question of which comic book heroines are hottest:
Bat Girl: Do you take a chance on the Commissioner's daughter? She's got a cool motorcycle, plus she can fight crime in heels. But is she a brunette or a redhead? Do the cuffs and collar match? Looks like some investigating is in order. A quick fire-and-forget girlfriend. She's pining for Batman, so it's best not to bother falling in love with her, for her heart will never be yours. 3 Stars
[Via Making Light]
Monday 5 August 2002, 23:55 BST
The Factory of the Future. Bruce Sterling on the price of mass customisation.
Despite the best efforts of machinery, we can't really have our heart's unspoken desire. As any designer will tell you, physical objects involve trade-offs. Every customer must make some kind of sacrifice (not the least, paying money for the product). In mass production the customer's sacrifice is sharp and severe: "One size fits all: we make it, you buy it, shut up." In the flimsy, multivalent world of mass customization, the tentacles of sacrifice spread throughout the fabric of society. Any product that's created for a market of one is no longer a "product." It becomes a service: a lasting intimate entanglement. From the company's viewpoint, a customized product is the point of entry into a long-term commitment. Seen through the other end of the telescope, it's a fine excuse for Three Initial Corporation to sniff at leisure through your wallet, your closet, and your underwear.
Another advantage of mass customisation for the manufacturers is that if there are no standard product specifications there are no grounds for sensible comparisons between the products on offer from different manufacturers unless you're pretty knowledgeable about the trade-offs each option implies. That creates a space in which manufacturers can differentiate products on the basis of nebulous factors such as "style" or "elegance." Which is where branding comes in.
BlogTree. Everyone's doing it.

I'm going to have to check out those of my "siblings" I haven't already "met."
Stiff Nipples Air Conditioning Service. Yes, really.
I'm still making my mind up about Enterprise. I still loathe the theme song, but so far I'm quite enjoying seeing a relatively low-tech version of the Enterprise wandering the Alpha Quadrant. The first five episodes haven't bowled me over with their originality, and certainly there's been nothing to match the verve of Farscape or even Lexx (on a good day, in the latter's case), but it's still very early days and there's a fair bit of room for the writers to explore what it meant to be part of humanity's first independent deep space expedition.

One slight problem for me is that Captain Archer's character hasn't quite come into focus yet. Like Voyager, Enterprise may come to depend on its supporting cast for its best moments. Which isn't necessarily a bad thing, but it's not really part of the Trek formula. I'd like to see Archer's relatively gung-ho approach to exploring new planets go badly wrong and teach him the hard way that there's a reason the Vulcans are so keen on spending several days carrying out surveys before landing. After all, all those Starfleet protocols Captain Picard followed probably had their roots in someone losing a good chunk of their crew.

For all that Enterprise is still finding its way, the show is considerably more satisfying than, say, Andromeda. If Enterprise suffers because Archer isn't a strong enough lead, Andromeda is greatly hindered by the presence of an incorruptible, brilliant captain with a clear vision of how he'd like to reorganise the universe (or, as some of those he encounters might point out, turn the clock back 300 years). Some of the stories which bring the supporting characters front and centre have been decent enough, but Dylan Hunt is too central to allow their stories to develop properly. It's an episode here and an episode there for the supporting cast, and inbetween two or three episode about how Dylan Hunt is braver, cleverer and luckier than he has any right to be. At least when James T Kirk was wandering the universe being brave and clever he had senior officers with strong characters of their own. Not to mention lots of lovely ladies.

Kirk's libido also supports Keith Morrison's theory about why the United Federation of Planets really set up shop on Earth.

[Ladies of Star Trek via Ben Hammersley.Com]

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