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Saturday 24 August 2002, 22:50 BST
The Hitch-Hiker's Guide on Australia:
Australia is a very confusing place, taking up a large amount of the bottom half of the planet. It is recognisable from orbit because of many unusual features, including what at first looks like an enormous bite taken out of its southern edge; a wall of sheer cliffs which plunge deep into the surrounding sea. Geologists assure us that this is simply an accident of geomorphology and plate tectonics, but they still call it the 'Great Australian Bight' proving that not only are they covering up a more frightening theory, but they can't spell either.

The first of the confusing things about Australia is the status of the place. Where other land masses and sovereign lands are classified as either continent, island, or country, Australia is considered all three. Typically, it is unique in this.
The best bit is the description of the third most embarrassing known way to die. Let's just say it involves a very confused wombat...

[Via David Silberstein, posting to rec.arts.sf.written]
The Patent Office has published details of the UK implementation of the European Union Copyright Directive. As the EU has already issued the directive and all member states are obliged to introduce legislation implementing the provisions of the directive, the general principles which will govern copyright in the EU for the next few years have already been decided. It's too late to fax your MP telling him that information just wants to be free and expect that it'll make any difference in the short term.

Trouble is, even when considered simply on its merits as an implementation of a rather draconian EU directive the proposed legislation turns out to be severely lacking. There's a lucid summary of the issues at Stand, and a more detailed point-by-point analysis at uk.eurorights.org which includes sensible suggestions as to how the proposals can be improved while still meeting the requirements laid down in the EUCD.

If you believe the Patent Office should think again, you should consider submitting comments to the Patent Office. Copying your submission to Patricia Hewitt, the cabinet minister with responsibility for the Patent Office, wouldn't do any harm. There probably won't be a Blunkett-style mea culpa this time round, but that doesn't mean it's not worthwhile to spend some time letting politicians know that their plans are unrealistic.
Exit Mundi. There are an awful lot of ways for the world to end, be it tomorrow or a billion years hence. This site documents many of them in some detail.

(And to date I think pretty much every one of them has been the subject of at least one science fiction novel.)

[Via Frownland]
Michele is getting married just a few hours from now, on her fortieth birthday. (Michele is not one to do things by halves.)

Judging by Michele's choice of music for the big day, it's going to be a memorable event. Here's wishing Michele and Justin all the very best for their wedding day, and for all the days to come.
Friday 23 August 2002, 23:15 BST
Some early footage from X-Men 2 is now available online in a variety of resolutions.

It's not a proper trailer - the footage was originally put together for a presentation at a comics convention last week, so there aren't any CGI effects yet - but it's a start. Roll on May 2003.
It looks as if the Internet Society's bid to run the .org top-level domain is going to win. This is very good news indeed for .org domain owners everywhere.

[Via Lots of Co.]
Homicide returns. Tomorrow night Channel 5 are showing a Law & Order/Homicide: Life on the Street double feature, as the two shows share a crossover storyline.

It's been a long, long time since I saw any Homicide, thanks to Channel 4's stupid decision to drop the Best Damn Show On Television with one season to go. I'll definitely be setting my VCR tomorrow night: I don't want to miss a chance to see Frank Pembleton in action again.
Charlie Stross finds a modern reincarnation of the Cambridge Computers Z88. I still have my Z88 somewhere, though I haven't used it in about eight years. It was a very good deal back then: about a fifth the price of the cheapest laptop around, far more robust, and with battery life which put every laptop going to shame. Not for everyone, but if your requirements didn't run to a full Windows-based system it was perfectly adequate.

If you still have a Z88 and need to convert any of your files, or even use the machine if the keyboard or screen are broken - or if you just want to wallow in nostalgia - then there's a web page for you.
Thursday 22 August 2002, 23:25 BST
Hit Charade, or, How the Music Industry Has Shot Itself In the Foot. Some of the specific facts and figures relate to the US market, but the general strategy is the same over here.
In erecting bulwarks around their domains, the major music businesses have left no entrance for the serendipity that kept the pop industry lively (and profitable) for decades. Yet the barbarians at those padlocked gates are the only people who can save the major labels' dwindling empires.
Wednesday 21 August 2002, 23:35 BST
Diamonds Are Forever. And are even more valuable when they're made from the cremated remains of your loved one.

I wonder how long it'll be before this ... innovative ... approach to remembrance shows up on Six Feet Under? I have a feeling David wouldn't approve.

[Via Boing Boing]
Bad Taste. Cadbury's marketing department certainly knows how to get their products talked about.

[Via MetaFilter]
Absolutely Volcanic. Gorgeous pictures.

[Via pop-up toaster]
Having re-read my rant about Google Watch from Monday, I find that I didn't give the site enough credit for the positive elements of their critique of Google's methods.

I still think that there's no general purpose search engine that compares with Google for coverage, quality of results or ease of use, and I disagree with the assertion that Google's PageRank-based approach is biased in favour of corporate sites. However, in my rush to rebut the site's wider thesis I failed to note that the site does make some valid points about the weaknesses of the detailed methodology Google uses in spidering sites. Without a much more reliable method of parsing the meaning of the content on individual pages I'm not sure there's that much that Google can do to improve their performance, but that's not to say that there's no value in an article which analyses the weaknesses of the current system.
Tuesday 20 August 2002, 23:10 BST
The biter bit.
  1. If you're going to carjack, try not to pick on a car carrying a judo team.
  2. Sea snakes don't appreciate being turned into food.
[Carjacking story via world of jill matrix, sea snake story via Blogatelle]
Researchers at the University of Michigan have come up with an innovative solution to the problem of people losing laptops carrying valuable data. The user wears a wristwatch-like device which emits a radio signal. In the absence of that signal - as, say, when the user is more than a set distance away - the laptop will automatically encrypt the contents of the laptop's hard disk, decrypting it again once the user comes back within range.

My first thought was that if (when?) the wrist transmitter malfunctioned they'd be stuck with an encrypted laptop and no way to decrypt their data. However, a little googling reveals that the radio transmitter contains a PIN or token input by the user on a relatively infrequent basis, perhaps daily. (The thinking is that as the transmitter is retained by the user it's relatively secure, and not too much trouble to look after.) Presumably if your wrist transmitter malfunctions you pick up a new one and enter your PIN and go back within range. Which will be fine as long as you're not out of the office with no spare wrist transmitter to hand.
It's 1962. You're investigating the effects of this new drug, LSD. What's your next step?

Obviously, you give an elephant an overdose of LSD, stand well back and observe. (When I say "overdose," I mean "enough LSD to make 3,000 people hallucinate for several hours.)

The not-entirely-surprising conclusion:
"It appears that the elephant is highly sensitive to the effects of LSD - a finding which may prove to be valuable in elephant-control work in Africa."
[Via The Sideshow]
Monday 19 August 2002, 23:55 BST
Smaller. A fascinating article by Malcolm Gladwell on the high-tech world of the diaper (or, to those of us on the right side of the pond, the nappy.)

Gladwell doesn't quite manage to make his story of "insults," highly absorbent polymers, shelf space and distribution networks exciting, but he does demonstrate pretty conclusively that the application of technology has a ripple effect that moves way beyond the laboratory and the production line, even in an apparently low-tech business. Good reading, and his personal site has plenty more where that came from.
X-Men director Bryan Singer interviewed at CHUD. On Sir Ian McKellen's reaction to his action figure:
I'll never forget when he came to me and said, (does Ian's voice) "I've seen my doll. It looks nothing like me. Quite handsome though. I approved it." Literally, that was all he said about the whole action figure-thing. So, yeah – first action figure, but not his last!
Google Watch: A look at how Google's monopoly, algorithms and privacy policies are undermining the Web. Oh please! According to this site Google's reliance on page ranking as a measure of relevance is distorting the site's results and making it harder for small sites to show up in the crucial first page of search results.

The article on Google's PageRank feature is a strange mixture of reasoned analysis and sneaky little rhetorical tricks:
Google hyped PageRank, because it was a convenient buzzword that satisfied those who wondered why Google's engine did, in fact, provide better results. Even today, Google is proud of their advantage. The hype approaches the point where bloggers sometimes have to specify what they mean by "PR" -- do they mean PageRank, the algorithm, or do they mean the Public Relations that Google does so well [...]
You'll note that the author implicitly concedes that Google's methods do produce better results - which is the point, isn't it? - but somehow the notion that some webloggers lazily use an ambiguous abbreviation like "PR" is Google's fault. Then there's this delightful little passage:
In the first place, Google's claim that "PageRank relies on the uniquely democratic nature of the web" must be seen for what it is, which is pure hype. In a democracy, every person has one vote. In PageRank, rich people get more votes than poor people, or, in web terms, pages with higher PageRank have their votes weighted more than the votes from lower pages. As Google explains, "Votes cast by pages that are themselves 'important' weigh more heavily and help to make other pages 'important.'" In other words, the rich get richer, and the poor hardly count at all. This is not "uniquely democratic," but rather it's uniquely tyrannical. It's corporate America's dream machine, a search engine where big business can crush the little guy. This alone makes PageRank more closely related to the "pay for placement" schemes frowned on by the Federal Trade Commission, than it is related to those "impartial and objective ranking criteria" that the FTC exempts from labeling.
So if corporate America has Google in its grasp, when I Google for, say, "Vernor+Vinge"+"A+Deepness+In+The+Sky" I'm going to get a page of booksellers trying to sell me a copy, yes? Well, no. Right now, there are two online bookstores listed in the first 10 results from that search - Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk - one link to the publisher's site which offers an excerpt online, one article about Vinge from Salon and six reviews of the book. Corporate America seems to be missing a trick. What if I search for Sore+Eyes? Surely my weedy little personal site will be swamped by sites run by opticians? Strangely enough, this weblog shows up at numbers 1 & 3, with a mix of personal sites and just a couple of commercial sites sharing that crucial first page of results. (OK, I'm slightly concerned that the suggested category is Health > Conditions and Diseases > Infectious Diseases > Viral > Herpes, but that's another story.)

I'll freely admit that a couple of semi-random examples don't prove anything. They do indicate, it seems to me, that Corporate America's "dream machine" is doing a pretty poor job of elbowing aside personal and noncommercial sites. Certainly it would be nice if Google, or anyone else, could develop a search engine which could reliably analyse the content of a page. Until then, PageRank seems to be working pretty well. And when it stops doing so, when the day comes that I can't find reviews of Professor Vinge's novels for links pointing to online bookstores, there's very little to stop me from switching to another search engine.

[Via my 2p]
Sunday nights are going to be considerably duller in future.

I wasn't as impressed by the finale of the second season of The West Wing as some have been. That's not to say that there weren't good moments - meeting the younger Mrs Landingham was a treat - but I find the downward spiral of doom and despair in recent weeks too depressing to watch. Realistic, no doubt, but not something I want to watch for fun. I felt that Martin Sheen's cathedral scene smacked of grandstanding; for once, he completely failed to convince. The show is still good, but the second season failed to live up to the hight standards set by the first. What's worse, the crisis over Bartlet's deception over his MS looks set to make the third season way too gloomy for my liking.

By contrast, I thought Jack Bauer's longest day ended as it began. If you stop and think about some of the elements of the plot (amnesia, a daughter who gets kidnapped every time she steps outside, that dreadful episode where one of Jack's colleagues with a grudge shot a vital suspect) the whole thing falls apart, but if you allowed the show's pace and the strong central performances carry you along then it was damn fine entertainment. Nina's stare through the security camera right into the back of the viewer's skull, Senator Palmer finally losing patience with his wife, Jack's reaction to Nina's lies about Kim's death: classic moments every one. I know some viewers feel that not seeing Nina shoot Teri was a cheat, but I thought that final slap in the face for the viewer added to the shock of the ending. As for the number of loose ends still flapping in the breeze at midnight, that's how real life works. In a more conventional drama we might have had an epilogue set "Six months later" telling us who Nina worked for, whether Jack kept his job (doubtful: he not only had a mole in his unit, but he had an affair with her), whether Senator Palmer won the election and so on. I'm glad we didn't find out everything. I'm just a bit sad that they're going to try to repeat the trick.

Finally, a humorous look at the 24 season finale and what might happen in season 2 from an American columnist.
Sunday 18 August 2002, 21:10 BST
Homeland Insecurity. A first rate profile of IT security guru Bruce Schneier.

If the numerous insights into the flaws of the techno-fix approach being taken by the US government in the wake of September 11th aren't of interest, just bear in mind that commercial companies are every bit as enamoured of technological fixes to security problems as governments are, and private companies are much less likely to reveal what's happened.
Deepcold is a terrific repository of Cold War designs for spacecraft that never were.

I find sites like this and Man Conquers Space fascinating. Not just for the amount of work that's gone into creating reconstructions of designs that never entered service, impressive as that is, but as a taste of what could have been.

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