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Saturday 5 October 2002, 22:20 BST
The Ig Nobel Awards winners for 2002 were announced earlier this week. A couple of items I've linked to before were honoured - the Periodic Table Table and the Bowlingual dog-bark translator - but there were also plenty of winners which were new to me.

My favourite winner is probably the Great Bellybutton Lint Survey. I had no idea that the presence of a "snail trail" was a significant factor in predicting the quantity of lint, or that using a front-loading washing machine could make such a difference.
Angry Bed Positions was created by Mil "Things My Girlfriend and I Have Argued About" Millington.
Position 1

An '11'. Both performers lie on their backs, right on the very outer edges of their respective sides of the bed. A bit amateurish, frankly. For a start, you have nowhere to wriggle away to in an extra burst of fury, which limits your options terribly - only the most inexperienced performer would allow themselves, right from the off, to take up a position from where they're unable to raise the stakes at all. Worse still, roles are poorly defined - it's easy to forget whether you're meant to be pointedly waiting for an apology or mutely declaring your intention not to apologise this time. More often than not, after under an hour of uninspiring action you'll end up with the 'I'm not in a mood, you're the one that's in a mood'/'No, I'm not. You are, I'm not in a mood at all' exchange and everything crumbles into a fiasco.
[Via linkmachinego]
"Why isn't there more dissention among geeks?" That's the question posed by Tom Steinberg.
Meet a man with a pony-tail, a pasty complexion, and a faded black t-shirt emblazoned with a logo involving the word *NIX, and you will normally be able to guess his techno-politics pretty easily. For a start, he's going to resent attempts to record his emails, hate attempts to stop him swapping MP3s, and despise Microsoft's attempts to do anything at all. He's going to kick up a fuss if his ISP blocks any ports, and is likely to advocate software written under Open Source licences. Why should it be so easy to guess his mind? Well, because he's a geek, and these are things geeks believe.
Steinberg goes on to suggest that the unanimity of the geek community on these issues is a bad thing, but despite having read the article several times I can't quite see why. There isn't a "geek movement" with a membership list and so on, and thus there's no real penalty for being on the "wrong" side of these issues.

If geeks feel more strongly about issues of online privacy and the manoeuvering of Microsoft than do non-geeks, that's perhaps because they've been aware of them for longer. There are plenty of non-geeks who will only start to feel strongly about Digital Rights Management when they discover that it's effectively compulsory to connect to the internet using a PC running a Palladium-friendly operating system if you want to make full use of any web site that needs to know who you are, or when they realise that viewing a TV program they've recorded using their TiVo incurs a charge for a second or subsequent viewing.

As for the charge that geeks "despise Microsoft's attempts to do anything at all," it's important to understand that Microsoft are the target for vilification primarily because they're the company with the market power to force some technologies to become de facto standards and they've repeatedly used that position in an anti-competitive manner. They've earned the mistrust of geeks everywhere. If Apple had beaten off the PC challenge in the 1980s and become the dominant player in the PC market then Steve Jobs would be the one taking all the flak, assuming that Apple threw its weight around as Microsoft have. Although you might not know it from reading Slashdot, it's not really personal.

[Via Techdirt]
Judges find cake leaves bad taste. Says the man who baked the cake:
"I was a little bit surprised by the reaction and I didn't think the cake would hit the press the way it has. I was hoping to stimulate some debate about what the image of September 11 means to us while people are thinking about going to war with Iraq."

"It is an iconic image of our time. I think a fruit cake is perfect because people aren't expecting to see that when they are looking at cakes. I wasn't trying to be a smart arse ... just trying to make people think."
Regardless of what you may think of the issues of taste and appropriateness, part of me finds the details of how the cake was constructed fascinating:
"There are four fruit cakes in each tower with dowling rods through the centre. The towers are coated in strawberry jam and I applied the icing to the jam to make it stick. The plane is made out of icing and the wings were attached with spaghetti. The hardest thing was getting consistency of colour."
This was his first cake. Who knows what he could come up with once he gets some practice.

[Via web-goddess]
Friday 4 October 2002, 23:45 BST
Don't Mention the 'O' Word.
Browser Wars. Settling the question of which web browser is best once and for all - by holding an online Connect 4 tournament.

Mozilla appears to be in the lead, but only because for some reason the score for Internet Explorer is divided across four different versions whereas the other browsers' scores apparently combine figures for all versions. If I were Bill Gates I'd demand a recount.

[Via As Above]
NASA have put up a very impressive-looking Java applet which lets you track artificial satellites in real time. Just click on a dot to find out which satellite it is and see a plot of its orbit. View the satellites moving in real time or at 1,000 times actual speed.

Unfortunately the applet didn't seem to like Mozilla 1.1, but it worked fine in Internet Explorer 5.5. One of the few good reasons for me to launch IE nowadays.

[Via Schism Matrix]
Bloggers of the Left, Unite!
Why have Americans started to vilify the Guardian? Why does the actor John Malkovich want to kill the Independent foreign correspondent Robert Fisk? And why is the Princeton economics professor Paul Krugman writing with a new-found attention to detail? Answer: Fisk, Krugman and the Guardian are all victims of the latest web-publishing phenomenon: blogging.
This article was published in last week's New Statesman, but I'm a bit behind in my magazine reading so it only came to my attention when it was linked to by grayblog.

Whilst it's only natural that a political magazine would focus on the political side of weblogging, I think it's a misreading of the situation to suggest that weblogging is dominated by right-wing attack squads. Certainly there are plenty of warbloggers out there and they get a bit more media attention than left-wing webloggers, but I'd say that that's not entirely unrelated to the generally more right-wing stance of the US media in the wake of the election of George W Bush and the attacks of September 11th 2001. Also, I'd like to know on what basis a weblog is classified as right- or left-wing. There are a lot of webloggers with at least some sympathy for classic liberal or libertarian ideas, and a lot of webloggers who are favour of attacking Iraq. Neither of these qualifications automatically makes a weblogger a doctrinaire right-winger.

I'd also suggest that the author doesn't really understand the nature of weblogging. He comments that no individual weblogger gets a large audience by TV or print media standards, but then explains that:
[...] many readers run their own blogs; others are political or media professionals. So a growing community is aware of whatever most irritated Sullivan today. This in turn creates what the legal theorist Cass Sunstein calls "cybercascades", reaching millions of readers with ideas, in this case associated almost exclusively with the right. They are democratic dynamite: private networks of information, unchecked by sensible debate. The aftermath of 11 September increased the cascades. Blogging became warblogging; the community became indignant cheerleaders for any madcap Bush anti-terrorism scheme. Attempts to question were given a vigorous fisking.
A weblog absolutely isn't a "private network of information," for a start. If I want to read a right-winger's weblog and see what the opposition's arguments are then there's nothing stopping me from doing so. If I want to write an article linking to arguments from right and left and critiquing them, I can do that and allow my reader to make reference to the articles I'm discussing in a way that just isn't practical in print or on TV. "Private" it ain't. It's certainly the case that a left-wing weblog reader may choose to steer clear of a weblog written by a rabid warblogger, but that's no different to the self-reinforcing attitude to consuming media which causea a left-winger to subscribe to the New Statesman rather than The Spectator.

[Via grayblog]
Thursday 3 October 2002, 23:55 BST
Word has it that Google have tweaked their ranking algorithm. More to the point, there seems to be some evidence that the net effect has been to reduce the quality of search results produced. This is definitely a story to watch in the days to come.

[Via rc3.org]
Why would a council build a bus shelter on a road which hasn't been on a bus route for six months? Northampton Borough Council claim that the shelter in question was paid for by advertisers and will still be used as an advertising hoarding regardless.

I can't help but wonder whether that story is just an excuse. Isn't it more plausible that someone drew up the plans months ago without checking whether the bus service was due to continue and now they're toughing it out rather than own up?

[Via Nick Jordan]
Wednesday 2 October 2002, 23:05 BST
It's worse than we thought.

Hang on, does this mean that Saddam Hussein is Gandalf?

[Via plasticbag.org]
Lola's First Football Match. Pete May faces the dilemma every parent dreads:
It's the question every football fan agonises about: when should you first take your child with you to a match? My daughter Lola is four, can chant "Paolo Di Canio!" and had already asked to go to a game. During the World Cup, she enjoyed the dispensing of red and yellow cards and asked, with some perception, "Daddy, if the player picked him up and put him on top of a very tall house and took the ladder away, would that be a yellow card?"

And now things are getting critical. I live in Highbury, in north London, next to the Arsenal ground, but support West Ham, currently bottom of the Premiership. The trouble is, not only do Arsenal win doubles and play great football, but the club also organises coaching classes at the local primary schools and, to cap it all, Lola's nursery teacher Tracy is Arsenal's number one fan. Four may be too young to go a game - but, if I don't act now, Lola will be Thierry Henry's for life.
It looks as if Thinkofthechildren.co.uk has won the first battle.

However, while it's true that the site's host has assured Paul Carr that "Should you amend or add content in the future which contravenes UK law and it is brought to our attention by the police and a request to remove is made Host Europe would have no option to remove the site to avoid being held criminally liable for it [sic] contents," I think Paul is placing too much weight on the proposition that his content will have to be determined to be unlawful before his host removes his site's content.

The whole problem is that the current legal regime doesn't provide any protection for a host which keeps content up which is eventually found to be illegal, so in effect it's the police who are regarded as making the initial determination that a site's content may be illegal. If the site stays up, it'll probably be because Host Europe and the police are now aware that that particular site is too high profile to pull, at least for now.

Still, it's definitely a step in the right direction. Kudos to Paul Carr for sticking to his guns, rather than walking away and settling for having his content mirrored outside the UK.
FutureFeedForward: using Temporal Networking technology to bring you tomorrow's headlines today.
New MS Word Feature Checks Files for Copyright Infringement
February 8, 2011

REDMOND--A bundle of feature updates and add-ons released Monday to subscribers of Microsoft's popular word-processor service Word includes a new digital rights management, or "DRM", feature designed to facilitate the use of copyrighted material in documents written using the service. "We're very excited about the new [copyright advisor] tool," explains Microsoft VP of Circumstantial Features Edmund Raunch. "For hundreds of years there's been a lot of legal uncertainty surrounding the writing process. How would you know, for example, if what you were writing was infringing somebody else's copyright unless you knew everything that had already been written. Well, we've tackled that uncertainty and just blown it away."

Known informally as "the Mouse," the feature involves a context-appropriate pop-up avatar in the likeness of Disney's famous cartoon character. "Disney actually approached us concerning a branding alliance on the feature," explains Raunch. "They're very dedicated to the whole copyright and rights management issue and wanted to be actively involved in the development of the Advisor."

[...]

Responding to critics, Microsoft's Raunch pointed to the company's obligations under recent extensions to the Digital Millennium Copyright Act: "I'm not a lawyer, but from what I understand, word processors are considered 'circumvention' devices because you can type in any document you want and just save and copy it. Because of that, we're obligated, by law, to enforce copyright to the extent technically feasible, and that's just what the advisor does.
Another highlight is Linguists Decipher Warning Message in Genome (February 1, 2039).

[Via MetaFilter]
Apple stands firm against entertainment cartel. Dan Gillmor wonders whether Apple will continue to ignore the trend of building Digital Rights Management into our computers.

The question isn't so much what Apple would like to do as it is what they'll do if DRM/Trusted Computing takes off in the Wintel world. If most of the rich online media content available requires DRM, how will Apple square the circle? Will they bite the bullet in order to be able to carry on marketing their computers as a "Digital Hub"? Will they seek to reposition Apple computers in the market by emphasising that they'll still be capable of accessing "open" file formats? It's a tough call. How big and lucrative is the market for non-DRM systems? How big will that market get once DRM becomes the de facto standard? Do ordinary internet users care all that much about getting their hands on "official" copies of their music, films and what have you if they have to pay for it, even at much more reasonable prices than are currently proposed? Finally, will Steve Jobs' legendary Reality Distortion Field be strong enough to persuade an entire MacWorld audience that DRM is a good thing?

We live in interesting times.

[Via Techdirt]
Tuesday 1 October 2002, 22:35 BST
Over at Swish Cottage, some lovely photographs of the St Pancras Chambers taken during the London Open House the other weekend.
Bowlingual. Inspired by the invention of a device which purports to translate a dog's barks into meaningful sentences, Davezilla suggests what we're likely to hear:
"Ah, this toilet water is just the right temperature. You want in on this? I love the generous white ceramic mug, by the way. Lovely touch."
Frame-by-frame-analysis of the newly-released trailer for The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers. Do I really need to point out that this looks wonderful? The Quicktime version of the trailer can be found here.

[Via MetaFilter]
The Turkey City Lexicon. Or, how to discuss some of the more commonplace traps a science fiction writer can fall into. Quoth Chairman Bruce:
Science fiction boasts many specialized critical terms. You can find a passel of these in Gary K Wolfe's CRITICAL TERMS FOR SCIENCE FICTION AND FANTASY: A GLOSSARY AND GUIDE TO SCHOLARSHIP (Greenwood Press, 1986). But you won't find them in here. This lexicon is not a guide to scholarship. The Workshop Lexicon is a guide (of sorts) for down-and-dirty hairy-knuckled sci-fi writers, the kind of ambitious subliterate guttersnipes who actually write and sell professional genre material. It's rough, rollicking, rule-of-thumb stuff suitable for shouting aloud while pounding the table.
For example:
"Call a Rabbit a Smeerp"
A cheap technique for false exoticism, in which common elements of the real world are re-named for a fantastic milieu without any real alteration in their basic nature or behavior. "Smeerps" are especially common in fantasy worlds, where people often ride exotic steeds that look and act just like horses. (Attributed to James Blish.)

[...]

Squid in the Mouth
The failure of an author to realize that his/her own weird assumptions and personal in-jokes are simply not shared by the world-at-large. Instead of applauding the wit or insight of the author's remarks, the world-at-large will stare in vague shock and alarm at such a writer, as if he or she had a live squid in the mouth.

Since SF writers as a breed are generally quite loony, and in fact make this a stock in trade, "squid in the mouth" doubles as a term of grudging praise, describing the essential, irreducible, divinely unpredictable lunacy of the true SF writer. (Attr. James P Blaylock)
[Via Boing Boing]
Steal Your Interface: A History. The story of the small software developers who tweaked the look and feel of MacOS and found their ideas gradually absorbed into MacOS proper.

The question that comes to mind is whether MacOS was really any different to Windows in this regard. After all, there's no shortage of third party developers beavering away to make Windows bearable. I think there's a big difference between Apple's approach and Microsoft's. Microsoft have tended to incorporate third-party functionality into Windows over the years rather than tweak their user interface. Until Windows XP, that is. But really, the Windows XP user interface isn't all that different to that of Windows 95/98/ME: it's more colourful and tries hard to "protect" the user from the complexities of what's going on under the hood, but the major point of confusion for a Windows 95 user confronted with an XP-based system is simply that so many options have been moved around or renamed. Before Windows XP the biggest change in the Windows user interface was the introduction of the "Active Desktop" and the incorporation of chunks of Internet Explorer into the Windows desktop. This was driven by Microsoft's strategy for killing Netscape rather than any desire to build on the innovations of an outside developer.

Unfortunately, Microsoft have rarely reproduced the full functionality of the third party products they've attempted to supplant. For example, for my money the file managers built into the various versions of Windows still haven't quite caught up with PowerDesk File Manager. But then, the Microsoft philosophy is to produce an imitation product which can be bundled with Windows or made available as a free download and will be just good enough to deter a Windows user from going out and spending money on someone else's full-featured product.

[Via ext|circ]
Monday 30 September 2002, 23:40 BST
Thinkofthechildren.co.uk is back. The site's author has decided to put the material about which the police received a complaint back up without informing his web host and see what happens next.

It's a very brave move. Will the police feel obliged to take action now their objection to the content has been made public? If they do, will the CPS decide there's enough evidence to support a court case? Or will his web host feel that he's abusing their generosity in permitting him to keep the site but remove the offending material and pull his site access completely this time round?

This story isn't over by a long chalk.
The NTK Demoraliser.
Introduction
Ever wanted to click thru NTK without all those sarcastic comments, geek injokes about GPL, python & lisp you'll never understand anyway, reviews for the new red KitKat (too crunchy, no flavor IMHO), the moralising about how soon we won't even be allowed to work out how our own letterboxes work & the postman will be a CCD or any context at all in which to understand the links?

Well now you can, with the new (very much beta version) NTK demoraliser; taking the moral bits out of NTK.
It's a very neat idea, nicely implemented. But for me the "moralising" is considerably more than half the fun of NTK. Using the "demoralised" NTK feels a lot like using RSS feeds to keep up with your favourite weblogs. I can understand using RSS to keep up with headlines at news sites and the like, but every time I've tried using a desktop RSS aggregator to read weblogs I find it a curiously taste-free experience. Perhaps it's true that "If you're not syndicating your site as RSS it might as well not exist", but I don't see it myself. I can certainly see that if you're in a job where you can do some weblog-reading throughout the day it's liable to be handy to be able to see post-by-post when your favourite webloggers add new content, but for those of us who mostly have to wait until we come home from work to do our weblog-reading (and writing) I don't see that an RSS feed is any real help.

(That's not to say that when I move over to using Movable Type I won't stick that "Syndicate This Site" link on the page. If others wish to monitor my updates via RSS then it's no skin off my nose to afford them the opportunity to do so. I'm currently fiddling with CSS and Movable Type templates at another site to which I'll be moving this weblog fairly soon now, so watch this space. At my new site you'll be able to comment on-site and tell me what I'm missing about RSS feeds. In the meantime, if you feel like persuading me that RSS is the future email me and tell me what I'm missing.)

[NTK Demoraliser via NTK]
Raising Hell is relaunched today. Spiffy new design, a couple of new writers, even more quality content on the trials and tribulations and pleasures of parenting. Good stuff.
The Cat-A-Pult. Not one for the sensitive cat lover. But damned funny.

[Via grayblog]
Teresa Nielsen Hayden has an editorial epiphany.
The James Webb Telescope is the successor to the Hubble telescope. I've been dimly aware that a follow-up to Hubble was in the works, but reading the FAQ at the site dedicated to the project formerly known as the "Next Generation Space Telescope" reveals that the Webb telescope is a much more ambitious project. Bearing in mind the repairs that were required after the Hubble was deployed, I just hope that deploying the Webb telescope out at the L2 point - way out of reach of the Shuttle - doesn't prove to be a really bad idea. (I know they need the telescope to be situated that far out in order to permit it to make decent infrared observations, but it's going to be really embarrassing if the damn thing ends up sitting out there needing only an astronaut with a screwdriver to fix it.)

[Via mssv.net]
Buffy the Theologian. An entertaining article on why open-minded Christians may find Buffy worthwhile viewing. (See also Christianity Today's take on the same topic.) NB/- both articles contain spoilers for BBC viewers.

The major problem with reading almost any article about Buffy is that it's just so easy to be seduced by the quotable quotes and forget just how strong the writing and acting is. But what the hell, I'm going to throw in some choice comments anyway:
[Re the Crucifixion]
Spike: "You were there? Oh, please! If every vampire who said he was at the crucifixion was actually there, it would have been like Woodstock. I was actually at Woodstock. That was a weird gig. I fed off a flower person, and I spent the next six hours watching my hand move."
Or:
Buffy: "I told one lie, I had one drink."

Giles: "Yes, and you were very nearly devoured by a giant demon snake. The words 'let that be a lesson' are a tad redundant at this juncture."
I want to be Giles when I grow up.

[Via MetaFilter]
Sunday 29 September 2002, 23:55 BST
The Forbes Fictional Fifteen. How come C Montgomery Burns doesn't even make the top 10? I suppose that's what he gets for giving away that trillion dollar note to Fidel Castro.
Guess who forgot to renew their .uk domain registration?

[Via NTK]
Fetish Map. It does exactly what it says on the tin.

[Via Making Light]
.sigfile fodder, courtesy of The Grey Bird Talks:
The speed of light is faster than the speed of sound... That's why some people appear smart until they open their mouths.
[Via The Grey Bird Talks]
Tonight's episode of College Girls suffered more than the earlier episodes from the approach of switching between two "storylines." I found that the story of Lucy's run for the presidency of the Oxford Union added little to what we'd been shown in the earlier episode about her attempt to win the vice-presidency. I wanted to know more about the reaction outside Lucy's circle to the finding that she had attempted to rig the earlier election.

It was suggested by the chap who acted as returning officer for the first election, and who ended up running against Lucy for the presidency second time round, that the decision to disqualify Lucy from the vice-presidential election we saw in the earlier episode was supported by "nine out of ten", but in the clip of his speech which we saw he didn't specify whether he meant 90% of whatever committee considered the complaints or 90% of the Union's electorate. Similarly, it wasn't clear whether Lucy's margin of victory in the presidential election of 100 votes, compared to a margin of 130 for the vice-presidency, represented a heartening confirmation of Lucy's bedrock popularity with her fellow students or simply a split of the anti-Lucy vote between the other two candidates.

Incidentally, I'd like to note that by the end of this episode I was heartily sick of people referring to the presidency of the Oxford Union as a nursery/stepping-stone for those on the way to the post of Prime Minister. So what if in 175 years five presidents have ended up moving into Number Ten? Five in 175 years isn't a terribly good strike rate.

Interesting as this electoral intrigue was, I'd much rather that they'd spent more time exploring how Afshan, who we last saw as a very homesick fresher in the first episodes, was getting on. It looked on the basis of the film we saw as if she'd found herself a niche among a group of fairly conservative Muslims and it was hinted that she was seen as something of a loner by her tutor. Whether this was because of Afshan's obvious shyness, a tendency to hang around with her co-religionists rather than join in with the rest of the student body, or something else entirely wasn't clear. It would have been interesting to see more on this, and much less on Lucy and her gang. I realise that the director was attempting to set up a contrast between the worlds of Lucy and Afshan, but we'd already seen plenty of Lucy so this time it should have been Afshan's turn to step into the limelight for an episode.

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