"Trustworthy Computing"?

April 17th, 2003

Some versions of Microsoft Office 2000 have started demanding that the user enter a registration code, a couple of years after the user's employer bought a site license for the software in the first place. This is the result of a bug in the Office Registration Wizard, and so far the only solutions seem to be to a) not shut down Office, b) set your PC's clock back two years (thereby screwing up the timestamp on all your files) or c) take a deep breath and manually edit some Registry settings. Naturally, Microsoft say they're "working on" a better solution.

Irritating as this turn of events would be for an individual Office user, it's (literally!) a thousand times worse for a business with licensed copies of Office on every user's desktop. Next time Microsoft, or anyone else, suggest that Digital Rights Management software is a good idea, we should all remember this story as an illustration of the effects of software which treats the user as guilty until proven innocent.

[Via Slashdot]

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Ted Chiang interviewed

April 17th, 2003

Infinity Plus has posted an interview with Ted Chiang which originally appeared in Interzone last September. Chiang is far from prolific – his entire published output over twelve years amounts to just eight short stories, collected last year as Stories of Your Life and Others – but he's one of the most intriguing SF writers currently working. Some of his stories involve taking a distinctly non-scientific idea – the Tower of Babel, the existence of angels, the ability to create golems – and depicting a world where it's a matter of hard, scientific fact. Others explore what happens when the protagonist finds out that the world doesn't work in quite the way science leads them to expect.

Then there are stories which don't fit either category: Liking What You See: A Documentary describes the debate which arises on a campus where it's proposed that students should be required to undergo a (reversible) treatment which suppresses the student's reaction to human appearance. This last story is reminiscent of the sort of work Greg Egan does at his best (i.e. at shorter lengths – I'm not very taken with Egan's novels), except that with Chiang's story you don't need a physics text at hand to understand what's going on and there's a deeper understanding of the politics (with a small "p") of rolling out scientific breakthroughs into the world at large.

Re-reading, I see that the previous paragraph makes it sound as if Chiang is another purveyor of cool gimmick stories which pay little attention to real, flesh and blood people. That certainly isn't the case. Chiang's characters are very believable, reacting to some of the strange situations they find themselves in all too human ways.

I have no idea how well Chiang's distinctive approach to exploring ideas would work at novel length, but I'd love to see him try. Or, failing that, hurry up and have some more ideas for short stories.

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The Ambient Orb

April 17th, 2003

The Ambient Orb sits on your desktop – that's your physical desktop, not the virtual one on your computer's screen – and monitors data flowing across a wireless connection, changing colour according to fluctuations in your share portfolio's value, or who has just sent you an email, or changes in the weather forecast. Unfortunately, you have to plug it into an external power supply, which rather defeats the "wireless" aspect of the device's appeal. Still, it's a neat idea and no doubt in time the designers will adapt some of the technologies used in mobile phones to allow it to be used on the move.

I think I'd prefer to see someone develop this idea into a screen saver-type application for a personal computer, so that the display could change to notify you when an important email (say, one from someone in the "Friends & Family" folder in your address book) arrived.

Come to think of it, since Mail.app can already be set up to run different AppleScripts according to which rule an incoming email triggered, I'm pretty sure someone with more programming skills than I possess could write a screen saver which could respond to changes in its parameters made by an AppleScript triggered by an incoming email and display an appropriate image on-screen to let me know that an important email had arrived. A quick google didn't reveal anything resembling this on the web, but surely it's such an obvious idea that someone must have tried it. Has anyone seen anything like this?

[Via MetaFilter]

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The New Canon?

April 17th, 2003

What films do cinephiles under 30 think make up the new canon? Critic Ty Burr has been asking film students for their nominations.

  1. Pulp Fiction (1994)
  2. The Godfather (1972)
  3. Fight Club (1999)
  4. Run Lola Run (1998)
  5. Amelie (2001)
  6. 12 Monkeys (1995) and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998)
  7. The Big Lebowski (1998)
  8. Memento (2000)
  9. Boogie Nights (1997) and Magnolia (1999)
  10. The Matrix (1999)

Not a bad list by any means, though I can't help wondering whether The Matrix, enormous fun as it is, will have the sort of staying power The Godfather has shown. Burr's article offers useful insights into the reasons the older "classics" have lost much of their meaning for younger viewers:

For younger audiences of today, the comparable hits of mom and dad's heyday aren't nearly as compelling; again, the dour, determinist Kubrick is the telling exception. The groundbreaking films of the 1960s and 1970s – Midnight Cowboy, The Graduate, Bonnie and Clyde, Easy Rider – have visually dated: black and white may be forever, but a color film from 1969 now just looks like a red, grainy washout. Worse, what was terribly nouveau back then now often appears to be terribly normal. Says Run Lola Run director Tykwer: "It's not sensational anymore to see a couple that has an equal relationship with each other, like in Godard's Breathless. Back then, films were poking wounds, but those wounds don't bleed anymore. The issues have just changed."

[Via MetaFilter]

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Dancing Chalkboards

April 16th, 2003

Dancing Chalkboards is how every Maths lecture should start. Somehow I doubt that the motors driving them could take the strain, but it'd be fun while it lasted.

(NB/- the link points to a 2.8MB RealMovie file, mirrored from this site – but it's well worth the download.)

[Via Jejune.net]

2 Comments »

I want Piles!

April 15th, 2003

Bruce Tognazzini has some suggestions for Apple if they wish to regain the lead they once held in the design of user interfaces.

I'm not wild about the notion of a gestural interface, but I do like the notion of enhancements to the files-and-folders structure we're all used to like Piles, File Cabinets and Scrapbooks, and to the use of visual cues as to the contents of folders.

[Via Interconnected]

4 Comments »

X-Men 2 poster

April 15th, 2003

The latest poster for X-Men 2 looks very nice indeed. Suddenly I know exactly how Francis feels.

[Link to poster via Ain't It Cool News, which was in turn found via I Love Everything]

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Safari progress report

April 15th, 2003

After playing with Safari Public Beta 2's tabbed browsing, I was a little disappointed that opening a link from another application caused Safari to open a new window, rather than add a new tab to an existing window. Happily, there is a solution.

After a day with Safari as my default browser, I'm very impressed. I can launch a folder-full of links with one click, I have working tabbed browsing, and so far I've noticed only a couple of minor quirks in the rendering of the sites I've visited. I'm going to have to check out my online banking and shopping haunts to make sure Safari can cope with their little quirks, but so far Safari's looking very promising indeed.

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Now with tabbed browsing…

April 14th, 2003

Apple have released Public Beta 2 of Safari, the first public release to incorporate tabbed browsing.

Tabbed browsing was far and away the single feature I missed most when I tried Safari immediately after my iMac arrived. My brief test drive earlier this evening looked promising, so it's time to change default browsers for a week or two and see how Safari handles in daily use.

7 Comments »

Pun alert

April 14th, 2003

Over on rec.arts.sf.fandom a few days ago, Harry Payne perpetrated a truly evil pun. (I mean that in a good way, of course):

From: Harry Payne (Harry@menageri.org.uk)
Subject: Re: TV science
Newsgroups: rec.arts.sf.fandom
Date: 2003-04-07 15:57:02 PST

Mark Jones  writted:
>djheydt@kithrup.com (Dorothy J Heydt), 
>on or about Sat, 5 Apr 2003 20:18:48 GMT,
>did you or did you not state:

>>The only other thing I've seen of his was 
>>_Sense and Sensibility._
>>Now that was marvelous.
>
>Then maybe you'll like his film of 
>_The Hulk_ from Marvel Comics.

"Don't make him Ang Lee..."
-- 
Harry

I hope the film is half as entertaining.

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Bang!

April 14th, 2003

When I read about the finalists in Privacy International's Stupid Security Contest the other day, I somehow missed this little gem:

MOST COUNTER-PRODUCTIVE
RUNNER-UP: SAN FRANCISCO INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT

Shortly after Richard Reid's attempt to light his shoes, I boarded a flight from San Francisco to London on British Airways. Travelling alone, I was singled out by the computer for further inspection. The polite inspector informed me that he had to check my shoes for explosives. I dutifully removed them and handed them to him. He picked them up one by one and slammed them down on the floor with full force.

Apparently, as they hadn't exploded, they were not dangerous, and he handed them back to me to put back on.

Let this be a warning to future terrorists. Your explosive shoes may go off in the crowded departure lounge instead of on board the plane.

[Via Electrolite]

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"Best practice"?

April 13th, 2003

Does anyone else find it strange that the site promoting the Webby Awards, which include a category for "Best Practices" which appears to set out to recognise sites which are reasonably accessible, uses Javascript to open links to the nominated sites?

(Just for the record, it's not that I'm some sort of luddite who refuses to browse with Javascript enabled. If Javascript is the only way to pull something off and you expect that visitors to your site will be browsing with Javascript turned on, go for it. The problem is that the Javascript links on the Webby Awards site re-use the same window for each link you click on, so that if you click on three links in succession intending to open up three windows you'll only see the last of the sites appear. If they'd used a normal hyperlink this would have allowed users to open windows to several sites at once by using the Open In New Window command available in pretty much every modern graphical browser. By wrapping the URL of the linked site in Javascript they've ensured that we can't use the tools our browsers give us. This is not "best practice" by any sensible definition of the term.)

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Cool

April 12th, 2003

Reading demon.service this afternoon while seeking information about the loss of routing which stopped me from posting last night, I came across this post from Greg Lawton describing a rather neat feature which you just don't see on modern computers.

My favourite memory is of visiting Apricot in Birmingham in my first week, and meeting Pete White, the UNIX guru there. I asked him why the FT had such a big gap between the front armoured door protecting the drive bays, and the bays themselves.

At which point he turned around, and opened one he had behind him, to reveal four cans of Heinekin neatly stacked behind the door, chilled to perfection by the brutes efficient cooling system.

Apparently, the gap was part of the design spec for thirsty techies to
have somewhere to hide their emergency refreshment in the datacentre.

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Sleep well

April 12th, 2003

That nice Mr Stross is doing his level best to ensure that we all sleep a little less well at night. On suggestions that SARS might have been created by artificial means:

Here's a random thought: SARS showed up first in China and Hong Kong, but spread fairly rapidly in the direction of the US via air transport routes. What country in the region (a) doesn't get on very well with the Chinese government these days, (b) isn't likely to be very worried about a contagious disease like SARS because its own citizens aren't very mobile, (c) is known to be dicking around with other weapons of mass destruction, and (d) is also pissed off with the Russians right now?

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The Elements

April 12th, 2003

Nico discovered this magnificent Flash animation, accompanying Tom Lehrer's The Elements, by Mike Stanfill. Sheer class. I'd love to see what he could do with Poisoning Pigeons in the Park.

[Via my 2p]

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Ex Astris Scienta

April 10th, 2003

Further to Monday's post about the Starship Dimensions site, while reading a MetaFilter post about the site I came across a reference to another site with a similar aim. Ex Astris Scientia concentrates on measuring and comparing Star Trek ships, but it's still an impressive effort.

1 Comment »

Oops

April 10th, 2003

Apparently a knife thrower appearing on ITV's This Morning today got a little sloppy and nicked his assistant whilst trying to see how many knives he could throw in the space of sixty seconds. No serious damage done, fortunately, but I did like this comment from the BBC report of the incident:

Ms Rodianova, who bears two scars from previously misdirected throws, says she wants to concentrate on her hula hoop act.

Fancy that.

1 Comment »

Pitch Black

April 10th, 2003

Not much to post about this evening, as I spent much of my free time watching Pitch Black, which I picked up cheaply on DVD. Various people had told me I'd like it, and they were right. At one level it's an utterly routine sci-fi monster movie, a second cousin to Aliens only without the body horror elements. The thing is, it's a very well done SF monster movie, with special effects and photography which did a good job of suggesting an alien landcape, plus a script which deftly sketches a number of distinctive characters who just manage to engage our sympathies before the slaughter starts. It helps that at the time none of the cast were exactly well known at the time, so you were never entirely sure who'll be killed off. (Mind you, it was odd to see Claudia Black in a minor role here, sporting more of an Aussie accent and less of a badass attitude than her character in Farscape. Officer Sun would have kicked Riddick's butt.)

All in all, Pitch Black did an efficient job of ratcheting up the tension and scaring the bejesus out of me a few times, which is all I ask of my B-movies.

I can understand why the producers want to get Vin Diesel back to reprise his role in a sequel, but the fact that Akiva "Lost In Space/Batman & Robin" Goldsman is writing the script this time round is a very bad sign indeed. Besides, I'm not sure I want to know much abour Riddick's origins: he worked perfectly well as an enigmatic psychopath in the original film.

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Aurora from above

April 9th, 2003

I'd always wondered what an aurora would look like from above. Thanks to this spectacular Astronomy Picture of the Day, taken from the vantage point of the International Space Station, I now have my answer.

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Christopher Priest Interviewed

April 9th, 2003

Infinity Plus has a worthwhile interview with Christopher Priest, originally published in Interzone last October. The focus is very much on his later works, and particularly The Separation, Priest's most recent novel.

The more I read about The Separation the more intriguing it sounds. Another one for the to-read pile, I think.

1 Comment »

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