Friday, 29 February 2008

Keep your privates, private, says Italian court

Crotch groper From the Guardian 27.02.08: 

In a landmark judgement with far-reaching social implications, Italy's highest appeals court has ruled it is a criminal offence for Italian men to touch their genitals in public.

..[t]he ban did not just apply to brazen crotch-scratching, but also to what might be termed superstitious pre-emption. Anyone who has seen a hearse go past in Italy, or been part of a discussion in which some terrible illness or disaster is mentioned, will know it is traditional for men to ward off bad luck with a quick grab at what are delicately called their "attributi".

The court was ruling on the appeal of an unnamed 42-year-old workman from Como near Milan. In May 2006, he was convicted of indecent behaviour for "ostentatiously touching his genitals through his clothing". His lawyer said it was merely a "compulsive, involuntarily movement, probably to adjust his overalls".

The workman was ordered to pay a €200 fine and €1000 costs.

Oh Boy.  I can't help but feel slightly uneasy over this decision. I don't know the full case facts, admittedly, in particular exactly how ostentatious his gential touching was meant to be.  But what if he really WAS just adjusting his overalls?  Or trying to get his car keys out of his trouser pocket?  Anyone who's ever donned on a pair of overalls will vouch for the fact that have two layers on is never easy and adjustment is sometimes called for.  But the case does raise a good question: when does an innocent scratch, surreptitiously done become a indecent, criminal touching? 

Thursday, 28 February 2008

Facebook privacy update

Facebook Update From 21.02.08 

Social networking website Facebook claims to have fixed the privacy problems that have dogged it in recent weeks.

Users reported that it was impossible to delete all their information from the site, but Facebook says that total deletion is now possible.

There was an outcry when users discovered that they could leave Facebook, but that their details would remain on Facebook servers. The company said that this is in case users changed their minds and wanted to reactivate accounts.

Facebook, though, now says that it has introduced a method by which a user can permanently delete all of their information.

Let’s hope this represents a small step in the right direction but being unable to fully delete an account is a situation that should never have happened in the first place. The way people are using Facebook as a portal to throw up a plethora of personal information is nonetheless worrying. And there are so many doing so without stopping to think of the trail or ‘electronic footprint’ they are leaving behind, let alone giving thought to the repercussions. There should at least be more conspicuous warnings displayed on Facebook about the dangers of including personal details on the site. And while they’re at it, how about better access to the controls which users can adjust to limit others’ access to their personal details? While Facebook can’t be held responsible for people’s stupidity they surely owe a duty to highlight the dangers of their users’ actions.

In the computer room yesterday, I overheard a conversation which perfectly illustrated one of the main reasons why I despise Facebook.

"I've got 62 requests and they're all just....... nothing!” Oh great. Well worth visiting then and spending hours on the site. But it was still the first site she went to. I really give up with this one – I just don’t get Facebook’s mystical appeal.

But wait, there was more. She soon piped up with another belter: “oh and my friend joined the group that my cousin joined and that I joined and...”.  Yeah, whatever.  Let me guess, they’re all just..... nothing, right? A blatant waste of time and effort, building virtual cliques that are as desultory as they are irritating. And that's one of my biggest gripes about Facebook.  It's just aimless congregating of people, albeit in the online world. Not much better, though, than kids on street corners.

Wednesday, 27 February 2008

Security Toilet-Cameras

Security camera toilets From Mark Frauenfelder on Boing Boing, 26.02.08

Students at Lipson School in Plymouth UK returned from a one-week break to discover closed-circuit security cameras in the lavatories (They were "the round ones that can move," said one 15-year-old who saw them). After hundreds of students protested, the school agreed to remove the cameras.

I'm not sure I believe principal Steve Baker when he says he didn't know about the cameras, but if he's telling the truth, he should either fire the creep who ordered them to be installed, or he should resign in shame for not knowing what's going on in the school he is paid to oversee. However, Baker says he's not going to even discipline the unnamed miscreant who had the cameras installed. "It's a learning situation, not a disciplinary one," Baker said.

Principal Steve Baker said contractors fitted them on the orders of another staff member, who did not have the measure approved by him or school governors.

Mr Baker added that the system had now been disabled and would be removed as soon as possible.

He said: "Someone made an error. They had no authorisation from me or from the governors to install these cameras"

What the hell’s up with this? I seriously thought it was a joke when I first read it and I’m staggered that this hasn’t hit the news in a bigger way yet. I initially came across this on Boing Boing yesterday and traced it back to the source article, from the Daily Mail of all places. Well, there’s no accounting for taste.

But seriously? Tell me this is just an early April Fools’. Some random staff member saw fit to have security cameras installed in the pupils’ toilets and the school and contractors didn’t question it but rather looked the other way. The cameras, apparently, were installed as part of an ongoing surveillance system. But surveying what, that’s the question?

I’m gobsmacked over this, quite frankly. And that doesn’t happen very often.

Monday, 25 February 2008

'Plane' silliness: a double-bill

Take OffFrom The Times 25.02.08:

A British pilot has been dismissed for "buzzing" a control tower in a Top Gun-style stunt during the maiden flight of a Boeing jumbo jet.

Captain Ian Wilkinson astonished passengers by taking the 230-tonne Cathay Pacific jet to within 28ft (8.5m) of the ground shortly after take-off from Boeing's US manufacturing plant.

The 322mph fly-by was cheered by onlookers, and the pilot, who is said to be one of the most senior aviators with the airline, later toasted the flight with champagne.

Despite Captain Wilkinson being described as 'chummy' with the airline's top execs, he was foiled by captured video footage of his antics which was then posted on the internet.  It's suggested that in the circumstances, the airline would have turned a blind eye and attributed his showboating to being caught up in the excitement of the event.  Once the Hong Kong authorities got hold of that footage, of course, his career was as good as over.  Up until that point he was enjoying a £250,000 per year salary.  Shame.

From The Times 25.02.08:

Heathrow Airport was today investigating what appeared to be a serious security breach after four Greenpeace scaled an aircraft which had just landed after a domestic flight.

Greenpeace say that the protesters, two male and two female, climbed on top of the fuselage at 9.45am and mounted the roof of a British Airways Boeing 777 flight in Europe's busiest airport.

Police were this morning surrounding the aircraft. Greenpeace claimed that their demonstration, which the group described as an "incredible security breach", was ongoing.

What is it with Boeing 777s at Heathrow recently?  You’ve got to hand it to Greenpeace for perseverance at least, though.  After all, it’s not as though there are many options left open to them for new and outrageously thrilling ways in which to conduct their protests nowadays. The days of shocking us into sudden enlightenment as to the errors of our planet-destroying ways by leaping aboard foreign whaling vessels and the like are long gone, I fear.  We've seen it all before, Greenpeace, we really have.  Worthy, though their cause is, most people seem to have little time for them or their tactics. A bit tragic, really: despite frequently trying to justify their extreme and cavalier approach to protesting as being the only way to successfully make their point, it does them few favours in winning the public’s support.

It’s been said that the protest caused virtually zero disruption to travellers at Heathrow today, and the protesters did, bless ‘em, have the decency to wait until the passengers had disembarked before leaping aboard and raising their trusty banners. I’m just relieved they didn’t try and attempt a flyby to, you know, drive their message home.

Thursday, 21 February 2008

Facebook - You’ll Never Leave

Facebook Evil I just don’t ‘get’ Facebook, Myspace, Bebo and the other long list of candidates for the award of  ‘biggest online waste of space’. I never have understood the appeal and I never will. In fact, they drive me crazy as do the people who flock to those sites at every spare minute of their day. I have remained deliberately detached from such social networking sites and firm in my conviction to resist countless invitations and suggestions that I join up. Even if I wanted to – which I don’t – I couldn’t join now, anyway, through mere principle.

Anyway, given my palpable disgust of Facebook I was delighted to see that its popularity has dropped for the first time in 17 months on the Telegraph’s website:

But it still has 8.5 million users, making it the most visited social networking site in the UK, according to Neilsen Online, the internet research company.

MySpace also attracted 5 per cent fewer users in the period [December 2007-January 2008], from 5.3 million to 5.1 million, while Bebo came third with an audience of 4.1 million.

Nic Howell, the deputy editor of internet industry trade magazine New Media Age, said the figures indicated that Facebook’s popularity was in decline.

“This fall is a significant moment in the development of Facebook and potentially marks the high water mark of the site’s popularity in the UK.”

So although the novelty seems to be truly wearing off, I’m still gobsmacked by how long it’s lasted.

But it’s not just a case of me just choosing to be prudishly obtuse over these sites; there are real privacy concerns here. I’ve read many a lot of stuff recently relating to the difficulty people have experienced when trying to quit Facebook for good. For instance, the New York Times’ article on February 11th: How Sticky Is Membership on Facebook? Just Try Breaking Free:

“It’s like the Hotel California,” said Nipon Das, 34, a director at a biotechnology consulting firm in Manhattan, who tried unsuccessfully to delete his account this fall. “You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave.

And that’s just the tip of the privacy iceberg. Don’t even get me started about the flagrant disregard for online anonymity, with users being readily searchable and contactable by all and sundry registered with Facebook themselves. Those registrations, of course, could be under a pseudonym, by people using the site as a rich data base for fraudulent or sinister purposes. Factor into that the potential for online grooming and you’ve got a very dark side of the Facebook moon. I hate it.

I hope the world wakes up and smells the proverbial soon. Maybe then they’ll suddenly question what exactly all the fuss was about. ‘Pokes’ for instance - what’s the deal there?!? Seriously? It’s a just a website - get over it.

Wednesday, 20 February 2008

Parents' powers to check on paedos

Paedophile Picture From: The Times 18.02.08

A watered-down form of "Megan's law" is to be trialled in four police areas, giving parents the power to check with police whether people given regular unsupervised access to their children have convictions for paedophile offences.

Single mothers will be able to ask police whether potential boyfriends have child sex convictions before they start a relationship. Family members or neighbours who regularly look after children could also be checked.

Police and probation services will have discretion on what information is revealed in each case and disclosure will be carefully controlled. But it is understood that if children are thought to be at risk, parents and carers will be told.

Despite feeling that the whole ‘Megan’s Law’ idea relied on an over-simplification of the complex situations involved, I suppose that a trial like the one proposed is the best way to sample such an idea. It’ll be interesting to see how it fares and whether widespread adoption is a feasible option, without inciting mass public panic, a culture of obsessive checking and paranoia plus a repeat of the ‘naming and shaming’ debacles of a few years back. Going forwards too, I suppose, it’ll be another test to add to the growing list for determining the suitability of new partners. 

Tuesday, 19 February 2008

Quantum of Solace - the review

Quantum of Solace (red)

Once I’d heard that the recently announced 22nd Bond film was to adopt this title, I knew Ian Fleming’s short story would shoot to the top of my ‘to read list’. And so it did. I knew nothing of the plot or nature of the story, save for the fact it was a short novelette and inhabited the less popular end of the Bond-works collection.

Quantum of Solace is one of five short stories contained within ‘For your eyes only’. Taken as a whole, the anthology might be seen as a disjointed affair; each story stands almost entirely distinct from every other and the quality at times can feel a little patchy. Still, there’s no doubt that this compilation remains a fertile hotbed for Bond plot ideas.

While these short, unrounded and imbalanced Bond tales are far from being fully developed novels, they are by no means entirely abortive either. Each story stands as a microcosmic Bond tale but the trademark 007 ingredients are all there: death, good living, beautiful girls, exotic locations and intense emotions – you get the idea. If the idea of fast-tracked Bond action appeals – 007 thrust into new, dangerous and exotic scenarios without any superfluous padding – you’ll find rich pickings here.

Fleming was a talented and diverse writer. He had a tendency to experiment, to purposefully and deliberately leave his comfort zone and branch out into new genres or transcend an established formula. After all, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang stands a million miles apart from the hard-edged Bond novels. Adopting a female persona for ‘the spy who loved me’ is another case in point.

So what of the plot in Quantum of Solace? Bond has been asked to a dinner party in Nassau – a place he largely dislikes along with its inhabitants. The dinner party is no exception; he is surrounded by dull, gossipy middle-aged folk with whom he struggles to relate to. Bored with the futility of the idle and desultory dinner conversation, having been especially jaded by a rich Canadian and his wife - the Harvey Millers - he flippantly makes a throwaway remark about marrying an air stewardess, should he ever feel inclined to tie the knot.

Later, the guests disperse for coffee and liqueurs. With Bond trapped awkwardly into making small talk with the Governor of Nassau on a sofa with disconcertingly deep soft cushions – an apparent pet hate of Bond’s - his previous remark is revisited. The Governor proceeds to tell Bond a fascinating story from his earlier experiences in the civil service – about a socially and romantically inept colleague who fell desperately in love and hastily married an air stewardess. The tale is a tragic and surprising one.

The protagonist, Phillip Masters led a quiet, unvaried and lonely upbringing. He was emotionally undernourished in every sense. His first post in Nigeria exposed him to the most natural and effective interaction that he was to ever have with people – a fact made all the more tragic by his eventual return there. During a period of leave before starting his second secondment, he flew aboard an aircraft for the first time in his life and also met, sexy Welsh air stewardess, Rhoda Llewellyn. Within no time at all they had married and were living out in Bermuda were Masters was posted. Rhoda, presumably attracted by the quasi-excitement of her husband’s job was content and happy for the first few months. Masters, of course, was absolutely besotted from day one and couldn’t do enough to please his bride. But the happy days weren’t to last. She quickly tired of the area, and grew sick of the boredom and loneliness that pervaded her new life. It wasn't long before these feelings of discontent escalated to resentment and extended to the islanders around her and ultimately, even her husband. Having tried every trick under the sun to keep his wife occupied and content, he eventually wound up getting her a golf club membership. Shortly thereafter she met a rich playboy, Tattersall, and cruelly embarked on an open and sordid affair.

That was the last time he cheered for many a long day, perhaps for all his life. Almost at once she started 'going' with young Tattersall, and once started she went like the wind. And believe me, Mr. Bond" the Governor closed a fist and brought it softly down on the edge of the drinks table -"it was ghastly to see. She didn't make the smallest attempt to soften the blow or hide the affair in any way. She just took young Tattersall and hit Masters in the face with him, and went on hitting.

Masters fell to pieces and even attempted suicide. The Governor had tried a last ditch attempt to save him by posting him to Washington on assignment. While he was away, the affair died its death when Tattersall grew tired of Rhoda. Unperturbed in the prospect of winning her husband back and patching relations up with the locals, Rhoda knew how to manipulate people and situations to her advantage and do it well.

Masters, though, returned a changed man.

The Governor paused and looked reflectively over at Bond. He said: "You're not married, but I think it's the same with all relationships between a man and a woman. They can survive anything so long as some kind of basic humanity exists between the two people. When all kindness has gone, when one person obviously and sincerely doesn't care if the other is alive or dead, then it's just no good. That particular insult to the ego — worse, to the instinct of self‐preservation -can never be forgiven. I've noticed this in hundreds of marriages. I've seen flagrant infidelities patched up, I've seen crimes and even murder forgiven by the other party, let alone bankruptcy and every other form of social crime. Incurable disease, blindness, disaster — all these can be overcome. But never the death of common humanity in one of the partners. I've thought about this and I've invented a rather high‐sounding title for this basic factor in human relations. I have called it the Law of the Quantum of Solace."

Quantum of Solace — the amount of comfort. Yes, I suppose you could say that all love and friendship is based in the end on that. Human beings are very insecure. When the other person not only makes you feel insecure but actually seems to want to destroy you, it's obviously the end. The Quantum of Solace stands at zero. You've got to get away to save yourself.

And Masters did just that, or tried at least. He set out to destroy Rhoda in the only way he could: through silence and frigidity and a total denial of emotional contact for the remaining time in Bermuda.  A divorce was arranged for the when Masters’ secondment was to end but in the meantime, they kept up the facade of a happily married couple. He segregated their house, forbade her from certain rooms and while alone together, denied her existence entirely, save for requiring dinner at 8.00 each evening. And so it continued for a year. Shortly before that time was up, Rhoda set up an ‘appointment’ to see her husband. Having pleaded her case that she would soon be destitute, Masters made one compassionate concession and gifted the car and gramophone to his wife. Days later he left and the two were to never meet again. Rhoda tried to cash-in both assets, only to discover she had been tricked. Both the car and the gramophone had been bought on hire purchase and Masters was badly behind on the payments. Rhoda was destroyed.

After a several rough months during which Rhoda was forced to sell her soul as well as her body, a well-connected friend invited her to take up a job in a Canadian hotel. She fell on her feet and eventually married a hotel magnate and the two remained happily married and content ever since. Of course, the Governor lets slip at the end of the evening the identity of the parties.

Life's a devious business. Perhaps, for all the harm she'd done to Masters, Fate decided that she had paid back enough. Perhaps Masters's father and mother were the true guilty people. They turned Masters into an accident‐prone man. Inevitably he was involved in the emotional crash that was due to him and that they had conditioned him for. Fate had chosen Rhoda for its instrument. Now Fate reimbursed her for her services. Difficult to judge these things. Anyway, she made her Canadian very happy. I thought they both seemed happy tonight."

Bond laughed. Suddenly the violent dramatics of his own life seemed very hollow.

The story itself was gripping Fleming; the hard-hitting page-turning qualities that I’ve grown to love. Fleming had a clear point to make in the story. He wanted to explore relationships, notably those between husbands and wives – particularly when pushed to the limit or operating under a thundercloud of tension. When that final requisite element of humanity between two people disappears – when the relationship drops below the Quantum of Solace – the game is up. He looks at the interaction of jealously and inadequacy, coupled with feelings of entrapment, suffocation and boredom and how they can all play their part in the downward spiral of a relationship.

To some, it might present a grave, and uninviting tale. The Law of the Quantum of Solace is, after all, not concerned with the construction of something positive through love and marriage but rather the way a couple can tear apart each other through the same unity. Destruction and negativity is revealed as the flip side of the sanctity of marriage. An idea, perhaps, on which Fleming has many thoughts and much to say. (I previously picked up on a sagacious Fleming-ism in ‘Diamonds are Forever’:

James Bond: “Most marriages don’t add two people together. They subtract one from the other.”
Tiffany Case: “Maybe there’s something in that. But it depends what you want to add up to. Something human or something inhuman. You can’t be complete by yourself.”

Still, as a story it has much to offer and seeks to impart many wisdoms, cutting through the shrouds and obfuscation of complex relationship dynamics. In addition, the tale serves as a reality-check providing a healthy dose of perspective: how the carnage of a tumultuous relationship can prove every bit as destructive, evil and malevolent as the life and work of a paid assassin.  The importance of not judging a book by its cover is also brought strikingly to the fore, as Bond himself readily admits at the story’s end.

Quantum of Solace stands as a scrutiny of human behaviour, a tale that cuts right to the bone, examining inescapable truths through an uncomfortable aphorism. You won’t find classic Bond action scenes nor many of the other qualities that make up a typical Bond novel, but Fleming’s mastery for story telling more than makes up. It’s a fascinating, thought-provoking tale that I literally could not put down from beginning to end. Once a couple of pages in, the trademark Fleming brilliance for story telling becomes unmistakable and turns an unpromising opening scene in to a thrilling page-turner. Highly recommended.Star Review Bar small 4

Saturday, 16 February 2008

Fighting piracy - the wrong way

Illegal Download From The Times 12.02.08:

People who illegally download films and music will be cut off from the internet under new legislative proposals to be unveiled next week.

Internet service providers (ISPs) will be legally required to take action against users who access pirated material, The Times has learnt.

Users suspected of wrongly downloading films or music will receive a warning e-mail for the first offence, a suspension for the second infringement and the termination of their internet contract if caught a third time, under the most likely option to emerge from discussions about the new law.

Broadband companies who fail to enforce the “three-strikes” regime would be prosecuted and suspected customers’ details could be made available to the courts. The Government has yet to decide if information on offenders should be shared between ISPs.

My initial reaction to this news was far from positive. I just didn’t ‘get’ the logic in operation here – if indeed there is any - and to me, it merely smacked of absolute desperation. When trying to combat illegal activity where there is a supply/demand equation in operation, logic and experience says you target the source. Not only is that approach much more achievable, effective and in line with common sense but it prevents the need to clumsily wade in and target the end users who, whilst indirectly culpable in their own way, never gets to the root problem. A good analogy could be drawn with this and an illegal drug supply/taker situation.

So it’s come to this? After years of chasing the big bad pirates, the authorities have recognised that such an approach is failing. And failing miserably. But at least that target was a manageable one. Under these plans, instead of crime-fighting the perpetrators of the crime – the pirates themselves – the idea seems is based on simply palming the responsibility onto ISPs who are to take up the slack instead.

I appreciate, of course, that piracy is a big problem and that equally something must be done. But this? If the scheme was for ISPs to monitor users’ access and activities on known file-sharing sites per se – I can at least see a grain of logic behind it. But if large, infamous file sharing sites are the problem – and not the much vaster number of sites from which music and other files can be downloaded - why not tackle the problem directly and cut them off at the knees? Why not impose more stringent scrutiny of the management of such sites and the type of content it can host? Monitoring each internet user’s downloads in the UK seems to be the entirely wrong way of going about it. After all, supervising and scrutinising every single download is not only a verging on a logistical impossibility but poses a privacy nightmare as well.

Educating the public is also crucial. Download sites are always changing, new services and ideas are always being churned out. Clearly establishing to internet users exactly what constitutes an illegal download is an essential starting place.

Perhaps at a push, a scheme such as the one proposed could work for known black-listed file sharing sites and, say, peer to peer file sharing clients. But even here it would make more sense to target the hosts of the service, not the visitors. Failing that, you could argue that it would be more effective to go after the uploaders of illegal content; they are the more tech-savvy party after all and more aware of what they are doing. And what’s more, there are fewer of them. But targeting the visitors? That’s just wrong.

But, of course, it would never be as simple as that: file-sharing clients such as bit torrent and the like are used by many for the legitimate sharing of content which in no way represents an infringement of intellectual property rights nor does it constitute piracy.  A hard and fast banning of file-sharing clients is, therefore, absolutely the wrong way to tackle the problem .  After all, such clients represent an important technology and one that has been available online since the early days.  Banning the facility for all because of the illegitimate actions of a few is grossly unfair.  Fairly policing the use of such clients, then, would result in having to filter out the legal and legitimate files shares from the illegal ones.  And what a nightmare that would be.

In addition to having a fractured and illogical foundation, this proposed legislation is further fraught with difficulties, possible caveats and uncertainties. To name a few:

Can ISPs truly be trusted to keep users’ download information secure? What if someone moves ISPs – does their record move with them?

What about wireless piggy-backing – who is responsible? If there’s someone sat in your front garden with a laptop downloading music illegally, say, are the ISPs to hold the bill-payer responsible? Is it time to start criminalising the act of failing to secure your wireless network or just relying on low level, easily breakable WEP protection for instance.

If people sign up for telephone, internet, TV package etc. will they lose all their services if they were found guilty? That really is cutting them off at the knees.

Who will arbitrate disputed allegations – what is the appropriate body to do that?

In family situations where several people use the internet connection, is it fair to prohibit them all for the actions of one?

As the internet is becoming an increasingly essential utility, is it right to ban users entirely? If someone is found guilty of breaking a hosepipe restriction, their water is not turned off at the mains.

Will users seek to take advantage of the Wi-Fi hotspots for their downloading-fests instead?

With so much vagueness and ambiguity over the issue, I’m eager to see the proposed Green Paper when it’s unveiled next week.

Friday, 15 February 2008

Breath-test phone

Breath Phone From Times Online, Mousetrap Technologies 14.02.08:

From the school of products that remind you of your inadequacies (and hopefully prompt you to buy stuff) comes this phone that measures the smelliness of your breath.

All you do is hold the handset up to your mouth, blow briefly on a sensor at one end, and in ten seconds it rates your halitosis on a scale of one to ten – based on the sulphur content in your breath.

The phone, which is still a prototype and is not expected to come out until 2009 at the earliest, also measures heart rate, body fat, and can be used as a pedometre. (You put it in your pocket and it senses your leg movement, so the theory goes.)

Perhaps it should have an inbuilt garlic sensor too, for checking whether you're up to talking to people after a strongly seasoned meal.  And maybe the second-generation models can have a breath-freshening spray built in?  No?  Just a thought.

Wednesday, 13 February 2008

Safer Internet Day

Online Girl From BBC News 13/02/2008:

Safer Internet Day is being marked around Europe with events to educate
children and parents about net dangers.

Themed events will reveal the risks of sharing too much personal data
and warn children that their virtual friends may not be who they say they are.

Public events will encourage parents to oversee their children's online
life so they know who they are talking to.

Raising public awareness and promoting good, safe online practices is half the battle in combating internet dangers. Children, of course, are particularly vulnerable and focussing on educating that section of the internet-using public in ways of increasing net safety is a no-brainer. I've always argued that computer security software can only do so much; educating people in safer, more responsible online practices is largely much more effective. After all, prevention is much better than cure.

If an international awareness day helps to achieve these objects, then I'm all for it. Good stuff.

Monday, 11 February 2008

BBC iplayer goes from strength to strength

bbc iplayer From Personal Computer World 07/02/08:

The BBC's iPlayer service continues to prove extremely popular with UK viewers, according to media analyst Screen Digest.

A surge in iPlayer use has prompted Screen Digest to improve its forecasts for free-to-view (FTV) consumption in the UK to better reflect the emerging importance of the model in driving web TV services.

The first is the BBC's decision to migrate the iPlayer's focus away from a proprietary application download environment to an open access web streaming model which coincided with a significant rise in online viewers.

Screen Digest believes that the application-based strategies pursued by some UK broadcasters puts up an unnecessary barrier to initial consumer adoption, thereby hampering growth.

Secondly, moving to a Flash-based streaming platform offering full seven-day catch-up has been a critical move by the BBC, as it allows non-Windows users to access programming as well.

In many ways, I haven’t been surprised to see the iplayer take off in the way it has. Since its launch, I’ve been a big fan of the service and am finding it increasingly convenient. Rather than worry about setting the DVD recorder for certain BBC 1 shows that we’d ordinarily miss, we just watch them back on iplayer at a time when it’s convenient. I just wish ITV would really get their act together and produce a service with functionality that rivals iplayer. Their current offering remains a long way off that, believe me. Equally, I wish that all BBC2 content was available readily on iplayer as well as that originating from BBC1.

And for me, the definitive hater of bulky and resource-hogging software produced by all and sundry these days, I’m loving the fact there’s no ‘player’ to download; users on any platform can watch a streamed version that works wonderfully. For those who want longer term access, Windows users can download programmes for 30 days before expiration. Put together, these features add yet further elements of viewing convenience to iplayer which, at the end of the day, is what this sort of service is all about.

Highly recommended.

Sunday, 10 February 2008

The Law Actually Blog (blawg) review

Best of the Blawgs

Everyone seems to be jumping on this bandwagon recently, so I thought it was high time that the Law Actually blog joined in the fun. I’ve tried to adopt a different approach to the review process; instead of providing a heads-up of the content that each blawg has featured in the last week like so many blogs are doing, I provide a more holistic and longer-term review of a sample of blawgs I visit based on my experiences of the blawgs over time.

I've selected a bunch of the good, the bad and those that fade into mediocrity to give my unique take on who’s hot and who’s not in the blawging world right now.

So, in no particular order the Law Actually blawg review as of 10th Feb 2008:

Geeklawyer: Colourful and opinionated posts, Geeky’s a stalwart blawger who’s ‘been the course’. Undoubtedly on the essential blawg shortlist, his content is interesting, sometimes contentious, but Geeky’s never one to shy away from a controversy. You can count on Geeklawyer to tell it like it is without pulling any punches. Amusing anecdotes are peppered amongst more hardcore legal content. Downside: not the most prepossessing blawg out there but I guess content is king after all.

Legally Blonde in London: An entertaining and insightful blog from an LPC student, Susie’s blawg is what Law Actually perhaps should have been. My proclivity for wandering off at tangents scuppered any hope of that, though. Despite drowning in a sea of pink, the blog is nicely laid out with relevant and directional posts – mostly LPC related. Updated frequently and easy to read. Downside: doesn’t link to Law Actually. Nudge, nudge, Susie.

Law Minx: Prolific and popular, ‘Minxy’ as I continually dub her is the ‘ultimate blawgwatcher’ who’s always doing the rounds. Verbose in her posts, generous with her comments, Minxy’s the all-rounder of the blawging world who’s got it covered. Almost without exception, any post on a law student blawg will have a comment from Minxy. Downside: her posts can be a little lengthy.

Charon QC
: the ‘Daddy’ of the blawgs. Tenacious and multi-faceted, Charon’s energy and fearless spirit in delving into the abyss of legal content and multiplicity of topics is as admirable as it is concerning. Where does the guy get the energy? What with the podcasts as well, just thinking about the range and quantity of material ‘Good ol’ Charon’ covers just tires me out.

Android’s Reminiscences: Concise, punchy with ‘hidden depth’. I like this blawg at lot and is always a good read. Often quirky, you can ‘dip into’ Android’s blog without kissing goodbye to your lunch hour. Easy to read, varied posts – you’re guaranteed an interesting visit. With a streamlined design that’s minimalistic in layout, this blawg ticks all the right boxes.

The Diaries of UK Law Students: The content is varied, as is the quality and posting frequency, it’s a blog that’s never shrugged off its cobbled-together feel. Being crafted collectively by several law students is perhaps a good idea in theory but flawed in practice – at least here, anyway. Diaries of UK law students can be safely overlooked. Good Google rankings, though – never let it be said I don’t give credit where it’s due. ;-)

Legal Seagull: The new comer who’s hit the ground running and then stumbled to his knees. Infrequent yet insightful postings, the seagull’s worth a visit for new takes on regurgitated content.

Lost London Law Student: a fairly new blawg, but one that quickly established itself on my shortlist. Candid and no-nonsense opinion is coupled with a healthy dollop of unrepentant griping – all of which seem justified, understandable and entertaining.

Law Dent: down but not out? Having gone to ground for a few months, ‘the Dent’ has emerged albeit half-heartedly. I await a possible revival with interest.

Barrister 2 Be: the second coming. We all thought we’d seen the last of B2B but he’s back and more determined than ever. Insightful, intense and fascinating posts, B2B is a blawger who doesn’t hold back and reveals a good deal more than most about the struggles and strains of pre-practice life.

Baby Barrista: Over-hyped and over-rated, I don’t even link to it, and for good reason. Perhaps worth swinging by, for a quarterly check-in but no more. Quite frankly, I've better things to do with my time than read an entirely fictional account of a trainee barrister.

Asp Bites: Lesser-known by some blawgers out there, Asp is a great blawg: funny, well written and is never afraid to go off-topic. I swing by Asp’s blog regularly and am never disappointed. Highly recommended, Asp’s got breaking and topical news stories ably covered. A prolific poster who’s stood the test of the time and recently moved to blogger. Expect this blawg to go from strength the strength.

Legally Blonde: Quirky and fun to read, Elle’s dog, Theodore, is the cute blawg-dawg who features frequently in postings. Great for that light-hearted US blawg fix and straight-up, non-pretentious blurbs. With Theodore, of course.

Legal Lass: another good blog, written by a BVC student. Legal Lass is a regular poster renowned for frank accounts of her positive and not so positive experiences, with several doses of sound advice thrown in for good measure. Sadly, does not link to Law Actually but you can’t have everything I guess.

Friday, 8 February 2008

Rowan Williams’ debacle escalates further

rowan From The Telegraph 08/02/08:

“The Archbishop of Canterbury faced calls for his resignation today as bishops joined politicians in criticising his remarks supporting the adoption of sharia law in Britain.

To add to his woes, Lord Carey, his predecessor at Canterbury, and the Bishop of Rochester, the Rt Rev Michael Nazir-Ali, challenged his view that aspects of Islamic law could be incorporated into the English legal system.

The row erupted on Thursday when Dr Williams suggested the introduction of Muslim laws into the UK was "unavoidable".

I’ve been following this story carefully since it first emerged. Thus far, it’s gone down like a lead balloon and got the UK public up in arms in a way I’d almost forgotten they were capable of doing. What I still don’t get, of course, is why he broached such a nightmare subject anyway – at least using the sharia example that he did. As has been frequently pointed out, the subject of interaction between religions etc. is topical and worthy; launching straight in with the sharia example, though, was surely ill-advised.

Thursday, 7 February 2008

Leo Laporte: “Grandpa did not infect the computer with porn, Come on!?! Come on!?!”

Grandpa My consumption rate for podcasts has always been high. I’ve been on the Twit (this week in tech) podcast bandwagon for 2-3 years now but just recently, I’ve found myself listening to an unprecedented amount of content.

As well as my beloved Windows Weekly – I haven’t missed an episode since it launched in September 2006 –I’ve been tuning into Macbreak Weekly, The Tech Guy, Security Now and This Week in Tech. I’ve even listened to Jumping Monkeys (go, figure) but, somewhat worryingly, not This Week in Law. Well, you know how it is, blawgwatchers – there’s only so much law you can take in a working week. 

Tonight as I was finishing off listening to Leo Laporte’s The Tech Guy, there was a great call taken involving a woman and her husband who liked to email out jokes to friends and family they find on the internet. Just the text, mind you. On one occasion recently, when they emailed some jokes out to their son-in-law, he responded by alleging that they sent him a virus/spyware which not only infected his work computer, but also sent him to several ‘porno sites’. Lovely stuff.

Given all the facts, Leo gave short shrift to these arguments and concluded, correctly in my opinion, that the son-in-law was pis*ed with them over something else. Leo wisely asked if the son got a decent Christmas present last year to see if that was his gripe. The answer was amusing: yes he did but he’s not gonna get another.

The caller seemed genuinely innocent and had done everything you could expect: explained immediately to the son it was nothing to do with them, had her computer checked by a professional and ran anti-virus and anti-spyware software anyway. The son-in-law is now not talking to them, thus making life difficult considering there are grandkids involved. Maybe the son had gotton his computer infected with the nasty stuff having been on a self-inflicted porn-fest and sought an excuse to give to his partner: “Honestly, darling, that’s why my computer's weighed down with porn – your daddy sent it to me”. Like that’s going to help his cause.

Tuesday, 5 February 2008

You mean it’s Pancake Day TODAY?

Pancakes The whole Shove Tuesday/Pancake day thing almost passed me by this year. Having heard a few mumblings about pancakes throughout the day, it was only when I came in through the door this evening to be greeted by a room full of smoke and the smell of pancakes that I finally twigged.

My girlfriend is a self-professed pancake connoisseur and by extension, I’ve been exposed to a fair few p-cakes myself. So for us, Pancake Day is almost a non-event. Her reckoning is simple: as pancakes are such a sumptuous delicacy filled with magic and wondrous glory, why limit your intake to just one day. So we don’t.

Monday, 4 February 2008

Hit 'n' run with ... mobility scooter

Mobility Scooter From Yahoo News 03/02/08:

A 53-year-old man is being questioned by police in connection with a hit-and-run incident involving a mobility scooter which left an elderly woman woman needing hospital treatment.

Pensioner Audrey Lane, from Tewkesbury, Gloucestershire, was knocked down by an electric vehicle which drove off at less than 8mph.

The former Land Girl, 84, is still being treated in hospital for a broken leg and wrist.

The man could face charges of assault or dangerous driving under changes to the Road Traffic Act made two years ago.

Mrs Lane's son, Daniel, 59, said: "My mother was standing with her shopping in the High Street, waiting to cross the road. The next thing she knew, she had been hit from behind by this man on a mobility scooter. She was in the middle of the road lying on the floor and her shopping bag was thrown half-way across the street.

"She remembers the incident clearly. He told her, 'I can't stop. I'm busy', then went off.

I've always said that driving competency tests should be mandatory before someone is let loose in one of those contraptions.  A pedestrian who's had a near miss or even bruised skins from an encounter in the street or supermarket from one of those hot-rods will know exactly what I'm talking about.  And the beeping when they're reversing: what's all that about?!  They tend to be safest when in reverse; it's all the other times you've got to watch out, particularly if you treasure your toes.  Some users, of course, do treat them carefully and 'drive' them in a safe and responsible manner.  But there's no getting away from it, there's certainly others that don't.  I've personally seen mobility scooters get raced round the local streets by the over 60s as if they were Ducati 1098s in ways that would give Valentino Rossi a run for his money.  I guess it all had to all end in tears, sooner or later. 

Sunday, 3 February 2008

Microsoft & Yahoo Merger?

Yahoo & Microsoft Mugs I have to admit that when I first heard about this a few days ago, I was initially sceptical and very dubious of Microsoft’s proposed merger with Yahoo. My thinking here was that Microsoft was a big and ungainly monolith already, without adding additional baggage. Their MSN brand (since subsumed under the Windows Live umbrella) has solidly ticked-over, but never once truly snapped at Google’s heels.

Microsoft seemed to have lost its wow-factor in recent years and, with exception of Office 2007, its overwhelming successes have been few and far between. Of course, the cold-to-lukewarm reception that Vista enjoyed in its first year of availability is a case in point: of 250 million windows PCs sold, only 100 million were running Vista – leading the observer to the conclusion that 150 million or so machines must have shipped with the previous OS, Windows XP. And what a rocky and tumultuous road, that proved – getting Longhorn out of the door as I documented over a year ago: a meandering journey through 5 years of bumbling development, lack of direction and a culling of previously promised features.

The innumerable antitrust actions that the Redmond giant had been slapped with in the past decade must also be factored-in. Few regulators are prepared to give Microsoft the benefit of the doubt now, with Europe taking a particularly tough stance.

That said, Paul Thurrott makes a number of very interesting points and explains why, perhaps, the Microsoft/Yahoo merger is a major step forwards for both the company and the wider internet-surfing public alike. Without it, Microsoft may well continue losing ground against Google in the battle of the titans, with the latter going on to take over the world entirely. Or something like that.

But seriously, Paul’s analysis is usually right on the money. As he points out, “Google is a new kind of competitor and needs to be addressed differently.” Equally, Microsoft, unlike Google and Yahoo still doesn’t ‘get’ the internet, the way the online and computing world is heading and the whole ‘cloud computing’ concept that’s descending on the world right now. As he neatly sum-ups, Yahoo will bring a healthy attitude about platform-agnostic cloud computing to the insular world of Microsoft and, hopefully, inspire the company to reach for the future instead of just defending the past.”

Saturday, 2 February 2008

The Michael visits Oxford

Oxford-2 In keeping with my hectic 2008 travel schedule, Friday saw me visit this quaint city for a postgrad interview. I’ve done more ‘business' travelling in the last month than in all of my adult life.

Having never been to Oxford before, I wasn’t entire surely what to expect. My girlfriend seemed to picture a quaint and leisurely city, awash with culture and fine architecture. That’s at least partly true. What the filming of Inspector Morse didn’t reveal, however, was the sheer volume of traffic, people and exhaust fumes that plague Oxford. As we ‘Parked-n-rode’ across the city centre around noontime, we were both aghast at what a madhouse it seemed. Oxford must surely possess a greater quantity of buses and bus stops per square kilometre than anywhere else on earth. Even London seemed positively tranquil by comparison. Coupled with crazy pedestrians who seemed unable to grasp where roads begin and pavements end, kamikaze cyclists who seemed hell-bent on getting ploughed down by a bus, commuting through the city centre was hell on wheels.

The interview went well though. Small mercies and all that.

Friday, 1 February 2008

Kill Suicide Grooming Sites

Internet Suicide From Computer Active 21/01/08:

Papyrus, a charity dedicated to stopping young people committing suicide, said eight in 10 people in a Yougov survey it commissioned want the Government to act.

It said there has never been a successful UK prosecution for promoting suicide online. Currently, for a successful prosecution it is most likely that the victim has to meet face to face with the person who wishes to assist in his or her death.

Papyrus said the Government must respond to what it called a "clear public demand" for change in the law to make it illegal to groom young people through online websites and chat rooms to take their own lives.

I’m a fierce believer that the Internet should remain, as far as is possible, an unrestricted forum for free speech, opinion and information. That said, though, sites which dedicate themselves to the grooming of young people, promoting and provoking them into taking their own lives, stands for an assault on morality and the many benefits that the Internet brings. Surely, these sites and practices can never be justified under any circumstances. The nature and purpose of such sites obviously differ from genuinely informative web content that merely seeks to provide information related to suicide methods and, say, the repercussions of such actions. Providing untargeted information is one thing; preying on troubled, and easily-influenced young people is nothing short of demonic.

Attempts to outlaw any site connected to suicide would prove virtually impossible and is, perhaps, contrary to the ethos and nature of the Internet itself.  Still, I am very much for the removal of websites that methodically eek out and deliberately play on the vulnerability of young people, encouraging them into suicide. Other countries – most notably Australia - have proven that legislation remains an effective tool in combating such websites and perhaps it’s time the UK followed suit.  A review of the Suicide Act 1961 would be a good place to start.