Weblog on the Internet and public policy, journalism, virtual community, and more from David Brake, a Canadian academic, consultant and journalist

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17 October 2003

Ever wanted to get several people coordinated across the world using a calendar? Microsoft Exchange lets you do this easily across the web (and has other useful features like the ability to automatically schedule events) but of course it costs money and using Outlook does make you more vulnerable to viruses. There are a couple of free solutions available, each with benefits and drawbacks. Of these the best two I have found are Localendar which looks slick and (if you are in the US) includes an interesting “see public events near you” feature. You can also add features like import/export to Palm or Outlook or a message board if you pay.

“Calendars.net”:http://www.calendars.net/ would be my choice. It looks very powerful – it lets you edit calendars offline (and sync with Palm or Outlook) using a separate Windows application – “iCal”:http://www.brownbearsw.com/ical/newical.htm – then upload them, and allows multiple security levels (so you can set certain groups with the ability to view, others who can post new events etc). It also supports email notification for events and works in different languages. The drawback is that it looks as if it might be somewhat complicated to get to grips with as a calendar administrator.

The only thing none of these calendars seem to do is allow you to automatically enter pre-set locations (meeting rooms etc) and schedule them or auto-schedule people if you know what their schedules look like. If anyone knows any free web-based software that does this I would be interested to hear about it!

15 October 2003

I wanted a USB data storage device, but it seemed a shame to get one that just did data storage. So I ended up with the Archos Ondio which has 128Mb of storage (but is expandable through MultimediaCards – yet another new storage format to deal with). But that’s not all…
* it’s also an MP3 player
* And has an FM radio…
* But (unlike most other similar players) you can record from the built in radio.
* And it is a voice recorder…
* But (unlike most other similar players) it also has a line-in jack so you can record streamed audio (or any other audio source like tape) directly into the device for later playback.
* And if you send it plain text files you can even read them on the built-in 112×64 pixel screen!
I am also happy that it works on AAA batteries instead of requiring a special charger.

Truly this is a Swiss army knife among USB storage devices!

Minor drawbacks I have come across so far
* I had some teething troubles getting the USB to connect to my home Win2k PC (but it worked trouble-free when connected to two other win2k computers, and the tech support guy I reached was pretty good)
* It did once cause a fatal system crash for no discernable reason when re-attached to a Win98 laptop.
* I can copy MP3 files over to it directly without trouble but the Musicmatch Jukebox software playlist copying doesn’t seem to function – I’ll be nagging tech support about that tomorrow.
* The radio doesn’t pull in the signal terribly well (it’s probably the last analogue radio I’ll buy!)
* The UI is a little clunky (perhaps not surprising since it is so small and has just 5 buttons to work with)
* It’s the size of a (small) mobile phone instead of being thumb-sized, but I’ve got reasonably big pockets.
* To connect it to USB you need to carry around a USB cable – it won’t plug in directly.

I’ve only had it for an afternoon so I may become more disillusioned later.

FWIW I bought it in the UK from Datamind for £120 inc VAT – the cheapest price I was able to find. I’m not amused to note it is $150 direct from Archos, but I thought having a UK supplier was worth a few quid.

P.S. Before you ask, I did consider buying a hard disk-type device instead but
1) The prices are still too high (around double?)
2) They are significantly larger/heavier and not solid state like this is.
3) I don’t think I really need that much portable storage at present and when I decide I do I can buy a storage card for it (and other things like cameras) once prices for those drop further.
4) The iPod doesn’t record or include a radio – what’s up with that?

14 October 2003

Like many other Moveable Type weblog owners I have been suffering from a recent onslaught of automated, offensive ads for porn posted as comments to messages. Jay Allen has just produced a “spam blocking tool for Moveable Type”:http://www.jayallen.org/projects/mt-blacklist/ which should help some – I fear this is not a final solution to the problem but merely the start of a depressing “arms race” between spammers and weblog users which may substantially reduce the usefulness of weblogs for everyone. In a way I am surprised this took this long to happen, people being what they are.

P.S. I apologise in advance if you accidentally stumble across any offensive links in comments – it will take me a while to get around to deleting all of them because at least for the moment there is no easy way for me to bulk-delete comments.

11 October 2003

I just read that Demos – an influential UK thinktank – has now put almost all of its catalogue up online for free download (using a “license”:http://www.demos.co.uk/aboutus/openaccess_page296.aspx derived from the “Creative Commons”:http://www.creativecommons.org/ license).

Worth a browse if you are a UK-based policy wonk…

10 October 2003
Filed under:Current affairs (Europe),Personal at1:57 pm

Just for a change I thought I’d give my wife a turn on this weblog – she has just written a piece in this week’s issue of The Lancet analysing why more than 4,800 people died because of August’s heatwave in France and drawing the medical community’s attention to the need for better preventative health measures in such emergencies as well as better care facilities.

[Later – apologies – I didn’t realise only subscribers can read it. FYI she concludes, “often medical and public attention focuses on intervention rather than prevention. However, a heatwave is different in nature from a very hot summer and requires a different approach. Doctors will know how to rehydrate patients but may not think about systematically providing practical tips to prevent heatstrokes. This is a lesson that up to now seems to be relearned with each new crisis.”]

9 October 2003

The UK Government’s “Strategy Unit”:http://www.number10.gov.uk/output/Page77.asp (a civil service department promoting forward planning) has just put out a report on “The Future of Social Exclusion”:http://www.number10.gov.uk/files/pdf/socexissues.pdf [PDF].

I am disappointed that it barely mentions the role of the digital divide and while it describes the gap (using figures that are four years old) it doesn’t say anything about how, in the Government’s view it has emerged, or what they intend to do about it. I know the Government is concerned about this issue – I hope the sketchiness of the response in this particular document is not representative of the priority the issue is now being given.

8 October 2003
Filed under:Broadband infrastructure at9:18 pm

An old mate of mine, Jupiter analyst “Ian Fogg”:http://weblogs.jupiterresearch.com/analysts/fogg/, quoted in “this BBC News story”:http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/technology/3174644.stm pours scorn on Tiscali’s new “150Kbps for £15.99 offer”:http://www.tiscali.co.uk/products/broadband/build/3xfaster.html. He says, “it won’t deliver rich content like video, audio, fast downloads, and online gaming” but I don’t buy this argument.

It’s true you can’t get decent video at that bandwidth, but it is perfectly adequate for audio and quite possibly for online gaming as well (where it isn’t the bandwidth but the latency that is important). And as for download speed – if a file is big you have to download it in the background anyway so a few more minutes here or there doesn’t matter much. I believe that this new product delivers most of what most people want from broadband – reasonable web browsing without watching the clock or tying up the phone. I think that’s consistent with the results of the “iSociety’s ethnographic research about broadband”:http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/technology/2504257.stm.

If Telewest offered a similar service I would likely downgrade to it – at least to see if I could live with it. I think the only real problem with it is the price which should be just under that psychological £15 a month mark.

7 October 2003

“A new survey”:http://users.ox.ac.uk/~oxis/index.html by the “Oxford Internet Institute”:http://www.oii.ox.ac.uk/ has provided some invaluable detail about the exact nature of the digital divide. I find the conclusions drawn in media reports as interesting as the data itself. The Guardian’s headline and opening paragraphs: Digitally divided by choice concentrate on the survey’s discovery that only 14 percent (mis-reported as four percent) of the UK population doesn’t have Internet access themselves and doesn’t at least know someone who could send an email for them.

It’s true that many of those who are not online themselves could get access at local libraries or ‘borrow’ Internet access from a friend, but without much first-hand experience of Internet access they are unlikely to understand what it could do for them.

The BBC: “Net ‘worth little to many Brits'”:http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/technology/3121950.stm gets more to the heart of the matter, though its headline is misleading – it should say something more like, ‘Net perceived as unimportant by many Brits’.

I think Tom Steinberg gets it exactly right when he “suggests”:http://partnerships.typepad.com/civic/2003/09/its_about_the_v.html that if 96% of Internet non-users don’t feel they are missing anything it is important that government and civil society organizations start giving them good reasons to get interested. I would add that the way the Internet is presented when it is discussed is also at fault. The Government depicts it as a way to learn and get employed, commercial organizations depict it as a place to shop and the news often depicts it as full of oddballs and paedophiles. There isn’t much room for discussion of how to use it to meet people (other than sexual partners), express yourself creatively or to organize politically.

It is worth noting that the questionnaire options for perceived disadvantages of lack of Internet access appear to be limited to: ‘could do job better [if I was online]’, ‘trouble being contacted’ and ‘disadvantaged at work’. Nothing about learning, information gathering or even saving money let alone political organizing as possible things someone might have missed out on.

The information available via the OII and news reports remains sketchy – the full results are due to be publicised and discussed “in Oxford on 22nd October”:http://www.oii.ox.ac.uk/events.shtml

Thanks to “Techdirt”:http://techdirt.com/articles/20030918/0047201.shtml for the link

6 October 2003

David Docherty may be self-serving in this Guardian article plugging “YooPublica”:http://www.yoomedia.com/Public_Sector.html his commercial public sector digital TV initiative, but that doesn’t mean his idea is wrong. He suggests that the people at the bottom of the ladder who will be the last to switch to digital TV should get Government-sponsored set top boxes that also deliver government services – essentially a return to the “business model” of Minitel, which became a widespread interactive service in France because it was subsidised by the government to replace the phone book (not that it did, but that’s another story).

Back in November I suggested that something like this would “be a good idea”:https://blog.org/archives/cat_egovernment.html#000540 and if I hadn’t been busy on other things I always meant to write something for a think tank suggesting it. Glad to see someone else out there had a similar idea and is trying to make it happen.

5 October 2003

A new, more computerised television production system being tested at the BBC could help feed the organization’s promised “Creative Archive”:https://blog.org/archives/cat_online_media.html#000861 of publicly-downloadable BBC content. Among the new capabilities on offer:

New footage will be catalogued after it is shot, so different producers can access the same content simultaneously.

“In theory, all newly shot material will be digitised so it can be made available to all BBC programme makers. Think of the advantage: you don’t have to go to an editing suite with four hundred tapes,” Ms Romaine [the BBC’s director of production modernisation] explained.

Computer-based production can allow programmes to be enhanced with additional information (metadata) enabling archiving and content searches based on internet technology.

One might think this sort of thing would already be routine in a large, well-resourced organization like the BBC, but it’s hard to change complex production processes to keep up with the changes that technology makes possible. I hope this experiment proves successful, because it is not until new production techniques like this one become routine that the Creative Archive will really start to take off.

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