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Uncertain futures


Monday, November 26, 2001

New UK law 'outlawing religious hatred' may backfire

The BBC and Telegraph report that the government has overcome Conservative and Liberal Democrat opposition to pass the anti-incitement measures by 328 votes to 209. But further opposition is likely in the Lords, the UK's upper chamber. The real test though will come later in the courts, if government get this measure through.

The government's intentions here are honourable - to prevent relations between the UK's different ethnic and religious groups deteriorating further following the stress caused by attacks of 11th of September and the subsequent Afghan war. It has decided to do this by making it an offense to say bad things about (or even mock) people's religion.

The real issue here isn't whether this is an attack on free speech (it obviously is), but whether it will work as intended. What amazes me is that the proponents of this bill haven't learnt anything from what has happened elsewhere - and in particular in India, where a very similar law was introduced.

Far from promoting peace and harmony, it produced much rancour and ill-feeling.

For example, in 1985 one Chandmal Chopra asked a court in Calcutta to prohibit publication of the Koran on the grounds that it urged readers to fight against followers of other faiths. He didn't succeed, but much poisonous propaganda was produced on both sides. (the story from a pro-Hindu pro-Chopra perspective)

It's hard not to conclude that the reason why we are getting this ill-thought-out law now in the UK is because Labour politicians on the whole aren't very well informed about religion. Indeed, they are so ignorant on what's contained even in mainstream Christian Jewish and Islamic scripture (plenty more examples of incitement to hatred, ethnic cleansing and even murder) that they are blithely going ahead and outlawing sentiments that many revered religious figures have expressed.

Apart from anything else, if this law is passed we are likely to see an enormous waste of court time, as religious scholars on all sides patiencely seek to demonstrate the wickedness of their rivals. This is unlikely to help harmony and order among her majesty's subjects.

Tuesday, November 13, 2001

Will travel fears drive a boom in web conferencing?
To some extent. But don't expect a monster conferencing boom.

Given recent events, it's not surprising that fear of flying is more intense than ever. While airlines, hotel industry and tour companies suffer, some technology vendors are benefiting.

Frost & Sullivan (http://conferencing.frost.com) has just released a report saying that it expects revenues for videoconferencing equipment and videoconferencing services to rise 25 to 50 percent in the next few months.

In a way it's surprising that the uptake of videoconferencing isn't more dramatic.
But videoconferencing has a chequered history and has seen many false dawns in the past.

Ever since AT&T unveiled a 'Picturephone' at the 1964 World Fair in New York it's been one of those futuristic things that is always about to achieve a massive breakthrough, but somehow never does. However, each wave of effort does push the technology forward and conquers a few more niches.

High-end videoconferencing systems are now well established in large corporations, and the porn industry has been enthusiastically proving that the low-cost stuff works well enough to even build a business around ever since the arrival of CU-SeeMe software for the Internet in 1994.

But the big winner now may not be videoconferencing, but other technologies that help reduce the need for travel less directly. For anyone looking for ways of making fewer physical journeys there is now plenty of software and services that can help. Secure file-sharing software (such as Aimster), quick-and-simple discussion forums (such as Quicktopic) and fully-fledged team collaboration systems (such as Groove) are all now cheap and readily available. And of course, people may simply use email and the phone more.

And though business people may travel less, they will still travel. While consumers can often alter their holiday plans to eliminate scary flights, for many businesses doing without flying is virtually impossible. Face-to-face meetings are hard to replace if you really want to know what's going on at far-flung business units and in the minds of key customers and trading partners.

What's likely to happen is that travel substitutes will come in at the margin, reducing the number and frequency of physical follow up meetings and eliminating unnecessary jaunts. Budget cuts caused by the recession are driving this trend as much as individuals' fear of flying.

Friday, November 02, 2001

UK to relax policing of cannabis

Cannabis is to be reclassified as a softer drug under new British government proposals. The changes, which are almost certain to go through, should lead to far fewer arrests of ordinary users. The main motive - apart from the fact the present policy has done nothing to reduce drug consumption, seems to be to free up police time.

'In 1999, nearly 70 per cent of people arrested for drugs offences in Britain were charged with possession of cannabis', according to the New Scientist. 'Processing each offender can take a police officer up to three hours.'

Though the change is being presented as an opportunity to concentrate more resources against crack and heroin suppliers, it's hard not to see the knock-on effects of the war on terrorism in the timing. In the present climate chasing harmless potheads hardly seems an urgent priority.

An ICM poll carried out for the Guardian newspaper indicated strong public backing for the relaxation proposals, with all but the oldest age group (65 plus) in favour.

Better flight security: leave the luggage off the plane

Forget armoured cockpit doors - what about passengers' luggage?

'Now that suicide is part of the standard terror system', writes noted science fiction author David Brin, 'it is no longer enough to make sure that every passenger who checked luggage gets on the plane. I consider this to be the next big problem. We should be letting people fly... but maybe not their bags.'

Thursday, November 01, 2001

Renting images and button bars for web sites

I've not posted for a few days as I've been spending time on developing my new web site. In the process I've been looking for tools to do the job more effectively.

I'm currently looking at style sheet editors and discussion forum software, and will update you in due course if I come across anything outstanding.

Meanwhile though here's one idea - which though fascinating, I don't think I'm going to take up.

Xara makes graphic software - very good software. I spent many happy hours a couple of years ago playing with Xara 3D, which makes 3D and animated images out of text you just type in. But Xara's latest thing is to offer to rent people use of their software, and host the resulting images on their own servers.

The idea does make some kind of sense. Most people only need to use sophisticated graphics software occasionally to do things like create logos, navigation buttons or unusual images for their web sites. Using modern software that automates the task rather than labouring with an old copy of Paint Shop Pro does seem quite attractive.

Xara's offer to host the resulting images on their own servers in return for a predictable flat monthly fee also makes a kind of sense. It's usually serving up images that bust the bandwidth limits imposed by most ISPs.

But the problem, like with most ASP, web services or outsourcing offers, is whether you are willing to trust other people with your data. For example, Xara's software can produce some great button bars which you could use for navigation on your site. But what happens if Xara's server goes down or the company folds?

At least if you do things the conventional way you can keep backups and, if you are really worried about service continuity, set up a mirror site. So, I don't think I'll be beating a path to Xara's door on this one. Instead I'm playing around with Webstyle, one of their conventional software packages which looks like it can do a mean navigation bar.

But I may well end up deciding the whole thing is graphics overkill, and see what I can do with just CSS style sheets, which a lot of people seem to be using on some nice-looking sites these days.

Free 3D headings maker does just a few styles, but you can right-click on them and save them to your hard disk, then use them on your web site in a conventional way.

The more wacky (and expensive: $5 a month) Xara effects: water droplets and this lens moving over an image. The snow one's good - it follows your mouse.

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