Rupert Goodwins' Diary

BT has its hyperlink patent claim thrown out of court, News Corp. takes a stand on the immorality of the Internet and Metafilter is back!

Monday 19/08/2002
Welcome back Metafilter (! There are lots of places on the Internet where people post sites trouvee, and a great deal of pleasure to be had in finding the lists that get the tastiest morsels first. It has practical benefits too: if you have an acquaintance who insists on emailing you endless lists of their finds, regardless of whether you find them interesting or not, they can soon be squelched by you telling them that you knew it already. Metafilter -- known to its fans as Mefi -- is great for that. Like all good sites, it has discussion areas for people to comment on finds and bring their own contexts to the party. Because Mefi's server was overburdened by the popularity of the site, it had stopped accepting new registrations and the place was in a form of stasis. A meatier server has now been procured, and new online blood is once again doing its cybercorpuscular thing. One example of the delights to be found: someone reported a news story from Italy where a couple were caught enjoying watery congress in a public swimming pool. "Stop that at once!" demanded the forces of public decency. "Not at all," said the man, "not until we've properly finished." The Mefi discussion started on the question of whether this was arrant machismo or enlightened sensitivity to the woman's needs, with undertones of "oh, those hot-blooded Latins." Up popped a Portuguese speaker, who said that Anglo-Saxons didn't know the half of it: he then provided a long list of phrases for different sorts of sexual intercourse (not the word he used) and the social expectations for behaviour during each. There's the 'fodhina' (the itsy-bitsy one), something of a quicky; the 'fodhina bom dia' (the good morning one) which takes advantage of the physiological consequences of a long sleep; the 'fodinha como-quem-não-quer-a-coisa' (I'm not going to translate) which is undertaken just before you go out for the evening and your partner is looking so nice you can't resist. The code for that one is that makeup and clothing mustn't be disturbed. Perhaps the one with the biggest potential, though, is the 'fodhina obrigada', or 'the thank-you one' where the requester's feeling like it but the requestee doesn't, and doesn't even pretend. These are seen as favours, our correspondent reports, counted and "owed". Like any form of commerce, this may lend itself to online arbitration and the invention of tokens -- "I promise to lay the bearer on demand" sort of thing. Given how much time and effort people spend using the Internet for sexual purposes, it can only a matter of time before e-commerce raises its ugly head. Tuesday 20/08/2002
I'm sure Monday's diary entry is the sort of thing that Peter Chernin's dead against. Speaking at a conference in the US organised by the Progress & Freedom Foundation -- why do these things have such overtly Stalinist names? -- Mr Chernin said that the Internet was a "moral-free zone" with vast amounts of pornography and "worthless content" online. Mr Chernin's day job is president of News Corp., a company owned by Rupert Murdoch, and his expertise in such matters is thus beyond reproach. However, he went on to say that the amoral lawlessness of the Internet was so profound as to prevent any of Murdoch's huge library of content -- he also owns 20th Century Fox and Fox Television -- ever being available online. Someone ought to tell him. Someone also ought to tell him that the Internet is self-correcting, and every case of mendacious falseness creates its opposite. An excellent case is the mesh of Web sites dedicated to quashing the somewhat sinister conspiracy theory that the American government and NASA joined forces to deceive the world by faking the Apollo moon landings. These never happened, say the revisionists, and proceed to offer various bits of evidence as backup -- photography, geology, astrophysics are all brought in. Seeing as the moon landings are probably the best-documented event in the history of mankind, with a billion watching at the time and NASA being a very open public institution, this is a remarkable claim. The evidence for it had better be pretty remarkable. It turns out that the evidence is indeed remarkable, but only in its rank bogusness down to the last datum. It only takes a moment's examination by someone who knows the first thing about any of the subjects. Nobody with an ounce of probity could possibly promulgate such daft ideas: that they have such currency is due in large part to a television documentary that purported to present the theories as if they were unanswerable truth -- mostly by making sure that anyone who knew what was going on didn't get within a light year of the camera. The documentary met with almost universal despair and disgust from the scientific community and huge amounts of perfectly argued refutation: the channel that produced it responded by repeating it as often as possible. Rank amoral commercialism? The maker of that channel is Fox Television. Tell it like it is, Pete. Wednesday 21/08/2002
I've never been entirely convinced about newspaper lists and competitions -- 500 Richest People, 100 Best Dressed Chickens, Wig Wearer Of The Year -- as there are so many ways to mess with the definitions and results, even if there was any point in the first place. But I guess they sell newspapers, encourage discussion and are reasonably harmless, for all the risks that they'll perpetuate stereotypes. Take the BBC's 100 Greatest Britons. Rather to my surprise, a full 20 percent of the list -- voted for by the public -- are of a scientific bent, even if some of the greatest names are absent as usual (Maxwell, Dirac, Mr Jenkinson of Penge and Sir Francis Bacon, his amazing anti-gravity tortoise). While some of these would top the list of anyone's collection of greatness -- Newton, Faraday, Watt -- you can't help but think a few years should go by before Hawking gets his guaranteed place in the panoply of secular saints. Others are more worth it. Everyone knows about Babbage (even Ada Lovelace has plays about her on Radio 4 these days), even if his lasting contribution to society may be better felt in the legislation against street musicians he got through Parliament than his designs for automatic calculation. Turing more than deserves the plaudits: he helped win the war, came up with ideas that are at the heart of what you're reading right now, and serves as a tragic icon of the unspeakable waste of life that bigotry engenders. And as for Tim Berners-Lee: right man, right place, right time. He'll be there with Gutenberg, inventor of moveable type, in the lists of great inventors for ages to come. He is, undeniably, the instigator of the popularisation of computer networks, and thus the person who gave them critical mass to change our lives. Of course, anyone so important can't stay British for long, so we might as well enjoy him while we can before Hollywood turns him into a Heartlands hero from downtown Philly. Thursday 22/08/2002
That didn't take long. In a lawsuit destined to be of no importance whatsoever to lawyers, BT's claim to have invented the hyperlink has been thrown out of court with some gusto. BT said that Prodigy, and by implication everyone else, was infringing a patent that described how data retrieved from the Net could contain an address to more data. The court said that the patent could in no way apply to the Internet, and that should be that. It won't merit even a footnote in the legal textbooks. But the court case has ramifications outside intellectual property law and the huge bill that BT will have to pay (and doesn't that phrase have a delicious irony?). Sir Christopher Bland had previously declined to admit that the case might be a bad idea. Why should BT be nice, he said. "The idea that we should abandon this suit in order to provide ISPs with a feel-good factor is, frankly, bizarre. Everyone sues all the time in the States, anyway." No, 'everyone doesn't sue all the time' in the US. And the idea that a company might want to express some form of responsibility to the wider community of its peers isn't something to be dismissed with such arrogant bluster. Those words of Sir Christopher will be remembered long after the case has been otherwise forgotten, a case which as the judge made clear had very little merit and should not have happened anyway. So why did it? Regardless of its technical prowess, BT's history from the moment of privatisation to date has been marked by bad judgement from the highest level, and this is evidence that the multiple car pileup of its corporate governance has yet to be cleared away from the motorway of progress. Its shareholders, assuming there are any left with the power of speech, should take note. Friday 23/08/2002
I'm up in Edinburgh, taking a break and trying like a hyperactive haggis to get tickets to anything worth seeing in the Festivals. As always, it's a scramble to find out what's any good before everyone else finds out, and then to get through the booking lines before you die of old age (or, in the case of the lines that play country music on hold, a mixture of apoplexy and ennui). Needless to say, I miss the good things and end up seeing Aberdonian performance nose art ("Blow by Blow, Picked by Picts") in some dank cellar next to a large and continually complaining Australian woman called Skanky Roberts. Which makes me think. On the one hand, a city full of frustrated culture vultures with credit cards: on the other, eBay. A canny scalper could pre-order blocks of tickets for most of the shows well before the festivals start, at a handsome discount, and more than make up for the ones that bomb by carefully releasing blocks of the unobtainable ones onto the market via the Web. At last, I shall make my fortune and have my pick of the finest entertainments available to bipeds. Now if you'll excuse me, my inspiration has run dry and I must pop out to the offie for more.