Martin Empson

Open or Shut?

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Millions of Windows computers infected with the My Doom virus, major security flaws exposed in some systems and the leaking of some sections of the Windows source code will probably mean that among Microsoft executives February 2004 will be remembered as a bad month.

All this will also make many people question what it is about Microsoft‘s software that makes it so vulnerable. The answer lies partly in its practice of rushing software out so flawed that it requires huge updates as soon as it is installed.

This is why later versions of the Windows operating system continually check Microsoft‘s website for automatic updates - errors, bugs and problems are so common that it is simpler for Microsoft to build in a self update system rather than attempt to release better code.

Virtual Unity

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This month brings an email from an activist with the AUT at a major British university. He describes how email and the internet have become useful tools in their attempt to organise workers at the university.

He writes, 'We are of course in a good position in the AUT in that almost all members have email at work. However, with the spread of email I think the unions are missing out on a potentially very useful organising tool.' He goes on to add, 'Of course it is only one tool as part of a major improvement in branch activity recently, including recruitment stalls and a newsletter (on paper), but it is an important one.'

Speak Like a Blog

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The phenomenon of internet web diaries (blogs) recently hit the news through the activities of the 'Baghdad Blogger'.

Blogs are personal websites which allow a user to put regular comments, news items or stories online - rather like a public diary.

It's predicted that there will be over 5 million such sites by the time you read this.

A quick internet search puts you at the centre of the blogging community. Blogs attract readers through search engines and links from other blogs. So each blog sits at the heart of a spider's web of links to others of similar tastes or interests - forming an 'online community'.

Count the Cost

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As the number of Iraqi casualties increases on an almost daily basis, mainstream news coverage on the web seems to be restricted to fairly simplistic reports, barely covering the real events of the war.

So it's interesting that recently Yahoo! news has included in its related links a number of surprising websites.

First, the beautifully simple www.iraqometer.com - a site with a few graphics and some startling facts, including the number of bombs dropped on Iraq (39,600), the number of Iraqi soldiers killed (11,000) and the number of billions of dollars spent (98). Of course those figures increase regularly, but one statistic doesn't change - the number of sites of WMDs (0).

Talk isn't Cheap

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The recent decision by MSN, the huge Microsoft-owned internet provider, to stop access to its online chat rooms, made front page news across the globe.

When the internet first started to grow into more mainstream usage, one of the biggest attractions was the ability to talk with people all over the world. This quickly became one of the widest used facilities on the web. Many companies like MSN or Yahoo! offered the chance for users to communicate about any issue under the sun with thousands of others.

More recently, the cheap availability of webcams allowed chat to become more than simple text - now you could see and hear the person you talked with.

Data is Power

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'Distributed Computing' is one of the most interesting computing phenomena of recent years. Millions of people voluntarily take part in projects that use their computers to aid scientific research.

The original, and by far the widest used, is the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence, with over 4.5 million users worldwide. You can find out more at http://setiathome.ssl.berkeley.edu/.

Other projects involve the analysis of genes in the search for cancer cures at www.chem.ox.ac.uk/curecancer.html and mathematical data to model climate change at www.climateprediction.net.

Enough to Make You Sick

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In a recent online discussion, a 'pro-soldier' campaigner was ridiculing the US peace movement's protests. He claimed that in his city of Fort Wayne (population 250,000) a 'pro-soldier' campaign had gathered the support of one in ten of the population.

The aim of his argument was simple - that the pro-war lobby in the US dwarfed the peace movement by many magnitudes.

Dreams on Screen

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'It's been said that dreams are our road maps to the future. If so, where are we headed?' So starts the 'About Us' section of the Common Dreams website, www.commondreams.org

Since 1997 the people behind the website have been 'working to bring progressive Americans together to promote progressive visions for America's future'. They believe in 'using the internet as a political organising tool - and creating new models for internet activism'.

With this in mind, Common Dreams has created a daily news service that brings together a wide range of articles (mainly from mainstream US media, but with a smattering of other papers from across the world) of interest to the activist community.

Denying Dissent

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It has sometimes been difficult to find accurate information about what is actually happening in Iraq.

Embedded journalists only put a highly censored story. It is not surprising, then, that alternative news sources on the web have been the subject of intense debate and in some cases censorship. The nature of the internet makes websites particularly sensitive to attack or closure if their content doesn't meet the approval of the people whose computers run the site, or those with the skills to cause damage.

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