Martin Empson

Waves on the Web

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For the left, the media has always been a battleground - on the one hand multinational media empires directing the editorial content of newspapers, television and the radio, and on the other ordinary people, trade unionists, campaigners or activists, trying to get their point of view across.

The advent of the internet led many to believe that this would change. Certainly the web has allowed many more people to put their point of view across, inform and educate. Unfortunately things aren't that simple - the major news and comment pages on the internet are still those of big business or the normal major media players. So while we shouldn't have illusions that alternative news sources are going to change this unequal relationship, we should advocate and encourage their use.

Watch for the Googly

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Many people who work in computing find the fact that millions of people continue to use Microsoft's ubiquitous email service Hotmail a constant source of frustration and surprise.

Not only does it seem particularly prone to spam, but it has limited storage capacity and Microsoft has been accused in the past of passing email details onto other companies.

However Microsoft's near monopoly almost guarantees people will use its email service, and if they don't Microsoft makes it hard for them. The only type of web email that Windows' built-in email reader Outlook Express can automatically configure is - you guessed it, Hotmail.

Pick Your Site

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The 20th anniversary of the miners' strike offers an opportunity to examine how the internet has been used to archive and record British trade union history.

Unfortunately the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) is one of the few British trade unions not to have a website, so material relating to the miners and their history is limited, or from a right wing point of view. The BBC has part of its site devoted to the anniversary, and while its archive of images, film and interviews is extensive, it can be unusual. It includes, for instance, an 'animated map' that allows you to watch the 'UK's coal mines disappear'.

Protest to Survive

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Review of ’How to Build a Nuclear Bomb‘, Frank Barnaby, Granta £9.99

On the day that I write this review, the Guardian‘s front page headline reads ’Blair Admits Weapons of Mass Destruction May Never Be Found‘. Inside it reports French police foiling a ’chemical or biological attack‘ plot by Al Qaida and documents plans by the German government to protect nuclear power plants from terrorist destruction.

Since 11 September ’weapons of mass destruction‘ (WMD) is a phrase never far from the pen of headline writers or the lips of politicians.

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.

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