Some not-very-recent reading

Read these yonks ago, but never got round to posting anything on them…

A Brief History of the Future – John Naughton

This is an excellent study of the origins of the internet, by academic and journalist John Naughton, whose Observer column (go to The Observer site and search on his name, or try his entertaining blog) is essential reading for anyone remotely interested in the ‘net and its possible applications. He traces the web all the way back, before ARPAnet at the Pentagon and discusses the ideas and theories expressed by those dreamers who imagined a vast communications network before any of the technology existed. He writes well, and manages to pass on his enthusiasm to the reader, especially when discussing issues such as open-source technology and the collaborative nature of the internet. Highly recommended.

How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered the World – Francis Wheen

Another non-fiction one, this time dealing with the current decline of rationality in both politics and society in general. Written by Francis Wheen, a columnist on The Guardian, it is by no means lefty polemic, though much of the neo-conservative values are attacked, quite rightly, as being completely irrational. Other targets include ‘New’ Labour, spiritualism, homeopathy and Islamic fundamentalists. Wheen starts off with the rise of Marget Thatcher and her idolation of the free market; but mirrors that with the coming to power of the Ayatollah Khomeini in Iran. Thatcher wanted to taken Britain back to her golden age of late-Victorian values and entrepreneurism; the Ayatollah also wished to take his country back in time, but to a medieval-like society. All kinds of fuzzy thinking is subjected to Wheen’s witty and thoughtful attack – he genuinely laments the apparent loss of scientific understanding in almost every walk of life. Of course, much of what he writes is mere common sense – the taking of any political or religious creed to extremes is a pretty dumb thing to do – but I think this is a timely book, and a call-to-arms for all of us of the opinion that all people need to do is think now and again, and then everything will be ok. The trouble is, of course, is that they never will, and nor will it ever be.

Google plans?

Great article in PC Plus this month about Google’s plans to take over the world, kinda. There has been much speculation across the net about the fact that Google have headhunted a couple of Microsoft staff, been very cozy with the Mozilla people and have registered the gbrowser.com URL.

The article speculates that if Google were to develop a browser, it could then use this to create a whole online computer environment. They already offer mail, websearch, news, usenet, blogging and image handling. The addition of a browser would make further technology possible – perhaps a word processor/spreadsheet app that runs online, some kind of personal information manager – gmail already offers a very comprehensive contacts section – and a music search, and everything you need on a day to day basis would be available online, from any machine, whether Windows, Mac, Linux, or a handheld.

Bloglines

Just come across Bloglines for the first time. It’s basically an RSS feed reader, but which operates within a browser window, so you can pick stuff up from anywhere. This article from the Guardian’s Online section might help explain more about RSS:

Answer to a news junkie’s prayers Web feeds offer an easy way to keep up with the news, reports Bobbie Johnson

Monday November 1, 2004

It’s been setting geeky hearts aflutter for some time now, but syndication is finally starting to take hold on the internet. Net technologies called RSS and Atom, or to give them the more user-friendly and generic tag of “web feeds”, take the hassle out of keeping up with the news. Once you’ve taken the plunge, you’ll never want to go back.

How does it work?
Reading web feeds is a bit like watching the headlines on the evening news. Essentially, you ask a program to check your favourite websites every so often, looking for the things that have changed since you last popped by, and then present the new stories to you. That means you don’t have to waste your time by trekking through sites to find out what the new developments are, or find yourself reading an interesting story only to realise you read it before – but somebody’s changed the headline.

You surf around, and if you find a website or page that you like, look out for a little icon reading “Web feed” or “RSS” or “XML” or “Atom” – you’ll find one on, say, Guardian Unlimited’s football news. Click on the icon, and paste the address of the resultant page (normally filled with computer gibberish) into your feed reading software. And … well, that’s it. From now on, with the click of a mouse, your feed reader checks for fresh headlines and then delivers them to you in a jiffy.

Your feed reader picks out all the stories that have arrived since you last checked in and presents you with a summary of them, along with a link to the original.

Bong! England storm to victory in the World Cup final! Bong! Frank Lampard seals victory with hat-trick! Bong! Brazilian coach resigns after “total footballing humiliation”!

OK, so your feed reader won’t tell you what you want to hear – but it will tell you what you need. In fact, most programs let you customise which headlines are presented to you, and how they’ll look on your desktop. For example you could browse all the latest reports, or you could choose to look at all the stories you haven’t read before. Or perhaps you just want to look at the top stories. It’s like the paper boy suddenly worked out that you only read the most interesting bits of the newspaper and decided to save you ploughing through the rest.

Why should you be interested?
Web feeds sound great in principle – but then again, so did that triple-extra-hot vindaloo pizza last night. Sometimes judgment can be clouded, and after all, barely a week goes by without some new technology being heralded as the greatest thing since sliced white. These days fancy dan techno-gadgets come and go in the blink of an eye, and sceptical readers are probably wondering why web feeds important – or even useful – to them.

First of all, web feeds can save you an awful lot of time. If, like any self-respecting news junkie with an internet connection, you’ve spent countless hours refreshing a web page waiting for latest news update, then this takes out the hard work. Now all you need to do is log on to your feed reader and it can present you the stories that have arrived since you last looked. No hanging around.

Web feeds can also be extremely useful if you’re on a dial-up connection; your reader program checks sites for you, saving you the hassle of loading up heavy pages and spending countless moments watching that egg timer flip over and over.

And of course, it’s not just news that you can run through RSS. Many weblogs have feeds that you can subscribe to, and if you’re addicted to reading them, it makes light work of the chore of doing the rounds by simplifying the whole business of keeping track of dozens of different sites. You can get recipes, cartoons and all kinds of material delivered through feeds.

Once you’ve got a wide selection of sites drawn together and displayed with the freshest content at the top of the pile, keeping track of multiple sources becomes easy.

Web feeds hand power to you, the surfer, rather than to the producers of websites. Instead of you going to them, they come to you. Feeds let you narrow down the particular bits of a site you want to see, and they help bring the things you’re interested in to your attention. Essentially, they help you customise your web experience by building your own personalised website by syndicating the content from all your favourite places.

Is there anything else?
Right now web feeds are relatively simple stuff. This is by no means the crest of the wave – it’s probably more accurate to say that we’re still splashing around in the shallow waters by the shore. But all across the planet, hordes of feverish technologists are bashing away in attempts to try and come up with new ways to use web feeds. And if the apocryphal bunch of monkeys with typewriters can produce the complete works of Shakespeare, you can bet that a gang of geeks with computers can come up with something.

Now where do I look?
If this has got you excited, then you should go and get yourself some feed reading software. PC users could have a look at FeedDemon, while Mac users might like a gander at NetNewsWire. You might also like to have a look at Amphetadesk, which can be used on PCs, Macs or Linux machines.

Alternatively, if you don’t want to – or can’t – install a news reading program onto your computer, you might want to have a look at websites like BlogLines, which allow you to do the same thing through a web-based interface.

Those are just some of the most popular programs: take a look at this Wikipedia page and you’ll see that there are plenty of other readers out there. Go try them, and see if it changes the way you use the web.

The US Election

Ohmygod. Another 4 years of George W. Bush as the most powerful man in the world. Well, the second maybe, after Bill Gates. Anyway.

Even as a conservative (small ‘c’! small ‘c’!) kind of guy, Bush fills me with loathing. He’s the embodiment of the idiocy that seems rife in the world at the moment, at every level of society, that culture which wears ignorance on its sleeve and is proud of it. Not to mention his religious fundamentalism which puts him on a par, as far as I am concerned, as those he claims to wage war on. Surely anyone that takes anything too seriously, whether it be Xianity, Islam or whatever, is worthy only of contempt?

At the end of the day, if George Bush hadn’t decided to go to war, Britain wouldn’t have been involved either. It’s just a shame that our PM hasn’t the guts to stand up to the smirking, brain dead simian and get the hell out of Iraq.

Perhaps Kerry just wasn’t a strong enough candidate to beat Bush. Maybe next time, eh?

Google – Good or evil?

I have always been a fan of Google – and that’s not just the websearch. I use their email system, their mailing list groups, and of course Blogger, which is now owned by Google.

I’d never given much thought to the way that the company operates, generally believing that they aren’t evil, as they claim so proudly. But a couple of links might have made me think a little more about it:

Google Watch and Gmail is too Creepy.

The joys of PHP

It is a wonderful thing when something you think might be really complicated turns out to be really simple.

On http://www.davebriggs.net, I have three columns. The left one holds links common to all pages, including the internal site navigation; the centre one holds all the content; and the right one has links and stuff relevant to that page.

The problem with the left hand column is that if I want to make a change to it, I would have to do so with all the pages one by one. While this wouldn’t be too much of a burden at the moment, when the site starts to expand it would become seriously time consuming.

Fortunately PHP (www.php.net; http://foldoc.doc.ic.ac.uk/foldoc/foldoc.cgi?query=php) comes to the rescue. By typing the HTML for the menu content into a separate HTML file, called say “menu.html”, I can then call up that file anytime I like using:

<?php
include(“filename.html”);
php?>

And that’s it!

So all I have to do is update menu.html and ALL the pages change in line with that!