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June 28, 2003
[ Update: Aliencamel gets another hump ]

 
 Newly arrived anti-spam service Aliencamel, which I mentioned in an earlier column, tell me they've beefed up their service by 'double scanning' every email with virus engines from RAV and Kapersky. Aliencamel's spam technology uses server-based whitelists -- allowing email from such addresses to get through -- and blacklists -- blocking out 'bad' email senders -- and a spam-filter ranking system from SpamAssassin, letting you select what emails actually reach your inbox. It's definitely worth a try. I'm still using POP File which adopts a different approach and is free, but some users have found it fiddly to set up with some email accounts. Aliencamel cost $16 for a half-year subscription.
 

[ Box: New to Newsfeeds ]

 New to Newsfeeds? RSS for beginners
 
How do I get started reading newsfeeds? Newzcrawler and Feedreader, both mentioned in the main article, are the best programs to start with. Feedreader is still in development, but felt pretty stable to me. To add a Really Simple Syndication, or RSS feed, just paste in the link [more on this in a bit] and it should start showing up immediately. Newzcrawler even lets you send stuff from other people's feeds to your own blog, or on-line journal, or RSS feed. Each program adds the feeds in a slightly different way, but in most cases you'll be asked to copy a link [the Web site address that appears at the top of your browser] into the newsreader. These links usually end in a full stop, then three letters: RSS, RDF or XML (don't worry which; they all do the same thing).

This sounds scary. If all this is a bit daunting, try Serence's KlipFolio (www.serence.com), which is a bit more polished -- though still free to the end-user. Now into its second version, it supports Korean and Chinese language Klips. Download the software and then browse the various Klips on offer. An Outlook user? Try NewsGator (www.newsgator.com) which folds all your RSS feeds into an Outlook folder. Or if you're brave, check out clevercactus (www.clevercactus.com), which is an Outlook-style personal organizer with RSS built in. Here's a provisional list of newsreaders: www.hebig.org/blogs/archives/main/000877.php

How do I find interesting feeds? A couple of places to start: Feedster (www.feedster.com) is the Google of the RSS/blog world. Another option is Syndic8 (http://www.syndic8.com/), a more select, and searchable, list of feeds. You'll notice a lot of sites offer their own feeds so you don't have to go hunting for them. Can't find a feed for a site you're interested in? Check out MyRSS (http://myrss.com/) which allows you to build a custom feed for any site, even if it doesn't have a feed. It's pretty straightforward, too.

How do I set up my own newsfeed? First you need material, which means setting up a blog. That's easy enough: my favourites are Weblogger (www.weblogger.com) or Blogger (www.blogger.com). Once you've set up a blog, both sites offer simple options to add an RSS feed automatically. That's it. If you're a company thinking of setting up a feed, you may want to talk to the pros. The coding is quite simple, but there are ways to add your logo, and other corporate stuff, to ensure some quality control.

Tell me more? Can't, sorry, I've run out of space. Here's where you can find out more about the whole thing, however:www.faganfinder.com/search/rss.shtml


[ Column: No More Information Overload ]

Loose Wire -- No More Information Overload
 
 Now, the news you choose to read can be delivered in a friendly format that won't clog your inbox
By Jeremy Wagstaff
 
from the 3 July 2003 edition of the Far Eastern Economic Review, (c) 2003, Dow Jones & Company, Inc.

This is not another column about spam, but that's where I have to start. Spam, or junk e-mail is, we're all agreed, the bane of our lives. But what if the problem is not so much spam, as e-mail itself?

Look at it like this: E-mail is our default window on the Internet. It's where pretty much everything ends up. I have received more than 1,000 e-mails in the past week. The vast bulk of that is automated -- newsletters, newsgroup messages, despatches from databases, press releases and whatnot. The rest is personal e-mail [a pathetically small amount, I admit], readers' mail [which I love, keep sending it] and junk. While it makes some sense to have all this stuff in one place, it's hard to find what I need, and it makes my inbox a honey pot for spammers. And when I go on holiday, it all piles up. Now, what if all that automated stuff was somewhere else, delivered through a different mechanism you could tweak, search through easily, and which wasn't laced with spam? Your inbox would just be what is e-mail, from your boss or Auntie Lola.

Enter the RSS feed. RSS stands for Really Simple Syndication, Rich Site Summary or variations of the two, depending on who you talk to. It's a format that allows folk to feed globs of information -- updates to a Web site, an on-line journal [a Weblog, or blog], news -- to others. These feeds appear in programs called news readers, which look a bit like e-mail programs.

This also makes sense for those folk who may not subscribe to e-mail alerts, but who regularly visit any number of Web sites for news, weather, movies, village jamborees, books, garden furniture, or whatever. Instead of having to trawl through those Web sites each morning, or each week, or whenever you remember, you can add their RSS feeds to your list and monitor them all from one place.

RSS feeds aren't just another way to deliver traditional information. RSS feeds have become popular in part because of blogs -- on-line journals, usually run by an individual chronicling their experiences, thoughts and journeys around the Web. While many blogs are more like personal diaries, others are written by people who know what they're talking about, and have become a credible source of information and opinion for industry insiders. Many of these bloggers now offer updates of their Web sites via RSS feed. "There's an awful lot being created by individuals who are key figures in their markets," says Bill Kearney, who runs a Web site, www.syndic8.com, that lists more than 20,000 such newsfeeds.

Blogs and RSS have, despite their unwieldy names, helped to level a playing field between traditional news suppliers -- news agencies, newspapers, news Web sites like CNN -- and those in or monitoring a particular industry. Some call it "nanomedia": An often-cited example is New York's Gawker (www.gawker.com) which collects gossip and news from the Big Apple, many times scooping the local dailies. Indeed, blogs themselves came of age this year, first during the Iraq War when a young Iraqi translator calling himself Salam Pax ran a massively popular blog (dearraed.blogspot.com) from Baghdad, offering a compelling perspective on the conflict. Later The New York Times felt the growing power of blogs when the plagiarism crisis prompted by reporter Jayson Blair was fuelled by blogs and other Internet sites, all in real time.

We don't want to go too far. There's a lot of dross in blogs, and therefore a lot of dross in RSS feeds. And while the software has improved in recent months -- check out news readers such as Newzcrawler (www.newzcrawler.com) or Feedreader (www.feedreader.com) -- it still feels slightly experimental. But as the format matures, I think our once-bright hopes for the Internet as a democratic, intelligent medium might be realized.

Part of it means throwing away what we traditionally think of as "news." Corporations are beginning to sense that blogs make an excellent in-house forum for employees. Small companies have found that running a blog for their customers -- say a real-estate agent sharing news and opinions about the neighbourhood property market -- pays better than any newspaper ad. Individuals -- consultants, columnists, one-man bands -- have, through well-designed, well-maintained blogs, built a critical mass of readers, some of whom become paying customers or subscribers. Teachers are finding RSS feeds useful for channelling subject matter to classrooms and sharing material with other teachers.

Is there money in it? One Canadian company, Serence (www.serence.com), targets its form of RSS feed, called Klips, to companies automating specific tasks -- monitoring competitors, prospects or industry news, accessing critical internal data. There is, of course, a danger that what ailed earlier formats ends up ailing RSS feeds: This month, one company started carrying ads in an RSS feed, with mixed results. In the end, I think, some of this data will be good enough to pay for, some will be supported by ads, and some will continue to be done out of love.

RSS's strengths are simplicity and versatility: It can be added on to other programs -- the browser, Outlook, or be delivered to your hand-phone, hand-held device, or even as audio on your MP3 player. It's a lot more powerful than e-mail, and -- we hope -- will be guaranteed spam-free. Hurrah.


June 27, 2003
[ News: Logitech io to get even smarter ]

  Fresh in from Logitech, news that the company's AGM saw the first public preview of a hugely improved version of the software for the io pen, which I reviewed some months back.
 
This new version of the software, apparently, allows you to search all of the text you have previously written, not just the headers. It also allows you to change the format of documents on screen, for example by putting key sections in a different colour, or making the writing thicker. Last, this new version will include handwriting conversion software, to turn your notes into text. The new software is completely compatible with existing versions of the pen, so there's no need to change the hardware. All you'll need to do is download the new software once it is ready, which should be September.
 
I'll keep you posted. I found the first version to be a very useful product. This sounds pretty exciting.

[ Link: Friendster ]

 
  A new website, Friendster, run by a guy working out of his living room in Silicon Valley is getting plenty of coverage. Friendster works a lot like the dating services I've reviewed in the past, although it also talks like a networking service.
 
Tyler Hamilton, writing in The Toronto Star wrote this week, "Jonathan Abrams only opened Friendster.com to the public in March, and in less than four months, the online community claims more than 750,000 members consisting of his friends, their friends and their friends' friends."
 
The basic idea, and where it may wind up better off than dating sites, is that people connect through their friends. As someone once said of dating services, they're obsolete to the user once he or she gets what they came for, namely a soul mate. Friendster goes further than that, in theory, by folding in both friendship and love.
 
Maybe that's why it's caught on quickly. An impressive example of word of mouth -- even I heard of it, although I have to confess the kind of folk in my particular friendship niche don't seem to be quite as interested in the things that I am.
 
I also noticed some teething problems, which prevented me from logging in to see how popular I was. Understandable, in a product that's not yet out of beta. The site is free for now, but will probably charge those who want to contact people they don't already know.

[ Software: New version of Fix-It Utilities released ]

 
 One of my favourite utilities, Fix-It, is available in a new version. The program -- which does everything from cleaning up your hard drive to rescuing deleted files -- has gone through many owners of the years, and is now part of V Communications. This is their first update of the software since V Comm acquired it from KrollOntrack in September 2002., and it's not easy to tell what's new from their press release. One feature sounds neat: Recovery Commander, "an advanced data recovery system that can correct for major system file damage that prevents your system from booting". Fix-It Utilities 5 also "allows users at all levels to perform critical maintenance tasks on their own PC, thereby saving them hundreds of dollars". Bundled with it is PowerDesk 5, an excellent file manager. Given PowerDesk itself costs $40, the $50 price tag for the whole thing seems pretty good value.
 
I'll review the whole thing in a future column.

[ Software: MSGTAG's free version is still available ]

 
 More on MessageTag, the program that lets you monitor whether your emails are being read. In fact, the free version does still exist, contrary to my earlier posting. Matthew Miller of MSGTAG says the free version of MSGTAG is no longer being promoted from the website but will stay on CNET's download.com and is still being given to magazines to include on their cover CDs. 
 
I'm still using it, and have to say it's a great tool. I can understand some people may have privacy issues, but I've had very few complaints so far.

[ Software: Google's new Toolbar ]

 
 Google have just launched a new version of their toolbar for Internet Explorer. Toolbars are extra lines of buttons that add themselves to your browser, offering links, pull down menus and whatnot. In this case, Google's toolbar allows you to do Google searches without actually going to Google's search page. It's actually a great tool, although arguably Opera's built  in toolbar is even better.
 
Google's new toolbar, 2.0, adds a couple of interesting features. One is designed to block pop-up windows, another helps you fill in online forms by storing your details for you; the third feature is for bloggers like me, adding whatever site your browser is looking at to be added to a blog (this only works for sites running Blogger software, which was recently bought by Google.) Another new feature they don't mention very much, but which could be useful, is Search Country. Say you have Google Canada set as your search page in the toolbar's options, then this feature would limit your searches to Canadian websites.
 
Me? I've long loved the toolbar, but mainly for its Page Info function, which lets you check out a list of sites similar to the one you're looking at. Seems that Google aren't really building on this great feature: in Toolbar 2.0 that button is switched off by default.
 
 

June 26, 2003
[ Link: Harry Potter e-book pirates ]

  Harry Potter's latest oeuvre is circulating on the Internet --- as an e-book. Jerry Justianto, who runs a blog on e-publishing, has been tracking it and says it raises interesting commercial and ethical questions.
 
 
"It was available two  days after the official release.  That's why it does not make sense for publishers not release a legal version.  People just can scan the printed ebook. The moral question is like this:  If I bought the book already can I read the pirated ebook for convenience?"
 
 

[ Software: MessageTag no longer free ]

 MessageTag, the program that notifies you when your messages are received and opened is no longer available in a free version.
 
 
MSGTAG, which I reviewed (and recommended recently) is now only available in two flavours: MSGTAG PLUS ($20), which works by sending you emails when your mail has been opened, and MSGTAG Status ($60) which runs as a separate dashboard, keeping track of tagged messages and letting you see at a glance whether messages have been received and opened. MSGTG runs on Windows 98, 2000, Me or XP and with any email program which uses the SMTP protocol.
 
MessageTag plan a version for webmail accounts.
 
Although 60 bucks is a bit steep for what you get, I still think it's a great program and I find I still rely on it. If you're not sure, try out the $20 version (sadly there's no trial version available).

June 25, 2003
[ Software: Lindows 4.0 is launched ]

 Lindows.com, Inc. announced today the launch of LindowsOS 4.0 ( http://www.lindows.com/40) which "brings industry-first features to Linux desktops such as comprehensive Plug & Play support, ad blocking, spam blocking and pornography blocking along with a continued emphasis on ease-of-use and affordability" (the press release says).
 

 
"The argument from Microsoft against desktop Linux is that it may be affordable from the start, but the long term maintenance destroys those early savings," said Michael Robertson, chief executive officer of Lndows.com, Inc. "For the first time, LindowsOS 4.0 with its Zero
Maintenance goals makes Linux far easier and lower cost to maintain than a comparable Microsoft Windows XP computer. In addition, we're leap frogging Microsoft by unveiling a suite of operating system features to help users block spam, ads and pornography from their
desktop."  

LindowsOS 4.0 is available immediately preinstalled on personal computers from retailers online (http://www.lindows.com/featuredbuilder) and available on CD for $59.95 MSRP (http://www.lindows.com/40) ($49.95 for US digital download only). To locate a retailer visit, http://www.lindows.com/featuredreseller. Users of LindowsOS 3.0 are eligible for a free upgrade to version 4.0 by visiting their "my.lindows" ( my.lindows.com ) account and downloading the software.

June 24, 2003
[ Link: Warchalking RIP? ]

 Interesting article by Nick Langley of ComputerWeekly about 'The demise of the warchalkers' (warchalkers are those folk who advertise, via street scribblings, the location of publicly available and free Internet access via WiFi points:

"The fall in warchalking has been attributed to the rise in public wireless Lan services, either those that are paid for or laid on by coffee shop owners as an inducement to hang around and buy more muffins. There is also a growing number of community wireless initiatives, providing free wireless broadband in towns and villages - particularly those the broadband providers have passed by.
 
 
"But one comment on www.warchalking.com may give the real reason warchalking is dying. "I am afraid that warchalking is in danger of being washed away by the lack of active chalkers. Perhaps that is the ultimate test. Unless people are prepared to make a record of their netstumbling for the sake of others, warchalking will not last." "
 

[ Software: Karen's Powertools ]

Karen's Powertools have long been a favourite of mine. Check out her latest: an updated version of her Computer Profiler. The program "displays hundreds of bits of information about your computer and the software it uses. Programs you've installed, facts about your disk drives, printers, memory, and network connections, even dozens of details of Windows itself, are all revealed by the Profiler."
 
This is a bit geeky, but this kind of data can be useful if you need to find out what's going wrong, or your PC vendor asks awkward questions when you're trying to get them to fix something. This version not only covers USB devices but also reports every USB device you've ever connected to your computer.
 
The software's free, but if you want to support her, buy a CD of all her work.

[ Link: AlphaSmart-International ]

Quite a few folk have asked where AlphaSmart's products, reviewed here last week, can be bought outside the US. Here's their international website. Let me know if you're having problems getting hold of one, and I'll pass it on. JW


June 23, 2003
[ Mail: SpamNet ]

 
Further to my recent column on spam, a reader from Selangor, Malaysia, J. Allen Otten, recommends
SpamNet from Cloudpoint: 
 
"Works rather well and I do not lose emails I really should get.  Cloudpoint places spam (and suspected spam) in a folder called Spam.  If it fails to catch a message that is spam, you can add that message to the filter and next time, you won't get it.
 
"I get about 30 spams a day.  Cloudpoint gets 28+ of them with no repeats; only the new ones get by.  I do have to delete messages from the Spam folder from time to time and I do have to add a new message source or two a day to the filter.  Short of changing my email address, this program works."
 
SpamNet costs $4 a month.

[ Link: online journalism blogs ]

Glaser rates the most influential blogs

Mark Glaser in his Glaser Online column with Online Journalism Review shares his list of the most influential Web blogs. Glaser divides the blogs into liberal, conservative and media business blogs. Some of those rated highly in his list are: E-Media Tidbits, PaidContent.org, Andrew Sullivan and Instapundit.
 

[ Mail: Recording devices ]

Reader Hans Lee has asked whether I know of a pocket tape recorder whose contents can go directly into a computer within the Linux, or Mac environment?

Good question. I don't know about Linux, but I'm a big fan of the Olympus range, and spotted these new Voice-Trek models launched in Japan earlier this year. I'll try to find out whether they're available elsewhere.


June 22, 2003
[ BlogShares - Fantasy Blog Share Market ]

BlogShares - Fantasy Blog Share Market: "BlogShares is a fantasy stock market for weblogs. Players get to invest a fictional $500, and blogs are valued by inbound links. "


[ Column: AlphaSmarts ]

Loose Wire -- Frustrated Writers, Take Note: This Palm-powered, plain-vanilla, word-producing machine has none of the bells and whistles of other computers and won't break your back or the bank -- meaning more time for haiku

By Jeremy Wagstaff from the 26 June 2003 edition of the Far Eastern Economic Review (c) 2003, Dow Jones & Company, Inc.

I used to write a lot better before I got a computer. Really. The lethal combination of pen and paper ensured that I could write anywhere, anytime. Then, in 1986, I bought an Amstrad word processor and it's been downhill ever since.

Nowadays I can't focus on one program for more than five minutes, what with all the distractions: software notifying me of incoming e-mail, software notifying me that my incoming e-mail-to-spam ratio is 96.23%, software notifying me my last e-mail to Auntie Mildred has been read 12 hours and 46 minutes after it was sent, a chat message from an insomniac Australian friend, an alarm alerting me I need to pay rent, my firewall alerting me of yet another assault on my Internet defences. No wonder I never write haiku any more.

Computers are designed to do lots of things, and with graphical interfaces like Microsoft Windows and the Mac, they're designed to do them at the same time, jostling for room on your screen. That's great if you've got tunnel vision, or are crashing up against deadline [like me right now]. Otherwise, all this extra processing power isn't matched by any great multitasking ability in our brains. My message this week, therefore, is this: If you're planning to write seriously, don't use a computer. Use a Dana.

OK, for e-mails and memos to your vocabulary-challenged boss, you may not need monastic calm and a minimum of distractions. But computers, even notebooks, may not be your friend if you're trying to compose something masterful and meaningful. Instead, you may want to check out AlphaSmart, a U.S.-based company, which realized early on that there was a market for something to write on without all the extra hullabaloo to distract you. The decade-old AlphaSmart series, now into its third generation with the 3000, has been popular with students, teachers and anyone else needing a decent keyboard and a usable screen that don't break their back or the bank. They're robust too: One reader describes on the company Web site [www.alphasmart.com] how her unit -- stuck to the floor, and slightly melted -- was the only electronic gadget still working after her house burned down.

The 3000 is about the size of a notebook, but looks more like a keyboard with a small LCD display on the top. Powered by three AA batteries, it delivers you to whatever you were writing before you turned it off [or had to flee the licking flames]. The four-line display is simple but shows just enough of what you're doing without feeling cramped. The keyboard is full sized and there's a USB socket for uploading files to your computer, and a socket to connect to a printer [or external keyboard, if you wish]. Grey keys line the top of the keyboard, allowing you to store and recall up to eight separate files. It's the sort of thing a student would love, which is the market AlphaSmart has focused on, but it could just as easily work for you if you're sick of sitting at a computer all day, or tired of firing up a laptop on a flight and watching the power die just as the Muse kicks in.

Late last year AlphaSmart took the concept one stage further with the Dana. The Dana does everything the 3000 does, only better. The screen is bigger at 10 lines to the 3000's four, the keyboard's nicer and the whole thing is a tad sleeker than its forbears. It also runs the Palm operating system, which brings with it plenty of advantages: For one thing, if you're familiar with Palm, you'll know your way around; for another, you can do everything a Palm device can do, such as swap Office documents with your computer, store contacts, calendars and whatnot. In fact, to some it could be just a bigger Palm device -- most of the software is redesigned to fit a screen far wider than your hand-held -- with a first-class keyboard attached. But that's missing the point: The Dana is a word processor that uses the best Palm has to offer -- compact, useful software, immediate access, configurable fonts, low power consumption -- without trying to be too much else.

If you're looking for something to write on during a trip to the country, the dentist or the restroom, and can't be bothered to bring a laptop [or can't afford one] then the Dana is an option. If you're a writer and sick of the distractions of modern computing, the Dana is worth a look.

Gripes? A few. The monochrome screen is nice but looks a bit dated, especially the backlight. With a list price of $400 it's substantially cheaper than a laptop or notebook, but not that much cheaper than a state of the art, full-colour hand-held device. [Shell out another $75 and you have a foldable keyboard which fits in your pocket.] And without a cover or clamshell, some reviewers have rightly suggested the screen might easily get scratched.

But these are minor niggles. I'm seriously thinking about getting one for my inspirational visits to the hills where a laptop is too much, and the miserly screen of my Palm Tungsten not quite enough. Might even try some haiku.


about loose wire
musings, snippets, grievances and links on personal technology by dow jones columnist jeremy wagstaff. I want to hear from users -- technology-related stories, complaints, thoughts, ideas, brickbats -- so please email me

my columns appear in
The Far Eastern Economic Review and
The Wall Street Journal Online.
both are owned by Dow Jones.

see below for subscription links -- sorry, but the columns are only available to subscribers.

companies, PR agencies etc, please send relevant news, pitches, product review requests here. happy to hear from you, but I stress the word 'relevant'.

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