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Sunday, October 15, 2006

The Guardian gets tech

In London I read The Guardian and thought it was a great secondary paper to the London Times. The Guardian has lots of those nice touches which a secondary paper has the room to print and focus on: long excerpts from notable books, a two-page spread of a color photograph at the middle of the paper every day (I brought home their poster-sized photo of hundreds of heartbroken Russians at Anna Politkovskaya's funeral), and weekly sections every day on particular topics like technology and social outreach.

The technology weekly section was the best I've seen at a daily or weekly paper. Where the Times runs endless pieces shilling products and reporting bland industry news, the Guardian's stories covered pressing questions of technology's impact on society.

Stories from the Times's Thursday Circuits section this week pushed bacteria-preventing mouse pointers, wireless headphones, the Cingular 3125, and's home automation tools. The website's leading tech story today was "I.B.M. Division Moves to China".

The Guardian, meanwhile, covered (in a section with only six pages of copy): the question of whether tech consumers will continue to swallow digital rights management (DRM); how Microsoft's new piracy prevention could shut legitimate users out of their own systems; a prediction that Nintendo's Wii will bring women and non-gamers into the console video game fold; a celebration of municipal wireless; excerpts from what bloggers are writing about tech; and an interview with the company Rare, widely considered the most artistically accomplished video game developing house.

The Guardian also editorializes with regard to tech, a topic the NY Times editors don't seem to know much about. The Guardian has (I think the British would say "have") an ongoing editorial series advancing a policy they call "Free Our Data":
Rather than trying to recover costs by selling data, government agencies should follow the US federal practice of making data available to all comers.

Every Thursday over the past six months, we have published at least one Free Our Data case study. We've looked at the failure of public bodies to agree who owns intellectual property in postal addresses and we have identified examples where Crown copyright prevents citizens having free access to material that should be in the public domain - the laws of the land, for example. We have also looked at case studies overseas, such as Manitoba's free data policy.

Their series also pointed out that when Bill Clinton addressed the joint Houses of Parliament, his words were in the public domain; but when Tony Blair spoke immediately after, his words were controlled by government copyright and cannot be reproduced in the UK, in the EU, or in countries with copyright treaties with the UK or the EU, without specific permission from the crown. There's news just as bad happening with technology rights in the US, such as the fact that it's illegal to demonstrate how easy it is to hack Diebold voting machines, and that it's illegal to uninstall some computer viruses and spyware (because to do so requires "circumventing" them, a criminal action under the Digital Millenium Copyright Act). But you won't know about these problems by reading the Times.

To its credit, the Times's Circuits section this week did have an excellent story about Sony's new, and flawed, e-book reader, and another that summarized the MIT Media Lab's One Laptop Per Child project. A paragraph from the latter story reads:
The idea of a laptop for every schoolchild grew out of [Media Lab director John] Negroponte's experience in giving children Internet-connected laptops in rural Cambodia. He said the first English word out of the mouths of the Cambodian students was "Google."
And there's one thing no paper seems to get right: technical advice columns. The Guardian's is just as bad as those of the NY Times and the Village Voice, where Brendan Koerner's disappointing "Mr. Roboto" continues to run.