Podcast of the Week: WebbAlert

WebbAlert Logo

Podcast of the Week: (8/10/07)
WebbAlert
Rating:
5star.jpg

WebbAlert with Morgan Webb takes an informative look at the latest in online, tech, gadgetry and gaming news. Morgan Webb is the host of X-Play on G4 in the US and a former web developer, so she’s well-suited to analysing the latest in digital trends and culture.

Webb is a confident host and one interesting aspect is that WebbAlert tends not to source content from traditional news outlets, instead focusing more on blogs that break news stories. It creates a different dynamic and Webb often shows snippets of the posts and articles she’s talking about as well, so you don’t have to go to the shownotes to get more detail.

Something people might consider a drawback is the advertising, usually plugs at the start of the show and halfway through. The ads don’t bother me that much; podcasts require significant bandwidth and I don’t find the ads that intrusive anyway, but what’s really interesting is that Webb has already received notable sponsorship (HP has been one sponsor), which is unusual for such a recent podcast. Perhaps sponsors anticipated Webb bringing some of her G4 audience with her.

WebbAlert presents a fun look at the online world and is probaly a podcast people will either love or hate based on Webb’s style, but one that’s definitely worth checking out. You can subscribe via iTunes or watch episodes at WebbAlert.Com.

Quantico by Greg Bear

Quantico Greg BearGreg Bear has written some of my favourite SF novels in the past but for the last few years has been moving more into the mainstream with his fiction. That’s fine with me as I’ll read anything I can get my hands on and Bear’s thrillers are different to most, but I admit I’m looking forward to his return to science fiction as well with his next novel; that’s where he really excels.

In the meantime Bear’s latest is Quantico, a novel based heavily on the fear of extremism. His story is set in a near-future where the Terror War is in its second decade and not progressing well. The Dome of the Rock has been destroyed by terrorists and a second attack of the scale of 9/11 has rocked the US; the threat of terrorists obtaining chemical and biological weapons has never been higher. In this atmosphere, three young FBI agents have recently graduated from Quantico; it is believed they could be among the last to graduate as critics seek to shut down the FBI for good. But when rumours of an immense planned terrorist attack begin to emerge, the agents find themselves in a race against time to stop it.

The first thing which struck me about Quantico was its tone; it’s dark and pervasive. There’s little optimism in the novel and not much humour, something which is unusual for one of Bear’s novels. Quantico represents the fears we all have in a post 9/11 world and at times is very confronting. Some people might find it too confronting but that tone is necessary for the novel to convey its message. Bio-terror, extremism and global politics form the backdrop for the world we live in and I found Bear’s depiction of a believable direction for the War on Terror both troubling and resonant.

Quantico works primarily on a suspense level as the FBI agents try to unravel who is behind the threat of passing a deadly strain of anthrax to religious fanatics; we’ve all thought about the idea of a chemical or biological weapon being used but here Bear takes it a step further – what if that weapon could be keyed to target a specific race? Suddenly the Holocaust doesn’t seem so distant and Bear’s science makes the premise scarily plausible. The characterisations in Quantico are also strong. The characters come across as flawed and believable, reacting realistically to the situation they find themselves in; Rebecca Rose, for instance, shows the impact of living with terror for 20 years, obsessed with cleanliness and her job, so much so that she has no other life.

The focus on Fouad Al-Husam (one of the agents) also gives the novel an interesting dynamic, contrasting modern Islam with fundamentalism and allowing Bear to explore the extent of profiling within the FBI. Another interesting aspect is that Islamic extremism is not the larger enemy in Bear’s work; rather much of it focuses on a domestic form of terrorism instead which makes the threat even more immediate, showing how fanaticism can arise anywhere, and the circumstances which might lead someone to committing such an act.

That said, a few things didn’t work as well as I might have liked. The main problem is that the ending, though bringing about a resolution, feels slightly abrupt; after a lengthy lead-in I would have liked to have seen the consequences followed though a bit more, to see the full impact on the characters. Also the internal politics of the FBI play a large and necessary role in the novel, but in certain scenes seem to weigh the story down more than in others, and more than any of the science. Likewise you could say that some of the government infighting seems slightly forced after a second 9/11 (although it might be accurate given the current partisanship).

But those are fairly minor points and the unnerving story arc is more than enough to pull the reader through from beginning to end. The pace is sharp and Quantico presents a compelling and intelligent examination of the War on Terror and our world as it might become. If you’re interested in a science-thriller based on current world events, I’d highly recommend it.

Mac or PC?

You are a PC

You’re practical, thrifty, and able to do almost anything.Appearances and trends aren’t important to you. You just like to get the job done.

Are You a Mac or a PC?

Damn it! It’s done it to me again. I know I’m not a PC; sure, I have a beard and like Star Wars, but I’m a big supporter of open source software, despise Vista, won’t touch IE or Outlook, use Open Office and listen to Leo Laporte. I am so a Mac at heart, I just can’t afford one yet! But these damn quizzes never agree. Seriously, the last one I took was for PC or Mac and I got Linux! It wasn’t even mentioned as an option! It’s a conspiracy, I know it is… 😛

Site of the Week: Faqqly

faqqly.jpg

Site of the Week (17/9/07)
Faqqly

Rating: star4.jpg

Faqqly is a social networking site with a difference. Unlike other sites which focus more on how you present yourself than getting to know other users, Faqqly is all about creating your own questions page (FAQ) that people can comment on. Set up a list of topics and other users can drop by to ask questions about anything they want – your life, interests, what you’re reading, etc. It’s a bit like the reverse of Twitter; instead of you saying what you’re doing now, other people ask you, and the subjects are much broader. You can even strike up an ongoing dialogue about various issues and topics, exploring them in great depth.

Faqqly was founded by then 20-year-old UCLA senior David Liu, whose goal was to build a collaborative website based on real life community interaction. The social dynamic is definitely the strongest part of Faqqly, but its ease of use is also impressive. Setting up your questions page is as simple as editing your profile and adding the topics you’re interested in. People ask questions by typing in the ask box, and there are hourly questions of the moment to ensure updates are frequent.

Faqqly’s main drawback is the flipside of its being a community site; the level of interaction depends on the kinds of questions people ask. Questions like what are you doing? or what movie did you see? are a good introduction but won’t lead to much of an ongoing dialogue; questions revolving around social issues or specialist knowledge are more likely to form a dialogue but aren’t the kinds of questions most people are going to ask. Like anything, the conversation is only as interesting as what the users bring to it.

Whether Faqqly will be a long-term success is difficult to know, but it’s an interesting social experiment and one that’s definitely worth checking out.

5 free programs for your PC

Everyone loves a free program; I know I do. Free software’s fun, but just because it’s free doesn’t mean it’s not useful as well. Just think about Firefox or AVG; they’re just as capable as their commercial rivals and in many cases, better. Every few weeks I’ll be listing some of the best freeware on the web, but today I thought we’d start with some basics everyone will find useful. 😉

5) Pidgin
Developer: Pidgin Community
Pidgin is an IM client that can log into AIM, ICQ, MSN and Yahoo simultaneously, allowing users to chat to friends on different networks without having multiple windows open. It fully supports file transfer and away status between networks and is similar to the better-known Trillian, but with better functionality.

4) DeleteOnClick
Developer: 2BrightSparks
When you delete a file in Trash, you don’t actually erase the file from your computer; it just allows the data to be overwritten. DeleteOnClick completely removes files in one click, rendering the data unrecoverable. It’s simple to use and highly recommended for people wanting to protect their credit card and security details.

3) Foxit Reader
Developer: Foxit Software
Foxit Reader is an alternative PDF reader. It’s a small file, launches quickly and doesn’t connect online without the users’ permission. It also has annotation tools and a text converter to convert a PDF into simple text.

2) OpenOffice
Developer: Sun Microsystems
OpenOffice is an alternative office suite to Microsoft Office with much the same functionality and appearance. In release since 2001, it’s fully compatible with Microsoft file formats and is available across all major platforms. It features the key office applications (word processor, spreadsheet, presentation manager and drawing program) and is a great alternative for anyone looking to update their office software or wanting to try out other options.

1) Google Desktop
Developer: Google

Google Desktop lets you search your computer like you search the web. Search for email, files, music, photos and web history with just a few clicks. The Quick Search Box adds even more functionality; double-click ctrl and type just a few letters to find and launch anything you could want on your computer. You can also add Google Gadgets to customize your desktop, letting you see the latest weather, email, photos and news at a glance.