bytesback - December 1999

Too much, too soon

Sometimes, you just can't win. Encyclopaedia Britannica, the "oldest continuously published reference work in the English language", has had a rough trot in recent years, with upstarts in the CD- and Web-based reference market seriously denting its prestige. In late October, it decided to beat them by joining them, relaunching itself as Britannica.com with a widely publicised high-volume Web site. The strength of the brand name showed through, with somewhere between 12 million and 16 million people attempting to access the site on its first day. The exact numbers aren't known, because the site crashed completely within minutes. As this issue went to press, visitors to the site were greeted by a notice indicating that the site was coming soon. Stay tuned.

The fall of Big Brother

If you've ever experienced a strange tingling while Web surfing, an unshakeable feeling that your e-mail was being read, passwords intercepted and credit card numbers collected for later use, you're not crazy. You're just experiencing a phenomenon known as "Echelon paranoia". Echelon is the name given to a large computer (or network of computers) which has been set up by the US National Security Administration to keep an eye on the Internet and make sure it doesn't become a tool for counter-revolutionaries.

Echelon works by intercepting every bit of Internet traffic, encrypted or otherwise, and monitoring it for words such as "revolution", "uprising", "revolt" and "manifesto". People using such words are kept on file and their future activities monitored.

Echelon has been the subject of formal protests by several European governments, and was recently the target of a "Jam Echelon Day" protest organised by a Sydney computer administrator named Grant Bayley. Bayley hosted a site where people could download prepared e-mails using the "forbidden" words numerous times. The idea was to send millions of these subversive missives, thus overloading Echelon's circuits and bringing the electronic Big Brother to its knees.

Whether the plan failed or not will never be known: the NSA continues to deny that Echelon, or any such system, even exists.

You say potato

The American ABC TV network (the one without the Wiggles) launched an "interactive" news program in September, luring Sam Donaldson, one of its biggest names, from TV to the Web. Donaldson had previously fronted "20/20", a current affairs program that regularly drew 15 to 20 million viewers. Donaldson's first night online was a little less impressive: a total of 127 people logged in to the Webcast, with about 90 or so online at any one time. Some 104 people took part in Donaldson's online survey, regarding whether or not the word "potato" has an "e" in it. Sam may want to check the fine print in that contract of his.

A bit on the nose

If you've had an odd feeling that something is strangely missing from your Internet browsing experience, we here at Backbytes can well understand. The Internet can provide all the visual and aural stimulus of television, as well as the tactile experience of clicking and typing, thus creating an almost life-like experience of life. But the real world can still offer one thing the Internet can't: smell. What's the use of watching a rock concert streaming live in a 160 x 120-pixel window with sound through your computer's tiny speakers, when you know that if you were actually there you'd be able to smell sweat and spilt beer?

DigiScents to the rescue. This US-based startup claims to have found a way to "digitise" the scents of various materials and broadcast them over the Internet using a device called "iSmell". With iSmell installed, users can experience everything the world has to offer, without ever having to actually experience the world at all. We honestly can't figure out whether the company is serious or not (check it out yourself at www.digiscents.com), but if they are, it's a guaranteed winner. After all, who could forget the wild success of all those Smell-o-vision movies back in the 1960s?

And it doesn't stop there. iSmell is "the future of e-commerce", according to DigiScents. The site says, authoritatively, "40 million Americans, according to researchers, will soon have the power to make smell-based purchases over the Internet". We tried to resist saying there was something fishy about that, but we failed.

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