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From the Net


Why I Have Disconnected from Email

(Steve Talbott)

I suppose it's a strange thing for the editor of an online newsletter to disconnect from email. Well, not quite "disconnect"; I will still have my email account and I, or an assistant, will have to conduct obvious NetFuture business such as passing manuscripts back and forth, receiving letters to the editor, and processing financial contributions — maybe 5% of my overall email burden. (This is to leave aside the 80% or more of my mail that is spam — is there no end to this worsening plague?). But correspondents will receive an automated message saying that if they need substantial interaction with me, we will have to conduct it via phone or postal service.

Long-time readers will know that I've agonised and vacillated over this issue for years. Shutting off this avenue of contact feels too much like turning a cold face toward all those readers and supporters of the newsletter whose only "sin" is that they would like to get in touch — readers who have energised my activity over these years and contributed so much to my understanding. How could I possibly leave messages sitting unanswered in my mailbox, some of which are, and nearly all of which should be, the attempt of one human being to speak to another?

But now, through extremity, my spine has finally stiffened, and you will find me almost combative on the issue. Actually, the stiffening is more than metaphorical. Nerve pain in my neck, worsened by work at the computer, brought me face to face with the prospect of disability. It is true that the neck problem also derives from my inadequate handling of the stress and pressures of my overall work life, a challenge that needs to be addressed "from the inside out". But even there, it became clear to me that one of the best ways to reduce the pressures and make them more manageable was to remove the main burden of email from my life. I say "burden" only in the sense that some of the activities we may want to pursue most can become burdensome if we do not maintain proper balance in our lives. The burden, in other words, is a feature of the way I manage my own life; I have no quarrel at all with those who have approached me through the perfectly acceptable medium of email.

Balance is the decisive thing. Even if I had no neck problem at all, I still would disconnect from email. As I've mentioned before, every healthy community needs to breathe both inward and outward, between the cultivation of its own life on the one hand, and intercourse with the wider society on the other. Similarly, every individual must hold a balance between focused pursuit of his own work and openness to whatever may come from without.

But there is no denying it: in our society today, the centrifugal, interrupting, distracting tendencies have gotten out of control, jerking us around with almost demonic violence. The way television's intrusion has re-shaped household schedules around programs, fragments of programs, and advertisements; the way we are tempted to click through the endless and chaotic doorways presented to us on the web; the vastly greater ease with which one person can approach another through email — an approach we can initiate with less weight of significance or personal presence than before — in these and many other symptoms you will recognize the contemporary forces that would throw us off our own foundations. What chance do we have to breathe harmoniously between a centred, reflective devotion to our own ever-deepening work (upon which society depends), and thoughtful response to the needs approaching us from the outside (without which we as individuals wither and become selfish)?

I admit to some remaining twinges of discomfort over my decision. I have, after all, made a few very good friends over the Net, and there are, additionally, many casual contacts that nevertheless seem freighted with the kind of significance one cannot easily dismiss. I am unilaterally forcing some of these people into a different, perhaps less "convenient" means of communication, and this feels a little arbitrary.

But if our frenetic and de-centred culture invites us to abandon ourselves, we need to recognize that the most critical and fateful abandonment of self typically arises from the abandonment of those nearest us, beginning with our own families. (I am not proud of my record in this regard.) Conversely, to abandon oneself is to abandon society, except insofar as society is a collection of sleepwalkers and mechanisms that run by themselves, without need of self-recollected individuals who can take its concerns conscientiously in hand.

So I guess my decision can be seen as a vote for self-recollection. I am happy to make it a public vote as long you do not take me to be suggesting what your appropriate means of self-recollection might be. Coming to ourselves so that we are useful to others — if there is any process that is a matter of individual insight and choice, surely this is it! It is a matter of rousing yourself to discover who you are. A lot of the pathology of the modern society has to do with displacing this responsibility of the wakeful self onto social machinery, which we allow to carry us where it will.

For me, it just happens that I came to the point where I needed to stand firm within myself and say, in one particular regard, "Stop!" I am sure you will understand.

(Go ahead, make my day: Send me an email! Actually, humour aside, I'll always be delighted for you to do that, and will try to see that any business you have gets taken care of. As a bonus, you'll get to see my spiffy new automatic-response message.)

[ You may redistribute this newsletter for non-commercial purposes. You may also redistribute individual articles in their entirety, provided the NetFuture url (http://www.netfuture.org/ ) and this paragraph are attached. ]

Steve Talbott is the author of The Future Does Not Compute: Transcending the Machines in Our Midst and Editor of NetFuture, where this article originally appeared.


Mozilla update

(David Hallowell)

It has been a while since I have written about the Mozilla project. At the time of writing, the next release will be 0.9.5. A lot has happened since my last article: a series of rewrites have taken place to improve performance with image rendering, caching as well as various performance improvements in the mail application.

Netscape released version 6.1 [1a] of their browser which was based on the Mozilla 0.9.2 branch, this represented a vast improvement over Netscape 6.0 which most people considered was no where near ready for release, Mozilla is becoming a very stable browser for most people with most crasher bugs getting fixed quickly. Netscape 6.2 is scheduled for release in the near future. This is going to be a fairly minor release compared to 6.1 with most of the improvements being in the mail client. In the longer term Netscape have a release code-named MachV [1b] planned (which will probably be called Netscape 6.5) this release will probably be based on Mozilla 1.0 and many new features are planned including a built in download manager (so all the downloads are contained within one window), better printing support (e.g. fit to page), print preview, full support for the Platform for Privacy Preferences (P3P), full screen support and improvements to bookmark management.

The Mozilla project is taking longer than many of us expected back in 1998 to produce a finished product, most of the reasons I mentioned in my previous article, however the definition of 1.0 is a subjective manner, many people use Mozilla regularly as their daily browser already and consider it a release quality product, other people will still not consider Mozilla ready for prime time even when the 1.0 release is out. The only way to know for certain is download a build and try it out.

The main problem I see with Mozilla is that it requires a lot of memory, it is often the application on my system that takes up the majority of memory. This makes Mozilla unsuitable for low end machines, but with memory prices at an all time low this is not as severe a problem as it could have been. One of the main reasons that memory footprint is so high is because Mozilla uses its own toolkit (XPtoolkit — XP meaning "cross platform" no relation to Microsoft's latest OS) the main reason XPtoolkit was created was to make the codebase across platforms to be as similar as possible so applications could be developed using the Mozilla framework without having to write platform specific user interface code.

Mozilla.org are currently working on ways to lower the barrier to entry for contributions. One of the latest ideas is a tool called 'patch maker' [2] this is useful for people who would like to work on the user interface (which is written in XML) but do not want to download the entire source code just to submit patches. Also planned is a 'bug week' which is due to be held late October/early November — it is an IRC based event where people who are experienced with contributing to the Mozilla project will spend more time than usual on IRC helping people who are interested in getting involved make their first steps. More information on this event will be published on the MozillaZine [3] site when the details have been finalised. If you are interested in contributing then it is worth joining IRC at sometime during bug week to ask any questions you may have, even if you miss bug week there is likely to be someone able to help on irc.mozilla.org. The default Mozilla startpage (http://www.mozilla.org/start/) also provides information to people interested in getting started with the project.

Mozilla is still considered a Netscape project by many people. In some senses this is fair — the Mozilla project was created by Netscape, originally based on the source code of what was to be Netscape 5 but the source code was scrapped and Mozilla is an almost total rewrite bearing very little code from previous Netscape releases. Netscape are also the largest single commercial contributor to the project so in many senses they do have a lot of control in the direction the project heads. However, as this is an open source project if anyone is unhappy with the direction they consider the project to be heading they are free to fork the project, most of the time I do not see any problems with Netscape's involvement with Mozilla, there is the occasional time when disagreements occur, but this happens in many open source projects, the number of independent contributors is increasing and there is also some commercial interest in Mozilla, people who say that Netscape is the only contributor to the Mozilla project are basing that comment on old facts.

The Mozilla project also has many lessons to corporations who want to adapt an open source method of development. The Mozilla project made many mistakes, but also got a lot of things right, there is no time here to look back at what lessons can be learnt; maybe that is the subject for another article.

The future looks bright for the Mozilla project, it is now at the stage that although it would be a massive blow if AOL decided to cease Netscape's involvement with the project there would still be enough volunteer effort to keep the project alive. Mozilla is not for everyone, the excessive memory footprint is enough to put many people off (if anyone has time to improve memory footprint then I am sure your efforts will be appreciated), however it is my browser of choice and the fact that I can also use it when I have to use Windows for some reason is also a bonus. Linux finally has some decent choice in the browser market, at one time it was just Netscape 4, Amaya (the W3C testbed browser) or Lynx. Now in addition to Mozilla we have Konqueror [4] which is the browser that comes with KDE and is definitely a serious consideration if you use KDE as your desktop environment, Opera [5] is a small, fast browser but personally I think it has the worst user interface of any mainstream browser I have ever tried, but other people like the interface so it is a matter of preference — Opera is a commercial product but you can download a free ad-ware version. Then you have various browsers that are based on the Mozilla rendering engine (Gecko)[6] but use a native user-interface such as Galeon [7], there is even competition to Lynx on the text browser front with Links [8] which is meant to offer many improvements over Lynx I have included two text based web browsers on this months UKUUG CD.


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