April 2002

Real World
Web-wide World
Wired World
Wireless World
Hard World
Soft World

Real World

  • The Microsoft antitrust trial continues in its plodding way, with the nine non-settling states continuing to press for measures beyond those accepted by the Department of Justice (see newsletters passim). As previously noted, one important issue currently under question is whether Microsoft can be expected to provide versions of Windows with arbitrary pieces of 'middleware' (Internet Explorer, Windows Media Player, etc..) removed.

    The highlight of the trial this month was Bill Gates himself taking the stand. Unsurprisingly Billy G raised various objections to the proposed modularisation of Windows, and suggested / threatened that if he were forced down this track then Windows would have to be withdrawn from the marketplace and Microsoft would no longer be interested in producing new products. For more reportage on this 'I'll take my ball home' defence, and the trial generally, see eWeek's collection of articles at http://www.eweek.com/category/0,,s%3D1887,00.asp.
  • The European Union Copyright Directive (EUCD) is due to be incorporated by member states some time this year, and opposition to it is beginning to become more vocal.

    To oversimplify matters radically, the dialectic here is this. A key way in which the EUCD seeks to protect copyright owners' rights is by criminalising any actions designed to break any copyright protection systems implemented by these owners. Thus, for instance, it becomes illegal to crack any encryption process used by an author to hide his work from general view. Opponents of the EUCD complain, however, that this criminalisation also hinders some 'fair uses' that are currently - or at least should be - acceptable in relation to material under copyright. So, for instance, it might be necessary to break encryption in order to make some text accessible to disabled people. The general claim is thus that the EUCD places too much power in the hands of the copyright holders.

    Clearly there is more to the argument than this brief overview. For example the EUCD does specify numerous exceptions which member states at least *may* incorporate. But even on a brief perusal there does seem to be a serious worry here. For more information, and argument against the EUCD, see http://uk.eurorights.org/issues/eucd/.
  • A recent Supreme Court ruling in the US means that media which contains fake depictions of child sex are to be considered legal in the US. The crucial point cited in the majority opinion was that: "the mere tendency of speech to encourage unlawful acts is not a sufficient reason for banning it.".

    With computer processing power coming increasingly close to allowing the creation of perfect simulcra, this opens the door for the pornography industry to legally create instances of such unpleasant material. Indeed, it seems that simulated depictions of any kind of activity will presumably be considered to be legally acceptablem, and it's an open question as to how this may impinge upon future society.
  • We recently took a trip up to Harrogate, to the Healthcare Computing Conference and Exhibition. Being slightly naive in the ways of the world, we were surprised at the scale of the event, with the large IT players throwing money at some pretty impressive displays. In retrospect, however, it should have been obvious that businesses are going to pay a fair amount of attention to the amount of money available in the health sector, in particular the National Health Service (NHS). This was underlined this month by the news that the Government is to spend 40 billion GBP on a six-year 'national implementation plan' to e-enable the NHS. The money is to be spent in four areas: upgrading the 'basic infrastructure' of the NHS networks; moving over to electronic patient records; introducing electronic prescribing; and allowing electronic booking.

Web-Wide World

  • A biography by Sam Williams of Richard Stallman - the iconic prophet of the Free Software movement - has just been published by O'Reilly, priced at 23 USD. But in keeping with the beardy guru's principles, the text has also been released on the web under the Gnu Free Documentation Licence (GFDL): see http://www.oreilly.com/openbook/freedom/.

    The GFDL is essentially an analogue of the Gnu Public Licence (GPL). Work released under this licence can, in general, be arbitrarily copied, modified and published by anyone, with the one restriction that these copies and modifications must themselves be released under the GFDL. For example, you could - at least if you were sufficiently unhinged - take Stallman's biography, replace his name with yours throughout, and then publish the result.
  • If you're interested in how stuff works, then try looking at http://www.howstuffworks.com/. They've got lots of stuff on how stuff works. What we've read there is well written and aimed usefully at the intelligent newcomer / intermediate level.
  • One particularly ardent member of the Softsteel team would like to encourage everyone to 'sign the England flag' at http://flag.thefa.com/. This involves writing an electronic message of support / bemusement / apathy which will then be incorporated into a large, physical Union Flag in some unspecified microdot-esque fashion and presented in person to Sven. Sven will then hand the flag to some flunky, who will then put the flag in a ceremonial bin. But for some reason it will all have been worth the effort.

Wired World

  • It looks as though Microsoft is backing away from its seminal Internet project Hailstorm (later rebranded as '.NET My Services'). The idea behind this project was to provide localised areas in cyberspace for users to store all sorts of personal data. When a user ran into an service that needed some of the data, he would then provide permission for this service to interrogate the appropriate part of the data store, rather than just filling in another form. (To see the benefit of this kind of approach, imagine that you had accounts with a hundred online shops, all of which were set up to deliver to your home, and you then moved house...)

    Unfortunately, however, Microsoft has had trouble persuading the large purveyors of services that they should hook up to Microsoft's Hailstorm data stores. We're not entirely sure why this could be; or at least, we're not sure which of the many good reasons for turning Microsoft down were the crucial ones. Possibly it was concerns about security. Or possibly Microsoft's track record in squeezing those who come to depend on it. In any case, it now looks as if the Hailstorm technology is going to be licenced to third parties. And let us not forget the Open Source project to ape Hailstorm - read about DotGNU Virtual Identities at http://www.gnu.org/projects/dotgnu/auth.html.

    In late-breaking news, there are reports that MS Passport - the hub of Hailstorm - is being considered by the US Government to support its future web services. Since there are over 285 million US citizens, and any number of businesses, this would prove a fairly extensive contract.
  • If you're a programmer looking to pull real-time results from Google in your application, you will be pleased to here that Google is exposing an API using SOAP and WSDL - see http://www.google.com/apis/ for details. If you're not a programmer then you'll be more confused than pleased, and may well be reflecting ruefully on the fact that it was all a lot simpler in your day.
  • If you are aggrieved by the egregious use of spam email, then do try reporting it via http://spamcop.net/. We tried this for the first time last week, and its analysis of the letter headers was rather more sophisticated than ours, coming up in seconds with the appropriate address to send complaints to. Good stuff.

    And while we're on the subject of modern Internet annoyances, let us recommend the freely available application 'ad-aware' (see http://www.majorgeek.com/index2.html). This works rather like a virus sweeper, but its purpose is to remove pieces of 'spyware' - programs which sit on your computer and report information about you and your habits back to their masters. Because such programs are becoming quite commonplace, and can reach your desktop through a variety of routes, you may be surprised to find out whom your computer is talking to behind your back.
  • This month saw Britain become the first member state of the EU to implement the EU directive relating to the issuing of electronic money. What this now means is that anyone in the UK can issue electronic money as long as they satisfy some - not hugely arduous - conditions laid down by the Financial Services Authority (FSA).

    And just so that we're clear about what has being liberalised here, the EU directive states that "...electronic money can be considered an electronic surrogate for coins and banknotes, which is stored on an electronic device such as a chip card or computer memory, and which is generally intended for the purpose of effecting electronic payments of limited amounts".

Wireless World

  • According to reports, Microsoft is set to make a big push into home wireless networking, introducing a (possibly proprietary) version of the 802.11 protocol known as 'Soft Wi-Fi'. The idea behind this implementation is that the hardware supporting the wireless kit is made cheaper by shoving some of the processing into the PC (which is what happens already with so-called 'winmodems'). A pleasant side-effect of this for Microsoft is that the simplified hardware is then tied much more closely to the supporting platform.
  • Our home town of Sheffield has become one of the first places in the UK to offer voting by mobile phone (at least in some pilot wards). Prior to this point, voting involved the arcane skill of marking crosses on a piece of paper with a pen. But now people can vote simply and easily, by composing on a tiny keyboard a text message made up of a five figure PIN combined with a series of three digit codes representing the candidates. Presumably once someone has sent his SMS he then waits and hopes to hell that a) nobody's keeping a record of the SMS anywhere to track his voting record, and b) the computer at the other end hasn't fallen over recently.

Hard World

  • The technology site ExtremeTech has been running some benchmarking tests on the latest Intel Pentium 4 (2.2 GHz and 2.4 GHz) and AMD (Athlon XP 2000+ and XP 2100+) desktop processors. For those still confused by AMD's chip names, the numbers don't represent the clock speed of their chips (which are somewhat smaller); instead, they unsubtly imply that these chips are the equal of Intel chips running at the corresponding clock speeds.

    The full ExtremeTech article is available at http://www.extremetech.com/article/0,3396,apn=2&s=1005&a=24849&ap=1,00.asp, but the highlights are these. Firstly, the top Pentiums are somewhat faster than the Athlons on modern machines and applications (which can be tuned to get the best out of these chips). On older applications, however, the Athlons can still win on speed.

    Secondly, Athlons are still sufficiently cheap compared to Pentiums that it still makes sense to use Athlons in preference (and put the savings towards optimising other parts of your system). However, this cost advantage is mostly seen in custom-made machines. For off-the-shelf computers stocked by the big OEMs (who buy from Intel in bulk), the cost advantage is slight.
  • The world's fastest computer (that we know about) no longer belongs to the US, with the Japanese 'Earth Simulator' weighing in at five times the speed of the next contender. This binary beast - designed to make predictions of inherently chaotic weather systems - is the size of four tennis courts and features 5104 processors (however, we can confidently predict that in a couple of years you'll get something with the same power free with breakfast cereal).

Soft World

  • Any budding games programmers will appreciate the set of articles currently being run by ExtremeTech. These cover the issues in writing and programming for a 'game engine' such as that found in Quake and its many clones. At the time of writing there are four articles written out of a planned eleven, the first of which can be found at http://www.extremetech.com/article/0,3396,s=1017&a=25462,00.asp.
  • Microsoft has revealed another slew of security holes in its Internet Information Services (IIS) webservers. (Actually there are eight such holes but we are currently giving work experience to the word 'slew', which derives from the Irish Gaelic 'sluagh': multitude). These holes range from buffer overflow errors (where a part of the program is given more data than it can handle and the rest gets written into memory and executed), to cross-site scripting issues (where one web site can pretend to be another site and thus grab its cookies, run scripts with its privileges, etc.).

    The appropriate security bulletin is available at http://www.microsoft.com/technet/treeview/default.asp?url=/technet/security/bulletin/MS02-018.asp, and contains links to the appropriate patches. Apparently there have been cases in which these patches have disabled machines, so they probably shouldn't be slapped onto production machines without testing.

    And just for the sake of balance in this increasingly anti-Microsoft world, we should note that there have also been security problems recently discovered with the Netscape web browser and Solaris, Sun's UNIX operating system.
  • One of the reasons for the inertia that keeps companies tied to Windows is the Microsoft Office suite. See http://www.codeweavers.com/products/office/, however, to see how many MS Office applications can now be made to run on Linux.

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