December 2002

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

Real World

  • Although Microsoft emerged mostly unscathed from its antitrust trial with the US Department of Justice, it is now embroiled in a private lawsuit with Sun (and further litigation with the European Union also awaits). Rather unexpectedly, the initial results of Sun's action have shown Sun to have taken an early lead, with Judge Motz making a preliminary ruling that Microsoft must bundle with Windows the latest version of genuine, Sun-approved Java. According to the Judge's ruling, which is available in its PDF entirety at:

    "I find it an absolute certainty that unless a preliminary injunction is entered, Sun will have lost forever its right to compete, and the opportunity to prevail, in a market undistorted by its competitor's antitrust violations..."
  • Readers will no doubt recall the case of Dmitry Skylarov, which became something of a cause celebre in 2001 for those in opposition to the US' Digital Millenium Copyright Act (DMCA). To recap, Skylarov was responsible for writing code to break the encryption of Adobe e-books. The tacit purpose of this code was to allow various 'fair uses' of the e-texts, including the heart-warming one of making them available via Braille for blind readers. This code development was legal under Russian law, which is where Skylarov developed the software, but fell foul of the DMCA in the US. So when Skylarov was in the US, Adobe finked on him, and a trial was ordered.

    A year and a half later the Skylarov trial has now ended, and to most people's pleasure he has been acquitted. Even better, the jury was reported to have voiced concerns about the fact that Adobe's e-books block all the rights of copying that users have with normal texts. Sadly, the program that kicked off all the fuss will not be re-released, so Adobe has won a victory of sorts. But hopefully the outcome will help to protect fair-use rights more generally.
  • Periodically there are cases which test how national libel laws can be applied to a global medium like the Internet. The latest case to have made waves is that of Australian Joseph Gutnick, who has been allowed to sue US online publisher Dow Jones in Oz over an article that said he was a scumbag (or similar). The worry that this raises with publishers, of course, is that they will have to take into account libel laws in all countries before insulting people on the Internet.

    On top of this, there is also the related worry about who counts as a publisher in the first place. Internet Service Providers (ISPs) are anxious to have nothing to do with the content that is placed on their servers, but current UK case-law does give them certain responsibilities. The Law Commission, however (and partially in response to the case described above), has now suggested that there be a review to address this issue.

Web-Wide World

  • Anyone who has used the Web for any length of time will have seen the 'fake alert' ads with captions like 'Message Alert: your internet connection is not optimised' (see for a reminder).

    Now, however, the days of such ads may be numbered, with a class action underway on behalf of all the newbies who have worriedly clicked on them (whenever the author finds it hard to put himself in the mindset of such a computer neophyte he recalls his dad waiting for the scream of police sirens on seeing his first 'illegal operation error'). Details of the class action - replete with somewhat fruity language decrying the advertisers' 'diabolical scheme' - are available at
  • More new stuff from Google. New in the labs ( there is the 'Google Viewer' and 'Google Webquotes'. The first presents your search results as a slideshow, with clips of the sites returned by the search. The second tries to append your search results with quotes about each site returned, this text being derived from linking sites. Also currently in beta there is 'Froogle' (, a price comparison service for online goods. A quick play with the latter suggests that it is pretty good, although there doesn't yet seem to be a way of ordering the results by price.
  • And lastly, a treat for annoying pedants everywhere. If you've ever sat screaming at Star Trek because of the peurile science it employs (viruses which have the same functional effect regardless of the organism they infect, explosions which you can hear from a distance despite them occurring in near-vacuum, etc.) then you should enjoy It goes into loving detail about all the ways in which films standardly misrepresent scientic facts. These range from the fairly obvious (cars seldom explode on crashing, jumping through a plate glass window tends to kill you) to the perhaps less obvious (bullets don't usually 'spark' on contact, being hit in the chest by a shotgun doesn't throw you backwards).

    There are also comments on various films from the point of view of the science geek. The following, about 'Spiderman' is one of our favourites:

    "A web strand would probably need to be at least 0.5 cm in diameter to support Spider-Man's web-swinging antics. If such a strand were 100 meters long, it would have a volume of 0.00196 m3 compared to Spider-Man's estimated volume of 0.0726 m3. Spider-Man will lose 2.7% of his volume every time he shoots a 100-meter-long web. Web swinging a mere kilometer of horizontal distance would use up 38% of his body volume (assuming his web makes a 45 degree angle with the vertical at the beginning and end of each swing and each web is 100 meters long). He would be skeletal by the time he arrived and would have to eat huge volumes of food to compensate."

Wired World

  • A few newsletters ago we had an extended moan about the problems we had getting our freebie satellite Internet access installed chez Softsteel. Thankfully (for us and for those of you who don't like being bored in the same way twice) these woes are now over, and we are enjoying the benefits of a fast, always-on Internet access. The one downside of satellite Internet access, though, is the latency (the period between making a request and getting a response), so we're now keeping an eye out for the alternatives once our freebie year is over.

    As a result, the following - rather jargon-heavy - article caught our interest : It discusses Asynchronous Digital Subscriber Line (ADSL) 2. Now, ADSL is currently familiar to most everyone in the UK, with British Telecomm (BT) the monopoly wholesale provider. It provides a relatively fast link between one's computer and the local telephone exchange (the 'local loop'), and works over normal phone lines.

    ADSL2 reportedly has various advantages over plain-old ADSL. Firstly, it is capable of providing about twice as much bandwidth. Secondly, it works over slightly further distances than standard ADSL, so a single telephone exchange can support more users (this makes it unlike VDSL, which provides much more bandwidth than ADSL, but can only do so over much shorter distances). Thirdly, multiple ADSL2 connections can be joined together ('bonded') to produce a virtual connection with increased bandwidth. This means that ADSL2 can start to compete with high-end business connections.

    At present the ADSL2 standard has not yet been ratified, so there are no immediate plans for its introduction. But hopefully it shouldn't be too long. And because it is designed to be interoperable with standard ADSL, upgrading shouldn't be too problematic.

    And while we're on the general topic of broadband Internet connections, we would like to mention the excellent 'howstuffworks' site's collection of articles ( Here we discovered that there is, in the pipeline, the 'airborne Internet'. Here, geostationary satellites are swapped for ever-circling planes, giving shorter latency periods than satellite connections. For more information, read the relevant article at howstuffworks.
  • Our apologies if that previous article suggested that the distance over which ADSL works is simply a matter of technology. For it seems that commercial factors can also exert a mysterious influence.

    To explain: British Telecom (BT) in its role as a telecoms provider is responsible for physically setting up ADSL connections on its phone lines. Any Internet Services Provider (ISP) which retails an ADSL connection has to get BT to do its magic in order to enable the connection. Now, some of these ISPs are themselves branches of BT, but by law they're not supposed receive special treatment from their parent company. However, there have been numerous cases recently in which supposed technological problems with connecting customers of non-BT ISPs have mysteriously vanished when these same people have turned to a BT-owned ISP. Unsurprisingly, some of these other ISPs are now a bit narked, and are asking the telecoms watchdog Oftel to administer some justice.
  • In recent months there has emerged a received wisdom about email, which is that businesses have become so overloaded with mail that it has become a positive distraction. It's not clear where the view derives from, but it fits in with the standard arc of stories about new things in general, in which something is first set up as a panacea for all worldly ills, setting free the huddled masses from their perpetual toil, and this in turn flips to being the harbinger of ultimate evil. But the results of a major survey this month suggest the heretical position that email is actually seen as being quite good. Business types did highlight some negative things about it, in that it could be distracting, but on the whole thought that it was pretty valuable. Sounds about right to us.
  • As always, news and reviews on the topic of spam tend to catch our attention, and this month we've run into quite a lot.

    First up, there's an interesting paper written by Scott Fahlman (for a link to and a discussion of this paper see, which suggests a way to defeat telephone cold-callers and email spammers. The idea can be put like this. Suppose that Anne wants to send Bill a message. Bill has previously set up an 'accept list' of people whom he is prepared to accept any messages from. If Anne is on that list, then she can send the message without cost. But if Anne isn't on the list, then she has to pledge (possibly paying in escrow to a third party) some amount of money specified by Bill. When Bill reads the message he can then decide whether to keep the money or not. If the message annoys him - for instance, if it is spam - then he will choose to keep the money, otherwise it is returned to Anne.

    As a Slashdot discussion (see below) of this suggestion made clear, this general approach to making the costs of spamming prohibitively high is not new, having been trailed in various guises by the likes of Science Fiction writer Robert Heinlein and IT Overlord Bill Gates. But the paper is a good read and is well thought out.

    One reason that suggestions like Fahlman's are useful is the existence of creatures like Alan Ralsky, known to Mike Wendland of the Detroit Free Press (DFP) amongst others as 'the Spam King'. Wendland recently wrote an article about Ralsky (, who has built a small fortune from his spamming activities. This article then got picked up for comment by online news posting and discussion site Slashdot ( In the ensuing discussion, the address of Ralsky's house got posted to the discussion, and Slashdot users came up with the plan to sign Ralsky up to every hard-copy junk-mailing list they could find. Delightfully, Ralsky then verified the success of the plan by giving an interview to the DFP in which he threatened a lawsuit. Verifying the DFP's quotation would take entirely too much effort, so let's all just assume that he really did say the following:

    "They've signed me up for every advertising campaign and mailing list there is. These people are out of their minds. They're harassing me."

Wireless World

  • AT&T, IBM and Intel this month announced a new company Cometa Networks (, with plans to set up over 20,000 commercial wireless access points (802.11, or WiFi) in the US by the end of 2004. This compares with the current count of just 3,000. And if that wasn't exciting enough, the name of the company president is, according to the website, the fantastic 'Larry Brilliant'.
  • The companies D-Link and Buffalo Technologies have just launched a range of 802.11g wireless LAN equipment in the UK. The 802.11g protocol is not yet fully ratified, so the equipment is based upon the draft proposal only (and thus possibly shouldn't be embraced by those concerned about interoperability). The 802.11g protocol can be seen as a step upwards from the commonly used 802.11b protocol; it uses the same frequency range, but should give about five times the bandwidth.
  • Hutchinson 3G - which for some reason seems to want to call itself just '3' - has released more information about its soon-to-be-with-us 3G service. According to the advertising blurb, "...3 brings together video calling, video clips, location-based services, content browsing and fantastic interactive games." Not just interactive games, you note, but fantastic interactive games. Gosh. Anyway, more details for early adopters are available at

Hard World

  • We recently read a short, but interesting overview of IBM mainframes at To borrow a quotation from the piece, a mainframe is "an obsolete device still used by thousands of obsolete companies serving billions of obsolete customers and making huge obsolete profits for their obsolete shareholders".
  • The last edition of PC Pro carried an article about 3D displays, something that we hadn't quite realised had moved out of the realms of fantasy. The article suggests that there are basically two different approaches being taken in the development of such displays. In the first, two slightly different images are presented to each eye, and the brain resolves these into a perception of depth. This is just what happens when you watch a '3D' film wearing the familiar red / green spectacles, but the displays featured in the article dispense with glasses and instead try to track the head positions of different viewers, presenting different images automatically. The second approach, by contrast, involves displays with multiple layers; in these displays, the presented images actually do have physical depth.

    The article in question is available at the PC Pro site ( In Depth -> Features -> Archive -> Another Dimension), but unfortunately you have to navigate through popups and login screens. And it's not Opera friendly. If you can't be bothered to go through that, then you can read some manufacturer's blurbs about the different types of screens at: and
  • In the August 2002 edition of the newsletter we looked at the advantages of 64-bit CPU architecture, and noted that both Intel and AMD have worked on 'hybrid' chips supporting 32-bit processing for reasons of backwards compatibility. But according to the latest tract from IT Guru Bob Cringely (, the Intel development has come unstuck. Microsoft - whose software is the major driver for chip development - is therefore writing Windows for the AMD chip, and Cringely predicts that Intel will soon be forced to follow AMD's chip design.

Soft World

  • The Mono project is the attempt to produce an open source version of Microsoft's .NET framework. This month Miguel de Icaza, the leader of the project, announced that the new version - available at - supports ASP.NET, the new version of the (web)server-side technology ASP (for Active Server Pages). The release includes a sample web server, along with support for the following databases: Oracle, MS SQL, Sybase, ODBC, OleDB, Gnome Data Access, SqLite, MySQL and Postgres.

    We haven't tried to get this working yet - it's on our to-do list, along with everything else. However, this author's kid brother was complaining over Christmas that Windows XP Home doesn't come with Microsoft's webserver IIS. It was therefore suggested to him that he try out the Mono project on his computer (which he probably won't, because he's too busy putting bugs into Flash MX games and then getting other people to debug them.)
  • Just in case you hadn't noticed, Microsoft released yet another critical update for Internet Explorer this month. Again, this allowed a determined attacker to own your machine simply by getting you to browse an appropriately configured web page. So make sure that you're Windows updated (or use a safer browser).

    In addition, there's an almost unbelievable flaw been found in the Windows XP Windows Shell. Potentially this allows an attacker to run arbitrary code on your XP machine as a result of *your hovering your mouse pointer over the icon for a file*. Again, Windows updating would be good.
  • There's a very strong rumour going around the news sites that Microsoft is planning a takeover of Macromedia. It's not clear where the rumour has originated from, nor if the people leaking the rumour are doing it for a particular agenda (to pump up the Macromedia share price?). But the rumour is being fuelled by two facts. One: Macromedia is looking, in business terms, vulnerable to a takeover. Two: it seems like Macromedia would be a killer acquisition for Microsoft.

    Why would this be? Well, firstly Macromedia has strengths where Microsoft has weaknesses. For instance, in the web design market Macromedia Dreamweaver is the design tool of choice, whereas Microsoft Frontpage remains a dog. And the Macromedia design environment generally is better than Microsoft's. Secondly, Macromedia has been moving towards the Sun Java view of the world, with the latest release of its application server ColdFusion rewritten in Java. So purchasing Macromedia would be a way for Microsoft to spike Sun's guns.

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