February 2002

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

Real World

  • There seems to be a generic type of scam perpetrated by con-artists with an eye on small businesses. It works like this: find some newish law whose requirements aren't all that well known, and then send them letters requiring payment in order to address these requirements.

    A recent example of this kind of scam is based on the Data Protection Act (DPA). There are a number of companies with official-sounding titles - for example the 'Data Protection Act Registration Agency' - who are trying to scare people into sending them money. In a typical letter, the company will misrepresent the requirements of the DPA and intimate that the recipient must send them anything up to 400 UKP to fulfil its obligations. However, registration with the Information Commissioner costs only an annual fee of 35 UKP, and there is plenty of guidance available on how and when to register. See http://www.dataprotection.gov.uk/dpars.htm for more details about the scam.

Web-Wide World

  • Tired of online debates comparing Captain Kirk with Captain Picard? Lost interest in the thorny question of whether Balrogs can fly? Try the online sport of 'GoogleWhacking' instead. The aim of this game is to find two words which, when entered into the Google search engine (http://www.google.com/), produce just a single hit. Note that the words have to be genuine, as arbitrated by the online dictionary at http://www.dictionary.com/. After quite some time we have managed to come up with just one new example (working at the time of writing): 'xanadu peregrination'.

    (We would like to thank the silicon.com Weekly Roundup for bringing this new and noble sport to our attention.)
  • It generally doesn't pay to send Unsolicted Commercial Email (UCE - or 'spam') to an anti-spam campaigner. It certainly doesn't pay to spam an anti-spam campaigner and then repeat the very same offence a month later. For in this circumstance the campaigner is likely to set up a hugely popular website dedicated to doing you down. See http://petemoss.com/spamflames/ShifmanIsAMoronSpammer.html for the full story.
  • The 'Web Services Interoperability Organization' (http://www.ws-i.org/) is a new group set up to promote - as one might expect - the interoperability of web services across different platforms, computers, etc. It has the backing of lots of industry players, with the notable current absence of Sun Microsystems. According to a rather plaintive comment by Sun, it just seems that nobody had told it about the group (it may well join the party once all bodies have agreed about who sits where in the club treehouse).
  • We recently went to an interesting meeting about Linux, with speakers describing the benefits of open source software. One of the claimed benefits is that security holes get spotted quickly due to the amount of people looking at the code. But this is only the case if many of the open source types are motivated to look for security holes, which they may well be with core stuff like the Linux kernel, but much less so with less critical applications.

    In order to address this point a new website has been set up, with US Defence Department funding, to audit and track all kinds of security holes in open source software. The site is built on the principle that objective measurements of kudos are pure geek-candy; those who participate get a score based on their success in finding and patching security holes (with points detracted if others later find holes in their patches). See http://www.sardonix.org/ for more information.
  • PayPal (http://www.paypal.com/) is rapidly becoming a standard method of payment over the web. It has the advantage over credit card payment that when you pay someone you 'push' the money into their account, rather than giving them your credit card details and relying on them to 'pull' out the right amount. It has the disadvantage that payment requires both parties to have a PayPal account. However, since it is free to set up a personal PayPal account, this latter disadvantage need not cause too much of a problem.

    PayPal accounts are semi-autonomous. On the one hand, you can transfer money in and out of them like a standard bank account. On the other hand, they can also be tied to an underlying source of money - a credit card or chequing account, say - and when you make a payment from a PayPal account, the money can be drawn from this underlying source. The name of each account is also tied to an underlying email address, which means that you can easily transfer money to someone you know only via the Internet (they then receive an email notification of the transfer).

    This month PayPal made an 'Initial Public Offering' (IPO) to raise capital. Its shares rose an immediate 60 percent; performance that we haven't seen since the days of the dotcom boom.

Wired World

  • [Focus: ADSL Broadband]

    Standard dialup Internet connections over a BT phone line are limited to 56 K/s speeds. This is because the piece of the line between your computer and the local telephone exchange - the 'local loop' - can't handle anything faster. Since the lines which connect the exchange onward to the general network can handle vast amounts of data per second, this local loop is often the bottleneck on data transfer.

    Asynchronous Digital Subscriber Line (ADSL) technology provides faster Internet connections. It can actually use the same local loop lines as 56K dialup connections, but special equipment must be installed in the local exchange, and a different type of modem must be used by the computer.

    With a basic ADSL connection, the top speed from the Internet to the computer is 512K/s, and the top speed from the computer to the Internet is 256K/s (the fact that these speeds are difference is what makes the connection 'asynchronous'). With higher specification ADSL connections the former 'downstream' speed is higher, but the latter 'upstream' speed remains fixed.

    These numbers don't tell the whole story about the speed of an ADSL connection, however. When you get an ADSL connection, your line plugs into a network card in the local exchange, and this card can transfer data to the general network at the quoted speeds. But other lines can (and usually will) also be plugged into the network card - for basic ADSL connections, a card will host a total of 50 lines. So your ADSL connection is actually shared with other users. The number of other users is described by the 'contention ratio' - in the case described, the contention ratio of the line is 50:1.

    The way the connection sharing works does much to limit the impact of other users, however. The card does not simply allocate part of its pipe to each user, so that each user ends up with a small pipe. Rather, it just throws each piece of network traffic into the pipe as it comes in. So, because Internet users almost always use network resources intermittently (download a page, read the page, download another page, etc) there is rarely too much direct competition at any time for the available bandwidth. Of course, if everyone on the card suddenly decides to do a huge download at the same time, then you do have problems.

    British Telecom (BT) is the dominant player in the UK ADSL market, and this is because it owns all of the local telephone exchanges. Under pressure from the regulator Oftel, it has been forced to allow other companies access to the exchanges to put in their own network kit, but this has happened only very infrequently. The many critics of BT claim that this is BT trying to kill off the competition; BT, however, points to the large sums of money involved in upgrading exchanges so that they can host the ADSL kit. Because of this situation, BT is almost the only wholeseller of Asynchronous Digital Subscriber Line (ADSL) connections to Internet Service Providers (ISPs); its Internet Services Provider (ISP) BTOpenworld also acts as a retailer.

    This month, as was heavily reported in the press, BT decided to cut the wholesale cost of ADSL connections to £14.75 from £25.00 (effective from the start of April). The cheaper ISPs are responding to this by cutting the retail price of their ADSL connections to somewhere below £30.00 (Pipex, which rolled out the price of £25+VAT last month, was clearly acting on the assumption that the BT price cut would be made).

    In dropping the price of ADSL to the current levels, BT has set some ambitious targets for broadband take-up, aiming for 1 million subscribers by autumn, 2003. The precise current figure for broadband use is not clear, but on 30th June 2001 it was reported to be only around 72,000.

    Whether or not BT and its ISP customers will be able to hit the target touted is debatable. A recent Gartner report claims that the price of ADSL is still too high for most consumers, and also that the applications that are needed to drive its take-up are currently thin on the ground. BT, however, believes that the lessons from other countries with thriving ADSL usage is that plain old Internet access, rather than applications, is the main driver for broadband.

    The reaction to BT's proposal has been mixed. On the one hand, it seems to show that BT has grasped the long-term benefits of mass broadband access. On the other hand, there are two groups that have responded to the news with criticisms. The first of these are the remaining competitors to BT in the ADSL wholesale market, who claim that BT is engaged in predatory pricing. Oftel, however, has stated that because BT has cut the wholesale cost of ADSL, it should also cut the cost of opening up its exchanges to other companies. We wait to see if this will happen.

    The second group of critics are all the people who still can't get ADSL connections at all, because BT has not yet upgraded their local exchanges. At present, only 6 in 10 people in the UK can receive ADSL connections, and BT is being very cautious - for some, overcautious - about where it rolls out the service. The caution is financial, since upgrading an exchange costs (according to a BT source) something like 100,000 UKP.

    BT, through its ISP BTOpenworld, is now offering a product called 'Plug 'n' Go'. This includes a 'self-install' modem, and equipment charges are waived if you get it soon. Other ISPs are also offering deals on ADSL, and it is definitely worth shopping around. If you would like a list of important and intimidating questions to ask ADSL retailers, then we can recommend http://www.broadband-help.com/cm_adslbuyers.asp.

    There are, of course, other ways of getting a broadband connection than accessing it through a BT phone line. Cable companies like Telewest and NTL basically hook you into a local area network (LAN) with Internet access, and there are good deals to be had where you already buy cable services like telephony or digital TV. We have also been approached by a company offering broadband wireless connections - see http://www.tele2.co.uk/. The claimed connection speeds are much like those of ADSL, and could be of use to people in areas which can't yet get ADSL or cable (although the coverage is limited to various UK cities).

Wireless World

  • This month Oftel, the telecommunications watchdog, introduced new powers to punish companies which run text message scams. There are apparently a bunch of ifferent such cons doing the rounds (our favourite is the one where the company sends out cryptic messages encouraging you to ring a premium rate number, and then plays a recording of the engaged tone to you, the idea being that you will keep trying the number). In any case, if you receive any peculiar text messages that invite you to respond to them, or else to ring a number, you should think twice about doing so.

Hard World

  • The music industry is becoming increasingly upset about the copying of CDs using CD rewriting equipment. As a consequence, they are looking at ways of copy-protecting commercial CDs. One of the first examples of such technologies was seen at the end of last year, when the second Natalie Imbruglia CD was released (on the sly) in a format that would not be read by a PC's CD drive.

    The technology involved in the Imbruglia imbroglio was based on subverting the notoriously robust error correction of CDs. CD drives in PCs generally get worried when the areas which deal with error correction don't add up properly, whereas CD players (excepting some high-end and idiosynchratic kit) tend not to care.

    This technology has annoyed more than CD rippers, however. In particular, the electronics giant Phillips is lobbying for all copy-protected CDs to be labelled as such. Indeed, Phillips isn't even happy about the discs being called 'CDs', given that the format on these discs is broken. Phillips' stance - even though motivated by factors commercial rather than principled - is now being endorsed and furthered by online libertarians the Electronic Frontier Foundation. Phillips is also preparing to bring out CD burning equipment which will circumvent the copy protection technology employed in the Imbruglio case, putting it in direct conflict with the music industry. There may be interesting times ahead.
  • The next generation of DVDs will be able to hold more than six times as much information as current discs. These discs are apparently called 'Blu-ray' discs, the reasons being a) the laser used to read them has a higher frequency than that currently used, making it appear blue; and b) geeks can't spell. We should see these discs appear sometime between 2003 and 2004.

Soft World

  • Microsoft has released another big security patch for users of Internet Explorer 5.01 - 6.0. This one shuts off six different problems that have come up recently. On a personal note: we know how boring it is to keep up to date. But the other day a site tried to overwrite our kernel with the list of Internet Explorer bookmarks, and it's only because we were patched that Windows decided not to commit suicide (and even then it still caused Windows to crash). So go to http://www.microsoft.com/windows/ie/downloads/critical/q316059/default.asp for the latest prophylactic. And hey: let's all be careful out there.

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