May 2002

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

Real World

  • The European Parliament has decided to allow its member states to require their telecomm.s providers to retain user logs indefinitely. This overturns the provisions of the 1997 EU Directive on privacy in telecommunications, which held that such personal data should be retained only as long as needed for billing purposes. Under the new amendment, however, information such as where one has been surfing on the web, or the physical location of one's mobile phone at any time, may be kept until whenever someone in power decides they want to look at it.

    The amendment has been greeted with the usual protests from the pro-privacy lobby, and with the usual emolliant reassurances from the pro-security lobby. We've had a brief look online to find a copy of the exact words used in the amendment, but it's not immediately obvious where it is, and we eventually gave up the quest to find out if our fundamental rights had been crucially eroded when the next World Cup match started.

    On a brighter note, however, the same amendment ratified the principle that spam email postings should be 'opt-in' rather than 'opt-out'. Of course, the ruling will only apply to EU-based spammers who care about the law, but it's a start.
  • The UK Government has been forthright in trying to get people to file their tax returns online, even to the extent of considering forcing companies to file electronically. Unfortunately, however, the Inland Revenue site has just been shut down, following complaints that users were able to see other people's information. The fact that the company in charge of the Inland Revenue's IT is EDS may go some way to explaining the cockup.
  • Those who are interested in the free and open source software movements should find fascinating the letter (purportedly) from Peruvian Congressman David Villanueva Nuñez to Microsoft Peru, and now widely distributed on the Internet. This letter offers a line-by-line rebuttal of a communication from Microsoft complaining about a bill before the Peruvian government to mandate open source software for all governmental projects. The text of the letter is available at:
  • This wasn't a good month for the UK's Air Traffic Control, as its system went down again to leave many passengers stranded at airports. According to reports, the culprit in this case was a 'routine upgrade', which had some unexpected rogue effects. As there are many such routine upgrades to come in the future, we can probably expect this problem to recur.

    Interestingly enough, some of the Softsteel team were once taught by the guy who managed the project to create the original Air Traffic Control system in the UK, and he swore blind that the new system had turned into a horrible mess.
  • The newspapers were full of a cyberstalker this month, a man who had been caught sending abusive emails to someone he was at school with (a brief example of the stalker's oevre: "You probably don't remember me, but I haven't forgotten you. So you're still into your wanky dungeons and dragons shit... Clearly you have lived up to your full potential: a self-obsessed arsehole with bad kidneys.") Sadly, this idiot didn't even take the trouble to find an open relay, or hijack a dubious online mailing script, but just sent the emails in complete ignorance of the fact that they can be rather easily traced. We can only hope that next time he'll do it right.

Web-Wide World

  • We know, many of the stories are apocryphal or just plain untrue, but the Darwin Awards ( is always good fun, and does provide useful filler material for newspapers and magazines (as well as IT newsletters).
  • According to IT law specialists Eversheds, it is the case that under Quebec law, "all catalogues, brochures, folders, commercial directories and 'similar publications' are to be in French. A version can be provided in another language as long as it is not as prominent as the French version." A recent court ruling in Quebec has now confirmed that this law also applies to websites, and has also suggested that websites aimed at Quebec but hosted outside the province should fall under the law. Quite how they're planning to enforce it we don't know.

Wired World

  • [Focus: VeriSign]

    The company VeriSign is best known for providing online security services. For instance, when you visit a 'secure' website, there is a good chance that the transmission security between the webserver and your browser is underpinned by an encryption key provided by Verisign.

    One would expect, then, that trust is a big issue for VeriSign. This expectation is supported by the VeriSign website, where the logo is decorated with the phrase "the value of trust", and a banner advert (inaccurately) informs visitors that "Trust is the foundation of every human relationship".

    Security is not all that VeriSign deals in, however. As part of its ongoing mission to control the infrastructure of the web, it acquired Network Solutions Inc., the major domain name authority, in the year 2000. What this means is that VeriSign is in charge of maintaining the registry of domains that end in .com, .net, .org (as well as others). VeriSign also acts as one of the many registrars for these domains, where a registrar is a company authorised to change and update the registry.

    Sadly, the domain-related side of VeriSign business does not seem to have read all the stuff about 'trust' that the security-related side depends upon. We'll get to more widely-distributed criticisms shortly, but first off we have our own particular tale of woe concerning the 'trustworthy' VeriSign service.

    We recently had reason to take over the ownership of a .com website that we manage for a client. Since the domain registration is handled by VeriSign, we filled in the forms it provides, and waited for the change in ownership to go through. On receiving this form, however, VeriSign took it upon itself to map the domain to a default 'pending' website. So from the point of view of our client, its website just disappeared.

    Luckily, it took our man Gavin Boyce (note that name) only a couple of days to persuade VeriSign to reverse its error. Not being best pleased by the cock-up, Gavin then pushed for an explanation as to what had gone wrong. An extended email discussion ensued, in which the clearest statement by VeriSign employee Patty Mallea was the following masterpiece of style and erudition:

    "The problem was your servers don't have a coordinator, the system don't take them and I forget to tell you or put back in your web side, for avoid future problems like this talk to your company servers (IP address)"

    At this point the 'shortness of life' clause came into play, and Gavin let the matter drop. However, in the interests of fairness to VeriSign we should report that Gavin did subsequently receive a perfectly acceptable confirmation of the change of ownership. So it's probably just peevish to complain that it was addressed to "Gary Shawkey".

    Sadly, we are not alone in having websites disappeared by VeriSign. According to numerous online reports, web-designer Leslie Harpold was recently the victim of a fraud which allowed someone else to take ownership of her domain And because VeriSign is unable to locate the fax on which they reassigned the domain, they will not now hand it back.

    Responding angrily to this situation, annoyed netizens have issued a request for a 'Google bomb', in which people are encouraged to set up links using the word 'VeriSign' to a critical site. The idea is that if enough people do this, then the first hit on a Google search for 'VeriSign' will be the critical site. Just to make things clear, the code to provide such a link is <a href="">VeriSign</a>, and the result will look something like this: VeriSign.

    Not content with causing problems via systemic slackness, however, VeriSign has also been busy blackening its name proactively. That is, it has been sending out to customers of rival registrars adverts that appear to be domain renewal invoices. Customers who fail to read the small print (and may in any case be confused between VeriSign's twin functions as registrar and registry) find themselves unwittingly transferring their domain registration to VeriSign. As a result of this sharp practice, the rival registrar Inc. is now suing VeriSign for damages.

    Given that VeriSign is a company which literally banks on the trustworthiness of its name, you have to wonder what going on. We can only hope that things improve soon (if not for our sake, then for the sake of poor Gary Shawkey).
  • For some time now, there have been various wide-scale distributed computing projects running (see newsletters passim). The first of these to come to our attention was in aid of the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI) project, whereby people volunteered their computers to help run statistical analyses on electromagnetic radiation from space. Later on, the company United Devices came to the fore. This started in October 2000, and began setting up projects to help find cancer cures, treatments for anthrax, and other such worthy causes.

    Softsteel Solutions is proud to be part of the United Devices project to find a cure for cancer. This project involves crunching numbers for biochemical analysies of various important molecules, in order to reveal potentially useful 'interactions' between these molecules (which is about as far as we can follow the science). Since we recently reinstalled the software on new computers, we have contributed 702 hours of Central Processing Unit (CPU) time to the project, where CPU time is a measure of the total time each computer's CPU has been in use by the project software.

    The Softsteel contribution is, however, just a tiny drop in the ocean of processing power being tapped by United Devices. The following statistic gives an idea of the extent of the processing power: this month the total CPU time logged across all of the United Devices projects since inception reached one billion (1,000,000,000) hours.
  • One of the effects of the Internet is to allow hitherto discrete worlds to collide. There was an amusing example of this this month, when the women of the Knitting and Crochet Guild found their newsletter 'Slipknot' under fire from fans of the US band of the same name. Apparently the damage added up to a number of rude and obscene emails sent by the tragic 'nu metal' fans - presumably because they were worried that they'd get halfway through producing a throw cushion before they realised they were at the wrong gig.
  • According to reports, Bertelsmann, the German media company that backed Napster in its initial trial (see newsletters passim) is now to buy it for around 8 million USD. It seems likely that what Bertelsmann is most interested in is the Napster brand, since the peer-to-peer (P2P) architecture that it uses isn't the most technologically advanced. But it's not clear even how much the brand is worth; for users who were around during the height of its popularity, the current neutered version of Napster reeks of sell-out. We shall have to see.
  • The Klez-H virus is the most virulent of the Klez worm family (thoughtful virus writers now make development kits to help propogate these things), and according to reports from anti-virus companies it is now also the most widespread virus ever. Although it never had the immediate impact of a SirCam or LoveBug, its ability to vary the look of the emails which carry it is allowing it to bypass many checks.

    And while we're on the topic of viruses, you should note that there's something doing the rounds claiming to be an XBox emulator. It really isn't.

Wireless World

  • The big story of the month was Vodafone's posting of a 13.5 billion GBP pre-tax loss (some 6 billion of which was due to writing off the value of investments gone bad in the current telecomm.s slump). Behind this mammoth loss, however, overall turnover and profit was up, and the share price actually climbed in response to the news.

Hard World

  • Tom's Hardware has been doing some more benchmarking comparisons of the latest Intel Pentium and AMD Athlon XP chips. Its results show that the latest Pentium (P4 / 2553) is pulling well away from the latest Athlon (2100+) in performance terms, although AMD still provides the most economical option. The full story is available at:

Soft World

  • The free software 'Open Office' project this month reached a 1.0 release version, and is available for download from Designed as an alternative to MS Office, Open Office provides a word processor, a spreadsheet, a presentation tool (like Powerpoint), a graphics tool, and an HTML editor. In most cases it will happily import files made from its Microsoft alternatives, and it has a nice feel to it. We are aware of a few outstanding bugs, but these should probably be ironed out a whole lot quicker than the bugs in MS Office. Also - did we mention this before? - it's free.
  • Macromedia has recently unveiled its new set of web content development tools - Macromedia Studio MX. This is made up of new versions of Dreamweaver, Flash, Fireworks, Freehand and Cold Fusion, all of which have been redesigned with an eye to the 'web services' environment. Interestingly, Cold Fusion has now been rewritten entirely in Java. Prices range from 799 USD for the Professional edition, to 5000 USD for the Enterprise edition.

    While we're on Macromedia, let's just note the odd tit-for-tat court cases it's been going through with Adobe this month. Initially Macromedia was forced to pay 2.8 million USD for some pointless 'patent infringement' case of the kind that the US loves, but then won 4.9 million back over a related pointless infringement. The two companies are soon to be engaged upon another such case (the decider, presumably, unless they're going for best of five), and we can confidently predict that the winner will be the lawyers.

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