October 2002

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

Real World

  • For some time now South Korea has been the accepted broadband centre of the world. A key figure that gets bandied around is this: 67 percent of S.Korean households currently have broadband connections, and these typically deliver 2 Mbps (compared to the standard UK ADSL rate of 512 Kbps). S.Koreans use this connectivity for things like education, video-on-demand, and online gaming (although sometimes to excess - there have been a number of stories recently about gamers dropping down dead after 80+ hour sessions).

    A recent report put together by Brunel University and the Dept. of Trade and Industry highlights a number of reasons for S.Korea's broadband cornucopia. One of the most interesting reasons highlighted is the large amounts of money that the S.Korean government has invested in its broadband revolution, totalling over 3 billion dollars in direct and indirect funding. According to the Guardian Online (whose journalist had just been on an expenses-payed junket, natch):

    All this is particularly impressive because Korea started from a much worse position than the UK. In 1997, tens of thousands of Koreans were thrown out of work by a foreign exchange crisis, and soup kitchens were opened up in Seoul's city parks. On November 21, the government had to ask the International Monetary Fund for $58bn in emergency loans, and put itself under the IMF's financial management. However, the crisis must have reinforced the 'digital or die' mentality that helped the nation changed course.

    It is frustrating, however (and one imagines that they'd do things better in Korea) that the Brunel / DTI report doesn't itself seem to be available online. Searching under its title 'Investigating broadband technology deployment in South Korea' at each of the DTI and Brunel University draws blanks, and Google doesn't locate it anywhere else. We've therefore had to rely, in our usual way, on second-hand sources.

    The main reason this is annoying is that we want to know if S.Korea has done the right thing in relation to broadband provision, and whether, therefore, the UK should copy it. In particular, should the UK take the Keynesian route of investment in broadband, or is S.Korea just in the midst of a broadband bubble? And for that matter, how has the S.Korean government managed to make all this investment in broadband in the first place, if it is under the thumb of the IMF? According to this author's absurdly shallow and stereotyped understanding of the IMF, it is all about monetarist austerity. Perhaps the DTI report holds answers to these questions, but we don't know because it's not available.
  • Last year's UK Anti-Terrorism Act allowed for Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to retain customers' traffic data for extended periods of time. Such data includes things like the web sites one visits, the geographical location of one's mobile phone, the recipients of one's emails, etc. - everything apart from any actual content. You may recall that David Blunkett also tried to push through legislation allowing everyone and his dog to access this data without a warrant, but then gave this up when his son said that it was a bad idea.

    There have been recent reports that the Internet Service Providers Association (ISPA) is refusing, on behalf of its members, voluntarily to implement such data retention, citing worries about privacy and cost. We wait now to see if Blunkett will exercise his powers to enforce this data retention.

Web-Wide World

  • Google, the search-engine of champions, recently tweaked its ranking algorithm. To give some background: Google tries to ensure that more 'popular' websites feature higher in the results for appropriate searches. It measures this popularity using its 'page ranking' algorithm, which looks at who is linking to whom on the web. If your site has lots of links from other sites, then you will be ranked as comparatively popular. And if these linking sites are themselves popular, then you get to bask in their reflected glory.

    One of the motivating factors behind Google's tweak was the fact that web-logs were coming too high in search results. Such sites tend not to contain detailed information about searched-for topics, but still receive high Google page rankings based upon the dense cross-linking they indulge in. The feedback on whether Google's changes managed to address the blogging issue satisfactorily, however, has been mixed.

    One result of these tweaks, however, is that Google now faces a widely-publicised lawsuit. The litigants (we'd rather not give them any more publicity by naming them) have in the last few years built up a business, firstly by inflating the page rankings of sites by cross-linking; and secondly by selling advertising on highly ranked sites. Following Google's tweaks, however, the page rankings on this company's prestige sites dropped significantly, with knock-on effects on their marketability.

    Nobody really thinks that this lawsuit has any kind of chance. And this is widely applauded, since the litigants are generally disliked (according to one commentator: "when your 'business' consists of shoplifting and the corner store installs a security camera, you're going to go out of business quickly enough that an injunction is your only hope."). But it does, perhaps, raise a slight public-interest question about the power that companies like Google have to influence what is seen on the Web.

    And while we're on the subject of search engines, we'd like to note the useful functionality available at Alexa (http://www.alexa.com/). Using data harvested from its 'community', members of which voluntarily install the Alexa web tracking technology, it provides some interesting statistics about particular sites. For example, it gives you a rating (the Softsteel site is currently 417,878th, but we're pulling out all the stops to make it to 417,877th), and a list of the other sites also visited by people who visit your site.
  • A couple of websites of profound and immediate importance have come to our attention. Firstly: if you've ever been annoyed by the odd habits of your partner, try http://homepage.ntlworld.com/mil.millington/things.html and learn how much more frustrating life can be if you are a humourist journalist.

    Secondly: if, like us, you've ever wondered who would win in a fight between Rocky and Rambo, or between William Wallace and Groundskeeper Willie from The Simpsons, or in a combined mathematical / sprint challenge between Forrest Gump and Rainman, then you should visit http://www.grudge-match.com/History/index.html for in-depth debate on these, and similar weighty questions.

Wired World

  • A big welcome back to our much-loved 'media virus of the month' slot. This month the winner was the mass-mailin', firewall-eatin', keystroke-loggin' Bugbear. We received three copies on the third of this month, each from a different company, and were amazed that there could be three people in the world willing to double-click on unsolicited executable email attachments. But apparently there were many more.
  • This month saw the largest attack to date on the infrastructure of the Internet. The attack was of the 'distributed denial of service' (DDOS) form, whereby numerous hacked computers are simultaneously ordered to flood a target computer with Internet traffic. The targets in this case were the thirteen Domain Name Service (DNS) root servers.

    The basic addressing system of the Internet involves IP numbers (an example being Each computer on the Internet is assigned a unique IP address (ignoring various complexities), and this allows traffic to be aimed at particular computers. The DNS system basically provides a mapping between IP numbers and more user-friendly computer names such as 'www.softsteel.co.uk', so that users don't have to remember IP numbers.

    The organisation of the DNS system is hierarchical, and when any DNS server doesn't know the answer to a query it sends the query up the hierarchy. At the top of the hierarchy are the root servers, which determine the basic architecture of domains on the Internet. There are thirteen of these root servers, all of which carry the same information, in order to provide the system with robustness through redundancy.

    When the hour-long attack occurred, only four or five of the root DNS servers remained in operation. Given the redundancy in the system, this level of operation was sufficient to allow mostly normal use of the Internet, with reports of slowdowns being sporadic. Had the attack been more intense, or lasted a little longer, however, reports suggest that Internet usage may have been significantly hit. As yet there are no reports about who was responsible for the attack.
  • Digital Rights Management (DRM) for music received a boost this month, with the company On Demand Distribution (OD2) promoting its Digital Download Day. All users who signed up for it were offered five pounds worth of downloads, where one pence gets you streaming audio, ten pence gets you a track download, and one pound allows you to burn the track to a CD. At least, that was the plan. In the event - as happens so often, including the recent fiasco with the Nectar reward card - the servers weren't up to coping with the demand. I, for one, never got one penny of free music, even though I signed up for it several times, using several different names and email addresses. Ahem.

Wireless World

  • This month we - the gentle Softsteel folk - began our Great Wireless Revolution. As with most revolutions, this one was driven by a dissatisfaction with the current regime, plus an idealistic vision of the future. But, as revolutionaries often discover, such utopian idealism can quickly descend into carnage, pitting father against son, brother against brother, in a bloody riot of looting and murder. Or at least - as in our case - into some really quite irksome annoyances.

    It all began with an offer from Business Insight (http://www.business-insight.net/), a scheme providing free broadband Internet access for small businesses in Yorkshire and the Humber. This scheme uses, as its sole provider, satellite broadband outfit Aramiska (http://www.aramiska.com/). Scenting a free lunch, we signed up, were accepted, and waited for a satellite dish installation date.

    Now, in order to share the broadband connection between the small number of machines chez Softsteel, we also decided that it was time to set up a wireless local area network (LAN). So we ordered some wireless kit - an 802.11b (WiFi) wireless access point, plus some PCI cards - and waited for delivery. Luckily, it turned out that delivery of this kit would be just before the dish installation date. This was important, because the network appliance (a router / firewall box) coming with the dish would need to plug into our LAN using the Ethernet connection in the wireless access point.

    This is where things began to go downhill. Firstly, the delivery of our networking kit failed to include the wireless access point, which gave rise to certain panicked scrambling. Then, when the Aramiska dish installation team turned up (at entirely the wrong time) it turned out that this wasn't a problem anyway, because they had forgotten the network appliance box.

    And then the problem became redundant, because (after sucking substantial amounts of air between their teeth) the installers informed us that we couldn't have the dish because of being on a hill. Their explanation was that the satellite is perched somewhere on the horizon (rather than being, for instance, in the sky), and thus minor geological undulations throw it right off.

    Annoyed at this loss of our free broadband Internet connection, we decided (between playing help-desk yoyo with the wireless kit suppliers) to set up an ADSL connection instead. It wouldn't be as good, and we'd have to pay for it, but still: must join the broadband revolution. So we determined that we had at least one non-DAX line to install ADSL on (see previous newsletter for DAX grievances), got quotes, etc, etc.

    Then, just before signing the ADSL contract, a second set of dish installers turned up, entirely without warning, claiming that they'd come to give a second opinion. Oddly, this lot thought that the satellite was less near to the horizon, and more at a forty-five degree angle to the flat. They therefore determined that we could have the dish after all. Presumably this is some kind of installation good-cop / bad-cop routine they have going.

    This new team then, and very professionally, installed the dish. Of course, they didn't have the modem for the dish - for then we might actually have been able to use the damn thing - but they did say that it should turn up sometime soon. So we are now waiting, hoping against hope that the modem will appear this side of spring. In the meantime, we're keeping those ADSL contracts handy.

Hard World

  • We have read a number of things recently about advances in 'bendy' electronics. Firstly, Cambridge Display Technology (CDT) is promising to put 'roll up computer and TV screens' on the market within three years. CDT's screens are made by depositing light emitting polymers onto materials using ink-jet technology, and its announcement comes as a result of its acquisition of new, more efficient polymers from its rivals.

    Secondly, a recent New Scientist article describes ways in which 'plastic electronic' circuits can be printed onto random items. These circuits involve semi-conducting polymers, which are much less efficient than silicon, but are somewhat bendier and can be printed over large surfaces. Such circuits could be put inconspicuously onto almost anything - wallpaper, say, even windows, since they can be made almost transparent - but nobody yet has a clear idea as to how this might be useful.

Soft World

  • The stories keep coming about Linux making inroads into the IT market. One such of these is the fact that India - one of the high-tech success stories of modern times - is now promoting Linux and open source software generally as the de facto standard in its universities and engineering colleges. Another is that a 'secure linux desktop' is being trialled by the UK police, and is in line to be implemented on 60,000 desktops throughout the country. In addition to this, Lindows (the partial open source port of Windows) is gradually gaining in popularity, with Evesham now providing Lindows-installed computers (base units only) at 249GBP.

    Microsoft continues to cast itself against type by moving towards standards compliance with its .Net languages. Firstly, the Common Language Infrastructure (CLI) is under accreditation by the International Standards Organisation (ISO) after already having been accepted by the European Computer Manufacturers' Association (ECMA). Secondly, Microsoft's version of C++.Net is being updated so that it becomes much more standards compliant than its current, poor, ranking. Why is Microsoft doing this? Well, take your pick between a) Microsoft has recognised the inherent goodness of open standards and is seeking to improve the world, and b) it's all part of some cunning deception leading to a global military coup headed by Bill Gates.

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