September 2002

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

Real World

  • This month saw top search-engines Google and Altavista blocked to their web-surfing population by the Chinese government (a story that happy sub-editors everywhere have dubbed 'the great firewall of China').

    Apart from agreeing that the blockade was timed to coincide with the Communist party conference, commentators had different - and fairly unsubstantiated - views as to why these particular search engines were targeted. According to the Guardian, it may have been the prominence in Google rankings of a 'Slap the Evil Dictator Jiang Zemin' game. According to the Register, it may have been the feature of these search engines that provides access to archived copies of sites banned in China.

    At the time of writing, the blanket ban of Google and Altavista appears to be over. There are no hard facts as to why this might be, but the predominent theory is that China has now implemented more subtle web filtering techniques, based upon the content of incoming material rather than the location of the material.

    Presumably things are going to become more interesting if peer-to-peer browsers with transmission security (encryption of material moving between the browsers) take off. For in this case, it will be difficult-to-impossible to censor material based on content or location. Perhaps the Chinese government will just try to ban such things altogether, but for various reasons this isn't going to be easy.
  • This was also the month that Greece unwittingly banned all computer games. Filled with righteous wrath against the evils of online gambling, the Greek government decided to pass a law against it. But in the rush to legislation, it apparently failed to distinguish between the bad computer games that needed banning, and any other kind of computer games.

    Faced with the new law, the Greek police decided against independent thought and in favour of prosecuting some Internet cafes which were providing harmless amusements (one gets images of dodgy looking students sidling up to cafe owners saying 'have you got any, you know ... Tetris?'). Quite possibly they reasoned that 'soft' games were gateway games to increasingly 'hard' games.

    In any case, sense soon prevailed when a judge ruled the new law unconstitutional. But then nonsense reprevailed when this ruling was overturned by a higher court. The situation at present is that the Greek Government has issued a statement making clear the intended limitations of the law but the law itself remains on the statute books.
  • In the wake of the Soham tragedy, in which two small girls were killed by abductors, Professor Kevin Warwick of Reading University was given prominence in the press when he unveiled a plan to implant an electronic tag in the arm of a child. The idea behind the plan, obviously, was to allow the child to be located if it ever went missing.

    Despite the mainstream publicity surrounding Warwick's plan, it was left up to online IT news site The Register - which has a long-running antipathy towards the man it calls Cap'n Cyborg - to complain that his idea made no sense. For according to Warwick's plan, the implanted tracking device was supposed to communicate via the GSM network (as standard mobile phones do). But The Register claims - and has not been refuted in this by any Warwick apologist - that is not technologically possible to make a GSM device both small enough to implant, but with enough power to remain active for any length of time.

    The smallest GSM devices commercially available run off batteries, and from these derive a lifetime shorter than two days. So if Warwick's implant does use the GSM network (and does not comprise an amazing advance in the state of the art), it looks like the implant will have to transmit to a GSM device carried on the child's person, which will then boost the signal. But then, what exactly is the advantage in having the implant over carrying a mobile phone (or some other tracking device such as that reported in Not to mention the fun any kidnappers might have in trying to dig out that implant...

Web-Wide World

  • Top search-engine Google ( has promoted its beta 'news search' feature to a tab on its front page. The service, which sorts and archives over four thousand news sources, allows one to see in an instant the different angles that the press is taking on any given story - invaluable, for instance, if you're knocking together a monthly IT news roundup. It's also good if you just want to wallow in reams of reportage of Europe's wonderful Ryder Cup victory over the US.
  • The spoof site at has become something of a minor cause celebre. Satirising the media frenzy over paedophilia in a fairly unsubtle way, it answers the question 'how can I help?' with the suggestion 'Simple! You can show your support by joining an organised mob, starting your own mob or by signing our petition for change...'. Such advice was not greatly welcomed by the police, however, who briefly tried to have the site taken down on the grounds of inciting violence. But in the end the prospect of looking stupid in court proved too worrying, so they backed off and the site remains up.

Wired World

  • We hope you don't mind if we take the opportunity for a few paragraphs just to slag off BT on personal grounds. For you see, whilst waiting for clever things to happen involving a broadband connection and a LAN, one of our computers is still connecting to the Internet using a standard dialup connection. But the connection speed it is getting is only about that of a 28 Kb/s modem, rather than a 56 Kb/s modem.

    Why is this? Well, according to the fifth person we got transferred through to at BT, the line is a 'DAX' line, which is where BT has taken a normal line and split it in two to create an extra line without anyone doing work and getting all sweaty. Since these two new lines can each happily carry a voice transmission (for which you need only around 14 Kb/s), BT claims that both lines satisfy its contractual requirements, and it thus has no reason nor inclination to replace them.

    Sadly, when the fifth person we talked to at BT tried to transfer us to someone higher up the evolutionary tree, the connection snapped. So we weren't able to ask anyone interesting questions like: if all you need is 14 Kb/s, then why do normal lines get more bandwidth? Why aren't all lines DAX lines? And: when will this webpage actually finish downloading?
  • And now for a monthly spam update.

    We have noticed an annoying trend in the unsolicited commercial email ('spam') we have been receiving recently. This is for spam emails to contain the claim that the email just is not spam, or that the authors never do send out email unless it is explicitly solicited. Presumably there is some cunning legal reason for spammers to include such stuff, but it does rather add insult to injury. Rather like getting beaten up and then having gently pressed into your hand a note saying 'This was not a mugging; we never knowingly visit violence upon people unless they explicitly request it.'

    Heartening noises were this month heard from Labour MP Derek Wyatt, whose criticisms of (especially pornographic) spam were widely reported. But these noises have yet to translate into any action, and the issue is not even flagged up on his Internet site.

    Spreading our net further afield, the Japanese wireless service DoCoMo has come up with a cunning ploy. Apparently, a recent Japanese law requires all spam email to contain the subject line 'mishodaku kokoku', meaning unsolicited advertisement. So DoCoMo plans to simply block all emails containing this subject line.

    An alternative approach, albeit with a similarly Oriental flavour, is being adopted by Dutch ISP Habeas. Strange as it sounds, the ISP embeds haikus (three-line, seventeen-syllable poems) within authorised emails, and has its mail servers throw out anything without these haikus. Of course, spammers can easily defeat this protection by inserting the haikus themselves, but this exposes them not just to anti-spamming legislation (such as there is), but also richer and more entrenched laws covering copyright and trademark protection.

    The Habeas haikus do not, however, include the following ones, which are just silly:
  • In last month's newsletter we noted that BT Broadband has taken to writing warning letters to users of peer-to-peer (P2P) file-sharing applications like KaZaA and Gnutella. The ostensible reason for such warnings is that BT Broadband is are worried about copyright infringements.

    A recent report suggests, however, that there might be an ulterior motive to BT Broadband's dislike of the P2P applications. The report, by Sandvine Inc (a synopsis can be found at:, suggests that P2P traffic accounts for "up to 60%" of the total traffic on any service provider network. Since we haven't gone through the entire white paper, we can't comment upon how weaselly these words 'up to' are, but the figure of 60% is impressively high.

    Interestingly, Sandvine claims that much of the P2P bandwidth is not actually taken up by users uploading and downloading files; rather, what hogs the network is all the background chatter that the P2P applications indulge in. This background bandwidth use is exacerbated by the fact that P2P applications are not generally set up to worry about network 'nearness' (so a node located in a different hemisphere is not distinguished from a node on the same Local Area Network, and the application is as likely to talk to the former as the latter). This, incidentally, is where Sandvine is trying to make its money, by selling kit that will reorganise P2P networks to try nearest nodes first.
  • Internet Service Provider (ISP) BT Openworld is reportedly about to give up claiming that its unmetered dialup service is available '24/7'. Instead, it is to move to a model in which users are given 150 unmetered hours a month, and any use over this figure will incur further charges.

    According to BT Openworld, the reason for this change is that some people are taking literally the offer of unmetered access and, well, using it a lot. This, apparently, is 'unfair'.

    Other ISPs are not as yet following BT Openworld's lead (although some have been unofficially weaning off heavy users), but there is muttering that BT Broadband may be preparing to cap usage on its ADSL service.

Wireless World

  • A number of wireless network operators - Qualcomm, Nortel and Lucent - have recently decided to rebrand their '2.5G' services as '3G'. The idea behind this move seems to be that the companies really wanted to offer 3G services, but on reflection found that it was a) a lot of hard work to improve their networks, but b) really easy to change the name of their existing networks. Basically, it's a similar idea to the one that this author used to become a famous multimillionaire footballer yesterday afternoon.

    The reason that the companies involved think that they can get away with this move stems from the fact that there is a certain amount of vagueness in the various generational definitions. 'Second generation' - '2G' - was supposed to represent standard digital networks, a step improvement over analogue networks. 'Third generation' - '3G' - was supposed to represent a further step improvement of packet-switched, broadband networks. So when wireless boffins came up with a way of building packet-switching on top of the existing 2G networks, giving only somewhat improved speeds, it was thought important to distinguish these from true broadband 3G networks by terming them '2.5G'. But if you can be persuaded to downgrade your expectations of 'broadband', then presumably you can accept 2.5G networks as 3G.

Hard World

  • The Register recently carried a story ( about Hewlett Packard's success in creating a 64-bit memory device using molecular devices (rather than the frankly bulky silicon-based stuff we have at the moment). According to the report, the device takes us a step closer to molecular-based electronics, which as well as being teeny and fast, should also be cheaper to manufacture.
  • Major chip manufacturer Intel has been saying some interesting things about the future features of its CPUs. Instead of just concentrating on ever higher clock speeds, new generation chips will support different types of features (including, in the medium term, security features). One of these new features - so-called 'hyperthreading' technology - is due to appear in all Pentium 4 chips with clock speeds of 3GHz plus.

    According to reports, hyperthreading allows multi-threaded programs to view the single CPU as two 'virtual' CPUs. To be honest, our small brains are not entirely sure why this should aid execution speed (why can't the optimisation be done by the compiler?), but apparently it does, resulting in potential 25 - 30 percent speed gains.

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