April 2003

Real World
Wired World
Hard World
Wireless World
Soft World

Real World

  • In a recent survey carried out for the electoral commission, 55 percent of respondents said that they would be more likely to vote if electronic voting was available. And thus, even though the pilot studies don't show anything like this kind of gain, it seems that there's going to be more electronic voting. Which is surely great news - at long last, there will be a voice for that vast demographic of people who are politically informed but whom nature has made too idle to walk to a polling station or arrange for a postal vote.

    Please excuse the moan, but this year the UK Government has spent 18.5 million pounds on quite small-scale e-voting pilots. We can't imagine the amount of money that would have to be spent to roll it out generally, to replace a well-understood, simple, fairly secure system that takes about ten minutes out of people's lives every couple of years, with a complex, expensive and hard-to-secure system.

    There's a fairly neutral article about this at http://society.guardian.co.uk/localgovelections/story/0,8150,945898,00.html, and a very scary article, outlining all of the potential problems with e-voting, at http://www.iht.com/articles/94643.html.
  • Some computer privacy advocates recently inaugurated the 'Stupid Security Awards' (see http://www.privacyinternational.org/activities/stupidsecurity/). We are proud to be able to report that from a field containing over 5000 entries, the UK's Heathrow Airport gained the prestigious 'Most Inexplicably Stupid' award. This gong was gained for the case in which customs became suspicious of a customer travelling with a box marked 'Gunpowder'. After poking around inside the box, the eagle-eyed security types satisfied themselves that it contained only loose-leaf Chinese Gunpowder tea, and accepted that this wasn't on their list of controlled substances. However, to the customer's bemusement they still decided to confiscate the *box*, and returned the tea in a handy plastic bag.
  • UK banks, building societies and other such usurers are planning to introduce 'Chip and PIN' credit and debit cards. Instead of signing a receipt, customers will tap a four-digit number into an appropriately shielded machine to authorise their transactions (or, presumably, do something similar online). Similar systems in France have reportedly cut credit card fraud significantly.

    The pilot for this new system will start in Northampton this May, and full coverage is expected by 2005.
  • In another, widely reported survey of office workers, 90 percent of respondents managed to give away their workplace login password to the surveyor in exchange for 'a cheap pen'. Not that these passwords were too hard to guess in any case - about half of them fell into the following categories: the word 'password', their name, their date of birth, the football team they support.

Wired World

  • This month the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) launched suits against four US college students for allegedly running 'Napster-style' systems on their university networks, thus facilitating the illegal sharing of music files. Because the RIAA is claiming substantial damages per work-infringed, this has allowed those writing up the story to claim that the RIAA is looking for "up to ninety seven billion, eight hundred million" dollars from these students. In fact, it looks to us as if this is much too high - the RIAA is probably after just for the odd billion - but you have to admire the ridiculously-high-yet-still-oddly-specific nature of the quoted figure.

    Anyway, it looks like the RIAA's claim against the students of 'contributory infringement' is very flimsy. The systems in question merely index the filenames found in the open shares on their local networks, and then allow users to locate these files through a web-based search form. As is pointed out in a nice commentary on the suits (http://www.ews.uiuc.edu/~zrosen/), you can do something very similar with functionality built into Windows XP. Furthermore, we note that recently a Los Angeles District Court Judge has dismissed similar claims against P2P file-sharing applications Grokster and StreamCast (see http://www.theregister.co.uk/content/6/30412.html).

    And while we're on the RIAA, we should note the recent, cynicism-fuelling reports that its chief executive Hilary Rosen is helping to draft the copyright legislation for the new regime in Iraq. These claims, made by investigative reporter Gregory Palast, were reported in The Register (http://www.theregister.co.uk/content/6/30441.html"), from which we copy the following paragraph under the rules governing 'fair use':

    "Who's really going to win this war? It looks like Madonna," Palast told Democracy Now radio. "Where before, they feared Saddam Hussein, now they have to fear Sony Records will chop off their hands if they bootleg a Madonna album."
  • In ADSL news, one of our newsletter recipients has been sending us press releases about Zen Internet (possibly by way of revenge). And whilst we wouldn't normally admit to an interest in unsolicited press releases, these do have the interesting feature - see http://www.zenadsl.com/ - of a claimed 'no penalty one month minimum contract', which could be useful for those needing a short-term connection or those who just want to dip their toes in the sea of broadband data. But we don't know anything else about Zen.

    BT is also planning to do something it calls 'Exchange Activate' (see http://www.sir-george-young.org.uk/pages/bt-exchangeactivate030226.htm). With this, an ISP or other 'sponsoring body' can connect blocks of 30 customers to exchanges which have not been otherwise set up for ADSL. Assuming that the pricing works out OK, this should provide a way to bring ADSL into areas of lower demand.

    And just in case you're annoyed about the costs of broad(ish)band in the UK, especially compared to places like Korea, try comparing our situation to that of Greece. Reported prices for a standard 512kbps ADSL service work out at 70 UKP a month with a 90 UKP activation fee. And these costs are *wholesale*, not retail, so keep on adding.
  • Apparently, Microsoft, Yahoo and AOL are soon to 'declare war on spam' (it's not yet clear if this means that they're going to do something about it or that they're going to avoid doing something about it while maintaining a positive media image). Worryingly, however, their shared enemy (the 'axis of email'?) is showing disturbing signs of waging an increasingly unconventional campaign. For there have been an increasing number of reports of trojan horses being used to route spam through innocent users' mail account, so bypassing the network blacklists maintained by ISPs.

    Incidentally, there is a nice, if brief article on the evolution of spam available at http://www.americanscientist.org/Issues/Comsci03/03-05Hayes.html. And for those of you who remember the ISP that was fighting spam with the awesome poetical power of the haiku (see the Sept 2002 issue of the newsletter), we note with pride that the first prosecutions are just starting to happen.
  • Apple has introduced a new downloadable music service. Individual tracks are about a dollar a go, and currently you can only access it from a US-based Mac. There's not much more to the story than that, but it's been clogging up all the news site for weeks.
  • Nominet, the registry for the .uk domain, has decided to start charging 35 UKP for transfer of .uk domain names. To date it has performed these transfers for free, but now it says that the administrative burden has grown too large. The charge will be introduced on May 19th, so you may still have time to get in under the wire.

Hard World

  • A while ago we noted that there were a number of moves towards producing '3D' displays for computers. None of them worked like the display on show at http://www.actuality-systems.com/volumetric3d.php3, though. As we understand it, this comprises a hollow glass sphere inside which there is a transparent spinning disk which can emit light throughout its surface. As the disk spins, the lights go on and off at the right places to build up a 3D visual image. Fun.

Wireless World

  • According to online news site The Register, Westminster Council is planning a blanket coverage of Soho with 802.11b (WiFi) network points. The immediate plan is to use this for council employees to access council services, but the long-term plan is to act as a local ISP for residents. Not surprisingly, this has led to a certain amount of squealing by those with access points already installed.

Soft World

  • Sometimes the pace of innovation in the computer world is startling, and one gazes on the latest invention with numinous awe and shocked admiration. So it was for us when we learned that someone has put together an assembly language with which you can code entirely in rude words. For more details see http://www.chilliwilli.co.uk/ff/.
  • Windows Server 2003 arrived, in a fairly muted way, to a fairly muted reception. Security should be tighter, since most services are turned off by default. Support for 64-bit processors is a big thing, and there are also important changes to Active Directory and Internet Information Services. But people are generally using the mantra 'evolutionary not revolutionary'.

Link Building Information