February 2003

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

Real World

  • Over the last couple of months Gary Kasparov has been acting as the champion of the organic world against the coldly calculated challenge of the machines. We all know, of course, how this battle will end - the Internet will acquire self-consciousness, initiate nuclear armageddon, and release a range of remorseless, killer catchphrases on the few remaining survivors - but it is nice to report that the machines aren't on top quite yet. In a series of six chess games against 'Deep Junior', Kasparov won one, lost one and drew four, thus squaring the match. For more details of the matches, see http://www.x3dworld.com/Entertainment/CI_X3DEvnt_MvM_Big_Frameset.html.
  • The European Union has agreed that European airlines must allow the US authorities a ccess to detailed passenger data on passengers flying to the US. According to a report in online news site the Register, the US authorities will be given direct access to the airlines' computers so that they can stop a suspect even before they've boarded the plane.

    The data accessed are to include a passenger's name, itinerary, contact phone number, credit card numbers, etc, as well as any special dietary requirements or other such personal information held by the airline on its Passenger Name Record. The move is part of the US' current data-mining obsession, with which it hopes to thwart future terrorist attacks.

    Because the EU has stronger data protection laws than the US, it usually requires extensive safeguards on data transmitted from here to there. In this case, however, the EU has rather meekly accepted the US' assurances that it will process the data in line with the EU's policies. According to a report in the Guardian, the EU was forced into this accession by a threat to stop all flights to the US.

    Luckily, the US authorities are too professional to ever make errors in identification, and always respond to apparent errors with brisk efficiency. Except, of course, in the recent case of 72-year old Derek Bond, whom the FBI had locked up in a South African jail for ten days before interviewing. And, true, the USAF has a habit of bombing allied troops and Chinese embassies, but that's it.

Web-wide World

  • For a custom 404 error that taps into the current zeitgeist, try http://www.coxar.pwp.blueyonder.co.uk/.
  • If you have 5-10 minutes spare, and you'd like to help out a PGCE student by doing his online geography quiz, then please have a look at http://www.sqcirc.net/maths/survey/. Almost certainly you'll fare better than this participant, who is still trying to narrow down the right continent for Papua New Guinea (and is beginning to suspect that it's not even in Narnia).

Wired World

  • The annual UK Internet Industry Awards (the 'ISPAs') were conferred again this month, with a list of the winners available at http://www.ispaawards.org.uk/. The Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to walk away with gongs included One.Tel, Claranet and Fastnet, with Pipex and Eclipse also taking prizes respectively for best Consumer and Business Broadband Provider. It was nice to see our not-quite-local MP Richard Allan crowned as 'Internet Hero' for his understanding and support of the Internet and the Internet Industry.
  • The ISPAs were also, and for the first time, the focus of a demo (well, we go along with reports in using the word 'demo', but a crowd of four people whom the ISPA website thanks for being civil and polite doesn't seem quite to merit it). The burning issue was the recent decision by cable broadband providers NTL to restrict the bandwidth usage on user accounts.

    Like Freeserve before it, NTL's marketing has made play with the idea that their users have 'unlimited' use of their Internet connections. But this month the company rather heavy-handedly imposed a general limit of 1GB per day of data transfer. Cue enraged squeals from NTL users, and the creation of protest sites such as http://www.dont-pay-ntl.co.uk/.

    Subsequent clarifications by NTL have softened the impact of the new conditions. The limit is aimed at constant heavy users of the network, and users who occasionally go over the 1GB limit will not face sanctions. But there is still anger from users, coming both from those who actually do make such heavy use of their connection, by running P2P applications or frequently streaming long videos, and from those who are merely aspirational.
  • The Register has a nice story at http://www.theregister.co.uk/content/55/29245.html of the perils of falling for Internet hype. In this modern morality tale, journalist Brian McWilliams affects membership of a radical Islamist group in order to claim authorship of the recent Slammer virus. To this end he adopts an appropriately named website, which he even defaces to make it seem hacked by enemies. He then makes up a number of faintly ridiculous proofs that he created the virus, and sees them snapped up by Computerworld security writer Dan Verton who - whilst being properly sceptical about these supposed proofs - broadcasts the claims without doing any further checking of his supposed terrorist source. Sadly, the current climate seems highly condusive to the spread of such FUD (fear, uncertainty, doubt).
  • Until some days ago, there were 8000 owners of 'uk.co' domain names, of the slightly odd domain that acted as alternatives or overspill to 'co.uk' names. The owners of these names were all customers of Net Registrar, which had a contract with the University of the Andes in Bogota, Columbia, the registrar for the top level '.co' domain. Unfortunately - and reportedly as a result of political struggles between the University and the Columbian Government - the University decided to cancel the contract, and close down the domain, leaving the 8000 or so out in the cold. More details of the political shenanigans can be found at http://www.theregister.co.uk/content/6/29411.html.

Wireless World

  • The number of commercial, public WiFi access points in the UK is gradually increasing. BT, which is seeking to have 400 available by the summer, currently has 80 up and running; their locations are given at http://www.bt.com/openzone/coverage.htm. Internet Exchange - a chain of Internet cafes - currently has 30 WiFi sites, and is charging rather less than BT at 20 GBP for a month's unlimited use. The locations of its sites are given at http://www.internet-exchange.co.uk/frame.cfm?sel=1&page=stores. In addition, the Wireless ISP Megabeam has sixteen WiFi sites throughout the UK - mostly at airports - and Marriot hotels has just announced a deal with Intel to hook up 400 of its properties throughout the UK, US and Germany.

    Of course, WiFi in the UK will have reached the big time only when such sites reach Sheffield (the undisputed international home of IT).

Soft World

  • The Register ran a recent article that we found interesting (http://www.theregister.co.uk/content/3/29374.html), about the applications being created by Phoenix Technologies. Instead of running on the computer's operating system, these applications are available through the system firmware - ie., they are part of the software whose job it is, amongst other things, to load up the operating system. This means that they can be accessed pretty much as soon as the computer is turned on.

    The main purpose of the Phoenix applications are to provide diagnostic tools for system crashes. But apparently the applications also provide Internet access, and will soon run a DVD player. Which suggests that potentially there are a range of things your PC could do without your having to wait for it to boot up an operating system.
  • Steganography is the art of hiding secret messages within larger volumes of data. For instance, it is fairly easy (as well as being terribly exciting) to embed messages within image files, such that the image looks unchanged to the naked eye. But now a researcher has developed a method to embed such messages in executable files, which are much less forgiving of even the smallest changes.

    According to the report at http://www.securityfocus.com/news/2623, the application works by finding a redundancy in the machine code instructions which make up an executable file. For example, the instruction to 'add x' is functionally equivalent to the instruction to 'subtract -x', but the data making up these instructions are different. By manipulating such instructions, then, the steganographical application is able to embed further information in an executable file. We don't think that the world is greatly in need of such hidden information, but we would judge that its existence does add to the gaiety of nations.

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