March 2003

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

Real World

  • The war in Iraq has, for obvious reasons, been the most important story on the web this last month. Western news outlets like the BBC (http://news.bbc.co.uk/), Channel 4 News (http://www.channel4.com/news/) and CNN (http://www.cnn.com/) have all been supplementing their broadcast coverage with online reportage. Also of interest has been the Institute for War and Peace Reporting site (http://www.iwpr.net/), which specialises in reports from local journalists at war sites.

    For the broadcast media, however, just finding the bandwidth to file reports out of Iraq has proved difficult (could this be the reason why much of the footage is of indistinct green blurs?). This is because the US military forces require a huge amount of bandwidth to operate effectively, so have been buying up all the satellite time. Apparently, more satellites have even moved into position for their benefit.

    The coverage provided by the Arab-language station Al-Jazeera has also been the cause of much excitement. In the 1991 Gulf War, the 24-hour coverage provided by CNN proved to be such an innovation that it itself became a subject of the news; in this conflict, Al-Jazeera's uncompromising reportage has played a similar role. After angering Western governments with its broadcasts, however, its Internet provision has proven less robust than its editorial policy. Not only has its US-based ISP bowed to political pressure to stop hosting the site, but it has also been subject to intense attacks from hackers, who have succeeded in making it unavailable for long periods of time. At the time of writing, the supposed english-language part of the site (http://english.aljazeera.net/) is showing only Arabic script, so we have no idea how current it is.

    Moving away from the big players, the main watercooler-novelty of the war so far has been the Dear Raed site (http://dearraed.blogspot.com/). This is, or at least appears to be, a weblog maintained by a current, western-educated resident of Baghdad. We say 'appears', because there has been a discussion over whether the blog is authentic, or else is a forgery perpetrated by one side of the conflict. But the balance of opinion suggests that it is genuine - and it is not clear in any case who would benefit from it as a propaganda piece.

    So, assuming that the coalition forces will eventually prevail in Iraq, what will it look like under US administration? Well, a flavour of this may be given by the following article - http://siliconvalley.internet.com/news/article.php/2171271 - which reports on a move within the US Congress to rebuild the Iraqi mobile telecomms network with the robustly American CDMA rather than the pacifistic European GSM. Of course, as many commentators have pointed out, this is an absurd claim (CDMA is the baby of the large US company Qualcomm, true, but there are plenty of US companies doing GSM, plus this 2G technology is obselescent), but this doesn't necessarily mean that it won't be taken seriously.
  • So. Farewell then, Wrox Press. Sadly, the world's premier publisher of fat, red programming books has just gone titsup, after its US parent company Peer Information went into liquidation. As well as the demise of the physical stock, it looks too as if various community websites that Wrox Press supported - such as csharptoday.com - will disappear.
  • The question of privacy vs security continues to make waves in the UK, and if you believe this year's Big Brother Awards, organised by pressure group Privacy International (http://www.privacyinternational.org/), privacy is fast losing ground. The 'winners' of the various gongs on offer included David Blunkett and Ken Livingstone, with Tony Blair gaining the much-coveted 'Lifetime Menace Award'.

    The most recent proposal to attract the ire of campaigners is the suggestion that all people arrested should have their fingerprints and DNA records taken and kept on file indefinitely, regardless of conviction. No doubt more will be heard on this in the near future, but let us first turn our attention back to a case in which campaigners managed successfully to upset the plans of the Home Office.

    In the summer of 2002, the UK Government published draft legislation which would update the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA) 2000. The main effect of this draft Order would have been radically to increase the number of bodies able to access the electronic 'communications data' generated by most private citizens. These proposed changes were dropped, however, after a public outcry in which it was labelled by critics as a 'snoopers charter'. So now the Home Office has released a new consultation paper 'Access To Communications Data' (http://www.homeoffice.gov.uk/ripa/part1/consult.pdf), which contains its latest thoughts on the issue.

    To recap: the term 'communications data' is used to refer to all the information about your electronic communications, apart from its content. So, for instance, it includes the addresses of any web pages you look at; the email addresses you correspond to (as well as their ownership details); the phone numbers you call; the location at any time of your mobile phone. Clearly this adds up to a significant amount of personal information, the sight of which you might legitimately want to be restricted. A major criticism of the 2002 draft Order was that the number of authorities granted access to such data was unjustifiably wide, including such minor bodies as parish councils.

    The new consultation paper comprises a genuine effort to engage with the arguments of the critics, which accounts for the generally positive reaction that it has been given. The paper divides into three main parts.

    In the first part of the paper, the authors seek to justify the number of additional authorities included within the original draft. The general strategy here is to show that in each case there is a small part of the authority which legitimately needs the data. For example, in arguing that the Dept. for Transport, Local Government and the Regions (DTLR) should be included in the legislation, they point out that the focus of the need is the Coastguard agency, which needs to locate callers in extremis, investigate hoax calls, etc. Similarly, local government authorities already have statutory obligations in respect of trading standards, environmental health, etc.

    In a number of cases, such as with respect to parish councils, the authors also accept that the original recommendations were badly drafted.

    In the second part of the paper, the authors raise for debate the question of how privacy concerns should be addressed. A number of possibilities are canvassed. Firstly, certain authorities may be restricted both as to the type of communications data, and to the purpose for accessing it. Secondly, there may be general safeguards on accessing data, such as accreditation, the clear identification of persons responsible for data access, oversight or prior scrutiny by an independent third party, the imposition of sanctions on infringements, etc. Having raised these general ideas, the authors are clearly interested in feedback from people with interests in the issue.

    The third part of the paper raises some general questions and concerns about how society should balance the competing requirements of privacy and security. This is, of course, territory that was also covered in the recent debate over identity cards, where it seems likely that negative responses outweighed positive ones.

    If you would like to respond to the consultation paper, the details of how to do so are available at http://www.homeoffice.gov.uk/ripa/part1/consult.htm.

Web-wide World

  • Just a little behind the zeitgeist here, perhaps, but we thought that you'd like to know that we've recently started wheeling and dealing on Celebdaq (http://www.bbc.co.uk/celebdaq/), the BBC's virtual stock market in celebrities. The site started us off with a stake of 10,000 pounds, which we could then spend on shares in celebrities like Ulrika Johnsson, Renee Zellweger and the Queen (as well as a whole load of people we've never heard of but are probably big in yoof circles). Each week, these shares pay out dividends based upon the column inches garnered by the corresponding celebrity, and the prices of these shares fluctuate in real time based upon market forces. Currently, in light of the media interest in the recent palace enquiries, we've filled our boots with Prince Charles.

    Incidentally, with the success of Celebdaq, since its instauration in July 2002, the BBC is now looking to sell the idea abroad. So presumably Celebdaq US is in the offing, although Celebdaq Belgium might be a hard sell, what with its only having two celebrities (Jean Claude van Damme, and we forget the other one).
  • For answers to lots of PC-related questions (such as: how does NTFS work? What are the different RAID levels?) we can recommend http://www.pcguide.com. We recently became ensnared in the mass of information it contains when we had some Master Boot Record problems, and had a great deal of geeky fun.
  • In some cases, as the frenzied rantings of the crazies blur into the subtle lampoons of the ironists, it's difficult to tell if a site is a satire or not,. But in other cases it's just dead easy, and the BonsaiKitten site at http://www.bonsaikitten.com/ is one of these, even if it is executed in a deadpan manner. Unfortunately, this hasn't stopped a whole load of people and institutions - including the UK National Society for Prevention of Cruely to Animals (NSPCA) - lobbying for it to be banned. So go see it before they succeed, and marvel at the perfect collision of the worlds of fashion and husbandry.

Wired World

  • Lots of news this month from the wonderful world of UK broadband Internet connectivity. As well as news from the slightly less rosy world of 'midband' Internet connectivity. Let's start with the latter: in an attempt to placate those of its customers who still can't get ADSL, BT is planning to roll out in the summer a 128 kbps service which will be available to 97 percent of the UK. There's no news yet on prices, or whether it will be contended like ADSL (if it is, then you may well be better sticking to a dialup connection). We were also going to mention Burnley ISP Supanet's 256 kbps service, but its site isn't Opera-friendly and it sounds rubbish anyway.

    On the greener side of the garden, Telewest's announcement of a trial of a new 2 mbps connection was subject to a stampede by a bandwidth-hungry mob, and it has since agreed to up the size of the trial from 1500 to 5000 users. Telewest could do with the trial going well, after posting a loss of some 2.2 billion pounds for the last year.

    Moving rather more sedately, BT is planning to trial a 1 mbps ADSL connection over the summer, and hope to offer it to the public (or at least some of them) by the end of the year. This comes on the back of persistent rumours that BT is soon to drop the wholesale price of ADSL generally.
  • As the flood of spam email approaches biblical proportions, spare a thought for the poor network administrators who have to pile up the electronic sandbags against the deluge. And if you are having trouble imagining what this might be like, try reading the following, very readable article about Hong Kong-based Suresh Ramasubramanian, dubbed by spammers the "E-mail Sturmbahnfuehrer": http://www.salon.com/tech/feature/2003/03/27/spam_fighter/index.html.

    Whilst we're on the topic, we note that in an effort to reduce spam generated from its servers, Hotmail has recently decided to limit outgoing emails from each account to 50 per day. Obviously this will only inconvenience the most amateur of spammers (spamateurs!), but it's welcome nonetheless.

Hard World

  • Slashdot - everynerd's favourite news posting site - has a report about a bunch of people in Spain who have taken to cooling their rooftop WiFi server by immersing the whole thing in sunflower oil. The ensuing Slashdot discussion (http://slashdot.org/articles/03/03/16/2023221.shtml?tid=193&tid=137) is pretty revealing about the flaws in this. Firstly (as the hombres actually learned to their cost), you have to keep the hard drives out of the oil. This is because, while hard drives were originally vacuum-sealed, the manufacturers started fitting them with valves after suffering some temperature-induced explosions. These valves allow the oil to get in and ruin everything. Secondly, they shouldn't be using an organic oil, which will biodegrade; instead, they should be using something like mineral oil. And thirdly, there are probably better - if less exotic - ways of cooling your system.
  • Microsoft's drive to make its products more secure is continuing apace. But this month they declared, in effect, that NT 4 is so broken that it can't be fixed against a new vulnerability: "The architectural limitations of Windows NT 4.0 do not support the changes that would be required to remove this vulnerability." (from http://www.microsoft.com/technet/security/bulletin/MS03-010.asp). On the other hand, though, it's not clear quite how hard Microsoft would have tried for such a fix; after all, it would be very useful to Microsoft if all people those stuck with legacy NT 4 machines had to upgrade to something better.

Wireless World

  • This month saw the release of Intel's new mobile processor technology, which is to be branded under the name 'Centrino'. This technology includes the Pentium M (or 'Banias') microprocessor, several related chipsets, as well as integrated support for 802.11b ('Wi-Fi') networking. By branding the different parts of the technology as a whole, Intel is hoping to associate Wi-Fi networking in the public consciousness with Centrino; it is therefore reserving the Centrino name for products which contain all the different Centrino parts. Consumers should bear in mind, however, that the Pentium M microprocessor is likely to be comparatively much better than the Intel WiFi chip shipped with Centrino products.

    The first Centrino notebooks are already on the marketplace, with Samsung's X10 series having models running at 1.3, 1.5 and 1.6 MHz. It's interesting to note, given the battle between Intel and AMD over the 'Megahertz myth', that the 1.6 GHz Pentium-M reportedly outperforms its predecessor, the 2.5 GHz Pentium 4-M chip, on some tasks.

    In the time-honoured fashion, Intel's main rival AMD decided to unveil its new range of mobile microprocessors - Athlon XP-Ms - on the day of Intel's Centrino announcement. Showing AMD's desire to make an impact, this range involves no less than twelve separate chips, ranging from the 1400+ to the 2600+. At present, however, there are no benchmarking tests comparing the new Intel and the AMD mobile chips.

Soft World

  • The month has not been a good one for browser security. In particular, we have seen a major security warning over the 'third' (and best) browser Opera, involving both 6.x and 7.x versions. The manufacturers urge all Opera users to upgrade to version 7.03 or above (see http://www.opera.com/). If you are instead a fan of Netscape, then you should be using version 7.02, released at the end of February, which fixed some security vulnerabilities.

    If you want to know how secure your browser is against known vulnerabilities, then try running the tests at http://bcheck.scanit.be/bcheck/ (you will need to allow popup windows, and may have to manually delete them at the end of the test). We were pleased to see that Opera 7.03 came out clear of known problems, but were somewhat worried to find that the latest, fully patched Internet Explorer still suffers from a couple of 'medium risk' issues.
  • Version six of AdAware has just been released, and regains its crown as the king of the malware-scrubbers. To be more precise, what the program does is to check your system for those programs which infringe your privacy but aren't evil enough to count as viruses; programmes which are more Arthur Daley than the Kray twins. It also flags and removes certain types of cookie which are used only as trackers by advertising firms - and you may be surprised at how many of those you have on your system. You can find out more information about AdAware, and download the free version from http://www.lavasoftusa.com/.
  • Those of you who are fans of the programming language C# (as you might well be after reading our tutorials on it), should be interested to hear that various improvements are being planned for future versions. For more information check out http://makeashorterlink.com/?E6F125704.

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