May 2003

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

Real World

  • After last month's moan about e-voting, we have learned about a group in the US pushing for a 'voter verified audit trail' for e-voting machines. The idea here is that when someone votes electronically, they should be able to see and confirm a paper-based representation of their vote, which will then be retained and stored by the election officials. Furthermore, this physical 'audit trail' must also be used to count the votes, since it is the authoritative record. With these procedures in place, there is no way for deliberate or accidental errors in the voting software to subvert the vote.

    It is natural to ask, perhaps, what the point of electronic voting is on this proposal. Why not just have people tick boxes with a pencil? Well, there are a number of reason that electronic voting machines might be useful: to provide an easy voting interface for people with disabilities, for instance, or else to aid the habitually confused. Let us not forget the heartache surrounding the last US presidential election, where badly constructed voting slips and 'chads' threatened to thow the whole election into doubt.

    You'll notice, of course, that the proposed requirement of voter-verification all but rules out remote voting by the Internet or by mobile phone. It's interesting that there seems to be a tacit acceptance in the US that these ways of voting are just insecure.

    For more details about the 'voter verifiable' pressure group, headed up by Prof. David Dill of Stanford University, see its website at There is also a recent New York Times article, quoting both the group and its opponents, at Of particular interests in this article is the number of people who say that there's nothing wrong with the technology *because they used it and it worked perfectly*. They don't seem to have quite grasped the point that it might still seem to be working perfectly even if it wasn't, and thus without some kind of audit trail we might never know differently.

    Stop press: at the time of writing, a Representative has introduced a bill to Congress to require voter verifiable audit trails. Knowing nothing about the US governmental system, though, we've no idea of its chances.

    Back in the UK, the Government has - inevitably - hailed its various pilot e-voting studies as huge successes. Even though the Electoral Commission's report on them contains the following admission:

    "The technology-based voting pilots appeared to have no significant impact on turnout."

    For those who are interested in reading up more on the Gov's general e-voting stance, the main paper is available here: It's pretty bad, though. On the other hand, the 'technical options report', which was used as one of the paper's inputs, is pretty good (once you ge through the initial methodology miasma). That's available at
  • Gartner group has confirmed what most in the IT services world know only too well: times are hard. According to its study, for the first time ever the worldwide demand for IT services declined. Particularly badly hit was the US, with Europe just dipping slightly, and only the middle / far East showing any growth.
  • Avid readers of this newsletter (hah) will be aware that not long ago the Government asked for feedback on its ID card proposals. The helpful people at the Stand website ( helped organise opposition to the proposals, allowing people to make feedback submissions through its website. But even though there were over 5000 submissions made this way, the Government seems to be willfully overlooking them. On 28th April, Beverley Hughes (Minister for Citizenship and Immigration) replied thus to a question in the House:

    "As I said, the 2,000 responses that we have received from individuals show that ordinary members of the public generally do not share his concerns. The responses have been about 2:1 in favour of introducing a scheme. "

    Cynics are now speculating that the Govenment is counting all of the 5000+ replies as one big, super-reply. Hooray for democracy!
  • It's nice to see that at least one Iraqi has improved his lot in the immediate aftermath of the war. Salam Pax, the Baghdad blogger who became such an online star during the invasion, has managed to survive the shelling and is now writing an occasional column for the Guardian. His continuing blogging can be found at Interestingly, in a recent post Salam notes that Baghdad is shortly to get its own GSM network, which certain US politicos have argued against manfully (on the grounds that it's too French).

Web-wide World

  • Based on the report of Internet Explorer's dumbest bug yet, we've been inspired to invent a new game. The rules of this game are simple: pick a web browser of your choice, and then produce the smallest web page that you can that crashes the browser. So far, our winning web pages are of the following sizes (all browsers running on Win 2K):

    Opera 7.03 : 148 characters.

    Mozilla 1.2b : 51 characters.

    Internet Explorer 6 : 12 characters.

    Note that the last result is not a typo - you can indeed make IE choke on a page of code shorter than the phrase "please crash now". And unlike the other case, there's no Javascript involved, merely a piece of malfigured HTML. For the original report of this bug, see Oh, and if you can do any better with Opera or Mozilla, do let us know.
  • Andrew Orlowski, of online IT newspaper The Register, has been raising hackles recently with his criticisms of the world's preeminent search engine Google. It seems like every commentator on the web has had a go at rehashing the story over and over, providing such a miasma of self-referential punditry that now only desperate hacks with nothing of their own to contribute will go anywhere near it.

    So anyway... it all began on the third of April, when Orlowski penned a story about the meme 'the Second Superpower'. This apparently used to mean one thing until a clique of techy bloggers started using the phrase differently. And because cliques of bloggers tend to generate lots of incestuous links amongst themselves, which behaviour Google's ranking system gives a lot of weight to, soon all of the top Google-returned links for the phrase referred to it as used in the new way only. Thus, by Orlowski's cute phraseology, the original meaning had at this point been 'googlewashed'.

    A couple of days after the original article, Orlowski came after Google again, complaining that its news service had started to return press releases rather than genuine news. And while this is a different criticism, it taps into a deeper worry about Google that has been bubbling along since it became the de facto search engine of choice: the problem of information bias. If Google is on its way to becoming the preeminent source of information, then anything that biases this information in any way is threatening.

    Thereafter there came a few articles from Orlowski complaining that Google had refused to release its policy on what counts as 'news'. Then he was back onto googlewashing, with a complaint that this term itself had suffered a form of googlewashing. In particular, Orlowski complained that his story in the Register story, in which the neologism had been coined, had itself been drowned out by commentary from the bloggers.

    At this point the popular newsletter Need To Know (NTK) was engaging in some affectionate mockery of Orlowski ( "who, these days, can *see* the googlebots walking among us"), and pointing out that the Reg as a site just isn't very search-engine friendly. But it now looks as if one of the reasons for the low-ranking of the Reg's story was due to a less-publicised feature of the way that Google works, which is that all new or newly changed pages receive a temporary - approx 48 hour - page-ranking boost. So the blogging sites which picked up on Orlowski's story in the days after its publication were simply going through this grace period when Orlowski complained about them. In favour of this idea is the fact that at the time of writing, more than a month after the initial publication, the Reg's article is coming out number one again.

    Things settled down a bit until the middle of this month, when Orlowski reported that Google was planning to implement a separate blog search. He suggested that this probably meant that Google was going to remove the blogs from the main search, which he naturally greeted with joy, since he sees their work as poluting the main index. But the bloggers didn't like it one bit, of course, since for many gaining a high Google ranking is an end in itself. At this point, the Guardian Online for some reason decided to write an overly intemperate piece about Orlowski's pesky meddling antics.

    At the time of writing it's not clear what the proposed blog search will look like. One model is Orlowski's, in which blogs are somehow culled from the main index. In other models, blogs would remain in the main index, or else get put into it after a period of time. But it seems to us that as the Internet expands and splinters, and the demand for good information increases, Google is going to be drawn into differentiating an increasing number of different sources of information - approaching a hierarchical information architecture from the other direction, as it were. Its challenge is going to be to retain its famed ease of use against this background.

Wired World

  • In last month's newsletter we noted the sad story of the college students sued by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA). Their crimes - if crimes they be - were to host search applications usable for peer-to-peer (P2P) file exchange. As we noted at the time, the RIAA's case seemed somewhat flimsy, since the applications didn't do much more than index files in local open shares, regardless of what these files were. Defending against the RIAA's assault in court, however, would have been both expensive and time-consuming, so the students have now come to a deal whereby they pay RIAA around 15,000 USD each, albeit without admitting guilt. Which is a terrible shame - we can only hope that next time the RIAA tries to take on someone like Google, which has the means to fight its corner.

    But the RIAA isn't just involved in kicking the sand in the faces of smaller boys. According to the NY Times (, elements of the RIAA - the 'real RIAA', as some have taken to calling it, denoting the provisional wing of the entertainment industry - are funding the development of all kinds of malware to attack the computers of music pirates. At the soft end of this spectrum there are spoof files, like those copies of Madonna's tracks which featured her saying bad words over the top of her bad music. At the hard end, there are supposedly things to slow down one's computer and delete files from hard drives (although it's possible, we suppose, that they're just using the rumours of such things to dissuade file sharers).
  • The idea behind Microsoft 'Passport' was that it could provide a single point of authentication and authorisation for users of web applications. So instead of having to register anew for each application, and therefore remember a new username and password in each case, you could just point the application towards your Passport profile.

    Of course, if you have a single point of authentication and authorization, then the security on this has to be extraordinarily tight. But none of the big players in the eb application world has believed that Microsoft could make Passport that secure, so they've all steered clear of it. And now, wouldn't you just know it, a big hole has been discovered. The flaw - now patched, admittedly - allowed global access to any Passport account, and nobody yet knows how much it has been exploited. The US Government, in the shape of the Federal Trade Commission, is looking into the security lapse, and may be in the mood to impose fines. And Gartner, the most high profile tech consultancy, has warned against anyone implementing Passport for at least 6 months.
  • The media virus for the month of May was the Palyh virus. Apparently the attachment it sent us was from Microsoft Support, which really made us want to execute it, but we resisted the temptation just in time. Remember: if you want your computer to start doing odd things that you don't understand and didn't agree to, it's generally safer to use Windows Update.
  • July is to see the start of the '.pro' top-level domain, which is supposed to be used exclusively by professionals. This will include different second-level domain identifiers for different professions, so there will be, for instance,, domains. Registrants will also be issued with digital certificates for authentication purposes, and we assume that there will be some kind of checking of professional status.

Wireless World

  • MM02 - BT Cellnet of old - has declared a 10.2 billion pound pre-tax loss for last year, after writing down its horribly overpriced 3G purchases. To which deficit only one word is appropriate: crikey. But apparently MMO2's share price went up anyway, because its revenue had increased, and more people than ever have signed up with it.

Hard World

  • According to a flurry of reports this month, nanotechnology is going to be the next big thing (ho ho). In the computer world, of course, components just keep getting smaller and smaller, as in the following suggestion for making memory out of nanotubes: But the more blue-skies ideas tend to involve microscopic team of nanorobots with the capability to manipulate atoms. Prince Charles, of course, isn't in favour of all this new-fangled nonsense, and has raised apocalyptic worries about nanorobots going mad and reducing everything to grey sludge. Grey sludge, we tells ya!
  • CDs and DVD drives will soon be able to read in more data from discs by using blue lasers in their insides; currently there are prototypes out by people like Sony, Hitachi, Philips, etc. According to the reports, blue lasers have a shorter wavelength than those currently used, which are reddish, and this means that they can more accurately read data which have been tightly squidged together on discs. So discs of the current size will be able to carry over 20 gigs of data rather than merely up to 5 gigs. Of course, this does raise the following important question: why didn't they just *start* with blue lasers?

Soft World

  • There has been a deal of infighting in the world of Unix all this year, with the company The SCO Group taking on the role of pantomime villain. The story as we understand it, from the multitude of news reports, goes something like this.

    A long time ago AT&T created the operating system Unix. For a while Microsoft was interested in Unix, and the Santa Cruz Operation (SCO) worked with it to port a version for PCs. When Microsoft lost interest, SCO continued to licence its Unix version.

    At the same time, Novell bought Unix rights from AT&T, and worked on a Unix product. In the mid '90s, however, Novell lost interest in this, so SCO bought the product and at least some of the general Unix intellectual property.

    When Linux arrived on the scene, Caldera was one of its distributers. Because of the IT bubble, Caldera had enough clout to merge with SCO, which together made The SCO Group (which we will now just call SCO). SCO never quite managed to make much money out of Linux, but continued to make some money out of proprietary Unix.

    And so things continued until SCO recently concluded that Linux contains some of its proprietary Unix code. It then did several things: it stopped distributing Linux; it sent out letters to some 1500 large companies warning them about running Linux; and it sued IBM for 1 billion dollars on the basis that IBM had been responsible for such code insertion.

    Now, on the face of it attacking IBM is somewhat crazy, given that IBM stores its patents in aircraft hangers, and breeds genetically-manipulated attack-lawyers (as is our understanding). Some are supposing, therefore, that SCO is gambling that IBM will decide that it's cheaper to buy out SCO than fight the court case. Others believe that SCO is being covertly supported by Microsoft, which has an obvious interest in crippling Linux.

    The latest twisty-turn in the saga is that Novell is now claiming that in any case it still owns the important Unix rights that SCO is basing its suit on. And a lot of Linux developers are still dubious in any case that Linux does include any of the tainted code. It looks, therefore, that this story still has some legs.

Link Building Information