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TBTF for 1999-03-01: Light of other days

Keith Dawson (dawson dot tbtf at gmail dot com)
Sun, 28 Feb 11:40:21 -0400


Contents


FCC half-rules that calls to ISPs are long-distance

No immediate effect on consumer pricing, but long-term impact is uncertain

TBTF touched on the urban legend of the modem tax last year [1]. Last week the FCC ruled in a long-pending case that calls to ISPs are essentially long-distance in nature, but left it up to the states to decide the validity of existing agreements for payments between telephone companies, which were largely negotiated on the opposite assumption. (Regulatory agencies in 24 states have ruled that ISP calls are local; the FCC's ruling overrides these findings.) Here is the FCC press release [2]. News reports differed widely as to what the ruling actually said, let alone what it may eventually mean to charges for Internet usage. News.com headlined their coverage Bells win partial victory in ISP ruling [3] while the Industry Standard weaseled by with FCC Ruling to Affect ISP Calls [4]. Sure, but how?

The commissioners were at pains to emphasize that the decision will not affect consumers' Internet phone bills. Some observers interpreted the ruling as the beginning of a slippery slope toward per-minute charges for Internet usage in the US. FCC Chairman William Kennard characterized such fears as "scare tactics"; he said the FCC is not regulating the Internet and will not do so as long as he is chairman. I believe he is being disingenuous. It may be true that you will never be charged per-minute rates for calls to your local ISP. But if your ISP ends up paying more to their phone supplier, because the Baby Bells stop paying that supplier, then you will pay your ISP more too. The crucial question for consumers is whether or not a meter is running, not who owns that meter. And a running meter will flat-out stop the Internet's growth in this country.

Note added 1999-04-01: TBTF Irregular David Black <dlb237 at ma dot ultranet dot com> disagrees with my conclusion that the FCC's action might be a serious step in the direction of metered usage for calls to ISPs. See his analysis here [4a].
Note added 1999-05-04: This "fact sheet" [4b]. from on the FCC site attempts to lay once and for all the urban legend of impending per-minute ISP charges.

[1] http://tbtf.com/archive/1998-04-13.html#s04
[2] http://www.fcc.gov/Bureaus/Common_Carrier/News_Releases/1999/nrcc9014.html
[3] http://www.news.com/News/Item/Textonly/0,25,32789,00.html?tbtf
[4] http://thestandard.net/articles/article_print/0,1454,3632,00.html?1447
[4a] http://tbtf.com/resource/dlb-phone-metering.html
[4b] http://www.fcc.gov/Bureaus/Common_Carrier/Factsheets/nominute.html

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Threads Cryptography export policy
See also TBTF for
2000-02-06, 1999-10-05, 08-30, 08-23, 08-16, 07-26, 05-22, 05-08, 04-21, 03-01, 01-26, more...

The long reach of the NSA

US spy agency has been reading other nations' cable traffic as if it were the morning paper

Bruce Schneier's CRYPTO-GRAM newsletter [5], always a compelling read for those interested in the technicalities or politics of cryptography, sends word of one of the great hacks of all time. It seems that over 50 years ago the US National Security Agency, in cooperation with its German counterpart, compromised CryptoAG, a Swiss manufacturer of cipher machines and other cryptographic products. Its customers were governments, embassies, military units, even the Vatican. The security agencies installed "back doors" in CryptoAG products (which reportedly worked by sending secret decoding keys along with each encrypted message) and for at least half a century have been reading the top-secret documents of 120 of the world's governments. Some countries tried to abandon CryptoAG but found their options limited -- the US had sometimes required purchase of particular machines as a condition for favors. Pakistan was allegedly granted American military credits with only one proviso, that it buy its encryption equipment from CryptoAG. The full, fascinating story ran in Covert Action Quarterly [6].

[5] http://www.counterpane.com/crypto-gram.html
[6] http://www.caq.com/CAQ/caq63/caq63madsen.html

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Update on NetBus and other trojans

A new version of this venerable Windows NT trojan horse, and two new ones

TBTF for 1998-09-14 [7] covered NetBus, a remote-control application implanted via a trojan horse program, like the better-known Back Orifice [8]. The security firm ISS has updated their Windows trojan advisory with information about a new release, NetBus Pro 2.0, as well as two other recent trojans, Picture.exe and the Caligula macro virus. I've posted the advisory on the TBTF archive [9]. NB2 communicates between client and server using TCP/IP on port 20034; this port numbers is now configurable. Its communications are now lightly encrypted.

[7] http://www.tbtf.com/archive/1998-09-14.html#s01
[8] http://www.tbtf.com/archive/1998-07-27.html#s04
[9] http://www.tbtf.com/resource/iss-backdoor.txt

space ______

HTML smudging

The Web's code base is degrading and the prognosis is not good

Gary Stock <gstock at ingetech dot com> wrote with suggestions for speeding up TBTF's home page, and the ensuing conversation spotlighted a growing problem on the Web. Have you observed that some pages take much longer to render than their size and graphics footprint would suggest? Have you observed this happening more often of late than it did a year ago? You may be observing your browser's reaction to HTML smudging.

Stock's company InGenius Technology runs the Javelink [10] service, among others, and has occasion to download daily the HTML code for many thousands of Web pages. Stock has noted the tendency of code to degrade as it repeatedly passes through the hands, and the software, of people who do not know HTML. He identifies a couple of the factors at work:

Editors are accustomed to dropping their new content into existing page structures, and are degrading HTML quality by overwriting a tag now and then. Even the editors who programmed their own templates in the past are now focused on content, not structure.

Folks designing brand new pages are less interested in fundamentals such as solid HTML, and more concerned about appearance. For example, some pages might look cool but nest tables so deeply, or leave off so many row and cell closing tags, it's amazing they render at all.

A third factor, and it may be the dominant one, is the prevalence of editing software that by design distances its users from the exigencies of raw HTML. Case in point: Microsoft's FrontPage Web editor, a free version of which is distributed with Windows, rewrites HTML code each time it opens and closes a file. Rarely if ever does its tinkering improve the structure and the correctness of that HTML. Microsoft-generated HTML is well known for its lameness and prolixity [11]. Dozens of other Web authoring tools are no better, and each has its own idiosyncracies -- failing to quote the attribute values in HTML tags, for instance, or incorrectly balancing or failing to terminate table tags in the presence of other markup, or proliferating spurious <font> tags.

Correctly structured HTML behaves better and renders faster. A browser's HTML parser is a wonder of programming, compensating for poorly structured HTML and, most of the time, managing to render it reasonably well. But it renders clean and unambiguous HTML faster. I followed Stock's advice and cleaned up the HTML code on TBTF's top page. The principal smudge that had crept in was inconsistently quoting the values of tag attributes. After the cleanup my Macintosh-based Navigator 4.04, with clean caches, loaded it on average in 7 sec. vs. the 13 sec. required for the "smudged" version. Try it yourself with these before [12] and after [13] versions, and let me know what you see. (If you write please include your OS, browser and version, and connectivity bandwidth.)

The solution to the problem of HTML smudging is not more bandwidth. Did unlimited address space make for better computer programs? Did cheap disk storage solve the problem of bloatware? The solution to HTML smudging is better HTML: that means better code generators, better code checkers, and better coders. What are the chances?

Note added 1999-03-02 (08:29 EST -0500): Many readers have sent comments and their results from the unscientific experiment suggested above; I've posted them on the archive (17 in total). Some of the salient points:

[10] http://tbtf.com/archive/1997-03-21.html#s05
[11] http://tbtf.com/archive/1998-03-09.html#demoronizer
[12] http://tbtf.com/resource/before-smudged.html
[13] http://tbtf.com/resource/after-unsmudged.html

space ______

Bookmarklets

These little gems will open your eyes and change the way you surf

This site is one of the most mind-expanding and addictive I've come across in many moons. Do yourself a favor: turn on JavaScript and visit [14]. You'll find a treasure-trove of free, tiny utility programs, each shorter than 256 characters, implemented as bookmarks. My Netscape bookmark list now has functions to stop a page's background music, remove its images, count its characters, and scroll it at a variable rate. Visit this page [15] and click on the 216 Standard Colors link for an instant display of the browser-safe colors with hex codes. Many kudos and thanks to Steve Kangas [16] <stevek at bookmarklets dot com>, bookmarklets Chief of Rocket Science, for delivering this site to the world. And again thanks to Gary Stock <gstock at ingetech dot com>, TBTF Irregular and all-around regular guy, for sending the site my way.

[14] http://www.bookmarklets.com/
[15] http://www.bookmarklets.com/tools/design/index.phtml
[16] http://www.bookmarklets.com/about/stevek.html

___

Browser wars of the radio-telegraph age

Finding analogies in previous peaks of Schumpeter's waves

Paul Harden <pharden at aoc dot nrao dot edu>, an amateur radio operator, wrote this account [17] of the ways in which the Titanic's tragedy was compounded by commercial infighting between two rival providers of radio telegraphy services. It is posted on the TBTF archive by permission. The analogy with the recent browser wars is suggestive, and we can only hope that in this instance interoperability standards will win out without the loss of life. Thanks to stig <stig at hackvan dot com> for forwarding this little-known tale.

Oh, you can read about the Schumpeter wave theory here [18].

[17] http://tbtf.com/resource/telegraph-browser-wars.html
[18] http://www.economist.com/editorial/freeforall/20-2-99survey/i2.html

___

Threads Domain name policy
See also TBTF for
2000-04-19, 03-31, 1999-12-16, 10-05, 08-30, 08-16, 07-26, 07-19, 07-08, 06-14, 05-22, more...

The database that NSI forgot

Want data on domain-name creation dates? Act quick

TBTF for 1999-02-01 [19] noted that Network Solutions has stopped providing the "date created" field for domain names in whois queries. Recently the E-LEGAL email newsletter from the law firm of Fross Zelnick Lehrman & Zissu, P.C. (subscribe here [20]) carried timely news of a database that NSI seems to have forgotten. Enter at this query screen [21] and you can still get creation-date information -- for the moment.

[19] http://tbtf.com/archive/1999-02-01.html#s02
[20] http://www.frosszelnick.com/elegal.html
[21] http://www.internic.net/cgi-bin/itts/whois

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Glenn Fleishman's Unsolicited Pundit

A new regular feature brings this industry veteran's outspoken views to TBTF

Glenn Fleishman's name will be familiar to many readers of TBTF. He has contributed ideas and tips to this newsletter over the years, most recently the inventive book-search site isbn.nu [22], covered in TBTF for 1999-02-01 [23]. You may have seen his writing in TidBITS, Adobe Magazine, or the New York Times.

For some years Glenn has been using the informal self-description "Unsolicited Pundit." He has just started producing columns under this rubric, and TBTF is proud to introduce and to host them. Here is Glenn Fleishman's Unsolicited Pundit #1 [24], which explores the recent controversy over Amazon's and Yahoo's pay for play policies.

[22] http://isbn.nu/
[23] http://tbtf.com/archive/1999-02-01.html#s07
[24] http://tbtf.com/unpund/unpund-1.html

___

A Silicon Continent?

Suggestion goes against the grain of the local nature of Siliconia

A presidential commission recommends doubling federal R&D spending over the next five years [25] (free registration and cookies required). Bill Joy of Sun Microsystems provided the headline-grabbing sound byte: "What we need to create is a Silicon Continent, not just Silicon Valley." If we do it'll put Siliconia [26] right out of business.

Meanwhile, on another continent, Simon Whitaker <simon at netcetera dot org> writes that the area around Newport in Gwent, South Wales is being called Cwm Silicon. ("Cwm" is Welsh for "valley," and Whitaker tells us it is pronounced somewhere between coom and come, depending on the speaker's point of origin.) The area has recently seen heavy investment by a Korean firm that has built a large semiconductor plant. Newport is also home to various tech orientated operations such as call centers (in one of which Whitaker's wife works in tech support). The local member of Parliament sports this Siliconium on his Web site [27].

[25] http://www.nytimes.com/library/tech/99/02/biztech/articles/24tech-funding.html
[26] http://tbtf.com/siliconia.html
[27] http://www.paulflynnmp.co.uk/database/newport_Detail.cfm?ID=5

___

Pennsylvania puts its URL on license plates

You've got a friend in www.state.pa.us

Barrie Slaymaker <rbs at telerama dot com> forwards a story about Pennsylvania's new license plates, the first complete reissue since 1976 [28]. The story quotes governor Tom Ridge: "License plates are 72 square-inch billboards advertising our state." That's one way to think about it. Emblazoned across the bottom of the new billboards [29] is the URL

WWW.STATE.PA.US
Do you suppose that by the year 2022 they will have discovered lowercase letters?

[28] http://www.dot.state.pa.us/penndot/railway.nsf/webcast?readform
[29] http://www.dot.state.pa.us/penndot/railway.nsf/webcast?readform#plate

___

Light of other days

Scientists slow light to 17 m/sec

On 18 February the New York Times ran the story of "slow light" on its front page [30] (free registration and cookies required) -- too bad they got so much of the science wrong. Read the summary in the AIP's Physics News Update [31] for a better idea of what happens when a Bose-Einstein condensate [32], [33] of sodium atoms at 50 nanokelvins is primed with laser light and then zapped crosswise. Lene Vestergaard Hau and her colleagues at Harvard have created an effect they call "electromagnetically induced transparency" -- using the peculiar quantum characteristics of a BEC to allow a beam of light to propagate through the dead-opaque substance at one 20-millionth the speed of light in a vacuum.

More people sent me pointers for this story than for any since the Irish schoolgirl developed a crypto algorithm [34].

[30] http://www.nytimes.com/library/national/science/021899sci-slow-light.html
[31] http://www.aip.org/enews/physnews/1999/split/pnu415-1.htm
[32] http://www.aip.org/enews/physnews/1996/split/pnu272-1.htm
[33] http://webster.aip.org/enews/physnews/1998/split/pnu406-1.htm
[34] http://www.news.com/News/Item/Textonly/0,25,30930,00.html?tbtf


Notes

bul Today's TBTF title comes from a 1972 short story by Bob Shaw, one of the finest essays in science fiction that I've ever read. It uses a background of plausible-sounding and intriguing science -- the invention of slow glass -- to tell a grabber of a human yarn. "Light of Other Days" appears in the collection Other Days, Other Eyes, now out of print. But a search on the Advanced Book Exchange [35] ("World's Largest Source of Out-of-Print Media") yields at this writing three sources for the title.

Note added 1999-03-01: Stop press -- alert reader <simone at agt dot net> informs us that "Light of Other Days" also appeared in the collection Nebula Award Stories Number Two, and Advanced Book Exchange lists at least 11 booksellers claiming to offer a copy.
Note added 1999-03-02: More details on Bob Shaw's story were kindly forwarded by TBTF Irregular Udhay Shankar <udhay at pobox dot com>. The story was written in 1966, not 1972 as stated. Here is an excellent summary and examination [36] of "Light of Other Days." The book Other Days, Other Eyes is what is called in the trade a fix-up, that is, a book-length work put together to capitalize on the popularity of a shorter piece. I'm not the first to have pointed out the analogy of the true-science "slow light" story with the fictive-science "slow glass" -- that honor belongs to Mr. Shankar, who made the connection on Dave Farber's IP mailing list on 20 February.

[35] http://www.abebooks.com/
[36] http://ebbs.english.vt.edu/exper/kcramer/anth/Days.html


Sources

bul For a complete list of TBTF's (mostly email) sources, see http://tbtf.com/sources.html.

TBTF home and archive at http://tbtf.com/ . To subscribe send the
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_______________________________________________
Keith Dawson    dawson dot tbtf at gmail dot com
Layer of ash separates morning and evening milk.

___


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