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

Keith Dawson (dawson@world.std.com)
Sun, 28 Feb 1999 11:52:28 -0600


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

T a s t y B i t s f r o m t h e T e c h n o l o g y F r o n t

Timely news of the bellwethers in computer and communications
technology that will affect electronic commerce -- since 1994

Your Host: Keith Dawson

This issue: < http://tbtf.com/archive/1999-03-01.html >

C o n t e n t s

FCC half-rules that calls to ISPs are long-distance
The long reach of the NSA
Update on NetBus and other trojans
HTML smudging
Browser wars of the radio-telegraph age
The database that NSI forgot
Glenn Fleishman's Unsolicited Pundit
A Silicon Continent?
Pennsylvania puts its URL on license plates
Light of other days

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

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

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 find-
ings.) 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 inter-
preted 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 call 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 me-
ter is running, not who owns that meter. And a running meter will
flat-out stop the Internet's growth in this country.

[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

..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 pro-
ducts. 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 decod-
ing 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 pur-
chase of particular machines as a condition for favors. Pakistan
was allegedly granted American military credits with only one pro-
viso, 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

..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 Or-
ifice [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 com-
municates between client and server using TCP/IP on port 20034; this
port numbers is now configurable. Its communications are now lightly

[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

..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 spot-
lighted a growing problem on the Web. Have you observed that some
pages take much longer to render than their size and graphics foot-
print 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 Ingenious 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 fac-
tors 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 pro-
> grammed their own templates in the past are now focused on
> content, not structure.

> Folks designing brand new pages are less interested in fun-
> damentals such as solid HTML, and more concerned about ap-
> pearance. 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 exigen-
cies 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 prolix-
ity [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 prolifer-
ating spurious <font> tags.

Correctly structured HTML behaves better and renders faster. A brow-
ser's HTML parser is a wonder of programming, compensating for poor-
ly 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 advise 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 Macin-
tosh-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?

[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


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 pro-
grams, each shorter than 256 characters, implemented as bookmarks.
My Netscape bookmark list now has functions to stop a page's back-
ground music, remove its images, count its characters, and scroll it
at a variable rate. Visit this page [15] and click on the "216 Stan-
dard 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 op-
erator, 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 interopera-
bility standards will win out without the loss of life. Thanks to
stig <stig at hackvan dot com> for forwarding this little-known

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

..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 quer-
ies. 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 in-
formation -- 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

..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 Tid-
BITS, 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" poli-

[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 re-
quired). 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 busi-

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 Whit-
aker'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


Do you suppose that by the year 2022 they will have discovered lower-
case 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 nanokel-
vins 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

N o t e s

> 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.

[35] http://www.abebooks.com/

S o u r c e s

> 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 (un)subscribe send
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and link as you see fit.
Keith Dawson dawson@world.std.com
Layer of ash separates morning and evening milk.

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