News & Current Affairs

August 28, 2008

For those too young to remember the Cold War…

For those too young to remember the Cold War…

WarGames

Before the days of flat screen monitors… and Perestroika

The conflict in Georgia has awoken fears of a new Cold War between Russia and its allies and the West, nearly 20 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall. But will the animosity come back to haunt Western imaginations as it once did?

“We share the same biology,
regardless of ideology.
Believe me when I say to you,
I hope the Russians love their children too”

That couplet might be a mere piece of lyrical doggerel to any listener born after 9 November 1989, but when Sting released the single Russians in 1985, it came out of a deep mine of anxiety in the West about the course of the Cold War.

Sting

A good period in which to make profound statements…

For nearly five decades, the Cold War provided a rich seam running right through popular culture in the West, throwing out films, music, novels and even computer games that carried the fears, conscious and subconscious, of millions.

In the 1950s, science fiction movies were often allegories about different aspects of Cold War politics. Invasion of the Body-Snatchers was interpreted as a reference to McCarthy-era paranoia, Invaders from Mars as a parable of communist infiltration, and the Day the Earth Stood Still as a simple fantasy that some higher supernatural power would come to try and sort everything out.

After the world reached the brink of war during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, there was another wave of Cold War-inspired fiction, with Stanley Kubrick’s Dr Strangelove perhaps the most notable example.

With the detente of the 1970s the Cold War thread became less noticeable, but with worsening relations in the early 1980s, both sides of the Atlantic were suddenly replete with fictional Cold War dystopian scenarios.

On the British side people were treated to the agonisingly poignant graphic novel When the Wind Blows by Raymond Briggs and its film adaptation, as well as 1984’s Threads, about the terrifying aftermath of a nuclear strike. On the other side of the Atlantic, there were the mini-series Amerika and World War III, and the gruesome The Day After with its vivid montages of men, women, children and even horses being vaporized.

Frankie Goes to Hollywood

…and ripe for sensational scare-mongering

On the silver screen WarGames explored the issue of computer hacking against a background of mutually assured destruction , while Red Dawn took the usual brat pack characters complete with preppy letterman jackets, and armed them with AK-47s to fight a Soviet invasion of the US. Popular attitudes towards the Eastern Bloc were shaped by movies like Rocky IV, where the drug cheat Ivan Drago was emblematic of suspicions held against Soviet athletes.

As well as Sting’s Russians, Frankie Goes To Hollywood’s chart-topper Two Tribes provided a musical accompaniment to the era. It seems strange to discuss now what was, even then, viewed as often laughable ephemera, but the course of popular culture reflected deep-seated fears, particularly significant among those too young to temper their concerns with a grasp of the political context.

Almost as soon as it had intensified, the Cold War quickly ebbed away, and by the end of the 1989, with the Berlin Wall coming down and relations defrosting across the whole of eastern Europe, it suddenly became a bit silly to pick the Soviet state as baddies.

Hollywood had to find new protagonists for a new zeitgeist, and fast.

Bond sabbatical

While rarely casting Russia itself as the main enemy in a storyline, and indeed often featuring a sympathetic KGB general, the James Bond franchise was unmistakably driven by Cold War themes of espionage and fear of weapons technology. It was inevitably affected, says film critic James King.

It was a competition to be modern – consumer society was used as a bulwark against communism
Jane Pavitt

“Bond went into limbo for seven years, for many reasons, but one was that it didn’t feel relevant any more.

“The first film I remember that actually caught up was True Lies. When that came out it was almost a James Bond film and it had a new Hollywood enemy, which was an Arab – this was the new thing.”

Post 9/11 there has been a glut of movies either tackling the threat of terrorism, attacking the politics of the war on terror and Guantanamo Bay, as well as a host of television programmes that have explored the fall-out for Muslim communities on both sides of the Atlantic. A poster for the current movie Shoot on Sight – with its tag line “Is it a crime to be a Muslim?” – is typical.

In the space between the end of the Cold War and Islamist terrorism entering the mainstream mindset as the main threat to the West, movie producers did their best to come up with convincing action movie baddies.

Having been conceived long before the fall of the wall, the Hunt for Red October, an adaptation of Tom Clancy’s 1984 novel, still performed well at the box office in 1990. But in projects conceived after the end of Cold War hostilities, the baddies are very often neo-nationalists or rebels trying to destabilise a friendly Russia (Crimson Tide and Air Force One) or are avaricious terrorists and gangsters of other nationalities (Die Hard).

Cold War the Sequel

The effect of the end of the Cold War on secret services and military personnel came to be a major theme. John Le Carre was one of those spy novel authors who made the transition smoothly. The Russia House marked the last of his novels released during the Cold War, the next three deal with the effect of the thaw on intelligence operatives, while the subsequent four, including the Tailor of Panama and the Constant Gardener are not directly related to the Cold War. But Hodder and Stoughton, his publisher, maintain sales of the Cold War novels were unaffected by the events of 1989.

Threads

Threads – not your average prime-time BBC drama

King is sceptical about whether current Cold War fears will quickly feed back into popular culture.

“Films take a while to get on the screen – I don’t think we will see anything for a year.”

Film producers and publishers may also feel that with the long lead times, tensions could be defused by the time anything gets to market.

They are returning to Cold War classics but not necessarily because of modern fears over relations between the West and Russia. WarGames was recently remade as a straight-to-DVD release although terrorism underpinned the story rather than a renewed Cold War. It has also been recently reported that Red Dawn is to be remade, although the exact plot is unclear.

But as well as those cultural products directly referencing or making allusions to the Cold War, the conflict also provided the backdrop to massive shifts and vigorous battles in everything from product design and modern art to fashion, says Jane Pavitt, curator of the Cold War Modern exhibition opening next month at the Victoria and Albert Museum.

“It was a competition to be modern,” says Pavitt. “Consumer society was used as a bulwark against communism in Europe in the 1950s. That’s why fashion and kitchen goods can be seen as part of this.”

For those who were too young to remember the Berlin Wall coming down, or were born afterwards, the unique fears of the Cold War era, and the popular culture they steered, may be hard to appreciate.

But for anyone over the age of 25 in the West, they remain a deeply significant part of our psyche.


Add your comments on this story.

What about Soviet / Eastern Bloc popular culture during the cold war – was it also full of espionage dramas and ‘what if’ nuclear bomb scenarios? As someone old enough to remember it from a British perspective, I realise I have no idea at all how it was perceived and represented in media the other side of the Iron Curtain. I’m sure there is a level of propaganda and also aware that creativity was somewhat stifled, but is there a parallel strand of writing/drama/film-making that we’re all ignorant of over here?
WorldGirl, Enfield, UK

I have grown up at the other side of the Iron Curtain and can assure you: the fear that the Cold War would spiral out of control was just as real on our side, only that we expected the West to make the first move. This was reflected in our popular culture in a similar way as was quoted in the article. I used to think: perhaps both sides are just too afraid of each other, perhaps such fears could be calmed by assuring each other that “we” would not make the first move. However, my views have changed a bit over the years. Having seen how readily the West is prepared to enter into a war (Yugoslavia, twice in Iraq, Afghanistan) and how openly it encroaches on Russia’s borders by supporting various colour-coded revolutions, I am beginning to wonder who was indeed the more aggressive side. For anyone getting into a rage about this posting: just for one moment, try to forget our view that we are always right and that our view on democracy justifies any means to spread it around the world. Try to be unbiased and then read again what I said.
Holger Laux, Bristol, UK

It’s interesting, and perhaps significant, that in times of national perceived potential threat from outside, so much creativity happens. I remember vividly the tension of the 1980s, the big changes in the UK and around the world. In some ways, it was an exciting time because every new day could bring danger. Is that what we humans survive on and does it draw us together?
Krystyna, Sedgley

In the mid 1980’s I can remember being in a 6th form who generally agreed that they would not live to be 30 because nuclear war was both imminent and inevitable. A strange mix of living a normal life but with the constant knowledge of impending disaster. This is probably why I felt so uneasy with the worsening relationship between Russia and the West. The world is, in my opinion, much less stable than it was in the 80s and the politicians are much more dangerous and paranoid than Maggie/Ronnie/Andropov/Chernenko.
John Ferris, Coventry, UK

I’m 27 and can just about remember the Berlin Wall coming down, though I can’t say I remember much more about the cold war. I’d raise your threshold to at least 30!
James, London

How true. I was only nine years old when they installed an air raid siren to the roof of our school. There were lots of discussions about what we would do with our last three minutes of life before the bombs arrived. It sounds trivial now but at the time we were convinced it would happen.
Dawn, Redhill

Reading the above it confirms my gut feeling that it is the Media that stir up scenarios causing more trouble than most just by publishing half of the story and twisting the facts. Even the BBC has succumbed to the drum of the gutter press by allowing the papers to show headlines on some of their programmes such as Breakfast, the BBC does not need to give the like of these people air time they have enough journalists to concoct their own stories, so why of why do they (BBC) despoil their standards with drivel?
Robert, Liverpool

I was born in 1985 so missed the hysteria, but we were subjected to ‘Threads’ in school. I didn’t sleep for weeks and when I did I dreamt of that cat on fire and the melting milk bottles! Haven’t been to Sheffield since!!
Martin Doyle, St Albans

Threads was an excellent – and terrifying – story, and was also the first ‘post-holocaust drama’ to incorporate the concept of the nuclear winter, which had only recently been realised. And it was more than just a story: it included occasional subtitles to spell out what would be happening. It’s hardly likely to get repeated (and would in all likelihood be out of date with its figures), but as an illustration of why not to play with nuclear weapons it was second to none.
Ruaraidh Gillies, Wirral, UK

Please stop doing this. Drumming up panic when there is no need. Even Russia has said they don’t want another cold war. There is NO crisis, just sabre rattling as always.
Rich, UK

Yes a large influence on Culture of the 80’s when I grew up. I went into the RAF and ended up at Greenham Common on the other side from the peace camp. I have still have a Cold War playlist on my iPod with tracks like ‘Two Tribes’, ‘Mad World’ and ’19’. Recent Computer games like Operation Flashpoint also hark back to the Cold War 80s. Are we going into a Second Cold War. Yes and there is nothing the West can do.
Simon CS, Farnham, Surrey, UK

The Cold War was fun and inspired some great films.
Matt, Philadelphia USA

Let’s hope that we don’t go back to the scare-mongering of the early eighties. For once I would like to think that today’s youngsters are a bit de-sensitised to the whole ‘we’re all going to die’ thoughts portrayed back then. I myself started digging out a bunker at the age of seven for our family to shelter in. When I was discovered I claimed it was a copy of Percy Thrower’s Blue Peter sunken garden!!!
Jenny, Wolves

I remember being absolutely terrified of nuclear war growing up. It was an all too real possibility. The intro to “Two Tribes” used to frighten me, and “Threads” is just as disturbing to watch now as it ever was. We also had the misfortune to live nine miles from the RAF/US Navy bases and oil refineries making us a prime target. When the Air Force did their low-flying exercises in the middle of the night, I’d lie awake waiting for a bomb blast to follow. That said, I think the idea of being nuked at any moment really beefed up Western popular culture at the time.
Mandi, Cardiff, Wales

They don’t need to drop the bomb. Russia has between 1/4 and 1/3 of the world’s oil and natural gas.

All they have to do is turn the taps off.
Philip Le Roux, Aldershot HANTS UK

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August 21, 2008

Web browser to get ‘privacy mode’

Web browser to get ‘privacy mode’

Screengrab of IE8 webpage, Microsoft

Trial, or beta, versions of Internet Explorer 8 are already available

Microsoft is planning a “privacy mode” for the next release of its Internet Explorer (IE) web browser.

By clicking a button, users of IE8 will be able to limit how much information is recorded about where they go online and what they do.

Microsoft watchers have spotted two patent applications covering ways to manage the amount of information a browser logs.

When introduced the privacy mode will match features found on other browsers.

Medical test

Australian blogger Long Zheng has found two patent applications made by Microsoft on 30 July for ideas it calls “Cleartracks” and “Inprivate”.

The applications deal with methods of erasing data that browsing programs log, turning off features that record sites visited or notifying users of what sites are doing to log a visit.

While many browsers already have menu options that let people alter security settings and clear history files it typically has to be done on a use-by-use basis.

Users may wish to turn on the privacy mode if they are planning a surprise party, buying presents or researching a medical condition and do not want others users of the same computer to find out.

Internet Explorer 8 is due to go on general release late in 2008 though early trial versions are already available.

By comparison Apple’s Safari browser already has a privacy mode and developers working for Mozilla, creators of Firefox, are reportedly working on a similar feature for future versions.

Other browsers, such as Xerobank, take a more thorough approach to privacy and try to anonymise all web use.

August 14, 2008

Murdered couple in ‘scam’ probe

Murdered couple in ‘scam’ probe

Xi Zhou and her boyfriend Zhen Xing Yang

Xi Zhou and her boyfriend Zhen Xing Yang studied at Newcastle University

A Chinese couple murdered in Newcastle may have been involved in a range of internet scams, including betting and providing false visas, police said.

Zhen Xing Yang and girlfriend Xi Zhou died after a “frenzied” knife attack at a flat in Newcastle’s West End.

Detectives revealed information on a seized computer and three mobile phones showed the pair may also have arranged forged professional qualifications.

The 25-year-old Newcastle University graduates, were found dead on 9 August.

Det Supt Steve Wade, leading the murder investigation, said: “A possible motive for the killings is beginning to emerge concerning the lifestyle of Xi Zhou and Zhen Xing Yang.

“Community intelligence supported by the examination of computer equipment and mobile call data has shown that both of the victims have been involved in fraudulent activity which has angered and upset a number of people.

Televised matches

“We are currently investigating this as a possible motive for the killings.”

One line of inquiry involves claims Mr Zhen recruited spectators online to send live updates from UK football matches.

It is claimed syndicates in China, where matches are televised a minute behind, could take advantage of this.

Information passed to Northumbria Police includes details of adverts placed on UK-based Mandarin-language websites, recruiting people to watch football matches around the world.

One reads: “It is a very simple job, any student who is interested, please contact Zhen Xing Yang.”

An ad posted under the name CICI-UK, his girlfriend’s nickname, on the powerapple website last October, reads: “Work: Watch football games and send live information to people.

“Requirement: Basic understanding of football rules, no professional background needed, advantage if you have a car.

“Location: Sheffield, London, Blackpool, Portsmouth, York, Hull and many other places.”

Similar adverts requested live information from the Mexican League.

CCTV of Xi Zhou in street

Xi Zhou was caught on CCTV travelling home from work

The couple were found dead in separate bedrooms at the downstairs flat by friends on the afternoon on 9 August.

Police said Mr Zhen was “assaulted for more than an hour” before being stabbed. They believe passers-by may have heard his screams.

A post-mortem examination revealed he suffered extensive bruising to his arms before he died.

Examinations also showed Miss Xi may have been asphyxiated as well as stabbed during the attack.

The body of a cat, which had been drowned and hidden in a washing bowl underneath the bathroom sink, was probably killed by the couple’s murderer, said police.

An offender profiler has been brought in to help establish a motive for the killings.

Police have also released CCTV images taken as Miss Xi traveled home from work at the Wagamama restaurant in Newcastle last Thursday afternoon.

Police have not been able to find any occupation for Mr Zhen since he completed his degree in September 2006.

A Northumbria Police spokesman said: “We continue to look into the lifestyle of both victims and internet websites form part of this investigation.

“We cannot comment further at this stage.”

August 13, 2008

Digital nomad drives laptop sales

Digital nomad drives laptop sales

Courtesy BBC

By Maggie Shiels
Technology reporter, BBC News, San Francisco

Dell poster

One of the demands of the new digital nomad is constant connectivity

The demands of the digital nomad are expected to drive laptop sales to over one billion in the next five years.

The prediction by Dell came as it unveiled 10 new laptop models aimed at this emerging working class.

The new Latitude line boasts as much as 19 hours of battery life for the always connected 21st century worker.

“There is no business as usual in the connected era,” said Andy Lark, Dell’s vice president of global marketing.

“Boundaries for businesses are virtual. This is a new class of worker who maybe doesn’t have an office and who maybe visits 10 offices in a day and visits several different customers.”

Andy Lark of Dell

Andy Lark says Dell has shipped 53 million Latitude laptops since 1994

Mr Lark told BBC News that the ranks of the digital nomad were swelling as were expectations about the functions their laptops and notebooks could perform.

“The majority of people coming online and buying their first computer today are doing it in emerging countries like China, India and Brazil.

“If you look at India, about 67% or more of their workforce is going to be entirely mobile and that is driving the demand for new features in the laptop like all day connectivity, long battery life, high-level security and uncompromising design and durability.”

‘Performance leaders’

At a press launch in San Francisco, Jeff Clarke, senior vice president of Dell’s business group, showed off the new line to reporters and analysts.

The laptops include seven Latitude business laptops and three Dell Precision workstation laptops which Mr Clarke described as “performance leaders and something the tech community will absolutely die for”.

The computers have just under 10 hours of battery life which can be extended with a so called “battery slice” to total 19 hours.

Mr Clarke said the company spent more than one million man hours and two years designing the updated Latitude line which range in price from $800 (£400) to around $1,400.

The company also consulted more than 4,000 customers to find out what they wanted in their laptop. As well as battery life being a priority, security was the other big concern.

Dell's Jeff Clarke

Dell’s Jeff Clarke shows off some of the new ultra mobile laptop colours

Mr Clarke told reporters: “With 17,000 notebooks being lost, left unattended or reported missing at airports around the world, many with important information on them, our customers asked for the notion of a vault to secure their information.”

Dell said it had done that by including the ability to track down or disable the device if it was stolen.

The machines also have a fingerprint reader and a “control vault” processor that stores an owner’s identity and credentials on protected hardware.

‘Tiniest of differences’

Dell may have declared “freedom from business as usual”, but is it enough to regain market share and compete with devices made by rivals such as Apple and HP?

Mr Clarke certainly seemed to think so.

“We have defined mobility for the business computer. We are at that forefront of being different.”

Dell launch

In discussions with customers, security emerged as a major issue

Charles King of technology industry analysis firm Pund-IT told the BBC Dell had produced a product for today’s workforce.

“I think what it comes down to is that for most of those customers, highly mobile, highly robust and highly secure systems are critical for large organizations’ ease of management and administration.

“I think what Dell has done here is really very much focused on meeting the needs and wishes of this different class.”

Dean Takahashi of VentureBeat.com said he wasn’t totally convinced.

“I am not sure this is going to do it for Dell. The differentiation in this space is based on the tiniest of differences. Still it gives Apple, HP, Toshiba and Lenovo a target to strike at.”

August 7, 2008

US claims informant is fraud boss

US claims informant is fraud boss

TJMaxx strore in California

TJX, which owns TJ Maxx, was one the firms whose records were hacked

A former informant of the US secret service has been accused¬† of being the ringleader in the country’s biggest and most complex identity theft case.

The US Department of Justice claims that Albert “Segvev” Gonzalez and 10 others stole, and then sold more than 40 million bank card numbers.

They allegedly got the data by driving around, finding vulnerable internet networks, and accessing shop records.

Prosecutors said the alleged fraud was an “international conspiracy”.

“During the course of the sophisticated conspiracy Mr Gonzalez and his co-conspirators….hacked into wireless computer networks of major retailers,” said the US Department of Justice.

The method, known as “wardriving”, involves tracking down vulnerable internet wireless signals and using systems to decipher credit and debit card information from a retailer’s system.

While technology has made our lives much easier it has also created new vulnerabilities
Michael Sullivan,
US secret service director

The Department of Justice said that companies affected included TJX Companies, BJ’s Wholesale Club, Boston Market and Barnes & Noble among others.

MasterCard spokesman Chris Monteiro told the BBC: “If a cardholder is concerned at all about the security of their account they should immediately contact their issuing financial institution.”

‘New vulnerabilities’

While the Department of Justice has not put a price on the scale on the scam it says it is the largest and most complex identity fraud to date.

“While technology has made our lives much easier it has also created new vulnerabilities,” said US secret service director Michael Sullivan.

“This case clearly shows how strokes on a keyboard with a criminal purpose can have costly results,” he added

He urged consumers, firms and governments worldwide to develop further ways to protect sensitive personal and business information and detect those that “conspire to exploit technology for criminal gain”.

Perry Tancredi, senior product manager for fraud detection at payment security company VeriSign said that: “Regardless of how strong the security measures, and how vigilant, the weak part of the chain is there is always a human who is responsible and who has overall control over the information.”

Charges

Mr Gonzalez of Miami has been charged with computer fraud, wire fraud, access device fraud, aggravated identify theft and conspiracy.

Mr Gonzalez, who is in New York in pre-trial confinement, now faces a maximum penalty of life is prison.

Charges were also listed against Christopher Scott and Damon Patrick, both of Miami.

The other named individuals in the case were Maksym “Maksik” Yastremskiy of Kharkov, Ukraine, Aleksandr “Jonny Hell” Suvorov of Sillamae, Estonia.

Charges were also levelled against Hung-Ming Chiu and Zhi Zhi Wang, both from China, and someone known only by the nickname “Delpiero”.

Sergey Pavolvich, of Belarus, and Dzmitry Burak and Sergey Storchak, both of Ukraine, were also charged.

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