News & Current Affairs

August 8, 2008

Beijing ready for Olympic opening

Beijing ready for Olympic opening

Olympic volunteers in Beijing, 08/08

Officials are concerned that hazy conditions may affect the ceremony

The Chinese capital, Beijing, is preparing to open the 2008 Olympic Games with a lavish ceremony, amid hazy skies and ongoing pollution concerns.

The event will involve about 10,000 performers, and will be watched on TV by an estimated one billion people.

The lead-up to the Games has been dogged by issues such as China’s rights record, internet access, and pollution.

US President George W Bush was among several world leaders to express concern over a crackdown on dissidents.

Mr Bush told an audience at the US embassy in Beijing on Friday: “We continue to be candid about our belief that all people should have the freedom to say what they think and worship as they choose.”

Meanwhile, 40 Olympic athletes wrote to Chinese President Hu Jintao expressing their concerns over Beijing’s handling of anti-Chinese unrest in Tibet.

And Tibetans have held angry protests in Nepal, with hundreds reported to have been arrested in the capital, Kathmandu.

China frequently dismisses criticism over its domestic policies – particularly in Tibet – as interference in its internal affairs.

Muted city

The 2008 Olympics have been described as the most politicised Games since the boycott era of the early 1980s.

Pollution graph

But after a succession of controversial issues in the build-up to the Games, the focus is now shifting to the opening ceremony.

It has taken seven years of planning, and costs are estimated to have hit a record-breaking $40bn (£20bn).

Film director Zhang Yimou has been charged with portraying 5,000 years of Chinese history in one show.

It will be staged at China’s new national stadium – known as the Bird’s Nest because of its steel lattice construction – and some 10,000 performers will take part.

Jacques Rogge, the head of the International Olympic Committee, who has repeatedly defended the decision to let China host the Olympics, said he hoped the Games would help the world to understand China, and China to understand the world.

But human-rights groups have continued to condemn curbs on journalists covering the Games.

In a statement issued on Friday, the New York-based group Human Rights Watch said: “As the 2008 Olympic Games open in Beijing, foreign journalists in China face a host of severe restrictions, ranging from harassment to a censored internet.”

With the authorities determined to clamp down on any possible security concern, some 100,000 extra troops and police have been deployed in the capital over recent weeks.

The BBC’s Michael Bristow, in Beijing, described the mood in the city as muted.

He said streets had been blocked off, there were few cars on the roads and Olympic volunteers seemed to outnumber ordinary people.

China’s ‘extraordinary’ effort

On the morning of the opening ceremony, a BBC reading suggested Beijing’s air quality remained below World Health Organization (WHO) standards.

Visibility was also very poor on Friday, with one official warning that the cloud could interfere with the ceremony.

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We hope the games will show our guests China today, not China thirty years ago

Roc, China

“There are clouds covering Beijing and we are really concerned that will have an influence on tonight’s ceremony,” said Guo Hu, director of the Beijing Meteorological Observatory.

But Mr Guo is predicting that heavy rain over the weekend will clear the skies, and he warned that hazy conditions should not be confused with high levels of pollution.

“If the visibility is not good it does not mean the air quality is not good,” he said.

On Thursday, Mr Rogge said if the pollution was bad, events which lasted more than an hour could be shifted or postponed.

But he also praised China’s “extraordinary” efforts to cut pollution ahead of the Games, saying there was no danger to athletes’ health.

August 7, 2008

Net address bug worse than feared

Net address bug worse than feared

Courtesy BBC

Computer keyboard, BBC

Attackers could use the loophole to redirect web users to fake sites

A recently found flaw in the internet’s addressing system is worse than first feared, says the man who found it.

Dan Kaminsky made his comments when speaking publicly for the first time about his discovery at the Black Hat conference in Las Vegas.

He said fixes for the flaw in the net’s Domain Name System (DNS) had focused on web browsers but it could be abused by hackers in many other ways.

“Every network is at risk,” he said. “That’s what this flaw has shown.”

The DNS acts as the internet’s address books and helps computers translate the website names people prefer (such as bbc.co.uk) into the numbers computers use (212.58.224.131).

Mr Kaminsky discovered a way for malicious hackers to hijack DNS and re-direct people to fake pages even if they typed in the correct address for a website.

In his talk Mr Kaminsky detailed 15 other ways for the flaw to be exploited.

Via the flaw hi-tech criminals or pranksters could target FTP services, mail servers, spam filters, Telnet and the Secure Socket Layer (SSL) that helps to make web-based transactions more secure.

“There are a ton of different paths that lead to doom,” he said.

‘Hype’

But the DNS threat was played down by net giant VeriSign which issues many of the security certificates used in SSL. It told BBC News its system was “not vulnerable”.

The Silicon Valley company looks after two of the net’s 13 DNS root servers. It also controls the computers that contain the master list of domain name suffixes such as .com and .net

Ken Silva, CTO VeriSign

“If there is a silver lining in all of this, it’s that users will become more aware and more consious of who they do business with.”

Ken Silva, chief technology officer at Verisign, said: “We have anticipated these flaws in DNS for many years and we have basically engineered around them.”

He believed there had been “some hype” around how the DNS flaw will affect consumers. He added that while it was an interesting way to exploit DNS on weak servers, there were other ways to misdirect people that remained.

Mr Silva said he was concerned that people would read too much into the doom and gloom headlines that have surrounded the discovery of the DNS flaw.

“It’s been overplayed in a sense. I think it has served to confuse the consumer into believing there is somehow now a way to misdirect them to a wrong site.

“The fact of the matter is that there have been many ways like phishing attacks to misdirect them for a long time and this is just yet another of those ways that will be surgically exploited.”

Security gap

Mr Kaminsky kept news of the flaw out of the public domain for months after its discovery to give companies time to patch servers.

Mr Kaminsky said that 75% of Fortune 500 companies have fixed the problem while around 15% have done nothing.

Major vendors like Microsoft, Cisco, Sun Microsystems and others have issued patches to close the security hole.

“The industry has rallied like we’ve never seen the industry rally before,” said Mr Kaminsky.

Student using laptop, BBC

Computer users need to be educated to surf the superhighway more safely

DNS attacks are not new but Mr Kaminsky is credited with discovering a way to link some widely known weaknesses in the system so that the attack now takes seconds instead of days or hours.

“Quite frankly, all the pieces of this have been staring us in the face for decades,” said Paul Vixie, president of the Internet Systems Consortium, a non-profit that makes the software run by many of the world’s DNS servers.

Mr Silva at VeriSign said even though patches have been put in place, this doesn’t mean users can sit back and relax.

“The biggest gap in security rests between the keyboard and the back of the chair,” he said.

“The look and feel of a website is not what a consumer should trust. They should trust the security behind that website and do simple things like use more secure passwords and change their password regularly.”

Mr Silva said education is fundamental in making the net a safer place.

“We have been trained since we were young to lock the door to our house, our car. We take these sensible security measures in the environment we are functioning in.

“Yet when it comes to computer safety we forget to look both ways before crossing the internet highway.”

August 5, 2008

Microsoft sees end of Windows era

Microsoft has kicked off a research project to create software that will take over when it retires Windows.

Called Midori, the cut-down operating system is radically different to Microsoft’s older programs.

It is centred on the internet and does away with the dependencies that tie Windows to a single PC.

It is seen as Microsoft’s answer to rivals’ use of “virtualisation” as a way to solve many of the problems of modern-day computing.

Tie breaking

Although Midori has been heard about before now, more details have now been published by Software Development Times after viewing internal Microsoft documents describing the technology.

Midori is believed to be under development because Windows is unlikely to be able to cope with the pace of change in future technology and the way people use it.

Windows worked well in an age when most people used one machine to do all their work. The operating system acted as the holder for the common elements Windows programs needed to call on.

“If you think about how an operating system is loaded,” said Dave Austin, European director of products at Citrix, “it’s loaded onto a hard disk physically located on that machine.

“The operating system is tied very tightly to that hardware,” he said.

That, he said, created all kinds of dependencies that arose out of the collection of hardware in a particular machine.

This means, he said, that Windows can struggle with more modern ways of working in which people are very mobile and very promiscuous in the devices they use to get at their data – be that pictures, spreadsheets or e-mail.

Equally, he said, when people worked or played now, they did it using a combination of data and processes held locally or in any of a number of other places online.

When asked about Midori by BBC News, Microsoft issued a statement that said: “Midori is one of many incubation projects underway at Microsoft. It’s simply a matter of being too early in the incubation to talk about it.”

Virtual machines

Midori is widely seen as an ambitious attempt by Microsoft to catch up on the work on virtualisation being undertaken in the wider computer industry.

Darren Brown, data centre lead at consulting firm Avanade, said virtualisation had first established itself in data centres among companies with huge numbers of servers to manage.

Putting applications, such as an e-mail engine or a database, on one machine brought up all kinds of problems when those machines had to undergo maintenance, needed updating or required a security patch to be applied.

By putting virtual servers on one physical box, companies had been able to shrink the numbers of machines they managed and get more out of them, he said.

“The real savings are around physical management of the devices and associated licensing,” he said. “Physically, there is less tin to manage.”

Equally, said Mr Brown, if one physical server failed the virtualised application could easily be moved to a separate machine.

“The same benefits apply to the PC,” he said. “Within the Microsoft environment, we have struggled for years with applications that are written so poorly that they will not work with others.

“Virtualising this gives you a couple of new ways to tackle those traditional problems,” he said.

Many companies were still using very old applications that existing operating systems would not run, he said. By putting a virtual machine on a PC, those older programs can be kept going.

A virtual machine, like its name implies, is a software copy of a computer complete with operating system and associated programs.

Closing Windows

“On the desktop we are seeing people place great value in being able to abstract the desktop from actual physical hardware,” said Dan Chu, vice president of emerging products and markets at virtualisation specialist VMWare.

Some virtual machines, he said, acted like Windows PCs to all intents and purposes. But many virtual machines were now emerging that were tuned for a particular industry, sector or job.

“People take their application, the operating system they want to run it against, package it up along with policy and security they want and use that as a virtual client,” he said.

In such virtual machines, the core of the operating system can be very small and easy to transfer to different devices. This, many believe, is the idea behind Midori – to create a lightweight portable operating system that can easily be mated to many different applications.

Microsoft’s licensing terms for Windows currently prohibited it acting as a virtual machine or client in this way, said Mr Chu.

Michael Silver, research vice president at Gartner, said the development of Midori was a sensible step for Microsoft.

“The value of Microsoft Windows, of what that product is today, will diminish as more applications move to the web and Microsoft needs to edge out in front of that,” he said.

“I would be surprised if there was definitive evidence that nothing like this was not kicking around,” he said.

The big problem that Microsoft faced in doing away with Windows, he said, was how to re-make its business to cope.

“Eighty percent of Windows sales are made when a new PC is sold,” he said. “That’s a huge amount of money for them that they do not have to go out and get.

“If Windows ends up being less important over time as applications become more OS agnostic where will Microsoft make its money?” he asked.

July 31, 2008

Surveys: Many people are now watching TV online

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Surveys: Many people are now watching TV online

As much as 20 percent of all TV viewing in the US now happens online, says a survey released this week by Integrated Media Measurement Inc. (IMMI), supporting other recent research which also indicates that the Internet is fast turning into the top choice for many.

For the first time this year, a significant part of the online audience for primetime TV episodes is not watching some portion of the show on TV, according to IMMI’s new survey results. Recent launches of sites like Hulu, offering full episodes of programs, is surely bolstering the trend.

For some shows, online viewing is higher than DVR playback. Yet the IMMI researchers also contend that only about one-third of American households own DVRs, whereas about 82 percent of them have Internet access.

About 29 percent of “traditional live TV viewers” use a DVR frequently, in contrast to just 22 percent of online TV viewers.

Around 50 percent of all online viewing was characterized by IMMI’s respondents as “TV replacement,” whereas 31 percent of the time, it was described as “catch-up viewing,” and 18 percent of the time as “fill-in viewing.”

Online TV as a “TV replacement” is certainly nothing new. As previously reported in BetaNews, in a study conducted by Burst during the recent Hollywood writer’s strike, almost half of those surveyed were spending more time than usual online, in order to avoid repeat programming on TV.

Although that particular study didn’t ask the TV defectors how they spent their time online, it’s probably a good bet that a lot of them were viewing videos.

Europe seems to be much further ahead of the US in watching TV online, according to a survey by Motorola. Even back in mid-2007, when that survey was published, 45 percent of respondents across the UK, France, Spain, Germany, and Italy claimed to be watching at least some TV online, with France taking the lead at 59 percent.

Given the choice, why do some people prefer watching TV online? Another recent survey — this one conducted by Simmons, a unit of Esperian — showed that viewers are 25 percent “more engaged” when watching TV online.

Released last December, the Simmons study defined “engagement” according to six characteristics that respondents identify with media: “personal time-out,” “social interaction,” “inspirational,” “trustworthy,” “life-enhancing,” and ad receptivity.

Although that could be, maybe people just find it interesting to get up off the couch, ditch the remote, and flip around between various Web sites – some showing TV programs, and others offering music, downloadable software, social networking, news, gaming, e-mail, search engines, and an endless array of other stuff.

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