Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Black and White

I'm writing this sitting on a toilet in a Montreal hotel. No, not a severe case of constipa- tion, but the bathroom is the only place in this room where I can get decent wifi reception.

Back home, the broadband connection is very slow - 128 kbs, which makes the downloading of large files impractical. So whenever I come to Montreal I look forward to many hours of downloading at a less frustrating rate. Lately I have been prowling the Internet Archive site, which makes available many films, recordings and pictures whose age has pushed them into the public domain, so no worry about DRM and copyright laws, which I find particularly baffling.

I have a number of films on my wish list this time around - Murnau's Nosferatu, Melies' Le Voyage dans la Lune, and any of Max Fleischer's Betty Boop cartoons, which I find engrossing. His version of Snow White with Cab Calloway as Koko the Clown is particularly psychedelic, especially the "St James Infirmary Blues" segment.

All of these classics are, of course, in black and white which I find is one of the greatest gulfs in the generation gap between myself and my children. You see, they steadfastly refuse to watch anything not in colour. Any television made before the mid-sixties is immediately switched to something more understandable, such as Aqua Teen Hunger Force, while they believe cinema only began with the invention of Technicolor.

In my way of thinking, this "divide" can be best described as the difference between blatancy and nuance. On one hand, all the information required to understand a particular work of art is provided for them, and viewing becomes a passive "cold" experience. But with black and white in the hands of artists the viewer must interpolate and supply the missing information, drawing them into the narrative, scenery and atmosphere.

Anyways, my butt is getting numb sitting on the toilet seat cover for so long, so I'll get on with my downloads.

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Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Internet in the Arctic - the Early Days

I do a little work for the regional ISP in northern Quebec, basically signing up new subscribers and occasionally doing a little monkey work at the local earth station. Since December 2005 we have had a "broadband" service via satellite. I put "broadband" into quotations since the service is not really high speed as you would find in the south: at 128 kbs watching YouTube tends to be a frustrating experience as only about 3 seconds of data get buffered at any given time. It is akin to reading a novel where there are only ten words to a page and a dozen or so blank pages to thumb through before find the next page with a phrase or two on it.

To many of you used to DSL or cable links this might seem intolerable, but to me it is still a marvel. You see, I remember the old days of the Internet.

My use of the 'net in the Arctic stretches back over two decades, at least seven years before the World Wide Web even existed. This is back in the day when the Internet, at least for the non-academic public, consisted of emails which could be read only within your own domain. No attachments were possible either since only 7 bits were used in the transmission.

I was working for the Kativik School Board at the time teaching upgrading to adults. We had four regional centres and the coordinator at the time, Jim Deslaurier, got the idea that we could encourage communications and writing skills among our Inuit students by email, connecting the villages of Kuujjuaq, Quaqtaq, Salluit and Kuujjuaraapik. I was sent for a short course with Bell Canada on the use of their Envoy 100 email system, and we deployed Apple IIe's in the communities. Modems at the time were 300 baud maximum so the throughput was infinitely slower than what we now have today, but it didn't matter much since most emails were a few sentences long with no attachments.

My adult education centre was in Quaqtaq, located on the northwest point of Ungava Bay. This small community of about 30 houses had huge radio towers which were used (and probably still are) for transAtlantic aircraft navigation. Our access to the Internet was by means of telephone over satellite facilities provided by Telesat Canada. So powerful were the radio transmission, and so shitty was the shielding on the local phone system, that we always heard the "beep-beep-da-da-beep-beeeeep" of the navigation beacons in the background whilst chatting on the telephones.

The Quaqtaq radio beacon

This interfered with the quality of data received over the phone lines, and I was convinced that the whole Envoy 100 system was infected by some Tourette-like virus. The periodic beeps from the transAtlantic beacon would interfere with the data reception, resulting in periodic bursts of random symbols. Consequently, this became the norm for our correspondence:
Dear Nanuk:

Sorry for the 3248j;wdf delay, but I just got around to reading your last #$#UIHliahwf post. asdfopjP(&*_#(@4p8yhnakjf!~!!!! I'm going to take your suggestion and 32asd19)(**34$&^$@&. Thanks for your dfsu34*(&34 input.
This caused endless amusement as we ran through the various permutations of possible meanings. I even started to insert random characters into my emails for effect, sniggering as I imagined how the recipient at the other end would decipher the message. But back then, living in geographic and cultural isolation, I was amused by almost anything.

I am enjoying this reminiscence, and hope you are too. If you will indulge me, I'd like to do a few more posts on the evolution of the Internet in this remote location on the globe. On deck: The Source of All Evil.

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Sunday, April 08, 2007

I've Been Had

Last month the BBC reported that one in ten Britons had been a victim of online fraud during the previous twelve months. Finding that percentage amazingly high, I put it down to the British being trusting folk having lots of relatives in Nigeria.

However, . . .

I got a call from my credit card company on Tuesday wanting to review some of my recent purchases. This happens quite frequently, since my pattern of credit card usage is sporadic at best. Since I live in the Arctic, I use the card on-line a fair bit, buying software, clothing and other goods not available up here. However, on the rare occasion I travel southward to Montreal, I can easily put a couple of grand on the card within the space of a couple of days in bricks and mortar retailers.

So I have gotten used to having some sales clerk tell me that my card has been declined and that I should phone the credit card company. Usually, it takes about ten minutes to review my retail transactions and, once vetted, my card is reactivated.

This time was different. I have not been south since before Christmas and have not made any on-line purchases from questionable vendors, but somehow some slimeball used my credit card to play on-line poker. The hit was under a hundred bucks, but still I felt violated and vulnerable. The upshot is that my credit card number has been cancelled, I will eventually be reissued another card, and it looks like the bank will cover the loss.

I thought I had done everything right concerning on-line security: WEP encryption on my wireless router, firewalls, relatively strong passwords, and common sense. But it appears that my efforts have not been able to deter vermin from getting my credit card number.

My sister has also recently been a victim of credit card theft. Having used her card to gas up in Woodstock, Ontario recently, she suddenly found that a number of purchases had been made using her card in that very town. The suspicion here is that the card had been skimmed by the merchant or that a camera had been placed in a position to capture her card numbers.

So what are we to do? I think it's crucial that in a world where personal data is being digitized and whipped around the globe in a jetstream of bits and bytes, someone has to come up with a better method of security. But here is my observation of a paradox - the more hi-tech the solution, the greater the rewards for those who eventually hack in. Perhaps low-tech approaches might make things easier.

For example, why not put some kind of prism over the numbers of a card so they cannot be photographed? Why not ask every on-line merchant to post a major cash bond against being the source of credit card or identity theft so that they will give their own network security the requisite attention? And, of course, pursuing those malefactors of monetary mayhem with extreme prejudice?

So today I am changing all my computer passwords - all 79 nine of them.

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