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Thanks to technology, humanity keeps going further and further

By James Hanback Jr.

NOVEMBER 16, 1998:  As far back as I can remember, I've been fascinated by what the human race can accomplish with a little technology, a little knowledge, and a lot of ingenuity. So when I sat in crowded Rotier's two weeks ago to watch John Glenn's return to space, I couldn't help but be filled with some pride and fascination.

Granted, the missions of Space Shuttle Discovery and its counterparts have been largely ignored by the public over the past few years. And the only really unique thing about the most recent mission was Glenn's involvement. In fact, I would venture to guess that Glenn's launch two weeks ago was the first time many people had gathered to watch a launch since the Challenger tragedy in 1986.

Twelve years is a long time in the technology world, but it's not long enough for people to forget the horror of watching Challenger turn from a bright white bullet racing for the stratosphere into a devastating trail of grayish-white smoke across the sky.

At Rotier's, the crowd collectively held its breath when Discovery's boosters burst from the shuttle's side. Perhaps President Kennedy's concern about Glenn returning to space in the 1960s wasn't so overprotective after all. It was a silent, but overwhelming, reminder that in spite of all our triumphs, our work in technology still has a long way to go. And we still have some new frontiers to conquer.

If nothing else, former test pilots and astronauts like Glenn deserve our respect for their perseverance and their pioneering spirit. Glenn now has two space-related medals to pin to his coat: one for being the first American to orbit the earth, and the second for being the first senior citizen in space. This need to push the human race further and further accounts for much in our modern-day world: not just space exploration, but medicine, desktop computers, movie special effects, transportation, and of course the Internet.

Two weeks ago, when the whole world sat down to watch Glenn's return to space, a great many of them did it over the Internet. Reports from cnn.com, abcnews.com, and other news sources indicated that Net traffic during Glenn's launch was about 45 percent greater than when Kenneth Starr's report to Congress was released to the public.

Sites attempting to cover the launch, and to present it through World Wide Web video technology, were overwhelmed by visitors. Some Net surfers only encountered "Server Too Busy" messages as they clamored for a chance to view the last few seconds before Discovery left the launchpad.

Fortunately for Americans, the nightly news rebroadcasts highlights of major events. The Internet, though it is wonderful technology, still can't handle that kind of demand without denying some users access as a result of busy servers.

But like the release of the Starr report, John Glenn's second trip into space does verify that the Internet is the medium for the next century. For many, it is the first place they turn for information. And, hopefully, it won't be long until the technology catches up to the demand.

Welcome home, John Glenn; and Godspeed, you computer scientists, gurus, and hacks out there, without whom the space shuttle would probably not exist, and without whom the Internet most certainly would not.

Hacky Halloween

South Eastern 2600, a Nashville-Atlanta chapter of the 2600 hacker magazine, held its second annual PhreakNIC convention Halloween weekend at Drury Inn South. Among coding contests, a hacking competition called "r00t WarZ," and several panel discussions, the group hoped to draw attention to privacy and security issues in technology.

PhreakNIC 2.0 attracted Internet-wide attention among hacker/security circles and was even broadcast over the Internet via RealNetworks' RealAudio technology. se2600 member "jonnyx" said he was pleased with convention attendance, although the holiday made it difficult for some people to make it. "We're thinking of moving it from Halloween for PhreakNIC 3.0," he explained. "Some people DJ for parties and have other commitments for the holiday."

He added that he was pleasantly surprised to discover how widely information about PhreakNIC was distributed on the Internet. "We even found information about it that was in Portuguese," he said.

The convention lasted three days, wrapping up on Nov. 1 with the dismantling of the Drury Inn-wide computer network that se2600 set up for the event. Although PhreakNIC 2.0 was mainly publicized as a Nashville-Atlanta event, according to jonnyx, people came from as far away as Canada to attend.

Microsoft trial drones on

The Microsoft trial took a surprise turn last week when, instead of cross-examining an Apple Computer executive, the government put Bill Gates' 10-hour videotaped deposition up for court scrutiny. Trial watchers anticipated that the tape would be viewed, but first they were expecting Apple to describe in detail its accusation that Microsoft attempted to halt production of the popular QuickTime multimedia software. The software is used for audio and video presentations on the Macintosh and is also produced for the Windows platform.

Some analysts are saying that the outcome of the Microsoft trial could dramatically affect the way the software industry conducts business.

Bug bites Apple

Internet software lately seems to be the software that attracts the most bugs, or at least the most bug-related publicity. And no company is immune.

Apple Computer Inc. announced last week that it had confirmed a bug in its Sherlock search feature, a new desktop-to-Internet innovation built into Mac OS 8.5. The bug reportedly crashes Sherlock when a user attempts to use the feature through newer proxy servers that support HTTP 1.1, the communications protocol that allows World Wide Web pages to be transmitted over the Internet. (A proxy server is a server that caches information from other servers to speed up Internet access.)

Another potentially more serious problem with the new Macintosh operating system, according to a report at www.abcnews.com, is that some users have reported a loss of data after installing it, especially when they've formatted their hard drives with third-party utilities or other operating systems.

More information is available at the Apple technical support pages at the company's Web site ( http://www.apple.com. ).

Email James at jhanback@nashvillescene.com.

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