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Roger Clarke's IT and Uni Ops - 2001

Information Technology and University Operations
A Status Report dated 10 November 2001

Roger Clarke

Principal, Xamax Consultancy Pty Ltd, Canberra

Visiting Fellow, Department of Computer Science, Australian National University

Version of 10 September 1992

© Xamax Consultancy Pty Ltd, 1992, 1998

This paper was prepared as input to deliberations of a University Committee

This document is at


There are many possible futures for the application of information technology to the operations of tertiary institutions. This paper was prepared (basically in one sitting) in order to depict one possible future. It owes virtually nothing to science fiction, but is based entirely on the author's appreciation of existing technologies and their use, management, implications and potentials. It presumes fairly gentle evolution of the conceptions of the role of a university, and of political perspectives and processes.

The line pursued is intentionally conservative and plausible, rather than revolutionary and visionary. It's an exercise in scenario-building, not prediction. Its purpose is to loosen up the reader's thinking. The 'monastic cloister' is no longer an adequate guiding metaphor for the management of a university; but the 'virtual organisation' notion is a bit boisterous, threatening and insufficiently concrete for many people's taste. This document seeks the middle ground.

Scenarios have to be rooted in a cultural setting. In putting it up on the web, I've left it in its original form, which talks specifically about my own university.

RAC - 18 February 1995

ANU Marketing

It's that time of year again - when high school students and prospective mature-age enrolees at tertiary institutions are planning their enrolments for the coming academic year. They have many information sources at their disposal, in high schools, technical colleges and community libraries throughout the country, and in many cases in their own homes. One is a particularly useful service offered by the Australian National University.

At its heart is a set of documents describing the A.N.U.'s course offerings. Depending on the workstation the student is using, it provides access to the text, tables, diagrams and pictures contained in these documents, and a great many alternative entry points and navigation paths. It also contains a simple-to-use 'enrolment decision support system'. This enables prospective students to paint their profiles, interests, and course and career thoughts, and engage in an interactive dialogue with software which embodies the distilled experience of A.N.U.'s course advisers.

What makes the service particularly attractive to students, parents and teachers is that it is not restricted to the A.N.U. The decision support system guides users towards relevant degree-courses nomatter which institution offers them. The database contains outline information about every course offered in Australia, and provides the titles and locations of the electronic and hard-copy documents which describe each of them in full detail. One reason for the A.N.U.'s investment in the product is the enormous public relations value of being known to provide a broad community service. Another less noble but very practical reason is that the University has chosen to offer a set of strong specialisations rather than a complete degree palette. Because of the high financial and other costs of servicing enquiries, it is nearly as interested in deflecting away inappropriate enquiries and applications as it is in attracting appropriate ones.

The service comprises more than the database and decision support system. Questions can be submitted by electronic mail from any user workstation to the A.N.U.'s enrolment help desk. Acknowledgement is gauranteed within 10 minutes and an answer within 24 hours. Furthermore, by selecting an option captioned 'When You're Through Playing Games ...', students can submit applications for enrolment in any of the A.N.U.'s courses, make the captured profiles and interests available to the University's assessors, and authorise them to undertake a preliminary evaluation of the prospects of gaining acceptance. The University gaurantees to submit the application on time to the University Admission Centre (UAC), but permits the student to revoke the application until 24 hours before the UAC deadline.

In January 2002, when offers are decided, students will receive offers from the University in whichever form they have nominated (electronic, fax or physical mail), and will respond in whichever form they wish.

Student Administration

Come the beginning of February 2002, the enrolment arrangements also serve both the public relations and the cost-control objectives. Students capture their own enrolments, and can do so from any location in the world which provides a workstation capable of gaining an appropriate connection and down-loading and running the appropriate software - a boon to students who globe-trot during the summer. The system performs on-line validation of the data and precludes gross errors such as missing data-items and unavailable units, filters the applications, presents the data to enrolment staff with exceptions and anomalies highlighted, accepts and records the resulting decisions, manages outstanding applications, sends periodical reminders to staff who have outstanding responsibilities in relation to applications, and despatches confirmations and denials to students.

At all times, academic staff have access to all accumulated statistical data relating to courses and units. The allocation of teaching rooms is undertaken during the last week prior to the semester, based on previously recorded academic staff preferences and taking into account the up-to-date enrolment data. This ensures the most appropriate use of the available teaching resources. On the Monday morning preceding the commencement of semester, the identities and outline educational profiles of all students are provided in electronic form to the Faculty officials responsible for courses, and to the academics responsible for the units in which the students are enrolled.

Throughout the semester, the system accepts from students their applications for variation of enrolment, checks the details, channels requests for authorisation to the academic in charge of each unit affected, brings exceptions to the attention of the authorised officer as appropriate, records responses, issues reminders to staff-members who are slow to respond, and keeps the student informed of progress. DEET charges students according to their enrolled load as at the fixed accounting date each semester, but the specific units in which the student is actually enrolled are a matter between the student and the University.

Although no policy decision has ever been taken for the A.N.U. to become a distance-learning institution, some developments in that direction have arisen. The practice in almost all units is for all teaching materials to be available electronically, including in some cases audio- and video-recordings of live lectures, and off-campus access to these materials by accredited students is not precluded. Units with limited laboratory- and tutorial-attendance obligations are therefore effectively available to students who are seldom on campus, or even in the same city as any of the University's domestic and international campuses. The business-oriented faculties in particular are active marketers of existing units in intensive, off-campus form, and this has also been a spur to these developments. Moreover, the MBA course includes several units which are explicitly multi-location in form, building teams of students who are located on several continents in order to teach the dynamics of dispersed management and policy-making.

Academics have the option of capturing and maintaining all marks on the system. Allocation of the final grade is a decision by the academic in charge of the unit, but all grades are checked automatically against the computed results, and apparent anomalies drawn to the academic's attention. Such anomalies require explicit approval by the academic concerned, and are recorded as such. The results are available electronically immediately after the Faculty Examiners' meeting, and are despatched to each student's registered address (email gratis, or for a transmission fee to a fax or physical mail address).

The occasional failings in both the external and internal services have resulted in a small number of lawsuits being initiated. The sums involved in settling these cases have been relatively limited, however, and public relations benefits have accrued from deft handling of the negotiations.

The Workstation Environment

Academic and general staff, students, and members of the public alike have a choice of workstation environments. Most people have access to several in their normal work area(s); many access services from home at least some of the time; the University has provided cheap, robust public stations at many points on campus and in some off-campus locations such as nearby bus-stops; and some people make significant use of portable workstations and general public workstations, particularly in airports and in the foyers of community-based service organisations such as shopping malls, financial institutions, post offices and car rental agencies.

Many functions are available to guests at any workstation, but some functions are restricted. This is done on the basis of presentation of the appropriate token (a chip-card) and the keying of a PIN. Some restricted functions are available to appropriate individuals and groups at any workstation; while the more sensitive are restricted not only on the basis of id, but also physical location of the workstation (mainly at particular work-desks and home locations). Access is automatically restricted in the case of students who are also employees. A debate is presently raging as to whether the University will continue to use its internal student and staff ids, convert to one or more of the newly-released person-oriented telephone numbers offered by Telecom, Optus or Nano-Technology Telecommunications (NTT), or move towards one of the various biometric identifiers which have established their technical feasibility.

Workstations generally support structured data, text, still-graphics and image in integrated multi-media documents. Some also support media-conversion, particularly sound-to-text and text-to-sound. Moving-graphics and -image, synchronised multi-media and other forms of media conversion are still too expensive to be made generally available, and have only been provided where a strong case can be made.

The University has recognised that IT is both a basic service and a basic skill. It expects both staff and students to train themselves using the wide range of cheap and publicly available books, audio- and video-tapes and tutorial software. On the other hand, it provides practical encouragement to its staff and students by paying for software site licences which encompass use by staff and students on any workstation at any location, provided it is for a purpose related to the person's employment or education. There are some difficulties in reconciling this with the very active software writers' anti-piracy organisation (SWAPO), which monitors usage of its products by a wide variety of means both fair and foul. The University has had to intercede on several occasions to prevent prosecution of putative offenders.

Administrative documents are only fully controlled by their originator while they are unreleased working documents. Once submitted, even in draft form to colleagues for comment, they become managed documents, their distribution is subject to controls, and their contents, amendments and accesses are fully traced. The system permits notations by any reader against any part of any document or prior notation. Consolidated documents can be readily produced, as can prior versions of documents. Comments rounds may be designated as identified or anonymous, to permit on-line brain-storming and delphi techniques, which are increasingly commonly used at the very beginning of discussions concerning important policy issues.

On-line democracy is staggering its way into existence in a number of forms. The Students' Association has forced on-line plebiscites on such matters as the re-planting of key areas of campus and the location of the mooted swimming pool, although the Administration has denied that the results of such votes have any meaning in law, and insist that the Association's views be submitted to the appropriate Committee and be voted on in the normal manner. Several Departments and two Faculties now require the use of anonymous comments rounds as a pre-cursor to the finalisation of Departmental/Faculty positions on agenda items. These organisational units have also found that, by instituting electronic voting on non-contentious items, some of their periodic meetings 'go virtual' and the remainder have very short, focussed agendas. Depending on the Departments and individuals involved, the resultant time-savings have either been re-invested in research, or enabled staff-members to take better care of their rose-bushes and grape-vines.

Another issue that has been addressed is workplace surveillance. Widespread network inter-connection, radio telephony applied to data, infra-red transmission within confined areas and chip-cards with on-board responders to broadcast queries enable mobile employees to have access to data and services. But they also enable the organisation to keep track of the employee. Negotiations with unions have resulted in an uneasy stand-off, with the University providing assurances about the circumstances in which it will trace employees, and workers waiting for the first evidence of abuse.

A significant proportion of external mail is received and despatched by electronic means. After several trials during recent years, the University has finally installed imaging equipment, and incoming official mail which arrives in physical form is now being scanned into electronic form and made available over the network. The delays were not caused by technical shortcomings and it has appeared to be cost-justifiable for some years now; rather the problems have been associated with data security needs and data privacy law. Incoming mail addressed to individuals by name is still forwarded, and it is left to the individuals and organisational sub-units to determine whether to scan such documents into the system. The cost of outgoing physical mail is so much greater than that for electronic mail that the University is actively seeking ways of charging individuals and organisations who receive significant volumes of ANU mail but are not email-capable, or offering short-term financial incentives to them to change.

Workstation facilities are available to staff-members, students and associates of the University in their private capacity, subject to a relatively small fee. This enables people to conduct their business from whichever workstation is convenient to them. The primary services used are email, bill-payment, travel and entertainment database access and reservations, and the totalisator, the stock exchange and other on-line trading schemes. After negotiations with unions, norms have been established limiting usage during particular portions of the day. All monitoring is undertaken automatically, and the records may only be inspected by anyone other than the individual concerned if the norms are exceeded.

The University's archives are progressively being converted to electronic form, but considerable care is being taken with the document-access provisions. Not only are there many matters which remain current for many years (and hence documents of almost venerable age are still deemed to be 'working documents' for the purposes of the University's internal FOI procedures), but there have been several instances in which student and staff research used the archive to catalogue litanies of broken promises by the University's executives, administrators and academic leaders, and measures have been taken to avoid such recriminations in the future.

The 1990s' headlong rush into workstation-based administrative work had resulted in a new epidemic of over-use syndrome. Unlike the epidemic of the 1980s, which resulted from a mix of physiological and psychological causes, this one was almost entirely psycho-social in nature. As the proportion of the work requiring inter-personal communications and skills decreased, many workers progressively withdrew into their workstation-cocoon. The results were that the informal processes on which many organisational sub-units depended progressively broke down, and many people suffered neuroses of one kind or another. The A.N.U. confronted the problem earlier than many employers, and its rules precluding sessions at workstations exceeding two hours in succession and seven hours in any 24-hour period have recently been used as the basis for amendments to the national Occupational Health and Safety Regulations.

Attempts to embed the session-limit rules in software foundered, however. The rumour circulated this was because Computer Science staff broke through the system's security and modified the routines, and then blackmailed the administration into leaving the modifications in place. The Students' Association criticised the story as a 'blind' intended to cover up the fact that the security precautions were compromised by Computer Science students rather than staff.

The writing of research papers and research-grant applications had progressively become routinised during the preceding decades, through the use of graduate students and research assistants. In the mid-to-late 1990s, the automation of these manual processes by document generators, promoted as 'integrated lab-to-library' (ILL) facilities, was a great boon to hard-pressed scientists, whose research-funding and career-progression had become dependent on voluminous publishing records, and convincing, nay inspiring, project proposals. Refereeing and assessment processes absorbed these products with less difficulty than some people had anticipated.

The explosion in clever data generation procedures in the last five years has been a different matter, however, because it has also seen an explosion in problem generation and even law-suit generation. Initially conceived as a means of pre-validating research methods, the output of these synthetic data machines was so convincing that it could not be differentiated from normal smoothed laboratory results. Inevitably, there was occasional semi-accidental use and publication of such data as though they were results of real experiments. Following the scandals on both sides of the 'cold fusion' debates of the mid-1990s, a significant amount of the time of senior scientists is being committed to peer and superordinate review, and allowances and teaching and research relief have had to be provided to the most hard-pressed academics. Unfortunately some instances of unacknowledged use of synthetic data continue to surface, and withdrawal of research funds and damages suits by funds grantors are negatively impacting the University's budget.

The User Perspective on Centrally Managed Systems

Users generally don't appreciate that the University's major systems are mostly fairly old, and run on a wide variety of machines. This is because they are accessed in windows on any workstation. Subject to some security and privacy restrictions, data from any database can be copied-and-pasted or hot-linked into documents managed at the workstation and stored wherever the user wants them stored.

The sophistication of the student administration system is reflected in most of the University's other systems as well. Employees are very well aware that even the centrally managed systems all use distributed data capture, e.g. for purchase requisitions, time-sheets and leave-applications. Although they do not strictly need to know much about the disposition of the data, most employees are also aware that distributed databases are used for distributed functions, including small-scale purchases, organisational sub-unit equipment registers and local stock holdings.

As a matter of policy, email and conversation-based 'help desk' facilities are available for all systems. As a matter of practice, however, the volume of use is not all that high, and many organisational sub-units pride themselves in their ability to use the systems to the utmost with minimal external assistance, even in the training of new staff. This is because training and support are two of the few high-touch functions left in the University, and staff compete actively for the opportunity to actually get to know a newcomer.

Of all of the diverse groups served by the University's IT facilities, that which is least well served is still the University's executives, who continue to bemoan the lack of an executive decision support system. A decade ago, the difficulties were that up-to-date aggregate data was very difficult to obtain, and no manipulable models of the University's operations and strategies existed to enable data to be combined with alternative strategies and environments in order to assist decision-makers to appreciate the alternative futures and the likely consequences of their available strategic manoeuvres.

Those constraints have been largely overcome, with the power of computer-based corporate modelling, data access, data analysis and information presentation facilities matched by the skills of executive assistants. It has been found, however, that the data is capable of so many interpretations and presentations that meetings become data-battles rather than negotiations over policies, resources and political power. Worse still, much of the data and the processing capabilities are available to the University's non-executive staff, and to some extent the students and the public, exposing senior management to much more informed criticism than used to be the case. Some executives feel that the egalitarianism inherent in the IT facilities is not only counter-productive, but also demeaning to them.

The IT Management Perspective on Centrally Managed Systems

With such diverse sources and locations of data, transaction authentication has been necessary, and has been achieved through specially-programmed zones on the chip-cards issued to staff and students. With the dispersion of data capture closer to source, increased attention has also been necessary to transaction validation. This has resulted in data editing routines migrating out from servers to workstations.

Good as the control mechamisms are, the risks involved in modern information systems are considerable. Following several all-too-visible instances of corruption and blackmail, staff hiring procedures have had to be tightened considerably. The University went to open tender some years ago for security services, and to a few people's consternation, the winner was an organisation called Providential University Security Systems (PUSS), a joint venture between the A.F.P. and A.S.I.O. Its short-lived policy of outsourcing security clearance investigations has recently been retracted, and the quality of earlier reports is being re-established.

Electronic flows, using both structured EDI and unstructured email, are the normal communications channel between the University and its suppliers. The ANU has on-line access to the price-lists and inventory holdings of contracted and preferred suppliers. This is in return for on-line access by suppliers to relevant parts of the ANU stores and purchasing database, and their right to bid for return of stock-items where the supplier has a temporary shortage.

Some use is made by the University of on-line trading schemes. This is primarily because of the brokers who have served the national predilection for gambling by facilitating public access to many of the burgeoning on-line markets in goods, services and derivatives. As a result, pricing for many commodities is highly volatile, and only slightly related to supply and demand by actual consumers for the goods and services themselves. The University's uses of the on-line bidding facilities are to enable spot-price purchasing of commodities, to list excess products for sale, and to enable employees to trade on their own account during their work-breaks.

The student and staff administration systems have been subject to more change than had been anticipated five years ago, due to the continuing interventionism of DALBEALOCT (the Department of A Little Bit of Education and A Lot of Ongoing Career Training). The most disruptive externally dictated requirement during the last two years, however, has been the Government's new Social Wage system (SWAG). When, two years earlier, the Government foisted upon employers the responsibility to distribute the new minimum-income-due-to-all, employers did not complain, because most of them took advantage of their freedom to reduce their employees' salaries and wages by the same amount.

When tertiary institutions were required to distribute the funds to their students, however, there were no savings to the University, only additional costs, and the allowance provided by the Government covered no more than about one-third of the real development and operating costs. Fortunately it was possible to use the existing EDI/EFT links, but records maintenance for a shifting population incurs significant ongoing effort. At first, students did not take kindly to the requirement to bundy-on three times weekly, but the levels of vandalism and demonstration soon fell away, and new generations of students meekly accept the requirement as part of their world.

Applications Management

Modern software engineering, which has long since absorbed the once-fashionable CASE, object-oriented and 'expert systems' notions, is delivering moderately reliable software. The University has progressively invested in software building-blocks, including object libraries (particularly for user interface functions), packaged user utilities and professional tools, and application packages. Several different APIs (application programmer interfaces) are in use to provide the glue among the components.

The create-amend-abandon cycle for application software, which was a feature of the first three decades of IT, has been largely left behind during the 1990s. The A.N.U.'s philosophy is based on:

The kernel of each application tends to run on its own machine, but closely integrated with the back-end database servers and front-end access-and-presentation servers and workstations.

Segregation of processing from front-end functions was completed some years ago, but the grafting of back-end modules for database management has been a slow process. It is nearing completion at last, and within three years the last of the satellite databases will be retired from service and all applications will attain the long-planned state of grace, in which all applications will share the same minimally redundant corporate data model and corporate database.

Maintenance and enhancement of the University's major applications have been complicated by commitments to external agreements, conventions and standards. EDIFACT external document formats are used, including the inter-University and University-to-educational-authority standards. These finally emerged in early 1998, after many years enmeshed in international bureaucracy, but standards-compliant products became available only in late 2000. Several other AVCC initiatives are relevant, particularly CASMAC, although (as described at the beginning of this paper) the A.N.U. has chosen to go its own way in relation to course information, rather than get bogged down in a national standard. The University's acquisitions policy is also subject to the Buy-Australasian-And-Certainly-Not-American Act.

The apparently heightened risks involved in dispersed applications constrained their development for some years, but management is now reconciled to the views that effectiveness and efficiency are the main drivers, and that security and control are constraining factors. There has been an increase in the investment in controls and audit capabilities, and the majority of activity by internal audit professionals is in proactive measures such as pre-implementation audits of validation routines, and on-line and real-time transaction filtering and audit-case selection software. With virtually all transactions captured close to source, most post-event audit procedures are performed by software rather than by humans.

Relationships with the Australian National Audit Office (ANAO) are at an all-time high, because of the ANU's willingness to provide on-line access for audit purposes and thereby enable ANAO to fine-tune its forthcoming Ongoing On-line Audit Assessment (OO-AA) of all government agencies.

IT Infrastructure Management

The delivery, maintenance and ongoing forward migration of facilities to support such a wide range of services, with minimal non-availability, has demanded a large, professionally certified, expensive (and sophisticated and aloof) specialist group. The staff include systems software, networking and hardware experts, but also library and information science specialists, because that discipline has coped most convincingly with the difficulties of delivering integrated multi-media and multi-source data to IT users.

There is continual clamour for expansion of the limited number of workstation environments which are supported. Most workstations, including both those owned by the A.N.U. and the thousands of public and private workstations throughout the country, are used not only for administrative purposes, but also for teaching-related, research-related and private functions. A wide range of server environments are supported, although some commonality has been achieved in recent years with the finalisation of OSI Reference Model standards and, slowly, delivery of standards-conformant products.

Service robustness is achieved through duplication of many facilities, in some cases inherent in the machine architecture, in others designed-in by the University's IT facilities management specialists. Backup and recovery are managed centrally for all servers and University-approved workstations, even for those which are mobile or at home work-locations.

Moderately high standards of reliability have been achieved, for equipment, for systems software, and for packaged utilities, tools and applications. This is because they are all either certified by a reputable laboratory, or carefully tested and trialled by the University before full implementation. Some difficulties still arise from workstation devices and software which have passed OSI protocol testing but still contain bugs, non-standards-compliant features, and differing interpretations of some aspects of the standards.

As was experienced in industrial controls a decade or two earlier, many of the more significant service interruptions arise from ill-conceived or unsuccessful tests of the facilities' fail-soft and fallback arrangements. Nonetheless, auditors insist on the continuance of these tests, because they keep the facilities management team on their toes and often test out even more of the system than they are designed to.

The telecommunications strategy takes account of both AOSIP (the Australian Open Systems Interface Profile, closely modelled on the U.S. profile) and TWIN (the Tertiary Worldwide Inter-operability Norms). With tensions between the North American, European and East Asian blocs now extending beyond trade, domestic freedoms are once again being tightened. Security services throughout the world are viewing TWIN as the likely basis for resistance movements against established governments, and are using various means to infiltrate and de-stabilise the organisation and its networks and services. Conventional wisdom within the audit profession is that the Mafia and the Quads have the resources to compromise major systems in once-off 'sting' operations, but that only the security services of the major trading blocs have the capacity to exploit the acknowledged operating system trapdoors on a systematic basis.

The most apparent risks to service continuity and integrity arise, however, from the enormous creativity of social deviates, mostly external to the University, but apparently including some students and academic and general staff. Earlier virus-generators are now regarded as 'old hat', and the current 'dare' among these people is to produce ever-larger worms and sustain them ever-longer. Fortunately the processing power of modern equipment is such that a variety of (both authorised and unauthorised) on-line analysis programs and real-time predator-daemons roam the networks consuming unauthorised processes and code. Security specialists' greatest fear is the rumoured, but so far never demonstrated, compromise of a predator-daemon into a double-agent.

What The Future Holds

IT continues to promise great improvements over the primitive technology of 2001. Processor power is at last reaching the point where it can deliver what is really needed. 'Cyber-architecture' is due for launch very shortly, and will offer a machine powerful enough to support all of the many system-architectures and processing modes in a single, cheap, mass-produced unit. This will remove the last barriers to dynamic auto-reconfiguration, and enable networks to adapt on a reliable and continuing basis to additional nodes and arcs and changing user requirements. For a relatively low one-time investment, the A.N.U. will soon be able to dispense with its large and expensive infrastructure maintenance department [and pigs will soon fly backwards - Ed.].

The growth in robotics outside the University environment has not to date been matched within the campus. The period of dominance of social over personal concerns among students during the mid-to-late 1990s appears to be over, and principles and education are once again regarded by the student body as less important than economic progress, status and political power, particularly for themselves. In this climate it is much more likely that the cost-saving measures proposed in the past in such areas as cleaning, on-campus transportation, grounds maintenance, banned-substance testing, language tuition and examination- and assignment-marking will finally be approved for implementation.

Some trial applications of neural networking have been attempted, but they remain limited and tentative. They are limited because the majority of the needs of administrative IT are better based on problem-oriented or at least domain-descriptive methods rather than delegation of judgements to machines. They are tentative because the empirical basis is lacking on which to build them - even where there is a substantial body of suitable material available, it is inadequately documented, and contains only the more exceptional cases and few mainstream ones.

Within the University's 5-year IT planning horizon, it is not anticipated that there will be any impacts from contemporary research into future application software generations, including the seventh level of abstraction (auto-capture of empirical data), the eighth (auto-selection of data for auto-capture) and the ultimate ninth (auto-generation of empirical data, referred to by devotee and critic alike as 'neo-creationism').

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From the site's beginnings in August 1994 until February 2009, the infrastructure was provided by the Australian National University. During that time, the site accumulated close to 30 million hits. It passed 50 million in early 2015.

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Created: 15 October 1995 - Last Amended: 13 July 1998 by Roger Clarke - Site Last Verified: 15 February 2009
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