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The Weird World of Country-Specific Web Domains

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As the dot-com bubble reached its peak in 2000, Internet entrepreneurs faced a problem: every word in the dictionary had been registered as a dot-com domain name. So their bold new innovation was to register domains ending in something other than dot-com! Let's take a look back at the stories of three alternate top-level domains: Tuvalu (.tv), Libya (.ly), and Cocos Islands (.cc).

.tv - Tuvalu

© Stephanie Rabemiafara/Art in All of Us/Corbis

Tuvalu is a Polynesian island nation with a tiny population (somewhere around 12,000) and a disproportionately large Internet presence: Tuvalu owns the ".tv" domain extension, and receives millions of dollars each year for allowing non-Tuvaluan companies to have their very own "dot TV" domain name.

In 2000, former Goldman Sachs analyst Lou Kerner became CEO of dotTV, a company managing domain name registrations for Tuvalu. In the initial arrangement, dotTV was 20% owned by the Tuvalu government, and $1 million was paid to Tuvalu every quarter for the use of its domain name space (the contract has been renegotiated since, but the terms are private). Right as the dot-com bubble was bursting (July 2000), Kerner told Salon:

"I had never seen a company with as compelling a business model as dotTV," [Kerner] says. "I thought from the start that .tv could be bigger than .com, so I was very excited about it."

dotTV was acquired by VeriSign in 2002, and .tv shows no signs of becoming bigger than .com.

Postscript: in 2009, Boing Boing reported that domain name registrar GoDaddy recommended against registering ".tv" domain names because "The island of Tuvalu is sinking." GoDaddy recommended that customers choose a more traditional domain extension instead, like a good old .com domain. (Though GoDaddy will sell you a .tv domain name for just $39.99/year.)

It's important to note: Tuvalu isn't sinking -- it's just being slowly submerged by rising ocean levels. Much of Tuvalu's land is less than three feet above sea level, so it is susceptible to small changes in ocean levels. With such a small population and a lucrative online business, they might have a fighting chance.

.ly - Libya

© Hannibal Hanschke/dpa/Corbis

Libya had the good fortune to be handed the .ly domain extension in 1988. .ly is best known for its use in bit.ly, a URL shortener that was (for a time) used by default on Twitter. Despite having a Libyan domain name, bit.ly is based in New York City. Lots of other non-Libyan companies use Libyan domain names, as "-ly" appears at the end of many adverbs in English. Despite this common usage, NIC.LY, the Libyan registrar in charge of managing .ly registrations, stipulates:

3.5 The Applicant certifies that, to the best of his/her knowledge the domain name is not being registered for any activities/purpose not permitted under Libyan law.

In 2010, Libya shut down a URL shortener (vb.ly) because the content of the website "fell outside of Libyan Islamic/Sharia Law." vb.ly was billed as "the Internet's first and only sex-positive link shortener service. Meaning, links are not filtered or groomed, and we'll never pull your links because we decided to become 'family friendly.'" Writer (and vb.ly operator) Violet Blue wrote after the shutdown, "Anyway, [Libyan government officials] said that a picture of me with my bare arms was illegal, my bottle of beer also illegal, and the words 'sex positive' also, illegal according to the laws I was never shown, and were never applied throughout my first year of registration." Domain registrar beware.

In 2011, various politicians were surprised to learn that they had been using bit.ly URLs that were (at least in some small part) affiliated with Libya. The Wall Street Journal reported:

Human Rights Watch, which has blasted the Gadhafi regime for blocking Internet access within Libya, is one organization that unwittingly used the .ly addresses. "It's ironic and a little bit distasteful," says Tom Malinowski, the group's Washington director, upon learning the news from a reporter.

Libya announced in 2010 that in the future, domain names shorter than 4 characters (we're looking it you, bit.ly and ow.ly) are reserved for companies that actually operate in Libya (which bit.ly, ow.ly, vb.ly, and most others don't). In short, the country controls its domain names and can make its own rules. This may be why Google's URL-shortening service goo.gl uses the .gl domain from Greenland -- a country not known for political strife.

.cc - Cocos Islands

Cocos Islands image via Shutterstock

The beautiful-but-tiny Cocos Islands are a territory of Australia, with a population estimated at just over 600 people. The islands' history includes a visit from Charles Darwin aboard the HMS Beagle in 1836 and several major naval battles in WWI and WWII. With such a minuscule population and no significant industry, it was thus a big surprise when its ".cc" domain briefly became an Internet phenomenon in June 2000. The domain name "beauty.cc" allegedly sold for $1 million, setting a much-hyped record for the highest non-dot-com domain name sale ever. At the time, the buyer commented in a press release:

"This is an important acquisition for us," states Alan Brown, president of Universal Domains, Inc. "The word 'Beauty' is a huge category leader that appeals to many demographics, for many different reasons. We plan to turn BEAUTY.CC into one of the Internet's greatest destinations. It will have lots of eye candy and mesmerizing content that will lead to direct sales of products and services. Further, its business-to-business component will redefine the way companies do business in relationship to the Beauty category. The price tag for the domain is consistent with the value of the name. Further, we believe in the future of the dot cc domain suffix because of the marketing behind it, and we are confident the public will be excited by the prospect of a refreshing new Internet marketplace."

Today, beauty.cc redirects to an Asian-themed gift site (hosted at a dot-com domain name, to boot!), so Mr. Brown's plan to create "one of the Internet's greatest destinations" appears to have failed. But what really happened here was actually a bit more complex -- according to the LA Times, the deal was "a classic case of publicity-driven Internet bubblenomics." It was a publicity stunt involving two related companies re-selling the domain to each other, in an attempt to boost .cc domain registrations and start a speculative bubble. The actual beauty.cc sale involved "only $200,000 in cash," with the remainder of the price provided in restricted company stock shares. The LA Times reported:

In addition, there are some indications that the selling company, David Sams Industries, an infomercial producer and major marketer of .cc names, may have already had a significant stake in Universal before this deal.

Two months ago, according to company statements, Universal entered into an agreement to purchase as many as 500,000 .cc domain names “at a preferential price.” In “consideration” for this arrangement, Universal said, it issued 7 million shares of restricted common stock (more than doubling its outstanding shares).

All this proves the old adage: beauty is in the eye of the domain holder.

Notable Country-Specific Domains

Aside from those listed above, here are some fun ccTLDs often used for "vanity" purposes:

.am - Armenia, but popular with AM radio stations.

.fm - Federated States of Micronesia, but, you guessed it, FM radio. (And considerably more popular than .am.)

.dj - Djibouti, handy for professional DJs.

.ws - Samoa (formerly Western Samoa), often marketed as short for "website."

.la - Laos; marketed as the unofficial TLD for Los Angeles. (As if .com and .tv weren't enough.)

.lv - Latvia, marketed as the unofficial TLD for Las Vegas.

.to - Tonga, used as a verb (like go.to) and also for Torrent, Toronto, and Tokyo.

.md - Moldova, marketed for Medical Doctors.

.me - Montenegro, used for personal websites.

Technicalities: What's a "Top-Level Domain"?

A Top-Level Domain (or TLD) is the portion of a domain name to the far right, after the final period. So for mentalfloss.com, the TLD is the ".com" bit. TLDs sometimes have specific usages -- .edu is reserved for educational use, for example -- but most of them are available for anyone to register. There are two broad sets of TLDs we see most: the "Generic TLDs" (gTLDs) like .com, .net, and .edu; and the "Country Code TLDs" (ccTLDs) like .ly, .gl, and .uk. The ccTLDs have an advantage over others, because they're only two letters long -- and saving one letter here and there really adds up, especially if you're Twitter (which now uses its own URL shortener, t.co: .co is the ccTLD of the Republic of Colombia).

When you visit any website by typing in its domain name, the first thing your computer has to do is communicate with a DNS (Domain Name System) server to translate the text-based domain into a numerical IP address. A key part of that translation involves "root servers" for each TLD. These root servers are the authoritative source for which IP address maps to a given domain name. So when you type in "mentalfloss.com," the .com root servers tell you where "mentalfloss" is within the context of ".com." The reason this gets interesting with ccTLDs is that some countries are politically unstable (so the government might decide to shut down Internet connections or delete certain domains), or don't have much of an Internet presence to begin with (as, for example, the island nations of Tuvalu and Cocos).

Interestingly, the root servers for a given country's ccTLD don't have to be located within that country. When Libya briefly pulled the plug on in-country Internet access, the .ly ccTLD kept working, because two root servers were in Oregon (USA), one in the Netherlands, and only the two in Libya were affected by the outage. The DNS system, like much of the Internet, is designed to handle spot failures (like the unavailability of those two servers in Libya) and route around them -- for a time. If the Libyan shutdown had gone on for months, it's likely that the out-of-country root servers would enter an unstable condition, because they rely on the master in-country root servers for updates. If a long outage occurred, we would likely face a minor international incident regarding how to handle the ccTLDs for that country. (Long story short: geeks would make it work, though politicians might grumble about international sovereignty.)

And How Do Countries Get Assigned These Domains?

The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) governs the assignment and regulation of domain names, among other technical things. ICANN is a California nonprofit that took over various Internet management tasks from the US Government in 1998. To make things extra confusing, ICANN has a department called IANA (Internet Assigned Numbers Authority) that manages the root servers mentioned above, as well as various technical details of how the DNS system operates. Because the Internet is global, ICANN and IANA attempt to navigate the waters of international policy as distinct entities from the US Government.

Wikipedia maintains a list of ccTLDs, including any special restrictions required to register one -- many countries require a local presence, local trademark, or other proof of actual in-country involvement.

Retired and Semi-Retired ccTLDs

Countries come and go, but ccTLDs live on. For example, .su (Soviet Union) was created in 1990 and is still in use despite the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991. A similar oddball domain is .dd, which was assigned to East Germany (for Deutsche Demokratische Republik) but never actually implemented in public root servers. The ccTLD for the Republic of Zaire was .zr, but .zr was retired and replaced by .cd when the country re-formed as Democratic Republic of the Congo in 1997 (not to be confused with .cg, which is reserved for Republic of the Congo, a separate neighboring nation).

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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