May 30, 2001

By Karen Kenworthy


Now that was interesting. :)

It was just last week that the first new issue of the Power Tools newsletter left the secluded Power Tools workshop, and wound its way around the world. I didn't know what to expect, since we hadn't gotten together in over two months. Were you still there? Would you remember me?

The answers were a resounding yes, and yes! Before the newsletter had reached even one-third of you, my poor little web site was swamped. Despite some load-balancing and other tweaks I'd put in place, the number of visitors to the web site was several times the number that could be accommodated. And I still had tens of thousands of newsletters that hadn't yet been mailed.

Needless to say, I spent a couple of sleepless nights scrambling to make room for everyone. Earlier, I had rented a commercial web server that has a very fast connection to the Internet (a "T3", for the telecom savvy). But this server couldn't host the .html (Active Server Pages) and SQL Server database I'd used so extensively when creating the original web site. So, at first, the fast server was relegated to storing our downloadable program files.

But last week it was clearly time to trade speed for elegance. With the help of a little program I wrote, that automatically applied several repetitive changes to each of's 147 pages, and a lot of patience from each of you, the new, faster finally came alive late last Thursday night. There's still a little sawdust on the floor, and the paint's not quite dry. But it's already to feel like home. :)

Country Codes

When I wasn't working on the web site, I spent some time catching up on my big email backlog. Digging deep in the mailbag, I came across a note from reader Robert Traynor. Not long ago, he had written, asking about one of his favorite programs (sadly, it wasn't one of mine).

The nifty utility displayed a country's name if you entered the country's two-character abbreviation (or "country code"). It also displayed the appropriate code, if you entered a country's full name.

I don't know why Robert needs such a program. But many people who prepare international mailings or shipments make heavy use of country codes. Post offices and shipping companies around the world understand the meanings of country codes, and many require their use on international shipments.

Many computer programs use country codes too, to identify a warehouse or customer's location, to categorize statistics, and more. Perhaps most importantly, to many of us, the Internet makes extensive use of country codes, as we'll soon see.

The country codes displayed by Robert's program, and used by most people, organizations, and software, were devised by the hard-working folks at an organization called ISO. Once known as the International Standards Organization, and now known as the International Organization for Standardization, the ISO publishes an amazing variety of standard procedures, terminology, sizes, colors, and more.

Suppose you want to know the proper way to perform an outdoor weathering experiment on photographic imaging materials. You can look it up in ISO publication ISO/TR 18930:2001. Interested in "Flat bottom railway rails and special rail sections for switches and crossings of non-treated steel -- Technical delivery requirements"? Check out ISO 5003:1980.

You can purchase both standards from the ISO's online store at:

While there, you might want to pickup a copy of ISO 3166-1:1997, "Codes for the representation of names of countries and their subdivisions -- Part 1: Country codes.". As you've no doubt guessed, this is the ISO standard that defines the two-character country codes used by Robert's program.

Unfortunately, the ISO's printed standards documents are a bit pricey. The little Country Code standard, less than 50 pages when you count all the rules they followed when selecting country names and codes, costs more than eighty U.S. dollars. But you can save that money, and a lot of time, by visiting the official web site of "ISO 3166/MA", the ISO 3166 standard's Maintenance Agency:

There you'll find a free list of country codes, updated immediately each time a new country is born, an old one changes its name, or goes out of existence.

Non-Country Codes

However you obtain it, look closely at the ISO's list and you'll notice something odd: Some items on the country code list aren't countries. For example, the list includes an entry for Heard Island and McDonald Islands, assigning them a country code of HM. As you know, those uninhabited islands in the Indian Ocean are a territory of Australia (country code is AU), used mostly as an off-shore anchorage for fishing vessels.

In the ISO list you'll also find country code AN, assigned to the Netherlands Antilles. Those who attended our last Power Tools beach party know those Caribbean islands are part of the Kingdom of the Netherlands (country code NL). The ISO list even has a code for Antarctica, AQ, though the continent of Antarctica belongs to no country.

Another ISO country code quirk involves the United Kingdom. Whenever possible, each country code is assigned a two-letter abbreviation of the country's full name. But the official country code for the United Kingdom isn't UK. Instead, it's GB, short for Great Britain. The GB code is widely ignored, in favor of the more popular UK code. Even the Internet uses UK to refer to the United Kingdom, despite official reliance on the ISO 3166- 1 standard.

Discombobulator To The Rescue!

With well over 200 different country codes, it's easy to see why Robert needs a program to manage all this information. Unfortunately, Robert recently upgraded to Windows 2000, and his program was a casualty of the move. Now the program crashes each time it runs (remember, I didn't write it! <grin>).

Fortunately, Robert's problem seemed like a good excuse to upgrade a favorite Power Tool. Old-timers will remember the URL Discombobulator, a program that unravels the mysterious of "shrouded" web addresses such as:




These types of addresses are often used by spammers, and others who want to disguise their identities on the Internet.

Over time, the URL Discombobulator learned some other tricks too. For example, the program can now determine the numeric "IP Address" assigned to computers on the Internet. Just provide the computer's "domain name,", such as, and the Discombobulator will do the rest. In most cases the program can also discover a computer's domain name, when given the computer's IP address.

As we'll soon see, country codes appear in many Internet domain names, web addresses, and email addresses. So decoding them seemed like a natural job for the Discombobulator. And that's exactly what the new version of the program can do.

URL Discombobulator v1.6 can display full country name of any country code. It can also display the country code that corresponds to any country name. It knows the full ISO 3166-1 specification, so it can even interpret country code oddballs like Antarctica.

There's a lot more to say about country codes and the Internet. Among other things, need to talk about something called "ccTLDs" (Country Code Top-Level Domains) and "gTLDs" (Global Top-Level Domains). But that conversation will have to wait until our next get-together.

In the meantime, I'm going to take a nap. Just now, there's a gentle rain falling around the secluded Power Tools workshop. In just a moment, I'm going to open my bedroom window a little bit, so I can hear the rain falling on the roof and the leaves. I'll smell the rain too -- that special fragrance of a soaking spring shower. Then I'll pull my blanket up to my chin, and drift off to a place where all web sites are speedy and easy to build -- my dreams. :)

If you're going to stay awake, you might want to drop by my web site and download the new version of the URL Discomboblator. You'll find the program, and its Visual Basic source code at:

As always, both are free.

And when the rain has stopped, and I'm on my feet again, look for me on the 'net. If you see me there, or anywhere else this week, be sure to wave and say "Hi!"