A technology blog for The Economist Group IT team

Thursday, April 07, 2005

Issue 4

Open BIOSesame
Up to now BIOS (or basic input output system) has always been lurking in the background of every PC or machine that contains a processor. It is responsible for identifying the basic components of a system up until the operating system takes over. It almost never breaks and the code for it is proprietary and unavailable to all but the people who are given the instructions (along with detailed chip maps) from Intel etc. to make it. What is interesting about BIOS is that it cannot be changed (apart from the options available to the user), and lately, it has been found to be the perfect vehicle for locking certain parts of a PC. The latest machine code controls the user's machine so that unauthorised/illegal copies of software, downloads etc are restricted. This new generation of BIOS will also control security chips on the motherboard.

Intel, Phoenix, Dell and other makers rightly argue that BIOS programming is at such low level that unless it is broken you do not need to update it, and that there are no modifications or improvements at this level that will help you use your machine more quickly or effectively. In order to implement digital rights management, the traditional BIOS will effectively take over the control of your machine. This is not ethical, and not even legal, as when you buy a machine you own it as is and you should be able to do with it what you like. If you break the law then you should get arrested, but restricting access to your own PC pro-actively, simply means that sometimes things that you want to do may be restricted simply because the PC you bought in England is locking you out of something which, in -- say -- Spain where you now live is perfectly acceptable.

This form of intrusion lead Richard Stallman, president of the Free Software Foundation, to launch an initiative called Extensible Firmware Interface, or EFI. This will allow open source programmers bypass hardware locks and restrictions Dell or any other company may impose on their customers giving the end user freedom over his/her property. There are caveats, in that the processor makers do not disclose the finest details of their designs in the open source community. Intel has proposed a scheme, called Tiano (see TianoCore.org). On that web site you will be able to download drivers that are open source according to the EFI model and, under the FreeBSD license to modify and distribute them. The site does not require the modifications to be submitted back as open source, in order to protect the intellectual property of the developers; this is middle ground, and hopefully a start that will improve the balance between the cryptic monopoly of corporations and the end users' rights.

The Project Triangle (and that with a pencil)
Among the plethora of blogs and sites related to living and life management [sic] this one, called 43 folders argues, quite reasonably, that if you can do something with a pencil, make sure it is well sharpened, and do not use something else instead. It is quite fun to read, so it is better if you have a look yourselves. One of the things on it relate to project management, a menĂ¡ge a trois after a fashion, a golden rule, which says that cost, features and time are three constraints that cannot coexist. You can only have two of them at a time, and, provided you stick to this very simple principle, then projects will be successful.

Shark robot
Do you remember Calypso, Jean Jacques Cousteau's famous boat and marine laboratory? Fabien Cousteau, grandson of the famous marine biologist/oceanographer, in the steps of his grandfather, ordered the creation of another boat, a submersible which looks, feels, moves and even smells like a white shark so that he can study this ocean predator quite close and without inhibiting the beast's behaviour with intrusive recording devices. The "shark" can house an operator and has an assortment of cameras and sound recorders. It was built by Eddie Paul a Hollywood design engineer and animatronics expert.

Tiger tiger (New system X, and then the real ones, and then the film)
The new OS from Apple is promising stability, increased functionality and ease of use. It also implements widgets to allow you make small menial tasks more quickly using an impressive as well as intuitive interface. The new Safari supports RSS while .mac sync synchronises your Mac with any handheld device. This all sounds too good to be true. Tiger has not been released yet so let us see what it delivers before committing to it; and while on the subject, Adobe are planning the first major upgrade of their Creative Suite, CS2. Watch this space for more on this, one of the few pieces of software that runs as flawlessly on Macs and PCs.

A couple of tigers have actually been released lately, albeit not from Apple, and they can be found in a sanctuary in India. Not the only animals that are rescued, they are protected and cared for by BornFree, an organisation dedicated to the well being of wild animals. If you are interested in tigers there is also a film, released in 2004 called Two Brothers, where two tiger cubs are the main stars. Excellent graphics on the web site. Latest news from Myanmar say that a woman offered to breast feed two baby tigers.

Mozilla Scriptorum Errata
No one is infallible, and in the case of Mozilla, the problem lies with javascript. There is a bug that affects all versions of Mozilla, including the latest 1.02, where if you have javascript enabled then the most recent 10 k of your RAM can be at any time copied by any malicious attacker. If you are using mozilla and you want to test whether this problem exists in your version, you can visit Secunia, who have developed a tool to test the vulnerability. If the box remains clear you are safe. If not you have to disable javascript. The only problem is that without it a lot of websites stop working properly. Mozilla have promised a fix soon.

Ranking me ranking you
Internet Business Promoter is a product that aspires to help you get your website at the top ten of search engines. It is commercial, although there is a demo (limited features) version which, after analysing what your requirements are it compares them with the currently top ten with the same criteria and offers sensible advice for modification. The rub is, if pressed, what would you want the users to look for so that they find your web site? The software is developed by Axandra and lets you choose between German and English as your interface language.

"Quench your thirst for knowledge"
...that is how Google advertises Gulp and in the process redefines what's in a drink... Pity Gulp is not real (or is it)? Just in case it is, you could send an email to:
tony.blair@new.labour.org.uk?Subject=The definitive answer to binge drinking and mob control
Re: The "tiger" piece.

It reminded me of something we were talking about in the office the other day. How long is it going to be before Apple run out of "glamorous" sounding cat species (cougar, panther, cheetah etc.) to use for OSX releases and have to move onto the

OSX "Flat-headed cat" doesn't have the same ring to it.

Dave has a point there, and if I am allowed a pun, then the next big one should be called OSelot...
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