A technology blog for The Economist Group IT team

Thursday, March 31, 2005

Issue 3

Phish and Chips
There is a lot of hype from the UK government and banks about the safety of chip and pin and the increased security features apparent with the implementation of the new strong encryption key on the card chip. Also, the argument goes, you no longer have to rely on people to physically check your signature and actually verify that you are who you are. You are the only one who knows your pin, after all... Only it may not be so. Like all forms of technology, this new and secure one is open to exploitation. However well you hide your pin from prying eyes, it is all too easy for the person behind/beside you or the cashier, or a shop assistant to see your pin while you are typing it. The same goes for waiters and even people who would be sitting at the a table nearby or at the same table with you at a restaurant. What banks do not really tell you is that by entering your pin during a transaction you are then legally bound to honour the purchase. This is something that they could not argue about if someone had simply faked your signature. All online transactions are as insecure as ever chip or no chip. One of the techniques is known as phishing, which targets individuals with emails that look genuine and request personal account information. It is illegal to phish, but, then again, so should be collecting personal information and then selling it on; but the latter one is not always illegal, it depends on who is doing it and how.

The "enter your pin to authenticate" idea is neither new nor does it require a chip. A good practice in Europe, where the measure was introduced (minus the chip) four years ago, is that the shop assistant will ask for official identification (ID card, passport or a similar official document) from the purchaser, otherwise the transaction cannot take place, even if you know your pin; some shops will ask you to sign as well anyway. Furthermore, it did not cost European governments and banks anything close to what it cost Britain, since no billions of cards had to be re-issued, with the ensuing mess, lost or delayed replacement cards, etc.

For the interesting things one can do with the new secure cards, you can visit the links below:
The official website
Sensible, BBC advice
Caveat user

Low cost, low security
The internet and its possibilities offer opportunities for scams that involve theft of identity by the use of VoIP phones. The technique is known as SPIT (SPam over Internet Telephony), and is directly linked to the fact that as voice travels on the internet, it is as vulnerable to hacking as any other form of data. The full story is in Wired.

Pyramidal nano-technology
NASA is working on nano (tetrahedral, as they resemble pyramids) robots that will be able to collaborate to form a larger machine. The robots, because of their flexibility and strength in numbers will be able to change shape, so they will be able to form a solar sail that will take them to Mars, where, upon arrival they will be able to land and change into a snake-like shape which will allow them to tackle Mars's terrain without any danger of toppling over. This is exciting news, especially since, it appears, NASA is at the moment saving money by stopping all the contracts related to tending its gardens, grass, flowers etc. Perhaps they are confident that the new pyramidal nano robots will effectively do the pruning as well as space travel.

Broken Voices
Since there is too much about the election campaigns in the papers these days, so much so that things that are important sometimes get sacrificed or get a much smaller space, here is a chance to watch something that is of better quality than political party attempts at deception: it is a play -- or a collection of small plays -- called Broken Voices (reviewed in the Guardian), which are thematically connected by the ballot box. It is shown at Tristan Bates Theatre, London, until April 23. Box office: 020-7240 6283
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Monday, March 21, 2005

Mind Games:

Sunday March 21 and friend who happens to be a MD IM’d me with a link to a MYST like game to play online. He had been at it for hours and couldn’t get anywhere. He asked me to give it a try. About and hour ½ later I finally figured it all out. So I figured The Economist IT people are pretty smart let’s see how they do. If you need any help just e-mail me (stephendrogalis@economist.com) and I will give you a push in the right direction, I will not tell you the answers. Tell me what you think of the ending. Of course this should be played on your own time and not the company’s unless your testing Bandwith.

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Friday, March 18, 2005

Lost in Transition?

Reading about Mike's problems with hard drives and data loss in "To Computing Heroes" made me think about happened to my own home PC last year. I leave my PC on pretty much 24/7 at home, but last year we went to Florida for 2 weeks and so I switched it off while we were away. When we got back, I switched it back on again so I could upload the photos that we had taken, but when it started up I got the dreaded "Non system disk in drive C:" message. The system disk was completely dead. I had to go out and buy a new disk and do a fresh install. The only backup I had was on my second hard drive which I had taken by copying our My Documents' folders onto it, about 3 months earlier. I lost quite a few documents, and (more importantly) my wife lost 3 months progress in The Sims !

After that I went out and bought a external firewire hard drive, the Maxtor One Touch, and I now regularly use the Backup tool built in Windows XP to back up my entire PC onto it. I had already been using Windows Backup at work to back up my laptop onto spare space on my desk PC's C: drive (I'm paranoid about losing stuff now), but when I tried to use it at home I couldn't find it on the Accessories menu.

It turns out that it is installed as part of XP Professional, but it is just left in a folder on the install CD of XP Home, so you have to manually install it if you want to use it. It's a really easy to use tool and it's fast as well (it uses Volume Shadow Copy if you're interested in that kind of stuff) - I fully recommend it.
Here's a good introduction which also explains how to install it for XP Home.
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Wednesday, March 16, 2005

Issue 2

The social implications of technology
The person next to me on the train will at some point in the near future suffer from repetitive strain caused by smsing [sic]. Someone six seats towards the front of the carriage is already deaf, otherwise there would be no reason for me to be able to listen clearly to the music that is plugged directly into his ears. What is more, no one else on the train seems to mind. Most people have their own mini headphones on, or are texting or are deep in their blackberries and assorted portable devices including laptops and 1,2, 2 1/2 and 3G phones. In the dyslexic new world of instant response, text messaging accounts for more conversations between teenagers than actual face to face communication. People find it ok to slaughter spelling and syntax on the altar of a fast text. The level at which people communicate has fallen dramatically in the past twenty years, in directly reverse trend to the ways available for us to talk to each other. All the new gadgets available to an affluent western market are geared towards interacting with the machine rather than concentrating on the substance of the message communicated. Even places like blogs are full of bad taste designs, put together by users who have a very limited knowledge of the tools they use, and/or are using them without any rules. Much as this anarchy is refreshing, the bottomline remains the same. You can type away in chat rooms all day long, you can write text messages and download (or even make your own) “music” on your mobile phone, but unless you acquire social skills you simply create a problem both in your private life and within the environment where you live. Everything is easy and indicative of the isolation technology imposes on us, especially on the younger people, who (unthinkable thirty years ago), spend hours in front of a computer sometimes completely identifying themselves with the character of the video game they are playing online.

(Still on the same train, two teenagers are singing along their favourite tune from an iPod they share. These two young ladies have a complete disregard of the people around them, and even when someone suggests that they could be a bit more quiet, then my theory of teenage limited vocabulary evaporates before the eloquence with which a vast gamut of expletives is delivered to the hapless person who wanted to read his newspaper in some relative peace).

These may not be typical examples of the uses of technology in an inconsiderate way, and the solution would not be to ban technology; like anything, it can be used and abused. However, the indications of isolation and degradation of social skills, that are observed more and more in the younger people are increasingly so because of the unilateral use of technology as an end in itself. As a result, language, history and culture are flattened or discarded in favour of “computers”. It would be a good idea to engage people by providing them with commercial calibre video games that would be internet enabled and which would force them to study -- through the video game – history, language, literature, and all the unpopular subjects. In other words, to let them use technology as the means, not the end. As a start, perhaps, we could stop using Yahoo messenger, sms and email to talk to the person sitting next to us at the office, and go to the cafe without our "wireless" laptop.

Google that again Sam (Try finding this on the net)
There is an illuminating piece of information about the hijack bug that can change the url of a reference in Google at this link. Because of the volatility of the internet as a medium for storage of information, sometimes, information that used to be at a specific address (and one may have duly made a bookmark of) is no longer available. It may be that the page has moved or that the server has been relocated, or that someone made some space by deleting “old stuff”. It is then up to us to actually save the information we have found on the net somewhere safe. An example is this link to an article in the Independent, referring to a dispute over the Simms. The link was perfectly ok when the article was recent, but it no longer applies now. A search in Google turned up a lot of similar stories but not this one. Moral of the story: do not trust any reference unless you have saved it in a place you control.

What's in a name?
Url suffixes make all the difference on the net. Have a look at the following web sites:

PLoS vs Scientific American (and Harvard Business Review, and Nature)
The Public Library of Science (www.plos.org) is a web space where all scientific information is free and available to all. This is a model which has been developed so that scientific papers are not kept locked behind expensive specialist publications that require payment per article, or a subscription to their online or printed editions. This very important step ahead works on the premise that the scientist who wants to publish an article will pay a small fee to the web site. The advantage, apart from the work being available to everybody is that it facilitates peer reviews and takes the burden of very expensive multiple subscriptions away from academic departments, freeing in the process money for research. HBR, Scientific American, Nature etc on the contrary are built on the traditional model. This is not a war, but an attitude shift where the publisher/middle man (who has limited printed pages per issue anyway) is removed. Have a look. The site is constantly updated and populated with new material, at the moment mainly on biology and medicine, but will expand.

Hot off the Press!
Why Linux should not be used by large enterprises
The readers’ comments after the article are also worth a look.

We have decided not to die
All the web-sites are inundating us with gimmicks to attract our attention. This is slightly different, it is architectural and artistic and certainly very far away from the dry, neat and off-putting design of limited (corporate) imagination. The concept of the website menu as well as the buildings shown are quite original. Explore at Reversible Destiny/Architecture against death.

More next week
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Tuesday, March 15, 2005


There was a bit of a flurry in the blogosphere the other week following an article published by Adaptive Path. The article named and explained a combination of technologies that are starting to be used by the likes of Google for some of their clever applications: AJAX. The acronym stands for Asynchronous Javascript + XML, and the two examples they give are Google Suggest and Google Maps, though I'm sure there'll be many more.

I'm sure there are ways that we might be able to use this on Economist.com. Search is an obvious target, or it could make the new Site Tour more interactive. I'm not sure how AJAX fits with accessibility guidelines, though. I suspect we would still need a "regular" version available alongside?
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Sunday, March 13, 2005


Another EcoBlogIT virgin pops his cherry - I saw an article on IPTV on the BBC News Technology site and thought I would share it with you.


Apparently IPTV is a similar idea to VoIP services, both use broadband net connections to carry information, like video and voice, in packets of data instead of conventional means. You can have TV services delivered direct to your PC or laptop, this helps those people like me who live in an area where there is a poor TV reception. IPTV would also aid the 30% of Europe that cannot access satellite or digital TV.

It does raise questions of TV licensing too - in theory I would be able to receive BBC channels without paying any license fee (as proposed for overseas users). Although, the government are one step ahead already with plans to introduce a "PC Tax" for those without a TV but with a PC/laptop that is used to watch TV.

Apparently Net TV will not really take off until Broadband speeds are well over the current 2Mbps level; it is estimated that 4.5 million homes in Europe will have net TV services by 2008.

One note of caution: Microsoft has signed up several telecoms companies already; such as SBC Communications, BellSouth and Telecom Italia, to help build a system using its own software to deliver IPTV to people.............
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This is interesting. What I would like to see though is the ability to "get" any channels the user wants, apart from BBC and Sky. Despite the plethora of ways to get TV that are increasingly becoming available, Television reception in the UK is grossly limited unless you know how to install(and can afford, and get Council permission) a satellite dish that can tune in anything in Europe.
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Friday, March 11, 2005

How to put out an electrical fire with water!

For our new computer room at RLS we need a fire protection system. Traditionally this was Halon, FM200 or another type of gas, however these gas systems are potentially harmful to people, environmentally unfriendly and one by one being banned from use, and therefore unlikely to last the lifetime of our computer room. A water sprinkler system will put out the fire but also ruin the equipment at the same time. So the latest answer is a Fogtec water mist system. The surprising thing about this is that you can use it on live electrical equipment with damaging it or risking electrical shock! I still find this difficult to believe. Anyway it’s a positive technology development in that it is cheaper than gas systems, safe for people and doesn’t harm the environment. To understand how it works see: http://www.fogtec-international.com/static/fogtec/en/Forschung_Entwicklung/technologie/index.html
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Interview with Jimmy Wales

Mark Hurst of Good Experience has a brief interview with Jimmy Wales, founder of Wikipeadia on his blog.
I have put Ecoblog on my RSS feed and it just popped up with the Jimmy Wales comment. I am also "subscribing" to The economist contents now.
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Thursday, March 10, 2005

Issue 1

This new column on Ecoblog, called Chartreuse -- not strictly orthodox and not strictly about computing either -- has the ambition to give all of you food for thought and a stimulus to look at technology differently. I hope that you will find it intoxicating.

- Mike said about Wiki. Well I cannot see why we cannot just use the tools from the original site Wiki, which seems to even support IIS... All we need is a small box if this is to happen this side of the firewall...

- A journalist request sent me on the trail of RSS, and then I actually found that apart from the usual mess of formats as well as the fact that Netscape (again) started it all, this is a very useful tool to gather news from disparate sources, custom-made to what each one of us is interested in. Perhaps most of you know about this already, but for me it was (good) news. What is even better is that Rojo is an online RSS engine that is (to date) free. I strongly encourage you to give it a go, as you do not need to install anything on any local machine to use it. You have to register before you use it, so I suspect that they will charge at some point. (By the by, Ecoblog is RSS enabled, click on the orange button at the top right hand corner). Could we syndicate the newspaper like this? Just a thought...
(Also see Charlotte's contribution here)

- On the Mac OS X side, for those of you who would like to have a go at a tool that will allow you to edit sound, images, moving images and text, and without the full kit from Adobe, but free, then have a go at the new suite from Arboretum, which is called HyperEngine - AV. It is refreshing to see that open source/ freeware is still alive and well. Caution: this is not a beginner's kit.

- On a totally different subject, any of you who are interested in photography (the real one, not the digital, all-automatic kind), here is the address of a shop that do all sort of lens conversions and adapters for classic cameras: SRB Film (this is an email link)

- If you want to see newspapers on the web exactly the way their print editions look, then you have to subscribe to PressDisplay, a website that has collected newspapers from 55 countries. It is subscription only and it contains titles that have an online edition, as well as others that do not. Interesting thought(?)

- Siemens launched a new phone in CeBIT today. It is called Prototype DVB-H Phone (Nokia have one too)... TV on phones... What a must have gadget... or not? I would stick with a good book, a couple below:

- If you like SF, Peter F. Hamilton's "Pandora's Star" is now available in paperback. It is refreshing to see a modern author that keeps popular SF at a level high enough so that it is not classified as "pulp fiction". On the other hand, if you are interested in this sort of thing, "The Secret of Bryn Estyn", subtitled "The making of a Modern Witchhunt", is a non fictional account of a miscarriage of justice regarding the Wrexham case, in North Wales. The book will be published by The Orwell Press, towards the end of this month (yes, I have a copy) ;-)

Jamie Oliver is on a crusade to improve food in schools and decrease the cholesterol levels and heart related to obesity conditions/diseases in this country. I believe it is a worthy cause. Add your voice to his, and sign the petition here.

Hope you will enjoy some of the things mentioned, I will come back soon with more.
Economist.com recently instroduced RSS feeds - see http://www.economist.com/rss
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As it happens, this is a good example of RSS going wrong. The link from AP regarding the Siemens phone is now showing a Samsung phone. This is either sloppy programming from AP or the way this works? Probably the former. That is the link for AP unmediated (as they call themselves):

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