A technology blog for The Economist Group IT team

Thursday, April 28, 2005

Guess the Google is addictive

But actually not too hard. Give it a whirl.
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Cisco buys more phones

Cisco has bought Sipura in a $68m deal. Sipura manufacture IP telephony kit.
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Friday, April 22, 2005

Issue 6

Text with a view
The largest horde of classical texts, the Oxyrhynchus (sharp nosed fish) Papyri, boxed in eight hundred cartons, can be found in the Oxford Sackler library, where it lay unreadable since its discovery at the ancient homonymous rubbish dump in central Egypt. An article in the Independent on Sunday discussed how experts at the University used a new technique to read the texts from pieces of papyrus where the ink had faded or was overwritten since paper was a very expensive commodity in the ancient world, which meant that quite often the ink would be scratched off to use the sheet again and again, resulting in several layers of text one on top of the other so that the original was completely lost to the naked eye.

The scientists used a technique called multispectral imaging to bring the ancient texts to life. This technique was developed in order to successfully analyse and enhance satellite images. Satellites measure energy at different wavelengths in the infrared spectrum. Different combinations of wavelengths, superimposed to create a composite image highlight different areas in a photograph of a city or a landscape from space. Drawing the analogy and by photographing the ancient parchments, the scientists in Oxford were able to read successfully, and at an impressive speed a first sample from the horde. A tutorial of multispectral imaging can be found in classzone.

Athough that there are probably no complete new texts that will come to light as most papyri are fragments, the reading of the texts will significantly enhance our understanding of the classical world, to the point that the researchers like to think that it would be the classical antiquity equivalent of finding the Holy Grail. Although similar techniques have been used to read texts, this is the first time this has been successfully applied to manuscripts.
Oxford University Papyrology
The Independent on Sunday
Multispectral Imaging (tutorial)

Text with an attitude
In the current issue of the Economist, just out today, there is an article in the business section quoting Rupert Murdoch saying that the end of journalism as we know it is imminent and that newspapers (like the Economist) should take heed of the new trends in reading and responding to news publications. Most people no longer buy a newspaper on a daily basis, whereas the younger generations do not like to be told what to read and prefer the plethora of sources available on the internet. Blogs along with podcasts are mentioned as some of the increasingly more powerful media of communicating news. Younger readers and writers in blogs are resistant to patronising editors who decide for them what they should read and will more likely post a comment to be followed up as a discussion thread on a website than write a letter to a newspaper, hoping that an editor will choose to publish it. Much as the article is well rounded and interesting, there is no mention of RSS as a tool to gather information from traditional newspapers' online editions and blogs alike.
The future of journalism

The night of the long horns
Jim Allchin, Microsoft group vice president, gave more details of the new Microsoft operating system, now five years in the making, in an interview in CNET. It is intriguing how eager he is to compare Longhorn with Tiger and emphasise that although the two may look similar, Microsoft is groundbreaking in the “under the hood” enhancements of file handling, GUI, and other features. It is open wars again with deadlines to meet and (bets welcome) deadlines to miss so that a service pack two will actually be a complete (re)download of the OS minus the security black holes new security features will have introduced…
Allchin interview

Rebels without a pause
Revelations is an independent film in the Star Wars storyline which was done completely by volunteers who were not paid and is distributed freely on the internet. It was done on a minimum budget and with equipment bought on ebay.
Panic Struck Productions

Where does your laptop come from?
The geopolitics of global operations ensure that four days elapse from the moment you click “pay” to the moment your (Dell) laptop arrives at your front door. A number of countries ship each individual component to the assembly line, and this sort of global co-operation can be the cause to eliminate war from the face of the earth.
Guardian article

Chartreuse is away next week
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Tuesday, April 19, 2005


Make Acrobat load in less than 1s by pressing [Shift] when loading. There's also a small app. called Acrobat Speedup that manages which plug-ins Acrobat loads (it's these that slow the load time down).
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Adobe yesterday agreed a $4.3bn all-stock deal to buy Macromedia. Wall Street's apparant dislike of big software deals meant that by the close yesterday the deal was actually worth $3bn as Adobe shares fell 11 per cent. It'll be interesting to hear what Bruce Chizen has to say on the rationale behind the deal. Adobe are pretty much in the business of providing tools to get content into a printable format whereas Macromedia's products are all about getting content onto the web. At a cursory glance, therefore, the deal brings together two sets of products that do not overlap with the potential to integrate their capabilities into format-neutral applications.
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Thursday, April 14, 2005

Issue 5

Joshua Goodman, David Heckerman and Robert Routhwaite have spent many years (since 1997) working on the problem of illicit email. The techniques they and informatics scientists around the world have developed and tested are artfully published in this month's Scientific American. The gist of their article, which is recommended reading for all professionals who deal with the problem of spam, is that not one way exists that can eliminate the thousands of emails that flood both individual and corporate mailboxes. A clever combination of a number of techniques is a preferred option. At the end of the article there is a list of sources that can be found online and are free to view (unlike the said article, which is for Scientific American subscribers only). One of the most thorough presentations of the algorithms that try to detect the various ploys spammers use can be found in an article (in pdf form) at the Demokritos National Centre for Scientific Research in Athens, Greece.

Apart from the usual mail, nowadays there is unsolicited instant messaging (spIM), another form of intrusion via the various instant messaging programmes, mostly containing links to phishing and pornography urls. In order to be able to find if a message, website, email or any other form (sms) of unsolicited electronic communication contains material which is of adult nature or simply criminal, new algorithms have been employed which scan images to see whether there is too much flesh tone in them and if so, to reject the email as pornographic. These algorithms scan the photograph, analyse the tone frequency and the shapes of the outlines of the objects depicted and make decisions as to whether the pictures should not reach the recipient. The techniques that are used for this kind of scanning are prone to error as a medical photograph may be mistaken for the wrong kind, inasmuch as a photograph of an animal may contain the wrong type of curves. So far the success of these filtering techniques is no better than 50/50. The software they are based on, was originally developed for pattern recognition and has been used by the likes of CIA, the FBI and police forces around the world in order to scan CCTV footage and recognise a criminal suspect.

A single spam email costs a hundredth of a cent to send, so, spammers make money even if only one in 100,000 emails has a positive response, i.e., one in 100,000 recipients buys something. A way that this could be made unfeasible, argue Goodman, Heckerman and Routhwaite is to make email too expensive for the spammers to use. Unfortunately, this would mean making it very expensive for everyone else as well.

Apparently there is no easy solution in sight, especially as spammers find more and more advanced ways of bypassing the various learning engines and filtering mechanisms years of research have put in place. Common sense practices, as in never open email if you do not recognise the source, do not accept (or send) mass emails, virus scanning of downloads and the certainty that your bank will never ask you for your account details online, can make life easier; until the day when fr$ durgs and Persc®1pti0ns will be a memory of the past. If only something could be done about cold calls too...

Big in Japan
The Japanese have devised a new way to look after the elderly, infirm and lonely. They sell them a pet, which is a robot trained to simulate emotions, wants to be cuddled, and even holds limited conversations with its owner. It is also equipped with a microchip which monitors the health of the elderly person and is even capable of learning the subject's moving habits, so, if that person stops moving in the wrong time of the day, or one of his/her vital signs shows as too low or too high, the robot places a call to a call centre that would dispatch a paramedic or a close relative to check on the infirm person. The robot was initially designed to be sold as a companion to teenage girls who did not have a boyfriend. In Italy, a similar scheme for the elderly involves a volunteer who adopts an elderly person and will be responsible to look after them; more humane than the robot, whose batteries may run out or which may be incapacitated by a bug. If you want to see how literature has hinted at this socio-technological phenomenon, you could enjoy reading Isaac Asimov's I, Robot collection of short stories (there is a lot more to it than the lame rendition of one story by commercial cinema).
Two days ago, it was also announced that whale hunting (for research purposes) will be expanded by the Japanese government, in an attempt to understand the genes of the giant mammal. The genetic research will take place in specially designed high tech laboratories. The meat that will not be used from the dead animals will be sold at a high price as it is considered a delicacy. So, the Japanese have put all their faith and trust in technology, both to look after old and young as well as understand nature.

Moore's Law
Gordon Moore wrote 11 words 40 years ago, and they still hold true. The co-founder of Intel wrote these now infamous words in an article which appeared on page 114 of Electronics magazine, in 1965. Moore himself did not believe then that this article would have the monumental importance it acquired. Now, predictions put the demise of the law in 2010, unless nanotechnology allows for further reduction in chips. A more complete discussion of the subject can be found at cnet.

Sun saver
This one is a clever way of looking at world time, sun and moon positions and also to be able to tell at a glance whether it is night or day in any part of the world. It can be used as a screen saver or a stand alone application, and you can even move forward or turn back the time... more or less in the fashion of The Island of the Day Before.

Adventure games over
Funcom do not think that adventure games should be a thing of the past at all. They have developed a new game which will be out in Autumn and which involves puzzle solving in a wonderful environment, which is photorealistic. The only problem with the graphics is that the main character is two dimensional or it feels like it. The game, which is called Dreamfall (the longest journey), is designed so that it is not impossible to play, has regular and many saves and is supposed to enhance the players' entertainment. A more complete review and screenshots can be found in Yahoo games.

Fly to your house
One of the recent Google acquisitions is Keyhole, a company which has a huge database of satellite images and allows you to fly from one place to another, with a view of the town and any landscape in the process. It can get down to street level detail. The software is not free although you can download a limited -- few days -- free trial.
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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 menáge 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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