March 26, 2006

SLAX – the end of traditional OS?

Writing about web page http://slax.linux-live.org/

First things first, SLAX is a Live distro of Linux. That means that it is an operating system which runs from the CD with no need to even have a hard drive. SLAX is the live “version” of slackware Linux and uses KDE. It's available from the URL above as an iso. For those of you who might not know how to use them but really want to give Microsoft the boot I'll give a brief explanation. “.iso” is a file format (it's a CD image), in order to use it you need to download it, then open it in a program that supports iso burning like Alcohol 120% (I think you might be able to get a free trial version of that somewhere) then you just need to go to the image burning wizard, open the file and tell it to burn to a CD. It sounds complicated but it's rather quite easy. The you simply need to put the CD in the CD drive of your computer, boot it up, go into the BIOS and then change the boot preference so that it automatically boots from CD before hard–drive.
When that stage is done (which is the hardest part of it all) you can boot up SLAX. Boot options are got to through F1, although unless you have any problems you probably won't need this too much. When I tried on my very old laptop I had to tell it to bypass hotplug, pcmcia and agp, on my new laptop it all worked perfectly. You might want to try using the boot options to load the CD to the RAM, I think this might make it work faster (as its loads easier to access than a CD); although I've not tried bench–marking anything. I think the boot option is something like “SLAX boot2ram” (it's in the list that comes up when you got to that section anyway).
When it's booted up to what you might call the main page there are some options there. You need to login (I don't know why) with name “root” and password “toor”, then you can use the “startx” command to open the more familiar looking environment, or you can have a look at “midnight commander” using “mc”... there are some other options which you can try at your leisure. When you use the “startx” command you get into KDE. This gives you a very pleasing set up, complete with nice graphics and pretty much everything that you would want as a home user (although unfortunately no pre–installed Open Office). The lack of an office suite could be seen as a bit of a problem; not too much considering AJAX office is getting up and running, to effectively work as a live office (see entry below on AJAX write). The GUI could easily be a replacement to windows, and even if you decide not to use it then all you have to do is take the CD out and you can go back to using whatever you did before. You don't need a hard–drive to use it, although obviously you'll need some form of non–volatile memory if you want to save anything permanently. I'd stick this on the Hard Drive. Browser is Konquerer. System seems stable; I've not had any problems on my laptop.
Of course it is far more secure than something like Windows with regard to viruses and spyware. Even if there was a virus written for this (which I'm not sure there is) you would need to download it, then run it, and even then you can fix the problem by simply switching it off and on again, because the OS is loaded each time anew. SLAX is also far smaller than your average OS, the iso is only about 187 MB, this means that it doesn't have all the bloat of bigger OSs and as such seems more stable and faster (there's less to go wrong). Using a hard drive simply as a way to store your information separate of the OS seems to work well. On the downside you have to extract the OS to the RAM each time, or load the CD up to a suitable point.
So would I recommend? Yes, it's free to download and you don't have to get rid of any other OS on your computer, so it is worth a try independently of whether or not your looking for a full time replacement. I would say it could easily be used as a full time replacement for another OS… which is what I might do.

Update: I ended up going with a somewhat regular OS, being Fedora core 5… SLAX is still worth trying as a way to decide if you like KDE, and if you were to boot it using a USB key into RAM then it would be really quick (still, it's best to have over 1 gig of RAM so that you can store enough data). I've also tried Damn Small Linux (it's so small – 50 meg!) it works really well on old laptops and has enough useful stuff to keep you working happily : )


March 24, 2006

RFID, Biometrics and the flaws of both

RFID and biometrics are two of the most important features behind both the new passports and the new identity cards which we will be forced to have in the UK. They extend beyond just the UK though and they are being introduced the world over as an attempt to “crack down on terrorism” and “make transport quicker and safer”. I never really had a problem with ID cards on a civil liberties point (although I'm sure you're aware of the objections from that camp). What has been increasingly worrying me, on practical points, is the fact that it seems like they might actually make the job of killing people easier for terrorists and make us all less safe. The first I saw of this is from a Cambridge professor of maths who claims that if you use two methods of biometrics to attempt to verify someone's identity, where one is “stronger” than the other, the result is less sound. Basically; if you verified someone's identity by using their retina scan (strong) and a fingerprint scan (week) then the results on average would be less accurate than using just the retina scan… unfortunately there seems to be plans to use both to see who someone is.
The second, and perhaps more worrying of the two items that I saw on this topic over the last week has been the discovery that RFID chips (we have these in our library cards and they will be in the new passports/identity cards of a lot of countries) can be hacked from a distance AND can get viruses. The ability to hack means that (and this has been proven to work) is that if you are within 10 meters of someone you could download all the information from their passport and steal it. This information would be more than enough to steal their identity and then a significant amount of their money. On RFID being able to get a virus this might seem less worrying. It's not. What this means is that you could have your passport infected, at the same time as “they” are stealing your identity, and then whenever you used your card it could infect the machines and the databases it is used with. This becomes more worrying when you consider that airports are beginning to use RFID chips in order to let frequent flyers get through security faster “because they'd never be a terrorist”... A virus could be used to delete all the information on an airports computer system. Again this might not seem too big of a problem. The airport stops for a while whilst the backups are run and then it all starts again. But if someone wrote a virus that made the RFID chip think that the person called, say, “John Smith” wasn't a terrorist, when he was, he would be able to walk through the security checks far easier and be on his way to killing thousands of people… all this because the government is trying to make us “more safe”... shurely shome mishtake?

TFAs:
link biometric flaws
link RFID Virus


The Golden Rule

Coin collecting is somewhat of a hobby of mine. I've been doing it a little while now and am specialising in hammered coinage of England. As I have previously written about in other places there is perhaps one golden rule which stands out more than any other on the subject of coin collecting and it is this: don't clean them. Ever. Perhaps the previous sentence was a little zealous there, obviously if you have just dug it up then use clean, cool water to wash off excess dirt, but nothing else. Today I decided to break that rule, taking a Henry III voided long cross penny and giving it a jolly good go at cleaning it. After this I have discovered that the golden rule is golden for a reason… it is a good one. Anyway, after spending a long time using some soft kitchen roll and cold water I decided to have a go with the big guns. Cilit Bang and hot water. This may sound stupid and I know that a copper coin would clean differently to a solid silver on; but I thought I'd press on. Cilit Bang didn't seem to do anything, the heavy black coating on the coin remained and not a lot changed. Hot water was my next weapon, and this produced a rather unexpected result. It did clean some of the dirt off, but it also gave the silver a “burnt” look. Perhaps this was due to the rapid oxidisation caused when it was brought out of the water due to the heated silver, perhaps it was due to the Cilit Bang which might have still been working its way through. I don't know. Still the situation seemed a little bleak, although the rest of the silver had taken on a somewhat nice golden hue, so its not all bad. I decided to leave it there and left it to dry. When checking back on it dry and moving it to be with the rest of my collection it did seem to have got a little better, perhaps that was just the worse light. Either way, I now can state 100% that the golden rule is a good one… in the future I might follow my own advice.

AJAX Write 0.9

Writing about web page http://www.ajaxwrite.com/

I recently discovered a new program called AJAX Write. Cunningly enough this uses AJAX. The general idea is that they wanted to create an alternative to Microsoft office which would be usable by anyone at any time over the Internet. They seem to have done a fairly good job with it, it can apparently open a variety of file types; .odt, .pdf .txt rich text format which gives it a good sense of functionality. It doesn't seem to have a spell-check function, which is a shame, nor does it seem to have a grammar checker. All in all, it is only a 0.9 release, and I hope that it can have a good long life. They are going to be releasing a new program every Wednesday which is aimed at rivalling “Office”. I would like to see a conjunction with open office though to try and make the open document type a new standard; but I doubt I'll get that. Currently I am struggling to make the save function work though…

Details:
Opening time: approx. 6 seconds
Size: 400k
Cost: FREE! (free beer – for all you /.'ers)
also, you never need to update it… which is nice

Check it out at ajaxwrite.com


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