DigiTech RP360 XP: The best effects pedal I’ve ever used

I don’t often have the opportunity to talk about music gear on this site, so today is doubly exciting as I not only get to do that, but I get to present More »

The GDPR finally hits IS301.com

Let me be upfront: I’m making a lot of assumptions with that title. Still, you’ve probably noticed that many, if not all, of the online services you use have sent a flurry More »

UCI team wins the 2018 IEEE GameSig competition!

Once again, a student-based game development team from UCI has been declared the winner of the annual IEEE GameSIG game development competition; that’s them in the main image. The competition, held every More »

360 images with the Gear 360

That title makes roundabout sense. I’m witty today! I’ve always wanted to try out the Gear 360, a camera that can take 360-degree images and movies that can not only be viewed More »

A new exploit for Intel processors?

Whether or not this turns out to be a big deal is yet to be seen, but research from collaborators at UC Riverside, Binghampton University, Carnegie-Mellon Qatar, and the College of William More »

 

DigiTech RP360 XP: The best effects pedal I’ve ever used

DigiTech

I don’t often have the opportunity to talk about music gear on this site, so today is doubly exciting as I not only get to do that, but I get to present what is easily the best effects pedal I have ever used – and I’ve used a lot – the DigiTech RP360 XP.

DigiTech RP360XP

DigiTech RP360 XP

The pedal has so much going on, and it’s all implemented so perfectly, it could be difficult to figure out a place to start, so I’ll start with what it is: the pedal is what’s known as a multi-effects processor; it’s like having a bunch of effects pedals in one. There are 99 individual effects you can choose from, things like distortion and flange and delay and chorus and all the other types of effects you can have and buy individual pedals for, but these are all preset into the RP360 itself. Not only that, for the true tone savant, it comes with powerful software that lets you create your own effects via virtual pedals which I’ll talk about later on. One of it’s biggest advantages is that it plugs directly into your PC, bypassing the need for an amplifier. To say it’s convenient is the understatement of the century.

The pedal has many other functionalities which work beautifully as well. First off, there is a chromatic tuner (if you love going down rabbit holes, compare chromatic tuners to the superior, both in function and price, strobe tuners). There is also a drum machine that, surprisingly, works better than any other I have ever used, even those built into Digital Audio Workstations (DAWs), with the only handicap being they can’t fill out at the end of a song, meaning play a fill at the very end of the song rather than just cut off the beat, something DAW-based drum kits will do. The thing I have mostly appreciated about the built in drums is that they are very straight-forward beats, nothing fancy like jazz beats or break beats or that nonsense, just good, rockin’ beats. Of course, it also has a  looper, which allows you to play a musical sequence then loop it back so you can play over it, making you a one man band; if you’ve ever seen those people who play at little fairs or sidewalks or cafes, and it’s just one person but they sound like a whole band, they’re using a type of looper – you can actually get pedals that just do that.

Then, there is the pedal within the pedal, as you can see on the right hand side of the device, and which is why this model has the ‘XP’ on the end. Digitech also makes a pedal-less version simply named the RP360, but it’s worth spending the extra $50 and getting the expression pedal (so called because it allows you to alter the impact of an effect in a continuous manner, such as volume or effect intensity). I love that expression pedal; just using it as a volume control is liberating. On the other hand, if you want to use it for wah or other tonal adjustments, you do you. It’s very versatile just in and of itself and really expands the range of what the whole thing can do. I can’t imagine having the RP360 without it; it’s definitely worth the slight overhead.

Something else to keep in mind about these pedals is that unlike plugging your axe into an amp, you plug your guitar into the pedal and the pedal into your PC. This can be more serpentine than it sounds. For example, in my setup, I plug my guitar into the pedal, then plug the pedal into a Focusrite Scarlett Solo seen below – that serves as the interface between the instrument / pedal and the PC.

Focusrite Scarlett Solo

Focusrite Scarlett Solo

This isn’t a post about the Scarlett Solo, so I won’t go into too much detail other than to say you can see there isn’t a lot going on in back; I connected the right and left outputs to a set of Mackie studio monitors and plugged the USB into an open port on my PC – very easy. The front of the thing is where I plug in the pedal using the jack under the little guitar icon (and I only use custom Spectraflex cables – if you’re going to do it, do it right!). Curiously, I have to set the monitor switch to instrument, not line, in order to get proper output levels; I haven’t yet figured out why that is although I’ve been working on it. I also have a separate Blue Yeti microphone I use, so the XLR input there on the left goes unused, at least for now. Here’s the current setup I’m running at home, with an Oculus Rift thrown in for good measure – you can see the DigiTech on the floor, and the Scarlett Solo on the desk. The cable running fro the pedal and into nothing on the floor is what plugs into the guitar. All that’s left now is the cable management.

The setup

The setup

You don’t need to do it this way, you can simply run the pedal itself straight into your PC. That being said, the beauty of this whole setup is the amount of fine control it provides over all aspects of the sound. If I’m playing along to a track while recording, or a music file, or even to YouTube, I can set all the levels independently. I can adjust overall volume using the large dial on the right of the Scarlett while adjusting the levels of the instrument itself using the smaller gain knob, but you have to be careful with those: cranking up the gain can introduce distortion, and while gain is often purposefully used for that, unwanted distortion will destroy your carefully crafted tone. That’s why the light around the smaller dial will flash red if the gain is too high, and flash green if you’re within acceptable range. Of course, there are a myriad other ways to adjust sound through software specific methods such as Windows or app specific audio controls, like the volume within a YouTube video or audio application.

So back to the DigiTech. As mentioned earlier, it has 99 preset sounds built in, with flashy names such as White Limo, La Grange, and my personal favorite effect, DualPetaluma – it’s a nice, fuzzy yet subtle overdrive. Some of the names, such as DC/AC, SabbathVoid, Slayed and Gilmour, are obvious, blatant nods to the type of tone they provide. Here’s the list of all preset tones from the manual:

RP360XP Tones

RP360 XP Tones

As also mentioned earlier, DigiTech has made available software called ‘Nexus’ that gives you the ability to set your own sounds effects and tweak them to your heart’s content by using virtual pedal boards. This brings up two very important points that need to be made: First, if you ever watch a professional guitar player, they will have a pedalboard on stage that they use to change the sound of their guitar depending on which pedals are active and which aren’t, and how those pedals are configured. I have a few pedals in my office, if you can believe it, although there is a vast variety of pedals, effects, and manufacturers who supply them. I’ve included a couple of pictures below; the first is one I just found on the web somewhere, and it shows a tiny sample of the variety available, although those are mainly footswitches, meaning you step on a switch to activate them, whereas footpedals seen in the second picture from my office are more traditional (and colloquially known as) stompboxes, where you step on a pedal to activate the effect. Of course, stepping on the pedal just activates a switch anyway – see how it all comes together?

So many footswitches

So many footswitches

You weren't an 80s metalhead if you didn't have a few BOSS pedals

You weren’t an 80s metalhead if you didn’t have a few BOSS pedals

It’s important to mention footswitches and footpedals because the RP360 replaces all of them with a single unit, but it also includes a bunch of individual, virtual pedals that you can tweak to your heart’s content using the aforementioned Nexus software. The other thing to know about guitar players specifically is that we chase tone eternally, always searching for the perfect sound. It’s like the Holy grail; it’s never meant to be found, the truth is in the chase itself, and good thing, too, because perfect tone has never been achieved by anyone that I’m aware of, and we are all still chasing it.

That’s important because Nexus feeds that addiction. You can string all sorts of virtual pedals together, tweak the settings of each one, and play with tone until the end of time. There are many open slots in which you can store your own creations and make them available from the pedal itself, calling forth the glory of your tonal creations with a simple step on the switch.

Nexus software

Nexus software

As you can see, you can set up a virtual pedal board with an infinite number of pedal combinations and setting for each. Again, when performing live, even for big shows in stadiums or arenas, guitarists will have actual pedal boards that don’t look too different from what you see here, and even the order of how the pedals are daisy-chained can have a big impact on sound with later pedals processing earlier pedals’ sound. But the DigiTech comes to the rescue and puts them all in one, although order still matters. I’d also like to give them credit for so carefully avoiding a copyright issue – these are all modeled after real pedals, and some are pretty close. For example, if you look at the far left, you’l see what they call the ‘Cry Wah,’ when there is an actual line of pedals called the Cry Baby wah, so they’re threading the needle here in some cases.

You can also choose the type of amp the thing models, as different amps often have different sounds (Marshall or Fender for straight up rock walls, Vox, known for the British sound of the 60s, similar to Orange, a versatile amp used for decades which also happens to be my personal favorite brand, and many others). All amps have unique, identifying visual designs and you can see that in the head / cabinet setup at the top of the Nexus window they mimic the visual design of actual amps but not the name, just as they did with the pedals. Very nicely done.

Anyway, you can see how someone could just endlessly tweak from now until the end of time, making slight adjustments in their endless pursuit of the perfect tone. This is also where the user would set the impact of the expression pedal; here it’s set to adjust the volume, which is also my main use for it, although it can additionally be used to set the wah effect and impact. LFO is Low Frequency Oscillator which lets you have an effect, well, oscillate in and out, or ‘breathe,’ as musicians say. I’ve never had the need to use that, so I can’t speak to it here.

The last thing I want to mention about the software is that because the pedal, at least in my case, is not connected directly to the PC, the software doesn’t have any effect. I could run a direct USB connection from the pedal directly to the PC to load the sounds and get firmware updates, but the way my own personal set up is being run, I would have to run an additional USB from the pedal to the PC. Just something to keep in mind.

Finally, I use a free software DAW, or Digital Audio Workstation, called CakeWalk for recording, which is a separate post to itself. I’m currently recording a song called ‘Howl,’ and here’s a screenshot of the DAW in the middle of that process. You can see I’ve already laid down rhythm guitar, lead guitar, drums straight from the pedal, and am getting ready to add vocals, which usually come last. The ‘wolf’ tracks are sound effects which I’ll merge into a single track later.

Cakewalk

Cakewalk

Using the pedal, whatever I play gets recorded straight in, and since I use a separate mic, and the pedal has built-in drums (whose tracks can be a nightmare to separate from any pedal-routed guitar tracks), and it can be used with bass or anything else, I can record whole songs on my own, without having to go into a studio. While I have lots – LOTS – of studio experience, being able to record at home is so nice. I can send tracks I’ve recorded around to others, or they can be sent to me, and so when the principal songwriter of the band I play with writes a new song, we can each record our own parts then mix the whole thing down, or one person can record his part, then send the track to the next person who adds his track, and so on until the song is complete. Really easy and doesn’t require everyone in the same place at the same time for the ever-increasing expense of studio time. On a side note, if you’re interested, you can hear a sample of our stuff, with me on bass, here (pop), here (surf), and here (hard rock).

So let’s give it a listen, see how it sounds, see how it works, and if you’re looking to expand your sound, consolidate your pedals, do some recording, I can’t recommended this pedal enough. It’s not just the best pedal I’ve ever used, it’s one of the best anything I’ve ever used.

The GDPR finally hits IS301.com

Let me be upfront: I’m making a lot of assumptions with that title. Still, you’ve probably noticed that many, if not all, of the online services you use have sent a flurry of emails indicating in one way or another that they are updating their privacy and security policies, and some just come right and state that it’s because of Europe’s new GDPR, or General Data Protection Regulation which goes into effect in just three days. It’s impossible to sum up such a sweeping set of rules in anything close to a brief post, but essentially what they are trying to do is ensure that any company who does business in the European Union protects the data it collects from customers and others, and more importantly give people control over their own data.

This manifests in several ways I’ll touch on here: One is that the vagueness that often accompanies privacy / security policies must be abolished. I’d honestly never thought of it in these terms until the GDPR came around, but some policies sneakily combine disparate policy acceptance into a single action. That’s a complicated way of saying that when you agree to a privacy or security policy, you’re actually agreeing to many things that cover many aspects of data storage and handling. So instead of signing off on each line-item bit of the policy on its own, you’re agreeing to everything in one fell swoop; you can’t tease apart the various components of the agreement based on aspects you agree with and aspects you don’t. So that’s one thing the GDPR aims to fix.

Seriously – have you ever read some of these privacy policies? (Norway has).

It also wants to give users complete control over the data that is gathered and stored about them, and I do mean all aspects. They can give consent for data to be collected and stored, and they can revoke that consent at any time. They can request readable by both man and machine (that’s an important point) reports about what data is being kept about them and have them transmitted to another provider or service. If there is data that is incorrect users can request it be corrected and they can request their data be expunged completely, both of which are required to be done without undue delay.

Finally, at least for this summary, it requires complete transparency when a breach happens, with companies immediately alerting those affected and informing them what can be done to help address the problem. It also attempts to hold companies and services accountable for data breaches, to the tune of immense fines if they happen. According to the section of the GDPR official site that addresses financial penalties:

Amount

If a firm infringes on multiple provisions of the GDPR, it shall be fined according to the gravest infringement, as opposed to being separately penalized for each provision. (83.3)

However, the above may not offer much relief considering the amount of fines possible:

Lower level

Up to €10 million, or 2% of the worldwide annual revenue of the prior financial year, whichever is higher, shall be issued for infringements of:

  • Controllers and processors under Articles 8, 11, 25-39, 42, 43
  • Certification body under Articles 42, 43
  • Monitoring body under Article 41(4)

Upper level

Up to €20 million, or 4% of the worldwide annual revenue of the prior financial year, whichever is higher, shall be issued for infringements of:

  • The basic principles for processing, including conditions for consent, under Articles 5, 6, 7, and 9
  • The data subjects’ rights under Articles 12-22
  • The transfer of personal data to a recipient in a third country or an international organisation under Articles 44-49
  • Any obligations pursuant to Member State law adopted under Chapter IX
  • Any non-compliance with an order by a supervisory authority (83.6)

As you can see, they are not screwing around, however this is also the part I take issue with. I don’t have a problem with the transparency issues, however as any of my students knows, it is impossible to have one hundred percent security. That would mean no one can get in to utilize or benefit from whatever is being protected. And the split-second one person has access, the door is open to all sorts of potential problems. The vectors for attack and infiltration are so great, it’s a nonstop, every second of every day war to protect data, and if it happens it can’t always be laid on the shoulders of the company; they could be working feverishly to squelch millions of little fires yet someone could still be burned. This is something I feel could really use a revisit, and likely will in the future. There is no way this doesn’t undergo revision and fine-tuning as the years go on.

So how does all of this relate to this website? Only in some very small ways as I don’t actually do business – as it were – over there, over even over here, for that matter, but the website has a potential global reach, so why not jump in on the ground floor?

I was first notified that I had a new ‘Privacy’ entry in settings. Clicking on that showed me the following page:

Privacy settings page

Privacy settings page

You can see in the left sidebar there is an entry called pages, and that’s where separate, standalone pages are developed and managed. Pages such as the ones you see linked across the top of IS301 like ‘About This Site‘ and ‘About Dr. Denenberg.’ It took me a minute to realize this new settings page was telling me I now had an additional page titled ‘Privacy Policy.’ Just to be sure, I went over to the ‘Pages’ section to see, and sure enough, among all the others, there it was.

Pages

I see you, new security page!

And here’s what it said.

Privacy Page

Privacy Page

Very, very generic. Many words, yet says very little. I prefer it has fewer words yet says a lot, so I made some…minor changes.

New Privacy Page

New Privacy Page

Much better. As I said, I don’t do business in the EU, or the US or anywhere else for that matter. Even so, everyone else is preparing, so I may as well. It wasn’t a big deal, but it shows that impact this new legislation is having, from the biggest sites and services on the Internet down to tiny IS301.com.

UCI team wins the 2018 IEEE GameSig competition!

Once again, a student-based game development team from UCI has been declared the winner of the annual IEEE GameSIG game development competition; that’s them in the main image. The competition, held every year and featuring games developed by student teams from multiple regional colleges and universities including UCI, Fullerton, Chapman, Cal State Long Beach, USC, and others, brings a narrowed-down field of ten finalists from this year’s original field of twenty; these ten games were the ones the review and selection committee, of which yours truly, meaning me, is a member, felt were the cream of a very rich crop. Yet even with all that fierce competition, UCI won, and in fact has won for the last seven years straight. It’s held at a different campus every year, each hosting the competition on a rotating schedule, but no matter where it’s held, UCI always brings home the trophy. I’m co-Chair of the reviewer committee along with professor Dan Frost who has been doing it since the beginning but recently retired, and one of the organizers, so I’ll have my work cut out for me next year as the 2019 competition will be held at UCI.

Setting up for the competition

Setting up for the competition

The final award winners, their respective institutions, and the awards they won for this year were:

Sky Farm (UCI) – First place and Showcase Cup
Reinvent the Wheel (Cal State Long Beach) – Second place and People’s Choice Award (voted on by the audience)
Super Nova (LCAD and USC) – Third place
Residuum (Santa Ana College) – ACM Award for its simulation of a human ecosystem
When the Moon Rises (Chapman) – Artistic Achievement Award
RGB (Chapman) – Technical Achievement Award
Hive Armada (Chapman) – Accessibility Award

Judging was done by industry veterans, including one of the original Blue Sky Rangers and CEO of Quicksilver Software, Bill Fischer, who is also the GameSIG chair (that’s him on the left of the header image). Each team had five minutes to present and five minutes for questions and answers, which could sometimes be challenging. Although I am very pleased that UCI was victorious (and that a friendly rivalry has now started between us and Chapman; they’re gunning for us next year for sure), all the games submitted were absolutely fantastic. In fact, the audience was allowed to vote for the People’s Choice award, and even I voted for Reinvent the Wheel. I wasn’t a judge, obviously, and although I really did feel that Sky Farm was the most polished, complete, and visually stunning game, I felt that Reinvent the Wheel is a game I would actually play more often. All you do is form a boulder, push it down a hill, and see how far it goes, but trying to get that last little bit of distance is a surprising carrot that keeps people coming back. Even the name is clever. Screens from both are below.
Sky Farm

Sky Farm – UCI

Reinvent the Wheel

Reinvent the Wheel – Chapman

Note that in reinvent the wheel, you’re trying to mow down others on the high-score list.
Other games were just as remarkable: RGB, a massive game featuring three characters with varying abilities that can be switched between at any time, and SuperNova, a VR rhythm game, were both built by a team of only one. And Hive Armada, another VR game, had setting for color blindness, something I rarely see in games today, yet should be present in all of them.
A very fun time, everyone enjoyed themselves, it was my first major visit to Chapman University which is beautiful and the whole surrounding town has a real charm to it, just a wonderful day overall. Now the planning begins for next year, and as mentioned it will be held here at UCI and Chapman is rightfully and understandably gunning for us. I can’t wait!
——
If you are interested in participating in next year’s competition, please contact me and I will fill you in on all the details. Keep in mind that everyone who participates in the development of the game must be a student at time of development, and although team members can be from any school around the world, the team must be majority represented by one of the participating schools.

360 images with the Gear 360

Gear 360

That title makes roundabout sense. I’m witty today!

I’ve always wanted to try out the Gear 360, a camera that can take 360-degree images and movies that can not only be viewed on your phone, but – for lack of a better and more grammatically-correct phrase – ‘spun around in.’ I recently had a credit applied to my Samsung account that made the normally $200ish camera $99, and I couldn’t pass it up. Just to be clear, we are talking about the newer version, which looks like a ball on top of a little post, not the first version which looks like a golf ball on a tripod.

After returning the first one because it was clearly a used item, the new one finally arrived. I was eager to try it out but had to charge it first, which took some time. The camera itself has a rounded top with cameras on both sides of the golf-ball shaped and sized head. There is a small screen on the camera that provides various bits of information, such as battery level, resolution setting, and so on. There is a power button on the side and record button on the front (The camera is symmetrical, so I’m calling the side with the screen the front, and the side with the power button the back; completely arbitrary). A second button on the side will pair it with your phone, and the Bluetooth pairing needs to happen before it will send images to your phone, obviously. You can also store images on an SD card for download later. As for compatible phones, either Samsung or iPhone; I have a Galaxy, and I have heard it doesn’t work so well with others but I can’t confirm that.

I started with a shot of my office, hoping to see great things, however even though the 360 touts itself as a 4K-capable camera, the results were anything but that, and moving on to some shots of the campus didn’t change anything. Before I show some examples, I should also mention that there is really no way to view them other than on your phone, or by using very specific websites. I can’t just upload them here and expect them to work, I have to have a dedicated WordPress plugin to get them to show properly. In Microsoft’s OneDrive, the picture shows as a flat image that appears clearly warped, while in Google Photos it’s recognized as a 360 image and displayed as such (Direct link to Google photo sample here, you’ll have to click on the little circular arrow in the upper right-hand corner to switch to 360-degree view). OneDrive version is below.

OneDrive representation of a 360-degree photo

OneDrive representation of a 360-degree photo

The pictures are easy to take, and you can do so remotely via the app or from the camera itself. In fact, in the Google version of the above image, if you look closely down the line of the brown trashcan the camera is sitting on, you can see me behind the lattice taking the picture. There are other settings you can adjust as well, and although the pixel count of the images is huge, 5742 x 2736, the quality just isn’t there.

From a distance images look good, and when viewing on a phone they’re definitely passable, but upon closer inspection details are washed out and fuzzy, with lack of detail prevalent throughout. Contrast is poor and edges lose focus. Colors can be good, but are often faded or diluted. Note, for example, the purple trees in front of the building: The color is washed out, as is most of the image, and the detail is terrible.

Overall the image conveys what it represents, but it could be so much better. I adjusted many of the settings but was unable to increase the quality of the settings in any meaningful way. Strangely, the newer version of the Gear 360 actually has a lower resolution camera than the original model, and significantly so: the original had 15 megapixel cameras while the newer model, the one I’m testing, has 8.5 megapixel cameras. That’s a reduction of almost half.

I also haven’t yet had the opportunity to test the video, and I will post updates when I do. Speaking of the significantly lowered resolution in the cameras, it takes proper 4K videos (4096 x 2140 at 24fps, which is the theater standard for 4K), while its predecessor took what is known as UHD video (3840 x 1920 at 30fps, which is the broadcast standard for ‘4K,’ but is not true 4K).

It also has a lower capacity battery as opposed to the first generation Gear 360, 1160mAh v. 1350mAh (milliamp hours), however without knowing the specific power draw of the device I can’t calculate how many hours that translates into. The standard is mAh / draw = total hours of power. I’d guess around an hour, although in my tests on campus and around the house I had plenty of battery life left even after shooting a bunch of pictures, transferring them, and so on.

So, it’s good but definitely not great. I don’t like the downgrade in so many of the specs from the first generation of the device; it’s like when the clock would tick backwards in school before the bell finally rang for recess. I know something good is coming, but the Gear 360 is at once a step forward and a step back. If they can improve the quality of the images for viewing at a larger scale, then they could really have something here. And it’s not like there isn’t competition: The next most popular would likely be the Ricoh Theta, which, from what I’ve read, bests the Gear 360 in almost all aspects, but I have no hands-on experience with it.

I’m also using this post to test the plugin for 360 images, and I’m putting all the ones I took below (you’ll have to click to open them up) – let’s see how it does!

Update: How strange. In order to embed the 360-degree images, I installed a plug-in called WP Photo Sphere that works by inserting a shortcode of the form “sphere 1234” in square brackets. In a test post that has nothing but that shortcodes, it worked perfectly. In this post, they don’t work at all, at least on my machine. I have no idea why, I’ve been investigating for almost a week but I will keep looking into it. It’s a nifty feature when it works.

Update 2: Apparently all I had to do was make the page live. When published, everything worked fine. I did nothing, but I will take all the credit for it. Sweet, sweet credit.

A new exploit for Intel processors?

Intel Coffee Lake

Whether or not this turns out to be a big deal is yet to be seen, but research from collaborators at UC Riverside, Binghampton University, Carnegie-Mellon Qatar, and the College of William and Mary, have discovered a new possible exploit in certain Intel processors that they have dubbed BranchScope – that link will take you straight to the research paper itself. The research is published in the Proceedings of the Twenty-Third International Conference on Architectural Support for Programming Languages and Operating Systems (ASPLOS).

This is a new form of predictive execution exploit, in which the CPU attempts to predict what will happen as the result of a particular instruction, then branch based off of that guess, then guess what will happen as a result of that particular instruction, and so on. It’s the same kind of manner in which a computerized chess game plays chess: Every time you make a move, the game will play out thousands of games as a result of that, trying to guess the moves you will make and the moves it can make in response, and decide on an appropriate next move as a result. It doesn’t make this guess blind, either: In the processor is a component of the Branch Prediction Unit, or BPU, known as a Pattern History Table (PHT) that stores the results of previous operations, and each time a particular branch is taken, the ‘value,’ for lack of a better term, of that branch is increased or decreased. That allows the BPU to be more accurate in its future predictions (Spectre attacked the other part of the BPU, the Branch Target Buffer, which focuses on the result of a branch as opposed to the choice it made).

The exploit, therefore, is to set up selected branches that will modify the PHT and run them so that the PHT will always select one branch over another in a given situation, as well as monitor that the changes to the PHT have actually taken place. These attacks can be used to ensure a particular path is taken when predictive execution happens, and that can be used to divulge information that is otherwise unaccessible, even to the OS, such as key segments, or even provide access to the Software Guard Extensions (SGX), an Intel feature that allows deft software developers to place sensitive or critical data off in protected areas of the CPU cache that should, ideally, be available to none besides the program itself. The whole purpose of the SGX is to prevent bad actors from accessing the data.

Both the Specter vulnerability and BranchScope as well remind me of the more widely-known and difficult to pull off NOP, or No-Operation, Slide (sometimes Sled or Ramp) type of attack, in which an attacker attempts to bypass a series of CPU instructions such that when an operation does happen, it ends up in a specific portion of memory where malicious code has already been installed and will then be run. These often fail, by the way, and in fact the section of memory that holds the malware will often be padded in front and behind so that the target memory location is bigger and the slide hits by luck; it’s a big shot in the dark. The hex value of the NOP is x90, and if you look at the image below which is tracing CPU instruction executions, you can actually see the slide happening as the series of ’90s’ at the top of the lower left and lower right window (source: samsclass).

NOP Slide (Lower left). Source: samsclass

NOP Slide (Lower left). Source: samsclass

This is called a side-channel attack because something is running that shouldn’t be, similar to how loading non-approved, outdated, or unkown-source OSs or apps on a smart phone is considered side-loading.

Predictive execution is complex, the exploits are complex, and as stated earlier, whether or not we see them in the wild is a completely separate issue; the payoff would really have to be worth the effort and I don’t see that being the case unless the exploit was adapted to pair with, say, a trojan horse-style attack, but even then the nature of the returned data would be useless without significant analysis. Knock on wood, but I don’t see this as a common attack vector in the near future.

Thought I’d finally give Assassin’s Creed: Black Flag a try. Here’s the EULA I had to accept.

This isn’t a formal post, it doesn’t even get a header image – it’s just a note about what EULA’s can be. I’ve highlighted the important parts in bold, and there is more here regarding Microsoft than Ubisoft, and when pasted into Word, it comes out to almost (but not quite) seventeen pages.

Also, you may notice the word ‘Licence’ right there at the top of the thing. In Europe that’s a noun, but that form isn’t used in America at all; instead, ‘license’ is the noun and the verb.

With that out of the way, read the whole thing! Or have we not learned our lesson from Facebook?

END USER LICENCE AGREEMENT

PLEASE READ THIS END USER LICENCE AGREEMENT CAREFULLY. This End User License Agreement (“EULA”) governs your use of the videogame, application, software, their associated upgrades, patches, and updates and related services (the “Product”) currently provided or which will be provided by UBISOFT ENTERTAINMENT S.A., or any one of its subsidiaries or affiliated companies, including without limitation UBISOFT EMEA SAS, UBISOFT INC. or UBISOFT MOBILE GAMES SARL (collectively referred to as “UBISOFT”).
This EULA sets out the basis on which UBISOFT makes the Products available to you (“User” or ”You”) and on which You may use them. UBISOFT’s Privacy Policy (« Privacy Policy ») which can be found on http://www.ubi.com, forms an integral part of this EULA. By installing or using the Product, You agree to accept and to be bound by (1) this EULA and (2) the Privacy Policy at all time. If You do not agree with one of these, please do not install or use the Product.
If You have a UBISOFT Account which can be found on http://www.ubi.com (“Account”), this EULA shall coexist with, and shall not supersede, the Terms of Use. To the extent that the provisions of this Agreement conflict with the provisions of the Terms of Use, the conflicting provisions in the Terms of Use shall govern.
UBISOFT reserves the right to change, modify, add or delete articles in this EULA at any time, in accordance with the procedures described below in Section 9.
Capitalized terms used in this EULA without definition shall have the meanings specified in the Terms of Use.
1. GRANT OF LICENSE.
1.1 UBISOFT (or its licensors) grants You a non-exclusive, non-transferable, non-sublicensed, non-commercial and personal license to install and/or use the Product (in whole or in part) and any Product (the “License”), for such time until either You or UBISOFT terminates this EULA. You must in no event use, nor allow others to use,the Product or this License for commercial purposes without obtaining a licence to do so from UBISOFT. Updates, upgrades, patches and modifications may be necessary in order to be able to continue to use the Product on certain hardware. THIS PRODUCT IS LICENSED TO YOU, NOT SOLD.
As applicable, certain parts of the Product may be using third party features, some of which are managed by third-party providers for which additional terms and/or costs may apply. You must comply with such additional terms: for instance, if the Product is featuring a VoIP application, then You must comply with the associated wireless data service agreement when using the Product). Please review such additional terms and costs carefully.
1.2 You shall not, directly or indirectly (i) sell, rent out, lease, license, distribute, market, exploit the Product or any of its parts commercially, (ii) reverse engineer, decompile, disassemble, adapt, reproduce, or create derivate works of this Product (except if the Product enable You through a specific feature to create, generate or submit User Generated Content and for which You will need to create an Account and comply Terms of Use), in whole or in part; (iii) create, use and/or distribute “auto”, “trainer”, “script” or “macro” computer programs or other “cheat” or “hack” programs or software applications for this Product (whether in an online multiplayer game or in a single player game over the internet or in local area network); (iv) remove, alter, disable or circumvent any copyright and trademark indications or other authorship and origin information, notices or labels contained on or within this Product and (v) export or re-export this Product or any copy of adaptation in violation of any applicable laws or regulations.
1.3 While using the Product, You agree to comply will all applicable laws, rules and regulations. You also agree to comply with certain rules of conduct that govern Your use of the Product (“Rules of Conduct”), which are not meant to be exhaustive and can be modified at any time by UBISOFT. In all cases, You may only use the Product according to anticipated use of the Product.
For example purposes, and without limiting UBISOFT’s rights to take action against You, You may not:
a. create, use, share and/or publish by any means in relation to the Product any material (text, words, images, sounds, videos, etc.) which would breach of a duty of confidentiality, infringe any intellectual property right or an individual’s right to privacy or which would incite the committing of an unlawful act (in particular, piracy, cracking or circulation of counterfeit software);
b. modify, distort, block, abnormally burden, disrupt, slow down and/or hinder the normal functioning of all or part of the Product, or their accessibility to other users, or the functioning of the partner networks of the Product, or attempt to do any of the above;
c. transmit or propagate any virus, trojan horse, worm, bomb, corrupted file and/or similar destructive device or corrupted data in relation to the Product, and/or organise, participate in or be involved in any way in an attack on UBISOFT’s servers and/or the Product and/or those of its service providers and partners;
d. create, supply or use alternative methods of using the Products, for example server emulators;
e. spamming chat, whether for personal or commercial purposes, by disrupting the flow of conversation with repeated postings of a similar nature;
f. transmitting or communicating any material or content which, in the sole and exclusive discretion of UBISOFT, is believed or deemed offensive, including, but not limited to, language that is harmful, threatening, unlawful, abusive, harassing, defamatory, disparaging, obscene, sexually explicit, or racially, ethnically, or otherwise objectionable;
g. harassing or threatening any other users in the Product;
h. make inappropriate use of the help service or the claim buttons or send untruthful reports to members of UBISOFT’s personnel;
i. falsely claim to be an employee or representative of UBISOFT or its partners and/or agents;
j. falsely claim an endorsement in connection with the Product or with UBISOFT.
2. OWNERSHIP.

Why your screen just went black and white: Windows 10 color settings and color-blindness

UPDATE: I’m leaving the original post up, however the latest Windows update changes some of this around. The ‘Windows key-ctrl-c’ shortcut for setting filters is no longer enabled by default, and while you can still use the ‘right-click on desktop and select Personalize’ technique, in settings you now have to choose ‘Ease of Access’ to access these settings, which does make more sense. Additionally, high-contrast settings are where they’ve always been, but black and white / color-blind settings are now under the ‘Color filters’ option.

Here’s the new screen in settings, and the original post follows:

New Windows 10 color and filter settings

New Windows 10 color and filter settings

If you’re using Windows 10 and looking for a fix as to why your screen has suddenly gone black and white, or if it hasn’t and you’re looking simply to learn something new and interesting and fun (and what can be used as a cruel trick on your friends / acquaintances / enemies, but please don’t do that), try the following: Hold down the Windows key, then Control, then C. If your screen was black and white, problem solved! If it wasn’t, well, now it is. Do the combo again and you’ll be good as new. Spoiler: You can choose other visual settings for that shortcut; black and white is simply the default. More on that in a moment, and here’s the companion video I recorded for this post.

I’d also like to briefly talk about the importance of color. It is a vital tool in communicating information, although it should never be used as the sole communicator: if someone can’t distinguish red, a red sign will serve no purpose if there isn’t text that also communicates what’s up. But there is no such thing as a green stop sign or a red ‘everything’s ok’ light, and there is a reason for that. For you programmers, you know that you tweak the colors of your IDE to enhance readability and comfort. Never underestimate the purpose of color in design. Also, my Ph.D. was in this very subject so I’m especially passionate about it, as you can tell.

Green stop sign

I don’t think so

But black and white? You may be wondering why something like this is even a feature. The reason is readability and accessibility, a primary focus of HCI, interaction design, and the larger field of human factors, and remember it’s not the only setting – it’s just the default. The point is to make the screen easier to see for those with visual impairments, particularly color blindness, but these adjustments can also be used by those who simply find stock Windows color settings to be too much. And let’s face it – sometimes they can really be too much.

It reminds me of the old Atari 2600 and it’s B*W / Color switch, which is as far as I can tell the first time a dedicated option was provided to select between one or the other. This wasn’t an accessibility issue, however, it was used because in 1977 black and white TVs were still quite prevalent, and using the black and white setting would adjust the contrast by switching the palettes used, thus making the game easier to see. Without that, in other words if it just switched to a standard black and white with no consideration given to their original colors, on-screen objects that were easily distinguishable in color might be very difficult to distinguish with just shades of gray. So the idea was the same, but the reason was quite different.

The image below shows the B*W / Color switch taken from one of our 2600 consoles in the gameroom here at UCI, while the other two screens show Slot Machine for the 2600, running in the Stella emulator, and how it displays in color and in switched black and white.

2600 Slot Machine in color and black and white

Atari 2600 Slot Machine in color and black and white

Yet that was back in 1977. With todays monitors having HD and 4K capabilities, why on earth would we need a black and white setting? There are several reasons, the most obvious being that black and white photography, which adds an ethereal, ageless quality to a photo, and in my opinion often requires the viewer to focus more on the content and composition of the image, is still very common today.  However you can’t simply switch from color to black and white for the same reasons we had a switch on the old Atari; what works well and is easily distinguishable in color may blend into a single shade in black and white. No, unless you are shooting in black and white natively, and if you are you should use the RAW setting to get as much contrast and separation as possible, you have to convert an image from color to black and white, manually adjusting for all those settings that would have been done automatically otherwise. That’s one use for the setting in Windows. Of course, it’s possible that a user might have complete color-blindness, and even though that is extremely rare, it does happen: estimates are, for men, between 1:30,000 and 1:100,000 depending on type.

There is much more to this feature than simply switching between color and shades of gray, however. That capability in Windows is simply foreshadowing for much more important color-based adjustments that can be made. To see what they are, go into settings, select ‘Colors,’ (Alternatively: Right-click on your desktop and select ‘Personalize’), and scroll down until you see ‘High Contrast Settings.’ Click that, and whatever is selected under the heading ‘Choose a Filter’ is what will Windows will switch to when the shortcut Windows key – Ctrl – C is pressed. You can see the choices below.

High contrast settings

High contrast settings

 

Color filters

Color filters

So what do these do? The first three should be obvious; grayscale converts to shades of gray, or black and white informally, ‘Invert’ inverts the colors on the screen, although what ‘Invert’ actually means cans be complicated. Factors to consider include whether you are using RGB or CMYK color standards, the former being additive and the latter being subtractive, and what you’re trying to invert. Normally, when colors are inverted they are switched to their Complementary Colors, which are those opposite each other on the color wheel and offer the highest contrast to each other, although that high contrast can be a nightmare for text (red and green are complementary on a CMY color wheel, for example), so always consider application and the color scheme you’re using.

I’ll be using UCI’s EEE page as I see it to show what these selections do, since it has an interesting combination of colors including various shades of blue and yellow which are sort-of-but-not-quite complimentary, my avatar has red hair, the ‘Learn about’ box in the upper right is green, and if you look closely you can see the ‘MON’ in the lower left is a shade of orange.

EEE in its natural state

EEE in its natural state

EEE with Windows set to black and white

EEE with Windows color filter set to ‘Grayscale’

EEE with Windows set to Grayscale Inverted

EEE with Windows color filter set to ‘Grayscale Inverted’

EEE with Windows set to Inverted

EEE with Windows color filter set to ‘Inverted’

As you can see, these allow a user to change the color scheme to fit their particular needs for viewing web pages or images or whatever, however it is the next three options that deserve our attention, as they are a cornerstone of accessibility and design in the user interface and HCI in general.

If you look back at the earlier image showing the filter options, you’ll notice the last three are ‘Deuteranopia,’  ‘Protanopia,’ and ‘Tritanopia.’ These are types of color blindness – a term that I really don’t like even though it’s accurate – that affect someone’s ability to process colors. We also need to distinguish between some terms here, as they are often, at least from my experience, misused. All of these conditions can manifest in two primary ways: -opia and -omaly. The former, which are the ones indicated in Windows’ color settings, mean you are missing the related cones altogether. In other words, Deuteranopia is a complete lack of red cones (known as L-cones, for long-wavelength), Protanopia is a complete lack of green cones (known as M-cones, for medium wavelength), and Tritanopia is a lack of blue cones (known as S-cones, for short wavelength). The latter is a form of blue-yellow color blindness, although Tritanopes don’t confuse those two colors so it’s not an appropriate name, while the former two are versions of red-green color blindness.

In contrast to the previous circumstances in which the cones are entirely absent, it’s also possible that the cones are present but weak to a particular color stimulus; those cases use  the ‘-omaly’ suffix. So Deuteranomaly is a weakness to red, Protanomaly is a weakness to green, and Tritanomaly is a weakness to blue, and very rare; about 1:1,000,000. But the cones are not missing as they are in the previous cases; they are simply weak or mutated. Therefore, one way to address it is to increase the amount of or saturation of the color in which a person is weak, although this in itself is not a complete solution. Additionally, how these manifest in someone’s vision can be wide-ranging, from little impact on color-vision to something very close to the -opia variant.

These types of color deficiencies can cause real problems in distinguishing elements in any visual field, especially a computer screen. Research into accessibility has not only been ongoing for many years, but guidelines for the use of color are in place for all large companies such as Microsoft, Apple, Google, and all the way to the U.S. Government (Usability.gov is overseen by the Department of Health and Human Services, by the way).

So in returning to the color / filter settings in Windows 10, I can’t say with certainty whether Microsoft actually means, for example, Deuteranopia, as indicated, or Deuteranomaly, or is using it as an umbrella term. They aren’t the same, and can only be addressed as such through design to a certain, limited extent, but there aren’t separate settings so…I don’t know.

When switching among these filters on EEE, there was no impact as there is no red or green, however there was a noticeable effect when applying the ‘Tritanopia’ setting, as that refers to an absence of blue cones. As you can see, the yellow sections were switched to green, which makes sense as Tritanopes have generally normal red-green vision.

EEE set to 'Tritanope' in Windows color settings

EEE with Windows color filter set to ‘Tritanope’

For the Protanopia setting, a good example to use instead of EEE is IS301.com itself. because this condition results in a weakness to red light, and IS301 has a strong red background, the setting reduced the saturation of red in all elements on screen for a noticeable change.

IS301.com with Windows color filter set to 'Protanope'

IS301.com with Windows color filter set to ‘Protanope’

When set to ‘Deuteranope,’ the only change was an increase in saturation of the red elements of the screen, but nothing dramatic.

I also want to mention that you can set up your own high-contrast color themes, tweaking the color for every aspect of the display so it fits your needs perfectly; there are a lot of options for configuration.

Prebuilt but editable contrast themes

Prebuilt but editable contrast themes

On the other hand, apps and programs and everything else have to be designed with that in mind or else they will be negatively impacted by your adjustments, and that results in another problem: Windows will natively adapt to your specification, but it doesn’t mean any of the programs you run under Windows will. That’s something that needs to be enforced more clearly and strictly in Microsoft’s design guidelines.

So what was s simple fix of a black and white screen turns into a deep dive about accessibility and color blindness – I love it when that kind of thing happens. If you just wanted to fix your screen, then you’re not reading this anyway, but we really need to be aware, especially software and interface designers and developers, that for usability and accessibility these options and many others need to be available so everyone can benefit from the functionality your software brings.

On a related side note for those who may be reading and and are living with color-blindness, I discovered that there are glasses that claim to fix the problem. Apparently they create a bespoke filter on the lens for your particular condition and severity, and can bring you to almost normal. I’m not affiliated with the company, I have no idea how well they work, but for the cost they’d better work pretty well. if your’e interested, the company is called EnChroma. If anyone tries them, let me know how it goes!

So long Toys R Us, my old friend

As many of you may already know, Toys R Us is finally closing down for good. While this post is outside the normal scope of this blog, it’s also relevant in so many ways, because it illustrates not just an upheaval in the retail landscape that has been brewing for some time, but also how failure to respond to those kind of tectonic shifts in market trends, consumer demand, fiscal realities, and not exploiting the second most enviable on-line presence can tank a company like Toys R Us. Even now, it still has enough market presence that the closings will have significant upstream and downstream impacts.

More than that, I used to work there many moons ago. I loved it, so this has a powerful personal angle for me.

And they sold games. Rows of glorious games.

I first started working at the Sunnyvale, California Toys R Us back around, what, 1988 or so, in the stockroom, and the header image for this post is the front of the very store where I used to work (added bonus: It was haunted!). My secret plan was to eventually get to the game cage in the front of the store – those of you who have been around for a while may remember that cage, but if not, fear not: I’ll take you there in a moment, but when I started I worked in the stock room in back, and even there I loved it. It was a two-story, seemingly endless room with rows and rows and stacks and stacks of boxes; big items on the top floor and smaller boxes filled with merchandise to be put on shelves on the bottom. And when someone would order something big, like a plastic above-ground pool or a bike or a swingset or something, they would have to drive around the building to receiving, and we would pull the box from stock and put it on a slide – yes, a slide like you’d see in a playground – and send it down to the lower floor, then slide down ourselves and have the customer take it to their car.

We’d also unload the semis that pulled in, filled to the top with boxes in a not-at-all organized manner. The boxes were just thrown in haphazardly, not stacked, we’d have a manifest on paper, and we’d have to climb up into the back of the semi, climb to the top of the pile, and start checking off each box on the manifest, and throw it out of the truck on to the landing, where someone else would, or possibly would not, take it back to the stockroom. And those semis are BIG; they could have hundreds and hundreds of boxes. We never knew what we would get, it was completely random, and it was great. Good times. I saw on Google maps the semis still pull up to the back like always, I just hope now they have at least somewhat automated the progress, although I guess it doesn’t matter anymore.

Just like old times

Just like old times

After a while, I was moved out to bikes, then for some reason to baby stuff which was, surprisingly, still pretty fun – all the excited new parents made it enjoyable (crib recalls were *not* enjoyable, though), and then, I started getting asked to man the game cage.

Finally, I had arrived.

You see, in the 8-bit and 16-bit eras, and even into the 32-bit eras, games were simply represented by their covers in the game aisle. There would be a card that had a picture of the front of the box and the back of the box, and underneath each card were slips of paper with the name of the game and the price printed on them; it’s very similar to how Office Depot does furniture sales now, if you’ve ever seen those. Anyway, if you wanted a particular game, you would take the paper up to the register, pay, and they would give you a ticket you would take to a small booth at the front of the store, and inside that booth was nothing but games. Games everywhere. So many games! You’d give the ticket to the person in the booth, often me, and they’d give you your game. For me, it was a paradise being in there, seeing all the games that were available, reading the boxes and looking at screenshots, getting the excited kids – and sometimes adults – their games, even keeping it clean and organized was a joy. At that time in my life, there was nowhere else I would ever rather be. As I started school on the east coast, I would occasionally work over the summer, but eventually I had to dedicate more time to school and life, including summers, but I never forgot how much fun that job was at Toys R Us.

Also, I looked high and low for a picture of the game cage, but amazingly, I could not find a single one. I did find a couple of the game isles with their paper tags, though, although I’m surprised that even they are hard to find. If anyone out there,anyone reading this has any pictures of TRU game cage, please send it/them along – even Reddit couldn’t help!

Sega Genesis games in Toys R Us, circa 1990

Sega Genesis games in Toys R Us, circa 1990

I suspected something was wrong all the way back around 2001 or so, when the stores were redesigned to be more ‘playful’ and less like narrow grocery-store isles, only taller. I don’t recall anyone have much of an issue with it, but I suspected that it was a response to ‘something;’ you don’t embark on a complete redesign of an iconic store without being motivated to do so. Later I learned it was because of slagging sales, something that has plagued the chain for a very long time. They tried again in 2015, and we all see where that went.

It took them clear until 2017 to realize the importance of a well-designed, functional, aesthetic website, yet this is also a result of an epic, colossal screw-up on their part many years earlier. See, when Toys R Us first developed their online presence, they did so by partnering with -wait for it – Amazon, all the way back in 2000! That’s when the Internet was still in its fledgling stages, although to the point that e-commerce was starting to take off. If Toys R Us had taken a different path, they could have ridden a wave that saw Amazon become the behemoth, retail landscape-shifting e-commerce megacompany it is today, so much so that Jeff Bezos is now the richest man in HISTORY.

But no, they screwed up, and screwed up big. Instead of leveraging their partnership, in 2006 they sued to get out of their agreement with Amazon in  2006 by saying Amazon breached the terms by allowing other vendors to sell toys as well, which prompted Amazon to countersue claiming TRU didn’t fulfill its obligations and left many orders unfulfilled. It ended badly for Amazon at that time, but it foreshadowed a bad ending for TRU in the future. My guess is they wanted to create their own online presence, although Amazon was, even then, generally king of the hill for this kind of thing, and TRU never did get it right. Other companies had partnered with Amazon as well then broken away, TRU was not the only one, but those other companies, such as Circuit City, well, we see where they are now. Not that leaving Amazon was the sole cause of their demise, but they could have utilized those partnerships much better than they did.

There was also Bain Capital. Yes, Mitt Romney’s Bain Capital. In 2005, they made a leveraged buyout of TRU, shifting all assets to a holding company. The problem is, the toy market has always had narrow margins, and with a leveraged buyout using the assets of the bought out company to leverage (hence the name) the huge loan that is used for the buyout, the assets themselves need to be worth something. Toys aren’t a good asset group in that in that way, and it ended up dumping an enormous amount of debt on top of the company, about $5 billion, and I would have thought anyone could see that would never work out. With $400,000 annual payments towards that loan, they were crushed form the get go. Ironically, or more saddening and angrily, it was Bain Capital that also bought out KB Toys, only to force them to sell thanks to crushing debt as well, and who did they sell to? Toys R Us! Those two aren’t the only ones Bain has impacted, either. Although in fairness, Bain has also had many successes; they wouldn’t exist otherwise. It’s just that these hit close to home for me.

Even so, none of it would have been necessary if Toys R Us hadn’t been mismanaged to this point. To me, they are the Sears of toy stores. Grossly overpriced, absolutely not competitive in any way, worrying on store design instead of competitiveness, yet also haveing been, at one point, the trend setter (remember the Sears catalog?). They couldn’t see the forest for the trees, and focused on the wrong things at the wrong time, allowing competition to blindside them. What could one expect when they bring in the former head of F.A.O. Schwarz, the most expensive toy store to ever exist, to turn things around? Oh right, TRU bought F.A.O. Schwarz in 2009, along with KB Toys, then closed it down. Oh the irony. I think the writing was on the wall a while ago.

Many people online are lamenting the closure of TRU, however it seems many of them never actually went to TRU, but they don’t want it to close either because of overpowering nostalgia. That’s me; I haven’t actually been inside a TRU in years, and the last time I went it was quiet, a little dirty, the people working there seemed like they wanted to be somewhere else, I didn’t find anything of interest, I usually just went to the Target across the street. But I can understand how these people feel, I of all people can understand, and it has also hit me hard, perhaps harder than those who went there as customers. I loved it there, I could tell so many stories, from both the employee and customer perspective, and I am very sad to see it go.

Zoho Writer: An excellent online alternative

I recently gave my opinions on OpenOffice.org’s word processing software Writer. My conclusion was that while they have certainly made improvements over the last twenty years, it still just doesn’t hold up to Microsoft’s behemoth package, either online or off. However, that doesn’t mean there isn’t an alternative for those who seek: I also mentioned in that post I would be reviewing Zoho Writer, the online word processor from (obviously) Zoho, which turns out to be a very competent competitor to Word. It’s not the perfect replacement, but it comes pretty close for everyday use, and then some.

Zoho offers many applications and services, all of which are relatively competent.  And I’m not talking just basic office suite stuff either; they have everything from CRM platforms to retail inventory management. For an online service, they have a surprising breadth of applications on order.

Zoho Apps

Zoho Apps

As you can see, there is a lot there. For this review I’ll be focusing on their word processor Writer, which I feel is a highlight of their office productivity suite, but it’s important to note the range of capabilities they have, especially as compared to other online options. I also want to mention that their PowerPoint equivalent, Show, is absolutely fantastic as well, while their version of Excel, Sheet, is also very good. It doesn’t quite live up to the rest of the suite in terms of functionality or design, but that’s not to say it’s not good – it is. But it has significant room for improvement, especially considering its less involved and less usable interface, with sparsely-populated toolbars, buried commands, and no sidebar, especially when considering it’s for such a powerful program as a spreadsheet. Indeed, it’s the one instance in which I can say OpenOffice’s alternative, Calc, is the better option, with more features, a more familiar interface, and better design all around.

That being said, Zoho is the superior option for everything else, and OpenOffice doesn’t provide any enterprise functionality or features beyond the basic office suite anyway. Here we’ll be talking about Writer, a name shared with the OpenOffice equivalent (so don’t mix them up!) and it will hopefully give a good impression of how it all works.

I threw together a nonsense document to mouse around with, and below you can see the spell check, which gives the initial suggestion as well as alternate suggestions, which is nice, although it doesn’t offer meanings / definitions as does Word. You can also see the Format menu in the sidebar to the left with all the functionality you would expect, including Cut / Paste / Format Painter / etc., as well as standard font and paragraph formatting options. Two additional features I think are very useful are the Quick Text option, which allows you to specify a particular piece of text that can be inserted with the click of a button or shortcut key; very good if you frequently use the same phrase or sentence or whatnot in a document. The other nice feature is evidenced by the very faint two boxes you can see in the left margin; the plus and text boxes. See those? You might have to look closely. The box with the plus is an insert menu, and the text box opens a formatting menu.  They follow your insertion point automatically, and they turned out to be quite a convenience.

A variety of page layout templates are also readily available, with more available for download and very easy to implement.

Zoho Writer format menu and spell check

Zoho Writer format menu and spell check

Page Layout Templates

Page Layout Templates

 Paragraph Options

Paragraph Options

Although this document is hardly complex, inserting an image and table is something that can trip up even stalwart word processors, and that was true here as well. Inserting the image was easy and worked fine, however arranging it for word wrap was more problematic. Smaller images resulted in much more layout success.

Inserting a table was also quite easy, and I especially like the live preview it provided as I hovered the mouse over the design options, all of which were neatly contained in the Design tab of the table options window. This is very similar to how Word will open custom contextual tabs that provide additional functionality depending on the specific element you’re working with.

Manipulating the table was much easier than manipulating the picture, which wanted to jump around the page, and even manipulating individual cells was very smooth; everything from changing their dimensions to their color to their alignment and everything in between worked perfectly the first time.

Image and table (with table options) in Zoho writer

Image and table (with table options) in Zoho writer

Now is when I need to mention the biggest advantage of (Zoho) Writer over (OpenOffice) Writer: .docx compatibility. OO Writer doesn’t have it, and that’s a huge knock, a terminal knock, actually, against it. With Zoho Writer, when saving a document, you have multiple options: You can save to a cloud service, and Zoho has collaborated with many as you can see (although I couldn’t help but notice the logo for OneDrive is oddly blurry, while the others are very clear), or you can download the file as a Microsoft Word .docx, or even as an .odt file, which is the open standard used by OpenOffice itself.

Writer's Other Drives options

Writer’s Other Drives options

Zoho Writer Save dialog and File menu

Zoho Writer Save dialog and File menu

As one would hope, there are also multiple ways to get some statistics about your document. They run along the bottom as one would expect, but I am also a big fan of the Document Properties as accessed by clicking on the ‘i’ with a circle around it at the upper right of the window. Not only does this provide a wealth of information about the document itself, but coming from an HCI perspective, having the page count, word count and character count in individually shaded, easy to see and immediately locate, is genius. In terms of information presentation and information availability it puts those interrelated metrics right next to each other yet separated visually and thereby forces them in a cognitive whole.

Not to get too far off topic, but the reason I’m so enamored with this design choice is that humans, in order to make sense of, and order out of, information and stimuli presented to them, engage in several practices that help them in organizing what they see. One of them is known as Proximity, in which spatially similar images are considered as part of a larger group, even if they’re not related, so when they are related, as these three metrics are, our ability to process them, their meaning and their relation to each other is increased even more. Another is Similarity, in which when considering multiple individual field objects, those that are similar in some dimension, whether it be shape, color, orientation, or whatever else, are considered to be part of the same group, again even if they aren’t. Those are two reasons presenting that specific document information is so brilliant – it addresses the way we as humans process information.

Consider the Windows logo below. This is an example of both proximity and similarity. We consider the logo as a single shape because the four smaller squares that comprise it are both similar and proximal.

Example of Similarity and Proximity

Example of Similarity and Proximity

This is the Writer document properties pane, that uses these concepts to such great effect.

Document Properties

Document Properties

It even estimates the average reading time. There is nothing I don’t like about this information window, it’s one of the best interface designs I’ve ever seen, and I’ve seen a lot.

Before I just put up the rest of the menu dialogs for your perusal to give you an idea of how they’re implemented, I also want to address a nice usability touch they have incorporated in the form of a support icon. See that little blue envelope there way on the right hand side?

Support icon

That’s the Writer support icon, and it opens up a window that allows you to offer feedback or ask questions directly. For a free service, that’s pretty remarkable. It really gives the idea – true or not – that they are at least receptive to feedback or requests for help. I was very surprised by that, and pleasantly so.

Writer support

Writer support

As you can probably tell, I think Writer is a great program. It’s not often I get to gush over software, but this company is so unknown, comparatively, yet they have such a well-designed and functional, free service, I’m surprised we don’t hear about it much more often. According to their webpage, they are a private company but one with five thousand employees! They hold user conferences and expos – that is not small time, yet their name recognition, even with millions of users, is small. If I may be so bold, even sacrilegious to some, I’ll even go so far as to say it destroys the offerings from Google. The only service that can compete is Microsoft’s Office 365, and even then it’s just a little better, plus Zoho integrates with all of them anyhow. Zoho has really created something great, and I encourage anyone interested in alternatives to standard office suites to give it a try.

Here are some functional dialogs if you’re interested in seeing all the options available before taking the plunge.

 

Has Firefox opted you into any of its studies?

Remember my previous post that talked about the fantastic new version of Firefox, especially the full-screen screenshot capability? I still haven’t adopted it as my main browser, but I was so impressed with th overall changes that were made, I’ve found myself using it more and more; certainly more often than I have in the past. High five for no more memory leaks! Anyway, when I started it up today, it opened to the screen you see below. I was intrigued, especially considering the great improvements they’ve made so far, but as I read through it I also became a little curious. It’s talking about tracking us for usability study purposes, which I’m completely for, but is there anything they perhaps are not telling us? I had no idea the drill down that was about to happen.

FireFox Pioneer

FireFox Pioneer

This is a new initiative called Firefox Pioneer, which aims to discover how people use their browsers, as well as what they vaguely refer to as ‘health of the web.’ They are careful to note that you need to opt in, which is good, and they are pretty clear about what they will and will not do, and what you can expect in terms of privacy, monitoring, opting out, how private sessions play in, and so on. I do get the feeling they are striving for high-level transparency here and acting in good faith, but perhaps a deeper dive into what they could do is warranted.

I should also mention that while Firefox allows for full page screenshots, that option was not available here. I had to open the page in Opera, save it as a pdf which Opera allows compared to Firefox’s screencap capability, open the pdf in Firefox, and then I could save a full-page screenshot. Very curious, but a triumph for ingenuity.

As the page indicates, you can type about:studies into the address bar and see which studies you’re part of, which have completed, and which are available. In fact, you can type about:[topic] into the address bar to discover many interesting things. To see how extensive this capability is, you can see a list at this link. For a real fun time, try about:config – it shows this not at all scary warning, which is really just trying to be funny before letting you access settings. I would normally be for this, however it’s incredibly unclear as to what’s going on if someone isn’t familiar (it fooled me too), especially as it says ‘this application’ and not ‘Firefox.’ Why the pseudo-third person?

Careful now

Careful now

Clicking ‘I accept the risk!’ takes you to a configuration page that isn’t much better in terms of readability or functionality.

Firefox's about:config

Firefox’s about:config

I don’t usually check this kind of thing, but I certainly should. We all know that companies use your data for many things, sometimes not asking first, so it’s important to keep an eye on what any program you’re using is doing. Typing about:studies showed me this screen, which I have to admit got me to wondering what exactly has been going on behind my back:

about:studies page in Firefox

about:studies page in Firefox

A collaboration between Mozilla and the creators of Mr. Robot? Someone’s reality is different than mine? What is going on here exactly? I clicked on Learn More and was taken to their SHIELD page where I learned all about their SHIELD studies, which they claim are to test new features, however from the original request it’s clear they test more than that. I also can’t figure out why it’s capitalized in such a way; I found no evidence it’s an acronym. A deeper dive led me to another Shield page where it’s maddeningly no longer capitalized, and that’s where I found, towards the bottom, a very concerning entry called ‘Normandy – User Profile Matching and Recipe Deployment.’ I wasn’t completely sure what that meant, but it stood out as sounding perhaps not so good. Just the name is curious: If you’re not familiar, and you should be, Normandy happens to be the location in France where the United States, Britain, Canada, and some of France itself launched the D-Day invasion against the Nazis in 1944. Did you ever see Saving Private Ryan? The opening scene was Normandy. I can’t help but wonder why Mozilla has named this bit of its process in such a way. It may be common knowledge, I don’t know, but it was new – and enlightening – to me.

Normandy

Normandy

You’ll notice the first item there, “Filters for Shield Targeting.” That took me to another interesting page, the very first paragraph of which states how certain users can be pegged for recipe execution in their browser, and the means by which that is done has access to location and locale (I’m uncertain as to how those differ in Mozilla parlance). It’s further down the page that you begin to see all the ways you can be tracked and monitored.

Filter Expressions

Filter Expressions

I was going to take a screenshot and crop in the sections that were most troublesome, but there are SO MANY it simply was not possible. To give you an idea, here’s what a screenshot of the page looked like in my image editor. I should also add that from a pure design perspective, they are really not using space efficiently.

So there’s a Normandy server, and Normandy is also an object that contains what they call ‘general information’ about the client. Client in a case like this should indicate the browser itself, not the person using it, but separating the two is not so easily done, and as a designer / developer, you’re ultimately trying to learn about the user, about their wants, needs and habits, so you can provide a better product. I have no problem with that, and in fact am completely on board with their Heartbeat initiative, but that is relatively benign.

Anyway, back to the above screenshot. They can track a lot, and in the crop below, you’ll see they do something interesting called bucket sampling. I’m intrigued by what this would be used for and how / why / when / etc., so I will have to dig even deeper. I’m guessing it’s some kind of parsing via demographics / usage statistics, but I’m not completely sure. I only found one mention of it on Mozilla’s site, on this page towards the bottom under the heading “Filling the Gap,” but it does lend credence to my assumption. While there’s no formal method known as bucket sampling, it’s something we do, in effect, all the time. I’m looking at you, marketing!

Bucket Sample

Bucket Sample

So what does all of this have to do with the study that started this whole post? To be quite honest, this rabbit hole didn’t tell me anything I, or any of you, didn’t already know: It’s very easy to track you online, and not just the websites you visit. Where you are, what software you use, what OS you have, whether you’re a new user or experienced, how many mobile and desktop clients you have, how long you stayed at a site, they can even track if you’ve enabled Do Not Track!

And while this sounds like a conspiratorial, tinfoil-hat rant, I actually am not overly bothered by it. I don’t do anything outrageous online other than download Sega Genesis ROMs, because I’m dangerous and like to live life on the edge. But other than that it’s all pretty boring. My issue was mainly that Mozilla may be opting us in to studies without formally informing anyone, and that I just can’t get behind. This was originally going to be a very short post that I thought could be whipped up in about fifteen minutes, but it instead turned into a downhill slalom.

If you’re interested in reading more about Normandy, Mozilla has a helpful website where you can learn all about it and what it can (and does) do, and it really is an interesting, dare I say fascinating, read. http://normandy.readthedocs.io/en/latest/

Oh, one ore thing – In the latest build of Firefox, Mozilla has also made individual cookie management much more cumbersome. I don’t use that feature a lot, but it is definitely not something people should have to go in to the developer console to access. I love the new Firefox, but this isn’t good – user control should be at the center of all commercial software development. Get it together, Mozilla.

Going Up