Category Archives: Software

The new Firefox browser seems pretty good so far

New Firefox Logo

I’m an Opera guy. Not an ‘opera’ guy, although I have nothing against that particular type of theater, but an Opera browser guy. Many years ago I was a Mozilla Firefox guy, especially as they rose from the once-great Netscape Navigator, however for many years now Opera has been the Samsung Galaxy to Firefox’s iPhone; in other words, Opera always had features that Firefox offered much later or didn’t have at all except through add-ons, and was simply faster, more responsive, more stable, and easier to use. Not only that, Firefox has been infamous for its memory leaks, a problem it was never able to solve (Chrome, too, let’s not forget about Chrome). I should also mention in the issue of fairness that plugins could exacerbate the problem, however the base browser always struggled with the issue as well.

Now, however, Mozilla has released the latest version of its Firefox browser, named Firefox Quantum, and it is the first major update for the browser in almost thirteen years; you can read the blog entry straight from the horse’s mouth here. They claim it’s faster, better, has more features, is better able to manage resources, is compatible with new and emerging web technologies, and has many options for customization and configuration. It’s been redeveloped from the ground up, and it shows.

I gave it a run to see how it is, and it certainly does appear to be better. Very fast, very responsive, clean interface whose elements can be dragged-and-dropped to rearrange them anyway you like, which is very nice. I started up some test sites to see how they loaded, including UCI’s homepage, IS301.com, Amazon, Plex’s homepage as well as my Plex home server, Hackaday.com, eBay, and Rotten Tomatoes. I also left up the default start page.

Firefox Quantum

Firefox Quantum

The tabs loaded quickly, although plex.tv and this site took longer than expected, however while comparing response times with Opera, they loaded slowly there as well so the problem was obviously server-side and not an issue with the browser itself; testing them later resulted in equally speedy load times. That wasn’t the case with actually playing videos using Plex, though – Firefox took much, much longer to buffer than did Opera, almost three times as long; I was unable to discern why but the issue was repeatable and consistent. Barring that anomaly, everything else was very snappy and without hesitation. One thing I should add about measuring response times: It is very difficult to do client-side, and is often done via what is known as a stopwatch test, doable in code or with an actual stopwatch. Needless to say, I find those both very unreliable and so went with my own observation to get a general sense of how Opera and the new Firefox compared.

Firefox also has many new features, including deeper integration of Pocket, a personal web-content aggregator that Mozilla bought and integrated a while ago. I have never used it, but can understand how it could be quite beneficial for some. It also has an excellent snapshot feature that allows you to take a screenshot of all or part of a page and save it locally or share it to their cloud service. I don’t know why someone would use the latter, but the former is something I use quite a bit with Opera, and as we will see Firefox does it much better. There is also the aforementioned interface configurations, the library which is just a collection of your browsing history and bookmarks, syncing across devices, and more. As the header image shows, they even have a new icon!

Firefox Features

Firefox Features

Of course, that’s where the important issue comes up. The fact is, while the new Firefox browser appears to be much faster, more responsive, more stable, everything I said about Opera earlier, what that essentially does is bring it on par with Opera, except in the case of Firefox’s better screenshot functionality which I will discuss later in the post. I tested each page I loaded in Firefox against the same page as it loads in Opera (with three times as many tabs open in Opera, no less) and the performance was the same. Opera wasn’t better as it had been in the past, it was simply the same. That’s a comment on both Firefox and Opera; how well Opera has been in the past, and the catching up Firefox had to do, and did quite effectively and impressively, to reach it.

As mentioned earlier, there is one big difference in which Firefox easily takes the lead, and regarding a feature I use often – the screenshot feature. Both Opera and Firefox have had this feature for some time, and as stated I use it frequently, although now Firefox’s implementation is much better (MUCH better) – it can identify sections of a screen, such as a headline or picture or other element, as you move your mouse, and snip that out, while Opera requires you to adjust a selection box. Additionally, Firefox has the neat ability to capture a whole webpage as a snapshot, even if parts of it are not visible in your browser – the image below was taken in Firefox even though the entire footer and about 20 percent of the header were not visible when I did. That is a great feature, one that surpasses Opera’s full-screen (note: not full-page) capture, and might be the clincher for some; it almost is for me.

Full-page snapshot using Firefox

Full-page snapshot using Firefox

Opera, on the other hand, allows for screencaps to be marked up in a very limited fashion right in the capture window, something Firefox does not, however this is less of an issue for me as I usually use GIMP if I need to make extensive edits, and IrfanView if I need to make any size adjustments, batch actions, or simple crops. Good thing, too, since all Opera allows one to do is add some arrows or stickers; Regardless of what Opera says, it’s not actually editing at all. In terms of flexibility, Firefox is the clear winner in this category.

Nice try, Opera

Nice try, Opera

For these reasons, I can and will whole-heartedly recommend Firefox to anyone interested as I think the improvements are significant, but I won’t stop using Opera as it already had many of these features, as well as unit conversion that happens automatically when you highlight a measurement. It also has a customizable, tiled home screen that I find to be very useful; it’s one of my favorite features of Opera and the one I use most often. The new Firefox has something similar, with a single row of six, or double row of twelve, small tiles representing your ‘top sites,’ which can be edited or added to, but not rearranged; ultimately, it’s not as configurable as Opera’s landing page, and very curiously its screenshot functionality is disabled there also.

Opera start page

Opera start page

Firefox Start Page

Firefox Start Page

Whichever you prefer, they are now both very good browsers, with the choice being one left up to the preference of the user. I haven’t used Firefox in forever, but I am very pleased to see it in this new form and I hope it continues to get better and better. As I mentioned earlier, I can wholeheartedly recommend it now, something I couldn’t do before, and I will likely use it as a back up browser in place of Chrome, my current backup. There are of course many other choices in browsers, including Vivaldi, Pale Moon (don’t let the terrible web page scare you), and Brave, to name a few, as well as the more well knowns, however here I was only comparing the new Firefox to my main choice. Speaking of which, I was just notified that an update is available for Opera! Here we go…

Animate your desktop

Zombie Desktop

I’ve always wondered why we don’t have animated wallpapers for desktop machines. After all, if Android phones can have them, why not the big guys? There are valid, pragmatic reasons; they’re distracting, they drain system resources, and they can be hell on a laptop battery or other device that isn’t plugged in. But perfectly reasonable caveats don’t interest us, we know the risks, we want animated wallpapers, and now we can have them.

Incidentally, the idea of animating desktop elements has been around forever. Back in the early 1990s there was an add-on program for Windows 3.1 called Icon Hear-It that added animated cursors, animated icons, and additional sounds to the GUI. Of course, that early in the computer revolution, none of us realized how truly gaudy and resource-intensive all that nonsense was.

But a tasteful, animated wallpaper can make for an elegant display. I was going to talk about the way I do it on Windows 10, but I suppose I should also talk about Windows 7 and 8. Regardless of the version of Windows you are running, you’re going to need a third-party program; no OS offers animated wallpaper functionality. For the latter versions, there is a program by Stardock called DeskScapes that provides a selection of animated wallpapers, and even allows you to create your own from gifs, videos, or other animations. It’s not terribly resource dependent and ran relatively smooth on Windows 8 in a Virtual Machine.

Stardock Deskscapes

Stardock Deskscapes

I recently learned of another program, however, called Wallpaper Engine, that is (supposedly) designed to have a very small resource footprint, and is even available through Steam for a measly $4.00 (as opposed to DeskScapes’ $9.99). Another big plus for it is that some of its wallpapers support triple-monitor setups, which I have, so I wanted to look into it further.

It has been working quite well so far. Interestingly, in my graduate design class this week we are discussing ethics, and it turns out that there are some ethically questionable ways in which this program can be used. For example: Of course the first animated wallpaper I downloaded was of zombies. But it turns out they’re not just any zombies, they’re from a video created by a company called AtmosFX (formerly Atmosfear), which creates videos to be used around Halloween by projecting them on a sheet hanging over a window or similar. They do have a lot of neat videos, I’ve considered using them myself and buying a projector just for their videos, and you may seen have seen some on display around that time of year at Spirit Halloween.

AtmosFX decorations

AtmosFX decorations

Apparently, AtmosFX has filed a complaint with Valve, who runs steam, and with Wallpaper Engine, stating that the background is copyrighted material and shouldn’t be downloadable for free with their program, although Wallpaper Engine didn’t provide it, only the capability to create it from existing video. Therefore, determining who is actually for the alleged copyright violation, if there is one, will be difficult. I suspect Valve will simply remove the offending wallpaper from the Wallpaper Engine workshop, however there are many, many, MANY more options for one to choose from, with the expected heavy emphasis on things like Anime and, you know, related things.

Here is a video of my three-screen setup running the zombies animated wallpaper. Also note: Not all wallpapers work across three screens, and I have had some real problems with scaling, in which Wallpaper Engine will only show the top 40 percent of the animation rather than scale it properly across screens. Single-screen setups and most dual-screen setups do not have this issue (as far as I can tell).

Poke the Bunny!

Poke the Bunny

Before I get to the main thrust of this post, it’s important to provide some perspective for those unfamiliar. As you all should know, my Ph.D. is in Human Computer Interaction, my undergrad in Cognitive Psych, I teach multiple interaction design and interface development and analysis courses (game design as well!), so when I see a well-designed interface, or anything that’s inherently usable as a result of its construction, it just makes me feel all giddy inside.

What, then, is a good example of a well-designed interface? I’ll show you. It’s an example I’ve been using for some time, all the way back since it was a Flash animation on a website called platinumgrit.com, which was a showcase for an Australian Flash animation series. The site is long since dead, or more appropriately, dormant, but it once hosted what I consider to be the best, most pure example of interface design I have ever seen. In fact, I was reminded of it because of a conversation thread on a message board for my graduate class in advanced design and prototyping.

It’s called, no joke, Poke the Bunny.

Push it!

Push it!

Before I show you the rest of interface and give away the surprise, let me explain why it is so good. One of the cardinal rules of interface design is clarity; speaking clearly to the user. Don’t label links ‘click here,’ don’t label buttons ‘push me,’ don’t call an error ‘error 0x14323929.’ State what the user can do, and make it clear what the consequence of that action will be. Of course, cardinal rules are meant to be broken since so many interfaces break them.

But not this one. The interface is comprised of exactly three elements. The first element is a graphic of a bunny that frankly looks pissed off. The next is a fist with an extended pointer finger aimed squarely at the bunny’s backside. And the third element is a button labeled ‘Poke the Bunny.’ It is clearly labeled in reference to its action. It leaves no doubt or question in the mind of the user what it’s function is and what will happen when you push it. Not only is it a beautiful example of interaction design, there is such a direct link between all the elements on the screen that the role of each is immediately apparent, specific, and isolated. It’s the most pure interface I’ve ever seen.

Not only that, the effectiveness of the action/response is very satisfying. Because it’s easy to use, obvious to figure out, impossible to get lost, it makes the actual use of the interface, even though it has just a single interactive element, a joy to use. Even though all you’re doing is poking the bunny, the nature of the design combined with the absurdity of the situation make it oddly addicting and fun. And that is a desirable goal for an interface; You want it to be fun, exciting, enjoyable, interesting, educational, all the positive aspects that make people feel good should be elicited from your design, And in this case, it is. it’s just plain fun.

(There’s also a surprise, though, if you work for it).

And it’s available on Android! As I mentioned, the site has been sadly dormant for some time, however I was overjoyed to discover that if you have an Android phone you can download it from the Play store! There used to be a version for iOS, however I have the sneaking suspicion it’s no longer available (although I don’t know. If anyone can check I’d appreciate it). It’s a shame if not; it’s a brilliant example of exactly how an interface should work.

The Android version isn’t quite as exceptional as the original Flash app; the skeumorphic nature of the button isn’t there, the font is unnecessarily cartoonish, and sound isn’t quite right. Still, the pure core of the interface is rock solid.

So with all of that fanfare, I present a video of Poke the Bunny recorded off my very own Note 5. If you’re on Android (or iOS and it’s still available), then download it and give it a try. You’ll be hooked, I promise. Poke the Bunny!

And here comes PowerShell!

DOS Prompt

I love the DOS prompt. I really do. I have books about it, watch videos about it, and teach HCI students about how many of the conventions used in the Graphical User Interface (e.g. cut/copy/paste) are taken from the command line, which were themselves taken from manual conventions used with typewriters (when typists made an error, they would often type the intended word on a separate paper, cut it out with an X-acto knife, and paste it over the mistyped word on the original document).

Although I frequently criticize techy types for being unnecessarily proud of their cult-like, obtuse, user-unfriendly platforms that require deep-dive understandings of underlying technology to get them anywhere close to working (I’m looking at you, FreeNAS and DD-WRT), I have to give the command line credit as it was all we had back then, we didn’t use it for bragging rights, and it worked well enough at the time while requiring some understanding of the underlying machine and software architecture.

However, it appears that the command line is being pushed to the back row. You’ll notice in the image below, which is of my very own Windows 10 Start context menu which appears when right-clicking on the start menu, there is the option for command prompt and command prompt admin.

Win 10 context menu

Win 10 context menu

In the following image, though, taken from a PCWorld post about the most recent Windows 10 Insider Build, Build 14971, you can see that the entries for command prompt are no more, and instead have been replaced with PowerShell.

Windows 10 Power Shell entries

Windows 10 Power Shell entries (credit: PC World)

What is PowerShell you might ask? If you were to just look at it, it might not look all that different from a standard command line. In fact, it IS a command line. However, rather than carrying out one command at a time as is typical with traditional command lines, hence their name, PowerShell allows for a host of capabilities that would be very difficult – although not impossible – via traditional command line commands. It allows for system and network/remote management, as well as scripting functionality supported by the .NET platform. It has many functions, which is also why the name PowerShell is both accurate and misleading.

You see, a shell is a command line. We’ve been using shells forever now, they even have allowed for the authoring of some basic scripts called batches in which a bunch of commands run all at once, but they were also very limited in the universe of the GUI. When a criminal attempts to put malicious code into or onto a system in the hopes it will run, that is often known as shellcode because it provides command-line access to the compromised system (if you’re interested, this is most commonly done through buffer/stack overflow attacks, of which there are many different kinds). Even PowerShell itself has been around for a long time. These types of interfaces have been a staple of computing since the birth of the PC and before.

PowerShell is powerful, and has extensive capabilities that make it as useful as a GUI if you know how it works. Why not just use the GUI? Because a command line interface doesn’t use nearly the resources of a GUI, can run on a low-power system, gives much finer and more focused control than a GUI, and a command line interface won’t crash. You can see that I appreciate the power of the command line, and while I have nothing against PowerShell specifically, I also see it as the end of an era. The DOS prompt was so insanely unintuitive, yet comparatively simple as well; a true paradox. In PowerShell’s defense, here is a screenshot from the carlwebster.com blog showing it running a script that displays firewall rules. And that is just one example of the infinite amount of ways in which it can be used.

PowerShell showing firewall rules

PowerShell showing firewall rules

Apparently ‘Command Prompt’ can be brought back to the context menu through taskbar personalization settings so I may do that when the update finally rolls out, but I also want to give powerShell a chance – I haven’t used it that much but use the command prompt extensively, so who knows, maybe it will all be for the best. I’m approaching it with an open mind, and I’ll post my thoughts here when I’ve had the chance to work with it for a bit.

Happy Fourth of July Weekend!

Freedom!

Happy Fourth of July weekend! I say that even though the Fourth is on Monday. It’s a time for grilling and, if you’re like me and in Las Vegas, getting roasted (that’s not a euphemism) in the blistering sun before it cools down to 100 degrees at night to watch fireworks.

So since the 4th of July is rapidly approaching and you should be out celebrating Freedom and Liberty, I’ll just put up a brief post talking about the technology behind putting together a fireworks display. I’ve posted it the past couple of years and the technology hasn’t changed that much since then. The process is exactly the same.

As you can probably guess, with the spectacular fireworks displays you see every Fourth of July – like the ones we have right here in Las Vegas for the Fourth and New Year’s Eve – sync’d to music as they often are, it requires not just the fireworks themselves but a major amount of computerization and automation to pull everything off. Besides the mechanical triggers and fireworks themselves, there is actually software that is designed solely for the purposes of controlling and synchronizing the firing, timing, and music of the displays.

CueMaker

CueMaker firework controlling / timing software

If you’ve ever used music-editing software such as ProTools or Audacity or anything in-between, or perhaps created a holiday light show right in your own front yard, then you already have an idea of how the software works. You use a timeline to indicate when specific triggers should launch, and if necessary make them in-line with music. It’s pretty nifty.

If you’d like to know more, here is an interesting, interactive explanation of how a firework gets launched. Keeping that in mind, Disney, which puts on some of the most unbelievable fireworks displays I’ve ever seen, developed a method for launching fireworks with compressed air as opposed to gunpowder all the way back in 2004! That’s a good use of technology.

A post from the new phone

Just a couple of posts ago I wrote about how I  was feeling rather melancholy over having finally given up my beloved Windows phone, which I have used for many years and did so with pride. It had served me well, and I actually am still using it for some of its offline functions, but I broke down and finally jumped ship to the Android-powered Galaxy Note 5.

Why am I telling you this if I already told you a couple of posts ago? Along with the vastly improved selection of apps (confession: I’ve been playing Pinball Arcade – almost perfect recreations of actual pinball machines.  Don’t miss out!), I discovered a WordPress app that lets me post from my phone. I can’t imagine I’ll be doing that a lot, but I figured I may as well give it a try. Incidentally, those links should link to the Google Play store which was a test of this platform and my ability to use it, but depending on how you’re reading this they may not work. So be forewarned!

A major change for the site

Disqus Logo

As you can likely tell from the image header, and as this site continues to expand, I have switched the comment system over to the venerable Disqus platform. While I was more than happy with the stock commenting method provided by WordPress, I also was never completely comfortable with people having to login via social media in which they might not be comfortable leaving a comment, or logging in anonymously, in which *I* wouldn’t be comfortable with them leaving a comment.

I have to admit though, WordPress has so far caught 100% of the spam that has been levied against this site, and I can’t argue with those results. I have seen spam get through on many, many sites that use Disqus, and so everything here today is done with the understanding that if Disqus can’t handle the inevitable comment spam that will arrive, or in some other way becomes odious, I may have to switch back to the old way of doing things.

A huge mistake, and disaster averted

Yep

Other than not being a woman, I know just how that lady feels. Today was a bad day, and her expression was my exact expression earlier. You’ll notice over to the right, on the twitter feed, the words “OR DON’T.” That was the header image to a post I had written about two separate attacks this month that targeted remote access software. One attack on June 1st compromised TeamViewer, a program I use myself, and the second, more recent attack targeted GoToMyPC, hence the OR DON’T. Get it? Anyway, both were based on password reuse, so change your passwords if you’re affected. Or even if you’re not.

However after I posted it, I noticed that the LightBox functionality was not working on recent posts. LightBox is the function that causes an image to expand when you click on it while darkening the background. It’s only not working on recent posts, for older posts it works fine. I didn’t know why, and started to investigate.

New ransomware method to worry about

Image Credit: makeuseof.com

(Header image credit: makeuseof.com)

Over on security blog Bleeping Computer, there is a post about a new type of ransomware that presents a triple threat. Known as RAA, what makes this one different is that instead of using an .exe attached to an email which would pop up an alert when a user tried to run it, this one is written entirely in JavaScript, a language often used to encode and provide functionality for web pages, and if a user runs something written in JS it likely would not pop up any alerts, and the damage would be done before you knew it.

This is why we can’t have nice things

The Man

As you can see in my previous post, I have a new PC in the office. This involves logging back in to all my accounts and setting things up just the way I like them, which can take a significant amount of time if you happen to be particular about it, which I am.

One of the things I did was copy my music library over to the second hard drive so i can have access to it here. I don’t use it all that much, I tend to rely on YouTube more often (although I’m not sure why when I have local copies), but that’s how it is.

Anyway, I decided to fire up Groove, a service I have never used before as that is what Windows 10 wanted my music player to be, and as I was scrolling through my list I found the late, great John Denver’s hit “Country Roads, Take Me Home.”

That sounded good, so I fired it up. Except I couldn’t play the song, and Bam! I was hit in the face with why I don’t like digital distribution and have gone so far as to set up my own personal Netflix. To explain what happened, have a look at this picture:

Going Up