Chip's Technical Blog

Tech commentary of thoughts, challenges, how-to's, and the mundane.

Archive for the ‘Software’ Category

Macbook Pro Update

Friday, September 19th, 2008

So I’ve been using the MBP for a while now, and it’s still taking some getting used to. It’s also still just “okay.” I wouldn’t say I’m overwhelmed with how much better it is than Windows.

Moreover, I installed updates today, and upon reboot, found that a new icon was present in the menu bar. And not just that, it gave me a nag message, asking me to sign up for MobileMe.

I have to agree with the vast number of users writing complaints that this new “feature” was unrequested, unauthorized, and undesired. (I won’t link to them here, but just a quick internet search will find them). Tactics like this will probably renew my desire to be using an opensource OS on my laptop, and there is a reasonable chance I won’t stick with Mac when it comes time to get another new laptop.

Granted, I’ve ruled out Windows too, so I’m not sure what will be next. Back to linux, and the headaches of not having powerpoint plus dealing with projectors? Perhaps opensolaris?

As an aside – also after installing the updates, my trackpad stopped working until I powered the machine off and back on — another fix which is supposedly only supposed to happen on Windows.

Macbook Pro

Sunday, July 27th, 2008

So after 28 years of never using a Mac, I now have one. I got it for work, in my continuing endeavor to try new things on work computers. My desktop will still be a linux PC, but my laptop is now a Macbook Pro. I’ve only had it a few days, so I don’t have a lot of thoughts about it—though I still have an open mind.

Pros: - It looks shiny - With a massive amount of RAM, it runs quite smoothly - Better integration with X and native X open-source applications than achieved through Windows (and e.g. CygWin)

Cons: - Whole new keyboard with different buttons which do different things (will take time to get used to) - It hides what it’s doing even more than Windows, leaving the user to have no clue what’s happening behind the scenes - New multi-touch pad is different and doesn’t have a second mouse button - Did not come pre-installed with any games - I really miss the home and end keys. What does exist for home and end are, first two-key combos, and second, they are more like a top-and-bottom. I don’t yet know how to go to the beginning and ending of a dialog box I’m typing in.

So anyway, there are things I like and don’t like, but there’s a lot which I won’t know until I get used to it more.

Server Cookies, and I don’t think they quite understand advertising…

Thursday, December 6th, 2007

I should start by explaining I regularly run my web browser with cookies disabled. The reason is that I decided websites are tracking you too closely, and especially websites which you didn’t even know you were visiting. For example, open up your cookie list. (In firefox, this is: Tools->Options (under Windows, Edit->Preferences under Linux), then Privacy->”Show Cookies”. The questions to ask yourself are:

  1. How many of the sites listed do I even recognize?
  2. Of the sites I do recognize, what do I want that site to remember about me the next time I visit?

Cookies, you see, are files that a server gives to a web browser, and asks it to present them whenever they visit a set of pages on a set of sites. Cookies have a number of legitimate uses, most notably to give the browser a “session” id. The “session” id is used so the browser user can, e.g., log in, and have the server remember keep track of information related to the login. (The other option, not using cookies, is to make the sessionid part of the URLs, which is both ugly, and more likely to be logged by third parties such as proxies and caches run by ISPs)

Then there are some arguably useful features of cookies. For example, many online retailers will set a cookie identifying you at your browser, and recognize you immediately when you visit again (not for purchasing, but for welcoming, tracking the products you look at, so to remind you of past products you’ve visited and to suggest new products based on your viewing history. I personally find that a little creepy, though I admit in some cases it can be valuable. A few years ago, there were even reports of sites using cookies to do Dynamic Pricing (story by CNN), a practice where sites change the prices based on information they keep about the customer. There were reports of users visiting Amazon from a new computer, finding an item they like, then logging in, and seeing it for a new price. In my opinion, these types of things outweigh the possible positive benefits from having a site remember me just for cause.

Next there are in my book some outright despicable practices. Advertisements placed on sites will add cookies which get reported back to these tracking sites anytime you visit any site with an advertisement from the same company. As a result, there are sites which simply compile vast amounts of information about where you go and what you do online, to use in any way they seem fit. These are commonly called “Tracking Cookies” by products such as Ad-aware and Spybot, which will remove the ones they recognize for you.

I have simply taken the approach (mostly as an experiment) that sites shall not store cookies without my express consent. To that end, I have installed CookieSafe, which makes it easier to manage cookie settings. I either give or reject cookies from specific sites. This occurs as a site preference, meaning if a site uses both kinds of cookies, and I want to use the site, I accept them both. Importantly, the third-party cookies are still rejected — I have to authorize them separately.

So my browsing works like this: I browse normally, then if a site isn’t working (and particularly if submitting a login doesn’t work), I realize it needed cookies to work. I then decide if I really want to use the site, and if I do, I enable cookies for that site only.

Now, when I view my list of cookies, I can identify most of the sites. (Some I must have authorized, but don’t quite recognize by site name, like the third party my bank uses to process online billpay.). I find this to be much more acceptable, and my browsing hasn’t been worse for the wear.

A few days ago, however, I saw something that really brought a smile to my face. On a site I visited while trying to figure out what it meant to buy fertile eggs, I saw this image, where an ad belongs: “No Cookie” Advertisement

I just had to laugh. If a site wants to not send me ads because I reject cookies — then great! I didn’t want them anyway. But somehow I think they’ve missed the point of advertising. If I were they, I would send SOMETHING back. But all the same – I hope other sites take this approach. It could be the end to all the annoying flash ads I get, if instead I got these images everywhere!

Trying to understand SiteMap(s)

Tuesday, September 25th, 2007

So for some time I have been using Gallery as my picture site, and I’ve been quite happy with it overall (my prior post about it notwithstanding).

In recent versions, I have noted a reference to a “Google SiteMap” in the administration pages. Being ignorant of them, I ignored it. Yesterday, I decided to look a bit further into it to understand them. This was partly because lately I’ve felt like a large amount of my server bandwidth has been taken by search robots, and I wondered/hoped that the sitemap would make the crawler use less bandwidth.

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“Hidden” Pages in WordPress

Saturday, September 22nd, 2007

So I’ve been working with Kristina to set up her website/blog. Using WordPress to write a whole website is a quite interesting concept. In contrast: this site, or Tom’s blog, do more of embedding a WordPress blog in an otherwise functional site. But to setup a site in WordPress, you actually write all your web pages using its web interface, and tell it how to structure them.

But one of the issues is that a common practice in a website is to create a page which you don’t include in menus, but you might, say, link to it from a few special places such as an email, making it a sort of “hidden” page. But you don’t want people to have to log in to see it, you just want them to know the URL.

This idea has been suggested to wordpress, but the last comment was 6 months ago, and I’m afraid no good solution has been proposed yet. There is a workaround for the tech-savvy, namely modifying your theme to specially exclude the id of the page you want to exclude. This has two problems: (1) When doing so, the page was excluded, but some html was still generated, because it changed the formatting of the link list. (2) At kcubes.com, themes are shared across blogs, which means that if somoene else chose a specially modified theme, they would have confusing results.

Does anyone know other solutions? Is there a plug-in which provides this feature? For a while I thought “Private” would do what we wanted, but apparently that requires you to be logged in to see it. And while I’m griping, why does “wordpress private pages”, when typed into google, not give you a clear description of what exactly private pages are?

Mutt error message: “Message XXX UID YYY less than ZZZ”

Wednesday, August 22nd, 2007

If you are constantly getting this error message in Mutt (seemingly every time Mutt checks for new messages, or you change folders), then I may have a solution for you. You see, when I tried to lookup this message, I found two things:

  • Pages saying the message was harmless and to be ignored
  • Pages giving a technical explanation of the error message (which also tend to fall in the first category too)

Two pages in particular are this one from the Pine users group, and this one from the IMAP FAQs which give technical explanations. Basically, the UID’s must be increasing in a mailbox, and someone detected a dis-order. Typically, clients take the opportunity to re-order the UIDs to correct the problem.

But in my Mutt instance, this persisted restarting the client, moving messages, and more. I could not get the message to go away. After understanding the technical side, I went to find the problem. But I couldn’t find it. It did not occur in the mailboxes themselves.

Finally, I realized it had to do with the header cache. I deleted the header cache, and now I don’t have the error message anymore.

Good Luck!

Midi on Linux

Sunday, July 22nd, 2007

So one challenge of using Linux is trying to play Midi files. For those from the windows world, this is not an issue. There are a variety of players which play midi files right out of the box, such as Winamp or Quicktime. These can typically either use built-in hardware for playing midis (either external midi devices or a sound card with built-in midi players), or they can use internal patch sets to play the files synthetically.

On Linux, the first of these cases just works out of the box. If you have sound-card-hardware, it generally just works after you enable the sequencing kernel modules. But if you are unfortunate enough to not have such hardware (and let’s face it, the vast majority of computers don’t come with midi hardware since many users don’t listen to them), it won’t work out of the box.

The good news is that there are a few pieces of software out there which can install fake “midi hardware” so that all software can use it out of the box. One of these is TiMidity++, which I had used before without issue. But when I installed it this time around, it had very mixed results. I would play files, and sometimes hear nothing, sometimes hear stuff, and sometimes I would hear only parts of what I expected to hear. Looking into this, I eventually tracked it down to the free patch set which is available as a Linux package. As it turns out, the free patch set only contains a subset of the midi voices, and so as a result, there is silence when playing voices that are missing.

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Alternatives to powerpoint

Tuesday, July 17th, 2007

So I have recently re-configured my laptop to dual boot Linux with Windows (before it was just Windows). I’ve found, since making the switch, that the main reason I still use Windows is to use PowerPoint for presentations or posters. I tried using OpenOffice for my presentation, and that’s reasonable as long as I don’t need complex figure animation (in particular custom motion paths). I actually had made one of my recent presentations totally in OpenOffice, switching back almost at the end to be able to use custom path animation. It was a bit of a disappointment, really.

So I’m interested in the existence of other open-source alternatives for presentations. Another limiting factor is that the presentation tool must also run in Windows, since most of the time projectors “just work” with Windows, while I haven’t figured out how to make them work with Linux yet (requires rebooting, for example). I’m aware of KPresenter and LaTeX-Beamer, but the options start getting slim after that. The main problem with the former is that it seems less mature than the open office one, while the latter is great for simple presentations, but not so much for figures or their animation.

So what do you use? What other options are there? Can you get good animations from elsewhere. I’ve heard suggestions that we should use flash for our presentations, but I can’t imagine having to learn it just to do a presentation.

Web scrapbook

Friday, July 13th, 2007

For some time I’ve used Gallery as my gallery software of choice. (And I still do–you can find the link to my gallery along the page header). But more recently, I’ve started to think that what I’d prefer to have is software which makes it easy to create scrapbooks online. I think the key difference here is the focus on narrative instead of the pictures themselves. Pictures are used to tell the story, not to be the primary point of the content. I’m happy to have a gallery at the same time which is highly integrated with the scrapbook, but I’d like the narrative (with collections of photos related to narrative parts) to allow presentation in a scrapbook format.

If anyone is aware of such software (particularly, but not strictly, free software), please let me know.

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