Thursday, November 13, 2008

Chrome: Is This Your Father's Web Browser?

A couple of months ago I set up a computer for an older couple who had never used a computer before. It was an old laptop with busted hinge but it was in otherwise good condition and it was an easy matter of setting it up with an external monitor and wireless keyboard and mouse. Neither of them knew much about computers and they just wanted it for e-mail and web browsing—the same as most computer users these days.

When it came time to choose a web browser for the computer I wanted to steer them away from Internet Explorer. Besides being slow and bloated, IE is a magnet for hackers if for no other reason than the fact that it is installed on the vast majority of computers. So I installed Opera on the computer.

It seemed like a good choice at the time, Opera is small and fast—perfect for an old computer with only 512MB of RAM. Unfortunately, Yahoo! Mail didn't cooperate. Several days after setting up the computer, I began receiving calls about the a problem between Yahoo Mail and Opera. For some reason it kept redirecting Opera from its Inbox to the log-on page. I never figured out exactly why this was happening. So I installed Chrome—Google's then new browser—on the computer and the older couple has been happily using it for e-mail and web browsing ever since.

Chrome hasn't made much noise since the week when it was launched. A lot of geeks (myself included) downloaded it, complained about a lack of features and possible privacy problems, and quickly went back to Firefox. But from my perspective setting up computers for people—many of them older—who really know nothing about computers and don't care about cookie handling or security.

For these people, Chrome's shortcomings suddenly turn into strengths. Chrome was designed from the ground up to run javascript so temperamental web applications like Yahoo! Mail are more likely to run properly on it. Chrome runs in the background quietly updating itself through Google's Updater application even when it is supposed to be "closed." While more tech-savvy and paranoid people see this as a potential privacy risk, for people who neither know nor care about security or privacy issues, this is an invaluable feature since their web browser always has the latest updates and patches. While there is no way to control how javascript and cookies behave on a site by site basis, people who lack computer savvy won't know how to use these features anyway, so for them relying on Google to handle these potential threats makes sense. It all comes down to how much you trust Google—maybe you and I don't always trust Google but most people don't care one way of they other. For them Google's web browser is just another program that they run on their computer.

So for confused newbies, Chrome's lack of features and minimalist interface are an advantage. Ironically enough, Chrome's name comes from the term used by web developers for the buttons, menus, and other widgets that constitute the browser's interface. But Chrome has very little "chrome" compared to other web browsers; just front, back, and reload buttons, a combination address/search bar, and a couple of hidden menus which are easy to ignore. It even tucks its tabs into its title bar which further reduces clutter. And while Google has talked about producing add-ons for Chrome, there are currently none available. There are no toolbars or extensions for Chrome. But then again, too many extensions can slow Firefox down and toolbars are frequently more trouble than they are worth for Internet Explorer users.

So if you are a tech-savvy nerd who has been wondering what Google was thinking when they put out Chrome, maybe they were thinking about your mom and dad.

Monday, November 10, 2008

R.I.P. Mars Phoenix

The Mars Phoenix team has just frozen. It's a remarkable thing to feel emotions over the "death" of an inanimate object which I've never seen or touched or otherwise interacted with in any way except the occasional Twitter alert. But it was exciting to get these little updates on a mission that was pushing the boundaries of science and exploring another world. In the end, that's what we associate with the best of what we call the "human spirit." If that is the case, then that frozen slab of metal on Mars that we call Phoenix is more human than a lot of us.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Googling Usenet

This is the sort of post which I must admit is basically just something I'm writing down so I won't forget about it. It's so nice that blogging allows me to treat the Internet as my own personal napkin.

If there is one program that I use more than any other on my computer, it's Agent. Well, I probably use a web browser, any web browser more than anything else just like everyone else. But after a web browser, I use Agent for both e-mail and for reading Usenet newsgroups. Now Agent is a pretty complex program and it has many little tricks which many people never use because they don't realize that it can do them.

One such trick is the ability to launch your web browser and retrieve a Usenet post from Google's Usenet archive. This can be useful for older topics where you want to see the whole discussion as it happened.

Setting it up is a five step process:

  1. Under the Tools | Options menu item choose URL and MIME Settings | URL Types and select news:Usenet News as your URL type.

  2. Check the following items:

    • Enable highlighting and launching

    • Remove URL prefix when launching

    • Use custom settings (below)

  3. Click Browse and point Agent to your web browser. Not every web browser works nicely with Agent to launch itself and go exactly where Agent tells it to go. Firefox works perfectly, Chrome does not. I haven't tried this trick with recent versions of Opera or Internet Explorer but based on previous experience, I would expect them to work.
  4. Check Use DDE. Use the message,"%1"
  5. Fill in the other DDE settings:

    • Application: Firefox (or whatever the name of the browser happens to be)

    • Topic: WWW_OpenURL

    • Method: Request

From here on, every time you double-click on the Message-ID of a Usenet post in Agent, Firefox will open a Google search for that message and go directly to it.

This kind of Google integration has been available in Agent for years and it's a good thing because Google's own Usenet newsreader is pretty bad as is its search function. Luckily, there are a number of tricks which can be used for searching Google for old Usenet topics. One of the nicest, most overlooked features of Firefox is its Keywords feature which allows you to save a custom search template and then invoke it directly from Firefox's address bar. I have a number of keyword searches for Google's newsgroup archive.

Both of the searches below can be bookmarked and used to search for a specific Message-ID. Basically, they run the above trick I use with Agent directly from Firefox's address bar.
The following search is a little more practical:
It searches Google's Usenet archive for any term just like a search from Google's search box. Adding the following term &as_drrb=b to that causes a snazzy set of drop down boxes to appear which allow you to narrow your search to a specific set of dates
Google's newsgroup URL can be customized with a wide variety of terms for saving a custom search. A full list of these terms is here.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

What Will It Be Like to Have a Black President?

FARK takes a look at that question with this classic Richard Pryor clip:

Election 2008 In Photoshop

As the election draws to a close, I thought I'd post some of the many photoshop pictures that I've collected )mostly on FARK because it's so much easier to post a bunch of silly pictures than to make cogent, logical arguments to justify your political opinions.

From the hard fought primaries:

A charismatic young leader emerges on one side:

And a grizzled veteran on the other:

And the election had begun in earnest:

Most of the 'shops were pretty geeky:

Others were tailored to the headlines and sound bites of the day:

Some of the 'shops were truly elaborate:

Not all of the funny images were photoshops, some were just unfortunate:

Going negative:

But in the end, a final winner had to emerge:

Mars Phoenix Speaks

NASA has been posting first person accounts of the Mars Phoenix lander's mission via Twitter for some time now. It's basically the only reason why I got a Twitter account—in order to follow Phoenix. It's cool and sometimes even poignant to receive these little messages from Mars. Now, nearing the end of its life, the Phoenix Lander saying goodbye as a "guest blogger" on Gizmodo.

Now another NASA mission, New Horizons is jumping on the Twitter bandwagon as it makes its way to Pluto. If nothing else, it seems like a great way to get young people interested in science.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Ben Affleck Versus A Total Unknown

It's pretty common for people to say that Saturday Night Live is no longer funny. The truth is that SNL has always been wildly uneven in quality and today's SNL is about as funny and unfunny as it has ever been. But I did notice in an interesting thing in Allen Sepinwall's review of last night's show. He mentions a skit done by a guy I've never heard of which he enjoyed much more than a similar skit done by Ben Affleck last night. Both skits make fun of Keith Olbermann, MSNBC's sportcaster turned pundit turned professional Bill O'Reilly puncher. Affleck's skit builds slowly from a dull start to a funny over-the-top finish. The unknown guy's skit is much shorter but I think that it is much funnier overall. That is SNL's biggest problem in my opinion, in order to fill the show's ninety minute running time, they tend to pad out their skits causing them to run way too long. 

Here are the two skits.

First Ben Affleck's Olbermann:

And now the guy you've probably never heard of: