Saturday, May 30, 2009

Too Many People Want a Piece of Firefox These Days

Boing Boing Gadgets links to a Washingpost blog which complains about Microsoft quietly installing a Firefox extension without permission. This isn't the first time that this has happened. While I like AVG Antivirus, they have been installing their own Firefox extension for quite some time. As with Microsoft, they do this without permission, probably on the idea that they are doing it for the user's own good. But this is a troubling trend. One of the reasons that I use Firefox in the first place—indeed the reason most people probably use Firefox—is because of the degree of customizability and control that is allows. When companies decide that they can install extensions on their users computers willy-nilly, that is a bad thing. They are essentially telling their users, "We know better what's good for you." It erodes trust and quite frankly I'm not even sure that it is legal. Firefox afterall is made by an independent company, they are not owned by Microsoft or by AVG Technologies. So my question is, aren't these companies acting like virus writers when they do this and potentially opening themselves up to a lawsuit? If so, it would probably serve them right.

Finally Got Cupcake

T-Mobile G1 (HTC Dream)Image by Aaronage via Flickr

My T-Mobile G1 finally got the over the air update from T-Mobile about an hour ago today. The changes are subtle but welcome, prettier icons and refined colors which nice use of shading and 3D effects—particularly in the notification and launcher drawers. The locked screen now displays the usual carrier, time, and date information on top of your wallpaper instead of over a black background. In the phone application, the Call log, Contacts, and Favorites items look a little better and are slightly better organized. Adding and editing contacts has always been fairly clunky on the G1 and the Edit dialog box addresses this problem by adding plus and minus buttons which allow you to quickly add and remove information which was previously buried under sub-menus.

The most noticeable additions would seem to be the virtual keyboard and voice search. The virtual keyboard works about as well as you would expect, which is to say not particularly well but it's nice to have it for quickly entering a few characters without opening the G1's physical keyboard. Voice search has mixed results at best, a search for "palm pre" was interpreted as "palm tree" and "cancrete" while searches for "t-mobile" and "sprint" were interpreted correctly.

One nice improvement is the improved use of the G1's accelerometer. Before, the only way to get the G1 to switch from portrait to landscape mode was by opening the keyboard. The web browser also had a menu item for switching the orientation. Now, with Cupcake, there is a global system setting which allows the G1 to flip its screen orientation automatically in most applications when you physically rotate the phone. This is great for the web browser but does not work with the desktop or the dialer (it does however work when editing contacts). While the automatic orientation switching is a fraction of a second slower than opening the keyboard, it is far more convenient.

It's still too soon to say if this new system software makes the G1 any faster or more stable but the improvements it brings are definitely welcome and make the T-Mobile G1 a better phone.

Update: I just discovered another great feature brought by the Cupcake update. The browser has now enabled copy and paste. Hit the "Menu" key and select "More." Then tap on "Select text." Highlight the text you want to copy and it will automatically be copied to the clipboard. Outstanding!
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Wolfram Alpha—For Times When Google Isn't Nerdy Enough

There has been some talk about a new search engine called Wolfram Alpha. Well, the search engine with the name of a Joss Whedon villain is finally public and it puts a decidedly different spin on Internet search than Google. Whereas Google will return a list of links for your search query, Wolfram Alpha treats it as a question and tries to supply answers to it. "Big deal," you say. "Ask Jeeves did that years ago and it sucked." Actually, Wolfram Alpha is very different in the way it supplies answers. Wolfram Alpha takes a strong mathematical/analytical bent. A quick query of this search engine using my birthdate tells me that among other things, I was born on a Saturday and that the moon was in a waxing gibbous phase. I also told that Bradley Schlozman, a politician whom I've never heard of and that Brian Stepanek, an actor whose name I find vaguely familiar share my birthdate.

Searching Google for the same date told me no such thing. For one thing, Google doesn't seem to recognize my dirthdate as a date. Instead it returns a lot of links of documents which have the numbers in my birthdate but don't necessarily correspond to that specific date. It also shows a Google Calculator equation showing that my birthdate adds up to -71. On the other hand typing the word "Buffy" into Wolfram Alpha returns nothing while Google returns numerous links full of information relating to Buffy: The Vampire Slayer. In a similar vein, putting the word "pants" into Wolfram Alpha just returns a definition and some interesting ways to display synonyms for that word while Google returns numerous links ranging from where to buy pants to pictures of pants. It begins with a Wikipedia article on the history of trousers and includes a link to something called "No Pants Day" which encourages people to not wear pants on the first Friday of May.

Moving on to more mathematical ground which is supposed to be Wolfram Alpha's strength has more interesting results that show off the relative strengths of both search engines. A search query for "2000 census" on Wolfram Alpha shows some nice graphs and tables of world population data. On Google, the results are more U.S. centric beginning with U.S. government's census website. It also includes a huge list of links to census data from various sources.

While it seems impossible for Wolfram Alpha to match the richness of Google's results, this new search engine seems more interested in finding a niche of providing quick answers to specific mathematical questions. While Google wants to rule the world, Wolfram Alpha has set its sights on a small group of nerdy researchers.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Random Tall Buildings in Chicago

Just some pictures of buildings that I took the other day....

Windows 7's Potentially Show-stopping Boot Up Problem

Boots in the windowImage by Mimi_K via Flickr

I have installed the Windows 7 Release Candidate on two computers now and for the most part, it works very well. But there is one very serious potentially show-stopping problem which I have encountered. I first installed the 64-bit version of Windows 7 on an old laptop with 32-bit Windows Vista. The first couple of times that I rebooted, the computer complained that "ntldr" was missing and would not boot up unless I inserted my Windows 7 DVD. This problem eventually went away and I dismissed it as a fluke. Then I installed it on another computer....

The story begins a few months ago when I tried to build a file server with Via's new Artigo 2000 box using 32-bit Windows XP Professional and two 2 Terabyte Western Digital hard drives. It was a pretty nice little machine but it just wasn't robust enough to handle moving thousands of little files across a network. It would crash from time to time and couldn't reliably transfer video files to my TiVos. So I decided to scrap the experiment and maybe try later with a dedicated server OS like FreeNAS. In the meantime, I still had a lot of files to move around multiple computers. So I rebuilt my Shuttle XPC with a dual core processor and 2GB of RAM. While I had used this computer as a file server before I hadn't been happy with the results and felt that it was overkill for just serving up files to other computers. Nevertheless I stuffed the two Western Digital drives in that box and installed the 64-bit version of the Windows 7 RC on it. The result was a very fast computer with 4TB of storage space that didn't crash when I used it to serve video to my TiVos.

Things went great with my new rig until Windows 7 decided that it needed to install updates and reboot. When it rebooted, the dreaded "ntldr missing" message reappeared and unlike with my laptop, it has stuck around for several reboots. Poking around the Internet, I saw that is happening to other people as well. I have tried several solutions but have yet to find one that works....Other than keeping my Windows 7 DVD in my CD drive during boot up.

Now perhaps this problem is my own fault for being careless but still it is a serious problem troubles me.
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Saturday, May 16, 2009

Useful Extensions for Bloggers

CNET has a list of Firefox extensions for blogging. I'm not sure I agree with every extension in their list. I'm not even done reading their list. This post is mostly an excuse for playing around with Scribefire, a blog editor from their list which looks pretty promising. I've never been very happy with the way that Blogger's editor handles images. Scribefire does a better job with images and is always available in Firefox. It looks like a keeper.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Warning: Some Readers May Be Blinded By The Obviousness

It may not be a huge revelation but camera phone cameras suck. But sometimes there is a moment when blindingly obvious points are driven home quite dramatically. For me that moment came between the time of 5:30 and 6:00 AM Central Standard Time. I was walking down the street minding my own business when I looked up and admired a beautiful blue sky dominated by an almost full moon hanging low in the sky. Surely, I had to record this beautiful sight....So I pulled out my T-Mobile G1 and pressed the camera button. And then the camera application crashed...again and again. And it kept either crashing or hanging until I reset my phone. This isn't all together surprising. The G1's Android operating system is normally quite stable but if it is not reset every few days, repeatedly running and quitting applications will cause memory leaks that leave digital bric-a-brac all over an Android phone's memory. Sooner or later, applications will start to trip over it. In my experience, the G1's camera app is particularly clumsy in this regard.

So I decided to try a little experiment. I grabbed my Treo 680, my G1, and a real camera—a Canon PowerShot SD770 IS Digital Elph (what a name)—and took a few pictures.

First the Treo 680. Yuck. In fairness to the 680, it was actually a pretty good camera phone for its time when used under the right conditions. But its VGA resolution makes it worthless for this particular job—taking a picture of a nearly full moon during early morning hours with plenty of light. These are actually pretty good conditions for taking pictures with the 680 but again, it's low resolution is its Achilles Heel.

Next up is the T-Mobile G1. With its three megapixel resolution it can actually capture and show the moon as a round white blob. Under certain conditions, the G1 can take great pictures. In fact most of the pictures on this blog have been taken with the G1. But it simply can't capture the beautiful details that the naked eye can see in an object as "small" as the moon.

Finally, the Canon with the long name, ten megapixel resolution, and wide variety of zoom options. The camera can't capture the amount of detail the human eye can see either but at least it begins to hint at it with subtle shades of gray and off white that stand out against the blue sky. It's no contest.

So much for digital convergence.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Windows 7's Quiet Problem With AVG

One of the nice things about Windows 7 is that it's notification system is a lot less in your face than Vista's notification system. This allows you to ignore things that seem minor to you but that nevertheless bother Windows. It also allows you to tackle problems at your own pace. One of the great historical annoyances of Windows XP and Vista is the way they through up a flurry of messages when you set up a new computer. This is especially the case with antivirus software.
Warning: This computer has no antivirus software.
Duh, I haven't installed it yet.
Warning: This computer's antivirus software is out of date. Duh, it's not finished installing yet.
And so on.

I have been using some version of AVG's free antivirus on my computers for years. But apparently Windows 7 doesn't like it because it is now throwing up this message:
"AVG Anti-Virus Free is on but it is reporting its status to Windows Security Center in a format that is no longer supported. Use the program's automatic updating feature, or contact the program manufacturer for an updated version."

This doesn't seem to be a huge problem to AVG is updating itself every morning and still seems to stop viruses from coming into my computer. While I do hope that AVG eventually gets around to fixing this problem but I am in no hurry. Windows just doesn't understand the messages it sends to it. On an earlier version of Windows this would lead to an endless stream of pop ups battling for your attention. On Windows 7, this leads to a flag in the taskbar which allows you to read all the messages Windows has for you. Much better and much more logical.

Update: AVG is apparently aware of the notification problem, has included it in their FAQ, and promises to fix it soon.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Star Trek: A Review of the New Movie

Note: This post contains significant spoilers for the new Star Trek film. Do not read it if you have not seen the movie and don't want to be spoiled.

Like a lot nerds, I saw the new Star Trek movie today. It was a watershed moment for the Trek franchise, rebooting forty years of television history. Having grown up on Star Trek, I found myself half eager and half dreading this film. I am not going to review this film as an impartial critic. I'm reviewing it as an abashed fanboy.

I got hooked on reruns of the original series when I was six. They are among my first memories. So it's hard for me to view Star Trek objectively. I watched the Star Trek movies but had to admit that even the best of them were often deeply flawed. I resisted Star Trek: The Next Generation when it first debuted but as the series improved I grew to embrace it as a worthy, albeit stuffy sequel to the original. I was more accepting of Deep Space 9 which I now regard as the best of the Star Trek spin-offs, a show which in many ways surpassed the original by testing Gene Roddenberry's original vision for the show in a setting which was far removed from the perfect paradise which he hoped Earth would evolve into.

And then the decline began. While I was hopeful for Star Trek: Voyager and gave it year after year to improve only to see year after year of abject mediocrity. Star Trek: Enterprise was much the same story except for the final season which saw some real improvement capped off by series finale which felt like a middle finger aimed straight at the faces the fans. The movies weren't much better with only First Contact standing out as a good film when the Next Generation crew took over the franchise from the original series players.

And that brings me J.J. Abrams' Star Trek. I've always seen his television work as hit and miss. I hated Felicity and never especially liked Alias even though I would dutifully give it a chance every season only to quickly get bored and tune out. On the other hand, I love Lost so I was hopeful that Abrams might be the man to rejuvenate Star Trek. And for at least this movie, that was exactly what has happened.

This new Star Trek movie isn't anything particularly deep. It is a rather straightforward rebooting of the franchise, wiping away the forty years of baggage that it has accumulated, and creating a new canvas. It's also a non-stop unapologetic thrill ride, using the plot to move smoothly along from one action set piece to the next with surprising efficiency.

The story begins with the starship USS Kelvin investigating what appears to be a thunderstorm in space. An enormous Romulan ship emerges from that storm and attacks the Kelvin. The Romulan commander demands that the captain come to his ship to negotiate a surrender. The captain puts his XO, George Kirk in charge. The Romulan Commander demands that Ambassador Spock be handed over to him. The captain has no idea who Ambassador Spock is and is murdered by the Romulan Commander. The Romulan ship attacks again. Kirk evacuates the ship and holds the off the Romulan ship as the crew, which includes his pregnant wife (who just happens to be in labor), escapes on shuttles. One of the last things Kirk hears before the Kelvin rams the alien ship and is destroyed is the birth of his son, James Tiberius Kirk.

We next see Jim Kirk in Iowa as a juvenile delinquent joyriding in his uncle's classic car which he sends off a cliff as he's being chased by a cop on a hover bike. On Vulcan, we see a very young Spock being taunted by Vulcan boys for being half-human. The stoic little boy is able to resist their taunts until they begin to talk about his mother which sets him off. As we see him grow, Spock emerges as a brilliant youngster who is accepted into the Vulcan Science Academy but elects to join Starfleet Academy instead. He does this in part because of the barely concealed contempt for his human side that he sees even in the Vulcan elders who accept him into the Vulcan Science Academy.

It makes for an interesting contrast, the stories of young Kirk and Spock. While Spock grows up pretty much as were told in the original series, Jim Kirk's childhood is a pretty major departure from the original series. We don't see a grim, focused "stack of books with legs" cadet in this movie. Instead we see a cocky bastard and juvenile delinquent who seduces girls (OK, Kirk did that a lot in the original series too) and starts bar brawls. It's only the influence of Captain Pike, who served with Kirk's father on the Kelvin and who makes a point to recruit Jim Kirk into Starfleet.

One consistency between the original series and this movie is Jim Kirk cheats on the Kobayashi Maru test re-programming the simulation so that it's possible to save the ship. In the movie it leads to tension with the young commander Spock as he's the one who originally programmed the Kobayashi Maru. As a committee meets to decide whether to punish Kirk for cheating, a distress signal comes from the planet Vulcan and all the senior cadets are sent to man the newly launched starships Enterprise and Farragut. Although Kirk is banned from going because of his academic suspension his friend, a young Bones McCoy, gives him a large dose of vaccine to simulate illness and uses as an excuse to take him along on the Enterprise. It's also an excuse for some extended comic relief as Kirk develops a severe allergic reaction.

There is also some more comic relief as a young Hikaru Sulu, excited by his first posting on a starship accidentally disables the Enterprise's warp drive. This is something of a contrivance as it allows the Enterprise to survive as no one realizes yet that the Vulcan distress signal is due to an attacking Romulan ship and not a natural disaster. So while seven other Federation ships are destroyed, Kirk has time figure out based on reports coming in from those ships that sound like what the crew of the Kelvin saw twenty-five years earlier before the Romulan attack. This feels rather contrived as you'd expect Captain Pike, who was an adult member of the Kelvin's rather than a fetus in the process of being born, to better remember the events of that day. Of course Kirk also has the advantage of having overheard a conversation between a young Uhura and her room mate (naturally, he was hiding under said room mate's bed after having slept with her) where she explains that she has just decoded a strange Romulan transmission. Kirk is able to put two and two together and figure out what is happening before anyone else. Which still feels very contrived.

But the plot must go on and we see the enormous Romulan ship drilling into the core of the planet Vulcan. They are about to dispatch the Enterprise when Nero, the Romulan Commander, notices ship's name and demands to see the captain. He also takes a moment to taunt Mr. Spock. It seems that Nero is from the future and has been waiting for twenty-five years to find Mr. Spock. Captain Pike puts Spock in command and is impressed enough by Kirk's quick thinking to make him XO. Because the Romulan ship's drilling platform is also jamming the ship's transporter, Pike boards a shuttlecraft with Kirk, Sulu, and a redshirt (a red jumpsuit actually but still one of many little callbacks to the original series which pepper this movie). The latter three must parachute from the shuttle and disable the drill while Pike tries to negotiate with Nero.

It all leads to a fairly thrilling but contrived scene where Kirk and Sulu must parachute onto the drilling platform (the red jumpsuit guy's parachute fails and he is incinerated by the drilling platform's randomly firing laser). It's a fast paced scene and it has to be because it is so contrived. Sulu remembers to bring a collapsible sword to fight and the crews lose their disrupter rifles when Kirk and Sulu attack which forces them to fight hand to hand. But the rifles remain on the platform instead of falling off the tiny platform because the guy who brought the explosives has been incinerated and Kirk and Sulu need the rifles to destroy the platform. They then fall together with the platform and are beamed up (Kirk's parachute fails and Sulu's was shredded when the landed on the platform) seconds before they hit the ground.

But this big, flashy action set piece is all for naught as the drilling platform has already successfully dug all the way to the planet's core. The Romulan ship deploys its main weapon, "Red Matter," a substance which can collapse to form a black hole which sinks to the planet's core and swallows it up. Vulcan will be destroyed in minutes. Spock beams down to rescue the Vulcan elders -- and his parents. He does rescue his father and the elders but his mother falls off a cliff and dies as he watches helplessly from the transporter beam.

The next scene on the Enterprise bridge is a mixture of exposition and confrontation. Because of the Romulan ship's technology and hot black hole on planetary core action, Spock believes that it is from the future and has created a new timeline. This is what the movie has been building to all along, the big reboot. Nero's actions have created a new timeline which justifies this reboot of the entire Star Trek franchise. Spock wants to return to the fleet for instructions and Kirk wants to follow Nero's ship and rescue Captain Pike. Things get tense enough that Spock has Kirk thrown off the ship and onto what appears to be an icy moon of Vulcan.

There he is attacked by a huge, hungry alien monster which is killed by an even huger, hungry alien monster which goes after Kirk. (Question: Why would the huger, hungry monster throw away the huge monster and go after Kirk? After all, if it's hungry wouldn't it be better to just eat the bigger meal?) Again, another contrived scene which moves fast enough so that you don't really think about it. More importantly it is a chance for Kirk to meet and be rescued by the original Mr. Spock, Leonard Nimoy, who explains Nero's motivation.

It seems that 129 years in the future and the entire galaxy is threatened by a supernova. One of the first planets that will be demolished by it will be Romulus, the Romulan home world. Ambassador Spock proposes to help by using Red Matter to create a black hole while will implode the star and stop if from exploding. (Roger Ebert in his review of Star Trek complained about Trek's unrealistic science and scenes like this really underline his point. Would it have killed the Abrams and his writers to do a little homework and make the science a little more realistic? Most people wouldn't notice but for a few geeks like myself, this would have been greatly appreciated.) But Spock's ship fails to deploy the Red Matter in time and Romulus is destroyed. Worse yet, Spock and Nero's ships are caught up in the wake of the black hole created by the Red Matter and sent back in time. They arrive in the past 25 years apart. Nero destroys the Kelvin and changes the timeline and waits for 25 years so he can capture Spock's ship and maroon him on the Vulcan moon so he can watch Nero destroy Vulcan.

Kirk and Old Spock catch a break as there is a Federation outpost on this moon which is manned by a young Montgomery Scott. Spock explains to Scotty that he will someday invent a way to transport onto distant ships moving at warp speed and in a callback to Star Trek VI: The Voyage Home (where Scotty meets the inventor of transparent aluminum and shows him the formula for making it) shows him the formula for doing so. He coaches Kirk in how to convince Spock that he is to emotionally compromised to continue in command and beams him and Scotty onto the Enterprise. More comic relief as Scotty materializes in the ship's cooling tubes and spends several minutes running around soaking wet.

On the bridge Kirk proceeds to antagonize Spock who remains stoic until Kirk brings up his mother. Spock proceeds to almost kill Kirk in a fit of rage that convinces him that he is to emotionally compromised to remain in command. It is all very reminiscent of This Side of Paradise, the original series episode where Spock is infected by mind controlling spores which cause him to and the cure is to bring out violent emotions, so Kirk taunts Spock until he nearly kills him.

Kirk takes command and decides to mount a rescue of Captain Pike. He and Spock beam onto the Romulan ship which looks like the inside of a decaying post-industrial Death Star (J.J. Abrams did say that he was always more of a Star Wars fan). There is a fairly straightforward battle as Kirk fights Romulans and rescues Pike while Spock steals back Old Spock's ship with its cargo of Red Matter which he flies out and uses to attack Nero's ship. He rams the ship into Nero's ship which sets off the Red Matter to create another black hole. Kirk, Pike, and Spock are all beamed out by the Enterprise and offer to help save Nero's ship. Nero refuses and his ship is engulfed by the black hole as the Enterprise makes a thrilling escape. There are a couple more scenes as Kirk is promoted to captain, taking the place of Pike who is in a wheel chair and has been promoted to admiral and Spock meets with Old Spock in a symbolic changing of the guard between the old cast and the new cast of Star Trek.

Overall, this was a very enjoyable movie. While I criticize it at times during this review, most of my problems with the movie didn't get in the way of my enjoyment, so it's all good for me. The new cast for the most part does a nice job of capturing and reinterpreting the original series characters. The only exception is Chekhov who is more of a parody of his original series character with a nearly impenetrable Russian accent. Sulu is a nice update of the original character whom we were always told was a good officer but who never had a chance to show it. Here he is able to fight and be a swashbuckler nicely even if he also does a few dumb things at times. Bones is a fairly good update as well, younger and more bitter than the original series model but at least we get a hilarious explanation of his nickname -- his ex-wife took everything but his bones in the divorce. Scotty is mostly a silly comic relief character here, it will be interesting to see if he gets more to do in future movies. Uhura is something of a revelation in this movie: smart, funny, and getting more to do than her original series character and sharing several steamy scenes with, of all people, Spock.

J.J. Abrams took great pains to assure people that casual viewers would be able to follow and enjoy this film. To my great relief, I found that rabid, life long Trekkies can enjoy it too.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Windows 7 Exploit is a Blast From the Past reports on a "new" exploit found by F-Secure. I put the word new in quotes because it's really a very ancient exploit. I remember when the first scripting viruses came out, they took advantage of two features in Windows. The first was the newly introduced Windows Scripting Host which allowed users to create little files full of commands which would control Windows—in much the same way that DOS batch files control DOS. They also took advantage of the fact that Windows by default hides the extensions of most of the files on your computer. Typically you would receive an email message with an attachment which was supposed to be a picture or a document and was in fact a script full of malicious commands.

This was ten years ago. And this exploit is still possible. At least back then, it was possible to tell that a script was not a real document because Windows would give it an icon which differed from the normal icon it would assign to a real document. For example, a Word document would get a Word icon while a script with fake .doc extension would get a Windows Scripting Host icon. Nowadays, it is more common to use an executable with a fake extension and a proper icon for the document that it purports to be. Of course it still has a second .exe extension which would normally be a dead giveaway save for the fact that Windows will by default hide that second extension, unwittingly helping you get hacked more easily.

Ten years. And Microsoft still won't fix this serious security problem because it supposedly makes your computer easier to use. One of the first things I do with a new computer is to open up the Computer (My Computer in XP and older versions of Windows) item and select Tools | Folder Options. Then I click on the View tab and uncheck everything that Microsoft normally hides. Pretty much everyone who knows something a little bit about computers should do this—it just makes sense.