Wednesday, August 20, 2008

A World Without Walls or Fences (pt.3) — A Newbie's Guide to Installing Ubuntu

In the first two installments of this series I began many moons ago, I discussed alternatives to the Windows and Mac OS operating systems, and the differences between them. In this installment, we'll walk through the process of actually installing the Ubuntu distribution of the Linux operating system, including the option of installing it side-by-side with an existing installation of Windows.

Step 1: Preparation
Before you start, you'll need a few things. The first thing is an Ubuntu installation disc. You can download a disc image (i.e. an ISO file) from the Ubuntu website and burn it to a CD using Nero or similar disc burning software, or you can order an installation disc free of charge from Ubuntu. Make sure you get the proper installation disc for your computer. There are different versions for 32-bit Intel systems and 64-bit AMD and Intel systems. (Even if you have a Dual-Core processor that's capable of 64-bit processing, you may still want to go with the 32-bit installation, unless you plan on doing things like encoding video and compiling programs. There are still a few programs incompatible with 64-bit systems.) [EDIT: As of the beginning of 2009, I can say that 64-bit Ubuntu is as stable and as well-supported as the 32-bit version. If you have a 64-bit processor, I'd suggest taking full advantage of the hardware you purchased and install the 64-bit version.] You can also choose between the LiveCD, which lets you boot into Ubuntu from the CD to try it out without making any changes to your system, and the alternate install disc, which provides a non-graphical installer for systems incompatible with the LiveCD.

The second thing you need is, obviously, a computer. If you want to keep an existing installation of Windows, we'll need to do a bit of preparation before we can begin installing Ubuntu. Before you do anything else, back up your files!!! Installing a new operating system involves formatting drive space, which will permanently remove any information in the formatted space. Even if you plan on keeping your current Windows installation, it's a good idea to back up any files you don't want to risk losing.

We need to have at least 20GB disk space on the computer on which to install the new operating system. If you already have the space, or don't want to keep Windows, then the installation is going to be extremely easy. If not, then we're going to need to shrink your existing Windows partition, which means that the installation is only going to be moderately easy. If the case is the latter, defragment your hard drive before continuing, or you risk losing data.

Also, make sure you have a network cable handy, since you'll need an Internet connection to finish the installation, and you probably won't be able to use your wireless card to do so (if you have one). Go ahead and plug in the network cable now.

Step 2: Installation
Insert the Ubuntu installation CD in your disc drive, and reboot. At the POST screen — that's the one with the manufacturer's logo on it — you may need to press a key to open a boot menu to allow you to boot from the CD. It's probably something like F12, but differs by manufacturer.

If you're using the LiveCD, you will have the option of booting from the CD to try Ubuntu without making any changes to your computer. If you're the kind of person who would never think of buying a car without first taking a test drive, then this is probably a good idea. If you decide to boot into Ubuntu, you'll notice an icon on the desktop to begin installation, which will be no different than if you chose to install Ubuntu from the LiveCD menu.

If you're using the alternate install disc, you won't have the option of booting into Ubuntu from the disc, and the installer will be text-based. Don't worry — the installation process is the exact same as with the LiveCD. It just won't be as pretty.

Once you begin the installation, you'll be asked some basic questions about your computer, such as your language and keyboard layout. Answer all of the questions appropriately until you get to the point where it asks whether you want to use a guided or manual install. Choose the manual install. Here, you'll see a list of the drives and partitions currently on your system.

If you need to resize your Windows partition, select it and (in the LiveCD) drag the right side to your left to resize it and free up some disk space. (Doing this using the alternate install disc is slightly different, but not much more difficult.)

Select the drive, partition, or unallocated space where you want to install Ubuntu. If it is an existing partition, you'll need to delete it. Choose to create a new partition where we will install the operating system. This partition should be about 8-12GB, depending on how much software you plan to install. Take note that the size of a megabyte used by the installer is 1000000 (or 1000^2) bytes, rather than the more common 1048576 (or 1024^2) bytes, so if you want a 10GB partition, you should set the size as 10737MB instead of 10240MB. (Tip: Multiply the desired size in MB by 1.048576.) Use this partition as root ("/"), and format the partition as ext3.

Create a second partition equal in size to the amount of memory on your computer, and choose to use this partition as "swap".

Finally, create a third partition using the remaining unallocated space. Use this space as "/home", and format is as ext3.

Once you've created these three partitions, look at what you've done very carefully to make sure you haven't made any mistakes, because we're about to pass the point of no return. When you're sure you're ready, click Forward to continue the installation process.

On the next screen, you'll be asked for your name, username, password, and computer name. Fill in these boxes with whatever you want, but be sure you remember your username and password, since this is what you'll use to login to Ubuntu. On the next screen, you'll may be asked if you want to import any documents and settings from your Windows installation (if you're keeping Windows, of course). I personally prefer to manually transfer files and settings, but you can check the user account(s) listed if you want the installer to do it automatically.

Finally, you'll see a screen asking you to confirm all of the settings you've specified for your installation. Look over these, and if everything looks good, click Forward to begin the installation. Once the installer is done, which may take a while depending on the speed of your computer, you'll be prompted to remove the CD and reboot.

Step 3: Finishing Up
Once you reboot, you'll see a new screen, allowing you to choose the operating system you want to boot into. If you decided to keep an existing Windows installation, you should see entries for both Ubuntu and Windows. Boot into Ubuntu.

You may have nothing left to do at this point, but more than likely you'll need to install drivers for your video card and wireless card (if you have one). You may see a popup window in the upper-right corner of the screen that says something about "restricted drivers". If so, click on the icon to open the restricted driver manager, and check the box next to the video driver to install it. You'll need to reboot for the change to take effect.

If you have a wireless card, but aren't able to use it, you'll have to install the Windows driver for your wireless card. The only hard part about this is actually finding the driver. If your computer was made by Dell, Gateway, or another major manufacturer, you should be able to locate and download the wireless driver for your computer. Otherwise, you'll need to Google your wireless card to find the driver. Once you have downloaded the driver, open it using Archive Manager. (Even if it's a .exe file, it's still a self-extracting .zip archive, and can be opened using Archive Manager.) Now go to the menu on the upper-left of your screen and select System->Adminitration->Synaptic Package Manager. This is the big brother of Add/Remove Programs. Click the Reload button to update your package list, and then search for "ndis-gtk". Click the box next to the ndis-gtk package to mark it for installation, then click the Apply button to install the program. Now go to System->Administration->Windows Wireless Drivers, click the Install New Driver button, locate the wireless driver (the .inf file) you downloaded, and click Close. After another reboot — possibly the last you'll ever actually need to do — you should be able to use your wireless card.

Congratulations! You've now installed Ubuntu!

Next Time: Installing the bells and whistles

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Beach, Barbeque, and a Good Book

It's now well into the summer, and the 4th of July weekend is rapidly approaching. If you're like me, you'll probably want to spend at least part of your vacation relaxing on the beach or by the pool with a good book or two. Here are a few suggestions for light Summer reading to get you started. Just remember one thing — wait at least 30 minutes after eating before diving into your book (and make sure to wash your hands, especially if you've been eating barbecued ribs).

  • Storm Front (The Dresden Files, Book 1)
  • by Jim Butcher — Harry Dresden isn't your typical private investigator. His cases tend to be a bit more interesting than following a cheating spouse, and when he runs afoul of the bad guys, he's less likely to be shot than eaten. If you need to hire him, he's in the phone book — the only listing under "Wizards". Imagine Thomas Magnum wearing a leather duster instead of a Hawaiian shirt, driving a well-abused VW Beetle instead of a Ferrari, throwing fireballs instead of punches, and living with a sex-crazed talking skull named Bob instead of a verbose Brit named Higgins, and you might start to get a feel for Harry Dresden. The Dresden Files is an excellent urban fantasy series, with just the right mix of action, drama, humor, and horror (since the bad guys are often evil sorcerers, vampires, werewolves, dark faeries, and even mobsters). Storm Front is the first in the series, which is currently on its 10th installment. Each novel is fairly self-contained and can be read on its own, though I recommend reading them in order — Butcher is very good with character development, and the Harry Dresden you meet in Small Favor, the most recent novel in the series, is not quite the same man as the Harry Dresden first introduced in Storm Front.
  • Odd Thomas by Dean Koontz — In the last few years, Dean Koontz has gone from an author I tended to avoid to one of my favorites, and a lot of that is due to the Odd Thomas novels. Odd is a fry cook in the desert town of Pico Mundo, California, who has two very special gifts. First, he makes exceptionally delicious pancakes. Second, he can see dead people. The latter tends to put him in some very peculiar and sometimes deadly situations. Despite the numerous tragedies he experiences, Odd approaches life with hope, humor, and — most of all — humility. One of the most unique protagonists I've encountered, Odd Thomas is simply enchanting. While technically horror, the Odd Thomas novels are humorous, inspiring, and highly entertaining.
  • The Hollow Chocolate Bunnies of the Apocalypse by Robert Rankin — A serial killer is loose in Toy City (formerly Toy Town), and the old nursery rhyme characters are being killed one by one. To make matters worse, Detective Bill Winkie (who dropped the nickname "Wee Willy" years earlier), the one man who might be able to sort out the mystery, has gone missing. It's up to Bill's partner — an alcohol-soaked teddy bear named Eddie — and a newcomer to the city named Jack to track down the killer. If that sounds even mildly interesting to you, then you should really consider picking up this book. Don't think that because it's about toys and nursery rhyme characters that ...Bunnies... is a kid's book. This is a darkly humorous fairy tale, in which all of the characters you think you know are a bit twisted. Jill, for example, works at a brothel owned by Mother Goose, while Little Miss Muffet hosts a daytime talk show (appropriately called "The Tuffet"). Gratuitous sex and violence contrast absurdly (and perfectly) with the setting, resulting in a hilarious and action-packed story full of plenty of twists and turns, including a mind-bending finalĂ© that I guarantee you won't see coming.
  • The Android's Dream by John Scalzi — When a human diplomat murders his alien counterpart with a well-aimed fart, an underachieving State Department employee is tasked with locating a rare sheep in order to avoid interstellar war. If you think that sounds like the setup for an outrageous slapstick comedy, you'd be absolutely wrong. Scalzi does inject more than the usual share of humor into The Android's Dream, but despite it's ridiculous premise it's actually a very solid sci-fi adventure. Scalzi has been favorably compared to Robert Heinlein for his earlier novels, but The Android's Dream feels a bit like the bastard offspring of Heinlein and Doug Adams. The result is incredibly entertaining. Actually, I bought this book yesterday with the intention of taking it with me to the beach this weekend, but made the mistake of reading a bit over lunch. Since I finished it around midnight, I guess I'll need to go back to the bookstore tomorrow to find something else to read at the beach...

Monday, June 9, 2008

45 Forever? I Can Handle That...

While the predictions of futurists can be a bit hit-or-miss (hence the cry "Where's my flying car?!"), some end up being pretty close. Ray Kurzweil has a good enough track record for the National Academy of Engineering to publish his sunny forecast for solar energy, and I'm certainly hoping his most recent round of predictions, discussed in this recent New York Times article, is as accurate as his 1989 prediction that by 1998 a computer would beat a World Chess Champion (since IBM's Deep Blue defeated Garry Kasparov 1997).

Ray has predicted, among other things, that in another 15 years, human life expectancy will rise each year faster than we age. That sounds to me that as long as I don't manage to get myself killed in the meantime, I can be 45 forever — which doesn't sound terribly bad, actually. (Of course, the other alternative to continue growing older but never dying, until we're all nothing but shriveled, wrinkly things with no hair except what grows out of our huge ears and noses, which is a somewhat less attractive proposition...) Ray also predicts a technological Singularity sometime in the middle of this century — which any fan of Charles Stross, Vernor Vinge, Iain M. Banks, or Dan Simmons knows sounds pretty sweet.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Bridging the Gamer Generation Gap

After a short hiatus, WYSIWYB is back on the air— or wire, depending. So what's brought me out of hiding? A rather odd announcement from my mother.

My mom, who is a year or so shy of 60, announced today that she's getting a Wii. It's not really news that the Wii has shown itself appealing to non-traditional gamers because of its innovative controllers and accessible games. But this is my mother! The last game I remember her playing for her own personal enjoyment (rather than to placate my nephew) was Breakout on our old Atari 2600 in the early 80s. Apparently, someone told her about Wii Fitness (which is set to be released in North America on May 21), and she figured that it would be cheaper to buy a Wii than to get a gym membership, and she'd be more likely to use it.

I still favor the PS3, as it's an all-around entertainment system rather than just a gaming console — though I'm sticking to my PS2 until the prices for the PS3 drop a bit more — but WYSIWYB may be seeing some Wii game reviews in the near future...

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Hulu: My Newest Bookmark

For those of you who haven't heard, there's a new Web site on the block called Hulu, and it's definitely worth a look.

From Reuters:

Hulu, the online video joint venture of News Corp. (NWS) and General Electric's (GE) NBC Universal, makes its public debut Wednesday with programming from Warner Bros., Lionsgate (LGF) and sports leagues.

At launch, Hulu will offer full-length episodes of more than 250 TV series, from current hits such as The Simpsons to older shows such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer. It also will offer 100 movies, including The Big Lebowski and Mulholland Drive.

While some of the movies and televisions series listed on the site are only partial clips, there are enough full movies and episodes to keep a videophile amused for weeks. The quality is surprisingly good, and while you "pay" for the videos by having the videos interrupted occasionally by un-skippable commercials, from what I've seen they are both infrequent and short, especially when compared to the commercial breaks on American television networks.

Not to be outdone, Google has announced some new developments in store for YouTube that suggest that it might not be long before we're streaming our favorite movies and television episodes from the world's most popular video site.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

10 Best / Most Useful Firefox Extensions

It's no secret I'm a fan of Mozilla Firefox, and one of it's most useful features, in my opinion, is the ability to add functionality through the use of extensions. In the past several years, I've found quite a few extensions that either are extraordinarily useful under certain circumstances, or else so much a part of my browsing experience that I can't imagine surfing the Web without them. So for your edification (and my own convenience, since I'm finding myself installing Firefox fairly often recently), here is my list of the 10 most useful Firefox extensions.

10. Stop-or-Reload Button — This simple extension simply combines the Stop and Reload buttons so that only the relevant button is visible. Not only does it save space, it's great for compulsive clickers, such as young children, who might prevent a page from loading by repeatedly clicking the Reload button in the hope of making it load faster.

9. ProCon Latte — ProCon Latte is a must-have extension for any parent! ProCon Latte is a content filter for Firefox, which prevents unwanted Web pages from loading based on both the site's URL and the site's content. It can also block all Web sites except those explicitly added to a whitelist. The extension is password-protected to prevent determined children from simply changing the settings. ProCon Latte isn't perfect — currently, it can still be disabled from the Add-ons menu, and on the highest settings it may block acceptable Web sites — but it's still incredibly useful. Of course, this extension doesn't prevent kids from browsing to naughty sites using IE, but parents can put a stop to that by disabling IE in Windows by going to Set Program Access and Defaults and unchecking "Enable access to this program" next to IE. Of course, your kids should be using a limited account which would prevent them from changing this setting, as well as other undesirable things such as indiscriminately downloading and installing malware- and virus-laden programs. The issue of using the Add-ons menu in Firefox can be avoided by using another handy extension, Menu Editor, to simply remove that option from the Tools menu.) While ProCon Latte is no substitute for more comprehensive parental control software, it's a good start.

By the way, if ProCon Latte doesn't provide enough control over your kids' Web browsing, you may want to look into another extension, Glubble Family Edition. Glubble uses a Web service to allow parents to control exactly which sites the kids are allowed to view. I prefer ProCon Latte both because it doesn't require a (albeit free) registration to a Web service, and because Glubble dramatically changes the way you browse the Web.

8. Web Developer — This extension isn't terribly useful for anyone but Website developers, but for them it's definitely a must-have extension. The Web Developer toolbar provides easy access to numerous tools to make developing Web pages considerably easier, including the ability to resize the browser window to simulate how the page will appear on different screen resolutions, the ability to disable various aspects of the page such as CSS and JavaScript, the ability to open a page's source code in an editor of your choice, and links to submit a page to W3C validation services.

7. QuickProxy — If you have a laptop that you carry between home and either school or work, and one or the other is behind a proxy, you know how tedious it is to constantly be changing Firefox's proxy settings. QuickProxy allows you to switch between different proxy settings with a single click. While other extensions, particularly FoxyProxy, provide many more features, the sheer simplicity of QuickProxy makes it much more attractive in my opinion.

6. Image Zoom — One of the few downsides of newer high-resolution monitors is that they make everything look small. While Firefox makes it relatively simple to increase the text size of Web pages, it doesn't provide any means of doing the same for images. That's where Image Zoom comes in handy. With a simple click on the context menu or a roll of your scroll wheel, you can easily increase or decrease the size of any image on a page.

5. IE Tab — Unfortunately, there are still a few clueless Web developers out there who assume that everyon uses IE, and design their sites accordingly. While rare, it is a continual annoyance to us Firefox users to have to open up IE just to view these sites. IE Tab alleviates this annoyance by allowing you to open a Web page with IE, but within a Firefox tab. With IE Tab, it's even possible to open and use Windows Update using firefox!

4. FoxyTunes — If you're like me, you like to listen to music while surfing the Web, which means you probably have to switch back and forth between Firefox and your media player. With FoxyTunes, you can control your media player from within Firefox! The simple controls are compatible with numerous media players including WinAmp, iTunes, Pandora, Windows Media Player, Musicmatch, XMPlay, MediaMonkey, Media Player Classic, Real Player, XMMS, Noatun, Amarok, Rhythmbox and many others.

3. Tab Mix Plus — This extension provides much-needed enhancements for two of Firefox's best features: tabs and sessions. With Tab Mix Plus, you can control almost every conceivable aspect of your tabs, from the size of the tabs, to the options available in tab context menus, to whether or not your Bookmarks open in a new tab. You also get a session manager that is considerably better than Firefox's built-in session manager, which offers more options and even the ability to recover from a crash! I consider this a necessity for everyone, if only for the session manager.

2. DownThemAll! — One of the weaker features of Firefox is its rather simple download manager, which is lacking many features you'd expect of a modern download manager, including the ability to queue downloads. DownThemAll! is a full-featured download manager fully incorporated into Firefox. With DownThemAll!, you can not only queue your downloads, pause and resume downloads, and continue partial downloads, but you can also download all links or images on a page with a single click. DownThemAll! also increases download speeds by better utilizes your bandwidth with multi-part downloads. For those who prefer to use stand-alone download managers, you may want to look into FlashGot instead.

1. Adblock Plus — The uncontested #1 best Firefox extension, Adblock Plus is such an integral part of my browsing experience that using a Web browser without this extension is truly jarring. Adblock Plus does exactly what you'd expect from the name — it blocks ads. Adblock Plus uses a blacklist to block advertisements from known ad services and providers, and you can easily add to this list either manually or with a simple click on an offending item. This extension is great for anyone — it's truly amazing how much more pleasant browsing can be without being constantly assaulted from all sides by intrusive advertisements — but it's particularly useful for parents (since many ads may contain adult content) or for individuals with slower Internet connections, since Adblock Plus doesn't simply prevent items from being displayed, but prevents them from being downloaded at all, noticeably improving page load times. I really can't say enough good things about this extension, so try it for yourself!

Honorable Mentions — In addition to the additional extensions I mentioned while discussing my top 10, here are a few more that didn't quite make the list for one reason or another, but are nonetheless worth a look.

FasterFox — FasterFox allows you to tweak certain of Firefox's network settings to speed up browsing. It also has an optional pre-fetching feature that silently loads and caches all of the links on the page you are browsing, so that if you browse to one of those links, the page will be displayed much faster. This didn't make my list for two reasons. First, while I haven't personally experience this, some people have reported that FasterFox inexplicably made Firefox slower rather than faster. Second, some sites don't like pre-fetching, and will give you an error message if you browse to such a site. While such sites are few and far between, and disabling FasterFox's pre-fetching feature isn't difficult, it's still a bit of an annoyance.

Tab Preview — Tab Preview displays a thumbnail of a tab when you mouse over the tab on the tab bar. You have quite a few options available such as setting the size of the preview thumbnail, and overall it's a pretty nifty extension. It didn't quite make my top 10 list because I simply don't think it's that useful. Sure, the preview thumbnails are nice, but takes almost as long for the preview to display as it would to switch to the tab, somewhat defeating the purpose of the preview. If the preview displayed a bit faster, it would probably make my top 10.

ChromaTabs or ColorfulTabs — Some people may question why Stop-and-Reload Button made my list, but either of these arguably more useful extensions didn't, and it's a reasonable question. ColorfulTabs colorizes tabs in the tab bar to make it easier to distinguish separate tabs, while ChromaTabs takes this on step further and sets specific colors for different Web sites. Both extensions make it simple to distinguish between multiple tabs at a glance. The problem is that both of these extensions have known compatibility problems with some themes, as well as some extensions that modify tabs, such as Tab Mix Plus. I can't in good conscience recommend extensions that may conflict with each other. Stop-or-Reload Button conversely doesn't have any such compatibility problems, and is so simple and elegant that it seems like it should be an option integrated into Firefox. However, if you aren't using Tab Mix Plus (which I do highly suggest) or any other extensions that modify tabs, you may want to look into one of these.

Nuke Anything Enhanced — This is another extension that almost made the list, and only didn't because it's only useful in certain situations (though in those situations it's incredibly useful). Nuke Anything Enhanced adds the option "Remove this object" to the context menu which causes an element of the page to not be displayed. Unlike Adblock Plus, this is only temporary, and the object will again be displayed, which means this extension is most useful in removing unwanted objects from a page before printing. If removing objects were more permanent, this would definitely have knocked Stop-or-Reload Button out of the #10 spot.

Firefox Environment Backup Extension (FEBE) — This extension is potentially quite useful. It makes regular backups of your bookmarks, preferences, extensions, themes, passwords, and cookies, so they can be easily restored or transferred to another machine. Unfortunately I've had a few problems with this extension. It does fine backing up extensions and themes, but while it seems to back up other information such as passwords and preferences, I have yet to get it to successfully restore that information. Considering that the point of this extension is data backup and recovery, the unreliability in restoring backup information is, in my opinion, a fatal flaw. If the bugs are ever worked out, this would easily move up to the middle of my list.

Noia 2.0 (eXtreme) &mdash This only reason that this didn't make my list is that it's not an extension! This is probably the most pleasant and attractive theme for Firefox I've seen. Others may have a nice layout, or an attractive icon set, or a good color scheme, but this one has it all. Unlike a few other themes, I haven't encountered any compatibility problems with any extensions. Noia is, without a doubt, my personal favorite theme available for Firefox.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Is Firefox 3 User-Friendly?

In a recent blog post, Firefox 3 UI designer Alex Faaborg revealed the latest designs for the Firefox 3 icons. While I suppose they're pretty enough, I'm not entirely sold on the user interface design.

Firefox 3's interface departs from the traditional Firefox interface in several small but significant ways, and not, in my opinion, for the better.

For one thing, they are using a keyhole design for the Forward and Back buttons. Is the Back button really so much more important than the Forward button that it deserves to be almost twice as large? I'm not sot sure. I'm also concerned about the history menu button. The new history menu button, located to the right of the small Forward button, looks like it's already depressed, which breaks a fairly basic rule of UI design: if something is clickable, make it look clickable. It also seems like the Forward and Back history menu buttons have been consolidated into this single menu button, which is bound to be confusing for many users. If I want to go three pages back, why do I click the small button (which already looks clicked) next to the Forward button?

I also question the logic behind moving the Home button from the Navigation bar to the Bookmarks toolbar. I don't think most people think of their Homepage as a glorified bookmark. I personally consider it more as a starting point for browsing — an actual "home" page. I use Google for my homepage (which I think is a fairly common choice), and so I use the Home button fairly often. I also don't use the Bookmarks toolbar, since I would rather use the extra real estate for the web page. For me — and, I think, for many other people as well — the Home button is conceptually better suited for the Navigation bar. If it is relegated to the Bookmarks, why have a separate "home" bookmark at all?

If the Firefox 3 team is so concerned about conserving space — which is the only reason I can think of for using the crowded keyhole configuration for the navigation buttons and for moving the Home button off of the Navigation bar — then a better solution would be to consolidate the Stop and Reload buttons. You can't Stop a page that has already loaded, and it's only logical that to Reload a page that you'd have to Stop if from loading first. Consolidating the Stop and Reload buttons based on the current status of the page just makes sense... but it could also improve usability, which I doubt is true of the design choices being made by the Firefox 3 team. By swapping the Stop and Reload buttons depending on the status of the page, the browser provides additional feedback to the user, and prevents the user from taking counter-productive actions such as frantically clicking the Reload button in a futile attempt to make a page load faster — a mistake commonly made by inexperienced Web users.

I suspect the Firefox 3 team might be falling into the same trap made by other software designers, and are trying to make their product look like other similar products on the market so that their product looks new and modern. The problem is that in doing that, you're assuming that the original product has a well-designed user interface. Otherwise, you're simply copying others' mistakes. Firefox 3 unfortunately looks quite a bit like IE7, which is only good for IE7 users who move to Firefox. The changes to the IE7 interface don't necessarily add to the user experience, and neither will those changes being made for the Firefox 3 interface. The Firefox 3 team needs to focus more on the usability rather than the aesthetics of the interface.

On the other hand, we can always install custom themes. It's just a shame if we feel like we need to do so to overcome the poor design of the default interface.

Sunday, February 3, 2008

Hybrids, shmybrids...

So I'm watching the Superbowl — more for the commercials than for the game — and I see a commercial praising the virtues of the GMC Yukon hybrid. Wow. For an extra $20,000, you can get 21 mpg in the city instead of 14 mpg. I can't express how frustratingly idiotic that is.

All of the Presidential candidates have been talking about "energy independence" and a few have actually mentioned alternative energy sources. And hybrids are a step in the right direction. I have one myself — a Honda Insight, which I absolutely love, and which gets about 50 mpg — but they are only a band-aid solution. Yet automobile manufacturers by and large seem to be focused on producing hybrids to the exclusion of other, better, solutions. Now we have a hybrid Yukon. What's next, hybrid school buses? Hybrid dump trucks? The usefulness of a hybrid vehicle is completely lost on large, heavy gas-guzzlers. A hybrid Yukon is little more than a balm to the egos of wealthy idiots who don't really care about the environment but feel that they should. So now they can drive their huge SUV beast and still brag to their wealthy idiot friends that they care about the environment because they drive a hybrid, even though they could do better by driving a non-hybrid minivan or sedan.

If we want to really help the environment, and truly become energy independent, we as a society need to demand that auto makers seriously devote themselves to the development of hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles, grid-powered electric vehicles, as well as the infrastructure to support them. We need more and better public transportation (even — or especially — if it is actually produced by the private sector), and we as a society need to actually utilize it.

And we need to realize how dumb the idea of a hybrid Yukon really is.

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

The end of privacy?

A recent AP article discusses the future of RFID technology — a future in which the products you buy inform the government or companies of your movements and shopping habits.

Forget the omnipresent cameras and microphones imagined by Orwell. In this brave new world, even the clothes you wear are spies for Big Brother. Sure, I'm as intrigued about some of the potential applications of RFID technology as anyone — after all, who doesn't want a smart home that customizes the lights and music for you as you walk from room to room? But the potential abuses of pervasive RFID technology are legitimately scary. It's not paranoia if you are constantly being watched.

I'm thinking that portable RFID scanners might become a hot gift item. I'll certainly be investing in one if RFID technology becomea as popular as discussed in the article, if only so I can locate and remove all of the tags in my clothes.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

You don't have to be American to be an idiot

I think this article from the BBC speaks for itself... Just because a group of people have restrictions on eating pork doesn't mean they would be offended by the use anthropomorphic pigs in children's stories — unless they were enticing the children to eat them, I suppose, but that would be a whole new level of weird. I also noticed that none of the officials mentioned in the article seemed concerned that they might offend their Jewish citizens, even though they have similar prohibitions against consuming pork.

They may have more interesting accents, but government officials in the UK aren't necessarily any brighter than their American cousins.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

New on My Bookshelf

With the end of the fall semester, I suddenly found myself with quite a bit more time to devote to my first love, reading, and in the past month I've devoured a sizable stack of novels. A few of those were surprisingly good, and a couple were the the best I've read in quite a while. So if you're looking for something to read in the new year, here are my suggestions.

  • World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War by Max Brooks — Brooks made a name for himself with The Zombie Survival Guide. His return to the world of the living dead is a decidedly moreserious and satirical offering than his previous parody. Written in a documentary style consisting of interviews of individuals who survive a zombie pandemic in the near future, World War Z should be on your reading list even if you don't ordinarily like the zombie-horror genre. Brooks uses the premise to examine (and take some wry jabs at) many facets of the modern world, including world politics, religion, philosophy, psychology, racial and cultural stereotypes, the cult of celebrity, pop culture, and the strengths and failings of the human heart.

  • Ilium by Dan Simmons — I've been somewhat apprehensive about this novel even though it's been on my list for quite a while, primarily because all of the reviews I've read talk about it's references and allusions to literary greats such as Homer, Shakespeare, and Proust. In my experience, I've found most of novels hailed by critics for their literary qualities to seem a bit pretentious, as if they were intended to display of the author's knowledge of literature and mastery of the language rather than to entertain and engage the reader. So I was delighted to discover that while Ilium is indeed amazingly literate and intelligently written, it is also an incredibly enjoyable read. Any fan of science fiction authors like Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein, Charles Stross, or Alastair Reynolds should find something to love about this book, but it should also appeal to history buffs or anyone who enjoys the sword-and-sandals action such as seen in the movie 300 (as a significant portion of the novel revolves around the Trojan War as described in Homer's Iliad). A minor warning, however: Ilium ends with a quite dramatic and extremely satisfying cliffhanger, and is concluded in Simmons' Olympos.