You can kill the background for speed, if you wish.[x]

Friday, April 28, 2006

Computers != Magic

One phenomenon that I hate, and have recently seen grossly played out, is that on most TV shows/movies/radio shows/whatever, computers are portrayed as being magic. They can all of a sudden do anything, and read your mind as to how to do it. The comptuer has every software package known to man, and some that aren't, pre-installed and already running. A prime example:
The other day on Numb3rs, there was scene that contained example after example of horrific examples of this phenomenon. Some house blew up, and it turned out it belonged to a drug dealer/child abuser. Go figure. So they recovered a hard drive from the wreckage and sent it to the lab to scan it for data. Real enough.
So they cut to the lab. The tech says something to the effect of "I've got the hard drive hooked up to this computer; it's the same model that it came from." First red flag popped up. What? It's a hard drive. A hard drive's a hard drive's a hard drive. They've been the same practically since they were invented. It doesn't matter what system you plug it into, other than hardware barf, but if you're just recovering data, that *shouldn't* matter. But I figured, whatever, they can play it safe if they want.
Then the next sentence came. "It's not booting, so I'll have to open it up." WHAT? Rule one in recovering a hard drive: You don't try to boot it! Good gracious, people, throw it in as a secondary hard drive and try to read it. If just the boot-critical files were damaged and everything was fine, you would declare the hard drive a lost cause and open it up. That's just plain stupid! Even if it does boot, who knows what parts were knocked out that might be critical. And if you didn't have it in the same system (which they were, uh, prudent enough to do), it would do hardware barf.
So I barely recover from the shock and outcry of trying to boot a damaged hard drive, and the tech unscrews the cover (quite quickly and easily, I might add. Having taken a few hard drives apart in my time, it's not near that easy, but it's TV). She then takes her magic magnetic wand that looks like a blunt silver pencil with a black tip, and waves it over a small pie slice of the hard drive. I was amazed - I don't know what data recovery is really like, but that can't be how they do it. Considering data is stored in a spiral, waving the wand around a small pie slice is going to get a bunch of fragmented files.
Despite the technical impossibilities of the quick, brief, and random sweep, file names magically appeared on a console-like screen. First, I highly doubt they would be using a console, but I'll give them that. But I was again shocked that the simple wand could work so efficiently. Coming up with gobs of filenames from a single sweep? That's amazing!
Then it really went downhill. Charlie (the star) recognized a .jpg on the screen. That's fine, pictures are good. So he exclaims, "Look! JPEG!" To which the tech adeptly replies "Oh, that's probably a digital image." I was amazed by her technical prowess. Determining that a JPEG is a picture takes years of college and postgraduate study to fully comprehend.
So, using their magical program and the sparse data recovered from their magical wand, the tech opens up the picture. It turns out to be a house. Charlie babbles something about enhancing edges by tweaking the colors by negative one degree. It seemed somewhat plausible, but negative one degree kind of made me wonder. So he types half a line into his magical console that magically appeared, and the picture changes a tad. Indeed, edges seem more defined. Then he says, "What if I do this..." and types another half a line into the magical psychic command prompt. Magically, a picture of a girl (presumably the guy's victim) appears.
So I know that data can be hidden inside a picture, and pictures inside of pictures. Indeed, steganography is pretty cool. But to be able to reveal it that quickly, with that little effort, without knowing anything for sure about how it was encrypted/hidden, kind of seemed a little far-fetched. I'm no expert in the area, but it seemed quite impossible. Once they get the picture, they're all shocked for a minute and then get back to business of finding the guy and now the victim.

So there's my example. Don't get me wrong, I love Numb3rs and watch it regularly. It's a great show. I just used it as an example of this pervasive phenomenon because I remember it from last Friday's show so well, and it was so incredibly horrible. I know some readers will say, "It's TV, it's not supposed to be real." And I like some good fiction (War Games, anybody?). But when they pretend to be all techie and "wow, we're cool because we can do fancy stuff on our computers" and are way beyond any realm of reality, it bugs me. Another classic example for me is from Adventures in Odyssey, when a common misconception is demonstrated when a police officer bursts into the room and demands "The CPU and all the components." CPU is the processor (see my other rant). A chip and the mouse and keyboard won't do you much good. Leave all the good stuff - the hard drive, for instance? It's another good example of trying to be techie (it sounds cool), but failing miserably. Again, good show, bad computer reference. It's way too common, and I despise it.

Saturday, April 22, 2006

World Wind - Better than ever (which is pretty magnificent)

NASA World Wind, which I...*gasp!* *sputter!* *splutter!* I haven't! Well, let's fix that right now. I thought I had already blogged about World Wind, but I've only mentioned it! The horror!
Well, NASA World Wind is kind of like Google Earth. Only a lot better. As one of the contributors analogizes, Google Earth is like AOL - eye candy, seemingly user friendly, but in the end, pretty lame. World wind is like, oh, Firefox. Still pretty, maybe a bit less dumbed down, and incredibly more powerful, extensible, useful, and just better. Besides, both WW and FF (that's World Wind and FireFox) are open-source. Funny how this works, huh?
In its most basic form, World Wind is a 3-D globe. Grab it, move it, spin it, tilt it, look at your house (presuming you're in the US or lucky enough to be special other places), soar over the Alps, dive into Hell's Canyon, climb Mount St.'s super cool. And it's only getting better.
It's so much more, though. Not only can you look at the Earth, but you can crawl through Valles Marineris and scale Olympus Mons on Mars, gaze into Jupiter's red spot and survey its various moons, check out the landing sites of the Apollo missions on that rock we call the Moon, ogle our cousin planet Venus, gaze into the sky and zoom in on colliding galaxies with SDSS, and even cruise along the Death star!
The best part is how all of these extra planets came into existence. It was the community. People working together to make something they enjoy better, and then sharing it with the rest of us. That's what Open Source is all about. And with World Wind, the spirit is alive and thriving. World wind is incredibly extensible, through plugins and simpler add-ons. It has an awesome community behind it that it would be lost without. Thanks to the community, we have not only planets, but World wind can read GE's KML files and shape files. You can overlay your own images. You can measure to see how long your route walking to school is.
World wind is also more science/education oriented, than oriented to Joe Blow looking for his house. Several teachers are using World Wind to enhance their classroom and make it much less boring.
First, download World Wind. If you've got questions, or you want to look for add-ons, check out the forums, where many helpful volunteers (including me) are ready to answer your questions. The community-run site, World Wind Central is a great place to start your troubleshooting, and to browse the many add-ons that are avalaible.
So start your journey to a better Earth-viewing experience. As somewhat of an "insider" (which in Open-Source is anyone who wants to be), I can tell you that World Wind is far from idle. Things are moving, shaking, and turning upside down. Big things are happening. There is now a non-profit organization, the Free Earth Foundation sprung from World Wind to aquire and serve free images of the earth, Saturn, rumors of Google's Summer of Code, and cross-platform on the horizon. It'll be a wild and awesome ride, so hang on.

DOS Box: The classics are alive again!

Now, if you're like me (few people are, but I'm sure many share a few characteristics), you LOVED the old DOS games. Commander Keen, Prince of Persia, Bowling, Adventure/Colossal Cave, Tom & Jerry, Paperboy, Skate or Die, Catch the baby thrown out of a burning building and bounce it into the waiting ambulance, Donkey Kong...I wax nostalgic just thinking about it.
Alas, many such games (the baby one, for example) go too incredibly fast to even begin to be playable because the games were built for really slow computers. Besides that, the command prompt in Windows XP (since they did away with the real DOS) doesn't even work right all the time, and it crashes my copy of XP anyway.
So we're all left to suffer without our daily dose of Keen? I don't think so. I still want to stun slugs, squish those pesky dragon flies, and free a bunch of old guys so they can save my planet! Thankfully, I'm not the only one, and some nice people got together and created DOSBox. Of course, it's open source. And the great thing about that is that yet another really nice person ported it to Mac OS X! So now, you can play all your classic DOS games not only in Windows XP, but even when you're stuck on an icky Mac! You don't even have to sacrifice them when you make the switch to the best OS of all, Linux! How great is that?
But wait, there's more! You can run it all off of a flash drive! All you have to do is install it to a directory on your flash drive, and it takes up less than 3MB. I've got DOS Box installed on my flash drive, along with a whole bunch of classic games (including the entire Commander Keen series) and I can play them ANYWHERE! That is just too cool.
DOSBox can be a little confusing at first, but to simplify it, here's how mine is set up to make it nice and simple. First, I've created a folder just called "C" in my DOSBox directory, because DOSBox works by mapping its drives to a folder on your computer (or flash drive). I put all my games (remember, use the 8.3 format - 8 letter filename with a three letter extension) in that C folder, then told DOSBox to map its C drive to that folder. To do that on startup, open up your Dosbox.conf file in the DOSBox folder in notepad. Scroll all the way to the bottom, find the [autoexec] section and add a couple lines after it so it looks like this:
# Lines in this section will be run at startup.
mount c C

You can then play old games to your heart's content. There's lots more configuration you can do, but if you want to figure it out you can.
Lastly, you need somewhere to get your games. Some of my favorite sites are:

  •, featuring Keen himself

  • DOS Games Archive, with some buyable titles as well as free ones

  • Abandonia. Really great site, with a nifty index that lets you know where you are on the legal side of things. The name comes from the term Abandonware, which is software that is not supported and no longer sold, so gamers (rightfully, in my opinion) take it as freeware.

  • Best Old Games, I think, is the best overall site. Nice little writeups, cool screenshots, great interface, and they have every Commander Keen.

Just download and install games into your C folder you created, and play away. At the risk of being redundant, I love open source.

LaunchCast in Firefox! (Mostly)

OK, first, some blatant search engine optimization, to make sure those who need help can find it:
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Now that that's done with, here's the super awesome news. I noticed (via my supercool Webstats4U counter) a few people have gotten here looking for a way to get launchcast in firefox. Others have gotten here by googling "i hate macs," but that's a different post. Well, now you're in luck (you LaunchCast people, anyway), because some team over in Taiwan (great country, from what I hear) has created an extension that lets you run Internet Explorer. Not too exciting, except that this extension lets you run it inside Firefox! So you can have one tab using I------t E------r to render its pages, and all your others still using Firefox. I've tested it with Launchcast and am happy to report that it works flawlessly after a little configuration. So here's how:

  1. Download and install IETab.

  2. Once Firefox is restarted, IETab gives you a little success message.
    There will now be an icon in the status bar (that's at the bottom) that is a little Firefox logo.

  3. Left-Click on the icon and it will turn to an IE icon, and your page will re-load through IE. Quickly click it again, lest you unecessarily defile your browser.

  4. Now that you have seen the fancy tricks, it's time to set it up for launchcast. Right-click on the icon.

  5. In the "URL" space, type "**" (minus quotes, of course, and make sure to get the diddlys otherwise known as asterisks in) and make sure to click "Add."

  6. That's it. Now, whenever you go to launchcast, IETab will automatically kick in. You'll still have to deal with IE, but within the comforting environment of Firefox.

  7. Many thanks to the IETab team for producing this excellent extension.
    To help you out, a couple quirks I've noticed are:

    • In my Firefox, the player opens in a new tab instead of a new window. I'm not sure if it's other extensions I've got installed (there's a lot of them) or IETab, but it's fine with me anyway.

    • Sometimes the Filters window will be shrunk to just the title bar. I fixed it by restoring and shrinking the main Firefox window, then it came up fine.

That's about it. Now all you Firefox devotees (or at least users) can use it for those annoying IE sites (yes, including Windows update. Come to think of it...
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Anyway, as I was saying, any IE-only site is no longer IE-only. Pretty cool, huh?
P.S. Tip of the day: always remember to close your <ul> and <ol> tags.