Archive for March 2009

Python to get a speed boost by Google

March 27, 2009

If this is true this is awesome news by Google. Python is a scripting language, and as such usually has poorer performance on intensive programming projects. For me, though, I like Python because of its ease of use and flexibility. Google obviously uses Python extensively and effectively. If this new interpreter can really bring about a 5x speed boost than I say it is a win win. It also looks like this new interpreter will help utilize multi-processor and thread hardware.

From the article:

The goal of the Unladen Swallow project is to use LLVM, the Low Level Virtual Machine compiler infrastructure, to build a just-in-time (JIT) compilation engine that can replace Python’s own specialized virtual machine. This approach offers a number of significant advantages. As the developers describe in the project plan, the project will make it possible to transition Python to a register-based virtual machine and will pave the way for future optimizations.

Good luck Google. May you bring it to pass.

mp3HD or FLAC

March 26, 2009

When Apple’s iPod became mainstream and the most popular portable music player with came the standardization of the mp3 file format. In some ways this format has served us well. It simplified things so we didn’t have to worry about compatibility. Despite other formats that are open or better mp3 makes for a universally positive experience. One key feature of mp3 is that it compresses the music file and takes out “unneeded” data. This is why mp3 is dubbed a lossy file format. This is good because file sizes remain small while the whole of the music remains the same. The bad part is that certain aspects, particularly ranges of music, are dropped to save file space. There is great debate about how noticeable or serious this is, but nonetheless mp3s are lower quality than cds. At the time giving up quality for quantity was needed with the small file capacity of most audio players. Even our HD based computers were limited. Today this isn’t so much the case. You can easily get cheap 500GB and even 1TB drives, external or internal, and flash memory is increasing in capacity and decreasing in price. I’m fairly certain I would fill up my 8GB iPhone, but in a few years iPhones will likely have 3-5X the capacity at the same size and price. So we may be at a turning point. A turning point where we can take back quality and still have quantity. This leads to lossless file formats.

Ars ran a good article discussing mp3HD. On the surface it would sound like a good thing. Take the popularity and universality of mp3 and make a lossless “HD” version. There are a few problems in the details as Ars points out. First the basic premise is to have both the mp3 compressed version and a compatible HD version. That is essentially doubling the file size and while capacity is growing the last thing you want to do is add extra burden during the transition. There are few other details, but you can read the article for that. What I want to point out is there is already a gold standard in lossless file formats. It is FLAC. Now yes I am an open source nut, but here me out. FLAC is currently already support in most every audio “mp3” player out there with the exception of Apple’s line of mp3 players. Most people already recognize that if you want a lossless library FLAC is what you use…as such the few store fronts that sell digital lossless files do so in FLAC already. Since FLAC is open source there is no licensing, regional, patent, or development limitations. Basically I am arguing that FLAC is already the platinum standard for lossless formats and because it is open source it becomes a win win situation. Believe it or not mp3 is not an open or free codec. You have to license your product to play the files. When you buy Windows or Mac you are paying to play your mp3s. Now all of that happens in the background, but it is still happening. Now I am not a purist, in fact, my library is mostly made of mp3s. I see no reason to switch to the open OGG format because it isn’t universal. But if FLAC is already well supported and is the non-stated lossless file format why muddy the waters with another closed and licensed product? Believe me when I say that if the world starts heading towards lossless distribution of music Apple will come around.

Honestly, I hope mp3HD never sees the light of day. We have an industry leader and we should keep it that way…and of course since it happens to be open source I am all the more for it. If you are considering going lossless I hope you consider FLAC as your format of choice.

Newegg.com – now the best rated online-only retailer

March 20, 2009

I have been buying parts from Newegg for my business for some time.  They have terrific prices and a better reputation than any other online computer parts retailer.  Then this came out – Newegg triumphed as the top-rated online-only retailer (over companies such as Amazon.com) in customer satisfaction.  This is no real surprise to me, but to know they beat out Amazon is pretty awesome.  Here’s a link to the study: http://www2.marketwire.com/mw/mmframe?prid=476743&attachid=927940

The “OH CRAP” mode in gmail

March 20, 2009

Gmail labs is rolling out another good feature. The “Undo” button. If you turn the feature on it will delay a message from leaving the server currently for 5 seconds and 10 seconds may be added later. Gmail keeps coming up with good ones, like when they added the “Drunk” mode making users solve simple math problems in order to send a message (the user would turn it on for certain hours of the night to prevent drunk messaging something you would regret). Personally I like this feature, but with only 5 seconds that is hardly enough to proof a message over again. Still I have had plenty of times when I send a message and immediately realize something I typed wrong or forgot to say. Undo sounds like a good feature to me.

CanSecWest provides security lessons

March 19, 2009

Interesting to see some of the results of CanSecWest.  Within “seconds” Safari/MacBook fell, and the others were soon to follow.  The  Safari attack was, of course, planned beforehand to execute flawlessly.

I have heard it said that ‘obscurity does not equal security.’  There are two sides to that.  One (obivously) is that you can’t assume you’re secure simply because you’re obscure.  But the flip side of that is this: while no system is truly secure, many systems are ignored by ‘street security analysts’ (in part) due to a low ROI.

So what’s the point?  I think part of the point is that every system can be exploited – even ones that aren’t market giants.  And while this is true, most security/obscurity concepts are very basic.  So be safe out there.  Here’s a brief list for starters (add more in the comments, readers!)

– Keep A/V software installed and updated (especially on a Windows system).  Use only one A/V system.  Geeks disagree as to the best A/V program, but I personally recommend Kaspersky or AVG.  If you need a free system, try AVG or Avast!, but Kaspersky is worth the money.

– Don’t use cracked software.  I’m not saying I think it’s ethical to exploit users by overcharging them for a piece of software (nor will I say that it’s ethical to pay nothing for the same software).  I’m just saying that many people who are willing to exploit a major software company by cracking their software are also willing to exploit you.  There are plenty of totally legal and reputable downloads out there (Linux distros, freeware, music released under the Creative Commons License, etc).  But be prepared to suffer if you download the shady stuff.

– Secure your wireless network (that one’s for my neighbors).  It’s not really that hard.  Or pay me $50 to do it for you.  It’s worth it.

– Keep all your software patched.  This is basic stuff, but it’s important.

– Stay off of questionable Web sites.  Think before you click.

– Don’t click links in dubious emails that read like they were written by a fourth grader.  Don’t even bother responding to them.  If you need to get to an important Web site, make sure you know what the official URL is, and use only that URL.  Don’t be afraid to contact a company directly to verify the authenticity of any communication you receive which claims to be from them.

– Remember that your bank/credit card lender/PayPal/MySpace won’t ever ask for any kind of account information, including your PIN, SSN, or password via email.  Along that line, most businesses which require you to have an important financial account will almost always contact you via regular mail if your account status is in jeopardy.  If you receive an email stating that your account is in bad standing or requires an update to your information, DON’T use the contact information in the email.  Contact the company, but use contact information you KNOW is good (like through their official website or literature), and ask about the email.  99% of the time, they are false, but know how to contact the company in the other 1% of instances.

– Just maybe, consider one of the less pervasive OSes out there.  Ubuntu is a good one for former Windows users, and it runs pretty well on the x86 (Pentium-type computer – your typical PC).  Mark and I have both posted (he more than I) about how relatively simple Ubuntu is to install and run, even as a second operating system.  Look through the archives for some of those posts about Wubi and the like.

Something else you might consider is running Ubuntu as a second OS to use mainly when you’re on the Web, especially if you do financial transactions on the Web.  Many of the exploits out there are based on drive-by downloads (as in the ones used in CanSecWest), and you’re less likely to be exploited on the Web if you’re running Linux/Firefox.  Not necessarily less ABLE to be exploited, just less likely.  Because even though obscurity doesn’t equal security, obscurity does equal … well, obscurity – you aren’t an easy target if you’re obscure.  Sounds lame, but it’s true.

My thoughts on Google Chrome’s performance

March 18, 2009

I resist change in some arenas.  Sometimes, I would rather have familiarity over functionality.  Such is the case in my Web browser usage.  I still have IE6 installed on most of the computers I use.  This is mainly because my company does not use IE7 due to app compatibility issues, but even if they did, I still appreciate IE6’s advantages over 7.  I have used Firefox enough to work well with it, and used Opera or Konqueror on the very rare occasion, but haven’t felt the need to change my default browser.  So I resisted the urge to use Chrome until my curiosity got the better of me.

I want to mention the performance pros and cons I have found with Chrome.  I will save my review of the interface and concept for another post.

Two things become immediately obvious about Chrome.  First, its startup time is virtually nil.  Internet Explorer can never claim that; rarely is IE fast enough for me.  So, my first real issue with IE is gone, and I’m happy.  In addition, load times are small and run time is fast in every respect.  

While I’m on the subject of performance issues, I like to listen to music on YouTube.  IE at work currently takes about 10-15 seconds or so to start the video.  I had thought that it was something related to the network, because at home I don’t have that problem.  But when I started using Chrome, the problem went away totally.

I have only had one issue with Chrome’s performance thus far.  Again, this one is with YouTube.  I listen to music, but I don’t always watch the video.  If I minimize the window during playback of a video, there is a very brief break in the sound.  It’s not a real problem, but it’s a bug I’d like to see fixed.  It doesn’t have an issue when I’m switching tab to tab; it’s only when I minimize or restore the window.

Another issue I have had (although it’s not performance-related) is that some sites are configured to check the userAgent and deny access to the site for anyone not using a “compatible” browser.  I wish they would just let me on so I can see if it works.  This has really only happened with one site for me, but it’s our company’s time-clock application (KABA Web Clock), so I access it at least twice a day, most days four times.

So all in all, I really only have one or two complaints.  The performance speed is terrific.  If nothing else, try it just for that.  Later on, I will write more about Chrome, especially about the peculiarities that make it unique.

World of Application Launchers

March 16, 2009

I am all about key strokes and not using the mouse. For me I spend a lot of time typing, and stopping to mouse breaks the flow too much. When I first switched to Apple OSX I was at a lose for how to launch applications quickly (like Window+r). What I didn’t realize was the world of application launchers. These are key stroke based applications that allow you to launch programs with a few clicks of the keys (as apposed to the mouse). I call them application launchers, but that is their most basic function and primary I guess.

The leader of this group is Quicksilver. The application at the time was not open source, but it was free. I don’t know if it came first to the bunch, but it certainly was the most mature and created the standard for all other application launchers. My key binding is ctrl+space which opens a box where I type a particular program or command. Mostly I use it to launch programs (it annoys my wife that the doc is virtually empty, why do I need any programs on the doc?). You can also control itunes or send IM’s along with many other features. If you are a Mac user and aren’t using this you need to install it now.

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For Linux there is a nice product called GNOME-do. It is for use in the GNOME desktop which is what is installed by default with Ubuntu. Until recently GNOME-do was pretty weak on features. But recent releases made GNOME-do the quicksilver of the Linux world. It is open source and can do a few tricks outside of launching applications.

For Windows there are a few competitors, but I find Launchy good enough for my needs. Again same concept only for windows. It has been a while since I used Windows so I can’t really speak for what it can or can’t do. It scans your program files to make its list and does a pretty good job. If any of you have experience with the product I would love to hear that in the comments.

So this is the world of application launchers. There is one for each OS. Give it a try and let me know what you think.