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Exploring the Future of Computing
Updated: 1 hour 38 min ago

Facebook turned its two-factor security 'feature' into spam

Thursday 15th of February 2018 11:17:10 AM
Facebook is bleeding users, with external researchers estimating that the social network lost 2.8 million US users under 25 last year. Those losses have prompted Facebook to get more aggressive in its efforts to win users back - and the company has started using security prompts to encourage users to log into their accounts. Sometimes, Facebook will send emails to users warning them that they're having problems logging into their accounts, Bloomberg reported last month. "Just click the button below and we'll log you in. If you weren't trying to log in, let us know," the emails reportedly read. Other times, Facebook will ask for a user's phone number to set up two-factor authentication - then spam the number with notification texts. Raise your hand if you're surprised Facebook would do this.

Head to head, does the Apple HomePod really sound the best?

Thursday 15th of February 2018 11:13:15 AM
David Pogue has some reservations about the smart speaker comparison test Apple subjected the tech press to. Still, when I tweeted about the test, a couple of people were suspicious of the setup, which of course was entirely controlled by Apple. What was the source material? What was the wireless setup? An Apple rep told me that the test songs were streaming from a server in the next room (a Mac). But each speaker was connected to it differently: by Bluetooth (Amazon Echo), Ethernet (Sonos), input miniplug (Google Home), and AirPlay (HomePod), which is Apple’s Wi-Fi-based transmission system. Since the setup wasn’t identical, I wondered if it was a perfectly fair test. (Bluetooth, for example, may degrade (compress) the music it’s transmitting, depending on the source and the equipment.) So I decided to set up my own test at home. I'm not really interested in the HomePod or Google Home Max or any other "smart" speaker, but I love how Pogue basically laments much of the technology press for not questioning Apple's test and test setup. A good read.

Chrome to start blocking annoying ads

Tuesday 13th of February 2018 07:31:00 PM
The web is an incredible asset. It's an engine for innovation, a platform for sharing, and a universal gateway to information. When we built Chrome, we wanted to create a way for people to interact with the magic that is the web, without the browser getting in the way. We created a browser that took up minimal space on your screen, made the omnibar so you could quickly search or get directly to a website, and built our pop-up blocker to help you avoid unwanted content. Since then we’ve also added features such as Safe Browsing, pausing autoplay Flash and more - all aimed at protecting your experience of the web. Your feedback has always played a critical part in the development of Chrome. This feedback has shown that a big source of frustration is annoying ads: video ads that play at full blast or giant pop-ups where you can’t seem to find the exit icon. These ads are designed to be disruptive and often stand in the way of people using their browsers for their intended purpose - connecting them to content and information. It's clear that annoying ads degrade what we all love about the web. That's why starting on February 15, Chrome will stop showing all ads on sites that repeatedly display these most disruptive ads after they've been flagged. Good news for those still not using an adblocker, and bad news for sites that repeatedly display annoying ads.

Why paper jams persist

Tuesday 13th of February 2018 12:22:50 AM
Late in “Oslo,” J. T. Rogers’s recent play about the negotiation of the Oslo Accords, diplomats are finalizing the document when one of them reports a snag: “It’s stuck in the copy machine and I can’t get it out!” The employees in Mike Judge’s 1999 film “Office Space” grow so frustrated with their jam-prone printer that they destroy it with a baseball bat in a slow-motion montage set to the Geto Boys’ “Still.” (Office workers around the country routinely reënact this scene, posting the results on YouTube.) According to the Wall Street Journal, printers are among the most in-demand objects in “rage rooms,” where people pay to smash things with sledgehammers; Battle Sports, a rage-room facility in Toronto, goes through fifteen a week. Meanwhile, in the song “Paper Jam” John Flansburgh, of the band They Might Be Giants, sees the jam as a stark moral test. “Paper jam / paper jam,” he sings. “It would be so easy to walk away.” Unsurprisingly, the engineers who specialize in paper jams see them differently. Engineers tend to work in narrow subspecialties, but solving a jam requires knowledge of physics, chemistry, mechanical engineering, computer programming, and interface design. “It’s the ultimate challenge,” Ruiz said. This is such a great read.

The insane amount of backward compatibility in Google Maps

Tuesday 13th of February 2018 12:15:01 AM
I still keep a couple of my favorite old smartphones. Sometimes I use one of them as my primary device for fun. Phones are among the fastest evolving markets, even a year makes a whole lot of differences. One of the biggest challenges with using old phones is the software: they don’t run modern software. And old software isn’t compatible with new websites, frameworks, encryption standards, APIs. Use an old device, and you will find yourself unable to get anything done. Every app crashes or complains that it can’t connect to the server. Even with Apple who is doing a fantastic job of keeping their phones updated, you may notice that many sites and apps have started dropping support for the iPhone 5, which is still a totally capable device. But there is always an unlikely app that consistently works on all of my devices, regardless of their OS and how old they are: Google Maps. I have a whole slew of old PDAs and phones, and even something as simple as getting them online through wireless internet is a major hassle, because they don't support the more advanced encryption protocols. Even if you do manage to get them online, they often won't support IMAP or or they'll lack some key email protocol settings. The fact that Google Maps apparently keeps on working is fascinating.

Google's next Android overhaul said to embrace 'notch'

Tuesday 13th of February 2018 12:07:30 AM
Google is working on an overhaul of its Android mobile software for a new generation of smartphones mimicking Apple Inc.'s controversial new "notch" at the top of the iPhone X, according to people familiar with the situation. The Android update, due later in the year, will also more tightly integrate Google’s digital assistant, improve battery life on phones and support new designs, like multiple screens and foldable displays, the people added. A key goal of this year’s update to the Google mobile operating system is to persuade more iPhone users to switch to Android devices by improving the look of the software, the people said. They asked not to be identified discussing the private plans. A Google spokesman declined to comment. A bit short on actual details, but what's there is mostly the kind of stuff you'd expect Android to be preparing for. We're going to need to be closer to Google I/O for more concrete information.

Designing Windows 95's user interface

Saturday 10th of February 2018 12:11:34 AM
Three years ago I came across an interesting paper written up by a Microsoft employee, Kent Sullivan, on the process and findings of designing the new user interface for Windows 95. The web page has since been taken down - one reason why I’m a bit of a digital hoarder. It specified some of the common issues experienced from Windows 3.1's Program Manager shell and looked at the potential of developing a separate shell for 'beginners'. Admittedly my inclination was that this was possibly inspired by Apple's At Ease program that was reasonably popular during the System 7 days. I remember At Ease well during my primary school years, so kids couldn’t mess with the hard disk in Finder. So here's what Kent had to say verbatim in his paper titled "The Windows 95 User Interface: A Case Study in Usability Engineering" so it’s not lost altogether. However you feel about Windows 95, there's no denying that its user interface is probably one of the most iconic and well-known user interfaces ever designed and developed. Literally everyone knows it and has used it, and it singlehandedly defined what a personal computer's UI should work like. It's incredibly fascinating to read about the thought processes behind its development.

MATE 1.20 released

Saturday 10th of February 2018 12:11:12 AM
The theme for this release has been stabilising the MATE Desktop by replacing deprecated code and modernising large sections of the code base. We’ve also improved our window manager (Marco) and added support for HiDPI. Along the way we’ve fixed hundreds of bugs. Squished ‘em dead! GNOME 2 is, in my view, one of the best desktop environments ever created, and surely the best desktop environment ever made on Linux. It was consistent, reasonably fast, had a lot of great, high-quality themes, stayed out of your way, and struck a decent balance between configurability and ease of use. Ever since GNOME 2, I've been sorely disappointed with the Linux desktop environments. MATE is a godsend.

Intel made smart glasses that look normal

Wednesday 7th of February 2018 01:10:31 AM
The most important parts of Intel’s new Vaunt smart glasses are the pieces that were left out. There is no camera to creep people out, no button to push, no gesture area to swipe, no glowing LCD screen, no weird arm floating in front of the lens, no speaker, and no microphone (for now). From the outside, the Vaunt glasses look just like eyeglasses. When you’re wearing them, you see a stream of information on what looks like a screen - but it’s actually being projected onto your retina. This looks amazing. I'm not entirely sure if I, personally, have any use for this, but such basic, simple, handsfree information could be invaluable to, for instance, construction workers, farmers, police officers, or other people who do hard, dangerous work with their hands.

Windows 10 S becoming a mode, not a version

Wednesday 7th of February 2018 01:02:10 AM
Windows 10 S, the Microsoft Store-only version of Windows, is going away, but not really. Currently, Windows 10 S is a unique edition of Windows 10. It's based on Windows 10 Pro; Windows 10 Pro has various facilities that enable system administrators to restrict which software can be run, and Windows 10 S is essentially a preconfigured version of those facilities. In addition to locking out arbitrary downloaded programs, it also prevents the use of certain built-in Windows features such as the command-line, PowerShell, and Windows Subsystem for Linux. For those who can't abide by the constraints that S imposes, you can upgrade 10 S to the full 10 Pro. This upgrade is a one-shot deal: there's no way of re-enabling the S limitations after upgrading to Pro. It's also a paid upgrade: while Microsoft offered it as a free upgrade for a limited time for its Surface Laptop, the regular price is $49. Nothing much actually seems to be changing; it just turns Windows 10 S from a version into a mode. Pretty much a distinction without a difference. My biggest issue here is that you can't go from regular Windows 10 back to Windows 10 S if you ever had a reason to do so (e.g. if Windows were ever to be usable with just Metro apps in the future and you want the additional security Windows 10 S provides). Seems like an odd restriction.

Switch to Windows 95

Monday 5th of February 2018 11:08:50 PM
In November last year I wrote about the forgotten and obscure feature of early Windows 95 builds that lets you run Windows 3.1 in a window on Windows 95. Since then I was wondering if this would still work on the final build (950) of Windows 95, considering so much has changed since build 58s. I won't spoil it.

The shallowness of Google Translate

Monday 5th of February 2018 11:04:48 PM
Such a development would cause a soul-shattering upheaval in my mental life. Although I fully understand the fascination of trying to get machines to translate well, I am not in the least eager to see human translators replaced by inanimate machines. Indeed, the idea frightens and revolts me. To my mind, translation is an incredibly subtle art that draws constantly on one's many years of experience in life, and on one's creative imagination. If, some "fine" day, human translators were to become relics of the past, my respect for the human mind would be profoundly shaken, and the shock would leave me reeling with terrible confusion and immense, permanent sadness. As a translator myself, I can indeed confirm Google Translate is complete and utter garbage, but the idea that I would "mourn" the end of translators seems outlandish to me. The unstoppable march of technology has eliminated countless jobs over the course of human existence, and if translators are next, I don't see any reason to mourn the end of my occupation. Of course, it'd suck for me personally, but that's about it. That being said, I'm not afraid of running out of work any time soon. Google Translate's results are pretty terrible, and they only seem to be getting worse for me, instead of getting better. There's no doubt in my mind that machine translation will eventually get good enough, but I think it'll take at least another 20 years, if not more, to get there.

Apple prepares macOS for discontinuation of 32-bit app support

Saturday 3rd of February 2018 02:15:01 PM
When users attempt to launch a 32-bit app in 10.13.4, it will still launch, but it will do so with a warning message notifying the user that the app will eventually not be compatible with the operating system unless it is updated. This follows the same approach that Apple took with iOS, which completed its sunset of 32-bit app support with iOS 11 last fall. This is good. I would prefer other companies, too, take a more aggressive approach towards deprecating outdated technology in consumer technology.

How WeChat came to rule China

Thursday 1st of February 2018 07:29:45 PM
China's most popular messaging app, WeChat, has always had a close relationship with the Chinese government. The app has been subsidized by the government since its creation in 2011, and it's an accepted reality that officials censor and monitor users. Now, WeChat is poised to take on an even greater role: an initiative is underway to integrate WeChat with China's electronic ID system. WeChat is a remarkably clever move by the Chinese government. Everybody over there is already using it, and by basically co-opting it, they get a free statewide monitoring and control platform. Ban a few western alternatives here and there, and you're done. Western nations are toying with similar ideas - see e.g. Germany's new laws - and it doesn't take a genius to see the dangers here. While you may 'trust' your current government to not abuse such wide-ranging laws and technical capabilities, you might not be so eager with the next one. If Americans can vote for a Trump, Europeans can, too.

The Faery Tale Adventure: a personal history

Thursday 1st of February 2018 07:12:13 PM
The Faery Tale Adventure was a computer game that I created for the Amiga in 1987. It was moderately popular for its day, and was ported to a number of platforms, including MS-DOS and the Sega Genesis. I decided to write this account because, much to my surprise, there is still interest in the game - I occasionally get fan email or inquiries as to whether there will ever be a sequel. And so I thought it might be interesting to tell the story of how the game came to be, and what happened afterwards. An account by David Joiner of a game he wrote for the Amiga. One of those stories that's just fun to read, no ifs and buts. Grab a coffee and enjoy.

Essential to skip 8.0 Oreo release, goes straight to 8.1

Thursday 1st of February 2018 01:10:14 AM
Essential - the phone company led by Android co-founder Andy Rubin - has had some difficulty in getting a stable 8.0 Oreo update released. After three beta releases, the company is not quite satisfied that the update is ready for general release. Because of these protracted issues, Essential has announced plans to skip the 8.0 release entirely in favor of 8.1, which will "push the public release back a couple weeks," according to the company. Not even a phone with close to stock Android, built by the very same person who developed Android in the first place, can be updated to a newer Android release without delays, stability issues, and general problems - to the point where they're skipping a version altogether. Android is a mess.

AMD returns to full-year profitability

Thursday 1st of February 2018 01:08:03 AM
AMD reported its fourth quarter and full year results for 2017 yesterday evening. The company's financial results are easily the best its posted in five years and arguably some of the best results we've seen in a decade (this last needs a bit of unpacking, but we'll get to that). And fully deserved, too, despite the somewhat overly adulatory attitude many seem to have towards AMD.

Verizon, Apple continue to lobby against your 'right to repair'

Tuesday 30th of January 2018 11:36:42 PM
Third party phone repair shops say that phone makers like Apple and game console makers like Sony and Microsoft have effectively monopolized repair, using their size and power to drive smaller companies out of business. Verizon and Apple have worked in union to thwart such bills in several states, but traditionally don't like to publicly talk about their lobbying on this front. They now have another state to worry about, with Washington State considering their own right to repair bill, created in the wake of outrage over Apple's decision to throttle the performance of older phones to (Apple insists) protect device integrity in the wake of failing battery performance. I've said it a million times by now, but I see no reason why computers should be treated any different than cars: PC and phone makers should be forced to publicise the necessary information to allow third-party repair shops to repair their devices, all without voiding warranty.

How Apple built a chip powerhouse

Tuesday 30th of January 2018 11:35:21 PM
For several years, Apple has been steadily designing more and more of the chips powering its iPhones, iPads, Macs and Apple Watches. This creates a better user experience and helps trump rivals. Recently the company got a fresh incentive to go all-in on silicon: revelations that microprocessors with components designed by Intel Corp., Arm Holdings Plc and Advanced Micro Devices, Inc. are vulnerable to hacking. [...] That original “system-on-a-chip” has since been succeeded by increasingly powerful processors. Today, Apple packs its devices with custom components that process artificial intelligence tasks, track your steps, power game graphics, secure Face ID or Touch ID data, run the Apple Watch, pair AirPods to your phone and help make Macs work the way they do. The result: a chip powerhouse that could one day threaten the dominance of Qualcomm Inc. and even, eventually, Intel. Apple's chip business really puts the company in a unique position. No other phone or PC maker can rely on such a powerful chip division, with the exception of Samsung, but Samsung's own ARM chips are nowhere near as powerful as Apple's. Assuming Apple manages to turn their chip prowess into real-world advantages for users, it'll be hard for competitors to catch up.

Microsoft releases update to disable Intel's Spectre mitigations

Monday 29th of January 2018 11:17:48 PM
Microsoft has released an update that disables Intel's microcode Spectre mitigations. Intel has reported issues with recently released microcode meant to address Spectre variant 2 (CVE 2017-5715 Branch Target Injection) - specifically Intel noted that this microcode can cause "higher than expected reboots and other unpredictable system behavior" and then noted that situations like this may result in "data loss or corruption". Our own experience is that system instability can in some circumstances cause data loss or corruption. On January 22, Intel recommended that customers stop deploying the current microcode version on affected processors while they perform additional testing on the updated solution. We understand that Intel is continuing to investigate the potential effect of the current microcode version, and we encourage customers to review their guidance on an ongoing basis to inform their decisions. This whole thing is a mess.

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Android Leftovers

today's leftovers

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  • Samsung Halts Android 8.0 Oreo Rollouts for Galaxy S8 Due to Unexpected Reboots
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  • Xen Project Contributor Spotlight: Kevin Tian
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  • Initial Intel Icelake Support Lands In Mesa OpenGL Driver, Vulkan Support Started
    A few days back I reported on Intel Icelake patches for the i965 Mesa driver in bringing up the OpenGL support now that several kernel patch series have been published for enabling these "Gen 11" graphics within the Direct Rendering Manager driver. This Icelake support has been quick to materialize even with Cannonlake hardware not yet being available.
  • LunarG's Vulkan Layer Factory Aims To Make Writing Vulkan Layers Easier
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