The online home for Greg Leedberg, since 1995.

Saturday, October 29, 2005

Leedberg's List: Mozilla Firefox

I'm pretty serious about computers. I enjoy building them, and enjoy trying to maximize the usefulness of them once they're built. In this vein, I've developed a sort of "core" set of software that I install onto any computer right after it's built. This set of software is comprised of really useful stuff, some of which many people are probably not aware of. I'm always evaluating new software, so the set changes every now and then as I find software that's better and more useful than what I was using before.

So, I've decided to start a recurring feature called "Leedberg's List". In each post of this feature, I'll take one piece of software that I like and basically review it. Even though I use both Windows and Linux, I'm going to focus mostly on Windows software, since this will be of use to the largest group of people. At some point in time, I'll aggregate all of the posts into a separate website. If I run out of good software or get bored, I may also point out software which I evaluated and did not add to my core set. I hope that this feature is useful for people.

In this inaugural post, I'm going to point out a piece of software which most people probably already know about, but which I'd like to talk about nonetheless. I promise, in the future I'll talk about slightly more obscure software.

Anyways, I'd like to point out Mozilla Firefox. For those who might not know, Firefox is a web browser, and in my opinion is the best web browser currently available. I've used lots (Internet Explorer, Mozilla, Opera, Konqueror), but Firefox is the one I've stuck with the longest.

There are several things to like about Firefox. For one, it has very good privacy/ad controls built right in. You can turn off annoying popups, turn of JavaScript that maximizes windows and so forth, control cookies (if you really care to), and so on. It really puts you in control of your browsing experience. This was my number one problem with Microsoft's Internet Explorer competitor. I felt like while I was browsing the web, this one program was in contorl of my computer: popping up windows, minimize, maximizing, and closing windows, playing sounds. A web browser is just an application, it's not supposed to define your entire computing experience. I know that IE is better now, but they pushed me away and now I just have no reason to go back.

Firefox also has tabbed browsing. Tabbed browsing is the sort of thing that doesn't seem useful until you start using it. Basically, within your browser window you can have multiple web pages open, and each one has a tab along the top of the browser. You can open a link by middle-clicking on it, or open a blank new tab by putting the correct button on your toolbar. Yes, the Windows taskbar handles some of this functionality. But, when looking up answers to questions and researching products I frequently will have a dozen or so pages open. It would be a nightmare to manage all of them on the taskbar. Having tabs within Firefox makes it a breeze.

Another of Firefox's most useful features is find-as-you-type. If this is enabled, while viewing a webpage you can just start typing and Firefox will search for the text as you type, incrementally. No need to go through menus in order to perform one of the most frequently used functions of a web browser.

Firefox also has a search bar right next to the URL bar. You can choose which search engine it uses, but by default it is Google. Just type a search query into the box and get your search results right away.

Firefox also supports RSS feeds right in the bookmarks menu. If you visit a site that has a site feed (such as this one!), an orange box will appear in the lower-right corner of the browser. Clicking on this will allow you to add the feed to your bookmarks menu, from where you can see any new entries. Really useful to have this integrated right into the browser if you frequent sites with feeds.

Lastly, Firefox is much more standards-compliant then most others. This may not mean a lot to many people, but it does if you are a web developer. Standards are what keep individual companies from controlling the global web. By supporting and using standards-compliant browsers, you keep control of the web out of the hands of proprietary companies.

In the end, I really like Firefox. It has a more modern look and feel than the aging Mozilla suite. It's also just a web browser, which is good if that's all you want --if you want full web-email-newsgroup integration, Mozilla's not a bad choice. It offers all the features of IE, but also some extras, and is more standards compliant. Opera is good, but last I used it there were too many compatibility problems with some sites. It may have improved since then, but much like with IE, I have no desire or motivation to switch away from Firefox. It's just a really good all-around browser.

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

The case against the New Hampshire EZ-Pass system

UPDATE: 10-29-2005 - Since posting this critique, this page has become one of the most visited pages on my website, so I've added some additional thoughts at the end of the post.

Recently, the state of New Hampshire -- my home state -- began to phase in EZ-Pass for use at its highway toll booths. Some people were against it, many people thought this would be a great new convenience, and in the end it is indeed being used here. However, anyone who really analyzes the situation should notice that there are severe problems with this project, and I'd like to take this opportunity to point out what's wrong with EZ-Pass in NH. As the saying goes, if you aren't mad, you aren't paying attention.

Some history: NH previously had been using a coin-based toll system. There were electronic "buckets" at the tolls you could toss coins in, or you could give them to a human. Drivers could buy special tokens, which gave one a 50% discount over using regular quarters.

EZ-Pass, on the other hand, skips coins and instead uses an electronic beacon installed in the driver's car. As you drive through the toll, a computer system reads the ID of your beacon, and deducts the toll from a pre-paid account. Several surrounding states already use EZ-Pass, such as Massachusetts and New York. Luckily, EZ-Pass beacons are state-agnostic, so a NH EZ-Pass beacon can be used to pay tolls in New York, and so on.

On the surface, EZ-Pass doesn't sound like a bad idea. And in fact, I'm not contesting whether or not EZ-Pass itself is a valid improvement to the toll systems. It means you don't have to carry change, don't have to open your window at toll booths in the rain and snow, and don't have to come to a complete stop in order to pay a toll. Indeed, I think EZ-Pass is a fine invention.

My problem, rather, is with New Hampshire's horrifically poor way of bringing EZ-Pass into the state.

It turns out, the NH government had two objectives: one, to introduce EZ-Pass. But also, to raise the tolls (hereafter referred to correctly as "highway taxes"). Remember that the previous method for payment was coins. The vast majority of NH highway drivers made use of the tokens, and so were receiving a 50% discount. In fact, since the number of token-using drivers was such a significant majority, it's relatively safe to say that the effective highway tax was actually 50% of what was posted. For instance, the posted tax at a toll booth near my home is 50 cents, but since hardly anyone uses regular coins, the real tax here must be considered to be half of that, or 25 cents. The 50 cent figure is largely an artificial figure -- the importance of this becomes apparent later on.

With the introduction of EZ-Pass, the state of NH announced that rather than a 50% discount, EZ-Pass subscribers would instead get a 30% discount. Since effectively no one uses coins and everyone is expected to be switched over to the EZ-Pass system, this actually results in a tax increase.

Herein lies the real issue: the introduction of EZ-Pass involved two separate issues which should have been handled separately. Each (EZ-Pass and tax increase) should have been individually debated and treated as separate issues. Instead, we have this one, big issue which no one can intelligently debate because it contains two effectively unrelated issues. If you say you're against it, someone will say that EZ-Pass itself is great, and it is. If you say that maybe we do need higher highway taxes, then someone will say "sure, but then why are we spending money to introduce EZ-Pass?" It's an absolute mess.

If EZ-Pass truly was being introduced for the convenience of the driver, and not to sneak in higher taxes, then this would not be so bad. In such a scenario, tokens would surely continue to be supported in the event that some people may not want to use EZ-Pass (for example, not everyone wants to install an EZ-Pass beacon on a nice car). However, this is not the case. Discounted tokens have already ceased to be sold, and they will no longer be accepted after the end of 2005. Hence, everyone is being forced to either use EZ-Pass, or use standard coins. Standard coins of course cannot be discontinued because not all out-of-state people may even have the option of owning an EZ-Pass beacon. If regular coins will still be accepted anyways, it would be trivial to still accept discounted tokens -- unless one's true motivation was to increase highway taxes, not increase convenience for drivers.

There was some discontent among New Hampshire citizens about all of this, so the state offered a discount on beacons for the initial period during which they were offered. This, I believe, was the most malicious move in all of this. Had everyone had until January 2006 to get EZ-Pass beacons, perhaps more thought would have been expended by the public on the virtues of the EZ-Pass introduction / highway tax increase. However, by offering us a limited-time deal on beacons, large numbers of people were motivated to buy one in order to save money, assuming that the success of EZ-Pass was inevitable. It certainly became inevitable once such a majority of people purchased beacons. Now that so many people have inadvertently bought into the idea, there is little hope that the issue will be thoroughly analyzed.

In the end, I do like the idea of EZ-Pass, and I also understand that it's entirely possible that a highway tax increase was necessary. However, these are two separate issues which should have been handled and debated separately, but the state of New Hampshire did not do this, and even went to lengths to make sure that no separated debate could occur.

Even without a discount, I will continue to use coins. I will not buy an EZ-Pass beacon, ever. Doing so will only legitimatize the methods by which EZ-Pass and the tax increase were introduced into New Hampshire. If you have not already, I encourage you to also not buy into the scheme. Make your opinion heard.

ADDENDUM: 10-29-2005
The above post mostly critiques the manner in which EZ Pass was brought into New Hampshire; namely, the fact that two debateable issues were combined into one, big, ugly issue. I honestly think that this is the most important problem with EZ Pass -- if this had been addressed, there have been no EZ Pass system introduced into the state to begin with. There are certainly many other objections to NH's EZ Pass system, some of which I'll cover here.

Privacy There are many privacy implications of EZ Pass, which many people probably do not realize. These problems lie with EZ Pass in any state, but I'll point out how they have special implications in NH. When one pays with cash (or discounted tokens), it is entirely an anonymous transaction. However, when one pays using EZ Pass, there is a record created of you, specifically, going through a particular toll booth at a particular day and time. If all of these records were correlated together, an eavesdropper could build a pretty complete picture of where you're going and when, as well as when you're not home and when.

Like most people, you may very well have nothing to hide about your travelling activities, but that doesn't mean that you don't deserve a right to privacy. Someone with access to this information could, for example, know when large numbers of people are not at home, in order to break into houses. Or just think of someone who's not currently on good terms with you. All of these arguments are null if this information were kept confidential, but luckily for us New Hampshire is the one and only EZ Pass state which does not have a privacy policy relating to the information they necessarily will collect from users. Without a privacy policy, they have absolutely no obligation to keep anything private. We have absolutely no idea who may be able to access our information -- the state in issuing speeding tickets (getting from booth A to booth B in too short an amount of time), unfriendly acquaintainces in tracking your movements, or even computer crackers.

Costs This is a quick objection, but it's worth mentioning nonetheless. Reports I have seen have all indicated that the costs of maintaining EZ Pass actually far exceed the costs to maintain the older token collection buckets. Apparently these costs even exceed the extra revenue brought in by the highway tax increase, so another revenue source (or another tax increase) might be necessary soon. Is the "convenience" of EZ Pass really worth that much to you?

If you have any other thoughts, feel free to email me, or leave a message in the forum.

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Video iPod!

Apple today announced what people had been predicting for quite awhile: a video-capable iPod. I think this is a great, great annoucement. You may already know that I own a regular fourth-generation, and I have nothing but good things to say about it. Combined with a Griffin iTrip, I use my iPod just about every day, and have brought it with me on every recent trip of mine. Especially combined with a few good podcasts, the iPod really helps pass the time on long commutes, during exercising, and plane rides. It really changes the way you think about portable music, since you are now able to carry around your entire music collection, not just a few select songs.

I was a big fan of the idea of an iPod Photo when that came out, but I think Apple dropped the ball in a couple key areas. First, it was way too expensive. The cheapest Photo model was $499, which I think is more than most people are willing to pay for something that is predominately a music player. There were $299 and $399 regular models out at the time, and the addition of photos wasn't worth $100 - $200 extra. The Photo models were also larger than the existing music-only models, which took away some of the "slickness" that the iPod is known for. The iPod Photo failed, but only because of these tangential issues.

Since then, Apple got rid of the music-only iPod, and replaced those two models with color-screen Photo models for the same price. This, I think was a good move. The reason I was a big fan of the Photo in the first place was that now that digital photography is becoming increasingly more popular, people are beginning to want to take these digital photos with them and show them to people. I know that, for me, I have on several occasions showed my digital pics to people by hooking my camera up to a TV and displaying them there. It's much better, more convenient, and cheaper than printing those pictures and making a physical album. But, you have to carry a camera with you. Combining this functionality with an iPod is perfect. Generally I'm against the idea of combing electronic devices into multi-function devices, but in this case it makes sense because: a) There's no sense in having a device that only displays pictures, and b) Adding the photo functionality to an iPod doesn't (ideally) add any bulk to the existing iPod.

Now, with the video iPod, I once again think it is a great idea in its own right. You can buy TV shows and music videos for a very reasonable price ($1.99) at the iTunes Music Store, and then watch them on your computer and also carry them around with you. Buy an AV adapter and you can watch display your videos and photos on a TV. Since most iPod owners tend to always have their iPod on them, this means you can always have your photos and videos ready for viewing. Low-res videos are, I think, slightly less useful on the go than photos, but still not a bad idea if gracefully integrated with the existing iPod functionality.

And this time, Apple has actually pulled it off. The video models replace the existing Photo/music models, and carry the same price tags ($299 and $399). And now you get more space (30GB and 60GB, respectively), a smaller iPod (finally!), and longer battery life (supposedly).

My predictions for the future: Apple will release a high-res video iPod, and this will give birth to the ability to download and watch full-length movies that you can watch on your TV. With all distribution removed, Apple will be able to charge very reasonable rates ($5 - $10), just like they did with music. Due to DMCA restrictions, I doubt you will be able to rip your existing DVDs, though. Also, Apple will need to allow you to import your existing video collection (primarily so you can get home videos, which will be the big selling point for a large portion of the market, I think). Lastly, I still think that for just music, 20GB is the "sweet" spot for most consumers. I know it is for me. Now that regular iPods start at 30GB (overkill if you just want to listen to music), expect a 15 - 20GB iPod nano (or maybe, just maybe, a brand-new line of iPods similar to the now-defunct iPod mini).

I love my 20GB 4G iPod and have no desire to upgrade right now, but I think Apple has a great selection of new iPods, and am happy to know that if mine died and I had to upgrade, there are nice models to choose from.

Way to go, Apple.

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

My name is Greg, and I like Perl.

I really want to update this blog more often, but I never can think of what to write! Thing is, in real life I always seem to have something to talk about. I think I'm going to start just trying to write something in here more often, just odds and ends about what's on my mind. It need not be newspaper-worthy. :)

I found a really cool Perl library the other day. X11::GUITEST. I never knew anything like it existed. It's a library that lets you programmatically control GUI windows. You can write Perl scripts that wait for certain windows to open, click on buttons, maximize windows, minimize windows, enter text... pretty much anything you could do with a mouse and keyboard. Really, really neat. It only works with Perl and X11-based display systems, though... so pretty much any flavor of Unix, but not Windows. I did find something similar for Windows, AutoIt, but I haven't played around with that very much. Supposedly it does the same thing, but with a Visual Basic-like language. I'd prefer a Perl derivative.

Which reminds me, I love Perl. Perl is, I think, the best and most useful language out there. Sure, it's not great for writing big GUI applications or enterprise systems, but it's really great for performing more internal tasks that would take a ton of code to accomplish in other languages. Especially for things like text processing. It's great for being the "glue" between other programs or just addressing a particular problem you can't figure out how to solve with a traditional language. I first used it at UNH on a project with a professor, and fell in love with it. There's so many times when you can do something in, like, 5 lines of Perl that would take tens or hundreds of lines in, say, Java or C. I'm using it a little now at work as well... not necessarily because of a high-level directive, but because I find instances where it would be useful, so I just use it.

A really good book on Perl is Programming Perl, by Larry Wall. Larry Wall is actually the creator of Perl. This book isn't just a great reference on Perl, it's also I think the best technical book I've ever read. It's actually a joy to read even if you're not trying to learn anything specific about Perl. Larry Wall is a linguist first and a computer scientist second, and it shows in his writing. And it also shows in how the Perl language is defined... very free-form. Lots of ways to do things. You can be very structured, or you can write a whole program in one very cryptic line of regular expressions.

I promise not every post will focus on programming. :-)