I started something

I started another blog. Why, Branko, you say (sarcastically), how nice of you considering the many, many (*cough*) things you post here.

You would not be wrong about that. I do blog too little.

The new blog, called Beezels, because I needed a name and any silly thing would do, has a single purpose: to write about cool stuff I found on clickbait sites so that I can share them on Facebook without actually having to force my Facebook friends to go onto these clickbait sites. Cutting out the middle man, so to speak.

As it happens, most of the really cool stuf on clickbait sites (of course I mean cats) is stolen from elsewhere anyway, so this blog will allow me to do something that clickbait sites seem to be hesitant to do, which is to acknowledge and link to the originals.

I am still hammering out the details. What is online now is little more than a test version. Feedback is welcome (here).

A few of my goals:

  • Stuff I and my Facebook friends find cool and that is shareworthy.
  • In others words (though it may not look like it), this is supposed to be a personal site.
  • Leaner than lean, content is king.
  • Corollary: no ads that require interactive technology like JavaScript (which probably means: no ads—I am fine with that).
  • Facebook-ready.
  • Acknowledging sources.
  • No comments; the goal is that these links get shared in your networks, not in mine.

The content, of course, is clickbait, but my goal is not so much to draw you in but to send you on your way with something nice that you can share. No idea if and how this will work, we’ll just have to see.

An unlikely ad blocker

I’ve started using the Firefox plugin YesScript as an ad blocker even though being an ad blocker may not be that plugin’s main purpose.

YesScript will let you mark specific websites. YesScript will then tell the browser that the next time it loads something from those sites, it must skip the JavaScript programs belonging to that page.

What happened was that certain websites would make my PC wheeze like an old man with a life long history of smoking. Apparently my PC’s fan was getting old and had stopped running smoothly. Although I noticed this with all kinds of software, the main culprit was Firefox, and the wheezing would always be the worst when I visited a click-baity website.

If you look at a small selection of the files a site like Mashable pushes to my computer every time I read one of their stories (see the screenshot below), you can easily see why my PC would have trouble coping. Most of the files you see listed are for the benefit of ad networks. Look at the scroll bar to the right; this is just a fraction of the files that are loaded. Most of the files that you don’t see here are also loaded for the benefit of ad networks.

[Screenshot displaying a list of files from Mashable]

I measured it: without YesScript, a single Mashable page sends 294 files to my browser. Those files take up 2.9 megabytes of bandwidth and take 49 seconds to load and render. With YesScript running, those numbers dwindle to 14 files, 0.1 megabyte and 7 seconds. I can actually finish looking at a cat photo while you are still loading the page.

Why don’t I use a real ad blocker? It’s simply because I initially identified my problem as a technical one—too much JavaScript—and so the solution I chose was also a technical one—block all JavaScript. Ad blockers work by banning all files coming from known ad networks and should be just as effective.

YesScript has a minor advantage in this respect, in that it leaves ads alone that play nice (read: that are strictly text or image based). It also blocks all those annoying “6 misogynist articles you might also like to read” banners.

But the plug-in’s disadvantages compared to ad blockers are probably greater. Obviously whatever useful JavaScript a page is running—for instance, scripts necessary to let you comment—are also blocked. I can live with that, but I imagine others cannot.

If you are wondering if YesScript is for you, let me ask you first: is the reason you want to run it because you want to block ads? If yes, go for an ad blocker. If you do end up using YesScript, you will find it is incredibly simple to use. The plug-in adds a button to one of your toolbars. If a page is playing havoc with your browser, click the button and reload the page. That’s it. If you want to run scripts on that domain again, click the button a second time and reload the page.

(Why don’t mobile phones seem to be afflicted as much by bad Javascript? After all, they tend to be a lot less powerful than your PC but will display clickbait just fine … ish. This I honestly don’t know. It may be because a lot of websites send adapted pages to mobile devices that are easier to load.)

Sourceforge has crossed the threshold from bad to criminally bad

A bunch of years back I wrote that Sourceforge.net was “a very useful website for computer programmers (or developers, as we like to call ourselves), because it provides an aggregation point for people, code and knowledge, and it does so for free.”

The reason I blogged about Sourceforge was because the site had started to make mistakes. Next to its small and inconspicuous download links it placed large advertisements that looked exactly like download buttons and that would lead you to all kinds of nasty and unwanted software. I naively assumed that this was a mistake; something Sourceforge would fix as soon as it was pointed out to them. Somebody from Sourceforge even kindly commented to explain what was going on — although the explanation itself was rather disappointing.

These days, Sourceforge not only places problematic ads, it also bundles the software it hosts with extra downloads. And what is worse, it has hijacked high profile projects to do so.

Apparently the GIMP project (a photo editor) had already left Sourceforge in 2013, but had kept an account active to act as a mirror, an extra download site in case the primary site is down. The maintainer of the GIMP’s Windows distribution discovered on 26 May of this year that he had no longer access to his own account.

Earlier that day, the GIMP developers had received word that the GIMP download from Sourceforge was being wrapped in an installer. According to Ars Technica, that installer would try and lure you into installing extra software.

I don’t know much about criminal law, but this seems to be something that should have landed Sourceforge’s owners, Slashdot Media (once a geek-loved brand), firmly into gaol.

Anyway, the lesson is clear: stop downloading from Sourceforge. The company has since promised that it would stop hijacking accounts, but I don’t trust serial abusers.

What is the alternative? Well, for one thing there is a tool called Ninite that promises to help you manage a great number of freeware and FOSS installations, including GIMP, and that promises to do so without installing any kind of spyware or other malware. I am not sure if and how far they can be trusted, but it seems to me that if “no malware” is one of their defining features, they may not wish to throw away their reputation by breaking that promise. Here’s hoping that this is not me being naive again.