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.)

The photo detective

Wat jij niet ziet

In this book former photographer Hans Aarsman tries to deduce the story behind a photograph from the photograph itself.

Hans Aarsman used to be a photographer until he realised that the essence of his job was to mimic old-fashioned paintings. He sold his cameras, gave away his photos to a museum and became somebody who writes about photography instead.

In the national newspaper of record De Volkskrant he got a weekly spread in which he got to play a photo detective. He would study the photos that came off the news wire and select one or a small series to study.

Wat Jij Niet Ziet (With My Little Eye, literally What You Don’t See) is a collection of 50 of these columns and the second book in the series. Each column consists of a spread containing the photo followed by a page that has a crop of an interesting detail, followed by a page describing Aarsman’s findings.

wat-jij-niet-ziet-1

Shown here is a sample of Aarsman’s detective work. On 20 November 2012 Palestinian photo journalist Adel Hana took this picture of an egg salesman just outside Gaza City. AP put it on the wire and accompanied the photo by a description that said something along the lines of ‘man selling eggs by the side of the road’.

wat-jij-niet-ziet-2

Aarsman had his doubts. The low, open bed of the vehicle forms an ideal platform both for displaying eggs and for selling them from, so why would a salesperson put most of his wares in the street like that? He pulled out his magnifying glass and noticed a tire standing against the truck. So that’s why the man had to unload the truck! He wanted to reach the spare. This salesman isn’t vending, he’s waiting. Why is he waiting when he’s got a spare tire? Well, a couple of crushed egg cartons suggest he had been kneeling on top of them—presumably he tried to remove the tire but had to give up in the end.

Not all the photos required closer inspection. Sometimes it is immediately clear what is going on, but Aarsman still ekes out a few details that lead to a greater understanding. He also included photos that are interesting without requiring detective work, such as the photo taken by politician Reynaldo Dagsa a fraction of a second after a deadly bullet entered his body. Dagsa had been focusing on his wife and daughter who were posing for him in the street, and failed to see or respond to the gunman appearing next to them.

Being a bit of an aspiring amateur photographer I find this approach very refreshing. It helps me understand what makes a scene, how subject and background work together to tell a story.

Rating by brankl: 3.5 stars
***1/2

In which the author toys with his conscience (but not really)

dilbert-future

The Dilbert Future

Here’s the obligatory blurb that can be misquoted by publisher and author alike: The Dilbert Future is worth every penny I paid for it.

As far as I remember, I did not pay any pennies for this third instalment of Scott Adam’s comic ‘business books’ because I paid in Euro cents and not even that many. I bought the book second hand at a flea market and I probably did not pay more than 50 cents for it.

Can an author be separated from his work? No really, could somebody separate this author from his work? That is like the second lame joke I made in this review and yet I stay ahead of the work under review. Unfortunately my opinion is informed by what I’ve learned by the author.

In 1996 Adams published the rather brilliant The Dilbert Principle, a satirical work about the workplace in which he presented a twist on the Peter Principle. The Peter Principle humorously states that good workers will be promoted into roles they cannot handle until they reach their ‘level of incompetence’. The Dilbert Principle states that bad workers will be promoted to get them out of the way.

Only one year later Adams published The Dilbert Future, but I did not read it until the past weeks. In the meantime I had learned that he is a bit of a tosser and a moron and a misogynist—the red pill brigade call him “one of us”.

So here’s my take on if, why and how to appreciate a work even if you dislike the person behind that work. Usually these questions are discussed from a moral perspective—we don’t like to be in the closet about the works we admire even if their authors are personae non gratae. Unfortunately, I don’t think it is possible to will yourself to not like a work just because of its author.

Complicating matters is that good and better works often work because the author shows real and continuous insight. Go ahead, hate Wagner because he was a Nazi, but that doesn’t make his music less intrinsically good.

But there is a third issue and that is that insight is often based on context. A joke works because it makes use of a lot of shorthand; the concepts that underlie the joke are shared by the person telling the joke and their audience.

This is where The Dilbert Future comes crashing down.

The very first lines of the book are: “There are two types of people in the world: the bright and attractive people like yourself who read Dilbert books, and the 6 billion idiots who get in our way. […] A devious reader suggested calling them In-duh-viduals.” See? That’s funny. It’s a classic joke that works on the understanding that both Adams and his readers don’t really believe in a world divided into a small elite of brilliant people and a large mass of complete idiots. After all, each of us knows quite a few people who may not have read Dilbert but are still definitely not idiots. There is a contrast between reality and what Adams jokingly says reality is and that is what makes us laugh.

Unfortunately the corner that Adams has painted himself into, in blog posts, books and by writing sock-puppet reviews of his own works, is that he believes exactly that. Adams belongs to a group of people who believe there are wolves and sheep, and they are the wolves, that there are hunters and prey, and they are the hunters. As far as I can tell, Scott Adams believes his own nonsense. And that makes it quite a struggle to get through The Dilbert Future. Every time you see Adams joke about these In-duh-viduals you know he doesn’t mean it as a joke. Which is a bit of a problem for a book that is meant to be funny.

I’ll skip discussing the bit at the end where Adams gets all serious and starts professing his belief in NLP-like mumbo jumbo.

All this just to say that you may not be able to force yourself to dislike the things you like, but an author is also unable to divorce their work from what the reader knows about the author.

I skipped the rating on this book because even though I didn’t like the book, I don’t think I could recommend you either to read it or to leave it. If you’re a sad-sack red-piller, you might even consider it a work of literature (or worse, a manual).

A quick iPad review

Apple iPad (iPad 2)

As it happens all the four things I don’t like about my Apple iPad manifested themselves within a few minutes of each other today and they also helped to highlight what a cool little device it is, so I figured it was time for a quick review.

The Apple iPad has replaced a great many items in my house, or it would have if I owned them. It has replaced the TV guide, a number of cookbooks, the weather report on TV, the laptop on the couch for looking up stuff on Wikipedia and so on. It has not replaced the laptop for viewing movies, simply because at 16 GB it has too little storage. (Maybe if I could stream stuff off a wireless media server, but I’ve too little need for such a beast.)

Maybe it would or would not replace a smart phone, but a smart phone only really comes into place when you have a need for an expensive subscription, which I don’t. I don’t even have a mobile phone subscription, and my land line subscription is increasingly becoming an artifact from olden times, like those 19th century irons people used to collect in the 1970s—I never call anybody and I use Skype when I do.

So there you have a limited lay-out of my private electronics needs.

The actual reason I own an iPad is for my business. I use it as device to test websites on and I use it as a note taking tool. I still use a paper notebook for important and private notes (less easy to hack and doesn’t break down as easily), but everything else goes onto the iPad and then Dropbox. I also use the iPad to carry my portfolio around. If I were a graphics artist it would probably be too small for this (although it might be a good back-up?).

If I didn’t already own one for my business, I’d get one (or something like it) for private use.

Which brings me to the irritants, one plus three.

The big downside of the Apple iPad (and presumably unique to this brand) is that it is very much what people call a ‘walled garden’. The device is a gateway to a store for software and media. It comes with a couple of relatively useful applications, but if you want anything more you have to head to the iTunes store. Apple makes very much sure that all software must be offered via their store. You may offer software for free, but as a developer you still have to jump through all of Apple’s hoops. One thing that makes it so your application won’t get through Apple’s vetting process is if your application allows other applications to bypass Apple’s vetting process. The result is that the free (as in free of cost) software ecosystem on the iPad isn’t nearly as rich as it could be. (For comparison, most of the software I use on my business PC is FOSS.)

For a cheapskate like me who doesn’t mind wasting hours of his time looking for free offerings this is still a problem but can be a minor one. For all normal people though, if you want the iPad for your home, consider getting a credit card first so that you can give Apple more money (they take a percentage off the top for apps sold through their store).

The three minor irritants:

  • The (rather expensive) power cable breaks down in no time (and the non-replaceable battery deteriorates pretty quickly, so you need that cable).
  • Apple backs up the contents of your iPad to one (and only one!) computer and if the hard disk of your computer crashes (as happened to me the other day) it will delete everything on your iPad the next time you try and synchronize it with that one PC!
  • The (also rather expensive and optional) cover develops a looseness over time. Since the cover doubles as an off-switch, this means you can drain your battery without noticing it (you’ll believe the iPad is sleeping when it’s not).

I won’t say the iPad (or tablets like it) are indispensable, but they are pretty nifty. They are as light and easy to handle as a not-too-heavy magazine and are exactly for that reason a drop-in replacement mostly for magazines (assuming you have Wifi and can get the content online).

I find note-taking to work very well once you’ve installed the right applications. I use MoApp’s myTexts Lite for texts and neuNotes for anything involving drawing. There are undoubtedly better note-taking apps, but the Lite version of myTexts already comes pretty close and in fact has some pretty nifty features which you would hope all note app producers would copy, such as a much improved keyboard.

Apple’s model is one of razors and blades, except that they charge a premium for both (because they can). One would hope they’d fix the minor irritants in later versions of the iPad, though from what I’ve seen so far they haven’t bothered.

This of course brings us to the following question. If you are not a web developer who simply needs the Apple iPad, would you buy something else?

(This is still a draft because I need to get back to work. I’ll iron out the typos later.)

Rating by brankl: 4 stars
****

Game of Thrones, season I and II

Game of Thrones is a TV drama series based on a series of novels called A Song of Ice and Fire.

The series takes place in a medieval fantasy world that includes dragons and a sort of zombie and revolves around the intrigues and wars the noble families of the world, Westeros, use to get to the top of the pile. In the background there is the constant threat of an invasion by a race of zombies from the frozen North.

I will keep it short: Game of Thrones is eminently watchable. I especially like the way they handle cliff hangers, I always wanted to see the next episode.

There is a lot of big drama in Game of Thrones and some gore and sexual violence.

Season II is a lot less tight than the first season. Some story lines feel incredibly rushed, especially the ones involving a young princess called Arya who is held prisoner by her family’s arch enemy, except he doesn’t know who she is. While a prisoner she befriends an assassin who feels indebted to her (or at least pretends to be), and who kills on her request. You would guess that her experiences with these two men would change an impressionable nine-year-old, but they seem not to affect her.

Speaking of princess Arya, she is part of a notably large group of underdogs in the series. They all regularly either get what they want, or escape the horrible types of fate that befall the other characters. This approach helps the writers create small pockets of satisfaction by having one of the underdogs claim a small victory every once in a while, which I think works well, although it has the tendency to get tacky.

You should watch this if you like big, sweeping drama and if you like to be entertained unashamedly. You might give this a miss if you prefer your TV drama to have a little depth.

Game of Thrones (HBO), first two seasons: 7/10.

Handy tool for dieting

A couple of months ago I started dieting with the help of the Fat Secret Calorie Counter, and for me this tool has proved to be very valuable.

Basically it lets you keep track of three things: the number of calories you take in, the number of calories you burn, and your weight.

Intake is measured by choosing from a huge database of ingredients. It really helps that I am single and mostly eat ready-made meals, because calculating the ingredients for home-cooked food and then trying to work out the size of the portions would have been a real downer, I feel.

The list of activities with which you burn calories is much smaller, usually I try and find an equivalent activity from the internet. Luckily the different things I do in a week is quite limited, so I am able to guess calorie usage fairly well.

Calorie counting may not be your thing but a calorie counter can still be a useful just to get a feel for the amount of calories you ingest every day. The rule of thumb is that if something tastes good, it is probably bad for you (at least in the quantities that stores and restaurants serve). Counting calories really brings that fact home.

For me, the Fat Secret Calorie Counter does more than that, it also provides a sort of external motivation. When I dieted before, I tended to get cranky after a week or six—this time around I have managed to keep it up for months in a row, and I have already lost about 11 kilos of the 16 or so I am planning to shed.

A quick review of the Swiffer cleaning system

Swiffer

The problem? I am lazy.

The circumstances? A downstairs with a laminated wooden floor.

Usually I use either a broom combined with a dustpan to clean the floor, or a vacuum cleaner.

At a time when I spent a lot of time working for the man, leaving me little time to clean, I was curious if buying a Swiffer would save me work.

Let me tell you the punchline first: Swiffer is additional cleaning technology. Use it if you want to increase your workload (for an even cleaner floor), or for a quick sweep of an already fairly clean floor.

So Swiffer is a system that looks like a broom, except that you stick stick a paper towel instead of a brush at the end. Wikipedia says that Swiffer uses the “razor-and-blades business model”, i.e. you pay little for the hardware and lots and lots and lots for the paper towels (pads).

The good news is, Swiffer works. It actually gets a lot of dust off the floor, much more than my broom or vacuum cleaner will. (I am sure the vacuum cleaner works very well, but vacuum cleaners spit out fine dust at about the same rate that they take it in.)

I have tried using generic paper towels instead of the official, expensive product, and those work too, just not as well. If you look at the Swiffer ‘pads’ as they are called, you will notice that they are thicker and more heavily textured than regular paper towels, which explains the difference in effectiveness. The official pads have more surface for dust to cling too.

I am sure there are third party developers who have worked around this.

The other good news is that Swiffering goes fairly fast.

The thing is, Swiffer does little for bigger objects such as tiny stones, nail clippings, hair and so on. In fact, sharp objects get dragged along the floor making a worrisome noise that seems to suggest you’ll end up with scratches.

You can also use wet pads for your kitchen or bathroom floor. They are not nearly as effective as using an old fashioned scrubber, but the pads are heavily perfumed, making your house at least smell clean.

In the end Swiffer replaced neither my broom nor my vacuum cleaner. I still use the system now and again though, typically when Visigoths visitors are at the door and I need a quick sweep.

Since the Swiffer system does seem to work well at the level of fine dust, I could probably recommend it to regular homemakers who wish to take their cleaning to a next level. For that reason alone it gets three stars.

My rating: 3.0 stars
***

Hank, my uncle the criminal

Oom Henk

A quick review.

Synopsis: Koen is a law student who, for a reason I missed, pretends Henk de Koning (Hank King), a notorious criminal, is his uncle. Henk forces Koen to start working in an old people’s home to try and get the secret of 12 million euro ransom money out of former, but now demented kidnapper Sjon de Nooyer.

– This is a black comedy, but also a farce.
– The violence is generally of the cartoon type – you never actually see people die, and corpes are often hidden in empty barrels.
– The plot is what it should be. The scripting could have been a lot tighter though – a tear was shed when realising what Tarantino or even Richie could have done with the premise.
– Two thirds in the plot starts to slow to the point that you’ll contemplate switching channels, but the end makes up for it.
– The acting was fine – I was especially impressed with Tobias Nierop who hit some fine notes; the bad notes being forgiven easily for his tenderish age.

You should watch this:
– If you are stuck in a hotel room and there is nothing else on.

You should not watch this:
– If you still have an unseen Game of Thrones episode on your hard disk.

Even shorter review: nice movie, only marred by the fact that the writers did not sit on the script for a year or so.

My rating: 3.0 stars
***

Dutch trailer with English subs: http://www.imdb.com/video/wab/vi52863769/

A quick review of the Canon EOS 600D camera and the Sigma 17-70mm lens

(As compared to the Canon EOS 1000D and its 17-55mm kit lens.)

I have been getting into roller derby photography lately, and that means I could use all the light I can get. It took me a while to figure out what I wanted exactly, outlined in painstaking detail before.

In the end I decided to buy a Canon 600D and maybe a new lens too.

I was hoping the new camera would gain me about 3 stops, two through better noise handling and one through a a higher resolution. (The higher resolution does not, of course, gain me a stop. But it does allow me to scale down an image, which translates to sharpness, which means that the moving targets I am shooting require less ‘freezing’. At least, that is how I hope it will work. Preliminary tests are positive.)

A couple of tests down the road indicate that I am looking at two stops, which is already great in my book. 6400 ISO seems pretty much unusable, but everything below is just fine. At 6400 ISO pictures on the 600D look like somebody has been emptying buckets of red and green over the sensor.

The Sigma 17-70mm (full name: Sigma 17-70 mm f/2.8-4.0 DC Macro OS HSM) is everything like the reviews and tests promised. It does almost everything better than the Canon kit lens with two exceptions: it is slightly less sharp (I did not test this myself), and it is much heavier and bigger.

The first point is not very important. Just use the zoom to make up for the slight loss in detail.

The second point is important, because a camera that you take out of the bag to shoot with is better than a camera that you let sit in the bag because it is too unwieldy. Of course, every DSLR is too large when compared to your phone came, but even between the Canon EOS 1000D + kit lens and the Canon EOS 600D + Sigma 17-70mm I foresee myself using the latter much less.

Not that this is much of a problem, as I will have my other lens, the 50mm / 1.8, mounted on the camera for most of the time, and that is one of the lightest and smallest lenses around. If you want better pictures than the kit lens can provide you with, I recommend you get the 50mm / 1.8 as an additional lens rather than replacing your kit lens with the Sigma 17-70mm.

Other than that, I like the fact that the Sigma does macro (not proper macro, but way, way better than the other two lenses) and that colour fringing (purple, orange and green lines along tree branches in the winter) is at times non-existent. I do have one photo though where the branches consist entirely of colour fringes. What causes this I have yet to figure out.

Finally also note that this lens doesn’t strike me as very useful for video: the AF hunts a lot, zooming is extremely noisy, and the zoom rate does not seem to be exactly linear at the long end.

The thing I like the best about my two new purposes is the articulated screen of the camera (that means it folds out). My first digital camera (a pocket model) had one of these, and it works almost just as well on a DSLR to help me focus. This is probably because of the way I shoot. I am just not very good at getting sharp focus with either the AF or by hand using the viewfinder.

The proof of the pudding will be in the eating. If I can get significantly better pictures during the next roller derby scrimmage or bout, I will be happy.

Note that you can get 100 % crops of the images shown here by clicking on them, saved as 85% JPEGs from the original JPEGs. In fact, I uploaded the crops and WordPress / GDLib created the scaled down versions. The macro shot is slightly out of focus (motion blur perhaps?), the bird photo is as good as I could get. Exif data is available in the large images.

Choices:

1. The Canon EOS 550D, 600D, 60D, and 7D all use the same sensor, resolution, image processor, basically anything that determines the basic image quality. The 60D has all cross-type AF points, but I did not read about many sports photographers that actually seem to use these. The 550D lacks an articulated screen, and I knew how much I liked those.

2. The Sigma lens is one stop faster than the Canon kit lens, so works slightly better indoors.

Grisham’s Law

The Testament

I read somewhere, a few weeks ago, that there is such a thing as Grisham’s Law. And although I could find only a single definition—once you’ve started reading a John Grisham novel, it is impossible to put it down—this reminded me I had an unread book of his lying around, The Testament.

What a disappointment. The first quarter of the book is used to introduce a huge ensemble cast of heirs, which is then used nowhere in the book, at least not seriously. What’s worse is that none of the heirs differ from each other. Not only could Grisham have scrapped them (almost) all, it would probably have made for a tighter story—one good guy versus one bad guy.

Every character is a parody. The lawyers in this book are all painted as greedy, law breaking miscreants. The alcoholics in this book are painted as being constantly on the rebound. And the believers in this book are being painted as labels. No matter how much I rack my brain, I fail to remember a single interesting character.

The protagonist, an alcoholic lawyer called Nate O’Reilly, manages to redeem himself and kick his habit by becoming a Christian (this would be a good time to cringe). He penetrates the impenetrable swamps of the Pantanal in Brasil in order to find the last heir, death lurking around every corner, except that as a reader you know Grisham won’t kill off his hero, not halfway the story. That neatly kills off any lingering suspense the book might have retained.

The rest of the novel is one dreadful string of self-contained events. In the rare occasion that Grisham seems to want to build up suspense, he tends to get bored with it and opts for a quick way out.

I still finished the book. Don’t ask me why. I felt like… like the writing must simply get better at some point. And then when it was clear it wasn’t going to get better, I had already invested too much time. Or perhaps I could not put it down because of a universal law at work.

My rating: 1.5 stars
*1/2

Here is a tip: if you must read about believers, read Morris West.

Last second update: this is not a negative critique of Grisham, merely of this specific, auto-pilot work. I hugely enjoyed reading The Firm and The Client, and watching the film based on The Pelican Brief—all three novels, I might add, belonging to his earlier works.