Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Firefox Extensions

Part Firefox-whoring, part save my ass in the event of a cataclysmic hard drive crash. Here's a list of Firefox extensions I'm currently using.

I won't bother to add links because:

A. I'm lazy.
B. If you can't figure out how to Google it, you're better off without extensions.

  • Foxmarks: backs up and synchronizes bookmarks across machines.
  • Flashblock: blocks flash. Or does it flash blocks?
  • Adblock Plus: is it a good idea to mention this on an ad-supported blog? Probably not.
  • Beagle Indexer: indexes visited pages using Beagle Search.
  • CustomizeGoogle: enhances Google and its search results.
  • Fast Dial: visual bookmarking. May be rendered obsolete in Firefox 3.1
  • Screen Grab!: saves an entire web-page as an image.
  • StumbleUpon: social bookmarking
  • Tab Kit: tab grouping, multi-rows, tree view, etc.
  • Torbutton: Anonymizes connection using Tor.
  • RefControl: spoof http referrers.

The list will probably be edited from time to time with no warning.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Online petitions: You're not solving anything

Perhaps this post will end up being an unintended exploration of the mind of a very cynical man, rather than the snarky expose of affectation that it's intended to be. That all depends on the approach of the reader, but this issue is one which has annoyed me for a while now and, come Hell or high water - or low opinion - rant about it I shall.

Perusing my Facebook News Feed, I notice that one of my friends had taken the initiative to join the group "Say NO to Albino Killings in Tanzania, Please Sign to get 10000 Signatures." A group featuring a heart-rending photograph of a badly beaten and somewhat bored looking Albino man, which is accompanied by a description that claims to be seeking actually 100,000 signatures, and not the ten thousand which the name leads us to believe.

All in all, it could be seeking - and in fact have - a billion signatures. My question is: Who cares?

A typical example of a courageous Internet Activist, crusading tirelessly in the name of justice.

What do people hope to achieve by signing up to online petitions? Do they think that the government will suddenly do an about-face on their stance towards the issue†1 merely because 100,000 anonymous signatures fell on someone's desk? Of course! The economy of an entire nation could be reshuffled and all international relations reevaluated because 100,000 people on the Internet†2 decided to click "join". Makes perfect sense.

Maybe they're not really arrogant (or naive) enough to think that they could convince the government to change their position. Maybe they just believe that the government doesn't even know about these atrocities, and a petition delivered to the right pair of hands could get the people in charge to sit up and take notice.

I'm sorry, I call bullshit. Are you telling me that the city-college dropout who founded the group in question actually knows more about international human rights issues than official government media liaisons, world-traveling ambassadors, and professional intelligence operatives? Give me a break.

Finally, the argument could be made that these people aren't really hoping to effect any change through their actions. They're just doing something in order to, you know, do something. Surely doing something is better than doing nothing. As noble as that may seem to the credulous ear,†3†4 I'm sorry to point out that you're not doing anything. Well, besides placating your sense of self-satisfaction, that is.

If you really want to do something, then raise money. Convince your employer to donate. Send packages of food or replacement mine-detector batteries to the United Nations. Travel to the afflicted regions and help to build schools and hospitals. In other words, do something real. Clicking a link and then forgetting about it is not real.

The reason online petitions are fundamentally wrong is because it achieves nothing, yet makes those who "sign" feel like they're doing something. It imbues them with a smug sense of accomplishment that may be enough to prevent them from doing something that could potentially make a difference. I mean, you already signed the online petition, why should you go out and donate money, too? Am I right?

In summary, online petitions are not only pointless, they're counter-productive. By signing them you only succeed in proving that you're a smug asshole who wants to be Bono without actually leaving your comfy, air conditioned office.

I realize that this somewhat Facebook-related post is immediately preceded by another Facebook-related post. I apologize for this and hope that the wanton monotony of my life will subside enough for this not to happen again.

1. Which I think it's safe to assume is a stance of unmitigated apathy, otherwise the group wouldn't exist in the first place.

2. Or about one fifth of the membership of Fark.com

3. Or eye. Whatever.

4. Yes, I'm using footnotes! Just one more step towards turning everything on the Web into Wiki-goddamn-pedia... Or worse, a graduate dissertation.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

A Vindication of the New Facebook Layout

Being the lazy sonofabitch that I am, I'm not even going to write any new material especially for this post. Instead, I'm going to paste a (slightly abridged) note which I wrote on my Facebook profile earlier today for the edification of my "friends".

Here goes:

There's been a great deal of whining lately about the new Facebook layout, and more than a few Facebook groups dedicated to its eradication, but why all the hate? Since I have nothing better to do on this chilly Sunday afternoon, I'll take a stab at attempting to justify the new layout. It's very tldr, but try to bear with me. Besides, if you don't like reading you have no business being on the Internet in the first place.

I suppose the most simple answer for all the hate is because people fear change - and often with good reason: A new layout means that most non-tech savvy users (read: 90% of you) will have to spend time getting reacquainted with where to click in order to perform any given task.

In order to understand why the change came about in the first place, however, requires understanding the reasons that precipitated it. The fact of the matter is that Facebook was turning into a ridiculous parody of itself.

When I want to go to your profile to, for example, get your phone number or e-mail address, that's basically all I'm interested in. I couldn't give a fuck how many zombies you made, or how attractive your peers find you. Nor do I have any interest whatsoever in seeing the idiotic movie clips and ancient, dried up, "funny" images posted on your so-called Super Wall. As interesting and amusing as these applications may be to you, the ultimate truth is that nobody else gives a shit. So why should I get bombarded with your superfluous crap that steals my bandwidth, melts my CPU and crashes my browser, when all I want is your fucking e-mail address?

This is the same fate that befell MySpace when they decided to allow its users to customize their own profiles as they saw fit - the dreaded "MySpace Syndrome". 99% of profiles became so afflicted with hideous layouts, that when Facebook showed up, everybody jumped ship for the promise of a more sane social network.

Today, the only people who still regularly use MySpace are lonely 13-year-olds and out-of-touch record labels.

This is what Facebook was turning into because of people like you. Every second profile was becoming so overloaded with ridiculously stupid and unnecessary application boxes that they became nigh on unusable. If things were allowed to escalate, then those of us who are not complete and utter morons would have left to find another social network to call our own. Bebo or Orkut or maybe even one that doesn't suck. At least until you retards with your Pirates vs Vampires shit decided to seek us out yet again. No, the line must be drawn somewhere and that somewhere is here.

"But it's my profile, I can do whatever I want to it!" I hear you belch? Well, no it isn't. A Facebook profile is not public property. It's virtual, private property, and unless you paid money for your profile, you have exactly zero say over it. Furthermore, if you had read the Facebook Terms of Use before signing up (you didn't, am I right?), you'll know that everything that gets posted to Facebook becomes the property of Facebook and they can do with it pretty much whatever they want. Uploading all those pictures of little Billy's first steps doesn't seem like such a good idea anymore, now does it?

The new Facebook layout arranges everything into dynamic tabs. This means that the content of any given tab only gets downloaded when I click on that tab. And, fortunately, Facebook included a "bullshit" tab. Oh, I'm sorry, I meant to say "boxes" tab. This is where your Super Wall, Top Friends, and other assorted crap nobody cares about goes. This means that your applications can now be seen only by people who really want to see them (read: nobody).

Now, I'm all for choice. Some of you don't want the new layout gone permanently, you just want the option to go back to the old one. That's not too unreasonable, is it? Well, no it's not. Unfortunately, though, it's not gonna happen and here's why:

If Facebook decided to keep both the old and new layouts this means that, in future, whenever they wanted to add or extend functionality to the site they'll be severely hampered in doing so. Worst case scenario, it'll be impossible. Best case scenario, they'll have to do twice the amount of work. Which means twice the number of man-hours. Which means twice the expense. From a business point of view (and remember Facebook is a business, not a public service - they don't owe you jack shit) having two concurrent layouts is completely unfeasible.

What this means is that there can be only one layout. Shouldn't it be the better, more evolved of the two options? The one that's more convenient to use, overall less threatening to Facebook's revenue stream and, let's face it, less embarrassing.

Ultimately, if you don't like it you're free to join another social network. I recommend MySpace where you'll be free to show off your Zombies and Top Friends with all the lonely 13-year-olds and out-of-touch record labels. They just love that shit.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Brown Ubuntu: It's not that bad, really!

Ubuntu has taken quite a bit of flack from the get go for its, uhm... unique... default colour scheme; mostly because the overarching colour of the theme is brown. Now, I myself am quite partial to it. It's warm, welcoming, and a departure from the same old blue- and silver-based themes with which most other operating systems seem to roll off the assembly line. This default theme has been tweaked throughout Ubuntu's various releases, but the main colour palette still remains based around the colour brown.

My current (at time of writing) Ubuntu Linux desktop.
I've thus far been rather indifferent to this particularly nasty brand of prejudice... Until it made its way onto my own doorstep. Judging me by the colour of my skin is one thing, but judging me by the colour of my desktop? Well, I'm afraid that's just going too far.

A sagacious relative of mine bombasted his corpulent cuerpo into my bedroom on a recent visit, and spied my Ubuntu desktop (sporting a modified, but still very much brown, theme). The first words echoing from out of his abysmal estuary described my desktop as "looking like shit." Not in a metaphorical sense, mind you, but in a very literal, faecal one. I shrugged it off and distracted him by tossing an animal cracker down the hall. Nevertheless, this got me thinking. Why would the first thing someone thinks of, when seeing the colour brown, be shit? There's nothing inherently shitty about the colour brown - though, I concede, there's something inherently brown about shit.

When I think of the colour brown, the first thing that pops into my head is chocolate. Something which is a treat: A delicious luxury to be sampled only by the most deserving. Wouldn't this be a very clever - or at least marketable - way to describe a great operating system? Think of a high quality, free operating system as being analogous to a neverending river of chocolate. The former being as much a pleasure to use as the latter is to eat. Except that Ubuntu won't cause you to get fat (in theory). Nor cause you to become diabetic and lead you to a lifetime of health problems and an early death. Okay, come to think of it, maybe chocolate isn't such a marketable analogy, but hey, at least it's not shit.

Another thing that comes to mind when I think of the colour brown is coffee. A delicious beverage with a history as rich as its flavour, and with as many varieties as it has fans; one for every palate. A universally beloved infusion which is welcoming enough to be accessible to the casual drinker, yet still full and complex enough to please the connoisseur. A drink equally at home and appropriate in a professional atmosphere as in a casual one, a pot of which not being out of place in either a cosy room with a few close friends, or the boardroom of a Fortune 500 company.

Wouldn't that last paragraph, awkward though it may be, describe Linux with equal comeliness? Of course it would, because it does.

What it comes down to is that those who attack Ubuntu for adopting a brown default theme for their Linux distribution are really just highlighting their own short-sightedness. Clearly, they feel the need to beset those who dare deviate from the norm of cold, sparse themes which are about as homely as an operating theater.

Your choice of themes, much like your choice of sexual partner, is an individual thing and entirely your own business, but it seems irrational to attack Ubuntu for using a brown default theme, given its warmth, neutrality and individuality.

Mark Shuttleworth has written a great defense of the choice of brown for the default Ubuntu theme, clearly explaining the motivation.

As requested, here's a link to the GTK Dust theme.