Tag Archives: Web

IE6 Doesn’t Need Leechblock

My company still has Internet Explorer 6 as the standard browser on all their machines. IE6 is of course appalling. Microsoft itself is telling people that enough is enough, and that IE9 is out now, and please upgrade. There are a couple of campaigns to kill IE6 once and for all, because it is old tech that is holding the web back:

I installed Mozilla Firefox at work for my day-to-day browsing, although all my work links, like the expenses system, timesheets and so on are in IE6, just for consistency. The company intranet is run on MS SharePoint, which actually seems to run better on IE than on Firefox – probably because of some proprietary jiggery-pokery that cripples it on a proper browser. SharePoint is truly dreadful, as I tell people whenever I can.

I do get distracted by web stuff at work sometimes, which has led me to installing Leechblock, an excellent plugin for Firefox which allows you to add websites to a blacklist, and then stops you from visiting them. You can bypass the block, but only by entering a (configurable) 64-character string into a dialogue box, which is just enough to dissuade me. You can also easily add a site you are visiting to the blacklist, and set various times when the list is in operation. For example, I let myself visit YouTube at lunchtime.

I think it’s a testament to how bad IE6 is that I don’t need Leechblock when viewing sites when using that browser, because it makes all the fun stuff nigh-on unusable anyway.

It Was Twenty Years Ago Today, That We Went After The NSA

Had a fun and social time at the Electronic Frontier Foundation 20th Birthday party at SF’s famous DNA Lounge last night. Met up beforehand with foodie and antiques fan Adam at Tu Lan Vietnamese restaurant, which is a tiny grubby place, with amazing food at incredible prices. It was the first time we’d met after being that most modern of things, “Internet Acquaintances”, for nigh on six years, via Monkeyfilter, WTFIWWYP and so on. Great to finally meet.

After stuffing ourselves we went over to the venue, where the earlier VIP event was still winding down. But they soon let us proles in, and we had a look round the space. The DNA Lounge is pretty popular amongst the geeky set in San Francisco, and there are several club nights there I might take a look at. Then again, I haven’t been to a club proper in years – and an Industrial night called “Meat” may not be the best place to start.

I got to meet lots of cool people. Adam is friends with the EFF’s Rebecca from way back, a symptom of what he described was the incredible way that in SF, there only seems to be 3 degrees of separation (is that why lots of guys in San Francisco are big fans of The Three Degrees?). He introduced me, and it was nice again to meet someone who I follow on Twitter. Hearing my accent, Rebecca in turn introduced me to Veteran Of A Thousand Cyberwars Danny O’Brien, who was working the room like a pro after his on-stage antics, and he seemed pleased that I was wearing my old “Elite” NTK tshirt. We had a chat about the old NTK days, how it started, why it stopped, and why it’s no longer needed. I contributed a couple of tiny things to the site “back in the day”, including the Paunch tshirt of which I am not really that proud.


Here’s a couple of Flickr sets from the evening, including clips of the hilarious “Legends of EFF” theatrical production, which told the story of the EFF, from the first case of the US Secret Service raiding an RPG manufacturer because they thought it was a cybercrime cell, through the incredible antics of AT&T and the NSA (just a block away from my office!), to the court battles over the Broadcast Flag.

Great evening, good fun, good cause, and it’s spurred me on to dump the evil (and under-performing) AT&T and get a better phone – so much of the social whirl seems to be driven by iPhones and Androids, and my battered Centro just doesn’t cut the mustard anymore. Plus I want a new toy.

PDF Forms, Linux, Fax Machines And Pain

Because I know you’re all crying out to hear about how things are going in SF with C, I’ve decided to write about creating PDF forms in Linux. I knew you’d be pleased.

When I got home from work at about 18.45 a couple of days ago, C told me she had to had to fill in (or is it “fill out”, now I’m “American”?) a form for a job application. It had to be done quickly, and we agreed that it would be best to do it electronically. That way it would be neat, legible (not that C’s writing is poor, quite the opposite) and correctable in case of error.

The form was a PDF file, but it didn’t have form fields built in, which would have allowed C to simply enter and edit her information. This is fair enough, I think. Many organizations have PDF creation tools, such as the Adobe PDF printer, and of course Mac and Linux systems have PDF printers built-in. Anyone can create a nice form in a word processor and create a PDF for distribution. But form fields require fancy tools to create, and as such they aren’t as common. Surely, I thought, surely there is software out there to add form fields? Surely there is a free or open-source package to do this?

(If you’re thinking, “But you can create forms with MS Word”, kindly leave.)

Google found me several possibilities.

pdftk – The PDF Toolkit

Command-line tool which looks very powerful from my brief glance at the man page. Can chop up PDFs, rotate pages, and much more, all from a command-line interface. But it doesn’t enable you to add form fields. You can complete them, by providing a text file containing your desired entries, but not create.


I tried Inkscape as a side-attempt, but it screwed up the fonts in the document. Inkscape is great, and well worth using and supporting. It’s an open-source vector graphics editor that uses SVG as its native format, but it can open, edit and save PDFs as well. I’ve used it for fun and flyers and stuff, but for this purpose, it wasn’t the tool I was looking for.


This turned out to be the one that saved us. PDFescape is an online, JavaScript powered, GUI-driven PDF editing system. You can create PDFs, edit and download them, or save them to your free account. And yes, you can add form fields, so that when you download the PDF, you can use Adobe Reader, Gnome Evince Document Viewer (the default Ubuntu PDF viewer), OSX Preview, or your PDF viewer of choice to enter your details, and then save or print the results.

It’s worth noting that Evince doesn’t work right when filling in fields. It doesn’t use the correct font size you set when creating the field, using instead a tiny sans-serif font. No good.

At first the process ran like this. I would open the PDF in PDFescape on my Ubuntu desktop PC downstairs, then use the clearly laid-out interface to add text fields and check boxes. I was able to save at regular intervals, and when I was ready, I downloaded a finished PDF to my Desktop, and then copied it to our shared folder on Dropbox, where we regularly swap files.

C would then open the PDF in Preview on her Macbook upstairs, finding various errors and problems with text size, placement and so on. So I would open the form again downstairs, make the edits, re-save and on it would go.

At one stage my PC froze, which it does from time to time if I don’t watch it. I think it may have been due to my moving the desk on its casters to plug the printer in – I find US power sockets very tenuous and wobbly. Not like the huge, proud, Imperial heel-crippling UK ones – that’s the spirit! Luckily, the PDF was saved on the PDFescape site, so nothing was lost. A quick reboot and re-login allowed me to continue.

One persistent error with the form fields caused the text entered in one field to be duplicated in another, somewhere else in the document. This was probably due to the moving, copying and pasting I was doing. I reported it as a bug anyway.

After a few loops of the edit-review cycle, we realized it would be easier to add the form fields and add the text at the same time, on my PC, with Cassie dictating the contents over my shoulder. So we did that, and eventually, at about 1.30 (yes, AM), we had a document that was completed and ready to print and sign.

Printing, yes…

I have a printer that I rarely use, an HP PhotoSmart 8050, which has worked well in the past, although the cartridges are of course excruciatingly expensive. I set it up, and a couple of test pages showed that it wasn’t printing right. I cleaned the cartridges, but that didn’t help. I think the 18 months and more that it has sat unused in the cupboard had meant that the ink in the cartridges had dried up. By a huge stroke of luck, I had one black and one color cartridge at the back of a drawer. I inserted them, ran the alignment, and all was running fine. We were able to print the PDF so that C could sign and date it.

This printer is pretty good, all told. But the cost, and drawbacks like this of rare use, have got me think about alternatives. I’ll post something about my thoughts later.

It was now nearly 2AM, and although we could have connected up my crappy USB-powered flatbed scanner, which would have another painful project, scanned the signed copy and emailed it, we were both dead on our feet. C said she would take it to a copy shop to fax it the next day.

Jensen’s Mail and Print up the hill from us charge $2 per page to fax a document. This of course is outrageous, and part of why they have consistently terrible reviews on Yelp. Not wanting to pay $20 to fax the 10 pages, C got them to scan the document. She emailed it home, and then found that some problem meant she couldn’t forward it to the person waiting for it. So she emailed it to me at work, to ask me to fax it.

The quality of the scan from Jensen’s was terrible, it looked like a bad fax. If I faxed that again, it would be doubly illegible. Eventually, C went to a Kinko’s, and they faxed the original. It was done!


All in all a pretty unpleasant experience. I looked around on the net for faxing alternatives. All the fax software you can get expects you to have a fax modem in your PC, which I don’t. There are services which will provide you with enterprise-level email-to-fax services, which allow you to email an attachment to a special email address, and have it pop out of your contact’s fax machine, complete with attachment. That would be ideal, but it would be nice to have a one-off service for situations like these. The available services are all $10 a month or thereabouts.

The Phone Company provide a free fax service, which allows you to send text messages from your email account, via a specially formed email address to any supported fax number. Because it’s a free service, not all numbers are supported, and you have to check first. Also, if you have to send non-text information, it has to be in a MIME attachment type, such as TIFF. Not so bad, but a bit labor-intensive. But free!

Don’t Masquerade With The Guy In Shades

OK so I got new prescription sunglasses. I felt (and I was agreed with) that my current simple metal frames were not cool enough, considering I now live (for the moment) in a city with plenty of sunshine. I’d seen a few reviews of these cheap online sunglasses stores, so I decided to take a risk and go for it. I suspect a lot of these places depend on the “for this price, why not” crowd. For $40, even if they sucked, it won’t be too bad.

After reading about a few places, I plumped for Optical 4 Less. They seem to get good reviews, and they had the frames I wanted, so I dug out my lenses prescription and went through the site’s ordering process. They give you many choices about lens type, materials, coatings and so on, and obviously that adds to the price. The website laid it all out pretty clearly, breaking it down into clear steps. I had to measure the distance between my pupils, which I did following these instructions. My sunglasses were pretty much the most basic you could get, with simple not-very-powerful lenses, no coatings and just a simple tint – “brown3”, the darkest brown they had. They came to $40 including shipping from Hong Kong. If you want special lenses, or any other fancy features, you pay extra – I saw one type of lens that would add $180 to the price. For that much I would probably visit a local store.

I ordered them on June 15th, and on Saturday June 27th I had a card in my mailbox to collect a parcel from the Post Office. I must remember to get stuff delivered to work, to save these lunchtime trips to collect parcels. When I finally got my hands on the box, here’s what happened. Look, an unboxing slideshow!

I’m very happy with the glasses. They are good quality frames – not flimsy, the lenses are working fine, and the shipping was pretty quick. If I had one complaint, the tint is not quite as dark as I would have liked. I chose the darkest brown, and they could do with being just a tad darker. But they are great, and I would recommend them.

The ones I chose are the “Freeway” model, which is an obvious ripoff of the Oakley Thump sunglasses so beloved of tedious renegade douchebags everywhere. Only joking, they are actually a copy of the famous Wayfarers from Ray-Ban, as immortalized by the Blues Brothers, that one line out of that one Don Henley song, and beloved of tedious hipster douchebags everywhere. They don’t have the little white Ray-Ban logo in the corner, but I can add that with Tipp-Ex, so that’s not a problem.

The link above is to The Blues Brothers 2000, which I’m sure you will agree was superior to the original because it had John Goodman and a child in it, John of course reprising his roles from King Ralph and The Borrowers. Hint: Never see a movie where the poster has John Goodman (or anyone else) looking shocked on it. He was great in True Stories though, despite David Byrne effortlessly acting him off the screen.

I actually got these frames in my continuing effort to more closely resemble John Cusack in Grosse Point Blank. Perhaps I should dye my hair and become attractive and talented too? Hmm? I got my black suit altered. Or perhaps Joachim “He’s Mad” Phoenix in Walk The Line. Either way, I will use them to watch you weave then breathe your storylines.

Personal Data Flow Diagram

With my Palm Centro, I’ve been playing with methods of keeping all my contacts and calendars up to date. I’ll admit it’s more of a geeky labour of love rather than a legitimate need for a solution. As the complexity of the links involved became clear, and after I had some problems with timezone shifting of my calendar events due to duplicated synchronization (always a bummer), I had started to draw it out as a simple data flow diagram.

Then I saw this beautiful Disney Organisation Chart from 1943, and I decided to create the flow chart in this style. The only tool I had immediate access to was Microsoft Visio at work, so one lunchtime I had a first crack at it.

One of the nice stylish features of the Disney diagram was the text wrapped inside the circles, fitted to the curves. Microsoft Visio doesn’t allow you to fit text to a curve, unlike pretty much all other drawing and paint software (even the “business graphics” packages do). The solution to this requirement according to the helpful souls up in Redmond is to create a Word-Art object in Word and paste that in. This would be fine except that it a) looks shit, b) can’t be edited in Visio, and c) doesn’t actually work anyway.

A quick Google found The Visio Guy and the Circular Text Generator Version 2, which is brilliant. Thanks, Visio Guy!

> wait
Time passes...

Since then, I decided I didn’t want to be trapped in Visio, so I transferred it over to Inkscape, the open-source vector graphics editing package. Inkscape is a work in progress, but so far it’s very powerful, and getting friendlier by the update. It’s default file format is SVG, so at a stretch you could edit the file in a text editor (if you were feeling crazy).

Inkscape is not yet at 1.0, so some features are a bit clunky, and many would be far easier to do in a mature commercial package, but I like to support these efforts. Particularly useful were the “Flow text into shape” feature, which is a basic tool in most other drawing software, even MS Office. The key feature for me was the Connectors feature, which is again the most obvious tool in Visio, because it allows you to connect shapes together with lines which stay connected when you move the shapes, and which can avoid overlapping other shapes if you want. Ideal for data flow diagrams.

Anyway, here is the current version of the graphic, as of today’s date.

personal data flowchart 2009 06

There is a bit of a gap in the lower left, where JPilot should really sync to Thunderbird, which would be sensible, instead of having all my C.E.N.T (Contacts, Events, Notes, Tasks) info go around the houses via Google Calendar and web. There are other weird things going on, and stuff missing, but it’s a start.

There was a box called Schedule World, which was a free service for syncing info over the web, but now the developer is charging, so bye bye. I’d bought a SyncML client for the Centro as well, which is now redundant. Guess I should remove it from the diagram.

Also, this is a PNG file exported from Inkscape. I could add links to the SVG and post that up here, but SVG support is not ubiquitous yet, so I won’t. Don’t want to deny the IE crowd.

Ubuntu On The EeePC, Part 5 – It’s Alive

See also Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4

With the recent release of Ubuntu 9.04 Jaunty Jackalope (the number means April 2009, and the name is an alphabetical progression – the last release was Intrepid Ibex, with Hardy Heron before it) I was able to grab the Netbook Remix version. This has a few extra bits and pieces to make working on a slower computer with a smaller screen more comfortable. My Asus EeePC fits this bill perfectly, it being a “child’s toy laptop for baby girls” according to Cassie, user of a creaking and lovingly browned Apple iBook G4.

My previous attempts to replace the OS on the netbook met with no success whatsoever. It seemed like there was a problem with the 4GB internal flash drive, which borked the install each time. I don’t know why I expected it to work this time. But it did! I downloaded the (frankly huge) IMG file, followed the clear and straighforward installation instructions, loaded the IMG onto my panda-shaped USB stick, and set it on it’s way. No errors on the drive, all fine. I restarted. Ubuntu loading screen!

One of the big sells for the Netbook Remix is the netbook launcher,  a configurable launcher program that fills the screen with a nice interface for your applications. But it seemed very slow on my box. Too slow to use, in fact. So on the advice of this page I switched it off and installed XFCE instead. That works nice and smoothly. Another good trick is the package maximus, which forces all windows to fill the screen. I like this, even when it blows up a small dialog with just ‘yes’ and ‘no’ buttons. With such a small screen, why bother showing 2 things at once? (This may well come back to bite me.)

To replace the launcher thing, I will install a keyboard launcher such as Launchy or Gnome-Do. I like to avoid the trackpad as much as possible, and plug in a mouse when I have to. Launchy is great on my desktop, and Mercury was fine on the original EeePC Xandros installation, but I want something more slick now, and I’m not tied down to the Xandros repositories any more.

I also removed OpenOffice because it’s quite a hefty suite, and this machine won’t be used for slide presentations, or databases. To replace Writer I installed Abiword, a much more lean but still high-functioning word processor which I can tap away on. To replace Calc I installed Gnumeric for the same reason. I don’t need to replace Impress, Draw or Base.

When I first tried it, the built-in webcam didn’t work, but a quick search told me to check the BIOS setting. I did and I found that it was disabled. I switched it on, tested it and it works fine with Cheese and Skype.

All looking good… then down to earth with a bump. When I tested the sound for Skype, I found that I couldn’t get the sound to work at all, not with music or video or anything. There are some bugs listed regarding this, so I’ll have to check those out later.

At least the damn thing boots into a usable interface now.

The Stupid, It Kills.

There’s lots of dangerous anti-science nonsense going around at the moment, with today’s highlight being that Oprah Winfrey, who controls the minds and opinions of millions of people, has made a deal with anti-vaccination loon Jenny McCarthy to shill her well-meaning but wrong ideas about vaccination and autism.

The Bad Astronomer is very disappointed, and he often uses this graphic to illustrate his feelings about an issue:

The Stupid, It Burns
I think a stronger message is required. Preventable diseases are on the rise around the world. Babies too young to be vaccinated are dying because the children around them have well-meaning but wrong parents who have been taken in by the propaganda mix of scare tactics and anecdote, and decided not to vaccinate their children.

The longer this goes on, the higher the death toll. The Stupid, It Kills.


Chirpy Chirpy Cheep Cheep

There’s lots of talk about Twitter at the moment, so here’s my two cents worth penny’s worth one Expat Trading Token’s worth.

  • I like it, I use it. If you don’t like it or don’t use it, fine. End of.
  • It sounds stupid” – OK, don’t use it. You’re probably right, and we’ll all thank you when this blows over for your incisive thoughts. Well done.
  • “What use is it?” – None, some, or plenty. Take your pick.
  • “Most people on Twitter are just saying nothing in a big cloud” – partially true, completely the point. Move along.
  • If you have the word “marketing” in your bio, I will block you.
  • I don’t often use the “@” reply thing, but I do use it sometimes. Some people’s twitterstreams are full of simple “@[insert name here] LOL!”, and they use it all the time. Fine by me.

Many people have tried to write dictionaries and rules of etiquette for Twitter, a lot of which have been bullshit attempts to codify something, and thereby claim it. “Oh yeah, I compiled the Twictionary” – piss off. Most people don’t use these words, and the etiquette thing is even worse. Some people think it’s rude not to follow everyone who follows you. As far as I’m concerned, I follow people I find interesting, whether I’ve met them or not. But I like to have been introduced, physically or otherwise.

It was very interesting to follow people’s reactions to the US Presidential Debates, live, as an auto-updating Twitter stream. It seemed that 75% of the people commenting were Democrats. There were also many bots – programs out there posting regularly, created purely to snark. My observation was that most of these were Republican.

I like Graham Linehan’s take on the whole Twitter.

Ignore those grumpy luddites in the broadsheets and elsewhere, who don’t understand it, can’t be bothered to learn how it works and are frightened at the prospect that people are entertaining themselves in a way that doesn’t involve accepted media forms.

My first post (not keen on using the term tweet) was in August 2007. My usage patterns have varied since then, as it has faded in and out of usefulness. I usually use the web interface, as I post from work. I also use Twitterfox, Motwit on my phone (which shows up as “web” in the stats below), and I will be trying TweetDeck soon. Here are a few interesting views, created by the myriad tools out there.

This post’s title comes from the wonderful, uplifting and tender song by Middle Of The Road, posted in my playlist on the “musical Twitter”, Blip.fm. Let’s see what the chattering late-to-the-party journos make of that.

Ubuntu On The EeePC, Part 2

See Part 1 here.

Inspired by Flesh’s new Acer Aspire One, I decided to have another go at getting Ubuntu on my EeePC. This thing is now a bit old by netbook standards, being a first-generation 700, but it still makes me smile.

I’d had some problems getting Unetbootin to run on the EeePC, something to do with legacy dependencies, glibc and the like. A question was asked, and answered, and now was the time to try the new version. Also, my desktop is now up and running, so I should be able to run it there.

Unfortunately, when I downloaded the latest deb file from sourceforge for the i386, the package installer complained it was the wrong architecture, “amd64”, despite my having downloaded the i386 file. Another brick wall. I tried the amd64 version too, and that gave the same error.

While looking around the Ubuntu Eee wiki (which has no link to the “How to install” page on the front page by the way – it’s here)  I saw that there are many issues with Skype, sound and wireless networking, and lots of forums activity to get them all fixed. At least, it looks that way and the wiki doesn’t seem to reflect reflect the most up to date situation.

I’d also noticed in the Google searches that there is another Ubuntu for EeePCs, Eeebuntu, which appears a lot slicker, apparently works out of the box, and seems to make it clear how to install it. Kind of.

I got as far as torrent-downloading the ISO file, before I realised I should really be packing for my Xmas trip. I’ll get back to this after the new year. Have a good one!

ORG 3rd Birthday

The UK Open Rights Group has now been around for 3 years, and they have released their 2008 Review of Activities. It shows how busy the group has been, and also how much more they are needed.

It seems that a week doesn’t go by when a CD isn’t lost or a laptop isn’t stolen containing personal data. Surveillance, ID cards, RFID passports, all are being touted as necessary to keep us secure. But when it’s so poorly implemented, it becomes a liability, and is it really necessary?

As more and more music is bought and distributed digitally, the ORG has a part to play in ensuring that you own the music you bought, rather than just owning a license to play a file which can be revoked at will.

There are many more issues. The review describes the problems that face not just the ORG, but everyone living in the UK. Happily, the ORG is making great progress in advising, guiding, and where necessary, stopping the powers that be. The review is packed with info on work with the grassroots, the press and behind the scenes with policymakers, and it shows that ORG is now a respected digital rights advocate and also looks forward to expanding our operations in the coming years.

As one of the Founding 1000 members, I can show you these fantastic badges. I need to choose one to put in the sidebar, but in the meantime, here they all are. As you can see, I was member number 192!

Now that I live in the US, I’ve joined the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which is the US equivalent of ORG. It’s been around longer, and has more permanent staff, and it’s had some very high profile cases, including suing President Bush, the various Attorney Generals, and the NSA. I’m proud to support them both.