The Linux desktop needs to be pre-installed

I believe that regular users (i.e., non-developers) are unlikely to start using Linux on the desktop until they can get it pre-installed. The reality is that all OS upgrades are a nightmare. Lots of people had horrible failures when trying to upgrade from XP to Vista, and even the Tiger to Leopard upgrade on OS X required many users to reformat their hard drives. Given that Linux is a completely independent OS (and, unlike OS X, needs to work across a wide range of hardware), it’s no surprise that upgrading to Linux is so (deservedl) daunting.

That’s why I’m excited about news about the new “tweener” category of mini-laptops coming pre-installed with Linux, such as this article about Acer.

Linux

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Roomba positioning challenges

The Roomba iRobot looks like an incredibly fun product, though it’s reviews as a vacuum cleaner have been mediocre. I love, though, that the same technology has military uses: “The Army has deployed PackBot, a reconnaissance robot from iRobot, to scope out caves and other dangerous locales in Afghanistan and Iraq.”

Clearly, someone has not read enough science fiction/horror, or they would worry about mixups between the vacuum cleaner firmware and the blow up the Taliban firmware.

Technology and Science

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Viewing filtered mailing lists on Bloglines

There are a lot of mailing lists out there that occasionally discuss an area of interest, but don’t necessarily have a great signal-to-noise ratio. I generally want to filter them by either sender or for keywords in the body, and trash the rest of the messages. I also prefer to have the filtered messages forwarded to a Bloglines email subscription, where they fit in nicely with the rest of my RSS feeds. (The only downside to this approach is that Bloglines doesn’t thread messages, but that tends not to be important since I’m just pulling out certain messages anyway.)

Here are the procmail scripts that let me do this. Note that Bloglines should really add this filtering capability directly as part of the their aggregation services.
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Hacking

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Google AdSense doesn’t honor their policy on inappropriate content

First, let me make clear that I think Google AdSense is one of the most extraordinary services on the web and is hugely important in making large parts of the web sustainable over time. It’s a new service that they’re constantly enhancing, and so I expect them to fix this problem eventually. The issue today, though, is that Google AdSense displays ads that are inappropriate and even dangerous given the page’s content, and offers no way to fix the problem.

I administer PWS Notes, which is an informational and support site about the rare genetic disorder Prader-Willi Syndrome (PWS). The site provides a variety of useful information about treatments, medical research, support groups, etc. In 2000, PWS sufferers were granted FDA approval for use of Human Growth Hormone (HGH) to help treat the severe obesity associated with the disease. Therefore, there are pages on the site about HGH, and over time, many pages are likely to mention it, such as this one about a child’s progress. All proceeds from Google AdSense are being donated to the Foundation for Prader-Willi Research.

The problem is that every Google ad regarding HGH appears to be a fairly fraudulent pitch for herbal supplements that they say “release” or “activate” HGH. In fact, these advertised products have nothing to do with HGH, which is a very powerful but also quite dangerous drug that is controlled by the FDA. The issue is the Google ads may confuse (in fact, are designed to confuse) na´ve parents to think that these cheap (and, frankly, worthless) herbal supplements are any replacement for physician-prescribed HGH. You can see the ads here. Although ads for worthless herbal supplements are legal, they are potentially dangerous in this context.

What Google needs is a tool so that I can set www.pwsnotes.org with a “-HGH, -GH and -’growth hormone’” regarding Adwords, so that no HGH products will be advertised there. I believe this would be an example of “Sensitive content filters: At times, certain ads may not be appropriate to run on all pages. For example, Google automatically filters out ads that would be inappropriate on a news page about a catastrophic event.” However, the only tool Google offers is block out specific URLs of advertisers. I did this for 60 of them (4 at a time), but there appears to be an unlimited supply of advertisers, due largely to affiliate sites.

The temporary solution was for me to modify the wiki code to not show any ads on the HGH page. However, this isn’t a real fix, because other pages already mention HGH (and it’s a wiki, so they change over time), and any of those pages may get the same problematic ads.

The temporary fix was a change to my previous directions:


-<?php include("adsense.php") ?>
+<?php if ($_SERVER['REQUEST_URI'] != "/HGH") include("adsense.php") ?>

Google’s only reponse was a form letter.
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Hacking

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Cisco VPN fails after suspend/resume and causes Matlab execution failures

My wife’s new Toshiba Tecra M3 was hobbled by two major Cisco VPN bugs. The first problem is caused by a bad interaction between the Cisco VPN client and the Intel Wi-Fi driver, which fails to work when resuming from a suspend. The second is that the newest Cisco VPN drivers cause random Matlab execution failures while the VPN is connected. I fixed both bugs and thought others might find the solutions useful. However, Windows Explorer still crashes occassionally, so I’m very interested in a new Cisco VPN Client release that fixes both bugs without any side effects. Having to deal with issues like this is a fairly damning indictment of the whole QA process theoretically employed by the 3 biggest tech companies: Cisco, Intel, and Microsoft. Each bug separately was a nightmare to diagnose (who would think at first that the Matlab problems could be caused by the VPN?).
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Hacking

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Training SpamAssassin with a LearnAsSpam IMAP folder

I’ve found that many installations of SpamAssassin work well, but end-users don’t optimize them to train their Bayesian filters on false negatives (i.e., spams that get through). A LearnAsSpam IMAP folder is a great solution for this, which even works with Exchange users (they just need IMAP turned on at the server).

I wrote up directions for installing this on the SpamAssassin wiki.

Hacking

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Link to NYT Single Page format

It’s a trivial annoyance, but I’ve never liked that the default for viewing NYT articles is a multi-page format. Whenever I start an article, I always click on the Single Page icon so that I can digest the rest of the article without waiting for any page reloads. Now, with the the Firefox extension Greasemonkey, this is done for me. I still prefer Single Page view to Print view, because it includes pictures and occasionally links to popup sidebars. Besides, with Adblock installed, I never see any advertisements.

Here’s the script, which is based on one for Print pages from Evan Martin.

Hacking

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Adding Google AdSense to MediaWiki 1.4

More publishers are becoming familiar with AdSense as a revolutionary business technology for monetizing eyeballs (i.e., for generating revenue from the viewers that spend time perusing your site). Here are the directions for adding AdSense to your MediaWiki 1.4 installation. You can see the results at PWS Notes, a wiki on a rare genetic disorder that I administer for my sister-in-law. I’m only using text ads and I place them under the rest of the options in the navigation column, so as to be fairly unobtrusive.

This info was inspired by these directions, which work for Mediawiki 1.3 but not for 1.4. Note that if you use the highly recommended Firefox extension Adblock, you need to hit Shift-Ctrl-B first to disable it and see the Google ads.
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Hacking

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Firefox Extensions

I highly recommend switching to Firefox, which is a much better browser than Internet Explorer. To really get the value, I recommend installing a bunch of extensions. I took the time to go through the ones currently available, and here is what I’m currently using:
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Hacking

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Indochina

What Julie and I did for our Christmas vacation.

Travel

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