Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Manage Blocked Sites? Thanks, Google!

Google recently unveiled a tremendous new feature which allows you to block sites from their search results.

A feature previously only available as an extension for Chrome, users with a Google Account can now maintain their own, personal blacklist of sites whose search results aren't useful.

The original entry about this release on the Google blog tells the story, and you can click the following link to actually access your very own Manage Blocked Sites screen (assuming you're signed in to your Google account).

I mainly use Google, Bing, and Ask for my searches, but now Google is in my top spot solely for this feature. Too often I've submitted a query to a search engine only to be bombarded by useless results consisting of anything from advertising to porn to advertising about porn to malware, and habitually I'd just click the third or fourth page of results in the hope that I'd find some worthwhile content. Now I can shape my search results by eliminating much of the fluff, which translates into much more productive searches.

Creators of fluff are on notice:
"Sites will be blocked only for you, but Google may use everyone's blocking information to improve the ranking of search results overall."

Content is king, as the saying goes, and this is one big step in helping us mere users leverage the system by enabling us to trim away the fluff as we find it.

Well played, Google!

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Process Lasso

I recently installed Process Lasso, a process management and optimization utility. 

Thus far it seems to be a highly effective and versatile tool for managing CPU. Using a proprietary algorithm dubbed ProBalance™, It strives to maximize your computer's responsiveness in spite of the demands placed upon the CPU by myriad running processes. Runaway processes that might ordinarily eat 99% or more CPU can be dynamically adjusted by Process Lasso so that lag is minimized.

Particularly useful is the ability to tag running processes in the GUI and assign them properties in the context menu, including process priority (to determine how valuable a process is and how much time the CPU devotes to it),  processor affinity (assigning the use of one or more CPU cores in a multi-core processor to a given process), gaming mode (favors a process when it's running so that the CPU dedicated to its function is maximized), and terminate always (very handy if malware with a specific filename keeps trying to execute and hang out in memory), as well as lots of other options that extend Windows' built-in Task Manager by leaps and bounds.

One example of Process Lasso's usefulness arose when I noticed today that a particular process was very frequently being restrained by Process Lasso for trying to monopolize CPU. According to this note about the graph portion of the GUI, bars in red denote CPU spikes, and if you hover over these, the process name is displayed (in this case, a process called smc.exe, or Symantec Mangement Client, part of Symantec Antivirus).

This particular process had, in the few weeks I've had Process Lasso installed, been restrained over 900 times, and each of the red vertical bars above denoting CPU spikes revealed smc.exe as the culprit.

I decided to right-click on the smc.exe entry from the list and modify its Default Priority Class from its previous Below Normal setting to Idle. At this point I'm unclear about whether I may be compromising Process Lasso's ability to do its job by dictating to it how to treat a particular process on my system; much of the documentation recommends allowing the ProBalance algorithm to do it's thing. 

However, given that I've already configured Symantec Antivirus to exclude from scanning the applications and folders which I most commonly use, I'm hoping that this step will restrict it from eating more CPU than it should; the graph after the change, at least, seems to indicate that Process Lasso is not having to restrain smc.exe nearly as much as before.

In general, seeing red can incite violence in human beings as well as bulls, so at least for my purposes, as far as Process Lasso is concerned, less red is a favorable outcome.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Vegetarians vs Omnivores

We interrupt our irregularly scheduled agenda to present a brief comparison: vegetarians vs omnivores.

Vegetarians mainly eat plant material to the exclusion of animal flesh. While some splinter groups (vegans) abstain from not only meat but also animal products like milk, eggs, even honey, others (fruititarians) strive to eat products which do not harm the plant of origin, such as fruit dropped from various fruit trees. Typically the choice to go vegetarian is inspired by sympathy for animals slaughtered for their meat, such as the plight of calves raised for the production of veal, or other animals that may endure great suffering in filthy conditions. Others may go vegetarian in order to abide by their religion. 

Omnivores eat either plant or animal material depending largely upon preference and availability. Squirrels, for example, are considered omnivores, primarily eating tree nuts, but may resort to eating meat if their primary food source is lacking. Human beings are included among omnivores, as our digestive systems enable us to digest many forms of plant and animal for nutrition. Humans also began the domestication of livestock for purposes of deriving various food products (milk, cheese, eggs) and for consumption of their flesh.

The products derived from animals, particularly pigs, cows, and chickens, and indeed the livestock itself has for many become a staple. What is a cup of coffee without fresh cream? What's a slice of toast without a fresh pat of savory butter? What's a BLT without bacon? Society has become enamored with these and many other animal products, and as a result, whole industries have developed to provide consumers their fix, whether it's a slice of crispy bacon, a blob of whale blubber for perfume, or eggs for breakfast. We purposefully harvest lower animals for our use.

Where this need finds a lot of controversy is particularly in various techniques for raising and eventually slaughtering livestock. Veal, for example, requires that a calf be essentially immobilized in a pen throughout its short life, so as to deter muscle growth which would compromise the tenderness of the resulting meat. Chickens which produce eggs for consumption may be maintained in small, cramped cages, and have their beaks trimmed to decrease the incidence of cannibalism. Pigs stunned and then dipped in scalding-hot water prior to slaughter in order to retain skin elasticity may still be alive and quite aware of their pain if the stunning procedure is botched.

Ideally, an animal being slaughtered will be whisked quickly and painlessly from life, and feel no pain. Unfortunately, this often isn't the case, as many with PETA will attest based upon various hidden camera footage they feature, taken from among the worst slaughterhouses. In vitro meat (that is, meat which is essentially grown in a laboratory and has never been part of a living animal) will hopefully eliminate this issue altogether in coming decades, but in the meantime, many in the vegetarian world unequivocally decry the slaughter of animals for meat as cruel.

There is among many vegetarians, particularly vegans, a hypocrisy regarding the consumption of meat. Meat is evil, say many practitioners of vegetarianism, as is the systematic domestication and slaughter of animals for their flesh. 

What, though, is flesh? It's a form of life.

Each human being every day of their lives brings countless living creatures to death with every moment, sleeping or waking. As we live and breathe, our immune systems constantly scour our bodies for foreign organisms and, using macrophages as their enforcers, encompass these invaders and use powerful enzymes to rip these living organisms apart, molecule by molecule. With every step, our shoes may crush into oblivion countless ants, spiders, lizards, beetles, and other small insects and arthropods and reptiles and other lesser life forms, without so much as a polite warning. In the morning ritual of many who shower, shave, and brush their teeth, millions and millions of bacteria are annihilated by the scourge of antiseptic mouthwash. As we drive our cars along lonely country roads, many an unfortunate opossum, skunk, armadillo, deer, or even the rare bird may become roadkill, their life force left to ebb and ooze forth onto hot, tarry asphalt.

Native Americans hunting buffalo on the prairies of old would not simply eat the meat and discard the carcass of their quarry, indeed, they would use it for various purposes in order to survive. They wouldn’t discard half a buffalo like a few uneaten McNuggets in a Happy Meal, they actually honored their prey, and didn’t merely harvest it as a resource.

To the vegetarians I present the idea that the problem with eating meat isn't the meat, it's the people. 

People react to the suffering of animals because they anthropomorphize them. Aside from the unfortunate prevalence of various animals with human voices in movies like Bambi, Watership Down, Babe and others, people can look into the eyes of an animal and see aspects of themselves. Pet a cow or pig and it’ll nuzzle up to your hand, eager for more. Feed a chicken and it will enthusiastically peck at its food and look to you eagerly for more. 

We normally don’t want to see animals suffer. Human emotion is unique to who we, as sentient, mostly intelligent animals, are, and people generally do not want to inflict suffering on animals let alone other humans if we can help it, because we are creatures with powerfully vivid imagination. If you prick us, we do indeed bleed, and we feel the cold steel of a needle shoved into our buttocks. Unless we’re deeply twisted, we don’t take any joy in inflicting such pain upon others of our kind.

Vegetarians the world over wage their own campaigns of slaughter against the plant kingdom. Collard greens are prepared by first ripping the plants from the sandy earth, then grasping and rending asunder the leafy greens, and finally boiling the living plants in water for hours until the bulwarks of their fibrous structures succumb and go limp. Carrots are similarly plucked from their homes in the moist earth, given a gentle bath and perhaps a scrubbing in clean water, only to have their very skin peeled from their bodies and their bodies chopped or sliced into bite-sized portions. Stir-fried vegetables like broccoli, cauliflower, sugar snap peas meet their doom in woks across the nation, full of hot, sizzling oils that infiltrate their structure and render previously firm cell walls into flaccid remnants of their former selves. Sprouts of alfalfa, lentil, and others find themselves drowned in copious amounts of ranch dressing, then macerated by eager human molars within bowls of salad. 

Importantly, vegetables don’t scream. They don’t have a brain, sophisticated nervous systems, thoughts or feelings, at least as far as we’re aware. They live, reproduce, and die, but they’re not human. We can’t relate to a carrot or head of lettuce or broccoli in the same way we can to a cow or pig or squirrel. A vegetable doesn’t have eyes, lips, a mouth which even at rest our brains could confabulate as representing a constant, oafish grin. It doesn’t have any redeeming features that would make us think twice about ripping it from the earth and making it our meal. As ludicrous as it sounds to relate the peeling of a carrot to a person having their epidermis thinly sliced away, it simply doesn't evoke the same visceral discomfort in the context of a vegetable.


Many of us, myself among them, don’t dwell on the suffering of the package of bacon or porterhouse steak that lay invitingly on the plate before me at dinner. Indeed, many of us insulate ourselves from this reality by referring to it as a product, purchased with money from the local supermarket.
Cute enough to eat...?
Would I wish the animal I’m about to enjoy having suffered on their journey from pasture to table? Absolutely not. Will I willingly patronize purveyors of meat that don’t respect the notion that animal cruelty is reprehensible? No, I will not, as best I can based on how government enforces rules to prevent it. 

However, let’s not try to suggest that vegetarians and omnivores are so dissimilar, they aren’t. Each group snuffs out the life force of countless living plants and/or animals with similar efficacy, it’s just that plants are simpler life forms that don’t have the hardware to raise their leaves in protest, nor the ability to appeal to human empathy nearly as effectively as, say, a talking pig.

Bon appétit!

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Idiocracy Cometh

Frito, my man! Whatcha watching anyw...


Thursday, March 17, 2011

Dell Latitude E6410: SpeedStep, or SpeedSTOMP?

Recently on the Dell Latitude E6410 I use at the office, on several occasions Windows 7 would slow down and become completely unusable, necessitating a hard reboot.

Event Viewer revealed the following events in succession for each core of my laptop's quad core Intel i5 CPU:

The speed of processor 0 in group 0 is being limited by system firmware. The processor has been in this reduced performance state for 5 seconds since the last report.

Windows slowed down to the extent that I couldn't even open Task Manager, which normally comes up readily even if the system is otherwise sluggish. Interestingly, in this state it would enter Sleep Mode eventually upon closing the lid, but was otherwise unusable.

Several steps can avoid these slowdowns:
  • In your system BIOS, disable Intel SpeedStep.
  • In Windows 7, ensure your system uses the High Performance setting for Power Plan.
  • Ensure adequate cooling with a utility like SpeedFan to monitor temperatures.

However, based on at least one thread in the Dell support forum and another on a hardware forum, this could turn out to be an indication of a hardware problem.

Intel SpeedStep is triggered to activate, among other things, by heat. If the system is heating up and can't dissipate heat effectively, SpeedStep by default will engage and step down the CPU so that it generates less heat. Whether that heat is generated by the CPU itself as a result of a dead heatsink fan or the heatsink somehow being detached from the CPU surface, or the GPU overheating for whatever reason, or heat simply can't dissipate due to factors like lack of ventilation thanks to dust or covered vents, it will try to compensate by throttling down the CPU speed.

While this seems perfectly reasonable in theory, in practice it seems to not work as intended, at least in the case of my E6410. I've read reports in the very helpful Dell Latitude E6410 Owner's Thread that some have had similar issues which necessitated a mainboard replacement, while others were able to get up and running by just clearing dust out from the vents of their laptop. 

My particular situation, however, doesn't seem that common, which makes me wonder whether my GPU might be on its way out. Yesterday with the laptop on battery and without a lot of ambient noise, I noticed that when I would ALT-TAB from say a mostly white background to a vividly colorful one, a distinct whine would be emitted from my system, and the display wavered just slightly as if some interference were rippling across the video hardware (update on this, according to some info in this thread, this whine is characteristic of systems with Intel Core 2 Duo and newer CPUs).

For now, I've disabled SpeedStep and installed SpeedFan to keep an eye on temperatures, and cleaned out dust. Hopefully this will do the trick, but if not, given this and the sound problems which continue to plague my E6410, a warranty comes in handy. I added a link to my bookmark toolbar to the aforementioned E6410 owner's thread, it seems Firefox sympathizes with my plight based on how it shortened the bookmark title. Ow indeed, Dell!

Friday, March 4, 2011

Chattr - A New Way to Talk on the Web

Chattrr is a novel new way to chat. 

It's a bookmarklet which utilizes an intelligent chat room allocation algorithm to connect you with other Chattrr users who happen to be browsing the same website.

Picture yourself at an art gallery. Perhaps you're puzzling over why someone would pay $140 million for a Jackson Pollock. Someone else strolls in, and they, too, find a common thread to chat you up about. Others come, looking at the same thing, which might remind one of a high school art project they didn't take seriously, another of a haphazard work of "art" slapped together by a chimpanzee one afternoon. Then a fine arts major strolls in and decrees everyone else to be philistines for disparaging such a fine work of "art".

So it is with Chattr, which enables a whole new level of conversation, in real time, among people with eyes trained on the same content.

By applying the real-time chat of IRC atop otherwise relatively static nature of website commentary, I think Chattrr has carved itself a unique niche in the realm of social networking. Whereas you might post a comment on a blog and wait days, even weeks for a response, finding someone to chat with via Chattrr means instant discussion with whomever else is looking to share their thoughts about the experience, particularly for discussion based forums and sites like Reddit, where at any given moment thousands of people may be commenting on the news of the moment.

While the tool has only recently debuted, it is fully open source, has been tested successfully with Firefox, Chromium, Chrome and Safari, and in my mind is the start of something wonderful.