Category: reviews

Android Privacy Inspector

We’ve all been hearing about companies and developers not respecting your privacy and siphoning off details about you to their databases.  To be fair, many of these apps are free so they have to make money somehow but they should be a bit more forthcoming about their practices.  Since we know things will only get worse though, here is a proactive solution to help you see exactly what you are sharing.  From the product description:

“Privacy Inspector is the lite version of Privacy Blocker. Privacy Inspector reveals all your apps dirty secrets that steal your personal information. Find out what your apps don’t want you to know in seconds today!

Privacy Inspector is the only app that can fully lookout for apps that steal your private information and may be harmful. It is unlike any other app in that it can actually scan through other apps code to find privacy issues. No other app can do this on Android! This is what sets Privacy Inspector apart from other apps that claim protection.

After scanning for potential violations, Privacy Inspector will give you details about issues within your app(s). Have you ever felt uncomfortable downloading an app that needs a permission it shouldn’t have? Now find out what is inside the app and more.

Get the security you need that other apps like Anti-Virus Pro, Lookout Mobile Security, McAfee WaveSecure can’t find.

Privacy Blocker is the only way to fully protect you and stop apps from gathering your personal information. Privacy Blocker reveals all your apps dirty secrets and then safely fixes them so you can still use your apps with an assurance of full protection. Keep your device safe and your personal information secure today!”

Privacy Inspector is available in the main Android marketplace in two versions.  There is a free version that will scan all your apps and tell you the problems it finds.  That will at least allow you to decide whether the data you are leaking to them is a fair trade for use of the app.  The paid version allows you to fix/mitigate the issues that you find.  I’m not entirely sure how they do this since I haven’t used or purchased that version but I will probably check it out at a later date.

For now, I snagged the free app and scanned through a few apps.  The results were a little surprising to me.  Google Earth came up spotless for instance and the free version of Angry Birds has two issues and is rated “bad”.  The user interface is fairly attractive but I found it to be a little confusing at first.  It didn’t take long to figure it out but it could be a little more straight forward.  My other complaint is that you can only queue up 5 apps at a time to scan and the scanning process can take a few minutes per app.

I hope to see more apps like this and I can only hope that someone will produce something similar for the iOS platform (assuming Apple would allow for it).  The only problem with that is that this is exactly the type of app that nefarious individuals will be providing fake versions of.

Here is the link to Privacy Inspector

I was waiting on the sidelines for the Sprint Evo to be released.  At the time, I had a Windows Mobile 6.5 phone…  the Palm Treo 800w.  What a turd that was.  I really can’t believe that old Windows Mobile platform lasted as long as it did.  The concept of trying to scale down a desktop OS to a pocket size was just plain silly.  This is why I looked forward to the HTC Supersonic handset.  At that time I didn’t know it would be called the Sprint Evo.

Usually in the past, Sprint had not gotten the latest and greatest handsets.  I always considered their selection to be somewhat second rate stuff.  This was another reason I looked forward to this handset so much originally.  It made a lot of promises.  Things of note were a large beautiful screen, 4G and the Android operating system.  Those very things are some of the reasons I’ve become disenchanted with this handset.

The screen – This has a huge, beautiful screen.  There is no doubt that the thing is gorgeous, however, this is not without it’s downsides.  The obvious downside is that the shear size of it makes the phone extremely large.  I didn’t mind at first because it was a lot thinner than my Palm Treo with the extended battery but really it doesn’t need to be quite as large as it is in my opinion.  Taking the screen down 1/2 and inch in size would make the phone a far more manageable size.  Also while I’m talking about the screen, the digitizer on this phone sucks.  Sure it works fine but it is getting a fog/film on it that cannot be wiped off.  A couple people have mentioned that I should use a screen protector but I have to call BS on that.  Why?  I gave my son my (already used) iPod 2G roughly 6 months ago.  He’s 3 years old.  If anyone could abuse a device with drool, sticky fingers and an occasional drop, it’s him.  Even considering all the abuse, when I wipe his screen off on my shirt sleeve even, it looks almost brand new barring a couple of tiny nicks.  Nicks I can deal with…  fog I cannot.

The 4G – This has always been fairly useless to me for the whole time I owned the phone for several reasons.  Most notably, it barely worked for months after I got the phone.  Even now, the coverage is spotty here in the Seattle area.  Aside from the lousy coverage, Sprint forces you to pay $10/mo extra for having a 4G handset whether you use it or not.  To add insult to injury, it’s not an always on thing.  It’s  a whole separate radio like bluetooth or wifi.  Turning it on drains the battery at an alarming rate.  If I turn it on and forget that I did, the battery will be dead by noon in some cases.

Android – Sorry, I don’t get it guys.  And it’s NOT that I don’t GET it.  I’m a Linux guy.  I first started using Linux in ’95 or so.  I just don’t like this incarnation of it.  Part of my gripes could be with the Touch UI provided by HTC but I really just don’t like the way the icons are organized and the navigation of the interface.  Nothing seems polished or finished to me.  The other pisser is that not Sprint or HTC will have any interest in upgrading the operating system to a newer revision when they stop selling the phone(should be soon now).  They would rather I buy a new phone.  That pisses me off when “evil” Apple has made the latest and greatest versions of iOS 4 work even on an ancient Touch 2G which they haven’t sold for at least 2 years.

Bugs – The bugs are unbearable.  I don’t remember much in the way of bugs when I first got the handset but over the past(less than a) year, all hell has broken lose with the gremlins.  One of the worst ones is where the phone rings and the screen will not respond to my touch.  I try to answer the phone with all my might and the sliding bar on the screen won’t budge.  Not much could possibly piss me off more than having someone call who I cannot call back due to corporate policies trying to ring me and my phone won’t allow me to answer the call.  That can waste a day or a week trying to get that person to call me again.  Quite frankly, my time is more valuable than that.  The next bug on my hate list that has started to pop up is that when I end a call, my phone will decide to call somebody else on my recent called list.  That’s really obnoxious trying to explain to someone that “no, I didn’t pocket dial you and I wasn’t trying to call you”.

Skype – So there is Skype on the Android now…. So what?  It’s absolutely, 100% useless as hell.  Why is this?  Well Sprint decided that Skype shouldn’t work on 3g or 4g.  It has to be used on wifi only.  I can’t even call Skype-only contacts on there.  This is total BS.  When I pick up my wife’s iPhone and try Skype on there it works perfectly.  I have an unilimted plan with Sprint.  In fact many/most of the plans Sprint sells are unlimited to my knowledge so what’s the deal with Skype not working?

Pocket dial/Pocket hang up – It’s too easy to grab your phone out of your pocket and pick up or hang up the phone on someone before you can even see who it is.  This is pretty annoying.  Not to sound like a fanboi but sorry, Apple has thought this feature through WAY better.  It is very unlikely that this would happen with an iPhone.

Sprint’s junkware – Dear Sprint, please let me delete the crap you put on my handset that ruins my user experience and gets in my way.  This would include blockbuster, Nascar, Sprint Zone, Sprint TV and most of all Sprint Football Live.  I’m a nerd, I hate Football and Nascar so why the hell would I want to look at those things on my phone?!?

Several months after I bought this handset, I purchased an old, used, outdated iPod Touch 2G.  Ever since then, I have carried around an iPod Touch(now a 4G) along with my Evo handset.  The reason for this is that the Evo handset simply doesn’t do everything I want or need it to and I find pretty much everything about the way iOS works to be far superior to the functionality of Android or at least Android on this phone.  When I look at my iPod Touch, (even the old 2G), the newness and appeal still has not worn off for me.  I hate to be an Apple fanboi or bigot but when my user experience is this bad on an Android device and that good on an ancient iOS device, I can’t really argue with the facts.

The real bummer is that I was forced to sign a 2 year contract to get this phone.  In the past, I had gotten 1 year contracts because I’ve always know well enough that mobile devices change quickly and 2 years has generally been too long of a time period to hold onto such a device.  My initial inkling was right.  I got the phone in May and not even a year later I’m ready to throw it off a cliff.

People have told me that I should root the phone to make it work the way I’d like.  Screw that though.  I don’t have time to mess around with a device that I rely so heavily on.  Are there things I like about the phone?  Sure!  Quite a few actually but there is only one thing I can think of that this phone does that my iPod Touch won’t….  make calls.

Pico Computing E101

If you are in the Seattle area and you ever wanted to learn how FPGAs work or how to actually get started with putting them to a legitimate use, Dave Hulton, of Toorcon fame has been putting on a monthly workshop at Ada’s Technical Books where he teaches a handful of people the basics.  That being said, FPGAs are not exactly basic.  I recently attended his workshop in February because I had an interest in learning what makes them tick.  I ended up getting more information than I even bargained for.

The morning talk starts out with more basic overview type of stuff like “What an FPGA is” and”What tools you’ll need to work with them”.  After a bit of talking though, it was time to dig in and write some code.  Let me stop right here and say that having at least a basic understanding of C and maybe a couple other languages would be a big plus here.  That being said, you’ll also need to forget a few things that you know.  For instance, instead of thinking in terms of variables and functions, you need to be thinking in terms of registers, wires and logic blocks(low level predefined logic functions).  Under Dave’s instruction, you’ll learn how to communicate with the device over your USB port and also how to run the device in a more standalone mode.  Dave is a great instructor and explains the process very well.

Heading into the afternoon, we started to get our hands dirty and really digging into the Verilog code.  I had a great time learning how to manipulate the hardware I/O channels on the device and making the LED’s flash in sequence.  After doing a couple of variations on this, my caffeine level dropped to a dangerous low unfortunately as we moved into implementing an encryption and decryption algorithm.  I started out getting it but it was just a bit too much for me after a certain point.  Luckily I ended up sitting next to a super sharp dude who writes BIOSes for Intel for a living and he didn’t bring a laptop so we pooled our resources for most of the day.  Regardless, even though the encryption and decryption was above my head, I still got good value out of trying to port C code over to run nativley on an FPGA.

My original goal for signing up for the class was to gain a deeper knowledge of FPGA’s, how they work, why they are so good at these encryption tasks and playing with something that would otherwise have too steep of a learning curve without vast amounts of front end effort.  All in all, it was $60 WELL spent.

On top of having the workshop, Ada’s is also hosting a monthly meet up for workshop alumni.   Contact Ada’s Technical Books for more details on this event.  I have taken the liberty of attaching the class description down below.  By the time you read this, the date will probably be past but judging on the success of these classes, I have a feeling they will keep offering them for the foreseeable future.

FPGA Workshop

March 12th, 2011: 10am-6pm

Another Intro to FPGA Design workshop! The workshop will be taught again by Ada’s
co-owner, David Hulton. David has over 10 years of experience in the computer security
industry and is most recently a co-founder of Pico Computing, a Seattle based FPGA
board manufacturer specializing in embedded and high performance computing applications.
David spends most of his time breaking cryptosystems using the massive amounts of
FPGAs he has access to at work and supporting Pico’s security-related customers.
David has presented at dozens of conferences around the world and has been featured
in numerous online and print articles (most recently mentioned on the cover of Forbes
Magazine May 2010). He spends his free time running ToorCon, a San Diego and Seattle
based computer security conference and helping his wonderful wife run Ada’s Technical
Books in Capitol Hill Seattle.
The workshop will be on March 12th from 10am-6pm with an hour break at 1pm for a
catered lunch. It will cover:

-An Introduction to FPGAs

-An Introduction to Verilog

-Writing a “Hello World” bus communication example

-Toggling/Capturing LEDs and GPIO

-Implementing a basic crypto algorithm in Verilog

The cost is $60 or $360 with a Pico E101…(links removed for clarity, contact Ada’s for more information)  Or, you can come into the store to purchase. Hurry though, there are only 7 spots available and last time they sold out in less than 24 hours!

The O’Reilly School of Technology recently started offering a 4-part Python certificate course.  I have just recently completed the first part of the course and wanted to share some of my impressions.  The course is ‘cloud-based’ and served to you over an RDP connection.  They provide you links to Mac OSX and Windows versions of the RDP client so either way you are covered.  When you log in, you are dumped into the Eclipse IDE environment and walked through how to navigate the environment and set it up for your use.  Love or hate Eclipse, you will be forced to use it through this course.  I personally did not like Eclipse too much before I signed up for this course.  Now that I’ve been using it a lot more I have decided it’s not so bad and I could probably grow to like it at some point.  The further into the course you get, the more you realize why they made the decision to use Eclipse.  Largely because it allows them to embed a web browser and they can run their other courses for Java, etc all off of Eclipse.  Anyhow, enough about Eclipse…

My first impression of the course was not really so good.  I kinda felt like I was just reading an abridged version of a $50 book.  But after completing a few lessons I can see the value in essentially being forced to apply what you learn in each lesson.  Is it worth the $300-$400($300 if you happen to catch it on sale)?  Well that depends on your specific needs.  If you want to go for the full certificate, you will spend $1200-$1600 because there are 4 separate courses you need to complete in order to obtain the cert.  On top of that, there is a $15 monthly lab fee for using the system where the course is hosted.  $1600 MIGHT be cheaper than your local university or perhaps your local university doesn’t even offer Python in the first place.  I know some folks that were recently enrolled in a prominent local university’s Python course and they ended up feeling it was a complete waste of their time.  Apparently the teacher kind of sucks.  That’s good money down the drain unfortunately…  Fortunately their employer is paying that bill.  The OST course is nice because you can just try one module of it and if you don’t like it, don’t go any further.  There is also a 7 day money back guarantee.  Keep in mind that if you have completed more than 40% of the course in that first 7 days, you will no longer be eligible for the money back guarantee.

For me, I’m in it for the knowledge.  I want to learn to be a better programmer and I think Python is a great language to help with that goal since it’s so deep and versatile yet simple enough to understand the fundamentals with a little bit of effort.  If your company will pay for you to obtain a Python cert with O’Reilly, I would say go for it.  No question.  If it’s your own money you are spending, I would suggest trying to go through a book such as Learning Python by Mark Lutz.  That is what I started with and I’m glad I did.  It allowed me to fly through the O’Reilly course and get more value for my money since the course was reinforcing and clarifying concepts that I had already come across in the book.  I wouldn’t mind having the Python certificate and learning the rest of the knowledge the course has to offer but I’m not so sure I want to spend another $900-$1200 to get to that point right now.

As far as specifics of the course, I felt that it started out with a slightly higher than beginner level.  If you’ve never programmed before and never even tried to play around with Python, you might get lost in place.  There is an instructor available via email but there is a lag if you are working on the course after business hours.  The course makes a couple assumptions about prerequisite knowledge.  My suggestion would be to at least skim a Python book even if you don’t punch in code out of the book as you read it.

I spent several weeks deciding whether I wanted to do this Python course.  I discussed it over with a few friends and what finally convinced me to just give it a shot was the words of one person in specific…. “Well, it can’t hurt any now can it?  It won’t make you any worse at Python, right?”  True enough.  In the end I definitely feel like I have a much deeper understanding of Python and I can now converse with other Pythonistas in a semi-coherent manner.  So for me, yes, it was worth the $300.  As an added bonus, you get a free ebook of one of their beginner Python books.  For me it was “Head First Python by Paul Barry” which incidentally is a fairly new release for them.  On top of that, I got a discount code for 40% off of any of their printed books.  That sweetens the deal if you are in the market for any of the O’Reilly books.

Bottom line is that I’m happy with my purchase and would do it again given the choice.  If you have completed this course yourself or are thinking about taking it, please feel free to post a comment down below.  I would be interested in some additional perspective.

Now I wish they could figure out how to do one for developing iPhone apps 😉

I have been asked by a LOT of folks which soldering iron I recommend.  To give a little background, I used repair CRT monitors for a living back when A) a monitor was cheaper to repair than replace  B) crt monitors were still in style.  Sure it’s been a while but over the years I’ve used different irons.  At that particular job, I used a Weller solder station.  It wasn’t terrible but I can’t say it was overly impressive either.  It was cheap ($60) and it got the job done.  After that job, I didn’t buy my own solder station for years.  Instead I bought cheapo irons from Radio Shack like it was going out of style.  They used to be about $3 when I started buying them and now they are up to about $9.  These irons sort of got the job done over the years but they had problems.  I’ll just list off some of the top disadvantages that come to mind:

  1. They take forever to warm up to the proper temperature.
  2. They are unregulated so the temperature can be wildly inconsistent.
  3. The metals in the iron and tip are cheap and dissimilar.  After a while the tip will loosen and it will be impossible to properly tighten it.
  4. The plating on the tip seems to be prone to gumming up and eventually becomes impossible to clean.
  5. If you drop the iron on the cord, it will burn through the insulation.
  6. They don’t come with a stand and I consider the ones they sell unsafe.

The main advantage, price, won me over all those years but I’ve rounded up my “collection” of these irons and it amounted to a large pile.  I buy them like screwdrivers and strategically lose them in places where I’d likely remember to look later…

More recently, I’ve finally started soldering surface mount components on a regular basis so I decided I needed something that was regulated at the very least.  Enter the Hakko 936.  The 936 is NOT expensive for a solder station.  In fact, you can get it on Amazon for around $85-$95 typically.  Compared to my old Weller, it feels like a Mercedes Benz of soldering stations if there ever were such a thing.  Instead of my typical conversational review, I will just explicitly list the advantages here:

  1. Heats up in 10-15 seconds.
  2. Indicator light lets you know it’s on.
  3. Temperature is regulated and it bounces back fast when pressed.
  4. Comes with a beefy stand with an integrated sponge to keep the tip clean.
  5. Burn proof wire from the iron to the base unit.
  6. ESD safe. (seems to be, I haven’t fried anything with it)
  7. Light weight iron feels well balanced in your hand.
  8. Tip stays clean for a long time.
  9. Chisel tip included with the iron is very versatile.(for my uses at least)
  10. Don’t need a 15w, 25w and a 40w solder iron to do different jobs.  This one does it all.

There are probably even more advantages that I’m not thinking of but this list is a good start.  Back when I started buying the crappy Radio Shack irons, I didn’t really know any better and soldering stations were still $150-$200 for a professional grade model.  Thanks to global economics, demand and competition though, there are several choices under $150.  Yes, there is also the Aoyue 936 for $50.  I have not used it or compared them side-by-side but I can tell you that the Hakko looks, feels and performs like a professional piece of equipment.  It does what I expect, when I expect it and overall has exceeded my expectations.

By the way, the Hakko(at least mine) is made in Japan if you were wondering.  In the past, when I’ve tried to cut corners by purchasing the knockoff tool, I’ve ended up with something that doesn’t last and is disappointing.  Anyone who has ever shopped at Harbor Freight knows what I mean.  I expect the 936 will be the last soldering station I will ever need.  Now a hot air pencil is a different story 😉  Beyond the 936 models, there is also the digital readout version of the Hakko solder station but it’s considerably more expensive for something that won’t make your soldering a damned bit better.

I keep my soldering station pegged at 700 degrees.  If you are soldering something more sensitive or more heavy duty, adjust as needed obviously but 700 degrees seems to work well for my purposes.  If you have concerns about this, consult the data sheet of the component you are trying to solder.  Also, Don’t buy this awesome solder station and use crap solder.  Grab a spool of Kester 44 Rosin Core Solder 60/40.  I have a roll that I’ve been using since 2001(it’s dated) and it works great.  The lead free solder is complete and utter garbage in my experience.  It makes for lousy solder joints and is just generally hard to work with.

While you are rounding out your kit, a Flux pen and Chem-Wik desolding wick are both extremely nice to have.  Don’t buy 50′ of Chem-Wik from Amazon though.  They come in 5′ rolls that should be less than $5 or so.  Please feel free to comment on any experiences you’ve had with Hakko or Aoyue gear in the comments.  Happy soldering!

It was recently my birthday and my folks consulted my Amazon wish list for gift ideas.  I have a pile of books, movies and other tech goodies on there but out of it all, they chose these two movies as part of the package.  Not wanting to bore my wife with these, I had to wait until she was out of town to watch them.  She humored me with Pirates of Silicon Valley.  But I didn’t expect these to be nearly as entertaining for someone not grossly obsessed with the tech industry.  I would still stick with my original call.  These movies are not likely wife-friendly.

I started out with Triumph of the Nerds.  I have to say that I found this movie thoroughly enjoyable from the start to finish.  At this point, it’s a little dated but still very relevant.  Bill Gates was only worth around $11B at the time of this movie for instance so it was probably much easier to capture the great interviews with him at that point in time.  Steve Jobs still looks pretty young and lively in this movie as well.  Some of these founding fathers of the tech industry are just as outrageous as ever.  Steve Ballmer for instance spewed out a few lines that were just hilarious.

This movie also has an interesting and just plain bizarre host, Bob Cringely.  Bob claims that he was Apple employee number 12 and was offered stock back in those days because the company was short on cash.  Unfortunately for him, he held out for the cash and apparently his mother has never let him live it down.  🙂  The movie is broken up into three parts but you’ll probably just want to plow through it all at once if you are anything like me.  I would consider this movie as the perfect follow up to Pirates of Silicon Valley.  If you want a much more accurate portrayal of what actually happened, this is your movie.  That being said, I certainlywould not skip Pirates of Silicon Valley.  It’s also an excellent movie and not HORRIBLY inaccurate.  Just a little dolled up for Hollywood.

The second movie I got was Revolution OS.  If you are not a Microsoft hater, I might consider skipping this one.  There is an undertone throughout the whole movie that Linux can do no wrong.  That being said, there are several great interviews in there that are worth seeing.  Interviews with Richard Stallman of FSF, Linus Torvalds(creator of the kernel) and Larry Augustin of VA Linux.  They touch on the wild Linux IPO’s, open source vs free software camps, pivotal decisions by Netscape and the Apache web server.

If you have been into Linux for a while, you might not learn or gain much from this movie but if you are new to Linux and want to learn about it’s roots, it’s not a bad place to start.  Just a word of advice though, don’t drink all the kool aid this movie is spitting out.  Pay close attention and you will see some of the ways that clever video editing is being used to put new context into what the interviewees are actually trying to say.  Also, pay close attention when they are talking about the IPO’s.  You’ll notice that they BRIEFLY flash onto the screen the post earnings announcement stock prices.  You can barely even read the message, let alone comprehend it and see that the stocks when from the mid $200’s to less than $5 overnight.

This movie brought back some not so pleasant memories.  I was there myself, right in the thick of it.  I worked for a start up company that was producing a Linux-based product.  We were trying to raise funding for ourselves and had tangible network appliances that we were ready to release.  After Redhat and VA Linux tanked, no one would touch our company with a 10-foot pole.  This eventually led to us shutting the doors and we weren’t the only ones that suffered.  I personally believe that the tech crash was catalyzed by those two specific companies.  Having that footnote glossed over annoys me a bit and reminds me why I didn’t touch Linux for a good 3-4 years after that period of time.

Review: CODE by Charles Petzold

Code: The Hidden Language of Computer Hardware and Software

The cover of CODE does not leave you much to judge it by.  It looks plain and minimalist at best but the reviews on the back cover peaked my interests:

“[A] gem that will appeal to anyone who wants to understand computer technology at it’s essence.”  –David Wall,

” You can tell writing CODE was a labor of love for Perzold and reading it is, too.”  –Bill Camarda,

I agree 100% with both of these reviews of the book but there is much more here.  The author took painstaking care to present topics in a way that makes sense but never dumbs them down into abstracts that are plainly inaccurate like many other books/papers of this nature that overuse poor analogies.  The best way to explain the book is to walk through the chapters a bit:

Chapters 1-6 gently introduce basic principles using a pair of childhood friends who wish to communicate with each other silently after dark when their parents have said “lights out”.  Petzold talks about using a flashlight, morse code and eventually moving up to building a simplistic telegraph system.

Chapters 7-9 builds upon the earlier chapters by explaining different numbering systems and relating them to fingers, toes and bits.

Chapters 10-14 starts to get REALLY interesting where he introduces logic circuits built entirely from telegraph relays.  In earlier chapters, he explains the concepts of telegraph relays and puts them to amazing uses in these chapters.  He brings it as far as building a binary adding machine (conceptually, using your imagination).  As far fetched as it may sound to build a computer entirely from simplistic devices such as relays, it is possible and has been done.  The whole point of this book is to show how simplistic(and simultaneously complex) a computer actually is.

Chapters 15-18 gives an AMAZINGLY gentle introduction to machine code and assembly language which is at the heart of every computer program.  Petzold’s explanation of machine code is by far the best explained version I have seen thus far.  If you want to follow up this book with something useful that will teach you even more about machine language, check out A Short Course In Computer Programming and if you run a Mac, grab the TinyELF 1802 emulator.

Chapters 19-22 work up to slightly higher-leveled details such as handling keyboard input, video output and an interactive console.  The explanations in these chapters are VERY easy to understand.

Chapters 23-25 close out the book with the significance and methods of processing floating point numbers(any number with a decimal point in it).  Higher level languages such as BASIC, C and some others that even I had not heard of.  Finally he closes out the book with the shift into graphical user interfaces, object oriented programming and API’s.  Even if those things sound mind boggling, by the time you read to this point in the book, you will easily be able to grasp these concepts.

Petzold does an amazing job of putting all of the concepts he is trying to convey into a palatable order.  Furthermore, when the reading has gotten REALLY thick in certain chapters, he promptly brings things back into perspective and switches gears into lighter topics like history which gives you a chance to absorb what he has just said and connect the dots.  Petzold also keeps it interesting by referencing later chapters in the book, this is probably one of the reasons that I absolutely could not put this book down.  I managed to plow through it in 3 days.  For anyone interested in computers, this book is a must because it gives you and excellent foundation to learn higher level concepts off of.  Yes, the book was written in 1999 so some of the examples he gives are dated and amusing such as when he quotes system specs of “modern” systems but NOTHING in this book is any less valid today than it was when he wrote it.

3D drawings with Google Sketchup

If you have ever played with 3D modeling/drafting software, you’ll know that most of it is non-intuitive and is riddled with bugs.  It involves refreshing the screen a lot because of artifacts that occur when deleting lines and your CPU fan ramping up to full speed.  None of this describes Google Sketchup.  It’s the easiest and best 3D modeling package I’ve ever used.  Today I spent some time drawing a 3D model of my house in order to chose some landscaping for the front yard.  It took me a couple of hours to draw but most of that was spent running back and forth between the computer and the tape measure.  If I had an assistant, I could have hacked it out in about 30 minutes I think.  I haven’t decided on the landscaping yet but I’m fairly pleased with the result.  Here is another house that I designed from the ground up for a piece of property I’m trying to market.

I would say it took roughly 4 hours but that was the first model I made so I had a lot of undo’s and other learning mistakes.  On both of the houses, I drew every line by hand besides the trees but I was easily able to import pictures.  For instance, the siding on both drawings is actually just a picture of siding that I rescaled to work as a texture map.  There are several video tutorials available and I think you can watch them all and be proficient in less than 30 minutes.  Google Sketchup is totally free for download so no excuses.

Wargames: The Dead Code -Better than I expected but still somewhat annoying to me.  I get annoyed by any movie where so-called smart protagonists repeatedly make stupid decisions.  The director did capture an era of a young generation of texting and facebook addicts but I felt some of this was wedged in there a little too much.  Also I wanted to slap his stupid friend Dennis many times during the scene where he was playing the “dead code” game.  Overall though, I thought the movie got pretty good when Dr. Falken appeared.  Of course at that point, the plot also basically rehashed the first Wargames movie.  Casting needed to pick a more attractive leading lady for this one in my opinion.  This movie is worth a watch.

Real Genius – Not a pure hacker movie but it has several scenes with hacking concepts demonstrated.  There are some eproms reprogrammed, some hex dumps, patching with ribbon cables and brute force password cracking.  I avoided this movie for a long time because the cover made it look extremely cheesy.  It’s actually a pretty good movie.  Sure it’s a little dated but it’s entertaining and it holds up well even today.  This one is fun to watch and leans more towards a comedy genre.

Minority Report – A high-tech mistaken identity sort of thriller.  If nothing else, this show is worth a watch just for the crazy computers that the detectives are using and for the high tech surveillance technology.  This movie rehashes some of Orwell’s classic 1984 ideals and sets them to a modern, somewhat believable theme with minor suspension of disbelief.

Strange Days – More of a virtual reality sort of movie than a hacking flick.  This movie does a good job painting the world in a pseudo-post-apocalyptic sort of way that James Cameron is known for.  It’s no Terminator 2 but there is enough computer VR sci-fi here for anyone who can suspend disbelief a bit.

Mission Impossible – How could I forget a movie where a hacker breaks into a system will suspended from two wires from a drop down ceiling?  The hacking wasn’t the interesting part as much as breaching the perimeter and actually obtaining access to the computer.  This movie has probably inspired more penetration testers than any other.

The Italian Job – A high tech robbery theme that includes some hacking of course.  There are plenty of other related scenes as well such as safe cracking and who doesn’t like a good high speed chase?

Ocean’s 11, Ocean’s 13 – Another high tech robbery series but I would have to say these are among the better films of that genre.  Skip Ocean’s 12.  What a piece of crap that was.  The other two movies, however, are not half bad.  There is a LOT of great social engineering, high tech hacking and insider threat demonstrated.  These movies are among the few who should have the right to use their particular cinematic.  Most movies who try to look this cool simply fall on their face and annoy me.

Die hard 4: Live Free or Die Hard – This movie belongs on the list if only because Justin Long(the I’m a Mac guy) is in it.  Amongst other things he does a great social engineering hack on an Onstar-equipped vehicle right before Bruce Willis launches the car at a helicopter because he “ran out of bullets”.  I’m a big Diehard fan.  This brings Diehard more up to date but doesn’t cram Gen-Y cultural crap down your throat. (see Wargames 2 review at the top of the page)

Firewall – I personally didn’t really enjoy this movie.  I like Harrison Ford but, as I stated in my Wargames 2 review above, I get annoyed when so-called smart protagonists repeatedly make stupid decisions.  This movie takes the cake in that respect.  If you can get past the frustration factor, you may find a decent movie here.  This movie kept me on the edge of my seat… SHOUTING at the screen “WTF?!?  WHY DON’T YOU F’ING KILL THIS BASTARD THAT JUST SPENT THE LAST HOUR TORTURING YOU?  YOU’RE HOLDING THE GUN!”

Some of these movies are second choices on movie night when compared to movies on my other list: “Thirteen great hacker/computer-related movies

Sanyo Eneloop rechargeable batteries

My first experience with rechargeable batteries was in the 80’s with the purple Radio Shack NiCd batteries.  At first I thought they were neat but then I realized how horrible they were.  Whenever you would reach for them, they would always be dead because of self-discharge.  If you grabbed them off the charger, they would be ok for the duration of the time you were using the device you put them in but if you forgot to put them back on the charger when you were finished, they would be dead again next time.  They were also brutally expensive.  I think 2C’s were $12-$15.   I pretty much discounted rechargeables altogether until recently when my son was born.

I realized quickly that any kid of mine would require many electronic devices.  I came to find that some of these devices ate batteries quicker than others.  For instance his little Sansa Shaker MP3 Player would use up a AAA battery in 6-8 hours.  Many days he was happy listening to his music all day so that could get fairly expensive.  I started shopping around for batteries and purchased some random LaCrosse batteries and some high capacity Sanyo AA batteries rated at around 2900MAh but soon I noticed some of the same traits of self discharging again.  These NiMH cells weren’t nearly as bad as the old NiCds were but I still couldn’t depend on them if they had been sitting for any amount of time.

Continuing my search I found the Sanyo Eneloop AA’s.  These batteries have a much lower capacity rating than some of the others but the almost always exceed the specified capacity when taking a charge.  The Eneloop AA’s are rated for 2,000MAh and the Eneloop AAA’s are rated for 800MAh.  According to Sanyo’s marketing material, these batteries can sit on the shelf for a year and still have 85% of their charge.  They further claim that a normal rechargeable would be completely dead if it sat for a year.  That sounds reasonable to me based on my experience.

To sweeten the deal and perhaps prove a point, the Sanyo Eneloops come precharged in the package.  This might be slightly to their detriment from a marketing perspective because people could potentially be confusing them with the crappy “rechargeable” Alkaline cells of recent years and be wary of them for that reason.  I assure you however that the Eneloops are excellent batteries and well worth the money.  I have some cells that have been in service over 2 years now and still charge up to full capacity.  I also built a custom battery pack for our Video Baby Monitor with Eneloops.  The baby monitor started out running a full day on stock cells and degraded to the point where it would only run 3 hours before the red light came on.  With the Eneloops, the baby monitor ran for 3 days even when checking the screen a few times during the day when I first built the pack and a year later(after a very abusive charging cycle) it still runs a good day and a half or so.

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