Une Bobine Review

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My wife’s phone

A couple weeks ago I was offered a review copy of an Une Bobine. The device looked kind of fun, so I decided to try it out.

Une Bobine is an iPhone charger, sync, and stand that’s made from a flexible metal cable. This cable can be bent and shaped to create unique setups. In the pic to the right you can see it twisted both into a practical stand and into a stand where I’m just seeing how high I can get the phone. The pluses for this device are that you can facetime without needing to hold onto the phone, that you can take time lapse photos, and that you can shape the cable so that it isn’t in your way.

The product made its original debut into the marketplace in 2012 after a very successful Kickstarter campaign. This success ended up breathing life into the small company behind the device, and since that time they’ve repeated this recipe by funding most, if not all, of their products through either kickstarter or indiegogo crowd sourcing campaigns. I mention this only since it’s kind of interesting – 10 years ago this kind of company probably wouldn’t have been able to exist.

Anyway, to give the product a thorough look I let my wife take it to work for a few weeks to see what she thought. It seemed pretty durable and she liked that the cable didn’t get in her way. It was also fun to play around with, making it sort of like an adult tech toy. The only negatives either of us could see with the product were that you couldn’t have your phone in its case while charging and that it was a little troublesome to use in the car. If you choose to use it in your car, you will want to test out your setup to make sure it wont fall over or get in the way of the radio.

Overall its a fun product. If you’re looking for a tech device to play around with, it’s something that can provide you some entertainment and utility while you’re at your computer. Lastly, the cable’s name is a little strange, but that’s because it’s French. Translated, “Une Bobine” simply means “a coil”.

Analyzing My Facebook Activity Log

Have you ever wondered what your Facebook likes say about you? And if there are any people whose posts you seem to favor? I was curious, so I decided to dig around and see if I could find some stats for likes. I couldn’t, so I decided to turn to the Facebook API. Unfortunately its like information seemed limited for privacy reasons*. Next I tried to get the information from the export feature Facebook offers. Sadly it didn’t have this data either. However, the activity log page chronicled my like history and was just what I was looking for.

I loaded as much information from this page as I could (for some reason it breaks for me around March 2012), and saved it off to a file. I then wrote a quick script to process the data and plugged my activity log into it. The results that were spit out stated that over the past two years I’d liked 1,088 posts and that of my 133 friends, half of my likes were going to just 5 of them (~4%).

Even more interesting, these 5 people were all family members. I’m not sure if that’s just a side effect of me interacting with my family more than my friends, if my family just posts a lot, or if I’m just ignoring my friends. Whatever the case, I didn’t realize I had such a bias with my likes. Though then again, if my Activity Log wasn’t broken for the pre-2012 time period, I wonder if the results would have been different. I had my first child in 2012, and I like most pics with him in it, so that could have been skewing the results. Also, come to think of it, my dog died last year and I went back and liked a lot of pictures of him in it, so that could be skewing things too.

Though peculiar, I’m only one data point, so an analysis of my data doesn’t really say anything about anyone else. If you’re curious about your own liking biases, I’ve put the script online as a gist.

Other Analysis

I’m not the first person to want to analyze their data. Wolfram Alpha has an online app that does an in-depth analysis of a person’s Facebook data. And while it delivers a treasure trove of neat information (example: my friends fall into 5 different groups of connected users), it fails to say much about likes.

Other, less public tools**, have been developed to comb through this like data though. Dr. Jennifer Golbeck gave a Ted Talk last Fall on what your likes say about you and how they’re used by companies. In it she mentions how researchers were able to correlate IQ with people who liked the Facebook page “Curly Fries”. She also mentions how many other attributes such as sexuality and religion can be predicted to a high certainly based on what you like.

It’s probably a no-brainer big companies like Facebook and Google are mining this info for ad purposes. I couldn’t find information on Facebook’s analysis, but Google actually provides a page where you can see what they think of you. However, it’s pretty simple, and I’d be surprised if that was all they had.

Conclusion

I’ve only done a simple analysis of my own data, so there’s a lot more to say for this subject. However, it was kind of eye opening to see where most of my likes were going. Additionally, I think it’d be interesting if there was an app you could use to analyze your own data to see what it said about you. Golbeck joked about starting a company that would sell reports about potential employees to HR people – but, I think it’d be useful if people could generate those kind of reports about themselves. It could help you learn things about your subconscious behaviors or possibly better control your online image.

* Before posting this, I revisited the Facebook API, and I think the data I gleaned from the activity log could also have been retrieved through a bunch of FQL queries. If I were to write a proper app, I’d probably try and use FQL, however, writing a script to parse the activity long was pretty quick and painless.
** I could only find studies, I couldn’t find any source code.

Book Review: “Ghost in the Wires: My Adventure as the World’s Most Wanted Hacker”

I wrote this review back in November of 2011. While cleaning out my blog’s draft folder I realized I’d never gotten around to posting it. Since it’s a good tech/geek read, I figured it was better late than never.

Ghost in the Wires

I went on vacation recently and needed a book for the rather long plane ride. After reading a sample chapter of Kevin Mitnick’s new autobiography, my interest was piqued. I had remembered reading about him and the “Free Kevin” movement back in ’98, and at the time I didn’t understand why people were getting behind this guy. He did a bunch of bad stuff, why should he be free? Since it’d also probably cover some interesting computer security topics, I figured it be both educational and entertaining. I picked up a copy and by the time I was arriving home, my hopes had been met.

Mitnick gained massive media attention in the mid-to-late 90’s when he was on the run from the FBI for various hacking related offenses. He was eventually captured, and spent 5 years in prison. In his new autobiography, “Ghost in the Wires”, he chronicles his escapades and details how he compromised so many systems. Surprisingly, it mostly through something called Social Engineering, which can loosely be defined as “the manipulation of people to get them to do what you want”.

Mitnick’s tales typically involve him just calling up his target, and simply convincing them to give him certain information or do certain things for him. For example, he was able to compromise the Social Security Administration by pretending to be an investigator from the Inspector General’s Office. He convinced a staff member there of his status, and for several years was able to use her to get privileged information. Here’s an excerpt of where he discusses the ruse:

I said, “We’re going to be needing assistance on a continuing basis,” explaining that while our office was working on a number of fraud investigations, we didn’t have access to MCS — short for “Modernized Claims System,” the amusingly clumsy name for their centralized computer system.

From the time of that initial conversation, we became telephone buddies. I was able to call Ann and have her look up whatever I wanted — Social Security numbers, dates and places of birth, mother’s maiden names, disability benefits, wages, and so on. Whenever I phoned, she would drop whatever she was doing to look up anything I asked for.

Mitnick comes off as smart and very curious, and a lot of his stories are very interesting, but it’s hard to like the guy. He ends up causing a lot of people grief and some of the decisions he makes made me want to facepalm. He continues to hang out with his best friend after the guy steals his wife (this same friend later tries to offer him up to the FBI), he strings along “Eric” even though he suspects the guy is working for the FBI, and he continues to do high profile system break-ins while he’s on the run. Though then again, if he hadn’t made these nutty decisions, there probably wouldn’t be a book to read.

The book starts off a little slow, but takes off once Mitnick goes on the run from the FBI for 2 years. During this time he assumes several identities, lives in a hand full of cities, and breaks into numerous systems. He gleefully details the social engineering tactics he used to do all of this, but when it comes to the technical aspects of his crimes, the book does a little bit of hand waving. The lack of detail in this department was apparently due to a disagreement between Mitnick and his co-writer. Mitnick wanted more detail, while his co-writer wanted to keep the story moving. They comprised, so there are a few side boxes for the more technically inclined, but you typically just get the general idea of what happened.

Overall I thought the book was a fascinating read and a valuable look into how a very successful individual was able to break into many different systems. If you’re into computer security, or looking for a non-fiction thriller, this is something to check out.

Steve Case Confirms Zuckerberg as Former AOL Hacker

vader-faderA year ago I wrote about Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s possible AOL hacker roots. A 1999 angelfire website appearing to be his was uncovered, and it contained two AOL progs by “Mark Zuckerberg” – the Vader Fader and the Zuck Fader. The evidence that the Facebook founder had created progs in his youth was pretty compelling, and now AOL’s former CEO Steve Case has further verified this claim in his recent AMA (Ask Me Anything) by stating the following to someone who was apologying for their role in the AOL hacking scene:

Yikes! Well, I’m glad you got this off your chest! :) The hacking of AOL was a real challenge for us. As AOL grew in prominence, it became a big target. Of course, some of the hackers have gone on to do more productive things. It sounds like that is the case with you, and it also was the case with Mark Zuckerberg! Went I first met him 6 or 7 years ago he said he learned how to program by hacking AIM! But, thankfully, rather than focusing on bring AOL down, he shifted to build Facebook up!

This probably means the Zuck had a collection of progs, knew about the various AOL *.bas files, and knew about AOL ASCII Art. That’s kind of cool when you think about it. I imagine he’s the most famous former AOL hacker.

Thanks to Kevin M. for alerting me to Steve Case’s post.

Sea Change

wwwA little over a year ago a coworker pitched a snunkworks-type project to myself and another team member. Separately the three of us worked on PHP/MySQL and Java/Oracle projects, but he wanted the new project to use the MEAN stack (MongoDB, Express.js, AngularJS and Node.js) since JavaScript was something we all had in common.

My interest was piqued, but I was a bit skeptical. I felt the stack was a little too trendy, and for whatever reason, I singled out AngularJS as something I wasn’t so sure about. I felt it was too new – something that was hot at the moment, but might not be hot in 6 month’s time.

At my insistence, we spent a couple weeks comparing Angular and Backbone.js, a framework which had a more established reputation. By the end of our comparisons though, I had done a 180 and was completely sold on Angular. For the remainder of the development I focused mostly on the Angular side of things and loved it.

At the same time I also enjoyed Node. However, its async nature was kind of a pain in the ass and its biggest benefit was really just keeping a common language across the whole project. For Mongo, I had mixed feelings. The flexibility was kind of cool, but relational databases, with their transactions and joins, are a lot easier to work with. Mongo and Node were neat, but they both had weaknesses you had to be careful about. Angular, however, really felt like something that would be a good fit for any type of web project – large or small, complex or simple, etc etc.

GSe3vyI__The experience left an impression on me, and a few weeks ago I decided to accept a job offer at a new company as an AngularJS developer. It was kind of hard to leave my old job, as I really enjoyed it, but I felt it was time to venture out into new waters.

It’s neat to think that 5 years ago I was programming test equipment in Tcl/Java, and now I’m a front-end Angular guy. I guess that’s just the nature of software development though, you’re always continuing to evolve. Also, like always, work wont get mentioned in this blog again unless its related to a major life change, so in my next post I’ll be back to talking about some random tech topic or updates to this site.

Speaking of which, updates to this site have been kind of sparse lately, and I’m sorry about that (especially if you’ve submitted as keyboard layout because I’m way behind in reviewing those). The job switch ate up a lot of time, and a planned vacation to Chile also ate up a lot of time, but now that those two events are over with, I hope to get back to more regular updates.

Also, in case you’re interested, the images in this post come from RedditGetsDrawn, a very cool place where artists draw pictures of submitted photos.

Nomad ChargeKey Review

DSC_0082I don’t normally do reviews of tech devices, but I was recently offered a review copy of Nomad’s ChargeKey, and since it seemed like a neat little device, I decided to check it out.

ChargeKey is a portable lightning cable that fits on a keychain. It comes in both a lightning (iPhone) and micro-usb format (Android / Windows Phone). The idea behind it is to allow people to always have a cable to plug-in to a USB port if they need to charge or sync their phone. If you use a laptop or have a keyboard with a USB port this is really convenient. The cord is also flexible, so technically you could also plug it into the a USB slot on the back of a desktop tower too.

Priced at $29, it costs $10 more (or 53% more) than a normal lightning cable from Apple. This means you’re basically paying $10 more for the added convenience of a short portable cable. That’s a little high, but not too bad.

One thing I’m not completely certain on is its durability. Their marketing material mentions that its made with “high grade plastics from Bayer”, but I wasn’t able to find any information on if it was water proof (so I assume its not). I also wonder about the long term wear and tear the device can take, though for something this new its probably too early to tell. After 3 weeks I haven’t encountered any problems though.

Other than that, there’s honestly not a whole lot to say. It’s a simple product that lives up to its expectations. If you think its something you’d like, I’d definitely recommend it.

TheDraw’s Lost ANSI Art Fonts

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Sample ANSI art by Roy/SAC

Most people know what ASCII Art is – its art created by arranging text into pictures. ANSI art is also text art, but it’s a little more special. It allows you to create text art that includes additional text characters, color, and limited animation. It gained popularity in the tech underground of the mid-80’s, and a community of artists emerged and flourished. It’s hay day was short lived though. In the 90’s unicode became the standard for encoding text, and since ANSI Art was based on IBM’s extended ASCII* character set, its presence became more and more uncommon.

These days the most editors can’t open ANSI Art files. If you try to view them they just wind up looking like gibberish. This doesn’t mean the art form is dead though – fans of the genre have gone out of their way to create special editors and viewers so that the art can still be appreciated, but the community is much smaller than it once was.

The Lost Fonts

About a year ago, someone named Aaron Haun sent me a zip containing over a hundred user created ANSI art font files from an old DOS app called TheDraw. He thought I might be able to provide a place to preserve them since I’d done so for the AOL Macro fonts. The only problem was neither of us knew how to decode the files within the zip.

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Aaron’s ASCII Tattoo

Armed with copies of TheDraw and ACiDDraw, I decided to do some ASCII archaeology. I ended up going through the same rigmarole I did when I was trying to get Mark Zuckerberg’s Vader Fader to work, and was able to load up the old DOS apps on a Windows 98 virtual machine. This unfortunately didn’t help much, but it was cool to see the old apps in action.

After some more research, I learned most of IBM’s Extended ASCII characters had unicode counter parts. Since unicode is easy to display, I wrote a script to process the font files and return unicode compatible versions. This script also stripped out the color information. Though I felt the colors were neat, I couldn’t figure out how TheDraw was encoding them**.

What was left were some pretty neat ASCII fonts from the late 80’s / early 90’s. Created for use in emails and on old BBS systems, today it appears these fonts have mostly disappeared from the internet. After talking with Aaron, the only two sites that appear to host ANSI art font files are archives.thebbs.org and slbbs.com, and in both cases you’ll need a special ANSI art viewer. Aaron told me he originally grabbed the font zip from ASCII Artist Roy/SAC’s web page (roysac.com), but that site appears to have been shutdown a year ago. Roy/SAC does still have a deviantart page though, and you can see what his site used to look like at the internet archive (NSFW-ish).

With the fonts in hand, I decided the best thing I could do was convert them into FIGlet fonts so people could once again start using them. I created simple web-based FIGlet Editor to assist in the process, and ported over the fonts I felt looked best going from ANSI to FIGlet. Sadly this means I only ported over a hand full (10 total), since a lot of ANSI’s charm is in its color. Plus, even with the decoded files and my editor, it took a decent amount of time to make the fonts.

You can see what the ported over fonts look like in the screen shot below or you can browse the “ANSI FIGlet Fonts” section of TAAG and use them yourself. Later this week I’ll also add them to the figlet.js repo if you want to download the individual figlet files.

You can see what the originals look like on Roy/SAC’s old font page (internet archive link). At some point it might be interesting make something that would show the ANSI fonts as they once were, but for now I thought it’d be cool to at least provide a way to use some of them in a stripped down form.

More ANSI Art

Notes

* This is somewhat confusing because there’s an extended version of ASCII known as ANSI that was done by Microsoft. This leads me to believe that the name ANSI art was a mistake that wasn’t noticed until it was too late (plus “IBM Extended ASCII Art” doesn’t have much of a ring to it). Making this even more convoluted, Microsoft’s ANSI character extension was never standardized by ANSI, so it makes no sense to call it ANSI in the first place.
** TheDraw didn’t encode colors with ANSI escape codes.

2014.01.22 Edit: I updated the font screen shot to include all of the fonts instead of just 4.
2014.05.18 Update: Roy/SAC has recently relaunched his site and created a neat tool for working with fonts from TheDraw.

figlet and grunt-figlet npm packages

Last month I discovered Grunt, which is described as a “JavaScript task runner” by its creators. What’s that mean? Well, it allows you to automate mundane tasks like JS-linting, JavaScript/CSS minifying, compiling LESS into CSS, watching files for updates, and other development tasks. I had personally been using makefiles for these types of tasks, but after coming across a Grunt plugin for inlining AngularJS templates, I ended up going down the Grunt rabbit hole and converting over my makefiles to gruntfiles.

Once I had everything working with Grunt, I thought it might be fun to try and write my own plugin. Since Grunt is node.js based, I decided it might be neat to use the figlet.js library I wrote a while back to auto-generate ASCII banners for source code files. figlet.js was originally written to be browser-side only, so I had to do a little reworking to get it to work with node. However, after I had created an npm package for it, I wrote a simple grunt plugin around it called grunt-figlet. You can the result of a test run of the plugin below.

/**
 * _________            .___      
 * \_   ___ \  ____   __| _/____  
 * /    \  \/ /  _ \ / __ |/ __ \ 
 * \     \___(  <_> ) /_/ \  ___/ 
 *  \______  /\____/\____ |\___  >
 *         \/            \/    \/ 
 * This is a message for the comment body.
 * More random text...
 */
function abc(a,b,c){console.log(a+b+c);}var a=1,b=2,c=3;abc(a,b,c);

My office mate pointed out that it sort of defeats the purpose of minifying, but I still think its cool. The Text to ASCII Art Geneartor has a similar code comment feature, though it supports more languages. I’ll probably add support for other commenting styles into the grunt plugin later on, though right now I’m not sure if Grunt is used for any non-web development type projects.

After posting the project up someone submitted a change to allow the figlet library to work at the command line. However, I decided to break it out into its own package, so someone could use the library without it interfering with an existing installation of figlet. Ultimately I think it would be cool if this command line app mirrored the behavior of the c-based app. I mentioned the idea on the figlet mailing list, and Ian (the I in FIGlet) seemed to like idea. However, unless there’s suddenly a bunch of interest, right now that’s low on my list of things to do (though if you’re up for the task, feel free to submit changes to it).

Book Review: Audio Processing with Web Audio

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Audio Processing with Web Audio

HTML5’s web audio API is pretty cool. Last year I had some fun experimenting with it, and since then I have been meaning to loop back and play around with it some more. So when I was offered a review copy of Audio Processing with Web Audio, my interested was piqued and I decided to see what it had to offer.

The book is setup to be a primer for web audio (in Packt terms an “instant” book). It contains a mere 63 pages, and reads like one long chapter. Overall it turned out to be a nice introductory book, but it’s does have a few flaws that take it down a notch.

As the book starts, you’re directed to setup your development environment and to download a zip of the code examples. This zip contains a total of 8 examples, broken out into 6 “recipes”. You can see a list of what they are below.

Recipe 1_1: Initialization exercise
Recipe 2_1: Playing Audio Files from an Audio Buffer
Recipe 3_1: Playing Audio in a Loop
Recipe 4_1a: Setting Volume
Recipe 4_1b: Setting Volume (refactored to use new template code)
Recipe 5_1: Scheduling Audio Playback
Recipe 5_2: Automating Audio Parameters
Recipe 6_1: 5-band Equalizer

For what I assume were space restrictions, the first two recipes in the code example packet were not discussed in the book. This makes the book slightly awkward since the first recipe covered, the one on looping sound (3_1), makes references to text written for these recipes and doesn’t cover concepts that would have been discussed for those examples. Thankfully it’s easy to pick up what you miss from the example code, but it’s an unfortunate editing snafu.

In the looping sound section you’re walked through the creation of the recipe via code samples with explanations, and once it’s done you’re given a deeper discussion of why things worked the way they did. The next two recipes are done in the same vein, and cover volume and automating audio parameters. The example code works smoothly and the author does a great job of explaining all of the little nuances that go with the code.

The final recipe is on building the 5-band equalizer. It’s billed as an advanced example, and it sort of feels like you go from a nice walk through the world of web audio, to a brisk sprint. I really didn’t know what was going on. I don’t know much about sound theory, so the different filters and concepts were all very foreign. I imagine this chapter was included so those more familiar with sound concepts would feel they got something out of the book, but it’s a little confusing for developers not tuned into how sound works.

Looking over the example packet, one other example titled “Scheduling Audio Playback” was cut from the book. However, unlike the first two examples, this exclusion isn’t really noticeable. Still, it leaves me thinking this book could have been a lot more interesting if it had been expanded by 20 or 30 pages. However, I’m glad they included all of the examples in the code packet, since it gives the reader some jumping off points after they’ve finished the text.

Overall it’s a nice introductory book. It has some flaws, but it comes with some good example code and does a good job on the majority of topics it tackles.

Random Updates for October

Over the last month I’ve done a lot of little updates. Now that the government is shutdown and I’m just hanging out at home, I figured I no longer had an excuse not to write them up.

If you let them build it, they will build it

I added the ability for users to submit presets to the Keyboard Layout Analyzer and the feature ended up being reasonably popular, with users creating and submitting lots of neat configurations. However, I was lazy in implementing the feature, and made it only partially automatic. Once a layout is submitted, I’m emailed the code I need to add to the config.htm file. This works out fine, since I only get about one or two submissions a week.

Since that feature worked out great, I decided to add a similar feature to the Text Color Fader, except instead of layouts, it was color presets… and oh did my laziness come back to bite me. It was originally setup to email me the code I needed to add after each submission, but after a week of getting 20-30 emails a day (and discovering that most submissions were just people testing out the submission feature), I realized I’d made a grave mistake. I went back and re-wrote it to include a proper admin panel and submission database. Now I just get a few emails a day and can easily approve/disapprove submissions. This approach definitely doesn’t scale, and with the number of presets growing daily, neither does the combobox I’m using on the front-end. However, I feel like I’ve bought myself time, and at the least there’s a neat color preset database that’s being compiled (users have submitted some very nice presets).

Ergodox Layout

When I originally overhauled the Keyboard Layout Analyzer, I put in support for different keyboard configurations – however, I never really showed this feature off. After getting a request to support the Ergodox layout, I knew I had an opportunity. I created a “key map” for it and uploaded it into the app. Within days users had submitted a number of nice alternative layouts for it, which was really cool to see.