RSS is a tool that solves one of our greatest problems in our connected world: Information Overload.

What is RSS?

Really Simple Syndication (RSS) is a standard protocol for websites to share information with other sites and applications. This is used by blogs and news sites to syndicate their content in an accessible way. Thanks to this standard you can subscribe to a website’s RSS feed and get updates as new content becomes available.

Why Should I use it?

Imagine you are someone really interested in technology. You frequently check several tech blogs (including this one) and some YouTube channels. There is also a store on Etsy that you love and must have every one of their products. You check every week for updates. Unfortunately you have trouble keeping up:

  • Some sites update so infrequently that you feel like you are wasting your time when you check and see no new content.
  • That one columnist on the New York Times, you really love but there is too much noise with all the other news.
  • You end up overwhelmed by all these sites and start to forget creators you love.
  • You end up seeing the same information whenever a new trend hits the tech world

RSS and a little work on your part can fix these issues. Not only can you get notified when there is new content, but you can filter this information at a glance.

Many RSS readers and tools also aggregate content based on interest. This can help you find more content that is relevant to you.

Getting started with RSS

The first thing you need to filter your information intake is a Feed Reader or News Aggregator app. RSS is old technology so there are many to chose form.

Feedly is one of the most popular readers on the market and supports web and mobile platforms.

Feedly's UI After Login

Feedly already has an excellent tutorial on their website so we will not cover too much here. Unfortunately advanced filtering of your feed is limited to a payed account. You also have to trust an online service to not filter your results and respect your privacy. If all you want is to curate your news by source this is a great way to do it.

If you need more power and a healthier relationship with you phone you can use a desktop news client. The two desktop clients I will be covering today are Thunderbird and QuietRSS. Both applications follow a similar approach to RSS.

Thunderbird

Mozilla Thunderbird is an email client, calendar, and news reader. You will not have much trouble if you already use it to organize your emails. It comes pre-installed in many Linux distros and is available on all desktop platforms. There are better options, but Thunderbird will serve most user’s needs.

To add a RSS feed to Thunderbird you will first have to make a Feed Account. Click the Menu -> New -> Feed Account… and then name your RSS Folder.

Click on your account folder to add and manage feed subscriptions. It is rather straightforward, you take the URL of a feed and paste it into the Feed URL box, chose the folder you want to store the articles in, decide if you want to load the whole article or only a summery, and how often it should check for updates.

QuietRSS

QuietRSS is a free and open source desktop RSS reader. Quiet is simple and easy to use as it is a dedicated RSS reader. It also has an integrated web browser for viewing articles from the source, something Thunderbird lacks without extensions. It is available for Linux, Mac, and Windows.

You can click on the Plus icon to add a new article to your feed in Quiet. Then select next to pick a folder to store your feed in.

You can add Random Thought’s RSS feed using this URL: https://www.blog.mattlamont.com/feed/

Filtering Messages

Now that you have narrowed down your news sources you might be thinking “We are finally done!” and you could be right. If you are happy with what you see in your feed and can quickly glance at titles to filter content yourself then we are done. Filters though can help you refine your feed and help keep information overload at bay.

Both Thunderbird and Quiet have very similar filter support. The main difference is Quiet lets you filter by feed if so desired.

Quiet (left) and Thunderbird (right)

You select a condition like Title/Subject contains Zoom, then an action such as Delete. Filters are rather simple, but can be very powerful.

Find RSS

RSS is all around us on the web. Blogs, news sites, and even subreddits have RSS feeds for you to subscribe to. Some useful places to look are:

BBC
New York Times
Add .atom to the end of GitLab and GitHub repos for that repo’s RSS feed
Add .rss to the end of a reddit url for that page’s RSS feed.

Add a YouTube channels using the following URL:
https://www.youtube.com/feeds/videos.xml?channel_id=

Enter the channel ID after the equals sign.

Take Back your Life with RSS

In this day and age we are bombarded with content. RSS helps us control that content, filter it down, and find what maters most to us. With RSS we can cut the time we spend looking at the news, help avoid bias algorithms and Facebook filters, and develop a healthier relationship with the content we chose to consume.

With the introduction of Firefox Quantum, Mozilla removed support for legacy XUL extensions in favor of Web Extensions. This naturally made a lot of people angry. XUL extensions had full control over the browser and could change everything from how downloads where handled to the user interface. This powerful framework gave Firefox what many seen as a competitive edge. Extensions this powerful came with some shortcomings, however, and this lead to the adoption of Web Extensions in Firefox.

The Problems with XUL Extensions

We already established that XUL is powerful. Many of the most popular extensions, Classic Theme Restorer for example, are written in XUL. They are able to change most aspects of the browser, make complex themes, and essentially rewrite parts of the browser. This comes with some inherent risks:

  • Extensions are single processor.
  • Updates can brake extensions.
  • Extensions can break browser functions.
  • Extensions are not sandboxed.

Image: Firefox Quantum with Web ExtensionsXUL Extensions are powerful, but are unstable. If Mozilla wanted to add a new feature or change a function in Firefox, they would risk breaking popular extensions. This held Firefox back and kept Firefox from developing much needed features such as multi-processor support and tab sandboxing. Imagine a tab crashing and your whole browser crashing in the process, not very fun. Powerful extensions that could change every aspect of the browser are not secure, break things, and keep the browser in the past.

Very few extensions actually needed XUL to function and the technology was putting Firefox behind other browsers.

Web Extensions

Web extensions are written in HTML, CSS, and JavaScript. These extensions are written in the same languages as the web and have some advantages over XUL:

  • Extensions are more secure.
  • Extensions are unlikely to brake.
  • They can run in their own process.
  • Web languages are more accessible to developers than XUL
  • Extensions are cross-platform

Web Extensions cannot change core browser features. This is a mixed blessing. They cannot add a sidebar or give you a debug console for example, but by the same token they are not able to hijack core functions of the browser and are unlikely to change something that will get updated. That said malicious extensions do exist and they could break with an API update. Firefox can now develop much more rapidly without breaking things.

These extensions come with a new Firefox built to handle the modern web. The browser can now handle multiple processes. Tabs no longer bring down the rest of the browser with them and run in their own sandbox. Undoubtedly Quantum is a faster browser. Firefox would have continued to lose its market share without these improvements. How can the “Browser with a mission” complete that mission without users, funding, or developers?

The Future of Firefox

Web Extensions are likely the future. They may not be nearly as powerful as legacy extensions, but the benefits outweigh the downfalls. Most other web browsers use web extensions, implementing the API allows for cross-platform extensions, greatly expanding Firefox’s plugin library. Chrome, Opera, Vivaldi, and others all use the same underlining technology.

Mozilla has not just been copying other browsers. They know that web extensions lack functionality and have enhanced Web Extensions. Extensions in Firefox are far more powerful than in their competitors. The move away from extensions has also prompted the idea of making the browser more powerful out of the box. New ideas and built in features will come with time.

Firefox is one of the few major open source browsers with power to shape the web. Firefox is still one of the most customizable browsers online, even without the power of XUL extensions. The commitment to privacy is commendable, but now Mozilla has something to back up their ideals.

You can find out more about web extensions from Mozilla’s website and learn how to write your own here.

Aside

Will I still be using Firefox? Perhaps in the future, but for now I will be using Vivaldi as Firefox matures. Firefox’s sidebar is half-backed; the UI is customizable, but limited; and the built in features do not compare to Vivaldi’s. Firefox is a good browser, Mozilla is improving, and they have a future. Bad marketing decisions and deals aside, Firefox is an open source browser that respects your privacy.

Many of us have old games laying around and realize that they just don’t work right. This can be due to many issues, but today we will cover DirectX issues using WineD3D for Windows.

WineD3D for Windows is a “DirectX 1-11 to OpenGL wrapper based on WineD3D”. Normally WineD3D is used to run DirectX games on Linux, but some old Windows games do not run on Windows anymore. Lets take Star Wars Battlefront 2 for example. On Windows 10, some maps have issues displaying the right colors. To fix this we will need a replacement for DirectX 9.

You can download WineD3D for Windows here.

Getting it Working

There is a readme in the zip folder that WineD3D come in. For Battlefront 2, we will copy the d3d9.dll, libwine.dll and wined3d.dll into the data directory that the game’s executable is located. BattlefrontII.exe is located here.

When you load it up, the game works as it should.

Battlefront2

Battlefront 2 Data Directory.

WineD3D

WineD3D for Windows Zip File.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The game should now run properly. This works with many games, but is not guaranteed.

WineD3D is far from perfect and has issues: Some games will not work, stutter, or lock to low resolutions. If you would like to help improve it, it is open source under the GNU LGPL Version 2.

Earlier we mentioned how to customize Firefox. Personas are like wallpaper for Firefox and give some basic customization, but what if you wanted to make your own instead of using the ones provided by others?

Fortunately you can with some photo editing and a Firefox addon named Personas Plus. This little addon will give you the ability to create your own personas.

Creating the Persona Images

Custom Persona

My attempt at making a persona.

To start you will need some images to use as the Firefox Header and Footer. The header is the image that is displayed at the top of your browser, behind the toolbars and tabs. The footer is the image used for the addonbar at the bottom of Firefox. These two images should be simple as to not interfere with text.

The files have specific requirements:

  • Header: 3000px x 200px, PNG or JPG format, 300 KB maximum file size.
  • Footer: 3000px x 100px, PNG or JPG format, 300 KB maximum file size.

You can use your favorite image editing program to crop larger images to size if you wish or make your own.

Persona Plus Settings

Persona Plus SettingsNow that you have your images, you will need to install Personas Plus. You should find an icon for the addon on your toolbar. When you click on the icon a menu should appear with the option to edit a custom persona. This will give you a menu where you can chose your header, footer, text color, and accent color. Make sure that your colors do not conflict with the persona you made as this will be the text color for the toolbar.

Now you you can have a unique theme for your browser. There are more complicated ways to make and edit Firefox themes, but that would require some css. Perhaps we will touch on it in the future.

As you can see, we have made some visual changes to the website. Personally, I like dark colors. Unfortunately many do not like to or have problems reading light text on dark backgrounds, so this is a compromise.  Over time I will improve the CSS for the website, but this is functional for the time being.

SSL Website Encryption

A more important change is that the website is now using SSL encryption provided by Let’s Encrypt. Let’s Encrypt is a free SSL certificate authority sponsored by many large organizations including Mozilla and The Linux Foundation.
If you check the URL to the website you should see that it uses https instead of http and there should be a lock icon nearby, depending on your web browser.

For you who do not know: SSL encrypts web traffic, preventing big brother and others with nefarious intent from spying on you. Google and other search engines penalize websites that do not use SSL and give advantage to they that do. By encrypting the web we take power from organizations like world governments less control over our data. Encryption is necessary not only to protect from theft, but to create and protect a free and open internet.

We will go over Encryption in our Introduction to Computers series after going over the basics, look forward to it.

This year Random Thoughts will start an Introduction to Computers series of posts to give readers a better understanding of how to use computers and their important in society.

School and work have prevented me from keeping this blog up to date, but with the upcoming year I will dedicate some time each month to writing.

The Plan:

The series will be geared towards people who have little experience with computers. I have found that the majority of people are woefully ignorant of how to use a computer for more than simple searching and Facebook. In our connected and computer filled world everybody needs to know at least the basics of computers.

The series will start off with a general introduction to computers and then get into Windows 10’s User Interface, settings, and basic software needs that open-source software can provide. Wist this may seem remedial to some, I have encountered many people who have hardly touched a computer or who only know enough to post on Facebook. That is who this series is for.

As time progresses Random Thoughts will cover more advanced topics such as networking, basic web markup (HTML & CSS), etc. As we cover software we will go over the necessities first, what is needed to get the job done. We will go in depth in separate articles.

As an example of the structure we will use LibreOffice Writer:

Most users will need to know typing, character formatting, header and footer formatting, and paragraph spacing. That is all that is required for most college papers in MLA and APA format and more than what most people will ever need in an introductory level office job.

After covering the basics an advanced article will be available to people who need a little more guidance. In such we would cover page and paragraph formatting, advanced keyboard shortcuts, tables, and using images.

You will find that Random Thoughts will always encourage you to experiment and find your own answers, but we will try our best get you where you need to go.

Our plan is to be helpful to you in the coming year. Feel free to ask about anything to do with consumer and small business level computing.

Hopefully we will see you in 2016.

 

The Problem:

Microsoft did not include Solitaire or MineSweeper in Windows 10, instead you can get Microsoft Solitaire Collection. This is Microsoft’s attempt at making solitaire into a service that you will pay for. You will either pay a fee to get an ad-free experience or get bombarded with obtrusive advertising. To top it all off you need a Microsoft Account to use it. Who would have ever thought that you would have to pay to play something computer users have enjoyed for free for so long. Microsoft Solitaire Collection is a bad joke.

The Solution:

PySol is an open-source version of Solitaire written in Python. Sadly development has stopped and it has not aged well.

Look at all of them.

Look at all of them.

Fortunately it works on Windows 10 and has more than a thousand solitaire games, including Mahjong Solitaire. The interface is intuitive and the games work.

Disclaimer: I do not play Solitaire and am not qualified to review PySol’s quality in regard to game-play.

PySol is under the GPL and can be modified and improved. If you know a little bit of Python and love Solitaire I encourage you to bring the project back to life as no one wishes to give Microsoft any more than they must.

PySol can be downloaded from Sourceforge here.

Firefox has experienced a major update with built in chat and a new search box. Some of you may find the new search box inconvenient if you use multiple search engines regularly, fortunately there is an easy fix to the problem.

To use the old search box in Firefox in version 34 or higher you will need to edit the configuration settings.

Type about:config in the URL bar to see Firefox’s settings. Hit “I agree” If prompted.

There should be a search box on the top of the page type this into the box:

browser.search.showOneOffButtons

Set the setting to false by double clicking it or right clicking and hitting Toggle.

After resetting Firefox the search bar should act like it did in earlier versions of Firefox.

BitTorrent has been around for many years now, since 2001, yet there are many who still do not know what it is or how to use it. Today we will lock at the basics of what BitTorrent is and how to use it.

What is BitTorrent?

To put it simply, BitTorrent is a way to download large files quickly and efficiently. BitTorrent itself is a protocol that handles the transferring of files across the internet. The major difference between BitTorrent and standard direct downloads is that when downloading through BitTorrent downloads from many sources at once whereas direct downloads come from one server.

Using this “swarm” of computers allows for faster download speed as you get little pieces of the file from many users who already have that file. The only server involved is a Torrent Tracker that keeps track of the file. All other actions are performed peer-to-peer (P2P) within the swarm. BitTorrent uses a system where you receive data from the “swarm” in exchange you become a member of that swarm to help send files that you have to others. This is known as Seeding.

Carmen Carmack from HowStuffWorks.com gives a general rundown of the process:

Traditional Download vs. Torrent

Traditional Download vs. Torrent

  • You open a Web page and click on a link for the file you want.
  • BitTorrent client software communicates with a tracker to find other computers running BitTorrent that have the complete file (seed computers) and those with a portion of the file (peers that are usually in the process of downloading the file).
  • The tracker identifies the swarm, which is the connected computers that have all of or a portion of the file and are in the process of sending or receiving it.
  • The tracker helps the client software trade pieces of the file you want with other computers in the swarm. Your computer receives multiple pieces of the file simultaneously.
  • If you continue to run the BitTorrent client software after your download is complete, others can receive .torrent files from your computer; your future download rates improve because you are ranked higher in the “tit-for-tat” system.”

BitTorrent is only the protocol used to download the files, you will need specialized software to actually download the file, this is known as a BitTorrent client. The client handles all download operations on your computer. There are many client programs available for free, but for this example we will be using Deluge as it is open-source, cross-platform, and easy to use. If you are on a Linux system your distribution probably already comes with Transmission or Ktorrent which are both grate options)

First you will need to go to the Deluge website here.

Once it is done downloading and installing start it up. You should see something like this:

It may look different on your desktop as I am using a KDE theme.

It may look different on your desktop as I am using a KDE theme.

As you can see it is a fairly straightforward interface. You have a traditional menu at the top as well as a tool bar that allows to add, delineate, pause, start, move up and down torrents in the queue, and open up the Preferences panel. The left most panel gives an overview of all torrent and tracker activity. On the right there is a panel that shoes all torrents and allows you to click on them to view more information in the bottom panel. On the bottom is all of the data about the selected torrent. Here you can see how much of the torrent you have, what files you have downloaded, how many peers are connected and how much of the file they have, and options that are specific to the individual torrent. We will go through each of these in depth later, but first we will need a Torrent file to download.

You can use any torrent file you wish, but for this example we will be downloading the Debian live CD. For this example we will be using the amd64 CD release. Debian is a Linux Distribution that is completely legal to download. You can get it here.

This screen gives you an overview of what you are downloading and some basic options.

This screen gives you an overview of what you are downloading and some basic options.

You should be able to open the file in Deluge right from the browser so there is no reason to save the file. This file is information that Deluge needs to download the Debian ISO image, not the ISO itself. Once it opens in Deluge you should see a screen similar to the image on the right.

This screen gives a general overview of the torrent file including its name and the files that are included in this file. Under the options tab you can select the location you wish to download the file and set bandwidth limits(we will go over this later), but for now we can just select the add button to start the torrent.

We will go over the basic options and panels in depth in the next post.

Source:

Carmack, Carmen. “How BitTorrent Works” 26 March 2005. HowStuffWorks.com. <http://computer.howstuffworks.com/bittorrent.htm> 08 November 2014.

When it comes to word processing most think Microsoft Word, but there are other alternatives out there. Once I got into high school I learned that I could not get away with just a pen and a piece of paper, I needed to type things up on the computer. I was introduced to Microsoft Office 2003, I was amazed at the power of the program, I went home and asked my dad about it, then I learned the price.

If you ever needed a word processor or any other office program and lacked the money to pay Microsoft, you know my problem. The only option I saw was to pirate a copy from Demonoid; I disliked the idea, but the price was too much. Then I found out that there were free alternatives. Well that is enough rambling. I found LibreOffice, an office program that had everything Microsoft had plus extendability.

LibreOffice has a word processor, slide show creator, and spreadsheet processing. It supports Microsoft’s formats along with XML and a set of it’s own. The word processing capabilities are enough for most home users. With an intuitive interface that is easy to navigate and modify; you could format a paper, write a book, export documents as PDF files, create tables and chats, and just about anything you could with Microsoft Word. All of this is free.

LibreOffice is a fork of OpenOffice.org and is open source. It works cross platform and can be modified from the source code, if you wish to change something you don’t like. One nice feature is the fact that it uses good old tool bars and drop down menus; in case you did not know, I hate Microsoft’s ribbon interface.

LibreOffice has it’s problems, but it has enough power for most users. Microsoft Office can handle larger documents better and has best compatibility with other Microsoft products, but if you are looking for something on a budget, LibreOffice has the tools you need.

I would like to get some feedback and know what you would like to see on this blog, it would be most appreciated.