UK General Election 2017

I think this election boils down to one question:

Do you believe that nothing can be done and vote for a government that does as little as possible and allows the worst excesses of capitalism to continue to enslave us?

or

Do you believe something can be done and vote for an interventionist government that attempts to curb the excesses of capitalism and tries to make the country a happier place to live?

Decide what you believe in and vote accordingly.

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BreakthePaywall New Releases

It’s been a busy week at BreakthePaywall the browser app from IslandEarth that enables you to easily circumvent paywalls such as wsj.com and ft.com that implement search indexing and social media workarounds.

The wsj.com site recently announced that they are stopping the use of Google One Click Free – this allows their site to be indexed for searching purposes and in return allows people who search for their articles on Googles search engine to view the articles without having to pay. However, they are still allowing social media links such as Facebook.com to have free access. This is interesting – a possible turning point in the history of the internet, Google is now not all powerful, perhaps Facebook is now the dominant force?

So this prompted us to update the BreakthePaywall utility for Internet Explorer – 2.1.0 is now available for use in IE on Windows XP and above including Windows 10. If you are using the new Microsoft Edge browser under Windows 10 then we have submitted an extension for certification so hopefully available soon.

In addition we also updated the Opera browser version to 1.0.0.3. This is available for download from the BreakthePaywall website. This is the same add-on that we had for the Google Chrome browser which was taken down by Google last year – we have re-submitted the Chrome version under the name ‘BTPW’ and it has been accepted and is available from the Chrome store – just search for BTPW.

Firefox also now uses the same browser engine as Chrome and Opera (MS Edge also uses the same engine but with the usual MS oddities) so we also ported the add-on to a Firefox version which is available from the Firefox add-on store. Again just search for BTPW.

So we now have a version of BreakthePaywall for all major browsers with MS Edge coming soon.

Firefox ad-blocking with uBlock Origin

Another thing I like to have setup in my browsers is ad-blocking.

I don’t really mind advertisements on web pages as my brain is now pretty much programmed to ignore them after 20 years of web browsing (that’s the entire time web adverts have been about I think!). But obtrusive popups and the like I detest.

I also find many sites so clogged full of utter rubbish adverts that the page does not load – the contents not usually worth waiting for anyway but it does take a while for your browser to sort it all out sometimes.

I don’t mind websites making money from adverts but it is now the case that end users/potential customers need some kind of control over them.

And that’s where uBlock origin, a Firefox add-on, is very useful, if not essential.

This add-on could be described as a ‘browser firewall’ but in many users eyes that implies it is complicated to use, gets in the way and/or slows things down – none of those assumptions is true. uBlock Origin is very easy to use, is fast and does not slow web pages down – in fact it speeds them up – and is so unobtrusive you forget it’s there.

uBlock Origin can be added from the Firefox store. Here’s the direct link: https://addons.mozilla.org/en-GB/firefox/addon/ublock-origin/?src=search

Don’t get confused with Ublock which was a previous version which has since been forked by the original developer into uBlock Origin. The add-on is open source and here is the github page: https://github.com/gorhill/uBlock. You may notice that it also works with the Chromium engine – So there is an add-on for Opera as well: https://addons.opera.com/en-gb/extensions/details/ublock/?display=en#main. Or you could add it to Google Chrome if you really want to use that browser (you probably know my feelings on that by now!).

And here’s the Wikipedia page: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/UBlock_Origin

uBlock Origin is simple to install and you can just leave it to do what it does without getting into the detailed settings but those settings and information on what it is doing are all there if you wish to delve in. It adds an icon to the top right of the Firefox browser with the uBlock Origin logo: ublock_origin_icon

Simply put, once installed, if you load a web page you will start seeing numbers appearing over this icon – that’s showing how much crap uBlock origin is blocking. For example simply visiting the wordpress.com web site produces this: ublock_origin_icon_nos. Yep, 66 requests blocked.

You can click on the icon and it will show this by default:

ublock_origin_initial

In fact the number of requests went up to 72 while I was getting that image.

Clicking on the + next to the requests blocked or the domain connected produces an expanded dialog:

ublock_origin_expanded

Up to 79 blocks now!

This interface looks a bit daunting but is really simple to understand and use.

You will see listed the third party domains that the page has requested things from. Green next to the domain indicates items were not blocked, red means all requests were blocked and yellow indicates some requests were blocked.

uBlock origin uses a range of thrid party ad blocking lists to decide what to block and what not to by default.

Notice that you also get the 1st party domain information – in this case wordpress.com which it is not blocking.

In most cases you can continue with the defaults but you can set things to how you want in great detail by using this interface. If you hover your mouse over the columns next to the domains you will notice some green and red boxes appear. So you can choose red to block that domain or green to unblock – the first column denotes settings for this site only, the second column denotes settings globally for all sites you visit.

ublock_origin_expanded_colours

In the above image I am hovering over the facebook.net entry which I can block by selecting red for the wordpress.com site that I am visiting. All these choices are remembered by the add-on.

The plusses and minuses in the second column denote how much is being blocked or not – one plus means between 1 and 9 requests were allowed, 2 pluses between 10 and 100 and three pluses over 100. Minuses denote what is blocked in the the same way.

You can quickly see how you can finely tune your browsing experience but be wary if you are not sure what you are doing. For example blocking fonts.googleapis.com may render the website unusable as it will be using a completely different font to what you expect or blocking facebook.net may mean a widget that the site is using for extra functionality cannot be used.

By far the most useful option is the blue on/off button:

ublock_origin_blue_button

Clicking this will unblock everything for a site. So if you visit a site that you like and support and you want to allow them to track your usage and serve up adverts so that they get revenue just visit the site and hit the blue button. This is whitelisting and you can view a list of the sites you have whitelisted within the uBlock origin settings which can be located at the gear icon in the top left of the dialog: ublock_origin_settings_button

Goto the whitelist tab:

ublock_origin_settings_whitelist

It’s quite fun to test this all out in realtime. You can logon to facebook and see that uBlock origin is now blcoking all the ads in amongst your normal postings, click on the blue icon and refresh and those adverts all come flooding back. (remember to switch blocking back on unless you want facebook to get even more money of course!).

As mentioned because uBlock origin is blocking all this stuff, web pages will load much quicker – this is certainly my experience. I now find that if I am on a machine without uBlock origin installed I really notice how slow some websites are.

My Firefox settings – retaining some cookies whilst deleting everything else on exit

I’ve been using the Firefox web browser since release 39 in 2015 which imrpoved the product greatly.

This completely replaced my day to day use of Chrome and Internet Explorer – although I still have those installed for testing purposes and occasionally to access some websites or local admin web pages that don’t work with Firefox.

Over this time I have perfected the settings I use so that when existingt the browser all history is deleted – apart from cookies that I want to keep.

Here’s my basic privacy settings:

firefox_privacy

Use Tracking Protection in Private Windows: I believe this only really works when you are in Private Browsing Mode but no harm in having it switched on anyway.

I also turn on Do Not Track – click “manage your Do Not Track settings”:

firefox_dnt

As you can see I set some custom settings whereby nothing is remembered and all history is deleted on exit.

The only exception is with cookies – I manage them using a separate add-on. This is because Firefox only allows a blanket approach whereby all cookies are deleted or none at all, but I want to specify some cookies that I want to keep.

Under Settings for Deleting History I have:

firefox_history

I’m not too worried about Site Preferences (zoom level, encoding etc.) so I leave that unticked. I also leave cookies unticked. So everything is deleted on exit apart from Cookies and Site Preferences.

To manage my cookies I use an add-on: selectivecookiedelete, which can be found by searching the Firefox add-ons store (go to Options menu (top right) and choose Add-ons). The add-on page is: https://addons.mozilla.org/en-GB/firefox/addon/selectivecookiedelete/?src=ss

I went though many cookie management add-ons and found this add-on to be by far the best mainly due to the management options.

If you go to the instgalled add-ons page and click options next to the selectivecookiedelete add-on you will get the following preferences dialog box:

firefox_selectivecookiedelete

As you can see there is an option to automatically remove cookies when Firefox closes but you can also set a whitelist:

firefox_cookieexceptions.png

As you can see I don’t have many exceptions! The searx.me is a good example – this is the search engine I use by default – which has preferences which gear the search results towards your geography i.e. English UK. It stores that preference in a cookie so I want that cookie kept so that I don’t have to set the preference every time I do a search.

The left hand side will display any cookies you have in your current session so to add new whitelisted cookies go to the website in question then to the whitelist and select from left to add to right.

I find this setup works really well and gives me good protection from tracking etc.

NewsXpresso

During my long commute I like to catch up on the news. In the old days this would have consisted of a reading a newspaper. Yes, reading actual print on a piece of paper.

I still read a print newspaper occasionally but only if I have obtained it free from my local supermarket e.g. spend over £5 at Waitrose and get a paper free deal.

I did start reading newspapers online, which were mostly free, but soon got bored with that format. It’s just not the same as scanning a whole 2 pages of headlines for something you’re interested in.

Then I moved onto RSS feed aggregators – programmes that will automatically download RSS feeds from websites. These give you the headlines and you click on the article to read the rest.

As time went on I found myself reading less and less mainstream headline news articles and was concentrating much more on tech news. Nowadays this is all I read on my daily commute – I just don’t have the time or the inclination to read all that bad news. It also frees up time to read ebooks – again mostly tech related these days.

To read RSS feeds you need a tablet of some kind and I have been using a Microsoft Surface Pro 1 since it launched in the UK (May 2013 I believe). This is still a joy to use and I have not felt the need to upgrade to the more recent models, yet…

Trying to find a decent RSS aggregator programme was difficult – there were not many apps on the Microsoft store to begin with. Eventually I stumbled across ‘Daily Aha’ from Yisoubi Co. Ltd. This worked really well compared to other offerings. However, on a couple of occasions it just seemed to freeze up and wouldn’t load even after a hard reset of the surface pro. After the 2nd freeze up I wasn’t prepared to re-install and reconnect all my RSS feeds again so I got onto Yisoubi support. They were very quick to respond and after going through a few checks via email they pointed out that a new version of the programme was available entitled ‘newsXpresso Pro’. This version was compatible with Windows 8.1, which was probably the reason for the freeze ups in Daily Aha after I had upgraded windows at some point.

‘newsXpresso’ has the same intuitive interface as Daily Aha with some welcome extra features. Here’s a screen shot:

newsXpresso.png

I would recommend this programme to anyone wanting an RSS aggregator on their tablet – looks like apple and android version also exist: http://newsxpresso.com/ and remember, it’s free!

 

CorelDraw Transparency slows to crawl when used with bitmap

Someone was editing some old CorelDraw files which were all vector based. They were adding a background bitmap and then overlaying vector items on top.

When they did this with vector objects that were transparent everything in Corel ceased up and slowed to a crawl particularly with when lots of transparent objects were over layered.

Turning the bitmap layer off brought Corel back to life.

It turned out that the original author had used a Lens effect to perform the transparency on the object.

After some investigations we found information in the Corel documentation that stated when a Lens effect is placed on a vector object and the object is then placed over a bitmap the vector object is converted to a bitmap – this is what was heppening with all the transparent objects and obviously the conversion was slowing everything down.

What the original author should have used was the Transparency tool instead – this is located on one of the toolbar icons as a sub option of the icon that is the Interactive Blend Tool by default (click on the little black arrow in the bottom right and you will see the glass shaped transparency tool).

The transparency tool looks a bit odd the first time you see it – a black square and a white square and a lens rectangle in between. Ignore this and use the toolbar that appears at the top. By default the transparency tool is set to Linear which gives you a gradient effect – change this to uniform and then you can just change the percentage number to the right for the transparency required.

This article explains the Transparency tool in more detail:

http://grok.lsu.edu/Article.aspx?articleId=10563

To change the existing objects we firstly selected all the objects, then turned off the Lens effect (should be a tab on the Object Manager toolbar usually on the right of the screen), then set the transparency using the correct tool.

 

Duckduckgo rocks!

I’ve always tried to use the most anonymous search engine I can – i’m a privacy advocate and just don’t like the idea of big corporations tracking and recording me.

I used to use Scroogle until it’s demise – see: http://www.islandearth.com/articles/2012/2/22/scroogle-is-no-more.html

When that happened I started trying out ixquick and duckduckgo but they just didn’t quite cut it – ixquick was more relevant than duckduckgo but nowhere near as good as Google, and at times was very slow. Duckduckgo was just too USA oriented and I wanted UK relevance.

In the end I gave up using them and for a while went back to Google. I did make sure I was using https to connect securely, set do not track and made sure I deleted cookies on browser exit and didn’t allow 3rd party cookies just to lessen the tracking a little bit.

Recently I saw several articles in the press regarding Duckduckgo so I started given them another try and I was pleasently surprised – it was fast and relevant to the UK. It seems like they have really got their act together and I have now switched to them on all my devices, including iPhone where there is a downloadable app that you can use as a replacement browser to Safari.

http://www.duckduckgo.com