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Let's Encrypt Everything

23 November, by Jeff Atwood[ —]

I'll admit I was late to the HTTPS party.

But post Snowden, and particularly after the result of the last election here in the US, it's clear that everything on the web should be encrypted by default.

Why?

  1. You have an unalienable right to privacy, both in the real world and online. And without HTTPS you have zero online privacy – from anyone else on your WiFi, from your network provider, from website operators, from large companies, from the government.

  2. The performance penalty of HTTPS is gone, in fact, HTTPS arguably performs better than HTTP on modern devices.

  3. Using HTTPS means nobody can tamper with the content in your web browser. This was a bit of an abstract concern five years ago, but these days, there are more and more instances of upstream providers actively mucking with the data that passes through their pipes. For example, if Comcast detects you have a copyright strike, they'll insert banners into your web contentall your web content! And that's what the good guy scenario looks like – or at least a corporation trying to follow the rules. Imagine what it looks like when someone, or some large company, decides the rules don't apply to them?

So, how do you as an end user "use" encryption on the web? Mostly, you lobby for the websites you use regularly to adopt it. And it's working. In the last year, the use of HTTPS by default on websites has doubled.

Browsers can help, too. By January 2017, Google Chrome will show this alert in the UI when a login or credit card form is displayed on an unencrypted connection:

Additionally, Google is throwing their considerable weight behind this effort by ranking non-encrypted websites lower in search results.

But there's another essential part required for encryption to work on any websites – the HTTPS certificate. Historically these certificates have been issued by certificate authorities, and they were at least $30 per year per website, sometimes hundreds of dollars per year. Without that required cash each year, without the SSL certificate that you must re-purchase every year in perpetuity – you can't encrypt anything.

That is, until Let's Encrypt arrived on the scene.

Let's Encrypt is a 501.3(c)(3) non-profit organization supported by the Linux Foundation. They've been in beta for about a year now, and to my knowledge they are the only reliable, official free source of SSL certificates that has ever existed.

However, because Let's Encrypt is a non-profit organization, not owned by any company that must make a profit from each SSL certificate they issue, they need our support:

As a company, we've donated a Discourse hosted support community, and a cash amount that represents how much we would have paid in a year to one of the existing for-profit certificate authorities to set up HTTPS for all the Discourse websites we host.

I urge you to do the same:

  • Estimate how much you would have paid for any free SSL certificates you obtained from Let's Encrypt, and please donate that amount to Let's Encrypt.

  • If you work for a large company, urge them to sponsor Let's Encrypt as a fundamental cornerstone of a safe web.

If you believe in an unalienable right to privacy on the Internet for every citizen in every nation, please support Let's Encrypt.

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Your Digital Pinball Machine

2 November, by Jeff Atwood[ —]

I've had something of an obsession with digital pinball for years now. That recently culminated in me buying a Virtuapin Mini.

OK, yes, it's an extravagance. There's no question. But in my defense, it is a minor extravagance relative to a real pinball machine.

The mini is much smaller than a normal pinball machine, so it's easier to move around, takes up less space, and is less expensive. Plus you can emulate every pinball machine, ever! The Virtuapin Mini is a custom $3k build centered around three screens:

  • 27" main playfield (HDMI)
  • 23" backglass (DVI)
  • 8" digital matrix (USB LCD)

Most of the magic is in those screens, and whether the pinball sim in question allows you to arrange the three screens in its advanced settings, usually by enabling a "cabinet" mode.

Let me give you an internal tour. Open the front coin door and detach the two internal nuts for the front bolts, which are finger tight. Then remove the metal lockdown bar and slide the tempered glass out.

The most uniquely pinball item in the case is right at the front. This Digital Plunger Kit connects the 8 buttons (2 on each side, 3 on the front, 1 on the bottom) and includes an analog tilt sensor and analog plunger sensor. All of which shows up as a standard game controller in Windows.

On the left front side, the audio amplifier and left buttons.

On the right front side, the digital plunger and right buttons.

The 27" playfield monitor is mounted using a clever rod assembly to the standard VESA mount on the back, so we can easily rotate it up to work on the inside as needed.

To remove the playfield, disconnect the power cord and the HDMI connector. Then lift it up and out, and you now have complete access to the interior.

Notice the large down-firing subwoofer mounted in the middle of the body, as well as the ventilation holes. The PC "case" is just a back panel, and the power strip is the Smart Strip kind where it auto-powers everything based on the PC being powered on or off. The actual power switch is on the bottom front right of the case.

Powering it up and getting all three screens configured in the pinball sim of your choice results in … magic.

It is a thoroughly professional build, as you'd expect from a company that has been building these pinball rigs for the last decade. It uses real wood (not MDF), tempered glass, and authentic metal pinball parts throughout.

I was truly impressed by the build quality of this machine. Paul of Virtuapin said they're on roughly version four of the machine and it shows. It's over 100 pounds fully assembled and arrives on a shipping pallet. I can only imagine how heavy the full size version would be!

That said, I do have some tweaks I recommend:

  • Make absolutely sure you get an IPS panel as your 27" playfield monitor. As arrived, mine had a TN panel and while it was playable if you stood directly in front of the machine, playfield visibility was pretty dire outside that narrow range. I dropped in the BenQ GW2765HT to replace the GL2760H that was in there, and I was golden. If you plan to order, I would definitely talk to Paul at VirtuaPin and specify that you want this IPS display even if it costs a little more. The 23" backglass monitor is also TN but the viewing angles are reasonable-ish in that orientation and the backglass is mostly for decoration anyway.

  • The improved display has a 1440p resolution compared to the 1080p originally shipped, so you might want to upgrade from the GeForce 750 Ti video card to the just-released 1050 Ti. This is not strictly required, as I found the 750 Ti an excellent performer even at the higher resolution, but I plan to play only fully 3D pinball sims and the 1050 Ti gets excellent reviews for $140, so I went for it.

  • Internally everything is exceptionally well laid out, the only very minor improvement I'd recommend is connecting the rear exhaust fan to the motherboard header so its fan speed can be dynamically controlled by the computer rather than being at full power all the time.

  • On the Virtuapin website order form the PC they provide sounds quite outdated, but don't sweat it: I picked the lowest options thinking I would have to replace it all, and they shipped me a Haswell based quad-core PC with 8GB RAM and a 256GB SSD, even though those options weren't even on the order form.

I realize $3k (plus palletized shipping) is a lot of money, but I estimate it would cost you at least $1500 in parts to build this machine, plus a month of personal labor. Provided you get the IPS playfield monitor, this is a solidly constructed "real" pinball machine, and if you're into digital pinball like I am, it's an absolute joy to play and a good deal for what you actually get. As Ferris Bueller once said:

If you'd like to experiment with this and don't have three grand burning a hole in your pocket, 90% of digital pinball simulation is a widescreen display in portrait mode. Rotate one of your monitors, add another monitor if you're feeling extra fancy, and give it a go.

As for software, most people talk about Visual Pinball for these machines, and it works. But the combination of janky hacked-together 2D bitmap technology used in the gameplay, and the fact that all those designs are ripoffs that pay nothing in licensing back to the original pinball manufacturers really bothers me.

I prefer Pinball Arcade in DirectX 11 mode, which is downright beautiful, easily (and legally!) obtainable via Steam and offers a stable of 60+ incredible officially licensed classic pinball tables to choose from, all meticulously recreated in high resolution 3D with excellent physics.

As for getting pinball simulations running on your three monitor setup, if you're lucky the game will have a cabinet mode you can turn on. Unfortunately, this can be weird due to … licensing issues. Apparently building a pinball sim on the computer requires entirely different licensing than placing it inside a full-blown pinball cabinet.

Pinball Arcade has a nifty camera hack someone built that lets you position three cameras as needed to get the three displays. You will also need the excellent x360ce program to dynamically map joystick events and buttons to a simulated Xbox 360 controller.

Pinball FX2 added a cabinet mode about a year ago, but turning it on requires a special code and you have to send them a picture of your cabinet (!) to get that code. I did, and the cabinet mode works great; just enter your code, specify the coordinates of each screen in the settings and you are good to go. While these tables definitely have arcadey physics, I find them great fun and there are a ton to choose from.

Pro Pinball Timeshock Ultra is unique because it's originally from 1997 and was one of the first "simulation" level pinball games. The current rebooted version is still pre-rendered graphics rather than 3D, but the client downloads the necessary gigabytes of pre-rendered content at your exact screen resolution and it looks amazing.

Timeshock has explicit cabinet support in the settings and via command line tweaks. Also, in cabinet mode, when choosing table view, you want the bottom left one. Trust me on this! It supports maximum height for portrait cabinet mode.

Position each window as necessary, then enable fullscreen for each one and it'll snap to the monitor you placed it on. It's "only" one table, but arguably the most classic of all pinball sims. I sincerely hope they continue to reboot the rest of the Pro Pinball series, including Big Race USA which is my favorite.

I've always loved pinball machines, even though they struggled to keep up with digital arcade games. In some ways I view my current project, Discourse, as a similarly analog experience attempting to bridge the gap to the modern digital world:

The fantastic 60 minute documentary Tilt: The Battle to Save Pinball has so many parallels with what we're trying to do for forum software.

Pinball is threatened by Video Games, in the same way that Forums are threatened by Facebook and Twitter and Tumblr and Snapchat. They're considered old and archaic technology. They've stopped being sexy and interesting relative to what else is available.

Pinball was forced to reinvent itself several times throughout the years, from mechanical, to solid state, to computerized. And the defining characteristic of each "era" of pinball is that the new tables, once you played them, made all the previous pinball games seem immediately obsolete because of all the new technology.

The Pinball 2000 project was an attempt to invent the next generation of pinball machines:

It wasn't a new feature, a new hardware set, it was everything new. We have to get everything right. We thought that we had reinvented the wheel. And in many respects, we had.

This is exactly what we want to do with Discourse – build a forum experience so advanced that playing will make all previous forum software seem immediately obsolete.

Discourse aims to save forums and make them relevant and useful to a whole new generation.

So if I seem a little more nostalgic than most about pinball, perhaps a little too nostalgic at times, maybe that's why.

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Can Software Make You Less Racist?

25 August, by Jeff Atwood[ —]

I don't think we computer geeks appreciate how profoundly the rise of the smartphone, and Facebook, has changed the Internet audience. It's something that really only happened in the last five years, as smartphones and data plans dropped radically in price and became accessible – and addictive – to huge segments of the population.

People may have regularly used computers in 2007, sure, but that is a very different thing than having your computer in your pocket, 24/7, with you every step of every day, fully integrated into your life. As Jerry Seinfeld noted in 2014:

But I know you got your phone. Everybody here's got their phone. There's not one person here who doesn't have it. You better have it … you gotta have it. Because there is no safety, there is no comfort, there is no security for you in this life any more … unless when you're walking down the street you can feel a hard rectangle in your pants.

It's an addiction that is new to millions – but eerily familiar to us.

The good news is that, at this moment, every human being is far more connected to their fellow humans than any human has ever been in the entirety of recorded history.

Spoiler alert: that's also the bad news.

Nextdoor is a Facebook-alike focused on specific neighborhoods. The idea is that you and everyone else on your block would join, and you can privately discuss local events, block parties, and generally hang out like neighbors do. It's a good idea, and my wife started using it a fair amount in the last few years. We feel more connected to our neighbors through the service. But one unfortunate thing you'll find out when using Nextdoor is that your neighbors are probably a little bit racist.

I don't use Nextdoor myself, but I remember Betsy specifically complaining about the casual racism she saw there, and I've also seen it mentioned several times on Twitter by people I follow. They're not the only ones. It became so epidemic that Nextdoor got a reputation for being a racial profiling hub. Which is obviously not good.

Social networking historically trends young, with the early adopters. Facebook launched as a site for college students. But as those networks grow, they inevitably age. They begin to include older people. And those older people will, statistically speaking, be more racist. I apologize if this sounds ageist, but let me ask you something: do you consider your parents a little racist? I will personally admit that one of my parents is definitely someone I would label a little bit racist. It's … not awesome.

The older the person, the more likely they are to have these "old fashioned" notions that the mere presence of differently-colored people on your block is inherently suspicious, and marriage should probably be defined as between a man and a woman.

In one meta-analysis by Jeffrey Lax and Justin Phillips of Columbia University, a majority of 18–29 year old Americans in 38 states support same sex marriage while in only 6 states do less than 45% of 18–29 year olds support same-sex marriage. At the same time not a single state shows support for same-sex marriage greater than 35% amongst those 64 and older

The idea that regressive social opinions correlate with age isn't an opinion; it's a statistical fact.

Support for same-sex marriage in the U.S.

18 - 29 years old    65%
30 - 49 years old    54%
50 - 64 years old    45%
65+ years old        39%

Are there progressive septuagenarians? Sure there are. But not many.

To me, failure to support same-sex marriage is as inconceivable as failing to support interracial marriage. Which was not that long ago, to the tune of the late 60s and early 70s. If you want some truly hair-raising reading, try Loving v. Virginia on for size. Because Virginia is for lovers. Just not those kind of lovers, 49 years ago. In the interests of full disclosure, I am 45 years old, and I graduated from the University of Virginia.

With Nextdoor, you're more connected with your neighbors than ever before. But through that connection you may also find out some regressive things about your neighbors that you'd never have discovered in years of the traditional daily routine of polite waves, hellos from the driveway, and casual sidewalk conversations.

To their immense credit, rather than accepting this status quo, Nextdoor did what any self-respecting computer geek would do: they changed their software. Now, when you attempt to post about a crime or suspicious activity …

… you get smart, just in time nudges to think less about race, and more about behavior.

The results were striking:

Nextdoor claims this new multi-step system has, so far, reduced instances of racial profiling by 75%. It’s also decreased considerably the number of notes about crime and safety. During testing, the number of crime and safety issue reports abandoned before being published rose by 50%. “It’s a fairly significant dropoff,” said Tolia, “but we believe that, for Nextdoor, quality is more important than quantity.”

I'm a huge fan of designing software to help nudge people, at exactly the right time, to be their better selves. And this is a textbook example of doing it right.

Would using Nextdoor and encountering these dialogs make my aforementioned parent a little bit less racist? Probably not. But I like to think they would stop for at least a moment and consider the importance of focusing on the behavior that is problematic, rather than the individual person. This is a philosophy I promoted on Stack Overflow, I continue to promote with Discourse, and I reinforce daily with our three kids. You never, ever judge someone by what they look like. Consider what they do instead.

If you were getting excited about the prospect of validating Betteridge's Law yet again, I'm sorry to disappoint you. I truly do believe software, properly designed software, can not only help us be more civil to each other, but can also help people – maybe even people you love – behave a bit less like racists online.

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The Raspberry Pi Has Revolutionized Emulation

25 July, by Jeff Atwood[ —]

Every geek goes through a phase where they discover emulation. It's practically a rite of passage.

I think I spent most of my childhood – and a large part of my life as a young adult – desperately wishing I was in a video game arcade. When I finally obtained my driver's license, my first thought wasn't about the girls I would take on dates, or the road trips I'd take with my friends. Sadly, no. I was thrilled that I could drive myself to the arcade any time I wanted.

My two arcade emulator builds in 2005 satisfied my itch thoroughly. I recently took my son Henry to the California Extreme expo, which features almost every significant pinball and arcade game ever made, live and in person and real. He enjoyed it so much that I found myself again yearning to share that part of our history with my kids – in a suitably emulated, arcade form factor.

Down, down the rabbit hole I went again:

I discovered that emulation builds are so much cheaper and easier now than they were when I last attempted this a decade ago. Here's why:

  1. The ascendance of Raspberry Pi has single-handedly revolutionized the emulation scene. The Pi is now on version 3, which adds critical WiFi and Bluetooth functionality on top of additional speed. It's fast enough to emulate N64 and PSX and Dreamcast reasonably, all for a whopping $35. Just download the RetroPie bootable OS on a $10 32GB SD card, slot it into your Pi, and … well, basically you're done. The distribution comes with some free games on it. Add additional ROMs and game images to taste.

  2. Chinese all-in-one JAMMA cards are available everywhere for about $90. Pandora's Box is one "brand". These things are are an entire 60-in-1 to 600-in-1 arcade on a board, with an ARM CPU and built-in ROMs and everything … probably completely illegal and unlicensed, of course. You could buy some old broken down husk of an arcade game cabinet, anything at all as long as it's a JAMMA compatible arcade game – a standard introduced in 1985 – with working monitor and controls. Plug this replacement JAMMA box in, and bam: you now have your own virtual arcade. Or you could build or buy a new JAMMA compatible cabinet; there are hundreds out there to choose from.

  3. Cheap, quality IPS arcade size LCDs. The CRTs I used in 2005 may have been truer to old arcade games, but they were a giant pain to work with. They're enormous, heavy, and require a lot of power. Viewing angle and speed of refresh are rather critical for arcade machines, and both are largely solved problems for LCDs at this point, which are light, easy to work with, and sip power for $100 or less.

Add all that up – it's not like the price of MDF or arcade buttons and joysticks has changed substantially in the last decade – and what we have today is a console and arcade emulation wonderland! If you'd like to go down this rabbit hole with me, bear in mind that I've just started, but I do have some specific recommendations.

Get a Raspberry Pi starter kit. I recommend this particular starter kit, which includes the essentials: a clear case, heatsinks – you definitely want small heatsinks on your 3, as it dissipate almost 4 watts under full load – and a suitable power adapter. That's $50.

Get a quality SD card. The primary "drive" on your Pi will be the SD card, so make it a quality one. Based on these excellent benchmarks, I recommend the Sandisk Extreme 32GB or Samsung Evo+ 32GB models for best price to peformance ratio. That'll be $15, tops.

Download and install the bootable RetroPie image on your SD card. It's amazing how far this project has come since 2013, it is now about as close to plug and play as it gets for free, open source software. The install is, dare I say … "easy"?

Decide how much you want to build. At this point you have a fully functioning emulation brain for well under $100 which is capable of playing literally every significant console and arcade game created prior to 1997. Your 1985 self is probably drunk with power. It is kinda awesome. Stop doing the Safety Dance for a moment and ask yourself these questions:

  • What controls do you plan to plug in via the USB ports? This will depend heavily on which games you want to play. Beyond the absolute basics of joystick and two buttons, there are Nintendo 64 games (think analog stick(s) required), driving games, spinner and trackball games, multiplayer games, yoke control games (think Star Wars), virtual gun games, and so on.

  • What display to you plan to plug in via the HDMI port? You could go with a tiny screen and build a handheld emulator, the Pi is certainly small enough. Or you could have no display at all, and jack in via HDMI to any nearby display for whatever gaming jamboree might befall you and your friends. I will say that, for whatever size you build, more display is better. Absolutely go as big as you can in the allowed form factor, though the Pi won't effectively use much more than a 1080p display maximum.

  • How much space do you want to dedicate to the box? Will it be portable? You could go anywhere from ultra-minimalist – a control box you can plug into any HDMI screen with a wireless controller – to a giant 40" widescreen stand up arcade machine with room for four players.

  • What's your budget? We've only spent under $100 at this point, and great screens and new controllers aren't a whole lot more, but sometimes you want to build from spare parts you have lying around, if you can.

  • Do you have the time and inclination to build this from parts? Or do you prefer to buy it pre-built?

These are all your calls to make. You can get some ideas from the pictures I posted at the top of this blog post, or search the web for "Raspberry Pi Arcade" for lots of other ideas.

As a reasonable all-purpose starting point, I recommend the Build-Your-Own-Arcade kits from Retro Built Games. From $330 for full kit, to $90 for just the wood case.

You could also buy the arcade controls alone for $75, and build out (or buy) a case to put them in.

My "mainstream" recommendation is a bartop arcade. It uses a common LCD panel size in the typical horizontal orientation, it's reasonably space efficient and somewhat portable, while still being comfortably large enough for a nice big screen with large speakers gameplay experience, and it supports two players if that's what you want. That'll be about $100 to $300 depending on options.

I remember spending well over $1,500 to build my old arcade cabinets. I'm excited that it's no longer necessary to invest that much time, effort or money to successfully revisit our arcade past.

Thanks largely to the Raspberry Pi 3 and the RetroPie project, this is now a simple Maker project you can (and should!) take on in a weekend with a friend or family. For a budget of $100 to $300 – maybe $500 if you want to get extra fancy – you can have a pretty great classic arcade and classic console emulation experience. That's way better than I was doing in 2005, even adjusting for inflation.

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