Monthly Archives: October 2017

No, I will not disable my ad blocker. 0

Anyone who uses an ad blocker has no doubt seen the “placeholder” images or text that replace where the advertisement would be on popular websites. These placeholders implore us to turn off our ad blockers to give the site vital revenue, to not starve the website owners of cash. Lately, there have been even more aggressive methods to ask us to turn blocking off – pop-up or interstitial notifications to shut the blocker off, or even full-page-blocking notifications that keep you from seeing anything if an ad blocker is on.

I do not, in principle, have an issue with these notifications. I think companies and individuals who support their sites with advertising have the right to ask us to turn off the tech that keeps them from getting paid and paying their bills. However, I must regretfully inform these sites that I will not be turning off my ad blocking software, and here is why:

Ad networks (the 3rd-party companies that serve up the ads found on most websites these days) have become nothing more than the latest vector for delivering malware of many forms. In the past, an attacker had to compromise the site itself through security holes or brute force in order to turn that site into an attack vector for infecting visitors with various nasty software. Ad networks have allowed attackers to do many multiple times the damage with a fraction of the effort.

Here’s how it works: The attacker buys ad space with a network that allows Javascript or other active-code ad serving. The technology generally allows advertisers to show rich-media ads (which are annoying and should be removed from the internet anyway, but I digress). Rich-media ads have video, audio, and other eye-catching stuff built-in, but require that the website displaying them allow for the scripts to be run. They also require that the browser allow the scripts to run, which ad blockers disable. For a legitimate advertiser and the website owner, this means better conversion rates (the rate at which viewers click on the ad to see the product/service being sold) and rich-media ads have become insanely popular for advertisers themselves; and a requirement for most ad networks to support.

An attacker can create an “advertisement” that has scripting which delivers the payload of their choice. This could be malware or spyware that the user must accept and run, other malware and spyware that requires no user interaction (limiting what it can attack, but making it much more likely to execute), or more recently crypto-currency mining scripts that chew up CPU cycles and can theoretically damage a computer though overheating it. Since the ad network has no way to tell that the malicious ad is any different from any other rich-media ad (because networks don’t bother to police their customers), the ad network serves up the bad ad to hundreds of websites and infects thousands of end-users.

In short, network advertising on websites has become the new way for attackers to deliver their malware.

This “malvertising” has become so prevalent that even giant sites like Showtime have been attacked via malware in ads posted on their sites. The ad networks do nearly nothing to stop the problem, and the site owners cannot stop it short of removing the ad networks’ code from their sites.

So, until such time as ad networks begin to properly police the ads they put up on network sites, or until such time as you – the site owner – remove that code and post ads you know to be non-malicious only; I’m not turning off the ad blocker. I’m sorry that this impacts you, truly I am. However, the situation has reached a point where no site that runs network ads is safe unless that code is blocked from ever running.

PS: I do indeed subscribe to websites that offer quality content without ads, either through Patreon or directly with the site itself. I know that this limits how many sites I can possibly support, but for those that offer great content and don’t attempt to infect my system with their lax code policies, I’m more than willing to put my money where my mouth is.

Out with LiqudSky, in with @Paperspace 1

Those who follow me on Twitter know I have, in the past, been a big fan of LiquidSky for cloud gaming. What I’ve found over time, however, is that I can no longer support that platform. I’ve officially cancelled my subscription and been using a new platform – Paperspace and Parsec – for several months now. The reasons for the change are straight-forward, and could have been addressed by LiquidSky before I jumped ship, but were not.

First, a note on what cloud gaming is: Basically, cloud gaming is simply a desktop hosted with a cloud provider close enough to you physically to provide a very low latency streaming experience. Streaming allows you to see the video and hear the audio of the desktop in much the same way as you watch movies and TV online. Low latency allows your clicks and keyboard input to happen on the remote desktop in close enough to real-time that it feels real-time. Both are required for cloud gaming because you need to react to what’s happening on the screen as it happens (you see an enemy, you react and shoot, or hide, or dodge, etc.). This is insanely difficult to accomplish, as most streaming systems like Netflix are designed for one-way communication. They send the data to your browser or set-top box and that’s all they’re worried about. With gaming, input matters, and therefore latency is a both sending and receiving input is something that must be dealt with. Just having a remote desktop connection doesn’t work – latency might be low enough to stream the desktop to you, but not anywhere near low enough for quick reactions to be recognized by the desktop itself in enough time to be useful.

Another issue is that most cloud platforms are geared toward commodity compute – basic CPU and RAM functions – and not for graphics. This means that while some games will run, those that require dedicated graphics cards (GPU) will not – ruling out the use of nearly all major games you’d want to play. GPU-focused cloud instances exist, but at a huge premium in price, and latency is still a massive issue with those.

Cloud gaming works to solve both issues by accelerating networking to allow for reasonably low latency, and offering GPU-enabled cloud desktop instances with sufficient resources to play the games you want to play. It’s a balancing act, and tricky to get right, but a few companies have managed to do it. For a Mac person who likes to play big-name games (which are typically Windows only), cloud gaming is a dream that’s just now starting to come true.

So less address why I made the switch:

1 – Mac Support: LiquidSky originally had a great Mac client. It wasn’t perfect, but they were working on correcting the few issues that there were there and making it better. Then LiquidSky 2 launched without a Mac client at all. Over the remainder of 2017, we Mac users patiently waited for the next-generation Mac client, but to no avail. Update after update of the Windows client came, and an Android client finally launched, but the Mac client continued to be listed as “coming soon.” As one of the major uses of cloud gaming is allowing Linux and Mac users to play these games, this is inexcusable. The Windows client can be used on a Mac with virtualization or emulation (things like vmWare Fusion and Wine), but this requires a level of technical expertise that is beyond the majority of users – and doesn’t provide a pleasant user experience at all.

Paperspace has had a Mac client since day one of their GPU-enabled gaming desktop services. It works, and it works very well, and they’re continuing development of the platform as they move forward to make it even better. They partner with Parsec to minimize latency and maximize the gaming experience overall, and they provide complete and easy-to-follow instructions on how to install and use these tools that anyone can follow.

2 – Latency: LiquidSky has continued to get worse and worse on this front as it gets more popular. While I’m happy they’re getting more users, they’re not scaling properly to allow for the increased user base to get a good experience when they play. Overburdening of their systems is taxing their networks, causing lag that makes playing many games impossible, and most games just plain unpleasant. Even using Wine to jury-rig their client into working on a Mac, visuals are “muddy” and reaction is sluggish and painful most of the time.

Paperspace keeps their networks and platform robust as it grows. It’s not perfect – there are periods of peak activity that definitely cause hiccups, lag, and some muddiness; but they’re far fewer than I ever experienced on LiquidSky and seem to be kept short. You’ll get a few seconds of sluggishness and stutter, and then you’re back to the great desktop experience you want.

3 – Billing Experience and Support: LiquidSky just doesn’t seem to care about its customers. It pains me to say that, as this is completely different than the experience I had when I started using their service. Customer support used to be fast, efficient, and friendly. Now, it seems that they respond when they feel like it, if at all, and basically always answer with “we’re working on that.” While this answer is perfectly acceptable when a new platform launches or a major overhaul has been rolled out – that period of acceptability ended several months ago and the attitude has continued nonetheless. Billing is painful, as it is handled by a 3rd-party entirely now and not even visible on the LiquidSky site. The shift from the ability to use unlimited accounts to everyone using a points system to rent access by the hour is even more confusing; and poorly explained. Let me be clear, they needed to raise their rates – no one could hope to grow and expand with the numbers they were offering – but make it easy for people to figure out what they’re paying for. Use real-money for the per-hour fees, not a conversion first to points and then to different amounts of points for each of the sizes of machines that can be run.

Paperspace has two billing options: per-hour fees in real money and unlimited plans at a fixed amount of money per month. They do charge far more than LiquidSky for unlimited accounts, but they are available and a decent value indeed for those of us who spent a lot on our Mac or Linux desktops and do not wish to buy a Windows machine with that much horsepower just to play games. Billing is handled by Paperspace and all options are available from their own website so I can manage my account quickly and easily. Support is stellar! Paperspace requires the use of a 3rd-party service called Parsec to play games (it mitigates many of the latency issues and handles things like controller support). I have been able to get help on Parsec from Paperspace directly, even though it isn’t their code or product. Paperspace always replies quickly and in a friendly manner.

All-in-all, LiquidSky seems to have totally lost the plot when it comes to cloud gaming. They shifted their focus to gaining more users as fast as possible by offering free credits for watching ads, but didn’t plan well to handle the influx of users that brought. They lost focus on their customers and service and support suffered. They’ve outsourced their billing to a 3rd-party and detached themselves from that process, and made the new purchase plans confusing and complex. Finally, they’ve stabbed their Mac customers in the back by focusing so heavily on Windows. I do understand that the vast majority of the gaming market is Windows, so this isn’t an un-sound business decision on their part. That being said, they had a fanatically loyal user base of Mac folks, who are now abandoning the service due to neglect. They did so as several well-known names like nVidia jumped into this space to compete for those same Windows and mobile users. So they’ve given up one advantage (a dedicated and untapped market) to maximize their effort in a crowded space against major household names. That’s not the best business plan.

Paperspace, with the help of Parsec, offers the total package. High quality services, ease of use, native clients on Mac, and reasonable prices. Note that cloud gaming is currently a very expensive proposition, with monthly fees averaging about US$200/month for unlimited use and per-hour fees being higher than for commodity compute uses. It is, however, worth it – especially for occasional gamers who just want to play one or two games that are Windows-only and therefore don’t need a monthly unlimited plan. It’s not perfect. Setup can be challenging, and not all hardware is fully supported (especially USB devices like gamepads and microphones for chat) – though that’s also the case for LiquidSky and not a Paperspace-specific issue. There are instances of network congestion, and minor nitpick issues, etc. Compared to their competition, however, they’re showing themselves to be leaders in the space of cloud gaming – giving big name brands like nVidia a real challenge and proving that they know what they’re doing and will get it done. They’re also proving themselves savvy businesspeople by targeting users who want the service and have found other platforms don’t get the job done. Mac and Linux users who want to play Windows games exist, and they spend money with companies that remain loyal to them – and Paperspace is going after that loyalty while retaining Windows customers – a recipe for success.

So give Paperspace a look if you’re gaming and not on hardware that can support those games well. No matter if it’s Windows, Mac, or Linux on your desktop, they can make your experience a lot better. Start with an hourly GPU instance and see if it meets your needs. You can always graduate to a monthly plan later if that will save you money. The Paperspace team will indeed be there to help you choose, help you get set up, and help you get back in the game.

Outlook for iOS just plain sucks 0

Recently, I joined a new company that uses Office365 – Microsoft’s cloud-forward platform that they believe will eventually replace the traditional licensing models for the Microsoft Office Suite, Exchange Server, SharePoint and several other products. The idea is good, as it opened the door to Microsoft finally brining its signature office applications (Word, PowerPoint, Outlook, etc.) to more platforms, like iOS devices. Word, Excel, and several others made the jump to my iPhone rather nicely. I’m pleasantly surprised at how well they translated from the big screen on my desktop to the small screen on my mobile devices.

Outlook fell out of the WTF tree and smacked into every single dumb-ass branch on the way down.

First, let’s talk about the interface. On a computer, with a keyboard and mouse, the interface for Outlook for PC and Mac is manageable and useable. I’m not a huge fan of the “put all the menu buttons in one tiny corner” school of UX design, but with keyboard shortcuts it’s a very workable solution for maximizing screen real-estate. Even Outlook for Mac – long the whipping boy for how not to port an application from Windows – the interface is clean, effective, and works. On iOS, the interface is horrible. There are no keyboard shortcuts to jump from mail to calendar to contacts, and some features like the task list are just plain missing. To be fair, tasks sync to the Reminders app in iOS – but only if you also set up your Outlook/Exchange account as an internet account on the phone.

All right, I know what you’re all saying, “It’s a scaled down version for just the essential stuff like email!” Great, let’s look at email:

No font sizing. So basically you’re going to see a set amount of info on each screen, no exceptions. Got an iPhone SE and need a bigger scale to avoid going blind? Too bad. On an iPad Pro and want to shrink stuff down so you can get more on the screen? Sucks to be you. To clarify, I am not talking about the fonts IN the emails – Outlook has little to no control over that if the email has its own formatting. I’m talking about the interface itself and the message previews in your mailbox lists.

No red squiggles. In nearly every other iOS application, when you mis-spell a word that autocorrect doesn’t murder for you (AUTOCORRECT SICKS!); you get a helpful visual indicator that something just ain’t right – the infamous red squiggle underline. It happens in the native mail app, and Airmail for iOS, and honestly every other 3rd-Party email app I’ve tried since iOS 4 was a thing. Outlook can’t get it to happen – or on the few instances they do get it to work it almost immediately stops working again. I’ve changed my keyboard settings, fiddled with autocorrect settings, etc. Nothing gets it to work reliably. Now I do a quick proof-read of emails before I hit send whenever possible because… well… AUTOCORRECT SICKS! but sometimes it’s easy to miss a spelling errer, and the red squiggly lines (like the one that’s glaring at me from that purposeful mistake in the last sentence) are extremely vital to not letting them get sent out.

No S/MIME support. What were they thinking? Outlook on the desktop has supported S/MIME in one form or another since Office 98, and done it reasonably well. Even Outlook for Mac has supported the use of signing certificates since it changed over from Entourage years ago. The native mail app supports S/MIME just fine, so the phone itself is capable of it; and other 3rd-Party mail apps seem to offer at least basic support for it, so it’s not an “Apple locked this feature away for their own use only” issue. But, alas, Outlook for iOS cannot use certificates to sign or encrypt emails, or even recognize that one is in use in an incoming email.

Not all bad news

There are some good points to Outlook for iOS as well. It’s not all doom and gloom. While the sizing is an issue, the interface is at least intuitive enough that I didn’t have to go searching through a knowledge base to figure out where things were. Not having the keyboard shortcuts as on a Mac or PC is annoying, but not something that will completely hobble you. Having email and calendars in one app is a much simpler method than downloading the .ics attachment, opening it in the Calendar app, and finally accepting it (or more often then not, finding out there is a conflict and starting the process over with the updated invite). Direct interoperability with other Office for iOS apps right out of the box is also a strong feature in Outlook’s favor. And having the licensing included in my Office365 subscription – which is handled by the iTunes App Store natively – makes things a lot simpler to manage.

I hope that Microsoft hammers out the kinks in the system. I would personally love to use Outlook for iOS for all of my work-related email; as I always keep work email and personal mail in different apps to avoid confusion and mistakes between accounts. For now though, I have to stick with Airmail for iOS. It doesn’t support S/MIME either, but can talk to Exchange online and does everything else I need except Calendars. For those who are interested, I went with BusyCal for iOS on that front.

Outlook for iOS is a flawed, half-baked product. It shouldn’t be part of the Office for iOS suite, and only serves to drag down what is otherwise a great set of apps that we’ve all been waiting for since Microsoft started looking at mobile devices. Get it together, Microsoft, and give me what I’ve had on the desktop and in other 3rd-Party email apps for years now!