Joseph T. Parsons

Which Web Browser is Right for You?

by , June, 2017

The web browser is the most fun­da­men­tal piece of soft­ware on your com­puter. The major­ity of time you spend on your com­puter will be within a browser. Every web­site you visit, every online appli­ca­tion you use, will be con­ducted, medi­ated and con­trolled through a web browser. They are the gate­keep­ers between you and the internet

When it comes to browsers, peo­ple have their pref­er­ences. But they aren’t always well-​informed choices. Microsoft Edge (and before it, Inter­net Explorer) is stan­dard on Win­dows PCs, so many peo­ple default to using it. The same is true of the Safari browser on Macs.

On the other hand, Google Chrome is the most pop­u­lar web browser at the moment, and so many peo­ple auto­mat­i­cally use it— “it must be pop­u­lar for a rea­son,” right

Let’s explore the mod­ern web browser land­scape, and com­pare dif­fer­ent web browsers for speed, secu­rity and features

Niche Browsers

I will men­tion a hand­ful of lesser-​known, “niche” browsers through­out this arti­cle. Don’t be sur­prised if you haven’t heard of them; they exist mostly for a spe­cial­ized audiences.

The three most com­mon right now: Opera, Vivaldi (which tries to be like Opera of a few years ago), and Brave. Sandip Rai dis­cussed the secu­rity fea­tures of Brave in-​depth in our May 2017 issue

Oper­at­ing Sys­tem Support

It is also worth not­ing that not all browsers are avail­able to everyone.

Safari is only for macOS users; if you use Win­dows or Linux, don’t even think about it. Microsoft Edge is only avail­able on Win­dows 10. Older ver­sions of Win­dows run Inter­net Explorer instead, which is old enough that in gen­eral I won’t focus on it

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Protecting Electronics from Summer Storms

by , May, 2017

It’s sum­mer­time! Almost, any­way, and the severe weather is show­ing signs of an early start this year. So I thought it would be appro­pri­ate to answer one ques­tion I get asked every sum­mer: how can I keep my elec­tron­ics safe dur­ing a storm?

Well, Unplug ‘Em

The sim­plest thing you can do to pro­tect your elec­tron­ics in a storm is to unplug them. (To be clear, this means unplug­ging them from the wall, not just turn­ing off their power.)

That’s it. Noth­ing fancy.

Invest in a Surge Protector

If you’re too attached to your com­puter and other devices to unplug them dur­ing a storm, a surge pro­tec­tor is the next best thing. When look­ing to buy, there are three key num­bers to focus on: the joules rat­ing (or absorp­tion rat­ing), the clamp­ing volt­age, and the response time.

The joules rat­ing is how much elec­tric­ity the surge pro­tec­tor is able to absorb. This isn’t renew­able. That means once the surge pro­tec­tor acti­vates its absorp­tion func­tion­al­ity, it per­ma­nently loses the abil­ity to absorb some elec­tric­ity. As a con­se­quence, a big num­ber is good. Both so that the surge pro­tec­tor will last longer, and so that when an espe­cially large surge occurs (such as from nearby light­ning), the pro­tec­tor will be able to absorb the entirety of the hit. It also means that if you believe your house has been exposed to an espe­cially large surge, such as from a light­ning strike, you should replace your surge protectors.

So what num­ber should you tar­get? In prac­tice, a typ­i­cal surge, even from storms, will rarely exceed 1,000 joules. But to ensure that a surge pro­tec­tor has a long life, and can even with­stand par­tic­u­larly bad surges, I would tar­get some­thing around 3,000 joules if you intend for it to be used on sen­si­tive elec­tron­ics like a com­puter or television.

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Understanding Internet Privacy

by , April, 2017

I just so hap­pen to be old enough that I missed out on middle-​school lec­tures about social media safety. While Face­book was quite big when I entered high school, adults had not quite caught up with the tech­nol­ogy. Schools were more focused on stranger dan­ger (scary chat rooms!) than they were on the actual threats of my time, like cyber­bul­ly­ing and reveal­ing too much infor­ma­tion on social media.

This has changed. I expect most col­lege fresh­men and sopho­mores prob­a­bly did get those lec­tures, and in any case older stu­dents have had plenty of time to learn about social media safety. I’m not going to reprise those lessons here, but I would like to take a look at some of the lesser-​known pri­vacy losses peo­ple encounter on the inter­net, and how to avoid them.

(I would also rec­om­mend check­ing out my pre­vi­ous arti­cle on Win­dows 10 pri­vacy.)

Face­book Knows Which Web­sites You Visit

No, really. Face­book knows a lot about which sites you visit. Any web­site that includes an un-​customized Face­book “like” but­ton, or page wid­get or com­ment feed is a web­site that Face­book knows you’ve vis­ited. Some web­sites don’t include any of these, but instead include “Face­book pixel” in order to track the demo­graph­ics of their users — which is done by aggre­gat­ing the Face­book pro­files of peo­ple who visit those web­sites. Those web­sites won’t know exactly who is using them, but Face­book will know every­body who is using those web­sites. (Dis­clo­sure: The Met­ro­pol­i­tan online includes the Face­book “Like” but­ton, enabling track­ing. The main Met­ro­pol­i­tan State web­site includes Face­book pixel.)

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Virtualizing an Old Computer Game

by , March, 2017

Vir­tu­al­iza­tion is one of the dark arts of tech geeks. We don’t fully under­stand how it works, but we wield it to cre­ate amaz­ing, mag­i­cal things. Like server redun­dancy (which is a very mag­i­cal thing, trust me).

For the aver­age com­puter user, vir­tu­al­iza­tion is a far less use­ful thing, but it does serve one key pur­pose: run­ning old soft­ware in old oper­at­ing sys­tems. (For my primer on oper­at­ing sys­tems, check out my Decem­ber arti­cle.)

Yet the process of installing and run­ning a vir­tual machine can be very tricky. I’d like to pro­vide a sim­ple guide to doing so, with the end goal of run­ning two very old games that will no longer work on mod­ern Win­dows: Maxis’ Sim­Park, and a fan-​made Mario DOS game (avail­able here), both child­hood favorites of mine.

First, There Might be an Eas­ier Way

It deserves to be men­tioned that a lot of ancient soft­ware can run with a great deal of suc­cess using emu­la­tors. There isn’t actu­ally much of a dif­fer­ence when we speak of a “vir­tu­al­izer” ver­sus an “emu­la­tor. The dis­tinc­tion boils down to whether most of the emu­la­tion is occur­ring on hard­ware (then it’s a vir­tu­al­izer) or on soft­ware (in which case, it’s an emulator).

Many peo­ple have already heard of emu­la­tors, and might be scared away by a stigma of ille­gal­ity sur­round­ing them. This is par­tially earned. While emu­la­tor soft­ware itself is legal in the United States, the typ­i­cal use of an emu­la­tor is to run copy­righted soft­ware, whose dis­tri­b­u­tion and pos­ses­sion may, in some instances, vio­late var­i­ous copy­right laws.

What I’m con­cerned with in this arti­cle is run­ning old CDs and fan games. Assum­ing you got the soft­ware legally in the first place, it is 100 per­cent legal to it using an emulator.

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The Discounts and Freebies of an .edu Email Address

by , February, 2017

In talk­ing with stu­dents all over cam­pus, I’ve found that many aren’t aware of the var­i­ous dis­counted and free ser­vices avail­able to any­one with an “.edu” email address. Due to my major and even­tual career path, I’m more aware of the ser­vices avail­able to those pur­su­ing degrees in Com­puter Sci­ence, Com­puter Infor­ma­tion Tech­nol­ogy, Man­age­ment of Infor­ma­tion Sys­tems, and so on. But there are also more uni­ver­sal prod­ucts like Ama­zon Prime and The New York Times that have dis­counts avail­able to .edu email holders.

Ama­zon Stu­dent Prime

Most peo­ple are aware of Ama­zon Prime, a subscription-​based pack­age of Ama­zon Prime video stream­ing, photo stor­age and, of course, two-​day deliv­ery. How­ever, what many don’t know is that stu­dents can get all of Ama­zon Prime’s ben­e­fits for 50 per­cent off and, in fact, can get their first six months of Prime for free right now, thanks to a pro­mo­tional offer.

NewEgg Pre­mier

NewEgg, the pre­dom­i­nant online com­puter part empo­rium, also offers a dis­count for its pre­mier (two-​day ship­ping) ser­vice. Those with an .edu email address will pay only $29.99/yr. instead of the usual $49.99/yr. Exist­ing Pre­mier sub­scribers can even con­nect their .edu email address and receive an imme­di­ate $20 refund.

The New York Times

The New York Times is arguably the most sig­nif­i­cant provider of news in the coun­try, but get­ting a copy comes at a cost: $15/​mo for a dig­i­tal sub­scrip­tion, or $80/​mo for Monday-​Sunday paper delivery.

With an .edu email address, a dig­i­tal sub­scrip­tion is just $4/​mo, and all phys­i­cal deliv­ery options are 50 per­cent off.

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A Further Look at Operating System Choice

by , December, 2016

One thing I glossed over in the sec­ond part of my PC build­ing resource is oper­at­ing sys­tem choice. For most peo­ple, the best oper­at­ing sys­tem will sim­ply be the lat­est ver­sion of Win­dows, but there are actu­ally a lot of fac­tors one could weigh in decid­ing which oper­at­ing sys­tem to use. Indeed, the glory of a PC is that it can run many dif­fer­ent oper­at­ing sys­tems, or even mul­ti­ple at once. I’d like to take a look at the most pop­u­lar oper­at­ing sys­tems avail­able, and weigh the pros and cons of each.

Win­dows XP

Don’t use it. I don’t think any­one does use it any­more, but just in case: Win­dows XP no longer receives secu­rity updates, and is thus inse­cure. You could, if you want, install Win­dows XP in a vir­tual machine, which I may try to explain in-​depth a future arti­cle, but it should absolutely not be your main OS.

Win­dows 7

Win­dows 7 has some advan­tages over the newer Win­dows 10. It’s less privacy-​intrusive, more refined and sta­ble, more com­pat­i­ble with some older Win­dows appli­ca­tions and, as a whole, still works.

But, it will stop work­ing. Microsoft’s gen­eral sup­port for Win­dows 7 ended in 2015, mean­ing that new Win­dows tech­nolo­gies (like DirectX 12, used in some of the newest games) will not be com­ing to the seven-​year-​old OS. It will con­tinue to receive secu­rity updates until 2020, and EMET con­tin­ues to be sup­ported, so Win­dows 7 will remain secure for at least a few more years. After that? It will become a virus wonderland.

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On the Issues: Comparing the Presidential Candidates

by , November, 2016

With just a few more days to the elec­tion, it seems appro­pri­ate to look at what the two main can­di­dates’ opin­ions are. I will also, for the sake of com­plete­ness, review the opin­ions of the two third-​party chal­lengers, Jill Stein and Gary Johnson.

Net Neu­tral­ity

Of course, my per­sonal area of focus will always be tech­nol­ogy, so it makes sense to look first at one of 2012’s big tech­nol­ogy bat­tles, “net neu­tral­ity,” or the idea that Inter­net Ser­vice Providers (ISPs) like Com­cast should be unable to speed-​up web­sites that pay them, and slow-​down web­sites that don’t.

Clin­ton: She seems inclined to fol­low Obama’s lead in favor­ing strong net neu­tral­ity pro­tec­tions, writ­ing in an op-​ed for Quartz that she would work to pro­tect net neu­tral­ity and to pre­empt “state laws that unfairly pro­tect incum­bent busi­nesses.” The FCC has tried to over­rule state laws pro­tect­ing incum­bent ISPs like Com­cast, but the Sixth Cir­cuit Court of Appeals ruled in August that it does not have the fed­eral author­ity to do so. Clin­ton would need con­gress to draft new leg­is­la­tion in order to effect this.

John­son: In line with lib­er­tar­i­ans in gen­eral, he opposes net neu­tral­ity, although he has not spo­ken in depth on the issue. In a Red­dit AMA, he wrote that he “abhor[s] leg­is­la­tion that would reg­u­late the Inter­net. It doesn’t appear to me to be bro­ken; I don’t want to fix it.”

Stein: She has not made a clear state­ment on net neu­tral­ity, but has argued against the “pri­va­ti­za­tion of the inter­net.” The Green party as a whole tends to sup­port net neu­tral­ity, so it is rea­son­ably fair to say that she would as well.

Trump: He has not spo­ken exten­sively on net neu­tral­ity, but seems to believe (wrongly, I must insist on adding) that it would be a form of cen­sor­ship, a way to “tar­get con­ser­v­a­tive media.” To be clear, net neu­tral­ity would, if any­thing, pro­tect con­ser­v­a­tive (and lib­eral) media from extor­tion­ist ISPs.

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Tech Corner: A Quick Resource for PC Building, Part 2

by , November, 2016

In the last issue, I gave you an overview of why I think PC build­ing can be a worth­while adven­ture — how it gives you an appre­ci­a­tion for the tech­nol­ogy run­ning inside that metal box next to your desk, and how it can poten­tially help you save money by know­ing which parts are impor­tant, and which parts aren’t.

In my per­sonal PC-​building adven­tures, I have done a lot of research and learned a lot of rules of thumb — sage wis­dom passed down from vet­eran 24-​year-​olds to novice 21-​year-​olds. I’d like to out­line a great deal of these, with the impor­tant caveat that I am not an expert, and I can’t guar­an­tee the reli­a­bil­ity of my advice. But, you know, it’s worked for me so far: I’ve almost bro­ken a CPU by installing its fan incor­rectly, almost bro­ken my moth­er­board by screw­ing it directly to the case (that’s a big no-​no), I did break my graph­ics card, though in that case it was because I spilt water on it. …I’m pretty sure even babies know water and elec­tric­ity don’t mix.

Build­ing Your Own PC: Buy­ing Rules of Thumb

When buy­ing com­po­nents, it is good to have a rough idea of what will be worth spend­ing more on. In gen­eral, you’re going to want to be look­ing at the sites I out­lined in the pre­vi­ous arti­cle, using Google to get a feel for things. Alas, it is easy to be over­whelmed at first, so I’d like to offer a few good rules that will gen­er­ally apply:

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[OpEd] Colin Kaepernick is a Hero

by , October, 2016
Colin Kaepernick in a 2013 game.

One pit­fall of a month-​long edi­to­r­ial process is that some­thing that’s “in the news” when you start writ­ing about it may no longer be “in the news” once it goes to press. I would guess that, by the time you are read­ing this, Colin Kaeper­nick will no longer be in the head­lines. Yet, I feel his actions have been momen­tous enough to merit an article.

Colin Kaeper­nick, as you are prob­a­bly well aware, refused to (and, pos­si­bly, con­tin­ues to refuse to) stand for the national anthem. “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a coun­try that oppresses black peo­ple and peo­ple of color,” he told NFL Media on August 27th. “To me, this is big­ger than foot­ball and it would be self­ish on my part to look the other way. There are bod­ies in the street and peo­ple get­ting paid leave and get­ting away with murder.”

The Santa Clara Police Officer’s Asso­ci­a­tion, some of whose rep­re­sented offi­cers con­tract as secu­rity for the 49ers, called Kaepernick’s state­ment “obvi­ously insult­ing, inac­cu­rate, and com­pletely unsup­ported by facts.” The offi­cers have a right to not con­tract for the 49ers, but are they cor­rect in say­ing Kaepernick’s state­ment is “com­pletely unsup­ported by facts”?

Who’s Right?

Unfor­tu­nately, it’s hard to obtain reli­able sta­tis­tics when it comes to polic­ing, as depart­ments are gen­er­ally stingy when it comes to releas­ing data. For instance, the most recent Beaueu of Jus­tice Sta­tis­tics (BJS) report relied on a sur­vey of dri­vers. It found that black indi­vid­u­als (12.8 per­cent) were more slightly likely to be pulled over than His­panic indi­vid­u­als (10.4 per­cent) and white indi­vid­u­als (10.2 per­cent), while blacks (6.3 per­cent) and His­pan­ics (6.6 per­cent) were sig­nif­i­cantly more likely than whites to be searched once pulled over (2.3 percent).

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Tech Corner: A Quick Resource for PC Building, Part 1

by , October, 2016
Here's what the inside of a PC looks like when you've put it together yourself.

For most of the past decade, desk­top com­put­ers have been sold with insane price markups. Even if the total cost of a computer’s com­po­nents was only about $500, man­u­fac­tur­ers would sell it for around $800.

Within the past two years, how­ever, this has changed. Desk­tops were first set aside by con­sumers for lap­tops, and now for tablets. In order to com­pete with these smaller devices, man­u­fac­tur­ers have started sell­ing desk­tops for only min­i­mal profit.

As recently as three years ago, I would have urged con­sumers with even a mod­icum of tech­ni­cal knowl­edge to spend a few hours learn­ing how they can build their desk­tops from off-​the-​shelf parts. Today, there is rarely any price incen­tive to do so.

Instead, I would like to lay out the more nuanced ben­e­fits of PC build­ing and, in the next issue, I would like to give you a few point­ers for how you might build a PC.

Okay, So Why Should I Build My Own PC?

Because just as know­ing how to change your own oil is non-​essential, but still very help­ful knowl­edge, know­ing how to build your own com­puter is an optional skill worth hav­ing. The expe­ri­ence you’ll gain will make it easy to upgrade and replace com­puter com­po­nents with­out hav­ing to buy a whole new desk­top. This will save you money down the road, and it will give you greater appre­ci­a­tion for which PC com­po­nents are worth upgrading.

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Windows 10: Privacy and You

by , September, 2016

For the past year, from July 29th, 2015, to July 29th, 2016, Win­dows 10 has been avail­able as a free upgrade for those run­ning Win­dows 7 and Win­dows 8. It remains avail­able as a free upgrade for those using assis­tive tech­nolo­gies like text-​to-​speech (check out https://​www​.microsoft​.com/​e​n​-​u​s​/​a​c​c​e​s​s​i​b​i​l​i​t​y​/​w​i​n​d​o​w​s​10​u​p​grade for more infor­ma­tion), while every­one else still on an old ver­sion will now need to fork over $119.

In com­mem­o­ra­tion of this anniver­sary, Microsoft is releas­ing a Win­dows 10 Anniver­sary Update. When it was first released, Win­dows 10 came to the atten­tion of tech experts for prod­ding into every bit of per­sonal infor­ma­tion you had, and the Anniver­sary Update only dials this back to 9. If you are pri­vacy con­scious, there are over a dozen dif­fer­ent set­tings you can change to stop Win­dows 10 from eaves­drop­ping, and I’d like to walk you through the big ones.

Pri­vacy Set­tings Are Inva­sive by Default

By default, Win­dows 10’s pri­vacy set­tings tend towards “tell us every­thing about you.” Thank­fully, they are easy to change: in the Set­tings app go to “Pri­vacy.” In the default “Gen­eral” tab you will be able to tog­gle off sev­eral inva­sive set­tings. These are, in order:

  • Whether appli­ca­tions can share infor­ma­tion about you for adver­tis­ing pur­poses. (Every­one should dis­able this. Everyone.)
  • Whether “SmartScreen” is enabled, which sends the address of every web­site you visit to Microsoft to check if it is known to dis­trib­ute mal­ware. (Most peo­ple can dis­able this, but if you have a his­tory of installing mal­ware with­out real­iz­ing it, you should prob­a­bly keep this enabled.)
  • Whether every­thing you type is sent to Microsoft. (Dis­able this.)
  • Whether web­sites are told what lan­guage you read. (I would keep this enabled.)
  • Whether Win­dows 10 devices can con­trol the cur­rent com­puter. (While most peo­ple won’t use this fea­ture, it is usu­ally okay to leave it on.)
  • Whether Blue­tooth can be used to con­trol the cur­rent com­puter. (You can prob­a­bly keep this enabled, even if you might not use the feature.)
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Tech Corner: Back to School Technology Shopping on the Cheap

by , August, 2016

It’s August, and we all know what that means: back-​to-​school shop­ping. Many of us dread this time of year and the dent it puts in our wal­lets; tuition is already expen­sive enough, so hav­ing to spend money on a new com­puter, pair of head­phones, or phone can be a down­right dis­heart­en­ing way to start the new school year.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned over the years, it’s how to spend less on elec­tronic good­ies with­out sac­ri­fic­ing qual­ity. And, in com­mem­o­ra­tion of this most-​expensive time of year, I’d like to share some of my insights.

Mono­price: The Bar­gain Brand

To start off, one name every­body should know is Mono­price. Why? Because they are the cheap­est sup­plier of power cables I have seen.

Some­thing as sim­ple as a USB phone cable can run upwards of $10 at Best­Buy or Wal­Mart, whereas Mono­price has them avail­able for under a buck. They are, in gen­eral, of slightly lower qual­ity — mine rarely last more than six months. But, thanks to chil­dren and pets, our cables often don’t last that long any­way. You can also find HDMI tele­vi­sion cables, Cat5 net­work­ing cables, and aux­il­iary audio cables for dirt cheap.

Mono­price also has the best bargain-​bin ear­buds I’ve tried. For $7.50, you will find a pair of ear­phones that sound as good as a $50 pair from Tar­get — ditto for over-​the-​ear head­phones. Unlike my phone cable caveat above, how­ever, these ear­buds don’t break on their own. When­ever I’ve had to throw a Mono­price ear­bud in the trash, it was because it has the mis­for­tune of being mis­taken for a mouse, not because it broke from nor­mal usage.

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Tech Corner: Avoiding Malware by Hardening Your System

by , June, 2016
A screenshot of the CryptoLocker ransomware.

Today’s com­puter age is one of threats. Scam­mers want to steal your credit card infor­ma­tion, hack­ers want to cor­ral your com­puter into giant bot­nets whose pur­pose is to shut­down web­sites, and “ran­somware” — spy­ware that deletes infor­ma­tion but offers to give it back if you pay up — is run­ning increas­ingly ram­pant, infect­ing even hos­pi­tals and police sta­tions. IT depart­ments are keep­ing busy stay­ing up-​to-​date with all these dif­fer­ent types of “mal­ware” (mali­cious soft­ware), but most peo­ple unfor­tu­nately don’t have an entire IT depart­ment keep­ing their own per­sonal com­puter safe.

In the last issue of The Met­ro­pol­i­tan, Levi King did a fan­tas­tic job of explain­ing how mal­ware installs itself through “attack vec­tors,” and sug­gested a num­ber of impor­tant ways you can elim­i­nate these. In this issue, I would like to sug­gest a hand­ful more that will help ensure you never fall prey to a com­puter infec­tion again.

Install EMET (Win­dows Only)

One of the least-​known yet most-​helpful tools for hard­en­ing your sys­tem (assum­ing it is a Win­dows sys­tem) is Microsoft’s Enhanced Mit­i­ga­tion Expe­ri­ence Toolkit, or EMET. While ini­tially intended only for sys­tem admin­is­tra­tors, EMET is now avail­able as an easy-​to-​install con­sumer pack­age that adds sev­eral addi­tional secu­rity pre­cau­tions to Microsoft Win­dows. These fea­tures all work together to reduce the “attack sur­face” that com­mon mal­ware uses to infect your sys­tem, akin to how flu shots pre­emp­tively “patch” weak parts of your body against the flu. In EMET’s case, it specif­i­cally “patches” com­mon pro­grams (like Adobe Flash and Google Chrome), reduc­ing the ways these pro­grams can be used as an attack vector.

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