January 30, 2017 brianradio2016

Already in its 4th edition, Invent Your Own Computer Games with Python is pretty close to the ultimate how-to-learn python book. First, it combines an easy ramp up from expecting you to know virtually nothing to having you try out – and understand – Python. Second, it provides the code, the tools, and the explanations required for you build a number of increasingly sophisticated games and the know-how to branch out to creating games completely on your own.

 

If you’re not convinced, take it from me — just making it to the 4th edition is a sign of a seriously good book.

 

Sandra Henry-Stocker has been administering Unix systems for more than 30 years. She describes herself as “USL” (Unix as a second language) but remembers enough English to write books and buy groceries. She lives in the mountains in Virginia where, when not working with or writing about Unix, she’s chasing the bears away from her bird feeders.

January 30, 2017 brianradio2016

WhatsApp’s privacy policy change allowing Facebook to target advertising at its users has landed the company in a German court.

The Federation of German Consumer Organizations (VZBZ) has filed suit against WhatsApp in the Berlin regional court, alleging that the company collects and stores data illegally and passes it on to Facebook, the federation said Monday.

Facebook acquired WhatsApp in October 2014, but it wasn’t until August 2016 that WhatsApp said it would modify its privacy policy to allow it to share lists of users’ contacts with Facebook. The move made it possible to match WhatsApp accounts with Facebook ones where users had registered a phone number, giving the parent company more data with which to make new friend suggestions and another way to target advertising.

Of particular concern to VZBZ is the way that WhatsApp transfers numbers from its users’ contacts lists to Facebook — even when those numbers are not WhatsApp users. The federation wants the companies to stop transferring such information, and to delete any already transferred. It is also objecting to eight clauses in WhatsApp’s revised terms of use, including one allowing WhatsApp to provide users with advertising materials from the rest of Facebook without their consent.

January 30, 2017 brianradio2016

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The Asus X540SA notebook I’ve been installing Linux distributions on.

Image: Asus

In the previous three posts about this ASUS notebook, I have configured Windows 10 Home, installed openSUSE Tumbleweed, Manjaro and Debian GNU/Linux, and installed Fedora, Linux Mint and Ubuntu.

This time I am going to install the last two Linux distributions I am interested in: KaOS and openSUSE Leap. So far my experience with this inexpensive laptop has been very good. I hope that it continues that way.

KaOS

KaOS Linux is a bit of an unusual distribution compared to the others I am installing, because it is much smaller and less well known. I like it because it is a “pure” KDE distribution, it is always kept up with the latest development in the KDE Plasma desktop, and it includes KDE-specific applications and utilities. That means things like QupZilla instead of Firefox, Calligra Suite instead of LibreOffice, and so on.

The latest ISO installation image is available from the Download page, and is about 1.8GB in size. It can be copied to a USB stick (or DVD), and boots as a Live desktop for installation. KaOS uses the Calamares installer (the same as Manjaro), and installation takes less than 15 minutes. The only quirk about this installation is that KaOS wants the EFI boot partition to be mounted on /boot, not on /boot/efi as most other Linux distributions.

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The Asus X540S running KaOS 2017 (rolling).

Image: J.A. Watson

You might notice in this screen shot that the panel is vertical on the right side of the display, rather than the traditional horizontal at the bottom of the display. This kind of panel layout is something I have tried and used for quite some time on my netbooks. I would suggest, though, that having the panel at the right side can be inconvenient if you frequently have windows which are either full-screen or flush to the right edge of the display, and those windows have scroll bars. It can be irritating when you are trying to grab the scroll bar and the panel keeps jumping out from the edge of the screen.

Especially if you have a flaky/unstable touchpad like this system has.

Having the vertical panel on the left side can make things a lot easier to use.

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Image: J.A. Watson

Just in case someone thought the desktop demons might have decided to give me a break on this laptop (or that newer kernel or GUI software might have more luck with the touchpad in this system)… that is not the case.

As with many of the other distributions I have installed on this laptop, only the Fn-keys for audio up/down/mute work. Also, closing the lid does not put it into Suspend mode, but selecting Suspend from the KDE Power/Session menu does work, and then pressing the power button will Resume successfully.

Pressing the power button while the laptop is running causes a Logout… that seems like an odd choice to me, rather than Suspend or even Shutdown.

openSUSE Leap 42

The last Linux distribution I am interested in installing on this laptop is openSUSE Leap 42. I expected this to be a pretty routine installation, particularly because I have already installed openSUSE Tumbleweed and had no trouble with it.

The installation image can be downloaded from the openSUSE Software web page. Unlike most of the other distributions I have tried, this is an Installer image, not a Live image. It is quite large (about 4.5GB), so you need at least an 8GB USB stick or you can burn it to a blank DVD.

I ran into the same problem with installing Leap that I had previously with Tumbleweed, the touchpad did not work at all. I used a USB mouse for the installation, which worked but it showed the potential problem with the USB ports on this laptop

First, there are only two USB ports (type A), so now I have one with the USB stick and one with the mouse dongle… and they are placed side-by-side with very little clearance. If either the stick or dongle had been any wider at all, it would not have been possible to use both simultaneously.

The same is true of the HDMI and VGA ports, by the way. I actually wanted to try having two external displays connected, but there is simply not enough clearance for that.

Once I booted the installed system the touchpad worked (sort of, but mostly not, as usual), so the functionality was not a problem, but the limited number of ports and proximity could be a continuing issue with this laptop.

I took a slightly different approach to disk management with this installation. First, because I already have openSUSE Tumbleweed installed, and Leap uses the same EFI boot directory name, I had to create a second EFI partition. That’s not a big problem, you just make a small FAT32 partition (256MB is enough), and set the Boot and ESP flags on it. The openSUSE installer will choose the original EFI partition by default, but you can easily change that by selecting Do Not Mount for that partition and then setting the new EFI partition to be mounted on /boot/efi.

Second, openSUSE wants to use btrfs for the root filesystem, and then make a separate xfs partition for /home. I generally don’t do either of those, but since this is really a test system and I want to try a lot of different things, I let this go ahead – the only change I made was the filesystem sizes, because like most installers openSUSE wants to use all available free space.

The installation process takes quite a while – duh, the installation image is more than 4GB, compared to less than 2GB for the other distributions. It still finishes in less than 30 minutes, though, and then reboots to this desktop.

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The Asus X540S running openSUSE Leap 42.

Image: J.A. Watson

I let it install the default KDE Plasma desktop, but of course I could have chosen Gnome 3, Xfce or others from the same installation media.

I am a bit surprised at the difference in functionality between Leap and Tumbleweed. The Fn-keys, for example, only work for audio up/down/mute on Leap, whereas they all work on Tumbleweed. I suppose this shows the advantage of Tumbleweed having the very latest software installed.

Summary

I have now completed installing and testing all of the Linux distributions that I intend to put on this laptop. They all installed with little or no problem, and they all work very well. There are some minor differences in details, especially in areas specific to laptop support such as the Fn-keys and Suspend/Resume functionality.

The important point, in my opinion, is how much better this laptop runs with any of these Linux distributions installed, as compared to the Windows 10 Home that was pre-installed on it. I tried removing the bloatware, removing or disabling whatever Microsoft extensions I could (such as SkyDrive), and making sure that all available Windows updates were installed. Nothing made it any better to use, Windows was maddeningly slow, and continuously missed mouse taps/clicks and key presses.

While it is still not a “speed demon” when running Linux, and booting takes a rather long time, once it is up and running it is quite pleasant to use.

Oh, and one last thing. The UEFI firmware in this system is without a doubt the easiest I have ever worked with. The only thing I had to do was disable Secure Boot so that I could install distributions which didn’t support that. No other fiddling around, no having to go through BIOS setup every time I wanted to change the boot order, no having to set a BIOS password. Very nice.

Read more about Linux by J.A. Watson

January 30, 2017 brianradio2016

ASUS has decided it needs a high-end 2-in-1 ultraportable to rival Microsoft’s Surface Pro 4, and the 12.6-inch Transformer 3 Pro is the result. A robust kickstand, a bundled keyboard, top-end components and high-quality design, along with a competitive price, all bode well. What could possibly go wrong?

The Transformer 3 Pro’s build quality is very impressive. The chassis is made of the magnesium alloy that’s characteristic of higher-end laptops, and I found it pretty much impossible to bend or bow the tablet in my hands. As well as being strong, the magnesium alloy is light, with the tablet weighing around 800g. This is still a lot to hold in one hand for any length of time, but held in two hands in landscape mode, or in portrait mode in the crook of an arm, it feels extremely manageable.

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The 12.6-inch Core i5-based Transformer 3 Pro weighs around 800g for the tablet and around 1.14kg with the keyboard attached.

Image: ASUS

At 8.35mm thick the Transformer 3 Pro is ever so slightly thinner than the 8.45mm Surface Pro 4 (these things matter to marketing departments, if not real users).

ASUS’s device does have a slightly larger footprint that the Surface Pro 4, measuring 298.8mm by 210.1mm compared to the Surface’s 292.10mm by 201.42mm. The trade-off here is a larger screen. ASUS has opted for a 12.6-inch screen while Microsoft uses a 12.3-inch panel. Still, these differences are minor, and should not, on their own, create a preference for one or other device.

On the back of the tablet section the matte silver/grey finish of my review sample should not raise any eyebrows in the office. The ASUS logo stands proud in reflective silver, as does a thin strip that bisects the chassis horizontally. As well as breaking up a sea of light grey, this strip also marks the location of the kickstand’s hinge.

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The fully ajustable kickstand can hold the tablet anywhere from nearly upright to nearly flat.

Image: ASUS

The kickstand is the defining feature of the Transformer 3 Pro. Small grooves on the left and right edges provide purchase to release the kickstand and swivel it to the required position. Once in place the stand is rigid, and it can be set anywhere on a 155-degree rotation, which means the screen can sit anywhere between nearly upright and nearly flat on a table.

Top ZDNET Reviews

The screen is bright, sharp and clear. Its resolution of 2,880 by 1,920 pixels delivers particularly crisp detail while watching video. I found browsing and document creation to be perfectly acceptable too, although the screen’s reflective surface can create issues in bright lighting conditions. Compared to the Surface Pro 4’s 2,736 by 1,824 resolution, the Transformer 3 Pro offers slightly more pixels in a slightly larger screen, which makes for very similar pixel density –267ppi for the Surface Pro 4 versus 274ppi for the Transformer 3 Pro.

The chink in the armour of this device as far as output is concerned is sound quality. At its website ASUS says that the Transformer 3 Pro delivers an ‘amazing audio experience’. A pair of front-facing speakers can certainly put out plenty of volume, but it’s noticeably distorted at higher levels. Stick to about two-thirds of the way up the volume bar and things are better, but still not distortion-free.

A key feature of the Transformer 3 Pro is its input combo of keyboard and stylus. The ASUS Pen is a neat device incorporating WACOM technology to support 1,024 pressure levels and a couple of user-assignable buttons. There’s a pen clip for parking the stylus is a top pocket, but there’s nowhere on the Transformer 3 Pro itself to stow it, so, as is often the case, this is an easy item to mislay.

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The keyboard can either lie flat, as pictured here, or be raised about 15mm from the surface at the screen end.

Image: ASUS

The keyboard comes in several colours: I was sent a dark grey version, but it’s also available in two further grey shades and bronze. The keyboard build is robust and I couldn’t flex it in my hands. Its rubberised coating both on the key side and the underside is a neat visual counterpoint to the tablet and helps with grip. The two sections slot together quickly and neatly, and I found the magnetic binding strong enough to survive the rough-and-tumble of travel in my rucksack.

ASUS doesn’t divulge the weight of the Transformer Cover Keyboard, simply noting that the tablet weighs 800g. My kitchen scales reported 796g for the tablet and 344g for the keyboard, or 1.138kg in total. There are laptops that rival this weight: the non-touch version of the Dell XPS 13 (2016) weighs 1.2kg, for example, while the 360-degree-rotating Lenovo Yoga 900S is just 999g.

I found typing a comfortable experience: there’s enough travel and feedback in the keys for me to get close to my regular touch-typing speed, and the backlight came in handy. The touchpad was responsive too.

As with the Surface Pro 4, there are two typing positions: the keyboard can either lie flat on a surface or be raised about 15mm from the surface at its back edge. The latter position was more comfortable for me, although typing generated a small amount of downward movement in the keyboard as I used it, delivering a hollow sound on every key press. I’m a light-fingered typist, so this effect may be more pronounced for others.

There are two variants of the Transformer 3 Pro. I was sent the less expensive of the pair. Both bundle the keyboard and ASUS Pen. The main differences between the two are:

  • Intel Core i5-6200U, Windows 10 Home, 12.6-inch 2,880 x 1,620 touchscreen, Intel HD Graphics 520, 4GB RAM, 256GB SATA3 SSD, 802.11ac wi-fi, Bluetooth 4.1
    £999.99 (inc. VAT)
  • Intel Core i7-6200U, Windows 10 Home, 12.6-inch 2,880 x 1,620 touchscreen, Intel HD Graphics 520, 8GB RAM, 512GB SATA3 SSD, 802.11ac wi-fi, Bluetooth 4.1
    £1,399.95 (inc. VAT)

There’s no NFC in either model. Both have a 2-megapixel front camera and a 13-megapixel rear camera.

Physical connectivity is very important for mobile workers, and there’s a fair bit here. ASUS has included a USB-C port with Thunderbolt 3 support (something that’s not available on the Surface Pro 4), along with full-size USB 3.0 and HDMI connectors and a MicroSD slot. If you want to boost the integrated Intel graphics (for gaming, for example), you can add the ASUS ROG XG Station 2 via a Thunderbolt 3 connection.

The real problem with the ASUS Transformer 3 Pro is the longevity from the 39Wh lithium-polymer battery.

I found it necessary to set the screen backlight between 75 percent and 100 percent to work effectively — any lower and reflectiveness became a real problem. This had an adverse effect on battery life.

During testing, I averaged about 4.5 hours of battery life without running particularly demanding workloads — writing, web browsing, a little media streaming and some basic spreadsheet work.

Even when idling the battery depleted remarkably quickly. For example, on one occasion I left the Transformer 3 Pro switched on and connected to the internet with the screen set to 70 percent brightness for 70 minutes: during this unattended period the battery-level indicator reduced from 61 percent to 42 percent.

On the plus side, the battery will fast-charge, reaching 60 percent in 60 minutes,; the power adapter is also relatively small and light, so it shouldn’t take up too much bag space.

Conclusions

ASUS has done a good job with the chassis design of its Transformer 3 Pro, and the keyboard has a lot going for it too. It’s nice to see the two bundled rather than having to buy the keyboard separately, and to have the ASUS Pen thrown into the mix too. Full-size HDMI and USB 3.0 ports, and USB-C/Thunderbolt 3 are also all welcome. Audio quality leaves a bit to be desired, but the real elephant in the room is poor battery life: an inability to last beyond five hours with limited workloads may be a deal breaker for many potential buyers.

Read more reviews

January 30, 2017 brianradio2016

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Apple will soon start collecting iCloud data to improve Siri and other services.

Image: CNET

Apple is introducing a new analytics section to its iOS privacy settings where it will ask for permission to analyze iCloud account data to improve Siri and other smart features.

Apple has been critical of Silicon Valley’s addiction to harvesting and monetizing user data for ads, but it appears Apple sees some sense in accessing user data and will be seeking to use more of it in the near future.

An iOS 10.3 beta released last week contained a note under the title ‘iCloud Analytics & Privacy’, explaining that Apple wants to analyze iCloud account data to improve intelligent features such as Siri. iCloud services include photos, email, contacts, calendar, iCloud Drive, notes, Keychain, Find My iPhone, and iTunes storage.

“Apple would like your help to improve our products and services by using, in a privacy preserving manner, data from your iCloud account,” it says.

“Analysis of such data will allow Apple to improve intelligent features and services such as Siri and other similar or related services.”

Importantly, iPhone users can opt out of the data-sharing system under the section in Privacy within Settings.

Apple notes that it will only crunch your iCloud data after it applies what it calls “differential privacy“, a technique it debuted last year with iOS 10 as part of its plan to improve its artificial-intelligence services.

Unlike Google or Facebook, Apple exec Craig Federighi boasted that its deep-learning and artificial-intelligence analysis would be done on the device rather than in the cloud, but it would still be collecting user data to enable new features.

Differential privacy adds “mathematical noise” to data that Apple collects from devices, allowing it to do “crowdsourced learning” to spot usage patterns en masse without profiling individual users.

The first features it improved using differential privacy included QuickType and emoji suggestions in iMessage, as well as Spotlight search suggestions and Notes.

Apple hasn’t said exactly what iCloud data it wants to use, nor which products beyond Siri it hopes to improve with the new data. However, it does appear to be preparing to significantly expand of its use differential privacy.

Read more about Apple iOS

January 30, 2017 brianradio2016

Four years after the introduction of Office 365 for consumers, Microsoft last week said subscriptions to the productivity software had reached nearly 25 million.

Subscribers, however, were harder to find last year than in 2015, according to the numbers Microsoft reported: Additions to Office 365’s rolls were down 62 percent in 2016 compared to the year before.

During an earnings call with Wall Street analysts last week, CEO Satya Nadella touted revenue increases for the Office products aimed at consumers—which include Office 365—and of the latter said that the company had, “continued to see an increase in … subscriber base.”

That it did.

January 30, 2017 brianradio2016

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Until recently, buyers could use iCloud to check the IMEI or serial number of a device being sold online to see whether it was still locked by another Apple account.

Image: Apple

Apple has quietly removed a feature on iCloud that helped buyers remotely check the Activation Lock status of a used iPhone before buying it.

Until recently, buyers could go to iCloud.com and type in the IMEI or serial number of a device being sold online to check whether it was still locked by another Apple account.

Apple apparently thinks the tool, which helped facilitate the secondhand iOS device market, is redundant, having removed the checker page in iCloud. It’s also scrubbed the reference to it in the ‘Find My iPhone Activation Lock’ support page. The change was spotted by MacRumors.

The support page used to say:

“How do I check for Activation Lock before purchasing a used device?

“When you buy an iPhone, iPad, iPod touch, or Apple Watch from someone other than Apple or an authorized Apple reseller, it is up to you to ensure that the device is erased and no longer linked to the previous owner’s account.

“You can check the current Activation Lock status of a device when you visit icloud.com/activationlock from any Mac or PC.”

Apple also offered several steps to check the status of a device if the buyer had physical access to it, which remains unchanged.

Activation Lock, a feature enabled by Find My iPhone, locks iOS devices down unless the Apple ID and password is known.

Apple introduced the Activation Lock status checker in 2014, specifically to help buyers of secondhand iOS devices avoid purchasing a device that’s still locked. Activation Lock itself was introduced with iOS 7 to prevent thieves from reactivating a device after wiping it.

ZDNet has asked Apple why it’s removed the feature from iCloud and will update the story if it receives an answer.

Read more about Apple iPhones and iCloud

January 30, 2017 brianradio2016

You ever think what your phone goes through on a typical day?

It probably gets pretty grimy and gross. But many phones can’t handle getting wet, much less actually washed.

Well, now a company in Japan is doing something about that, creating a smartphone that users can actually scrub clean with soap and water. But is that one feature enough to make it appealing? 

In IT Blogwatch, we make sure all our devices are squeaky clean.

January 30, 2017 brianradio2016

Alternative facts and fake news, meet Alt-Twitter. In the last few days, a growing number of Twitter accounts have been started claiming to be the “alternative” or “rogue” voices of U.S. government workers and agencies.

It started with the brouhaha over tweets from two National Park Service accounts and the reaction to them from the White House.

An @AltNatParkSer account quickly sprang up claiming to be the “unofficial resistance team of U.S. National Park Service” and has to-date amassed 1.3 million followers — that’s three times as many followers and the legitimate @NatlParkService account.

The account says it’s run by environmental activists and journalists, not government workers, and that’s the case for many of the other alternative accounts that are now online.

January 30, 2017 brianradio2016

A year ago a Deutsche Bank survey of CIOs found that “CIOs are now broadly comfortable with [Hadoop] and see it as a significant part of the future data architecture.” They’re so comfortable, in fact, that many CIOs haven’t thought to question Hadoop’s built-in security, leading Gartner analyst Merv Adrian to query, “Can it be that people believe Hadoop is secure? Because it certainly is not.”

That was then, this is now, and the primary Hadoop vendors are getting serious about security. That’s the good news. The bad, however, is that they’re approaching Hadoop security in significantly different ways, which promises to turn big data’s open source poster child into a potential pitfall for vendor lock-in.

Can’t we all get along?

That’s the conclusion reached in a Gartner research note authored by Adrian. As he writes, “Hadoop security stacks emerging from three independent distributors remain immature and are not comprehensive; they are therefore likely to create incompatible, inflexible deployments and promote vendor lock-in.” This is, of course, standard operating procedure in databases or data warehouses, but it calls into question some of the benefit of building on an open source “standard” like Hadoop.

Ironically, it’s the very openness of Hadoop that creates this proprietary potential.