Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Deleting Yahoo! Messenger Malware

And a Few More General Firefox Tips

I installed Yahoo! Messenger yesterday. I uninstalled it today. It made changes to my browsing experience in Firefox that I wasn't happy with at all.

1. It installed the Yahoo! toolbar into my browser, giving me easy access to a bunch of programs I don't use (the Yahoo! search engine, Yahoo! mail, etc.). This isn't the most inconvenient thing in the world, but it does reduce the amount of visible space available in the browsing window. More than that, though, it's just sneaky and intrusive.

2. It added the Yahoo! search engine to the search box (in the upper right corner of Firefox) and gave it top billing, bumping Google down into second place. Google's search engine is far superior to Yahoo's, so this change was annoying.

3. It hijacked the location bar in Firefox such that, when I typed in a word (as opposed to a URL) into the location bar, I was taken to the Yahoo! search results for the entered term. It used to be that if I typed in "Gmail" and hit enter, I'd be taken to Gmail's website. Same with Hotmail, Amazon, eBay, Wikipedia, IMDB, Google, and so on. But after the Yahoo-ification of my browser, if I typed in "Gmail" and hit enter, I was taken to Yahoo's search results page.

I didn't expect or desire any of these changes, and I doubt I'll ever use any Yahoo! software again. Instead of Yahoo! messenger, I'll use Trillian. The basic version is free, and is fine for chatting with people using any other popular IM software. The $25 professional version also supports video chat.

In any event, in case any of you are wondering how to de-Yahoo-ify your Firefox, here's how to do it. (We're talking Windows here.)

1. Run "Add or Remove Programs" from your control panel, and individually uninstall each Yahoo! application. I think there were four of them, but I didn't make any notes while doing this.

2. To get rid of the Yahoo! Toolbar, click on the little pencil icon in the toolbar and choose "Uninstall." If for some reason that doesn't work, click on the "Tools" drop-down menu in Firefox and select "Extensions." Find the Yahoo! Toolbar extension and click "Uninstall."

3. To get rid of the Yahoo! search engine in the search box, go into C:\Program Files\Mozilla Firefox\ (or whatever installation directory you used for Firefox), then go into the searchplugins folder, and delete Yahoo.gif and Yahoo.src.

4. To stop Firefox from returning Yahoo! search results when you type terms into the location bar, type "about:config" in the location bar, then type "keyword" in the Filter field. Double-click on "keyword.URL", and then copy & paste "http://www.google.com/search?btnI=I%27m+Feeling+Lucky&ie=UTF-8&oe=UTF-8&q=" into the dialogue box (without the quotes). Presto. This will make Firefox take you directly to Hotmail when you type "Hotmail" (and so on) instead of taking you to Yahoo's search results. (It is actually taking you to the "I'm Feeling Lucky" search result from Google.)

While we're fiddling around with Firefox, here are a few more tips.

Using the Search Box

You can add new search box plugins from Mozilla's products page. Instead of going to Wikipedia's page and doing a search from there, you can simply search Wikipedia using the search box in your browser. Same with Merriam-Webster, IMDB, eBay, and more. I used to use this feature fairly often before I discovered Firefox keywords, which make searches even easier. (See the section on keywords below.)

If you want to change the order in which the different search engines appear in the search box drop-down menu, type "about:config" in the location bar, then type "browser.search.order" in the filter. The rest is self-explanatory -- just change the values to reflect your preferences.

Using Keywords

Keywords are customizable shortcuts you can type into the location bar to take you to a specified webpage. They work through Firefox's bookmark feature. When you bookmark a page, you can choose "Manage bookmarks" from the Bookmarks pull-down menu, right-click on a bookmark, select "Properties," and enter a short string of characters to act as the keyword for that page.

Let's use this blog as an example. Let's say you want to be able to visit the blog just by typing "mt" into the location bar and hitting enter. Just bookmark the blog and then enter "mt" under Properties-->keyword. Now whenever you type "mt" into the location bar and hit enter, it will take you to http://maurile.blogspot.com/.

The cool thing is that, since you can use any URL you want as the referent for a keyword, you can use keywords to do any search you'd otherwise do from the search bar, plus many more.

Here are some of the ones I've got:

Google Groups search (gg):
Google Video search (gv):
Wikipedia search (wiki):
Bible verse lookup (bible):

Many more can be found at Leaky Tap.

The characters in parentheses above are the keywords and the corresponding URL's are their referents. So if I type "gv kournikova" into the location bar and hit enter, I get the Google Video search results for "kournikova". Pretty nifty, eh?

The Most Useful Extensions

I don't need to write much here because Paul Phillips has already done all the work. I'll just note that BugMeNot has saved me many hours' worth of filling out forms (since I have to read articles in countless different online newspapers for my work at Footballguys). And StumbleUpon, even though I've given it only a limited amount of feedback, does a surprisingly good job of pointing me to websites that I find cool and interesting.

Friday, October 14, 2005

The Port-o-Clone V7000: a short story

Year: 2392

Tom looked forward to returning home. He'd been on Titan, Saturn's largest moon, for three long years. Now he was headed back to base, where after receiving a proper send-off from the rest of the crew, he'd step into the Port-o-Clone V3000 . . . and step out a moment later in Boston.

The Port-o-Clone V3000, manufactured by Zippy Corp., is a remarkable machine that has rendered traditional methods of space travel obsolete. A person or object placed into its sending chamber is quickly and painlessly disassembled, molecule by molecule, producing an atomic blueprint to be transmitted at the speed of light to a distant receiver. The receiver, in this case located in Boston, reassembles the person from its local stock of atoms, preserving all his memories, thoughts, feelings, and opinions.

"Beam me across the solar system, Scotty!"

Tom stepped out of the receiving chamber in Boston and was greeted by his wife, Sarah. He had enjoyed his last few weeks on Titan and was proud of his work on Stage Four of the terraforming project; but it was good to be home.

Tom and Sarah stared at each other. Compared to when Tom left three years ago, nearly every cell in Sarah's body was different. But there she was -- the same person. Of course, the same was true for Tom, but it had been just two minutes since all of his cells were replaced.

Year: 2477

The prototype of the Port-o-Clone V7000 was finally completed, and Brad was eager to test its new features after having worked on the design of its latest software module. Not only would the new model atomically disassemble and reassemble people like its predecessors did, but it could also build new people from scratch according to whatever specifications were fed into it. The human genome had been extensively mapped nearly half a millenium ago, but only now was it possible to accurately model the physical development of a person based on a given set of DNA instructions along with various inputs regarding his simulated developmental environment.

You want a 32-year-old, five-foot-nine gentleman of Arabic descent, fluent in French and well-trained in archery? The Port-o-Clone V7000 will generate one at the press of a button. It will, that is, if it works like it is supposed to. That's what Brad aimed to find out as he ran it through a series of tests.

The idea during the tests was not to actually create a slew of new persons. Forming a person in a receiving chamber without simultaneously un-forming him in a sending chamber technically fell under the Human Cloning Act of 2251, as amended, and was heavily regulated by the world government. Besides, what would Brad or Zippy Corp. do with a bunch of 32-year-old archers?

No, the plan was just to see if the prototype worked, and Brad would therefore be disassembling any persons he formed a fraction of a second after assembling them -- just long enough to get a molecular snapshot of the person to check against the blueprint and see whether everything came together correctly.

Brad first programmed the machine to produce a 50-year-old philosopher from Spain. After feeding the V7000 the necessary instructions, he pushed a button and . . . with a flicker, a human form appeared and disappeared so fast that Brad would have missed it if he'd blinked at the wrong time.

Brad checked the molecular scan and smiled. It worked. According to the data he was looking at, that flicker really was a Spanish philosopher, just like he ordered.


Next up was a 22-year-old female saxophonist with green eyes and a fondness for tapioca.

Flicker. Success.

A 38-year-old left-handed Hispanic woman with a genius IQ and a broad nose. A double-jointed novelist with typo "O" blood. A balding Jew with dimples. An albino.

Flicker, flicker, flicker, flicker; success, success, success, success.

Brad wrote up the results of his tests and prepared for the news conference Zippy Corp. would hold the next day.

* * * * *

"You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law. You have the right to an attorney. If you cannot afford an attorney . . ." Brad stopped listening to the officer as his thoughts wandered to reflect on the absurdity of the situation. Handcuffed and helpless, he was being charged with multiple counts of homicide. Once the results of his tests were publicized, the state district attorney wasted no time in going after both Brad and Zippy Corp.

On the first count, Brad was charged with murdering a 50-year-old philospher from Spain. . . .

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

Theories and Facts

There's a trial currently taking place in Harrisburg, PA, challenging the Dover Area School District's policy requiring biology teachers to read a statement to their students regarding evolution and intelligent design. The two-paragraph statement begins:
Because Darwin's Theory is a theory, it is still being tested as new evidence is discovered. The theory is not a fact.
The rest of the statement is no better, but this blog entry will focus on just those two sentences -- mainly on the second one. "The theory is not a fact." What does that mean?

Usually when a person says that evolution is "just a theory," it's because he or she doesn't know what "theory" means in a scientific context. As Stephen J. Gould explained, "In the American vernacular, 'theory' often means 'imperfect fact'—part of a hierarchy of confidence running downhill from fact to theory to hypothesis to guess." Not so in science. While usage among scientists isn't always consistent, the essential difference between theories and facts might be framed thus:
theory: an idea that is testable
fact: an idea that is correct
It should be obvious that an idea's testability says nothing about its correctness. Some testable ideas are correct; some are incorrect. Saying that evolution is "a theory, not a fact" is like saying that King Kong Bundy is "bald, not fat." It is possible to be both.

The difference between evolutionary theory and Intelligent Design creationism -- what makes evolution scientific and Intelligent Design unscientific -- is that evolutionary theory is testable. It is in fact being tested all the time. New observations are constantly being made, new experiments being done, that could falsify evolutionary theory as we know it. Many observations would be inconsistent with current evolutionary theory (e.g., "fossil rabbits in the Precambrian" -- J.B.S. Haldane), but no possible observation could ever falsify Intelligent Design creationism.

So evolution is a theory. Is it a fact? Scientists really don't speak much of facts (as opposed to data, observations, measurements, or the like), so that's kind of a funny word for the Dover statement to use in this context. But evolutionary theory has been tested with great rigor for over a century, and it is the only theory of the origin of species we have that has not yet been falsified. Nothing in science can ever be proven beyond all doubt, but the correctness of evolutionary theory is about as sure a thing as the correctness of atomic theory or of the germ theory of disease.

In other words, yes. It is a fact.