My (not so) Excellent Adventure on Lab Day

| Analysis

Sometimes a lab day, a day dedicated to creative play with a product to be reviewed, can be fun. Other times, it can take one down a very deep rabbit hole. Then it takes all day to crawl out. I had one of those yesterday.

It all started when I decided to explore the FlashFrozen app from Tyler Loch. It started working okay, or so it seemed, but then I started getting spinning beachballs for sites I found on Twitter. (I should mention that I was testing with OS X Lion 10.7.1 and Firefox 6.0.2.) FlashFrozen is a Menu bar app — meaning that its only UI after launch is a Menu bar item with a drop down menu. Even that wouldn’t respond after awhile. So I killed the app.

Of course, to test the app, I had to, horror of horrors, reinstall Adobe Flash on my iMac. (version 10.3.183.7) Some good places to test Flash blocking and releasing is either Adobe’s Flash page or this really neat technical test page in Denmark.

I’ve started a discussion about FlashFrozen with the author, and pending the outcome, I moved in to test Flashblock 1.5.15.1 in Firefox. This is a bare bones Flash blocker. It doesn’t try to substitute HTML5 (like YouTube5 by Vertical Forrest for Safari) or display the CPU load load like FlashFrozen. It just stops the execution of each Flash item on a page and substitutes an icon, like ClickToFlash, that you can click on to allow execution. (ClickToFlash is Mac-only, and I needed an alternative for Firefox.)

Adobe Flash-1

Flash blocked, Flashblock Extension in Firefox

Adobe Fash-2

Flash released to show Flash version installed 

Why all this trouble? Back in June, Adobe issued an alarming series of closely spaced security updates to Flash, and I quickly tired of doing the updates on all the Macs in the house. So I deleted Flash from each of them and decided to try living Flash-free. However, since then, there have been a few videos that I just had to see, for professional reasons, of course. When FlashFrozen came to my attention, I thought it would be interesting to have just one Mac, a powerful quad core desktop iMac not on battery power, with the ability to view Flash videos.

I found Flashblock to work as advertised, and I’m in that mode right now. It’s nice to be able to view things like Jeff Gamet’s interview with Thompson Reuters. I’ll get back to FlashFrozen soon.

The Big Snafu

Here’s where I made my mistake. In the middle of the afternoon, during this testing, VirusBarrier X6 displayed a popup reminding me that I needed to update my subscription. I’d been putting this off for weeks, so I figured a lab day would be a good time to attend to that task.

Unfortunately, the VirusBarrier X6 Threat Filter from September 6 had a bug that brought web browsing to a crawl. Here I am, messing around with Flash and three browsers, Firefox 6.0.2, Opera 11.51, and Safari 5.1 and suddenly none of them are working. Pages would load achingly slow, never complete, or pages wouldn’t load at all. Of course, my response was:

Holy crap. What have I done?

Your brain goes wild trying to think of what may have happened, how to diagnose it, and worries that you don’t understand enough about what’s going on under the hood. Fortunately, some detective work helped me figure out what had happened. I had also installed the new threat filter on the family server, and Safari on that Mac had also ground to a halt. I decided that the problem was with VirusBarrier X6 and uninstalled it. After that, my web pages snapped back to life on all Macs. I sent a note to Intego, suspecting something was wrong.

There was.

Today, Intego got back to me and confirmed that there was a problem with the September 6 update, and so I posted a news item about that. After reinstalling VirusBarrier and its new set of threat filters, dated September 8, everything went back to normal. Phew.

Lessons Learned

  1. Never update two machines with updates at the same time. Leave one as a baseline for testing. I knew that, and didn’t follow my own advice because I thought a threat filter list update would be innocuous. I was wrong.
  2. Making use of several browsers requires careful attention to what extensions and add-ons apply — plus whether they can conflict. A lab notebook isn’t out of the question. As the FlashFrozen developer explains, “In Google Chrome, Firefox 4 & up, and in Safari on 64-bit Macs, the Flash plug-in is pushed onto its own process. FlashFrozen lives as a tiny menu app, monitoring this process … only 64-bit Safari runs Flash as a standalone process. On original 32-bit Intel Macs (or 64-bit Macs with Safari set in 32-bit mode), it won’t.” So it pays to know if you’re running Snow Leopard in 32- or 64-bit mode*.
  3. Run Time Machine manually for the latest update before you launch into experimental mode — just in case you have to return to a previous state. (I did that.)
  4. I had forgotten how many outbound calls Flash makes as well as storing Local Shared Objects, LSOs, also called Flash cookies. Little Snitch showed this to me. Fortunately, Firefox can be set to delete LSOs when it quits. (I had one report that Flash’s new Preference Pane just plain ignores your settings on that.) Earlier this year,TMO reported that Adobe, perhaps prompted by lawsuits, is taking a more active role in preventing LSO/Flash cookie abuse.

If there’s a moral to this story, it’s that I have frequent discussions with people about how Apple makes everything simple and happy-go-lucky. No one really enjoys these kinds of snafus that take a beautifully running iMac and turn its brains into mush.

On the other hand, Internet security has become so critical these days that, if you want to take your fate into your own hands, it’s not a bad idea to become accustomed to the wealth of add-ons that are available, especially in Firefox, that can protect your privacy and the Mac’s safety. This is just a glimpse of living on the other side for all you happy-go-lucky Safari fans. **

Firefox extensions

My Firefox Extensions. Flashblock and FlashVideoReplacer don’t conflict.  

It’s a lot of fun digging into all this. Jeff Gamet told me, when I started this job, that I’d learn something new each and every day. It’s true — and it’s like a travelogue. Postcards from the edge.

__________

* Lion is 64-bit only.

** There are some Safari extensions, like WOT, which I recommend.

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Comments

Nemo

John:  It sounds to me that you had a very productive day in the lab.  As is often true with experimentation, you learn more from failure and things going wrong than you do from success.  You learned, inter alia, to stick to the proper experimental protocols that you, as scientist/engineer, already knew that you should following, and you learned a lot about the products that you were testing and something about a product, VirusBarrier that you weren’t testing.

Learning relevant lessons and data does, does it not, make for a very good day in the lab?

John Martellaro

Nemo:  Oh, yes indeed I learned a lot. But new neural pathways are always painful.

wab95

John:

Been there. One sympathises.

On my ‘lab days’, (hadn’t thought to call them that, but it is appropriate) I tend to use only one machine and one set of software at a time. If something fails, then I switch to another software package (e.g. browser, word processor depending on task) on the same machine and retry. The fewer the variables, the more likely I am to figure out what went wrong (and have become more adept at finding what I need in logs). This probably just reflects my background, but changing only one variable at a time is how we conduct clinical trials, and I find that it works for me. I have seldom had to do anything so complicated on a Mac that I required a logbook, but yes, I have done so at least once that I recall, and was glad that I did.

After sweating bullets when things go awry, one gets that sense of accomplished satisfaction at having pulled back from the brink.

Nice lessons list.

webjprgm

* Lion is 64-bit only.

FYI: Lion only runs on 64-bit capable machines, but on some older ones it still choses to boot the 32-bit kernel.  I’m not sure what the knowledge base article on that is, but there’s a list somewhere ...


My first thought with this was why FF and not Safari? ClickToFlash is excellent and I’ve had no need for anything else.  (I only have FF on my machine for the rare occasion that some site doesn’t work right in Safari, but that event has been very rare of late.)  Then I though, wait are you the guy who posted the article on not liking Safari ... ah, yes. Same author. Why not Safari ... scan article ... oh, some page load glitches? Yeah, OK.  That hasn’t bothered me enough.

I’m afraid to use NoScript, because I expect more things will be broken. The internet should “just work”. I’m not scared enough about privacy and security to break the internet that badly.  I use ClickToFlash just because most Flash things are annoying anyway.

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