So much for stagecraft…

Yesterday, I ran my 5e D&D game through a few side quests in the Lost Mines of Phandelver module in the Dungeons & Dragons starter set. I was running them through the scene with the banshee.

It was fun, watching the players get worked up as they realized how badly this encounter could go for them if the creature attacked. I had to go back through the description of the quest they got back in Phandelvin, since it’s been months since they played through that. We’re supposed to play every other week, but with weather and schedules… We’re averaging about once a month.

I had started setting the mood last week. The weather was rainy, foggy, just miserable. The atmosphere was getting to them. Sound was dampened by the fog and trees. Rain dripped onto the leaves. The banshee talked in a hoarse whisper.

…and they kept talking and laughing. Can’t win them all, I guess. At least the orcs at Wyvern Tor gave them a run for their money.

If it ain’t broke, why fix it?…

I’m getting that twitchy feeling again. The feeling to make changes.

I can’t quite make up my mind on browsers. I’ve been spending time lately with Brave on PC (don’t be jealous Vivaldi, I’m only seeing them on the side…) and Opera and Brave on Android (that phone layout on Opera… so easy to navigate). I’m getting itchy for change.

I like Mozilla’s overall message of privacy on the net, and I appreciate Vivaldi agrees. I’m just getting impatient for a mobile browser. Makes me search out new experiences despite the fact I have perfectly good programs at my disposal. Always looking for *the* perfect browser for my needs. I feel I’m getting close.

On the RPG front (Role Playing Game for the uninitiated), we’ve been playing mostly 5th edition Dungeons & Dragons. It’s… fine. No major gripes. I appreciate some of the changes made to improve speed during play and making magic users feel more useful. Some things rub me slightly the wrong way, but I can live with it because that’s where the game is and most aren’t interested in changing (again, in one game we’re playing).

But I miss older editions. Advanced Dungeons & Dragons 2nd edition was a beautiful mess, but I loved it when I started. So many different rules for different subsystems. So many weird restrictions (dwarves can’t be magic users, can only get so far in some classes but further in others…). It was the first system I truly loved though, and I have the books to prove it.

I want that original feeling back.

Playing with Linux is another hobby. I’m trying to see if I can make it work for me without a lot of problems. I spent a lot of time, originally, with the Debian-based distributions. I visited with the Ubuntu family, tried out Linux Mint, Zorin, and I’m currently happy with Manjaro’s Xfce flagship edition.

It works fine (though Firefox freezes up like Chicago in -40 F weather). It’s a rolling release, which means you never have to reinstall it. Updates keep coming out, making it up-to-date. There’s some risk in doing it this way, but it works fairly well. I’m just not sure how interested I am in reading update documentation before I update the computer.

I miss that Debian-based feeling, when I could just update and not worry so much.

So, I’ll pick up the old books (again), I’ll try other browsers again (it doesn’t mean anything, baby…), and I’ll probably change up the installation on the Linux Laptop (and probably go back in a few weeks), because the need for change gnaws at me, like my cat, when we try and show him too much affection.

I keep trying to optimize things, but I look backwards and what I used, because I know it. It can be hard to look forward or enjoy where I am, at times.

Mobile web browsers: a much more focused chaos

A little while ago, I droned on about web browsers. I focused on desktop software, because that’s where my mind was at the time.

Frankly it still is. But that’s not what I want to write about today.

No, I was thinking earlier about mobile browsers and why I don’t suffer the same analysis paralysis on my phone or tablet.

Before we look at the contenders, let me say one thing. I don’t like using a lot of apps on my phone. I prefer to use the web browsers instead. It’s not a hard and fast rule, but I’d prefer not to have dozens of separate programs running if I can just hit the web and access things with my existing accounts.

Facebook messaging in particular is a bug-a-boo. Most browsers won’t let you access FB messenger through their usual mobile web page. If you try to access it, it’ll bounce you to the Android app store. The program is too invasive and I don’t want to use it. That means that you either have to access the desktop site on a mobile screen (I hope you like really tiny text and having to zoom in all the time…) or use the really basic mobile site for non-smart phones (http://mbasic.facebook.com, if you’re curious).

Let’s start with the elephant in the room; Google Chrome. …it’s a non starter with me. You can’t add extensions to reduce or stop advertising. Google is interested in your information to sell your browsing data and preferences to advertisers. I’ve used it a little, but ads take up too much (of an already tiny) screen real estate and too much data when I’m away from my home wireless internet.

How about Firefox? I really, really, really want to like it. I like the message of Mozilla, that you can take back privacy. I love that I can install extensions to make my experience leaner (no ads) and more private. But the browser… isn’t… very… fast… or responsive. It plods along. I try to use it from time to time, but it’s not the best on my devices for casual browsing. It does boast a reader mode (for cutting out extra stimuli on pages) and the ability to send pages to other Firefox browsers on any device, if you’ve logged in with your Mozilla account. My single favorite option in a pool of awesome abilities. If we could just do something about that speed/responsiveness issue…

How about Firefox Focus, you ask (if you’re as obsessive about this kind of thing as I am…)? I’ll use it, if I don’t want to find my searches later or if I’m looking for something sensitive. However, switching between tabs is more difficult and I can’t open things in the background to look at them later. A useful tool, but not the multi-tool I use most.

Brave browser? It needs some time to mature. Some videos don’t load up at all. I can’t get into FB messenger without using the basic site either. It does, however, load pages very quickly and has a built-in ad blocker and privacy settings, so it’s still good. Just not AS good quite yet. I’m watching though.

What can I say about Opera and it’s five billion different mobile browsers? There’s the full-bodied Mobile, the sleek little Mini, Touch, which lets you share links across your machines, and probably others I’ve forgotten about…

The only one I stick with is Opera Mobile, because it’s got all of the options I need. There’s a built-in ad blocker, there are easy to use tabs, a speed dial, AND I can still access the FB messenger page without the bare bones mbasic page. I’m positively giddy! And I can see links across devices and sync my accounts/passwords/etc.

I’m anxiously awaiting Vivaldi’s mobile offering. Hopes for this software? Access to an app store, so I can add in an ad blocker. Access to FB messenger without one of my workarounds. Speed dial for frequently used pages. Sync. Fresh lemon or pine scent…

There are a plethora of other options out there, like UC Browser or Dolphin, but those don’t excite me. I like to be able to connect all of my accounts, browsing info, current pages, etc. across multiple devices (especially desktop!). Certainly nothing against them at all.

TLDR: Opera Mobile is easily my favorite but I occasionally cheat on it with Brave or Firefox. Vivaldi has an invitation to the party but hasn’t RSVPed yet.

Of Dice and Men

I’m thrilled to death (pun totally intended) to be playing through Dungeons & Dragons 5e’s Curse of Strahd campaign with my wife and friends.

I’ve been wanting to play Ravenloft for a long time, since I learned about the setting in college, when AD&D 2nd ed. was the current edition (we’d ride our mammoth to campus and hunted/gathered for lunch).

Vampires used to terrify me, when I was little (shortly after the earth cooled and life first started appearing…). In elementary school, I discovered that our school library had several non-fiction books about vampires and other folklore. Knowledge conquered my fears, and I became fascinated instead of frightened.

Flash forward back to my college years (but still in the dark ages), when I finally learned what D&D was and I started to play. I’d read some of the novels in high school (pre-industrial period and us serfs weren’t allowed to travel far from home), watched the animate series (Atlantis had yet to fall beneath the seas), and even tried one of the legendary gold box games (insert yet another old joke here). I wanted to know more. When the chance to actually put pencil to paper (both newly discovered) and roll dice (hand carved from bone or rock), I leapt at the chance.

This campaign started with my wife running AD&D 2e for me along with a few friends, though we moved on up to 3.5e after the first session. A few more sessions in and a friend offered to take over and run the published campaign, so we bumped up two more editions to 5e (I still need to try 4th edition D&D… alas).

Three sessions in and we’ve talked a lot, yet still haven’t fought a single foe. Apparently we’re chattier than anticipated and clever enough to talk our way out of a scrap.

Still, Strahd awaits. We’re all thrilled to be spending afternoons together, rolling dice, living future stories (remember when we talked down those Vistani from rolling us on the road? How about those wolves we convinced not to attack us?), and having one heck of a time!

My scattered thoughts on web browsers

I have a tendency to research subjects to death… then well past the point of death. I have some difficulty making a final, lasting decision at times.

This definitely includes deciding on a default web browser.

I bounce back and forth, like a ping pong ball in a championship match.

In one sense, that means I’m familiar with a wide variety of programs and can adapt to new browsers quickly. I can quickly set just about any browser up to do what I want it to do in a short amount of time.

I’d like to go through my thoughts on a variety of browsers, just to collect my thoughts and perhaps work out some issues for myself. If this happens to be helpful to anyone else, then that is awesome! I don’t expect this to reach a large audience, and that’s okay too!

Please note: this is not a be-all-end-all kind of technical review. This is about feelings. Nothing more than feelings. Musings of a browser enthusiast (snob?), if you will.

Vivaldi

Let’s start with the most obvious browser (considering where this is being posted…), Vivaldi. Vivaldi picks up where Opera left off. It packs a whole lot of features into one package and has promised more to come. I’m jonesing to try their email client and mobile browsers (both are yet to be released as of this post). It’s fast, the built-in reader mode is a huge help, it’s got access to the Google Chrome web app store, it’s customizable, and the community is great. It’s hard not to get excited as I read through community posts. The keyboard commands are helpful, and I love the speed dial (also found in Opera) and mouse gestures (ditto in Opera). It’s based on Chromium and the snapshot usually updates to new versions within a few days, tops.

However, there’s some room to grow. Syncing between browsers isn’t always 100% reliable. There are times when I can’t access the syncing server(s?). Not usually an issue though.

Font rendering leaves something to be desired, but that’s more a flaw with the Chromium base than with Vivaldi. Still, fonts are thin and aren’t as easy to read without an extension, adjusting the zoom, or tweaking the settings.

The built-in PDF reader could allow you to enter in a page number and zip right to it, like most other browsers. There are no arrows to skip to the next or previous page. It’s functional, but basic.

It’s not the most stable on my Manjaro laptop, but it works well on my  Windows 10 machines. There are visual glitches and Pocket doesn’t work properly on my Linux machine.

In short, I really like it, but there are some improvements that will doubtlessly be polished in the (near?) future. I’ll use it, but not as my primary.

Chrome

You can’t talk about browsers without bringing the big boy into the discussion. It’s stable, it’s secure, and it’s just about everywhere… accept in my regular rotation.

Don’t get me wrong, I do use it. I load it down with some security extensions (like I do with every browser I can), and I tweak the privacy settings (though they could be tighter; I’m okay with some usability options over strict security). I check the options and try and protect privacy to what I consider to be a reasonable level.

It’s solid, and I do sometimes boot it up to play with it. I do often use it when I’m on a computer to do presentations, especially since I can so quickly and easily access my synced data.

It just doesn’t excite me much.

Also, I can get a decent level of security on Windows and Linux (and the settings sync across all of those machines, score!), but privacy on the mobile browser is a bit of a joke. I’ll occasionally check the mobile site with https://panopticlick.eff.org, just to see how porous the browser’s privacy is (like a sieve without strict settings).

I understand that, as a free program that Google gets theirs by collecting my data, so I try and make it more difficult for them (though not restrictively so). But if I need something to work, I’ll use it.

I just wish the fonts were easier to read without tweaking.

Opera

I have a long history with Opera. I used it back before they dropped Presto (which I don’t blame them for) in favor of Blink then Chromium. I still like it and still use it.

Mobile browsing with Opera Mobile on Android is fantastic. It’s fast, it’s got a built-in ad blocker, I can still access Facebook’s Messenger features without using the dumbed down mbasic.facebook.com site (the only browser to still let me do so), and gets pretty good results on Panopticlick. It syncs between devices, it’s got some cool features that are starting to be picked up by other companies, and I really like the newsfeed that collects headlines.

It’s a Norwegian company owned by a Chinese firm, so there was some soul searching to decide if I’d still use it. I’ve decided to trust it, though, like a strange dog, I still keep my eyes on it, just in case.

I wish I had more options for customizing the appearance, like I have with Vivaldi. Otherwise though, I don’t have any major complaints. I do use a font adjusting extension, to make it easier to read, and I wish that there was a built-in reader mode, but there are extensions that work well enough. I just wish it was a native feature.

There aren’t any major complaints, just little, niggling things. Checking whether or not there is a more recent upgrade within Opera is… unreliable. Sometimes I’ll have to reload the window several times in order for it to sync with their servers. It looks fine, but it doesn’t excite, like it used to with Presto. They dropped mail and RSS readers (which I totally get). I can’t get the Linux version to stream services like Netflix due to an issue with Widevine, but I can still load Vivaldi, Firefox, or Chrome (though on Manjaro it’s Vivaldi OR Chrome). It’s mostly closed source.

It’s just… fine. It’s safe, it’s a good, solid alternative, it’s fine.

I’m just not as excited by it as I used to be.

Brave

This takes me to another (relatively) new kid on the block, Brave. It’s still in beta, and has quite a bit of room to grow. They tout a built-in ad blocker and security suite and they’re working on a system that bypasses the traditional advertising system online with a new system that will send a curated selection of ads to your system (only if enabled!) that will pay you to view. You can then spend some of that money on sites that you feel deserve to be paid for their content. Their adverts are not supposed to be based on information mined from your online profiles, but may someday (I hope anyway, after testing them in beta) be adjusted based on interest of the reader. I’d like to say that yes, I’m interested in local grocery stores and I’m not interested in, say, sports betting. But you’ll be able to turn the feature on and off.

Right now, Brave is going through a transition, from a Muon-based theme to pure Chromium. As of this date, it looks much closer to basic Chrome/Chromium (the opensource version of Chrome, with most of the bells, some of the whistles). However, it also opened it up to the Chromium web app store (which may end up a curated Brave app store in the near future).

It’s fast, it’s secure (on desktop/laptop…), it’s opensource, and it’s got some growing to do. Only in this last update did we get a PDF reader that seems to work on every (the ones I care about at least) sites than before.

It’s also got the Chromium font problem I’ve brought up a few times.

There are mobile versions, but right now, based on the Panopticlick results, it’s pretty porous. Nearly as bad as Chrome. I’m going to look further at tightening up security and privacy settings by default, since the mobile browser can’t (as of now) install web extensions that might fix some of the issues.

It’s promising, and I’m excited about it as well, but it’s not there quite yet.

Firefox

This leaves me with the one non-Chromium browser on my list. I’d also talk about Seamonkey, but so little progress has been made on that browser that I don’t use it regularly any more (such a pity as I love the suite of software).

Firefox has the best font rendering out of the lot of regular browsers I use. It’s faster than it used to be, has finally caught up to multiple processes instead of one, making it more secure. Has a good focus on privacy, including segregating Facebook into containers, if you download the right extension. Reader mode is excellent. Memory use is pretty good, on par with the other browsers I use.

I also like that it isn’t yet another Chromium browser. There needs to be other options online. We didn’t have decent competition at various points in the past. Internet Explorer (may it rest in peace) was THE dominant browser for a long time. Web progress stagnated a bit. Netscape came along and took over. Web progress slowed again. Now, with so many browsers being run on Chromium, the risk is that things will creep along again instead of innovate. Or if there is a problem with Chromium itself, that there may not be a viable alternative for users.

And here’s the problem… I do like Firefox. A lot. It works well. It reads well. It looks… bland, but it reads and works well.

Mobile browsing works… well enough. It’s not the most responsive browser, but it lets me install extensions that tighten privacy, block advertising, and make life a little easier online. But it’s so… slow… sometimes… But I can work around it, and it’s perfectly fine on my phone and tablet.

There’s also Firefox Focus on mobile platforms that runs quite well. It’s faster, focused on privacy, and is secure and private. It also deletes everything you do when you close it. Burn after reading. Cool, if I don’t want to have to log back into sites every time.

The thing is, Firefox doesn’t excite me. I use it out of a feeling of obligation, the fact it runs the best on my Linux machine (synced data for the win! I love sending pages to other devices for reading later!). I like Mozilla’s message of privacy and information security.

However, Firefox seems to be a better privacy platform and a worse security platform than Chrome. Chrome routinely does well against attacks at Pwn2Own. Rarely do attacks make it through. That’s awesome! Firefox usually gets hacked at least once (and pulled out for a year or two to get their stuff together).

I also use it because I’m getting old and my poor eyes need more help than they used to.

That’s not a ringing endorsement; it works and reads well, but… meh?

TLDR

I read a lot about browsers. I can’t tell if I really enjoy it or I just feel compelled to be as knowledgeable as I can about security, privacy, and functionality.

Opera is great. I love it like a comfortable pair of jeans or shoes. It’s comfortable and familar… but it’s too familiar?

Vivaldi is fantastic and I’m excited about the future. I’m just working through the present to get there. I want to use it and test it, but I’d like it to work at peak everywhere I use it.

Firefox is good. Very good. But I use it because I feel like someone should use it.

Chrome is good, but it’s not for me on mobile.

Ditto for Brave.

If you have any constructive thoughts or questions, please leave a comment! I’d love to know that I’m not the only one this obsessed with the subject matter.