Windows 11 Dark Patterns

I recently had to set up a new Windows 11 device, and I was increasingly frustrated by how pervasively Microsoft has added dark patterns to their operating system. The end goals for Microsoft are to gather information on the end user and put relevant advertising on their screen. For those purposes, they keep adding new, buried options to try to sneak in new ways to accomplish both.

Give Us Your Email Address

Right out of the box, one of the first steps is to create a login for the device. In Windows 10, you could follow some obfuscated steps to create a local-only user, where you do not need to provide an email address or sign into a Microsoft account.

Windows 11 has completely removed that option during setup. If you want a local-only user, you first need to provide a Microsoft account during setup and then add the local user after the setup has completed, through the Settings application. Microsoft really wants you to use an online account, so they can easily collect data on your device usage and tie it to your centralized online account.

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Disable Bing Search From Windows Start Menu

Note: this is more of a reminder to my future self when I need to configure any new Windows 11 devices. There are plenty of other resources online for details about this fix, or the Group Policy change for other editions of Windows.

On my new high-end gaming computer, the Start Menu in Windows 11 runs awfully slow when I type in simple strings, like “c:” to open up my File Explorer. I see a bunch of irrelevant Internet results show up in the Start Menu after a couple of seconds, before it gives me the option to select anything from my local computer.

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Raspberry Pi Fax Server Using Twilio

The weather here in the Midwest has been brutally cold and snowy, which has been preventing me from getting much work done on my woodworking project I mentioned a few weeks ago. I normally use my garage for cutting larger pieces of wood, but my garage has frequently been below freezing and often covered with salty sludge.

But I have at least finished one project: I needed to come up with a way for my wife’s new office to receive faxes even though she switched to Twilio SIP for phone. The solution I came up with uses a Raspberry Pi, custom Node.js code, and Twilio Programmable Fax for a (very) low-cost fax server that both receives incoming faxes and has a web interface for sending faxes.

The final result is available on github. Installation is a multi-step, manual process. And received faxes are stored in a Maildir format so that multiple computers can access the files through POP3 (which is probably not how everyone wants to retrieve received faxes). But the code is open-source and easy to modify, so it could be tweaked to meet your requirements if you need an inexpensive way to send and receive faxes without an actual fax machine connected to an old-school phone line.

Fax server web interface
Example web interface for sending a fax.

If you install it for yourself, let me know what you think!

Homemade 3D Scanner Turntable

In my latest project, my goal was to build a motorized turntable that I could use with 3D scanning software to scan a small object into a 3D model. My initial plan was to use my Xbox 360 Kinect sensor and, but I eventually realized that the Kinect scanner is not designed for small objects. In the final design, I used my homemade motorized turntable, my camera, and Autodesk Remake to convert the still images into a 3D model.

Watch my YouTube video for the full details:

If you want to build your own, you will need the following materials: Continue reading “Homemade 3D Scanner Turntable”

3D Character Generation Tools

I recently discovered MakeHuman, an open source tool for creating 3D character models. MakeHuman is a standalone program that allows you to create a character mesh. Then you can tweak the base model using sliders for dozens of features, such as head shape, torso depth, finger length, breast size, and many more.

You can also add clothes and other accessories to your character within the application. In addition to the default clothes (named “Geometries” in the application), you can import community created accessories or even make your own in the 3D modeler of choice. And once you have your character model, there are preset poses you can use if you just want a static pose for a scene. Of course, if you want to rig the model, you can export using the A or T pose. Once you have your final character and pose, you can export the mesh to your choice of format.

A simple male character I created using MakeHuman.
A simple male character I created using MakeHuman (click to view full-size image).

MakeHuman is a useful open source application, but another developer, Manuel Bastioni, has improved on MakeHuman by turning it into a Blender plugin and adding significant improvements to the character generation. Many of the same model sliders are available within the plugin. Additionally, he created presets within each category that you can mix into your existing model. You can still use the preset poses in the plugin, but if you are going to stay in Blender then the character is already rigged for your own custom poses or animation!

But I am most excited about the ability to use different base models. In addition to the standard realistic model, he added some anime-style base models, too. And if you create a character using the anime base model, all of the sliders will still work correctly even though the geometry is different than the realistic models.

Unfortunately, I am not very familiar with Blender. However, by using the Maya interface control settings and reading the beginning of a Blender tutorial, I was able to quickly learn enough to play with ManuelLab and create a very simple anime character (see below). I also created the ultra-simple “tube top” she is wearing in LightWave, to test out how clothes are created and then applied within ManuelLab (mesh created in LightWave and then applied in Blender).

A simple posed character I created using the ManuelLab plugin in Blender.
A simple posed character I created using the ManuelLab plugin in Blender (click to view full-size image).

If you need to quickly create characters and do not want to build your own character meshes, MakeHuman and ManuelLab are great tools to add to your arsenal. Enjoy!

Open Source Screen Recorder

I recently needed a screen recorder to capture some video for a short product demo. After doing some research, the best commercial option is Camtasia Studio, which combines screen recording capabilities with a video editor. But the $299 price tag for the PC edition is pretty steep for such a simple project, so I started digging around for free alternatives.

The most common alternative that I found was a free package called CamStudio. Do not download this software. It comes with adware (fortunately, Norton stopped me from visiting the page).

After more research, I found an excellent open source alternative (without adware!) that is commonly used for live streaming: Open Broadcaster Software. Although it has plenty of options for live streaming the output, you can also send the output directly to a MP4-encoded file.

The software is highly configurable. You can choose from any connected video source, such as a web cam, a full monitor, or just cropped view of a monitor. You can record high frame rates, if your goal is to stream or record games you are playing on your computer. And you can combine multiple video sources together to get your final stream; for example, you can show a game stream in the full window but include a smaller pane in the corner with the feed from your webcam.

The software is still relatively new, so it is rapidly evolving. But the current version has a lot of great features, it performed very well for my simple recording task, and it seems to have a lot of adoption in the live streaming community. It is a great addition to my toolkit and good to have for any future screen recording needs.

LightWave 2015

I have been using LightWave 3D for about nine years and I have been extremely lucky that I have only purchased software once during that entire time. I originally bought it at version 8.5 and it came with a free upgrade to the as-yet-unreleased version 9.0. I have continued to use the 9.X versions ever since and I have not felt the need to upgrade.

But I am in the middle of putting together a new computer (more details here) and I was hoping to buy the latest version of LightWave 3D to go with my shiny new hardware. But the upgrade sale price has not been available for a few months, and I do not want to pay the full upgrade price when I know that Newtek likes to frequently offer $200 discounts. I was hoping that with Black Friday and Cyber Monday around the corner, Newtek would put LightWave 3D back on sale.

And then I received an email yesterday from Newtek announcing that the latest version of LightWave has just been released, named “LightWave 2015”. And to celebrate the release of the new software version, the software is on sale again.

I am still waiting for one more component before I can finish building my computer (expected arrival date: tomorrow), but once I have my new system fully up and running I plan on buying my first LightWave 3D upgrade. If all goes according to plan, I will be running LightWave 2015 by the end of the weekend!

RenderMan Free For Non-Commercial Use

Pixar Animation Studios announced that the next version of RenderMan, their award winning render engine, will be free for non-commercial use. The non-commercial license will provide full functionality without any restrictions, watermarks, or time limits. And the next version is due out sometime soon (fourth quarter of this year, according to their website).

The render engine works with Maya, but currently does not work with LightWave. Some third-party developers are creating plugins for LightWave that will add RenderMan integration. I expect that once the RenderMan non-commercial licenses are available, there will be more developers working to make this happen (the non-commercial license allows for developing commercial tools and plugins).

In their FAQ page for the non-commercial licenses, they explain why they have chosen to give away these licenses. One of the reasons is exciting to see from such a leading studio:

“It is Pixar’s experience that limitations on software access have become an impediment to the development of the production industry, and that universal access and a set of common standards and practices can only stimulate further growth.”

Hopefully this type of open access for educational and personal use becomes more common, which I believe is good both for aspiring artists and the companies selling high-end software packages.

I am going to sign up for advance registration of the license, even if it might be a while before I get a chance to use it.

Postscript:  Here is a good good article on the new features and architecture of RenderMan (including the new RIS framework).

CrashPlan Cloud Backups

I just bought a one-year subscription to CrashPlan, a cloud backup service. I am in the process of backing up 145 GB of data to their servers, which the desktop client estimates will take about 2 weeks at my current speeds.

I have used Mozy for years, ever since my brother had a massive hard drive crash and I realized that I didn’t have a good backup plan for my own data. At the time, the only real options for online backup were Mozy and Carbonite, and Mozy was a much better product. Unfortunately, over the years they have changed their plans to make it more expensive without any obvious improvements to the service to justify the price increase. When I first started using Mozy, you could back up an unlimited amount of data to their servers. Now, I have to pay extra for the 125 GB of storage they are willing to give me.

I have been hovering just below the limit for a while, purposely excluding some data so I don’t go over and have to pay even more per month. So I finally decided to look around for an alternative and found two solid options: CrashPlan and BackBlaze.  Both have excellent reviews online and it seems like you could flip a coin between them and end up with a great backup service. Both have unlimited data backups, encrypted transport, encrypted storage, and a bunch of other nice features.  And both are around $5 per month, depending on your payment plan.

My main reason for choosing CrashPlan was because it stores unlimited versions of  your files (BackBlaze only stores versions for 30 days) and some reviews said that the CrashPlan software had more advanced options.

Editing and Compositing Software

My goal for the week was to evaluate several compositing/editing software packages and decide which would best fit my needs. I looked at Sony Vegas, Blender 3D, and Lightworks. (I ignored Adobe Premiere because I do not want to pay $20-$50 per month to rent software).

If you do not care about the individual results for each software package, feel free to skip to the results in the last section below.

How I Tested The Software

Full Lightwave test render
An example render from the test scene after compositing all layers together.

I created a simple 1 second (24 frames) scene in LightWave at 720p and rendered out a series of PNG files. For each frame, I rendered out 2 layers — one for a foreground object and another for the midground objects. I also had a simple static background image to composite behind the scene. Finally, I also included additional channel renders, such as depth, specular, and transparency, to use for additional compositing testing.

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