Why your speakers are just okay, and what you can do about your audio based inadequacy

1978 photograph by Steven Steigman,

We take for granted the lonely audio paradise that is our personal set of headphones, but there will come a time when you have an insatiable need to let everyone around you experience the re-released album from an obscure 1976 Uzbekistani progressive rock band whether they want to or not. When that time comes, you are going to need speakers. Real, audio producing, jaw dropping speakers. Unfortunately, you don’t have nice speakers, you just have okay ones. Your speakers are mediocre at best. You just have two little itty-bitty speakers that have been jammed into your laptop. I’ll let you in on secret: if you are using those, you are not getting the most out of your music. You are doing whatever music you are listening to a disservice. The sound is distorted, muffled, and just bad. Right now, you should be feeling a little embarrassed and certainly bummed out. But rest assured, that’s okay! I know the feeling. We all need laptops, and they can only fit speakers that are so big. But there is one thing you can do that will make you, everyone around you, and your obscure music feel much much better: get good speakers. Or just get any speakers. Anything other than laptop speakers.

Today, we are going to fix that by going through some basics on which kind of speakers you can buy, and what you should look for in each. I’m going to walk you through a few examples, ranging from simple portable speakers that require no setup, to complex ones that you’ll need a pair of wire strippers for. While doing that, I’m going to try and keep a few things in mind, particularly what the perfect set speakers for you should do:

1.) Speakers should not cost you lots of money

2.) Speakers should be able to do what you bought them for

3.) Speakers should sound pretty good

Now, all of those make sense, right? First one is maintaining a budget here. While it’d be nice to have a pair of Klipsch speakers, I really don’t have a couple grand to put down for them, so instead I looked for something that would only cost me a few hundred. Next, is keeping functionality in mind. Again, while I’d like a 1 “Jigawatt” stereo system with 6 point surround sound and active bass, that’s not something I could have outside during an impromptu cookout on the beach. But what does “sound pretty good” mean? Sound quality is a funny thing. What may sound good to one person may be nails on a chalkboard to someone else. It depends on a lot of factors: what kind of audio quality you play, the acoustics of the room, if there is any ambient sound around, or even if the track is equalized or not. Now, you can get into a lot of technical talk about the frequency ranges for tweeters and the power of amps. But unless you are a dedicated audiophile (more on that later) none of those really mean anything. So honestly, what I mean when I say speakers should sound good, I mean speakers should sound good to you. The most important thing when buying speakers is to test them yourself. Get some kind of higher audio quality track that you love, preferably one that isn’t a drumming bass line or soft high notes, but a nice mix. Also, try to get something that uses real instruments, unaltered vocals, or lays off constant sampling . If it doesn’t sound fuzzy or faded, buy it. Be sure to test different systems to get a wide selection of what they all sound like as well.

With that all out of the way, lets get down to business. We’ll quickly define some tiers of speakers based on who would want a certain type of speaker, using the three criteria above.

The College Wanderer: Bluetooth Speakers

These are the hip new thing out there. No bigger then a water bottle, Bluetooth speakers are ultra portable, can easily cost between $100 and $300, and actually sound decent. I recommend these kind of speakers to anyone who is on the move, outside, or finds themselves working in different places all the time. Perfect for the college kid who tends to be all over the place. They are easy to connect to with any laptop or smart phone. Surprisingly, I haven’t listened to Bluetooth speakers that I haven’t liked or been immediately impressed with.


JBL Charge Speakers. They are decently priced, and have pretty good bass.

Despite how good they sound, there are some issues with Bluetooth speakers to be aware of. These run on battery, so unless plugged in, they will not last forever. The bass will usually be lacking, but that really shouldn’t bother you. Finally, please be careful with these, as they can be easily stolen or lost due to their small size and portability.

The Desktop Commander : Desktop Speakers

If you are one of those college kids who doesn’t leave your room that much, hopefully because you have way too much to study for, you’ll want to look into some desktop speakers. These simply plug into you computer’s headphone jack and a power outlet, and don’t really have any bells and whistles. If you are really ambitious, you could even spring for a setup with more then two speakers, or even separate bass. For a dorm, these are perfect: they are small, easy to pack up when you leave, and not something to worry about getting stolen. Typically, Logitech are the biggest brand you’ll see advertised, and they are pretty good for what you pay for.


Some simple Logitech desktop speakers

However, while these may fit your needs, you may lose some audio quality. Also, you may have to invest in an auxiliary audio cord to connect your speakers.

The Audio-Übermench: The Stereo System

Most college kids, recent grads, and office workers would have stopped and settled for less with their audio equipment, but not you. You seek the holy grail of audio equipment: the stereo system. This is the final frontier of audio. You will have something to supply the sound, a receiver to direct, distort, and amplify it, and multiple speakers of different sizes to play it. You are now an audiophile, a lover of good sound equipment; someone who will always take quality to the next level. Your system will deliver high quality sound and most certainly knock your socks off.

The classic stereo system

If this is you, you need a stereo system. Unless you are buying for a TV surround system, you only really need two bookshelf speakers, and maybe a bass. You will need speaker wire to run in between the speakers and the receiver, but it really isn’t a hard process. In the back of the receiver, there will be corresponding plugs for each speaker- typically left, right, and bass. They may be more or less depending on the size of the receiver, and how much sound you want.

The back of a reciever

The worst part about this kind of system is the price. You might only spend $300 for the entire system, or you could go all out and drop a months pay check for one speaker. However, you shouldn’t be opposed to digging through locals ads or yard sales to get some good equipment at next to nothing. I’ve seen perfectly good working systems that could be worth 3 times what they were selling for, just because they are used. You might want to avoid these if you don’t have much room, or very thin walls.

The Weirdo in the Corner: Alternatives to Large Receivers

So here’s the scenario: you don’t want small desktop speakers, you don’t need a Bluetooth speaker, and you don’t have the room or cash for a big stereo system. What do you do? None of these are a good option, and you don’t want to settle for less. Don’t let the man tell you what to do!

Lepai Reciever

What you want to do is look into smaller, low powered receivers. Excluding speakers (remember, used ones are okay here), one of these bad boys will always be under $100. One of my favorites, one that I’ve used personally for years is the Lepai Receiver. The company has no other products I know of, but the receiver they make is wonderful. It’s maybe 2in x 3in x 4in. You can fit it on a bookshelf, attach two speakers to it with wire, get an aux cord, and boom, decent audio with very little setup. It’s a totally strange arrangement, but it gets the job done.


Apps Web

Bittorrent: An explanation of the Protocol

What is BitTorrent as a technology?

BitTorrent Logo

BitTorrent is a technology that is mainly used in the sharing of large files, though it is also favorable in achieving maximum redundancy of a file on the internet. Basically the technology is a Peer-to-Peer system, in which clients (your personal computer) connect to a central tracking server, the “tracker”. This “tracker” keeps track of all the “peers” connected to a single file that is being shared on the network. When peers connect to the server they begin to capture bytes of the file that is being downloaded and in the same likeness begins re-uploading those bytes to allow other “peers” to get at the file being downloaded. The action of re-uploading is also called “seeding”, which allows other “peers” connected to this file to get a maximized connection for download. All in all, it can be summarized as being a file sharing service.

What’s the controversy?

The controversy around the use of BitTorrent technology lies in the notorious connotation that the technology has with enabling copyright infringement. Infamous torrent trackers make headline news as they are among some of the most trafficked websites in the world. According to the Alexa Internet Site Ranking service, the 217th most trafficked website in the world is a known torrent tracker. People are very aware of these websites, but if they are unfamiliar with the technology and what it means to be a patron to these sites, they can suffer consequences that can impact their lives severely.

What’s “seeding”?

Seeding is the act of uploading to a torrent data stream. As a key part of the technology, seeding is what allows for data redundancy when other seeders go offline, as well as a boost to overall throughput/data speeds when other peers want to download a file. As a seeder you connect to the torrent network, and other peers are able to see where to retrieve data for the file they want to download. The way the download works is based on a network identifier known as an IP Address, so every “peer” connected to the same torrent are either uploading or downloading and are known to every other “peer”.

What’s being a “peer”?

A peer is anyone connected to a torrent file, and downloading or uploading data to the collective network.

What’s being a “leech”?

A peer who rather than committing to upload and download data, is stopping their clients uploading to resist contribution to the collective network.

BitTorrent Protocol Diagram

BitTorrent for legal and legitimate use.

BitTorrent can be legally used for file transmission, when the material isn’t subject to Copyright, some materials such as open-source software or media with Creative-Commons licenses can be subject to a lesser extent of Copyright, and are often okay to distribute freely. One such site that takes advantage of the BitTorrent protocol is where individuals can download various distributions of the free and open-source Linux Operating System using BitTorrent.

What are the consequences of infringing copyright?


Because of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act enacted in 1998, any person caught violating a copyright owners exclusive rights, can be penalized in ways where the violator would have to pay damages, being forced via injunction to stop infringing activities, and potential jail-time. As a UMass student you are also subject to the policies of Copyright and Fair Use instituted by the University, which outlines penalties for violating Copyright.

UMass Copyright Policies:


Software Windows

PortableApps: Your workspace to go!

PortableApps is a platform software that allows you to practically bring your workspace almost anywhere. You can install it on any USB storage device, computer, or even a cloud service such as Dropbox. You then install portable versions of the some of the everyday applications you would normally see installed a computer such as LibreOffice and Firefox. What makes these applications portable is the fact that they don’t modify or leave any data and settings on the host computer but instead saves them only in the location where PortableApps is installed.

PortableApps has over 300 portable applications to choose from ranging from office suites to games to antivirus softwares. Though not every application that we commonly use is available (for example, Microsoft Office).  However there are alternatives you could use in their place (such as LibreOffice). When you run PortableApps, you are greeted with a display much like the Windows start menu to the bottom right of the screen.
The Start Menu
From here, you can launch, install, and update your portable applications. You can even see how much space you have left if you install it on your USB storage device and explore the content of your USB storage device with a click of a button.

On a USB?:
With PortableApps installed on a USB drive, You can bring your personalized data to any computer. For example, you can browse the internet on a public computer, or on your friend’s computer without leaving your bookmark or history on the computer. All of it will be saved on your USB drive so you can take your bookmarks, extensions, and addons anywhere you go. If your browser saves your tabs before it closes then those are saved as well. For a computer tech, you can also load a bundle of tools to diagnose and fix a wide variety of computer problems, including virus infections, all organized and just a click away using PortableApps. Using PortableApps also mean being able to use programs you need that typically would not be installed on other computers since the program is installed on your USB drive. An example for computer science major is PuTTY. Most public computers typically don’t come with PuTTY installed but with PortableApps, you can load PuTTY along with its saved connections.

On the cloud?:
PortableApps can be useful even in cloud services that sync your data between your devices. Whenever a computer changes the settings for a program, the cloud will sync the settings to your other devices. For example with Firefox or Chrome, your bookmark, history, and extensions are saved and synced between all your devices. Or even when starting fresh after wiping your computer or buying a new computer, all you have to do is grab your files from the cloud service and you’ll have applications ready to use and already configured to your liking. PortableApps can easily update all your programs ensuring that your programs are up to date across all your devices and reduces the redundant task of updating each program for each of your devices.

More information can be found in their official website:

Operating System

Cryptomalware: Hope for Infected Computers

Cryptomalware is a type of virus that takes files on infected machines and encrypts (see our article here on encryption) them with a key only known to the programmer that designed the virus. Once the computer is encrypted a message pops up asking the owner for money in return for the key to decrypt the drive, earning these viruses their other name “ransomware”. Up until now there have been only a few possible fixes for these kinds of infections and success was often far from guaranteed. This put victims in the unfortunate position of paying the ransom as the option with the best chance of success.

Fortunately, Kaspersky anti-virus and the National High Tech Crime Unit from the Netherlands have developed a tool that actually has a good chance of returning the computer’s files in working condition. The specific type of malware that is targeted is CoinVault, since a server involved in that particular scam was recently seized. That server gave the researchers a database of decryption keys to work from and create this new tool for saving victim’s data. There are no reports of how effective this program is due to its recent release, but signs are promising.

Kaspersky is offering the tool free on their website and is constantly updating it with new decryption keys that will increase the number of devices it works on. The NHTCU has also mentioned it appears to be closing in on the suspect behind the CoinVault malware, which would hopefully lead to an even better version of the decryption tool (at least for current versions of the ransomware). In the meantime however it is still not recommended to pay the ransom even if the decryption tool doesn’t work. Once the money is paid there is no guarantee of the files being released, so keeping regular backups is still your best defense.


Net Neutrality: The Impact on Students

What is “Net Neutrality”?

Net Neutrality Symbol

The concept that the Internet should be a right for all people, and should be unrestricted by the companies that provide the networks that connect people to the internet. By restricting network access, the companies providing access can throttle or limit connection speeds based on the online content you are trying to get hold of, which is the antithesis of the concept of the free and open internet.

Who are the key players?

President Obama: The president recently announced his support of “net neutrality” in the form of taking a stance on the way internet is delivered to the American people. He is looking to back legislation which would declare internet as a Utility, much like the electricity, cable and telephone companies are regulated in the way they provide services to American households, Internet service will also receive the same treatment as those other services.

Obama Letter

ISP’s (Internet Service Providers): ISP’s are the companies/entities paid by consumers to provide them with Internet Access. Some big names in the industry would be Comcast/Universal, Time Warner Cable, Charter, and Cox, just to name a few. Here at the university, the campus is its own ISP, fulfilling the role of getting you connected to the Internet.

The FCC/Chairman Wheeler: As of February 26th 2015, the FCC completed a ruling that favored net neutrality, which enables the free internet, by amending the Communications Act of 1934. In his justification, he is quoted as saying, “This is no more a plan to regulate the Internet than the First Amendment is a plan to regulate free speech. They both stand for the same concept.”

Quote from:

What are the implications on me?

Since a free and open internet has been what users have been accustomed to since the inception of the internet, the lack of such freedom would definitely impact the way people use the internet as a resource. If people were forced to pay for access to sites that were outside of a certain subscription model, people would eventually catch on to the fact that they were getting taken advantage of by these corporations that have the power to charge twice for a certain service. For example, the video subscription service Netflix (a leader in passing net neutrality legislation) , which costs $8.99 at the writing of this article, may have to vary subscription costs based on the way the ISP charges for access to their content. This ultimately demonstrates that the only real entities that would gain from a throttled internet would be the people providing access (ISP’s) and not the content creators (users of the Internet).

How can these decisions affect the future of the Internet?

Although the FCC has released the specifications of the new legislation which classifies the Internet as a utility, which subjects it to laws regarding blocking of some content, other advances have yet to be made, where individuals will have unfiltered access to some media streaming services. There are some companies looking to sidestep the FCC’s legislation, such as Sony or HBO potentially filing for classification as non-BIAS (non-broadband internet access service), which would prioritize these sites traffic by grouping them outside common internet access.

By allowing these internet companies to regulate how the internet is accessed, even if by just limiting the speed, they are in a way censoring content for the general public and would have the capabilities to extort certain companies for prioritized access speed. With the recent amendment in February, they have staved off the companies that are fighting so hard to undermine the “Open Internet”, but as with all legislation, how long will it take until these companies find a loophole on which to further their agenda?

Adobe Software

How to Make an Animated Gif in Photoshop

Animated gifs have been used since basically the dawning of the internet. GIF(Graphical Interchange Format) are image files that move. The gif format is so widely used because it can be easily loaded on just about any device. They can be used for a wide variety of things from showing you how the gears in a clock function, to a funny clip from a television show.  Here I will be showing you how to make a simple animated gif with the use of Photoshop.

For the gif I am making today you will need 3 things; an image file, a video file and Photoshop. If you have access to Adobe Premiere Pro you may find this program to also be useful for cutting up your video clip into the exact segments you want. However it is not a necessary step so I won’t go into that any further.

My Goal is to animate the iris of an eye. To do this, import the original image of an eye.original image

Next use the background eraser tool and erase the iris so that it is transparent.

background eraser

Now you will need to import your video file, go to File > Import > Video frames to layers
This will allow you to edit every single frame of your video clip.

Video frames to layers

After you import your video frames to layers, change your workspace for animation. Go to Window > Workspace > Motion

Motion Workspace 1

Motion Workspace 2

Now go back to the eye we edited earlier, right click on the layer and “Duplicate Layer”, for the destination choose the name you have chosen for your video layers. For this demonstration my video layers are titled “Untitled-1”

Duplicate Layer 1

Duplicate Layer 2

Next take the image of the eye and stretch it to fit the size of the video layer. After you do this make sure you have every single frame/layer highlighted in your horizontal motion layer workspace. Then on your right take the layer for the eye and bring it to the very top so it is on top of every single frame and layer.

Eye Layer to the TOP

After you have done this it is time to save this as a gif. Go to file > Save for Web. If you have a large file this may take some time to load. My gif was quite large so I dropped my image size percentage down to 25%

Save for Web

Once you have done this you can click preview, to see how your gif will look in a browser. If you are pleased with the end result click save and now you have created your first animated gif!



Operating System

Phone Data Encryption

Data Encryption on phone is not a new concept, however in recent years there have been some issues regarding how it affects phone performance and its use as required by operating system manufacturers.

The two main phone operating systems, iOS from Apple and Android from Google, use a device address for encryption. Each device has a unique address based on the hardware part number (similar to a MAC address), and the encryption for the phone is based on that number. Google and Apple don’t have access to those numbers and therefor don’t have any way to access your information. New phones currently have device encryption enabled by default, in contrast with their old standard which provided it as an encryption but left it disabled by default.

In addition to the default encryption, there are numerous apps dedicated to phone encryption. Most general purpose security apps, such as those offered by Kaspersky, AVG and Norton, also provide data encryption. Sometime text message and password encryption is a available too.

Windows phones also have device encryption available. The main difference Microsoft’s encryption method is that it is software based as opposed to hardware based. Unfortunately, since the encryption is employed via EAS (Exchange ActiveSync) the only way to employ this is through a Microsoft email account. And since encryption is determine by information Microsoft has access to, they also have access to the encryption key on the phone.

There are a few downsides to the hardware based encryption, at least as far as Android’s recent update to Lollipop is concerned. First, data encryption is only enabled automatically if a new phone is bought with Lollipop on it. However if an old phone is updated to Lollipop, encryption remains disabled by default. Also, for those using SD cards, Android can’t guarantee that data stored on the card will be encrypted as some phones allow this and some don’t.

So while data encryption is important there are many different options depending on native OS and various apps available for the phones. Above all though, device encryption is a moot point if the device doesn’t have a password.

Operating System

Android App Permissions


The nice thing about downloading apps from the Google Play store is that you are shown explicitly what permissions an app asks for before you accept a download.  However, this is only a list of permission types, and not what an app can or will actually do.  There are 124 different types of permissions an Android app can ask for, and it’s wise to gain knowledge around what they actually mean, especially considering that apps in Google Play are not subject to the same level of security and prescreening as those in the Apple Store.

33% of Android apps request more permissions than they need, according to a study in 2012 by the UC Berkley Electrical Engineering and Computer Sciences department.  After surveying users as part of the same study, researchers found that 97% of the users were not able to correctly state the purpose and functions of all the app permissions.

Why should you pay special attention to the permissions?


With the different Android app permissions someone can:

Control your outgoing calls

Monitor/record your screen while you text, view pictures, enter personal information

Record conversations in the room when not on a call


These are only to name a few.  So what is there to do?

There are quite a few ways you can take precaution when it comes to Android app security:

-Do your research, read reviews, pay attention to app ratings before you hit install

-Only download apps from well-known, trusted app stores (Google Play)

-Pay close attention to the app permissions.  If something looks fishy, say you can’t think of why a music app would need your location, don’t download the app.

-Use mobile security to ensure apps aren’t acting suspicious


If you do really need an app that has sketchy permissions, there are some trusted apps that may help protect your privacy:

PDroid Privacy Protection – monitors the types of app permissions for each app you have installed, and you can either allow or reject the permissions without breaking the app

LBE Privacy Guard – notifies you when an app is trying to access information and you can either allow or block that action.  Depending on what permission you block, the app may crash.

PermissionDog – makes up a list of how dangerous your apps are

Pocket Permissions – an information guide for the different types of app permissions.  Good for researching the permissions and learning exactly what you’re being asked








Quickly add a shaded border to an image in Adobe Photoshop

In this tutorial, we’ll see how to quickly add a shaded border to a photo in Adobe Photoshop like so:

slide 5

Begin by opening your photo of choice.

slide 1

Next, create a new layer, by going to “Layer > New Layer” (or, by using the keyboard shortcut “Ctrl + Shift + N” on Windows or “Cmd + Shift + N” on a Mac). Click on the new layer in the layers panel on the right to make sure it is selected, and then select the Paint Bucket tool in the tools panel on the left. Pick the foreground color you would like to use for your shaded border (in this example we use black, but you can use any color) and then fill the new layer with your color of choice.

slide 2

After filling the new layer, we will use the Rectangular Marquee Tool to create our border. Select the tool, and make sure its Feather attribute (located in the upper left) is greater than 0. Depending on the size of your image, and how much of a border you want visible, this will vary. My image is quite large so I have a feather of 80 pixels, however a small image may work best with only 12 pixels. After choosing a feather radius, drag and select the entire size of your canvas. You can begin outside the upper left corner and drag over the whole image to make sure you have it selected completely over each edge. When you release holding your mouse-click, the rectangle will now show a dotted line with curved edges. If the curve is too large or small for what you want to do, simply change the feather radius and try again.

slide 3

Now that we have our feathered selection, press the delete key or go to “Edit > Cut” to clear the middle of the full color layer. Your original photo will now show through underneath with the added border on top.

slide 4

Experiment with different colors and feather radii to see what you can create!

slide 6