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Google Reader

I use a lot of Google products/services.Not all of them are equally worthwhile, to be frank. But, there are several that I use regularly. One which many of you are already aware of is my Blogger account, which, yes, is now owned by Google (what better way to search people’s blogs than to start a blog service?).

One that I’ve been particularly impressed with is Google Reader. It, like all other google services, requires a google account (but lets face it, how many of you DON’T have one?). Up until recently, I’ve been using Sage, the RSS reader extension for Firefox to aggregate my RSS feeds. One of the reasons that I really liked Sage was that it used my Firefox browser history to point out which feed items I’ve already read (ie if I visited Jane’s LJ, Sage would know, and it wouldn’t tell me that Jane had a new post that I hadn’t seen before). The problem with that, of course, is that if I visit Jane’s LJ while I was waiting for my next class at the computer lab and I read her latest post about wine glasses, then my Sage extension at home wouldn’t know, because — well, its at home.

Enter Google Reader. It is, like Sage, a RSS feed aggregator. It is also, like my.yahoo and livejournal friends page, completely online. But, it has a few distinguishing features. Not only does it aggregate feeds for me, so that I can read the latest posts on Jane’s LJ and Greg Mankiw’s blog, but unlike my.yahoo and Sage, it does not separate them into separate lists or groups of articles, but groups them all together in one big list for me to read. Moreover, it also notes which posts I’ve already read and since its online, it means that the stuff I read when away from my laptop is still marked as read!

You can also attach tags/labels to different feeds and even different posts. For instance, I put the Sinfest, Dilbert, and PhD Comics feeds under a label called “humor” and, if all I want to do is look at humorous stuff, I use Google Reader to show me only all feeds tagged “humor”.

Google Reader also lets you publicize your feeds. If anyone’s interested, I can give the feed URLs for some of my tags so that, if you wanted, you could be reading the same stuff I’m reading when I’m on break. On the sidebar of this site, for example, is a list of articles that I’ve found and clipped as “noteworthy”.

The thing I like the most about Google Reader’s interface, however, is the keyboard shortcuts. I’m not really a big mouse guy — blame my old HP laptop for having mouse buttons which didn’t work properly, so its good to be able to navigate the interface without having to use the mouse (even though I’m now a proud owner of a VAIO with functioning mousepad). On any article that I find to be interesting, I hit “L” and I can label it as “noteworthy”. If I want to read a specific feed, I hit “g” and then “u” and it takes me to a menu of the feeds that I subscribe to, and I can then choose it. If I want to read a specific label, I hit “g” and then “l” and then I get to a menu of labels that I’ve defined. On the main interface, I can move forward and backwards through any list I’m reading by hitting “j” or “k”, and if I want view the original website where the article came from, I only have to hit “v”. And, the interface is pretty mouse-intuitive as well (scrolling on your mousewheel does what you would expect it to), for those of you who are more into the mouse thing.

About the only complaint I have is that there is no way (at least not yet) to search all the feeds that I have read for stuff. I can only search for new feeds.

Anyways, if you started getting into the whole blogosphere/feed thing, I’d definitely recommend Google Reader as a way to keep track of things. And, if someone from Google is reading this, I’d like to get paid commission :-).

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Comic Recommendations

In honor of my having watched and enjoyed Superman Returns in IMAX Saturday night (thank you Eric’s parents!), some comic book recommendations — b/c we all know that sequels to comic book movies will generally be less good than their predecessors:From Marvel:

  1. Astonishing X-Men (Joss Whedon & John Cassaday) – From the creator of Buffy, Angel, and Firefly/Serenity, comes the core X-Men book. Whedon (who has grown greatly since his Buffy and Angel years) knows these characters well and is just in the middle of his third story arc where he has completely ripped the team apart from the inside. This is one of the best books Marvel has right now, and the only downside is that until September, Whedon was only able to get one issue out every two months — that sadistic bastard. One other tidbit, Whedon’s favorite character is Kitty Pryde (the girl who walks through walls) and his inspiration for Buffy and a good many of the female characters that he writes is her.
  2. Daredevil (Ed Brubaker & Michael Lark/Stefano Gaudiano) – For those out of comics, Brubaker’s name probably doesn’t sound very famous, but he started as an indy-comic writer — and a good one at that. Brubaker crafts excellent noir-ish stories. For that reason, I’m not as big a fan of his X-Men work, but I loved his work on Gotham Central (see below) and now he’s doing Daredevil justice. Not Ben Affleck-injustice, but Daredevil as he’s meant to be — bad ass, kicking ninja ass, surrounded by hot, scantily clad femme fatales. In terms of the story, I recommend you pick up the few issues just leading into the current story arc written by Brian Bendis (see below) which introduces you to more or less everything you need to know about the current one.
  3. New Avengers (Brian Bendis) – I have mixed feelings about Bendis. On the one hand, he can do very good work. His run on Daredevil was long and also very good, but mainly, I think, because Daredevil is not a talking-type of guy. Bendis tends to write very long, awkwardly long dialogue. But, he crafts very interesting plots. And New Avengers is currently Marvel’s flagship work. It starts the most popular Marvel heroes – Captain America, Iron Man, Wolverine, Spiderman, Luke Cage, Spiderwoman (no relation to Spiderman), and the Sentry. I think the work is a good you-don’t-need-to-know-crap introduction to the Marvel world, easy to read, and for the most part is pretty solid.

From DC:

  1. Checkmate (Greg Rucka) – Greg Rucka is, in my humble opinion, hands down the BEST comic book writer who’s working in the mainstream today. He does real justice to his characters, to his plotlines — and he even writes Wonder Woman well, which is actually quite hard to do if you think about it. He crafted this one to help show off the new DC universe to be a bit more realistic. Sure, there have been plenty of spyfics before, and stories about corrupt governments — but really, what would the world be like in a world where Superman and Green Lantern fly the skies? Enter Checkmate, an international spy organization that was created by the United Nations to deal with these issues. But, as we all know, the UN sucks — and the very interesting combination of heroes and villains which lead Checkmate (the individuals are named after Chess pieces, with the Black King and Queen and White King and Queen as the ruling members) have to deal with each other, with diplomatic niceties, and with a super-powered world. Ok, I’ve been rambling on enough, but I do think this book is solid and I encourage anyone who wants to give comics a try to read it.
  2. Fables (Bill Willngham & Mark Buckingham & James Jean on covers) – The only reason I mention James Jean is that his covers are absolutely BEAUTIFUL. Its one of the first reasons I picked it up. Fables isn’t DC per se, its under the Vertigo imprint, which some of you will recognize as the publisher of V for Vendetta and The Sandman and Watchmen. These are non-mainstream stories and typically deal with more adult themes/ideas (ohhh nooo.. its SEX!!! DRUGS! AHHHHHH). The premise behind Fables is that an evil empire run by the villainous Adversary has taken over the magical lands where our favorite fables (ie Jack and Jill, Snow White, the Big Bad Wolf, King Cole, Prince Charming, etc) lived. They are then forced to immigrate to our world — the “Mundy world” where they have lived for hundreds of years. Now, it sounds cheesy, but these aren’t your old bedtime story fables — Prince Charming is an adulterous, scheming man. The Big Bad Wolf, is Bigby the Wolf, a very talented detective, and Snow White is an administrative woman who absolutely detests Prince Charming, her ex-husband, and Goldilocks is an animal fable rights extremist. Throw in gratuitous amounts of sex, violence, politicking, and magic, and you have one of my favorite books ever. The art is nice, and the same team has been on the book since Issue 1 — which I encourage everyone to take a look at. If you’re not into superheroes, but want to read something good, I’d recommend starting with the first story arc and going from there.
  3. 52 (Greg Rucka, Geoff Johns, Mark Waid, Grant Morrison) – I’ve written a little too much about the books above, mainly because I feel the main comic lines that people are familiar with (the mainstream ones, ie Superman or Batman) are difficult to follow and have decayed in quality at least for now. One of the reasons, is because their best talent are busy at work on this book, 52, which comes out ONCE A WEEK. The four authors listed are some of the best talent in the business and are collaborating on a story which is supposed to redefine the universe that DC’s comics operate in. These are written well, they come out every week (so it gives you a reason to go into the comic store weekly), and are easy to understand. ’nuff said

Those were the currently ongoing series that I’d recommend. Here’s 3 more books that I’d recommend from a comic store’s “backfiles” — old issues or trade paperbacks (collections of comics w/o the ads) that are great:

  1. Identity Crisis (Brad Meltzer & Rags Morales & covers by Michael Turner) – Again I mention the coverist, because Turner is draws very nice covers (although his women look somewhat anorexic). Anyways, this story got national press attention for the way it took the biggest heroes from DC (the Justice League) and completely undermined how everyone saw them. It was a murder mystery. A love story. It had intense fight scenes. Brought in major players. And… on top of that, it is fairly approachable and its fairly important to understanding the DC Universe today.
  2. 1602 (Neil Gaiman & Andy Kubert) – This is a Marvel Neil Gaiman work which is a re-imagining of the Marvel universe if it took place in the 1600s. The reader gets to see very “period” art (including covers that look like they were etched in wood) and a crash course through the Marvel universe.
  3. Sandman (Neil Gaiman) – Gaiman’s very famous and very acclaimed series. He was originally asked to make stories from a Golden Age character named the Sandman — clearly, Gaiman did not do what he was asked. Instead, he crafted a very intricate set of stories involving Dream of the Endless. While I don’t like the interior art so much, Gaiman’s writing and the beautiful covers grealty make up for it.

There are of course other books that I would recommend, but I think these 9 make a good start for anyone who’s interested :-).

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Scientist Photos

From In the Pipeline, a very amusing (and also very true) request on behalf of all scientists to all professional photographers responsible for taking photos of scientists:

After seeing a recent in-house promotional brochure, I’d like to issue a brief request on behalf of my fellow researchers. This is addressed to all professional photographers: please, no more colored spotlights.

I know that you see this as a deficiency, but scientists do not work with purple radiance coming from the walls behind them. Not if we can help it, we don’t, and if we notice that sort of thing going on, we head for the exits. In the same manner, our instruments do not, regrettably, emit orange glows that light our faces up from beneath, not for the most part, and if they start doing that we generally don’t bend closer so as to emphasize the thoughtful contours of our faces. When we hold up Erlenmeyer flasks to eye level to see the future of research in them, which we try not to do too often because we usually don’t want to know, rarely is this accompanied by an eerie red light coming from the general direction of our pockets. It’s a bad sign when that happens, actually.

I know that your photos have lots more zing and pop the way you do them. And I’m sorry, for you and for the art department, that our labs are all well lit (with boring old fluorescent lights, yet), and that we all wear plain white lab coats (which tend to take over the picture), and that our instrument housings are mostly beige and blue and white. It would be a lot easier on you guys if these things weren’t so.

But that’s how it is. And when you get right down to it, you’re actually us a disservice by trying to pretend that there’s all sorts of dramatic stuff going on, that discoveries are happening every single minute of the day and that they’re accompanied by dawn-of-a-new-era lighting and sound effects. We’d rather that people didn’t get those ideas, because the really big discoveries aren’t like that at all. It doesn’t make for much of a cover shot, but if one of us ever does manage to change the world, it’ll start with a puzzled glance at a computer screen, or a raised eyebrow while looking at a piece of paper. Instead of getting noisier, everything will get a lot quieter. And if there are any purple spotlights to be seen, we won’t even notice them. . .

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How Sad…

58% of the US adult population never reads another book after high school.

42% of college graduates never read another book after college.

80% of US families did not buy or read a book last year.

70% of US adults have not been in a bookstore in the last five years.

57% of new books are not read to completion.
Jerrold Jenkins.

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How Inflation Brought Down a Government

I think this is a great piece on how not being smart with your own money supply can cause untold pain and suffering not only to the people that you’ve just seignoraged into poverty, but to yourself — when said people revolt and break away and turn you over to NATO forces. I’ve also underlined, bolded, and italicized a sentence which explains exactly what 9 digit inflation (in a single month) actually means.

Inflation Nation
Steve H. Hanke is a professor of Applied Economics at the Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.
On Sunday, voters in Montenegro turned out in record numbers and gave a collective “thumbs down” to their republic’s loose union with Serbia. Although the final curtain has not yet been drawn on this Balkan drama, when it is, what remains of the former Yugoslavia will disappear, and, after 88 years, Montenegro will once again be independent.

Montenegro’s drive for independence is as much a story about money as it is about Balkan politics. Unfortunately, the money side of the story has tumbled down what George Orwell called a “memory hole.”

So what’s the story? From 1971 through 1991, Yugoslavia’s annualized inflation rate was 76%. Only Zaire and Brazil topped that dreadful performance. But things got worse — much worse. In early 1991, the federal government of Prime Minister Ante Markovic discovered that, late in 1990, the Serbian parliament, which was controlled by Slobodan Milosevic, had secretly ordered the Serbian National Bank (a regional central bank) to issue $1.4 billion in credits to Slobo’s friends. That illegal plunder equaled more than half of all the new money the National Bank of Yugoslavia had planned to create in 1991. Besides lining the pockets of a good many Serbian communists, it sabotaged the Markovic government’s teetering plans for economic reform. It also fanned the flames of nationalism in Yugoslavia and hardened the resolve of the leaders in Croatia and Slovenia to break away from the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia.

Without the Croats and Slovenes to fleece, Milosevic turned on his “own” people. Starting in 1992 and lasting 24 months, what was left of Yugoslavia endured the second-highest and second-longest hyperinflation in world history, peaking in January 1994 when prices increased by 313,000,000% in one month. In all, there were 14 maxi-devaluations during the hyperinflation, with each of the final three exceeding 99.9%, completely wiping out the dinar’s value in November ’93, December ’93 and January ’94.

Only Hungary, in 1946, recorded a higher rate, and only the Soviet Union suffered hyperinflation longer, for 26 months in the early 1920s. Even Weimar Germany’s much-recounted hyperinflation of 1922-23 was far less virulent than the repeated decimation of the Yugoslav dinar. For a sense of its impact on the local population, imagine the value of your bank accounts in dollars and then move the decimal point 22 places to the left. Then try to buy something.

Yugoslavia’s monetary orgy finally came to an end when the Topcider mint ran out of capacity. The hyperinflation was transforming 500-billion-dinar bills into small change before the ink had dried. But Milosevic’s monetary mischief was nothing new. The old Serbian kings were notorious coin-clippers. As long ago as the early 14th century, King Milutin minted imitation Venetian silver coins at Novo Brdo and Prizren, located in what is now Kosovo. These fakes contained only seven-eighths as much silver as the real things. Venice banned the fakes, and, in his “Divine Comedy,” Dante denounced “the King of Rascia” as a counterfeiter.

In 1999, President Milo Djukanovic (now prime minister) decided he wanted Montenegro independent and out from under Serbia’s political yoke. I counseled that he play the currency card. Over the decades, the Yugoslav dinar had been completely discredited. For most Yugoslavs, the mighty deutsche mark was the unofficial coin of the realm. That was the reality. In addition, I repeated the great Austrian economist Ludwig von Mises’s argument that sound money “was devised as an instrument for the protection of civil liberties against despotic inroads on the part of governments. Ideologically it belongs in the same class with political constitutions and bills of rights.”

Mr. Djukanovic knew that the deutsche mark was his trump card, one that would pave the way for reestablishing Montenegro’s sovereignty. On Nov. 2, 1999, he boldly announced that Montenegro was dumping the Yugoslav dinar and officially adopting the deutsche mark as its national currency (the DM was subsequently replaced by the euro in January 2002). There were no International Monetary Fund bureaucrats to contend with (at the time, Yugoslavia had no formal relations with the IMF and Montenegro was part of the rump Yugoslavia). Civil servants from Washington had not yet located Podgorica, and the NGO invasions weren’t even a glimmer in any planner’s eye. Furthermore, the so-called experts in Brussels hadn’t yet issued their bizarre 2000 edict on the euro, which stated that “it should be made clear that any unilateral adoption of the single currency by means of ‘euroisation’ would run counter to the underlying economic reasoning of [the European Monetary Union].” Mr. Djukanovic had room to maneuver and coolly play his card. By doing so, the die was cast for Sunday’s election.

This appeared in the Wall Street Journal, May 24, 2006

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Who Does this Sound Like?

I think Mankiw (who writes an awesome blog by the way) captures what I think is most key about good leaders:

Leadership Change at Harvard
Consider this description of a great, visionary leader:

[He] is a voracious reader of science and history who questions subordinates relentlessly about their projects, she says. “If he respects you, he’ll argue with you. If not, he ignores you,” she says. “If he says, ‘That’s stupid,’ it means he cares” about a project, she adds.

When I read that passage in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal, I thought, “Yes, that captures the Larry Summers I know perfectly.”

It wasn’t written about Larry, however. It was written about Bill Gates. Apparently, the personality attributes that work well for an entrepreneur and CEO don’t work nearly as well for a university president.

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Lightning and Cell Phones Don’t Mix

Wow.. a little scary…

Mobile phone users warned of lightning strike risk

Fri Jun 23, 2006 5:11 AM IST

LONDON (Reuters) – People should not use mobile phones outdoors during thunderstorms because of the risk of being struck by lightning, doctors said on Friday.

They reported the case of a 15-year-old girl who was using her phone in a park when she was hit during a storm. Although she was revived, she suffered persistent health problems and was using a wheelchair a year after the accident.

“This rare phenomenon is a public health issue, and education is necessary to highlight the risk of using mobile phones outdoors during stormy weather to prevent future fatal consequences from lighting strike injuries,” said Swinda Esprit, a doctor at Northwick Park Hospital in England.

Esprit and other doctors at the hospital added in a letter to the British Medical Journal that usually when someone is struck by lightning, the high resistance of the skin conducts the flash over the body in what is known as a flashover.

But if a metal object, such as a phone, is in contact with the skin it disrupts the flashover and increases the odds of internal injuries and death.

The doctors added that three fatal cases of lightning striking people while using mobile phones have been reported in newspapers in China, South Korea and Malaysia.

“The Australian Lightning Protection Standard recommends that metallic objects, including cordless or mobile phones, should not be used (or carried) outdoors during a thunderstorm,” Esprit added.

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Andrew Robinson on Playing Elim Garak in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine

I decided to indulge in a little sci-fi geekdom and looked at some coverage of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine online and found this gem from Andrew Robinson about his experiences playing one of my favorite characters of all time, Elim Garak, the “plain, simple tailor” — and I happen to concur:

Q: I’ve enjoyed your work ever since I saw you for the first time in “Dirty Harry,” and your portrayal of Garak on DS9 was one of the many reasons it was such an enjoyably complex and thought-provoking show. But for some reason DS9 is not the “popular” Trek, which I think is unfortunate. What’s your take on this?

AR: It’s not the most popular because it’s the most morally ambiguous. Whenever you have characters who are gray rather than black and white … Although they are more interesting, they are more difficult for people to get a handle on. I loved DS9 because they were gray, because the characters were not easily definable, but that’s not for everybody.

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FireFox rules

I just thought I’d be a nerd and explain the multitude of actually usable reasons (I don’t care that your browser renders in superHexAscii2.454 if I don’t use it) why I like Firefox:
 
  1. Tabbed Browsing – This is to me, hands down, the main reason that I chose to use Mozilla products from the get go (yes, I was one of those tech nerds who was using Mozilla back when their icon was a Godzilla breathing fire). One would think that with both Windows and the Mac employing some form of taskbar, that it would actually be very simple to switch between program windows when you’re browsing the web, but for one reason or another, its always a bit awkward. Tabbing, on other hand, allows you to be reading multiple pages at the same time, all in the same window. In Firefox, you can use Ctrl+T to create a new tab, you can also click Ctrl while you click on a link to open it in a new tab, use the context menu when you right click on a link to open a specific link in a new tab, or even use your midde-click button to force things to open in a new tab. It cuts down on clutter in my taskbar (and to my understanding, memory usage by your computer) and is particularly helpful when I’m doing Google or Wikipedia searches to have one tab be my search results and all the other tabs to be links in the search result.
  2. Integrated Search Engine – Firefox comes with several search engines programmed in by default on the upper-right-hand textbar in the browser screen. You don’t have to go to google or yahoo or wikipedia to do your searches, all you have to do is click on the textbar, type, and hit enter.
  3. Download manager – A lot of people already have programs like Gozilla, but Firefox comes built-in with a download manager (hit Ctrl+Shift+D) allowing a quick and easy place to find the information on the names, sizes, and locations of the files you’ve downloaded, and gives you a way to quickly pause, resume, and restart downloads.
  4. Customizability – I may never buy a Mac, but I like the way Safari looks so I’ve happened to pick a Safari/iMac like skin for my Firefox browser (and also for my Thunderbird email program which is also, by the way, made by the Mozilla people). I understand there are mods for Internet Explorer, but the fact that themes are so custom-built into Firefox and so easy to use/deploy is another plus
  5. Bookmarks – I remember trying to use the Internet Explorer bookmark manager … that’s why I never had bookmarks in IE. In Firefox, the Bookmarks manager is a great deal more intuitive (its organized in a similar fashion to Windows Explorer), and a great deal more useful. I’ve set up a lot of my bookmarks so that I can quickly type say “menu” in my location bar and it’ll jump straight to what Harvard Dining Services is offering for the day.
  6. Rendering Engine – As a person who used to have to help manage websites, I can remember the nightmare of trying to get web code to work in both Internet Explorer and Netscape — that was one of the big reasons I kept both browsers on my computer so that I could see the occasional website which did not work. For the most part, I have not seen a website that hasn’t been rendered correctly in Firefox (although I have seen many websites that just aren’t rendered well in IE).
  7. Internal Search – You hit Ctrl+F, type any phrase and Firefox starts searching AS YOU TYPE the window that you’re looking at.
  8. Extensions – I think the number two reason that I choose to use Mozilla are the wealth of extensions and addons that exist (and are, for the most part, located in a central location), making my life a good deal easier, such as:
    1. AdBlock – Lets you block banners and Flash and internal frames with just a click. It also lets you specify RegExpns and URLs of websites which feed advertisements to allow you to craft smarter blocking systems. Better still, an Extension called the Adblock Filterset.G comes built in with a list of websites and RegExpns which have more or less killed almost all the advertisements that I’ve ever encountered. I don’t even see Google Ads anymore 🙂
    2. ForecastFox – Puts weather icons in the bottom right of my screen which let me quickly check the weather. It seems kinda stupid, but its very helpful, especially on the damn east coast where the weather changes every two hours.
    3. Google Toolbar for Firefox – I have to say this is a MUCH better toolbar than the one for Internet Explorer. It provides more or less all of the same functionality (except for popup blocking but that’s because Firefox has its own popup blocker) but is more customizable and detects phishing sites (website scams where a website pretends to be your EBay account just to get your account information).
    4. IE Tab – For the occasional website that requires Internet Explorer, this extension allows you to render websites with Internet Explorer in Firefox. You can even set it so that any website which you know looks better or works better in IE (ie Windows Update, Microsoft Sharepoint servers) will by default be rendered in the Internet Explorer engine rather than Firefox’s.
    5. Sage – I used to rely on Google’s Feed Readers and my My.Yahoo start page to aggregate RSS feeds, but now, I just use Sage, which allows me to quickly scan all my RSS feeds and provides a useful SKINNABLE interface such that I can quickly read the stuff that I want to check everyday.
    6. All-In-One Sidebar – A really useful extension which takes advantage and really upgrades the sidebar that comes with Firefox. It lets you customize the Sidebar, and puts all sorts of functionality into it (ie puts your download manager there, your extension manager, etc)
    7. Deepest Sender – I think I’ve mentioned this before, but I use this extension to update my Blogger and LJ.
    8. Scrapbook – Ever wanted to save a website that you’ve really liked but know that you probably won’t get everything (ie the specific text that you’ve typed, the specific graphic that you’ve set it at, etc etc) because Internet Explorer’s save feature only saves the raw HTML and image files? Scrapbook makes it so that it saves EVERYTHING about the page.
    9. Image Toolbar – Something that I actually missed from Internet Explorer was the little icons that pop up when your mouse is over an image that lets you copy or save the image. This extension brings those icons back :-).

I actually have several more extensions installed (ie an IRC chat extension, a web developer extension, a nice Calculator which lets you type expressions [like on a graphing calculator] which it will then evaluate, and some random aesthetic and web design ones, but I think listing eight reasons and nine extensions is sufficient 🙂

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