Creating panoramic images with Image Composite Editor 2

One of the things I like to do when I go on vacation is taking panoramic photos. Since my camera doesn't actually take panoramic photos, I have to use software to stitch images together. One of the best image stitchers I have found yet is Image Composite Editor 2 from Microsoft Research Computational Photography Group.

Image Composite Editor 2

Image Composite Editor (ICE) can take photos taken from a single location that overlap and create stunning panoramic images from them. Using techniques from the field of computer vision, ICE scans the images for similarities to each other and then estimates the vantage point for each photo. ICE can even create panoramic photos from videos too.

Sample ICE 2 panoramic image without auto complete
Sample ICE 2 panoramic image without auto complete
Sample ICE 2 panoramic image with auto complete
Sample ICE 2 panoramic image with auto complete

Microsoft Research Computational Photography Group recently released a new version of ICE. The following is quote from the ICE website of changes included in ICE 2:

  • Redesigned user interface
    ICE has a new look that makes all the features more understandable and easier to use.
  • Automatic image completion
    ICE can now fill in any missing pixels around the edges of your panorama, making a smooth boundary even in cases where you missed a shot.
  • Improved workflow
    ICE now guides you through the steps required to make a great panorama. And you can back up a step to change settings, then see the effects of those changes without having to start over from scratch.
  • Full-resolution preview
    Panorama previews are no longer limited by your screen resolution. ICE now allows you to zoom in to see every detail of your stitched panorama, no matter how big, before you export.
  • Built-in Photosynth uploader
    ICE no longer requires the installation of a separate application to upload a panorama to the Photosynth web site. You can now upload and share your panorama directly from within ICE.


Panoramic image of Jasper Forest inside of the Petrified Forest National Park

ICE will work on 32-bit or 64-bit versions of Windows Vista SP2, Windows 7 or Windows 8 / 8.1. For more information on Image Composite Editor from Microsoft Research Computational Photography Group, just follow the links below:

ICE Homepage
ICE Support Forums

Toughen your computer security with EMET 5.1

Keeping your computer secure has always been tough. It seems like every week there is another exploit making the rounds. Nobody can predict what kind of attack hackers will use next. But you can protect your computer from the most common actions and techniques used with the Enhanced Mitigation Experience Toolkit 5.1 (EMET).

The main screen inside of EMET 5.1
The main screen inside of EMET 5.1

What is EMET? It monitors selected programs (Internet Explorer, Microsoft Office programs, etc.) for known attack actions and techniques. When one of the several pseudo mitigation technologies is triggered, EMET can block or even terminate the program in question. It will also validate digitally signed SSL certificates inside of Internet Explorer. Here's is the current list of mitigations EMET currently looks for.

  • Structured Exception Handler Overwrite Protection (SEHOP)
  • Data Execution Prevention (DEP)
  • Heapspray allocation
  • Null page allocation
  • Mandatory Address Space Layout Randomization (ASLR)
  • Export Address Table Access Filtering (EAF)
  • Export Address Table Access Filtering Plus (EAF+)
  • Bottom-up randomization
  • Return Oriented Programming (ROP)
  • Attack Surface Reduction (ASR)

The about screen inside of EMET 5.1
The about screen inside of EMET 5.1

EMET 5.1 includes the following improvements:

  • Attack Surface Reduction (ASR) has been updated to limit the attack surface of applications and reduce attacks.
  • Export Address Table Filtering Plus (EAF+) has been updated to improve and extend the current EAF mitigation.
  • 64-bit ROP mitigations have been improved to anticipate future exploitation techniques.
  • Several security, compatibility and performance improvements.

EMET can also be customized via the registry (see EMET manual for instructions). Here are a few of the items that can be modified:

  • Enable unsafe configurations.
  • Configuring custom message for user reporting.
  • Configuring certificate trust feature for third party browsers.
  • Configuring local telemetry for troubleshooting
  • Configuring EMET Agent icon visibility.

Here's a quote from Microsoft's website:

The Enhanced Mitigation Experience Toolkit (EMET) helps raise the bar against attackers gaining access to computer systems. EMET anticipates the most common actions and techniques adversaries might use in compromising a computer, and helps protect by diverting, terminating, blocking, and invalidating those actions and techniques. EMET helps protect your computer systems even before new and undiscovered threats are formally addressed by security updates and antimalware software. EMET benefits enterprises and all computer users by helping to protect against security threats and breaches that can disrupt businesses and daily lives.

EMET should never monitor anti-malware and intrusion prevention or detection software, debuggers, software that handles digital rights management (DRM) technologies or software that uses anti-debugging, obfuscation, or hooking technologies. Click here for the EMET 5.1 application compatibility list.

For more information on EMET, just follow the links below,

Enhanced Mitigation Experience Toolkit
Enhanced Mitigation Experience Toolkit 5.1 download

How to safely remove external drives

External storage devices like flash drives or hard drives are so convenient for carrying data between computers. Just plug and play, as they say. But did you know it's not the same for when you unplug your drives? Here's how to safely remove external drives from your Windows computer.

How to safely remove external drives

Recently I was at customer's location repairing her computer and needed some files from one of my usb flash drives. When I was done, I went through the process of ejecting the usb drive from her computer. She was surprised that I didn't just pull the flash drive out. Most of the time you can just unplug an usb device like mouse or printer without having to do anything to your Windows based computer. It's only when you have a storage device, like a flash drive or external hard drive that you have to take an extra step to safely remove the device.

What is write caching?

Windows by default enables write caching on storage devices for better performance, whether internal or external. With write caching, it allows programs to write to the device and continue on without waiting for the data to be actually written. By properly ejecting a storage device, you are ensuring that the cache is getting written to the device before you disconnect it.

How to safely remove external drives

  1. Left-click on the Safely Remove Hardware icon on the Taskbar.
    Safely Remove Hardware icon on the Windows 8 Taskbar
  2. Left-click on the device you want to disconnect.
    List of removable drives ready to be ejected

or

  1. Open File Explorer (Windows logo key Windows logo key + E).
  2. Under This PC / Computer, right-click the drive you want to disconnect and select Eject.

Windows will display a notification when it's safe to disconnect the drive.

The correct ways to shut down your Windows based computer

Doing computer repair, I see allot of different issues. But there is one problem I am seeing over and over again, start up corruption. This most commonly occurs when the computer is not turned off properly. And it appears that laptops are more prone to this issue than desktops are. So here's how to properly shutdown your Windows based computer.

Which power button do you use to shut down your computer?

Logic dictates that if you use a button to turn on a device you should also use it to turn it off (button on / button off). You use a button to turn on and off your TV, audio / video components and smartphone. But this is not necessarily the case when it comes to your computer. It is always recommended that you allow the operating system close down all applications and turn the computer off itself.

Using the Start menu / Start screen to shut down Windows

This may seem like a no-brainer, but you would be amazed how many people don't use this method. It's mainly laptop users who just instinctively reach for the power button. But if you don't watch how long you hold the power button down, you could perform a hardware shutdown. It's just simpler and recommended to use the shut down button on the Start menu / Start screen.

Windows Vista

Shut down button location in Windows Vista
Start button > Power button > Shut down

Windows 7

Shut down button location in Windows 7
Start button > Shut down

Windows 8

Sign out button location in Windows 8
1. Start screen > Sign out
Shut down button location in Windows 8
2. Sign in screen > Power button > Shut down

Windows 8.1

Shut down button location in Windows 8.1
Start screen > Power button > Shut down

Or

Power users shut down button location in Windows 8.1
Power users menu (Windows logo key + X) > Shutdown or sign out > Shut down

Using the power button on the computer to shut down Windows

This method is acceptable for turning off your computer, as it performs the same shutdown command as the shut down button on the Start menu / Start screen. But you have to check and make sure that the power options inside the operating system are configured to shut down the system when the power button is pressed.

Power button options inside of Windows 8.1
Power button options inside of Windows 8.1

The power button can be configured to put the system into sleep or hibernate. And if your system loses power while it's asleep, you will get an error when you restart it. This happens quite often with laptops when they are not using the ac adapter the battery runs out.

Using the power button on the computer to force it to shut down

So how do you turn off computer when it freezes up and you don't have a reset button? This is where the Advanced Configuration and Power Interface (ACPI) specification comes into play. This spec has been built into every computer for well over a decade now. It mandates that when the power button is held down for 10 seconds or more the system performs a hard shutdown, turning off power to all components. This will most likely cause an error upon restart.

Strengthen your computer security with EMET 5

It seems like every day a new software exploit or vulnerability is found. Software vendors' work hard at keeping their software secure, but it can take time to test and deploy patches. So what can you do to protect your computer? The Enhanced Mitigation Experience Toolkit (EMET) from Microsoft does just that.

The main window inside of EMET 5
The main window inside of EMET 5

EMET is designed to prevent attackers from taking control of your system. It works as 'shim' in-between your programs and the operating system. EMET looks for the most common attack techniques and will block and/or terminate any program it is monitoring. EMET works alongside your favorite anti-virus and anti-malware programs for layered security.

I have been using EMET as part of my layered security for years and have written a few blogs on it. With each version, Microsoft keeps improving it. Some of the improvements in EMET 5 include Attack Surface Reduction (ASR), Export Address Table Filtering Plus (EAF+) and 64-bit ROP mitigations. Here's is the current list of mitigations EMET currently looks for.

  • Structured Exception Handler Overwrite Protection (SEHOP)
  • Data Execution Prevention (DEP)
  • Heapspray allocation
  • Null page allocation
  • Mandatory Address Space Layout Randomization (ASLR)
  • Export Address Table Access Filtering (EAF)
  • Export Address Table Access Filtering Plus (EAF+)
  • Bottom-up randomization
  • Return Oriented Programming (ROP)
  • Attack Surface Reduction (ASR)

There are two (2) different ways to configure EMET, a Graphic User Interface (GUI) and a command line tool. It is best to configure EMET through the GUI, since the command line tool doesn't allow access to all of EMET's features. The built-in configuration wizard allows you use either the recommenced settings, keep previous settings (upgrade install) or to manually configure EMET (new install).

Easily configure programs to monitor in EMET 5
Easily configure programs to monitor in EMET 5

Once you have EMET installed, it's pretty easy to add programs to monitor. Just open the program you want EMET to monitor and then open EMET. On the lower part of the main window you will see Running Processes. Just find the program you want to monitor in the list, right-click on it and select Configure Process. You will have to restart any program you have just configured inside of EMET.

For more information on Microsoft EMET 5, just follow the links below.

Enhanced Mitigation Experience Toolkit
Enhanced Mitigation Experience Toolkit 5.0 download

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