I ran into an awkward problem in Europe; I couldn’t get SMS messages. It’s a design flaw in Apple’s handling of text messages, its favoring of iMessage over SMS. If you turn data roaming off on your phone when travelling, you may not be able to get text messages reliably.

If you have an iPhone suitably logged in to Apple’s cloud services, other iPhones (and Apple stuff in general) will prefer to deliver text messages via iMessage instead of SMS. You see this in the phone UI: the messages are blue, not green. In general iMessage is a good thing. It’s cheaper and has more features.

The problem is Apple’s iMessage delivery requires the receiving phone have an Internet connection via WiFi or cellular data. If you have no WiFi at the moment and have data roaming turned off, your phone is offline. And so Apple can’t deliver to you via iMessage. They seem to buffer sent messages for when you come back online. Which is too bad, because your phone could still receive the message via SMS. Unfortunately iMessage doesn’t have an SMS delivery fallback.

In practice this design flaw meant I had to leave data roaming turned on all the time because I needed to reliably get messages from another iPhone user. Which then cost me about $30 in uncontrollable data fees from “System Services”. Some $15 was spent by Google Photos spamming location lookups (a bug?), another $15 receiving some photo iMessages from a well-meaning friend. Admittedly the SMS fallback I’d prefer would also cost some money, but I think significantly less in my case.

There’s a broader problem with iMessage which is that once a phone number is registered with it, iPhones forever more will not send SMS to that number. Apple got sued over this, so now they have a way to deregister your number.

  2016-10-13 14:29 Z

Oktoberfest is a remarkable event; 100,000+ people together drinking heavily, and yet few problems. It’s crowded though, so crowded your neighbor’s back rubs gemütlichkeit against yours at the beerhall. If you can find a place to sit. I don’t love crowds, here’s how we coped.

Go when it’s less busy. It’s not complicated: weekdays and earlier in the day are quieter. Monday early afternoon was pretty mellow, by which I mean the tents were only 75% full.

Consider a small tent for dining. After drinking our fill at the Augustiner tent (population 8500) we wandered off and found a tiny restaurant tent that sat 200. Most of which were staff on break from the Ochsenbraterei tent next door. It was still festive but plenty of room to have a comfortable lunch.

Drink wine! When the crowd got too much we found our way to the Weinzelt tent. It’s a big tent but an odd one, serving mostly wine. It’s a bit smaller, maybe 2500 people. Best of all instead of back-to-back benches, everyone sits at their own booths for 8-10 people max. Way more comfortable. Great music and party too! The drawback is that it’s expensive; 75€ for a bottle of wine instead of 11€ for a liter of beer. But it's a good choice if you want to trade off money for comfort.

  2016-09-29 07:52 Z

Ken and I took a lovely tourist trip to Scotland. Here’s a Storify of photos and comments; I tend to use Twitter like postcards while travelling, it works great for that. Scotland is a nice mix of modern European city and remote coastal landscapes. And so green! (And rainy.) Our trip broke down into two kinds of experiences: cities on either end, and lots of driving around the west in the middle.

We started in Edinburgh, a wonderful city. Highly recommend 3+ days in that city, it’s just beautiful and lots to enjoy. We ended the trip in Glasgow, which was also great. They say Edinburgh is the pretty sister. But Glasgow is the sister you’d want to hang out with in the pub. More of a regular city but a vibrant one with lots to offer. Also a city on the upswing.

Our countryside trip started with a couple of nights in Inverness. There’s not much to the town but it’s a convenient base for travelling to Speyside in the east and Loch Ness and the Great Glen to the southwest. Culloden made a big impression on us, the historical monument there is very well done. Loch Ness was a bit of a letdown, it’s just like all the other beautiful lakes in Scotland only this one is full of tourists so you can’t park to see anything.

The Isle of Skye is primary recommendation if you want some remote countryside tourism in Scotland. It’s beautiful and the northern parts feel very remote and sparse, the landscape reminded me a bit of the Faroes. Only there’s lots of hotels and restaurants and decent enough roads. The Clan Donald visitor center made a good impression too, much smarter than you’d expect a family-funded history museum to be. Most of the western part of the trip was just driving around remote roads from beautiful site to site. Lots to enjoy.

We stayed in some fantastic hotels along the way, see the map link above for details. Also ate at some great restaurants. The finest meal of all was at Martin Wishart in Loch Lomond, excellent Michelin star level food and service that executed perfectly. For less demanding dining we very much liked the Scran & Scallie in Edinburgh and the Ubiquitous Chip in Glasgow.

  2016-08-10 23:04 Z

The world has had its first self-driving car fatality: a Tesla autopilot failed. So far the world hasn’t freaked out. I think self-driving cars will be way safer than human-driven cars. But there’s a lot of shaping the truth in Tesla’s announcement.

(Fair warning: this blog post is uninformed hot take territory. I’m reacting to Tesla’s description of the crash, published two months after the death. We’ll know a lot more after an independent investigation.)

Tesla’s press release is masterful. It characterizes the cause of the accident like this:

the vehicle was on a divided highway with Autopilot engaged when a tractor trailer drove across the highway perpendicular to the Model S. Neither Autopilot nor the driver noticed the white side of the tractor trailer against a brightly lit sky, so the brake was not applied.
A truck pulled out in front of the car on the highway. It may well have been an unavoidable accident. We’ll know eventually.

But note the facility of claiming the “driver” didn’t notice the truck. How do we know that? The man is dead, we have no idea what he saw. I don't know about you, but I've never once failed to spot a white truck against a bright sky, particularly when I'm driving towards it at 70mph. I could see how a computer vision system would fail that test though.

“The brake was not applied”. It takes time to apply the brakes after you see your death coming at you. Doubly so if you’re not actually driving. The passenger-behind-the-wheel was almost certainly not having his foot hovering gently near the accelerator / brake like an engaged driver would. That slows reaction time. I do this all the time with my simple cruise control and it scares the hell out of me when some slow jerk pulls in front of me and I don’t react quickly.

(I also admire the comfort of “he never saw it coming”. Sort of takes the sting out of the next sentence, which describes the unfortunate’s grisly decapitation.)

The real problem here is Tesla’s autopilot is a half measure, “driver assist”. It doesn’t fully drive the car. This design is the most dangerous of all worlds. I had this experience with my airplane’s autopilot all the time. At some point when the automation does enough work, you can’t help but check out mentally, let the machine take over. But if the machine isn’t capable of taking over entirely you can end up dead.

That’s why I’m in favor of fully autonomous vehicles. No steering wheel, no accelerator, maybe just a single brake or other emergency cutout. Of course in this situation the software has to work reliably. Let's say a fatality rate of 50% of human drivers. And insurance and the law have to adapt to this shift of control to software. I believe the technology nerds are very close to having systems that can fully drive a car with no “driver assist” ever needed, at least in clear weather. It will be a better future. And those robot cars will kill some of their passengers. Far fewer than humans are killing now.

  2016-07-01 16:10 Z

Discord is good software. It’s a sort of Slack clone aimed at the gamer market, with the marquee feature being group voice chat. But the non-voice features work well too and there’s no reason the product has to only be used by gamers. It’s particularly interesting because Slack is clear that it is an enterprise product. All those free-tier Slacks of 100s of people don’t work very well. Discord could capture the consumer market.

Discord works well and is free. The browser client, desktop client, and mobile clients are all solid and reliable. The voice chat is good quality. The login model works better than Slack if you are a member of multiple communities. It’s very easy to get Discord up and running as a Slack replacement and as a Teamspeak / Skype replacement for voice chat.

But the product still has some rough edges. The typography and design are not as beautiful as Slack. There’s no reacji, no custom emoji support. The API is not yet gelled, although the unofficial stuff works great. Discord is also not an enterprise product; there’s no message search, little file sharing support, fewer administrative features. But it’s a very good free consumer product.

Speaking of free, so far Discord hasn’t monetized. They say the core functions will always be free and they will sell “optional cosmetics like themes, sticker packs, and sound packs”. I’m a little skeptical that’s going to be enough but I appreciate they’ve at least not talked about ads (yet).

The company has $30M in venture funding from top tier investors. It was founded by the team that built OpenFeint, the iPhone gaming social system that Apple destroyed when it launched its terrible GameCenter product. I’m excited that this team is building something like Slack, but for consumers instead of companies.

  2016-06-03 15:54 Z

I am a happy Hover customer. I escaped GoDaddy a couple of years ago and moved all my domains to Hover and have been quite pleased with the service.

What’s nice about Hover is it’s no bullshit. It’s a simple registrar with simple DNS service. And excellent support with questions answered by real, thinking humans. They’re not the fanciest registrar. They don’t offer all the TLDs in the world, their DNS services are limited, they’re not the cheapest. But they are simple and trustworthy. In a business as scammy as domain names it’s nice to buy service from someone decent.

I just had a terrific experience where I asked them why there’s no whois privacy offered on one of the new novelty TLDs. I’d seen a few domains registered there with hidden whois data but Hover wouldn’t do it for me. We went back and forth a few times and he finally explained that the TLD’s policy didn’t allow for whois privacy, but that other registrars might do it anyway and that if I really wanted whois privacy I should use them instead. I appreciated the frank answer.

  2016-04-19 16:30 Z

This description of the Brave browser sounds like an unethical business. Brave markets itself as making a safer and faster Web by blocking ads. I’m all in favor of blocking ads. But Brave also replaces ads with its own and then only gives about half of the revenue to the content publisher. That seems wrong to me.

I don’t like ads. Blocking ads is good: it stops the intrusion into my mind and makes for a technically better Internet experience. Replacing ads is not good. Seeing different ads does not help me keep my mind clear. And substituting one ad server with another does not significantly improve my Internet experience, even if the ad company pinkie-swears its ads are technically better.

But the real problem is that ad replacement is siphoning revenue from content producers. I’m OK with denying content producers revenue entirely, it’s a shame but Internet ads are odious enough in 2016 I think it’s necessary. But a third party interjecting itself to siphon off half the revenue is wrong.

The situation is even uglier with ad blocking extensions. AdBlock Plus skims 30% of ad revenue to let Google, Microsoft, and Amazon ads slip through their blocker. That sounds like pure extortion to me, bad for the ad networks and bad for the end users. A similar racket is developing in mobile ad blockers. These businesses are unethical.

We went through an era in the 2000s with ISPs and DNS services injecting their own ads into web pages. They claimed for a year or two it was OK and better for users, until legal action (and SSL) stopped them. Let’s not reproduce that experience with software vendors.

  2016-04-09 16:22 Z

Just got back from vacation in Hawaiʻi. Last time was the Big Island, this time was Maui and Oʻahu. Here’s some photos and tweets.

Maui is rural and full of natural beauty but with some upscale tourist hotels as well. We stayed down in Wailea which has nice resorts, restaurants, and beaches. We also drove all over. The famous Road to Hana made much better with this audio guide, although I regret not planning more time to stop and go swimming in the waterfall pools. Also Lāhainā which is interesting for its 19th century history. The helicopter tour of Molokaʻi was also phenomenal.

Oʻahu is much more urban. The North Shore has some nature but we never left Honolulu. Waikiki is remarkably convenient for a simple carless visit, I totally understand why people go just there for short vacations, but then Hawaiʻi has so much more to offer than one tourist mall! One highlight of Oʻahu was the Heart of the USS Missouri tour at Pearl Harbor, crawling around the engineering rooms of a 1940s battleship. The other was the Bishop Museum’s phenomenal collection of Hawaiian cultural artifacts, made more special by visiting with a friend who is an anthropology professor. We’re not really relax-on-the-beach tourists so it was nice to have some more organized activities in Honolulu.

We are food tourists though! Got some great advice from folks. On Maui my favorite meals were at Monkeypod and Mama’s Fish House. Spago was also very good although not particularly Hawaiian. On Oʻahu the most interesting local meals we had were at The Pig and the Lady and Mud Hen Water. We also really enjoyed Hy’s for wood-fired steaks and La Mer offers an excellent fine French dining meal.

  2016-03-07 22:19 Z

As a white American I feel a strong sense of guilt and responsibility for the injustices African Americans still suffer today. Not abstract collective responsibility: concrete, personal. But first the abstract. America was built on slave labor. The legacy of that slavery is deprivation for many black families even now, seven generations after emancipation. Moral white Americans have an obligation to help undo the harm America’s original sin has done to our fellow countrymen and our country.

But that’s abstract, and I keep thinking of the personal. Of my white Texas family’s history. I know they were racist, but just how bad were they? Were they slave owners? Lynchers?

The particular cruelty in my family’s history I’d like to understand better is the murder by lynching of Ted Smith in Greenville Texas on July 28, 1908. I know the date because there’s a souvenir postcard (warning; image of burned dead man). White people in the early 1900s were so proud of lynching black men there were frequently postcards.

My great-grandparents lived in Greenville in 1908. White people, town folks, he was an educated professional. Was he at the lynching? Did he approve? Are they in the crowd in that postcard? I got thinking about these questions after reading an article about the lynching of Leo Frank in Georgia. They made souvenir postcards too. One thing the article notes is that in 2000, someone made a list of some of the lynching participants. I wonder if such a list could be made for Greenville? Would my great grandparents be on it?

The motto of Greenville, TX was The Blackest Land, the Whitest People. They displayed that proudly on a banner over the center of town through the 1960s. These are my people.

  2016-01-23 16:10 Z

The Economist infected readers with malware. The vector? PageFair, a technology for web publishers for circumventing ad blockers. The payload was a remote access tool. Goodbye bank accounts!

This is outrageous. I install software on my computer to block ads, a clear statement of user preference. The Economist colludes with PageFair to ignore my choice, to run software on my computer that I explicitly don’t want. That software they run turns out to be installing malware.

The folks who write things like PageFair need to be sued into oblivion. Not just the company; stop the people who built this abusive technology from ever creating software again.

  2015-11-07 18:35 Z