Astound is a good ISP. I started getting Internet from them a few months ago, upgrading from a $50 6Mbps DSL link to a $70 100Mbps cable link. And it’s like I can see through time. The difference in usability is astonishing. Equally importantly, Astound has been entirely reliable and trouble-free.

The key thing is Astound is not Comcast. Comcast is an evil company with a long history of breaking TCP/IP in various ways that harm customers. Astound just provides pure, sweet, clean bits. Installation requires they bring their own coaxial from the pole to your house. They also offer phone and TV packages. The customer experience is a bit squirrely, I wouldn’t count on them for email hosting or tech support. But the basic Internet service is terrific.

I’d previously been a very happy Sonic DSL customer. They are also a terrific independent ISP with fantastic service. Unfortunately DSL is limited by the technology, the best they could deliver to my house is 12Mbps and that would have been significantly more expensive than Astound. Sonic is now working on fiber-to-the-house, including San Francisco, which should be terrific if they can do it.

We’re very lucky in SF to have a competitive ISP market. We have two DSL providers, two cable providers, and a surprisingly robust fixed wireless provider in MonkeyBrains. Most of the urban US only has two options and large parts of the rural US don’t even have that. The Sonic CEO’s 2011 blog post about broadband duopoly is fantastic background for how we got to have such crummy service in the US.

  2015-01-10 18:33 Z is a good web site. It’s a tool for researching and maintaining family history, genealogy. It’s also a remarkably sophisticated database, data repository, and user interface with a lot of lessons for people who design webapps. I’m particularly fascinated that their target market is older people, your grandma who’s not so good with computers but has gotten interested in family history. But in no way is Ancestry dumbed down.

The web UI is great. The primary view is a visual family tree, a refocusable graph view that’s not much like a web page but works great in the browser. You then click through on a name to get to a person’s profile page that’s more like a normal document view. From there you do extra research, add information, etc.

The facts and sources tab on a person’s profile is my favorite part of Ancestry. They don’t just track a fact like “Born on 29 May 1917”, they also track the source of that fact, like “birth certificate” or “census record”. With a link right to a scan of the source document with the relevant information highlighted. Most people’s genealogy is full of bad data. (No, you’re probably not related to that 16th century king.) Ancestry provides a model for establishing the veracity of the data you record. Crowdsourced databases like OpenStreetMap and Wikipedia would benefit from more explicit attribution.

Ancestry is particularly useful because they have a fantastic collection of American genealogical records. The census records are the ones I use most frequently. Meticulously transcribed images of 100+ year old handwritten pages, completely searchable on fields like name, address, age, etc. They’ve collected all sorts of other data too: immigration records, social registers, railroad payrolls.. All this diverse hand written data, presented in a uniform computer search interface. They even proactively find hints for your family members for you to review and add to your data.

The app has some problems. Most of their data collections are only useful for researching Americans. Grassroots genealogists complain about Ancestry being too commercial and proprietary (see GEDCOM). Some people snark about the site being so grounded in Mormonism, although that criticism seems unfair to me. I’ve enjoyed doing a bit of family research in Ancestry. Mostly I’m impressed with the usability of the web app given how complex the data is.

  2015-01-04 18:08 Z

IETF has an interesting new working group: TCPINC. “TCP extensions to provide unauthenticated encryption and integrity protection of TCP streams”. Practically what this means is “make it harder for third parties to eavesdrop on your Internet traffic”.

In theory IPsec was going to solve this problem for the Internet, but it is a failed technology. Right now the best we have is HTTPS for some websites. But wrapping every network protocol in an SSL layer is stupid, why not just encrypt the network? TCPINC is making a lot of compromises. “Unauthenticated” means they are punting on the harder half of the crypto problem and will leave users vulnerable to man in the middle attacks. It’s TCP only, and has to be NAT-compatible at that, so it won’t be a complete clean solution. But compared to the status quo of a lot of traffic not being encrypted at all, it’s a good choice. Making it a TCP extension should mean it can be deployed incrementally without a lot of pain.

There’s a few related draft specs already, such as draft-bittau-tcpinc-tcpcrypt-00.txt. has more info as well. The mailing list archives go back to March 2014. The IAB just came out with a statement in favor of encryption, which is nice support.

  2014-11-15 19:50 Z

Screenflick is good software. It captures full video with sound from your Mac desktop, full screen or a portion. I’m using it to record games I play. Could have all sorts of applications.

There’s a variety of screen capture options on the Mac from the free recorder included in Quicktime to the market leader ScreenFlow for $99. Screenflick’s only $29 and is very good at capture, including keystrokes, mouse events, and audio via Soundflower. I also appreciate its ability to downsample the raw video when recording. It also has an impressive variety of export options.

The big drawback is that Screenflick has no editor, not even a simple interface for cropping out sections of video. My theory is that’s what iMovie is for. But folks I know who produce a lot of screencasts appreciate that ScreenFlow is an integrated solution.

  2014-05-19 20:39 Z

Unison is good software. It’s a command line program to synchronize filesystems, to keep a directory tree identical on multiple computers. I use it to sync about 40G of files across two Macs, to keep my home directory and source code and various applications in sync. The neat trick is I sync those two Macs through a portable hard drive so I don’t have to wait for hours for files to go over the Internet. Unison can also work online so changes are propagated automatically.

Unison is a lot like rsync. But Unison is designed to be bidirectional. Rsync always syncs one way: copy A to B. Unison will look at the differences between A and B and merge them, including a limited UI for conflict resolution. This protects me from the case where I modify something on both machines without syncing beforehand.

The main drawback with Unison is it’s slow, it takes many minutes to decide what files to sync. I also hate the interactive UI; it doesn’t work well when you have lots of files that changed in both places. I’m also a bit concerned that it’s no longer under active development but Unison is the rare software that’s a complete product, it’s not clear it needs many changes.

There are other tools solving similar file sync problems, none perfect. Dropbox is phenomenal but doesn’t have offline syncing of large files. Camlistore is promising but not quite ready for civilian use. git can be used to keep stuff in sync but is better suited for text files whose history you want to keepl. And CrashPlan is great for online backup but doesn’t really provide a second live copy.

  2014-04-07 16:32 Z
Gfycat (and CloudFlare) has a fantastic error page for when they have a server error.
Such a clear, simple statement of what the error is and what the user can do. One of my pet peeves is software that blames the user when it's not their fault, like the "your Internet is down" message Steam displays when their client can't connect to their server. This kind of message is much more honest and useful.

BTW, Gfycat is an awesome service. They host animated GIFs for sharing. And they transcode the bloated source GIF to much smaller HTML 5 video, then serve the smaller file to browsers who can handle it. The hosting is good, the 95% bandwidth savings is great.

  2014-04-01 15:56 Z

I love the Clear Dark Sky Chart, a geeky little astronomer’s forecast. Also CSC Menu which puts it on a Mac OS menu bar. Here’s a sample image.

Above is the forecast for near Grass Valley, CA for the next two days. Time goes from left to right, each row is for a different sky condition: cloud cover, transparency, seeing, and darkness. Also the temperature, humidity, and wind for your backyard comfort. See the legend for details, but basically dark blue is good. Once you learn to read this presentation you can quickly tell if it’s likely to be a good night to look at stars in thousands of locations. Looks like it'll be clear but relatively poor tonight.

These charts are derived from a more traditional map forecast prepared by the Canadian Meteorological Center. Their site shows you maps of things like cloud cover by the hour. The Clear Dark Sky site basically samples the pixels at a specific location and displays the time series as a strip chart. Simple and useful. The mysterious seeing forecast is particularly idiosyncratic to astronomy, an experimental forecast of how bad atmospheric distortion is likely to be.

  2014-02-21 23:17 Z

YouTube Center is good software. It’s an unofficial browser extension to make YouTube work better. Works in most browsers; for Chrome you download the Opera .crx file and drag it into the Tools/Extensions page.

What does it fix? #1 thing is it lets you disable DASH playback, the nonsense YouTube implemented a couple of years ago. In theory DASH makes videos play faster and more efficiently; in practice it’s the crap that makes it impossible to pre-buffer a video or seek backwards while playing. YouTube Center also does a good job at resizing the video window to use more of the screen, so that a 720p video actually has a 720 row high window to play in. I also use it to prevent auto-play and to select the video resolution I prefer.

The main drawback is that there are too many configuration options, many of which you don’t need. Classic hackerware; the author lets you configure everything, so it’s up to the user to tune the few things they really need to set.

I’ve used a few “fix YouTube” extensions in the past that were flaky or broke when YouTube changed something. This one seems to be working for me. I don’t understand why Google’s let their video product get so crummy that it’s necessary to hack it like this.

  2013-11-30 15:42 Z

The Elgato Game Capture HD is good hardware. For $150 it captures HDMI video and audio from a game console and writes it to your computer’s hard drive. I bought it because Grand Theft Auto V was so astonishly beautiful I wanted to capture some of what I was seeing. There’s nothing particularly game-specific about the product, I think it’d work to record any unprotected video source.

The device is an HDMI passthrough. HDMI in, HDMI passed through (no delay), video also compressed and sent via USB to a computer with (few seconds delay). The native output format is an MP4 container with H.264 video and AAC stereo audio. The capture software is remarkably good; simple capture controls and live streaming to sites like Twitch. There’s even an easy little editor for extracting excerpts and uploading to YouTube or whatever.

There are a few drawbacks. The device doesn’t seem to support surround sound and only allows stereo input, so no surround sound is possible via HDMI. Also it has to be powered even to pass through video. Between those two hassles I don’t feel like I can leave my game console plugged into it all the time, so instead I’m swapping cables when I want to use it. Also it can’t quite do 1080p at 60fps, not a problem quite yet but soon to be one.

Still for $150 it’s a pretty capable video encoder. If you need a cheap way to capture HDMI, it’s worth a look.

  2013-11-12 01:10 Z

Every time I travel I refresh my apps designed to be used when the iPhone is offline. These apps all cache data so I can use Wikipedia or a map without a WiFi or cellular connection. I started doing this because international roaming data was so expensive but the apps are now good enough that I think I will use them even when I’m home. Cached data = fast! Here’s the best of the lot, I believe all these apps are available both for iOS and Android.

ForeverMap 2: OpenStreetMap. Download a few hundred megabytes and have a map of a whole country in your pocket. Routing too! Map data quality varies based on OSM coverage (it’s great in US and most of Western Europe). The rendering and usability of the app is fantastic. They also have a turn based navigation program I haven’t tried. I’m amazed Apple hasn’t yet bought Skobbler to help fix their maps problem.

Wiki Offline: Wikipedia. Download 4GB of English Wikipedia once, read forever. The formatting is finally good enough that most articles come through unscathed. Only thing missing is the pictures. Being able to wikidive without waiting for network is terrific.

Triposo: travel guides. Triposo scrapes open data sources like Wikipedia, Wikitravel, OSM, and Flickr and then compiles it into a usable offline travel guide on your phone. It’s great for answering the question “what are the three things I should see in this town, and where should I have lunch?”.

Ascendo dictionaries. There's a zillion low quality free translation dictionaries out there, this one seemed to have a decent German database and work well offline.

  2013-10-20 14:15 Z