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.

techgood
  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.

techgood
  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.

techgood
  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.

techgood
  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.

techgood
  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.

techgood
  2013-10-20 14:15 Z

Rapportive is a good web service. It’s a browser extension for Gmail that puts information about correspondents in a sidebar. Here’s an example screenshot. It shows Tim’s face, his location, his jobs, and details from social media like Twitter, Facebook, etc.

The UI is quite nice, the way it sits next to my email without calling attention to itself. I regularly find helpful context on random people in my mailbox. The data mining is pretty good, I suspect they’re leaning heavily on LinkedIn for location, titles, etc. Gmail is the current application but the profiles they’re building on people could have enormous value in a variety of contexts.

Apparently I’m late to the party; they got all their press in 2010 and were bought by LinkedIn last year. Not sure why I hadn’t heard of it before. It’s a bit uncomfortable how deeply it links into Gmail, but it’s useful enough I’m giving it a try.

techgood
  2013-06-25 16:13 Z

A Twitter chat with Mark Fletcher reminds me that after years of trying, I finally have computer backups entirely sorted out. How’s your backup plan? Hard drives fail. And you need offsite backups too. Bad enough to contemplate your house burning down, but what if you lost all your data too?

For local backup, Time Machine is amazing for Macs. I back up to an external 2.5” USB drive. The 2.5” part is important because it’s fully USB powered, no need for a power adapter. For my Linux box I use rsnapshot. I don’t have a recommendation for Windows.

For remote backup, I am really happy with CrashPlan. There are many online backup products and most of them are bad. CrashPlan is good. It’s easy to configure, it’s very gentle on CPU and bandwidth, and they have lots of good restore options. Plenty of advanced features too; serious encryption, seeding by shipping a drive, even a free social backup. The Linux client is a little wonky but the consumer Mac client is fantastic. The price is reasonable, starting at $18/year.

The one hurdle I’m still overcoming is what to back up. I still have more data than is reasonable to back up, particularly offline, so I have these backup sets that exclude ripped DVDs or whatever. Increasingly I’m thinking that’s a dangerous optimization and that I should just back up everything and stop worrying about it.

Update: if you look around you can get a 10% discount on CrashPlan, as via this link.
techgood
  2012-07-30 15:28 Z

Plex is good software. It’s a media player that makes it easy to play downloaded video on a TV. The mainstream market does not provide reasonable solutions for playing Internet video like Indie Game: The Movie. Plex fills the void nicely. There’s a bunch of competing media center apps; what’s important is the user interface, the remote, and the ease of playing video in any format. Plex is the best of the lot I’ve tried. Here’s a video demo of something like my setup.

My player is a jailbroken AppleTV 2 with Plex. I haven’t kept up with the current jailbreak scene, but Seas0nPass at Firecore is a good place to start. I think there’s no jailbreak for the new AppleTV 3 yet, so this may be a bad time to be buying the hardware. There’s other AV hardware that runs Plex, and there are also Plex clients on desktop computers and iPads.

My remote is a URC. The device is clunky but we already had it and the actual control part is rock solid. The AppleTV 2 remote is infrared only (dumb!), the URC is radio. Another option is to use an iPhone to control the AppleTV via WiFi.

My server is Plex Media Server running on a Linux box with my video files. The Plex server transcodes while playing so you can play back pretty much any video format without having to convert ahead of time. I used to think transcoding on the player itself was better (a la Boxee), but I’ve come around.

We’ve had 10 years of Internet video and there’s still no good consumer way to play downloads on a TV. You’d think the convergence would have happened by now. Instead the best mainstream option is still Tivo, a device that gets worse with every revision. In the meantime Netflix and Amazon are doing a complete end run around the mainstream market. I wish it would all just come together already.

techgood
  2012-06-20 16:23 Z
Canon has a new version of their geek oriented point-and-shoot camera, the Canon PowerShot S100. My S90 essentially replaced my DSLR for walking around. The S100 is great; see this review. The cool new feature in the S100 is a built-in GPS for geotagging photos. I've tried to map my photos for years but without GPS in the camera it's been a hassle. Here's some notes on how the S100 GPS works.

The GPS antenna is in the top of the camera, above the lens. It's GPS only, no cell or wifi location, so it needs a view of the sky and won't work inside. There's three software GPS modes: entirely off, on when taking photos, or GPS tracking even when the camera is off. A warm start seems to find a position fix in 5–40 seconds. GPS location is written into EXIF tags in the photo and both Lightroom and Flickr understand the GPS format perfectly. There's no dedicated camera display of GPS data although you can see photos' locations in the viewer.

Digging deeper, exiv2 identifies 12 GPS tags in the JPEG and CR2 photo files. GPSVersionID is 2.3.0.0, there's lat/lon, altitude MSL (geoid corrected), timestamp, and minimal GPS status. Unfortunately location accuracy doesn't seem to be logged in the EXIF.

The GPS tracker is a nice bonus feature, I could see it being useful to document a photoshoot (although one wonders about battery life). Tracks are in standard NMEA format as a text file on the SD card. One fix is logged every 65-90 seconds. Each fix is logged both as GPGGA and GPRMC, basic position data. GPGGA includes HDOP and number of satellites and GPRMC includes speed and track. Note that as documented, the camera won't write GPS tracks to an Eye-Fi card but a standard SD card is no problem. Here's a sample log of me walking to lunch, see it mapped here. The track the S100 recorded is roughly accurate but missed logging my actual destination; compare to my AMOD dedicated tracker for the same walk. I'm pleased the S100 was able to log even when in my leather camera case on my belt.

The S100's GPS is a great addition to a great camera. It's not going to replace a serious GPS for navigation or technical measurements. But it's good enough for photos and terrific at making it easy to remember where you took your outdoor pictures.

Update: after a recent tourist trip to France I'm a little less excited about the GPS. It doesn't acquire position very quickly if you mostly keep the camera off, particularly for the first photos of the day. About 40% of my photos ended up without GPS coordinates logged, and that was after I was conscientious to stand around a minute or two letting the thing find position.
techgood
  2012-03-20 22:40 Z