Google search is overwhelmed with spam these days. Back in January I switched to Kagi and have been happy with it. It’s not free but there’s a limited trial to check it out. I pay $10/mo for unlimited access. Turns out I do about 50 searches a day.

I’m unclear on how Kagi works or why it’s better than Google. It seems to be returning more quality results and less SEO-churn old-but-look-new pages. I see some AI-padded content on the results at times but mostly better stuff. I assume under the hood it’s mostly Bing. Whatever they’re doing works for me, a bit of a surprise since the similar DuckDuckGo has never succeeded for me.

Kagi is ad-free. It has some interesting advanced features but I don’t use them often. Honestly most of my queries are navigational. Kagi does have a new sidebar LLM feature where it generates a synthetic answer with references, much like Bing, sometimes I find that useful.

My biggest annoyance is Kagi’s local and maps search is nowhere near as good as Google. It’s Apple Maps; their cartography is good these days but they don’t have the local search data with user reviews. Also Kagi doesn’t work in incognito mode because I’m not logged in. They have a workaround for it but then you lose anonymity.

I have a feeling I’m going to be changing search engines several times in the next few years. It’s a shame Neeva didn’t make it, I feel like now is the best time ever for serious search competition. I’m grateful Bing is still viable. And maybe Google will finally get its act together.

  2024-05-13 16:00 Z

Restic is good backup software. It’s a command line tool for backing up filesystems to various local and remote options. It is well documented, easy to set up, secure, and quite fast. It’s a very professional product. I am now backing up all my Linux systems with it. Note it’s a sysadmin tool; I don’t think there’s a friendly consumer GUI.

The underlying data model is its genius. Backups are stored in a repository, some complex hash-index blob store that I don’t understand at all. But it seems able to quickly store blocks of data and de-duplicate them so incremental backups are efficient. It’s encrypted and the blobs in the repository are stored in a simple filesystem. That makes it easy and safe to backup to all sorts of places including untrusted remote stores. I’m doing remote backups to BackBlaze’s S3-like filesystem for about $1/month.

The repo format means you need a working copy of restic to restore your files. I’m OK with that, it’s open source. And the tool is great. It has options for bulk restore, individual file restore, interactive restore via a FUSE filesystem. Also a check command you can use to verify subsets of the backup on your own schedule.

The basic command line tool is good but limited. I’m using resticprofile as a frontend. You set up a single config file and it takes care of running restic for you, even scheduling itself in cron. It’s a bit idiosyncratic but seems to work fine once set up. backrest is another frontend, I haven’t tried it.

Shout out to rsnapshot, I’ve been backing up with it for 18 years now. Time for something new. rsnapshot is pretty slow on lots of little files and remote backups were awkward. Years ago I said 5 minutes to do an incremental backup of 165GB was good; that takes more like 5 seconds in Restic now.

  2024-02-05 21:44 Z

Proxmox is good software for a home datacenter. It’s an OS you install on server hardware that lets you easily run multiple virtual machines and LXC containers. It also manages disk storage and has some more complex support for high availability in a cluster, distributed storage via Ceph, etc. But even with a single small server running a single VM Proxmox offers advantages.

my home server

I’ve had a Linux server in my home for 20+ years now. Every few years I have to rebuild it, often from the ashes of failed hardware, and it’s always a tedious manual process. Now my server is truly virtualized, a nice tidy KVM/QEMU virtual machine with a disk I can snapshot and back up. And migrate an exact copy to new hardware in minutes.

Right now I’m mostly running my stuff in one big VM under Proxmox that I migrated from the old server. But I’m slowly moving services to separate VMs and LXC containers. So now my SMB server for Sonos lives in one container, and my Plex server in another, and my Unifi router manager in a third. All running isolated from each other. This feels tidier, more manageable.

Proxmox does a lot of nice things for home-scale servers. It handles ZFS for filesystems, including snapshots and backups. It has a nice web GUI for managing things, even graphical consoles where needed. And I like how it supports both VMs and containers as a first class things. There’s other ways to manage guest systems, like Docker (containers only) or VMware ESXi (proprietary, VMs only). Proxmox feels the right scale for me. I’ve spent about a month tinkering with it and like the software quite a bit. It’s usable, well documented, and seems well designed.

  2024-01-18 19:51 Z

Interesting NPR segment today: A powerful eruption on the sun disrupted radio signals on earth. What’s remarkable is it’s a PhD candidate talking to an NPR host about solar flares, completely in two Southern Black accents. Two women, at that.

I am dismayed at my own involuntary racist reaction to these voices. I do not expect educated people to speak this kind of English. A crystal clear example of my prejudice. I know and respect Ayesha Rascoe’s work on NPR. India Jackson is a PhD candidate and clearly a domain expert. The segment is good, detailed at the right level for the NPR audience. But I hear the accent and my knee-jerk reaction is negative. In my defense I was raised to be like this and I am trying to be better.

My favorite moment is about 2 minutes in, discussing the threats to humanity from a solar flare:

RASCOE: Do we have any way to prevent that?
RASCOE: No, no.
JACKSON: No, no, no.
RASCOE: That’s not…
JACKSON: We cannot…
RASCOE: We don’t want to hear that, India.
JACKSON: We cannot prevent the sun from doing what she goin’ to do.

The way she delivers that last line, stretches “sun” to two syllables with an intense diphthong. It’s delightful! And effective. She’s discussing a complex topic in astrophysics and the frightening threats it poses to humanity. But then she uses a vernacular phrasing, “doing what she goin’ to do”, to highlight our impotence. She makes the topic relatable, almost friendly, a perfect tone for an NPR’s more casual weekend programming.

I hate this prejudice in me, that certain kinds of accents read as ignorant. I know I’m not alone in having it. I am glad this NPR segment challenged me.

  2023-12-17 21:33 Z

The Trump campaign and his braintrust have been very clear and open about their planning for a second presidency, mostly under the umbrella of Project 2025. There’s been a lot of good journalism about it. Some examples:

None of these articles are speculation or alarmist inflation. They are direct reporting of what they themselves are saying they plan to do. Not only does the Trump camp feel free to be so open in their extremism, they see it as an election asset.

  2023-11-11 22:19 Z

I am no longer talking to politicians. I have been aggressively filtering my email, a constant battle. Now I will no longer accept their calls. Unfortunately my home phone number is ruined. Between scams and politicians I never answer my phone unless I recognize the caller ID.

I’m an active political donor, particularly for US Congress. But once you get seen as a mark who is willing to give $$$$ to a candidate, you get a lot of personal communications. Congresspeople call me several times a month. The email is overwhelming. I do not want to talk to people who pretend to be my friend for two minutes and then ask me for $3300.

The worst are the few politicians who’ve succeeded in making a connection with me. They’re personal on the phone, they took good notes, it feels like we have a conversation. But of course it’s all in service to their fundraising campaigns. They’re just good at pretending a polite social connection.

I’ve protected myself from spam by withholding my email address and phone number. But I started too late, that data is already out and widely shared. Candidates buy this information and abuse me. It’s mild corruption but worse it’s obnoxious. I am done with it.

I might still donate based on my own research. Toying with the idea of not donating to anyone who spams me too much.

Bonus: NGP VAN, the company that enables a lot of Democratic Party spam, is collapsing. Ever since Apax Partners bought them they’ve been laying off people and their meagre services are deteriorating. This is terrible for the Democrats, they don’t have a good alternative. It may make the spam problem worse too.

  2023-11-01 15:40 Z

I just finished an extraordinary late-70s TV show, The Sandbaggers. It’s British spy TV. While the show name-checks James Bond frequently the soul of it is more of a Le Carré thing. Intelligence as a series of dismal political battles between underpaid civil servants at the home office. Occasional forays into the field where everything is squalid or ambiguous and nothing grand is ever achieved.

The show hangs on Roy Marsden’s performance as Burnside, the Director of Operations at a British intelligence agency. The titular Sandbaggers are field agents, vaguely like the Bond 00 agents, but there’s never any swashbuckling action or romance. Occasional gritty affairs and some grim minor violence, all done on a low budget and with precious few location shots. If you ever enjoyed Blake's 7 or early Doctor Who the low production values will be familiar. So will the excellent quality of the writing and characters, there’s a lot of complexity and subtlety and more than a few surprises.

Mostly the show has aged well. It’s firmly set in late Cold War, there’s no hint of the extraordinary transition that happens in the 80s as the Soviet Union fell apart. Unfortunately the show is unimaginatively sexist with a lot of “men hitting on women in the workplace” nonsense. There’s one good female character in part of the show and Burnside’s secretaries are both good actresses with some sharp writing. But it feels dated even for its time.

I appreciated watching something at a slower and more thoughtful pace. I think the show is ripe for a reboot. Keep it set in the Cold War with roughly the same stories. But update the show: write better women and modernize the production. Then branch out and tell some new stories in Asia or South America or Africa.

You can watch a licensed copy in the US on britbox.

  2023-10-25 14:07 Z

We recently took the Transcantábrico, a week long luxury train trip across Northern Spain. It was great! Like a cruise but on a train. We did something similar in India in 2015 and it’s an interesting way to travel. Some photos here.

The Transcantábrico goes across a part of Spain a little off the usual tourist track. From Santiago de Compostela through the mountains south of the coast to Donostia / San Sebastián. Along the way we saw towns I never would have gone to on my own: Gijón, Potes, and Santillana del Mar were particularly memorable. Also some beautiful nature including Cathedral beach in Gallegos and Hermida Gorge in the Picos de Europa. The excursions from the train were well organized with a very nice bus and guides.

The hospitality on the train was terrific. Our “cruise director” Cristina was particularly amazing, friendly and knowledgeable. All the staff were great and very accommodating. Maybe 12 people helping 25 guests. Meals on the train were excellent and comfortable. Most days breakfast and dinner were on the train, lunch was out. The restaurants were all high quality but variable and honestly just too much food. The highlight was El Corral del Indianu.

Living on a train has its limitations. The private shower was very nice with lots of hot water but you’re still washing in a telephone booth. The queen size bed was comfortable but in a very tight space, we wished we’d booked two single beds. And getting around the train was difficult (you have to move sideways in the corridor), particularly when the train was moving. After a week I was ready to be back in a normal hotel. OTOH it was beautifully furnished and it was great being unpacked and taken care of so well.

I’d definitely do another luxury train. But maybe fewer days. The key thing is the itinerary, the places to go. That was amazing in India, a week long trip from Delhi to Mumbai. Spain was beautiful and I appreciated going slowly through a place off the beaten track with knowledgeable local guidance. Rewarding trip!

PS: if you want to see more, Mighty Trains S04E02 is about the Transcantábrico.

  2023-10-22 17:16 Z

Do you have an overhead rain shower? Does it drip cold water on you when you’re not using it? It may be water trapped in the pipes. A plunger will temporarily fix it.

We have a fancy shower with an overhead rain shower and a ordinary wall sprayer both controlled by the same thermostatic valve. There’s a diverter to control which head gets the water. Every time we used the sprayer the overhead would drip a tiny bit of cold water on us. Annoying!

We assumed it was a leaky diverter valve, had it replaced. Didn’t help. There’s a zillion websites wanting to sell you plumbing parts that suggest a valve is the problem. But this discussion explained the real culprit.

There’s water trapped in the pipe leading to the overhead shower. Weirdly there’s some water above the tiny holes in the showerhead, held there by air pressure. Running a hot shower in the same area changes the air pressure / flow enough that a little cold water manages to leak out.

You can test this theory by running your finger over the holes in the overhead showerhead; for me that was enough to express 10mL of water or so. To really get the water out I took a plunger to the shower head. No tight seal needed, just want to force air in and water out. I think I got 200+mL out that way.

It’s a temporary fix, next time I use the overhead the pipe will fill again. I wonder if someone sells a showerhead with some sort of permanent fix? A release valve would work but be fiddly.

  2023-09-22 16:20 Z

Obsidian is good software for taking and organizing notes. There are many apps for this task, Obsidian is my current favorite. In the past I’ve used a text file, SimpleNote, Standard Notes, Joplin. I never used emacs org-mode nor Evernote. Obsidian works reliably and is simple yet powerful.

The core Obsidian data model is “a folder of markdown files”. That’s it, really basic, and the files are easily usable as ordinary files. There’s natural support for links between notes. There’s also a metadata option I don’t use. I appreciate it’s easy to move files in and out of Obsidian.

But where Obsidian really shines is the plugin ecosystem. I don’t actually use many plugins, just HTML export and system tray. But I appreciate the power. If you check the reddit you’ll find an enthusiast community that does a lot more complicated stuff, turning their Obsidian archives into 1000+ article infobases. Me, I just write grocery lists and blog posts.

Obsidian is not open source. They’re thoughtful about why not. (Logseq is a popular open source alternative). The core product is free and works great. I am paying $96 per year for syncing. It’s pricy but it works well and I want to support the company. You can do your own free sync but none work as easily.

I want to give a shout-out here to Simplenote, an excellent and venerable free product. And after a brief lull development started again in 2020. Kudos to Matt and Automattic for supporting that tool. I like Obsidian’s fanciness but Simplenote is pretty great.

  2023-09-12 17:28 Z