The Internet is at a dangerous inflection point. Facebook Connect is quickly creating a monopoly on identity. Sites are increasingly requiring Facebook logins now: Techcrunch comments and early access are two examples. And many more sites like TripAdvisor now promote Facebook over their own logins.

As a user the Facebook Connect experience is great. I see a familiar blue button, I click it, and I'm done. No creating an account, no coming up with a new username and password, no entering specific data. And it's not just a login, many Facebook integrated sites give me a better experience with access to my Facebook social network. For site owners the advantage of Facebook connect is clear: good user experience, less code to manage, and access to Facebook data.

The problem is that Facebook is creating a monopoly. That's a huge risk to every other company on the Internet. It's bad for users too, we're losing the ability to use pseudonyms online. And while Facebook's technical execution is excellent the company has demonstrated over and over again its willigness to act unethically towards their users. We don't want them controlling user identity.

There is a terrific technical alternative to Facebook Connect: OpenID. The tech works well and it's open, letting users and companies choose their identity provider. But despite some four years' headstart it's never succeeded in being adopted widely like Facebook Connect has. And while I like competing login systems like Sign in with Twitter, identity is too important on the Internet to let any proprietary solution dominate. Our ecosystem needs a productive open standard. I still think OpenID is sufficient, but I'm in a dwindling minority.

  2011-06-13 16:45 Z
I'm at my Reed College reunion, reconnecting with old friends. We're all about 35 – 40. I've noticed there's a real difference in my conversations depending on whether we're connected via Facebook and Twitter or not. I post a lot online: folks who follow me already know I live in San Francisco, that I'm a pilot, that I was in Slovakia last year. It's a great place to start.

Before the Internet we had casual social information sharing. Christmas letters, alumni class notes, outright gossip. But online social networks make it way easier and more fulfilling, you can learn as little or as much about someone as you want.

The best thing has been meeting someone I haven't talked to in fifteen years, finding we have a lot in common, then making a point of finding them online while standing there with them. So we can stay in touch. Social media really works to keep a community together.

  2011-06-11 17:37 Z
Apparently it's news to almost every web developer out there, but in the real world people's names have spaces in them. My name is "Nelson Minar". It is not "Nelson_Minar" or "NelsonMinar" or "NelsonM" or "Nelson397" or any of the other nonsense I have to use to work with some website who's decided to constrain names to some 1980s software-friendly character subset.

The hardest part of signing up for a new site these days is picking a unique user name. It's annoying to have to remember different names. And it's really obnoxious when my janked up UserName is also used as my display name. The right way to do logins right now on the Web is use email address as the login name and let the user choose their own display name which does not need to be unique. That's not ideal (email addresses can change) but it works pretty well. If you absolutely have to not use email as the login name, please at least let my login name have a space in it.

While I'm delivering the news, here's something for you ignorant American backwoods motherfuckers. Some people's names have "special characters" in them. Like François Rabelais or Björk Guðmundsdóttir or 艾未未. It's 2011; the only software that can't handle Unicode properly is Perl. (As if you needed another reason not to use Perl.) Stop limiting your code; there are only two languages that can even be written in ASCII.

  2011-06-08 14:31 Z
A big motivation for my Wind History map project was building a tech demo showing off dynamic SVG generation. I'm pretty proud of the implementation: it's 100% static files, no active server code at all. The whole thing is two 3k HTML pages, 20k of custom Javascript, and 24mb of JSON data. All the hard work is done by Mike Bostock's brilliant Polymaps and D3 Javascript libraries. Here's some details.

I'm most proud of the map view, wind roses on top of a slippy map of OpenStreetMap tiles. I originally loaded pre-generated images on top of the base map but each PNG was some 2kb and that's a lot of HTTP requests. Each station only needs 12 bytes of data, so I rewrote the site to render the diagrams in Javascript in the browser all driven by a single 200k JSON database. It's a very cool technique and works great.

Naïvely drawing 2500 SVG diagrams on the map is slow and cluttered. Mike came to my rescue and wrote a tiler for me so that I only render SVG when the location is visible. I also replaced the wind roses with simple circles when zoomed out too far. It'd be better to declutter by only drawing the most important weather stations at high zoom levels; I fear many people never realize they can zoom in on the map.

The station page is equally important, a detailed wind diagram for every location. It's pretty aggressively Javascripted, I have a single template HTML page that gets filled with JSON data. I really like this client-heavy development style, it's very productive and scalable. The drawback is my site is largely invisible to search engines. I'll probably go back and pre-generate station HTML for all the pages just to cater to Googlebot.

The station page is pretty simple: I had to cut a lot of planned features to meet my deadline. I've got code in development for filtering by month with animated transitions to show winds shifting over a year. Also plans for fancier histograms of wind speed, more airport data, etc. Lots to do here still, will be fun.

I'm really excited by the ability to build complex visualizations entirely in Javascript. Browsers are really capable software hosts now. Between SVG, Canvas, and WebGL we have three beautiful rendering options. It was particularly liberating to decide not to care about MSIE before 9.0; what a terrible tax Microsoft has placed on developers.

  2011-06-08 00:49 Z
I've just launched a project I've been working on for awhile, Check out the prevailing winds in California or see how strong the northeast winds are in Honololu.
One goal of the project is to help pilots understand typical winds at their airports. It's also a neat demo of what modern web development technology can do. I'm particularly proud that the wind rose diagrams in the map are rendered entirely client side in SVG from a single 200k data file. More tech details in a followup blog post.
  2011-06-08 00:48 Z
Another Sony hack yielded a database of 1,000,000 plaintext passwords. Why does Sony have plaintext passwords? Because they're idiots and deserve to suffer a civil lawsuit. But Sony's negligence is security researchers' gain: check out this analysis of the password haul. The most astonishing result:
Two thirds of people with accounts at both Sony and Gawker reused their passwords.
Passwords are a broken mechanism of authentication. They are weak, dangerous, and difficult for naïve users to use correctly. It's time to end passwords.
  2011-06-06 22:05 Z
The SF Chronicle has a heartbreaking story about how a married gay couple of 19 years may be split up by US immigration.
Starting June 13, Makk, 48, faces possible deportation if he remains in the country illegally when his current visa expires. If he leaves, he would not be readmitted, the couple would be all but permanently separated and Wells, who has severe health complications from AIDS, would be left without his spouse and sole caregiver.

"We're at the end of our rope," said Wells, 55. "Ever since we met, all we've tried to do is be together. The focal point of our lives, everything we've done, is just so we could be together."

They are legally married (in Massachusetts) but thanks to a federal law passed and signed by the Democrats their marriage has no status for immigration. The Australian in the story isn't even a second class citizen: he's no kind of citizen at all.
  2011-06-05 20:22 Z
Woah: Silk Road is an Internet narcotics market. Visit the market via Tor, pay in Bitcoins, and receive your LSD by mail! The Silk Road web site only exists as a Tor hidden service, but you can sometimes see it (non-anonymously) via this proxy. On the public Internet, here's the founders' feedback thread on Bitcoin's forums.

I'm fascinated by how it works. I'm going to quote their "About" page in full, because I'm guessing it won't be online much longer.

Silk Road is an anonymous marketplace where you can buy and sell without revealing who you are. We protect your identity through every step of the process, from connecting to this site, to purchasing your items, to finally receiving them.

Connecting to the site: Silk Road uses the Tor network to anonymize all traffic to and from the site so no one can find out who we are or who you are from your internet traffic. All traffic is encrypted and relayed through Tor nodes accross the globe, each one not knowing the origin or destination of the traffic. To learn more about the Tor network, visit

Purchasing your items: The currency used to buy stuff on Silk Road is called Bitcoin. Bitcoin uses encryption and a system of peer-to-peer double checking to create a completely digital currency. No personal information is associated with your bitcoins at all, making them ideal for anonymous transactions. Additionally, Silk Road employs a built-in tumbler that mixes all incoming bitcoins through a series of dummy transactions before they ever leave. Click here for instructions on how to get Bitcoins, or visit to learn more.

Delivery: Absolutely none of your personal information is ever required here. However, an address WILL be needed to accept delivery of any physical goods. Even so, it is stored encrypted, and is deleted as soon as your transaction is complete, so there is no record of it. And, because Silk Road is a Tor Hidden Service, the address remains encrypted within the Tor network when it is transfered.

For more details about improving your anonymity and making purchases, please read our buyers guide.

I'm particularly struck by their statement they provide a BitCoin laundering service. I'd noticed BitCoins didn't seem particularly anonymous, here's proof that someone with a vested interest in real payment anonymity agrees.
  2011-06-01 21:15 Z
Twitter just announced a Twitter enhanced Firefox. It lets you type @nelson in the address bar to go to my Twitter account or type #twitter to search for the #twitter hashtag.

You can do this in Google Chrome too.

  1. Click the Wrench icon
  2. Choose Options
  3. Click "Manage search engines"
  4. Scroll to the bottom of the list to add entries
  5. Add a search engine named "Twitter people", Keyword "@", and URL
  6. Add a search engine named "Twitter hashtag", Keyword "#", and URL
Now type @ nelson in the Chrome address bar and voila! You go to my Twitter account. Or type # twitter to see tweets with the twitter hashtag. Note the space is necessary; not sure it's possible to eliminate that.

The steps up above are awfully manual but work fine. There's probably a way to automate this installation in Chrome; I know there's a discovery protocol for websites to automatically add suggested searches.

Another option is the TwitterBounced extension.
  2011-06-01 18:14 Z