I’m using Mastodon regularly now, I’m @nelson@lgbt.io. Add me!

Mastodon is a Twitter-like social media that the cool kids started using back in April. At first blush it’s just like Twitter. You post messages about your breakfast, you follow other people to see their cat pictures, and you get a little dopamine rush from social engagement. Also maybe you share things of personal or public interest and help build an important online culture. The UI isn’t as polished and it doesn’t have as many features as Twitter, but it’s good.

If you want to start using Mastodon this beginner’s guide or the Join Mastodon site are good places to start. The key thing is you have to pick an instance to sign up on. This tool helps find instances or you can just pick the biggest instance. I picked lgbt.io because I like the idea of an LGBT identity.

Once you join you need to find people to follow. The best tool I’ve found for that is the Twitter/Mastodon bridge which helps you find your Twitter friends on Mastodon. It requires both sides opt-in and the UI is a little awkward. I also followed a lot of people from Metafilter.

I don't like the default multi-column web UI. I'm using this one column layout instead but it's not particularly easy to install. Halcyon is an alternate Mastodon web client that is a Twitter UI clone; you can use it with any Mastodon account. For iPhone apps people recommend Amaroq.

So why Mastodon? For me it’s because I’m angry with Twitter’s endorsement of Nazis and want an alternative. Also it’s fun to try something new. The big drawback is very little of my community is there. But maybe it’ll grow! Also it’s good that Mastodon is a different community than Twitter; the goal is to not replicate all the awful community mistakes Twitter made. Hopefully the abusers and Nazis and insane presidents will never join Mastodon or at least will be filtered out somehow.

The big technical difference with Mastodon is it is federated; instead of one single Mastodon server there’s separate instances that communicate with each other. For casual use the federation doesn’t matter since most everyone can talk to everyone else across instances. But in theory it allows for diverse communities with different standards. Also possibly some interesting scaling properties. I’m a little skeptical about how this will work as Mastodon grows, I don’t know that they have any magic solution to Internet abuse. But I’m excited to see someone trying something new.

  2017-11-13 19:21 Z

Grass Valley has a good dark night sky so I’ve been learning about backyard astronomy. I’ve found a few things that seem good, maybe some of these make a good gift idea for a friend of yours. I’m a rank beginner; these gifts are probably not appropriate for someone who already knows what they’re doing. Many of my choices came from recommendations from the Heretic’s Guide.

Most guides recommend beginners start with binoculars. They’re cheap, easy to use, and reveal a lot of detail for the moon, the planets, even deep sky objects like the Pleiades. 10x50 binoculars are the usual recommendation, something like these Celestron binoculars for $33. I bought the zoom version myself and regret it; should have stayed simple. Add a tripod mount and you can see four of Jupiter’s moons.
#1 rule: never buy a telescope from a department store or on Christmas sale. There’s a lot of junk in the market. After a lot of research I just ordered an 8” Dobsonian from Orion, $360 with shipping included. It’s a very simple scope, you’re mostly paying for good optics. See the Heretic’s Guide if you want to learn a lot more about buying scopes. He has good things to say about this $35 scope which could make a nice small gift.
I’ve loved reading Nightwatch; it’s a great and inspiring introduction for backyard stargazing. Turn Left at Orion is also a popular recommendation.
Mobile Software
There’s several amazing augmented reality iOS apps that act like mini-planetariums. You just point the phone at the sky and the screen shows you what’s there. I’ve been using GoSkyWatch which at $4 was a great purchase. Star Walk and SkySafari are also popular.
Desktop Software
It’s not as fun as being outside and looking at stars, but desktop apps are a helpful learning tool. Stellarium is an excellent planetarium for simulating what the sky will look like at a particular place and time on Earth. And Celestia is a fun app that lets you move anywhere in the universe; not so good for stargazing from Earth, but is pretty and instructive. Both programs are free.
  2012-12-05 20:05 Z

Interested in stories about motivated artists and craftsmen who toil for years on their own hoping for commercial success? Indie Game: The Movie is for you. I just watched it and it’s absolutely fantastic. Way better documentary filmmaking than the usual independent movie. And the film elevates the story; it’s not just about a few nerds making hipster games, it’s an intimate look into the lives of some very driven and talented people.

It helps that the filmmakers picked three amazing independent games to cover. Super Meat Boy, Fez, and Braid are all great examples of indie games that benefit from a unique artistic perspective while also being fun to play. I really enjoyed the inside view of what it felt like to work for years on something so personal, the crises of faith, the joy of success. The film rests a little too heavy on the tortured artist narrative, but it was a great reminder to me of the cost of success.

You can buy the movie for a very reasonable $10 from iTunes, Steam, or a direct DRM free purchase (1080p). The video quality is excellent.

  2012-06-15 20:03 Z

Resolved: all software that has user data should use Dropbox for its network transport API. I’m about 3/4 serious. Files are the universal datastore for software and Dropbox solves the problem of distributing files between machines. And they have a developer program to make it easy to add Dropbox to products.

I’ve been using an iPhone GPS app to track my walks. They integrate with sites like RunKeeper to upload my data. But they don’t have a convenient way for me to get the track myself, say to import into Google Earth. I have to email it to myself, then download it out of Gmail. I wish the iOS app would just write the track into Dropbox and let me pick it up as a local file.

Many apps have data that fits the Dropbox sync paradigm. My note taking app, for instance, becomes “cloud enabled” by simply storing the notes file Dropbox. People run their own private (or shared) GitHub by storing their git software repos in Dropbox. Want your music to be accessible wherever you are? No need for a special service like iTunes Match or Spotify; just put your MP3 files in Dropbox.

This idea isn’t new: there’s a lot of Dropbox hacks out there and cool services like the Dropbox Automator. But those are all presented as Dropbox addons. I want to turn that upside down, I want Dropbox to be the addon to a bunch of other products I already use.

I floated this idea on Twitter and got some pushback about how Dropbox wasn’t good enough, or not private enough, or had some other flaw compared to a custom transport protocol. I agree, it’s not perfect. But Dropbox works remarkably well and is a good match for a lot of products today. If you’re building something that needs a way to share data between machines, consider Dropbox for the transport.

Update: several folks pointed out that 1Password uses Dropbox to sync. Also, soon after I published this blog post Dropbox announced automatic photo syncing for Android.
  2012-02-24 18:02 Z
I just organized my entire music collection into well tagged MP3 and M4A files and couldn't be happier; both iTunes and Sonos work better with clean metadata. The majority of my music comes from CDs which I'd ripped over the years. Between the crappy 128kbps MP3 of the earliest rips and the inconsistent metadata I decided to start over with a clean rip from a ripping service. I've also got some stuff bought or downloaded from various sources (mostly Amazon) with varying quality that I had to fit in. 1200 albums in all, 300GB.

A clean rip of the CDs was a great place to begin. I took all my discs to ReadyToPlay, a service down in Palo Alto. They aren't the cheapest (I paid $1.40/disc) but they came well recommended and their website does a good job explaining how they take extra care with metadata. I was really happy with the result of their work and enthusiastically recommend them.

ReadyToPlay's setup is a few robots loading discs into CD-ROM drives with dbPowerAmp doing the ripping and conversion. They ripped to Apple Lossless (m4a); now that Apple has opened the format it seems the best choice. ReadyToPlay licenses high quality metadata from All Music Guide and other sources so album and artist names are much more accurate than I've seen from free sources. They also do some hand editing and data entry as well as careful handling of the CDs and cases. Money well spent.

ReadyToPlay got me started with a metadata schema. Just 18 genres without silly micro classification. Artist vs. Album Artist vs. Composer is a headache, particularly with Classical music, but iTunes mostly does the right thing even if Sonos is a bit confusing. One clever thing ReadyToPlay did was stuff detailed genre info into the Grouping tag, so while Autechre shows up as "Electronic" in the basic Genre I can also find it in iTunes via a search for "Techno" or "IDM" or "Experimental".

I didn't really need to edit any of the ReadyToPlay metadata, it was correct from the start. The other music was more of a mess. I'm surprised at how poorly labelled Bleep and Amazon's early MP3 sales were. It took a few hours to collapse down the genres, fix up mislabeled album titles, and try to figure out what some of these unlabeled BBC Essential Mix tracks really were. But all that work is done and now I've got a great, easy to use music collection.

Anyone want to buy several boxes of used CDs?

  2012-02-04 22:44 Z
I finally left AT&T Wireless. Their service has literally not worked in my house or most of San Francisco for years. The iPhone would display 0–2 bars but over half the time calls and SMS would not go through. And pretty much anywhere I was in the US, calls would drop at random intervals. Web pages wouldn't load reliably, either. It's not just me: AT&T has a nearly 5% dropped call rate, 2–3x worse than the competition. And it's way worse in dense areas like San Francisco or New York.

I finally switched to Verizon after several friends said their iPhones worked better in San Francisco. So far so good. I show 2–3 bars. I can reliably make calls from my house, I can load data over the 3G network, SMS seems to work. A cell phone that can make calls! I just wish I'd taken the leap earlier.

Ookla's speedtest.net app tells me Verizon gives me about 400kbps up and down for data at home. I've seen it go as high as 1500/800 and as low as 200/100 when I have better signal. More importantly the speed test has worked every single time I've run it. I can't even report AT&T speeds because the majority of the time, the test won't complete. Verizon voice quality also seems OK. Definitely has that talking-underwater quality when the signal is bad, but it's intelligible and, more importantly, doesn't drop.

I don't understand how in 2012 AT&T's network is still so bad. San Francisco is an especially challenging environment but you'd think after years of the iPhone monopoly they'd have found a solution. Or at least owned up to the problem. Also confused as to why AT&T's 3G reliability is so bad: my experience was the link would either be great or dead, no graceful degradation.

AT&T's goodbye to me after being a customer for eight+ years was to refuse to unlock my old iPhone 3GS and to refuse to refund a prorated amount for the last month. "Our corporate policy", they said, along with their policy of not providing a working service. Verizon's policy is to unlock after six months. Why did I stick with AT&T so long? Even my first experience with them was terrible. Stockholm syndrome, I guess.

  2012-01-14 21:25 Z
The iPad is a very useful gadget in the cockpit. This guide to iPad hardware and software is for pilots who know more about flying than computers and are looking to add an iPad to their general aviation toolkit. Most of these notes apply to the iPhone too. I will update this blog post periodically as things change. You may also find ForeFlight's iPad Proficiency for Pilots useful.

What does the iPad do? The iPad is a computer with a revolutionary new user interface. It's ideally situated for the cockpit: easy to use one handed, even balanced on your knee. There's a variety of excellent aviation software for the iPad. It's also a nice companion for Internet while travelling and for entertaining passengers.

Electronic Flight Bag plus more. The key aviation software I use is ForeFlight. It contains most everything you need for flight planning in the US: VFR and IFR charts, NACO terminal procedures, flight planning, official weather briefings via DUATS, supplementary weather (radar, METARs, etc), flight plan filing, A/FD, even fuel prices at airports. See their demo video for more. ForeFlight is very complete: I planned and flew an 8 day trip from California to Florida and back entirely using ForeFlight. ForeFlight costs $75 / year for full chart updates for the entire US. An extra $75 for a pro subscription gets you georeferenced approach plates so you can see your actual position via GPS. There are alternatives to ForeFlight with some different strengths: WingX is the best known.

Other aviation software. Pilot Wizz and E6BPro are both good calculator/converter apps; Pilot Wizz has a great weight and balance screen. Mr. Sun is a handy little sunset calculator. SkyCharts is a simple alternative for chart display with good enroute display. Jeppesen Mobile TC lets you use Jepp charts, but the app is very limited. OffMaps v1 is a good way to cache street maps for viewing while airborne. MotionX is a nice app for recording GPS tracks to look at your flight later on Google Maps. X-Plane is a fun simulator. I also use a bunch of web pages regularly when planning flights: Fly2Lunch, 100LL, etc.

iPad hardware. You have two choices when buying an iPad: how much storage and whether to get 3G. ForeFlight itself takes 6GB for full charts. Double that for updates and a 16GB model is barely sufficient. I suggest buying at least 32GB, more if you want to bring video and music along. 3G is a toss-up. If you get the WiFi only model then it will have no builtin GPS, but see below about external GPS. I like the 3G because it gives you the chance of having Internet access in the middle of nowhere if there's no WiFi. Verizon vs. AT&T is a push, but the AT&T model will work better in Europe. (The original iPad 1 isn't missing anything essential, although the extra CPU speed on the iPad 2 is nice. If money is tight, consider a used iPad 1).

GPS. The iPad with 3G has an assisted GPS receiver built in. In my experience it's not useful in the air; some pilots say it works for them but it doesn't work reliably for me. For about $100 you can buy an external GPS. I have a Bad Elf GPS (Amazon) and its performance is excellent, even when the antenna is sitting in the back seat. I've also heard good things about the GNS 5870 (Amazon) and XGPS150 (Amazon) as wireless options. Note that GPS is not necessary to get a lot of value out of the iPad. But if you want a backup GPS in the cockpit or you want to display your position on charts for situational awareness, get an external GPS.

Things to avoid. If the iPad overheats it shuts down, a potential crisis if you're flying an approach. Keeping it out of the sun seems to be sufficient although it's worth noting Apple says the iPad only operates to 10,000'. The iPad2 has magnets in the tablet itself and in the case that can swing your magnetic compass from at least 10" away, possibly including when sitting on your glareshield. Do not use the iPad as a substitute for an IFR GPS or for any other required equipment. It is neither accurate nor reliable enough to trust your life to it. That goes double for the apps that emulate an attitude indicator. And of course don't get distracted: if something goes wrong put the toy down and fly the plane.

Accessories. People seem to like this clip for knee mounting, also this aluminum case. The iPad battery is rated for 10 hours, so charging in flight may not be necessary. Cigarette lighter chargers work well. Remember that planes are often 28V and the iPad wants to draw 10W. The iPad fits very nicely inside the best flight bag in the world.

Alternates: iPhones, Android. For most purposes the iPhone works identically to the iPad; ForeFlight is great on the iPhone too. The big difference is screen size: the phone is too small for plates and working with charts takes a lot of squinting. For alternate tablets I'm hopeful that Android will catch on and offer some competition for Apple, but so far the iPad stands alone. Android requires totally different software; ForeFlight does not have an Android version, but WingX does.

Conclusion. The iPad is great for pilots and can replace most of the flight planning you currently do with paper charts and computers. There's a lot of options: my bottom line recommendation is a 32GB + 3G iPad ($730) with ForeFlight ($75/year). If you want a GPS backup, spend $100 on a Bad Elf GPS.

Last update October 11 2011
Feedback and updates welcome: email me at nelson@monkey.org
  2011-10-11 18:26 Z
After years of using Windows and trolling my Apple-loving friends I finally bought a Mac. I love it. I last used MacOS five year ago (and before then, in 1993), so I'm coming to Lion with fresh eyes. This blog post is long for me and comes in three parts: the good parts of the Mac, the bad parts, and a list of software I find useful.

More inside ...

  2011-08-18 20:28 Z
Are you starting a social media company? Stop! Don't build a new social network, please. Just use Facebook. Yes, it sucks, but Facebook won. Or as a friend of mine starting a company recently told me, "we consider Facebook to be layer 7 of the Internet".

Apple just launched Ping, their iTunes social network. They also just launched Game Center, their gaming social network. These two social networks are brand new, you start with no friends. They're also disjoint. That tapping you hear this week is millions of Apple nerds adding their friends, again, to a new set of applications.

Apparently I'm an active user of 12 social networks: Facebook, Twitter, four instant messengers, Skype, Flickr, Metafilter, Blizzard Real ID, Steam, Xbox Live. That doesn't count the implicit social networks I've belonged to online for 10+ years, mostly via email. Then there's the social networks I no longer use or deliberately avoid, like Aardvark, Buzz, FourSquare, Friendster, LinkedIn, LiveJournal, MySpace, Orkut, ping.fm, Plaxo, Yelp, or Zephyr. And my actual social network, the people I call for a beer when I'm bored or whose kids I buy Girl Scout cookies from because that's how you do.

All of these social network applications just need one bit of vital information, "I know this person". And "person" is identified by email address. A list of acquaintances' email addresses is the universal social data.

I know, I know, your immediate thought is "but social media is more complicated! My users need to sort family from friends from coworkers and keep their nudie pictures private and what if someone changes their email address and how do I sell extra access to Zynga so they can spam my users' friends with credit card offers?" Yes, that's true, social relationships are complicated. Your special application can be as complex as you want, be assured you'll get a bunch of details wrong. But the core thing, the list of acquaintances' email addresses? Don't make a new one.

I'm a little glib up above by saying "use Facebook". Facebook puts a lot of conditions on using their social graph, enough that Apple won't use their data. What would be best for users and every Internet company except for Facebook would be a proper open standard for social data. Sadly OpenSocial is a failure and because of network effects I think it's too late to displace Facebook. So we're all kind of screwed.

(The saddest thing? I found my list of social networks by searching Gmail for the phrase "your friend". I found a lot of FourSquare spam but precious few actual friends.)

Update: quick clarification in response to feedback. I'm not saying "don't compete with Facebook", I'm saying "don't build something new where I have to enter a new list of my acquaintances."
  2010-09-09 19:41 Z
Yesterday I tried to load some music on my iPhone for the first time in a year. The result was a complete iPhone apocalypse. Long story short; at some point iTunes decided to do an incredibly long and slow sync of some music I didn't want to copy. With no progress bar, no indication of how long it'd take, and no cancel button. So I did the only sensible thing and unplugged the phone.

The result? Not only did I have no music on my phone, but now I had no third party applications, either. Well I had a couple, some random subset were left behind. The other apps were deleted. Along with their data. Including a month's pain-stakingly collected diet data, gone forever.

Two-way sync is hard. But it's not that hard. iTunes' model is apparently that it has the canonical copy of what's on your phone. Only it doesn't update that model correctly in all cases, and then deletes whatever is on your phone that doesn't match the incomplete copy on iTunes.

I can sort of understand that failure with the music library; your iTunes install is the only conduit for putting music on to the phone. But apps can be installed independently, and generate their own data on the phone. iTunes can't be sure it has seen all the app data; so why be so casual about deleting it? Even if you can count on the user not to unplug the phone mid-sync, what happens if iTunes crashes? Or the machine crashes? Or the cat knocks over the phone? Or the power goes out?

I've made a sport of iTunes-bashing on my blog and Twitter the past few years. It's a bit obnoxious, but every time I try to use iTunes I'm stunned at how bad it is, particularly on Windows. Apple's reputation of building humane, user-friendly software is completely misplaced in this case.

  2009-05-23 14:49 Z