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
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.
The key improvement with Cronometer is accuracy, particularly good data sources for nutrition information. MFP offered obviously wrong entries from random people, sapping my confidence. Also it’s quicker to log things from a trusted database.
And the app works well. Cronometer’s UI is modern and easy to use. It doesn’t display extra distractions. MFP’s insistence on scolding me about things I don’t care about was a bummer. The data sync is fast. And they have a good data export, something MFP won’t do.
I have some minor complaints. Cronometer is very excited to track macros and every single obscure nutrient (threonine, selenium?!). I really only want to track calories. Fortunately the other things don’t take up too much space. They also display ridiculous calorie precision in the diary. But that feels like a rare UI mistake, not a general design ethos.
The free version is pretty complete. The $55/year paid plan adds a bunch of stuff, the one I care about is dividing your diary up into individual meals.
I have a long history with food diaries, more off than on. Having a good app that I trust and is easy to use is important.
That’s the post. What are passkeys? I don’t have answers, just questions. I believe passkeys are a great idea but the tech world is doing a terrible job explaining them. Someone really needs to explain how passkeys work in Internet products. Existing descriptions aren’t sinking in, as evidenced by the confusion online. For instance this Hacker News discussion where a new Passkey product announcement is met with a bunch of basic questions about what Passkeys even are.
Update: see these newer Passkey overview articles here and here. Also my own notes written after this was published.
The tech is pretty well defined: Passkeys are a password replacement that uses WebAuthn to log you in to stuff. Companies are widely deploying them now: Apple, Google, Microsoft, 1Password. Passkeys are an industry consensus and are arriving in production very soon or already has. Great! Now then what are they really?
Here’s some questions from my perspective as an ordinary if expert Internet user. I own a few computers and phones and don’t want to trust just one company with my entire digital identity.
The core of many of these questions is exactly what a passkey is. What I want to read is an article that explains the gestalt of passkeys and identity on the Internet in a way the answers to all these questions becomes clear.
My understanding from what I’ve read is that passkeys are an authentication token, basically a replacement for a single secret like a password. Naively that’d mean I’d need a different passkey for every website I log in to (just like I need different passwords). But I could be wrong. Or maybe the passkey intention is that we use federated logins, so sites like my Mastodon server use Google to help me log in with my Google passkey? (That’s an enormous business problem, if so.)
My other understanding is a lot of my questions don’t have good answers yet. Ie: revocation of a passkey or migrating to new devices. The product announcements from various companies say “trust us, that’s coming soon”. But I do not trust a company like Google or Apple to later add a feature that will make it easy for me to migrate away from their loving embrace. That stuff has to be defined and working before Passkeys are a good product for consumers and the Internet.
Update: Ensuing discussion has made one thing clear: you don't share passkeys between sites. You have a separate passkey for each thing you log in to. That clears up several of my questions. I don't know how I didn't understand that already but the confusion isn't mine alone.
There really needs to be a good, clear description of Passkey as a product so questions like this aren’t being asked over and over again. I’m hopeful the folks working on this stuff understand the answers and just haven’t communicated it well.
Passkeys work a lot like passwords do today. You create a different passkey for each website and use it to log in. Your passkeys are stored in what’s called a “Passkey Authenticator”, agent software on your computer. (Behind the scenes passkeys use public key systems that are better than passwords.) Your phone probably works today as a passkey authenticator but most sites don’t support passkeys yet.
Managing passkeys — backing up, migrating, sharing passkeys between devices — is still a work in progress. Android and Apple both support syncing passkeys between devices, that’s important so you can log in even if you don’t have your phone with you. Some software can also delegate. For instance Chrome on Windows will use Bluetooth to use a passkey on a nearby Android phone.
The passkey authenticator is the main user interface. The rest of this post is notes on what authenticators are available to consumers. See also this companion piece that’s a deep dive into the user experience on Android, Chromebooks, and Windows.
Apple seems the best implementation of a passkey authenticator today. It’s built in to Keychain, Apple’s existing authentication product that is pretty well designed. There’s a bunch of screenshots in this article of how the Apple experience works. My Apple-using friends say it’s pretty usable. Keychain syncs passkeys between devices via iCloud.
Android has a passkey authenticator built in called “Google Password Manager,” which already saves ordinary passwords you use in the phone’s web browser. Here’s Google’s docs for users about that and some technical notes on security. Android syncs syncs passkeys between devices. It’s also pretty usable but passkeys are Android-only, not available on desktop (yet).
Chrome on Windows or a Chromebook has passkey support. But the Chrome browser doesn’t store passkeys itself, it delegates to nearby Android devices via Bluetooth. Firefox and Edge on Windows can also do this delegation. Chrome can also delegate to Windows as the passkey authenticator instead of Android.
Microsoft Windows has an authenticator that is connected to Windows Hello, their relatively new login system. I don’t know much about it but it's what you'd use to store passkeys on your Windows machine.
1Password, the password agent, is shipping passkey support in about a month. They have a demo that actually works on Chrome and Edge. It’s nice! In theory this should be a good cross-device way to manage and sync passkeys. I'm waiting for it before adopting passkeys widely.
Dashlane, the password agent, has passkey support. Sounds like early days but usable.
Yubikey, the hardware login token, has a passkey story. I don’t know much about it, their writing points out that passkeys aren’t really anything new and they’ve been doing this kind of thing all along.
Having spent most of a day playing with passkeys my impression is they work today and are usable. My main concern is there’s no support for migrating your passkeys out of, say, Google Password Manager and in to Apple Keychain. And I fear given business realities no one is in a hurry to enable that. The other problem is how long it will take sites to adopt passkeys; we’re going to be stuck with passwords for a good long time.
I tried out Noom, the weight loss and cognitive behavioral therapy program. The app is more like CBT for upselling customers than CBT for weight loss. Now I’m hoping they’ll delete my sensitive medical data and refund the $3 they tricked me out of. (They did, quickly in response to my support email.)
I was excited to try Noom. I’ve used basic calorie counters in the past and was hoping for something better. I’m also curious about CBT. And a friend recommended it.
The account creation process goes OK at first. Then it gets more and more involved, taking 10–20 minutes to fill out the questions. There’s little UI tricks to keep you engaged: fake progress bars, questions injected at random intervals. Classic product UI hacking.
At first it told me that I’d reach my weight goal in about a year. Seemed reasonable! Then it kept shaving weeks off that as I answered questions, like I was making progress already. The conclusion it came to is that I was going to lose 18 pounds in the first month. Pretty sure that’s not possible, certainly not healthy.
Then the upselling begins. They ask some questions to find out your interests and then offer premium packages. “Folks who pay for this package lose 35% more weight” Look, I just want to try the basic thing.
It looks like a 7 day free trial but before you know it they want you to pay asserting “it costs $10 to offer a 7 day trial”. Really? They gave me a choice of what to pay from $0.50 to $18.83. I chose $3 and had to pay via PayPal / credit card; super sus they don’t just use Google Pay on the Android app.
They also try to get you to sign up your friends. They talk about how having folks involved in your program will make you more successful. Which is probably true but then immediately they’re asking for email addresses and offering discounts and gift certificates. It’s marketing, not therapy.
The whole thing was so sleazy and deceptive. Particularly for a therapy-like product. Real therapists have all sorts of ethical guidelines to stop them from exploiting their customers. Noom instead seems to be using CBT to trick customers into paying more. Gross, gross, gross.
I’ve found a mobile app for weather I finally like enough to be happy about paying for. Windy, best known for its website. The mobile app has extra phone features like notifications and home screen widgets. Also its UI is a little more understandable.
Windy makes a strong first impression with its colorful animation of winds. But wind speed is not that interesting to me. Windy also does an excellent job displaying radar, air quality, current thunderstorms, etc. Even weather station observations and webcams. All displayed beautifully and uniformly; that’s not easy!
But my favorite thing is the forecast view, hidden away in the website but a bit easier to find on mobile. It’s a lot of detail packed into a very small tabular display. I appreciate that it shows the full forecast by hour going out for days. Also the choice of forecast models; their website explains the options. It’s all very nerdy in the way I want. It’s not great at “weather at a glance” but is good for a deeper understanding.
Sadly they have nothing like Dark Sky’s unique microforecasts. Nothing to say “it will rain where you are standing in 7 minutes”. But they do have excellent presentation of large scale traditional forecasts.
My Starlink Internet service has gotten pretty bad; every evening I'm well under 50Mbps and some hours I only get 2Mbps. (Compare 100Mbps+ last year.) I've given up trying to stream 1080p video at night; that's a pretty dismal result for a new Internet service in 2022.
Starlink imposed major restrictions on US customers last month: 1 TB / month data cap and expected download speeds dropped from 50-200Mbps to 20-100Mbps. Details of all that on my secret blog. Note they didn't drop the price, we're still paying $110/month.
Maybe the new caps will help the congestion? I'm sympathetic to their technical problem. They have limited bandwidth and they have to share it somehow. Caps are an awkward solution; most users have no idea how much bandwidth they are using or why and thus can't control it. Starlink's caps are nice in that if you exceed the cap you just get lowered in priority, not charged money or cut off. So maybe it'll be self regulating.
My real fear is that instead of improving service the result of all this is Starlink is just going to add even more customers to an already overloaded network.
This is gonna sound silly but one of the nicest home improvements we've done recently is install a new garage door opener, the Liftmaster 87504-267. It works so much better than my old insecure garage door!
Internet access is the surprise best feature; I use it all the time. Mostly to walk in and out of the garage door without my car. There's also a keypad remote I can mount outside so someone can punch in a code to open the door. Setting this all up was easy and reliable. There's even a way to give Amazon access to open your garage for deliveries.
The opener also has a camera. I would have skipped that if I'd known, saved some money. But it's actually quite useful! If I get a notification the garage door opens I can easily see on my phone what's going on. Basic live views seem to be free, there's a subscription if you want stored video.
Ken's favorite feature is the motion sensor that turns the light on. The lights on the unit are bright, it's enough to light the whole garage without having to flip a switch. I also appreciate there's a battery backup built-in so if the power goes out I can still easily open the door. The drive itself is smooth and quiet too, belt drives are a real improvement.
The #1 upgrade you should do for an older house is a dishwasher; they got a lot better about 15 years ago. But #2 may well be the garage door opener.
Way back in 1994 I wrote an undergraduate thesis for my math degree at Reed College. It was a fun project, studying a discrete dynamic system that was an extension of the Ising model. Sort of cellular automata meets statistical mechanics.
A few years ago my colleagues from the Santa Fe Institute wrote a preprint from that work, Vortex Dynamics and Entropic Coulomb Forces in Ising and Potts Antiferromagnets and Ice Models. They were kind enough to list me as an author even though I barely understand half the paper! I do have the pretty pictures, though, plus a healthy appreciation of the complexity of discrete systems.
I've never met one of the co-authors, Cosma Shalizi. But thanks to his having a weblog I now know more about him than the other guys.
Starlink is oversold in North America. I've had the service since March 2021 and it's mostly great. But every evening it slows down. On bad nights I can't watch a single 1080p video stream reliably. Over half of Starlink customers report problems. Starlink's speed test app now admits "the network may be affected by slower speeds during busy hours". As if that were OK.
Overselling capacity is a common problem with American ISPs. More customers means more revenue and if customers get a crappy experience? Too bad, there's no regulation to stop them. Starlink has a serious financial challenge so of course they have an incentive to oversell. And service quality is likely to keep getting worse. Their user growth is accelerating and the new RV service means literally anyone can buy a dish now without waiting (albeit at a lower service tier.) They are adding capacity but their growth plan hinges on the troubled Starship launch vehicle.
Customers were promised better. Starlink was advertised as offering 100-200Mbps and 20ms latency; their legalese description promises 50-250Mbps / 20-40ms. My reality is speeds drop to 10-20Mbps every evening. Upload speeds are tiny, often well below 5Mbps. 20ms latency is a fantasy; 50ms is typical. And capacity is highly variable minute by minute, a technical challenge for rate limiting protocols.
The US government is giving Starlink $900M to sell rural Americans 100Mbps download / 20Mbps upload. But Starlink is delivering just a tenth of that download speed during peak hours and nowhere near that upload speed ever. I hope the FCC RDOF contract includes measured performance targets.
I am still grateful for Starlink, it's significantly better than anything else I can get in Grass Valley, CA. But they're making a business decision that's bad for customers. It's a reminder of how important it is to have Internet competition. Investing in wired infrastructure is as important as ever.