The Ceptics travel adapters are good hardware for American world travellers. They combine a USB charger with a passive plug adapter for AC. Carrying one of those is enough for me for a multi-week vacation, providing plenty of charging for my laptop, phone, tablet, etc. No need for extra chargers or adapters. They come in different models for European, Australian, UK, etc sockets. They also make a universal adapter kit but it’s a lot bulkier.
You’d think a passive AC adapter would be a simple thing but a lot of them suck. Ceptics’ solution makes for a plug that sockets reliably and firmly. And it has a reasonable workaround for polarization and universal 3 prong grounding. You may not get a true third wire for ground (ie, the Type C European plug is only 2 prong) but at least your laptop charger will physically plug in and function.
The Ceptics’ USB charging works well. USB charger quality varies greatly. I can’t really judge what’s inside the Ceptics charger except to say that it never gets warm and seems to provide the right magic signals to charge my iPad quickly.
Simplenote is good software. It’s a very simple cross-platform note taker with excellent cloud synchronization between devices. It’s perfect for drafting a few paragraphs of text, keeping a simple to do list, or jotting down an address while you’re on the phone. Under the hood it’s got some remarkably sophisticated features like version history, note sharing, etc. But all that is out of the way if you just want a box to type in.
Simplenote is free software, a gift from the folks at Automattic. They’re mostly known for WordPress but they have a surprising number of other public good services they run, mostly for free or with value-add purchases. Akismet, Longreads, Gravatar, Cloudup; I had no idea these were all Automattic. Good for them.
I got my first new car in 12 years, a 2017 Audi A3. Happily I was able to find one of the few A3s that has Driver Assistance, the fancy adaptive cruise control and lane holding system. Love it, so glad I got it. The feature is more common on the high end Audis, but for the A3 you have to get the “Prestige” trim level which is not commonly stocked by California dealers.
The simple part of the system is adaptive cruise control. I set my speed to the nearest 2.5mph, then it paces the car in front of me using radar sensors. You can select how close it wants to follow. It will bring the car to a full stop if it has to. It’s great in heavy traffic on I-80, the only drawback is I’m now less aggressive about switching lanes to get around someone slow. If only every car had this feature, we could smooth out a lot of traffic jams as everyone drives a constant speed.
The other fancy feature is active lane assist. The car detects highway lanes with cameras. If I start to drift out of the lane it gives a bit of a nudge to the wheel. Ostensibly it’s to remind me to hold my lane, but the nudge is strong enough it actually sends the car back in the lane by itself. It’s very much not an autopilot though, the car complains after ~10 seconds of nudges. And the sensor isn’t reliable in the face of bad paint or unusually wide lanes, you really can’t rely on it all the time.
I like how both technologies are like little daemons helping me drive. I’ve written before about the dangers of full autopilots that expect a driver to take over if something fails. The A3 systems aren’t full autopilots, I’m still engaged in the task of driving at all times. Although it does require less attention. I’m still learning to trust the daemons, sometimes when the lane holding feature moves the wheel I instinctively try to countersteer away, the exact wrong thing.
All the other electronics in the A3 are very nice too. The virtual cockpit display is beautiful. The maps are good. The stereo plays plenty of audio formats, although the 10,000 file limit on SD cards is awfully dumb. I’m even liking Apple CarPlay.
I’m hoping the next car I buy will have a full autopilot. Although once that tech reaches mainstream it may no longer make sense to buy a car.
Discord is good software. It’s a sort of Slack clone aimed at the gamer market, with the marquee feature being group voice chat. But the non-voice features work well too and there’s no reason the product has to only be used by gamers. It’s particularly interesting because Slack is clear that it is an enterprise product. All those free-tier Slacks of 100s of people don’t work very well. Discord could capture the consumer market.
Discord works well and is free. The browser client, desktop client, and mobile clients are all solid and reliable. The voice chat is good quality. The login model works better than Slack if you are a member of multiple communities. It’s very easy to get Discord up and running as a Slack replacement and as a Teamspeak / Skype replacement for voice chat.
But the product still has some rough edges. The typography and design are not as beautiful as Slack. There’s no reacji, no custom emoji support. The API is not yet gelled, although the unofficial stuff works great. Discord is also not an enterprise product; there’s no message search, little file sharing support, fewer administrative features. But it’s a very good free consumer product.
Speaking of free, so far Discord hasn’t monetized. They say the core functions will always be free and they will sell “optional cosmetics like themes, sticker packs, and sound packs”. I’m a little skeptical that’s going to be enough but I appreciate they’ve at least not talked about ads (yet).
The company has $30M in venture funding from top tier investors. It was founded by the team that built OpenFeint, the iPhone gaming social system that Apple destroyed when it launched its terrible GameCenter product. I’m excited that this team is building something like Slack, but for consumers instead of companies.
What’s nice about Hover is it’s no bullshit. It’s a simple registrar with simple DNS service. And excellent support with questions answered by real, thinking humans. They’re not the fanciest registrar. They don’t offer all the TLDs in the world, their DNS services are limited, they’re not the cheapest. But they are simple and trustworthy. In a business as scammy as domain names it’s nice to buy service from someone decent.
I just had a terrific experience where I asked them why there’s no whois privacy offered on one of the new novelty TLDs. I’d seen a few domains registered there with hidden whois data but Hover wouldn’t do it for me. We went back and forth a few times and he finally explained that the TLD’s policy didn’t allow for whois privacy, but that other registrars might do it anyway and that if I really wanted whois privacy I should use them instead. I appreciated the frank answer.
The Ubiquiti NanoStation loco 5M is good hardware. It’s speciality gear for setting up long distance wireless network links. All of Ubiquiti’s networking gear is worth knowing about if you’re a prosumer-type networking person. I will probably buy their wifi access points next time I need one.
I’m using two NanoStations as a wireless ethernet bridge. My Internet up in Grass Valley terminates 200’ from my house. I couldn’t run a cable but a hacky wireless thing I set up was sort of working. So I asked on Metafilter on how to do a wireless solution right and got a clear consensus on using Ubiquiti equipment. $150 later and it works great! Kind of overkill; the firmware can do a lot more than just bridging and the radios are good for 5+ miles. But it’s reliable and good.
The key thing about Ubiquiti gear is the high quality radios and antennas. It just seems much more reliable than most consumer WiFi gear. Their airOS firmware is good too, it’s a bit complicated to set up but very capable and flexible. And in addition to normal 802.11n or 802.11ac they also have an optional proprietary TDMA protocol called airMax that’s designed for serving several long haul links from a single basestation. They’re mostly marketing to business customers but the equipment is sold retail and well documented for ordinary nerds to figure out.
I still wish I just had a simple wire but I’ve now made my peace with wireless networking. It works well with good gear in a noncongested environment. I wrote up some technical notes on modern wifi so I understood the details better. Starting with 802.11n and MIMO there was a significant improvement in wireless networking protocols, it’s really pretty amazing technology.
The CyberPower CP350SLG is a good small uninterruptible power supply. Its only rated for 250W and it only has a few minutes of battery life. Not suitable for a big computer. But it’s perfect for backup power for network gear, like a router or a modem or the like. And it’s pretty small, just 7x4x3 inches. I made a mistake and bought APC’s small UPS first and the damn thing is ungrounded, which is ridiculous and dumb. I’ve had better luck with CyberPower UPSes anyway and this small one is exactly what I needed.
I’m a big fan of small UPSes. I don’t need something to carry me through a 30 minute power outage, I just want some backup that will keep my equipment running if the power drops for a couple of seconds. Because PG&E, you know? It’s a shame there’s no DC power standard, I bet you could make a DC-only UPS 1/4th the size with a lithium battery. But instead it’s all lead-acid batteries and producing 110V AC just to be transformed back to DC by all the equipment its powering. (That APC UPS does have powered USB ports, a small step towards DC UPS.)
Some day I should look into whole-house UPS units. A quick look suggests it’s about $2500 for 2.7kW, plus installation. This discussion suggests $10k is more realistic if you really mean a whole house.
Jupyter Notebooks (née IPython Notebooks) feel like an important technology to me. It’s a way to interactively build up a computer program, then save the output and share it with other people. You can see a sample notebook I made here or check out this gallery of fancy notebooks. It’s particularly popular with data scientists. If you’re an old Python fogey like me it’s kind of a new thing and it’s exciting and worth learning about. I’m focussing on Python here, but Jupyter is now language-agnostic and supports lots of languages like R, Go, Java, even C++.
The notebook is basically a REPL hosted in a web browser. You type a snippet of code into the web page, run it, and it shows you the output and saves it to the notebook. Because the output is in the browser it can display HTML and images; see cells 6 and 7 in my sample notebook. There’s excellent matplotlib support for quick data visualization and lots of fancier plugins for D3, Leaflet, etc if you need.
Notebooks are made to be shareable. My sample is basically a static snapshot of a program’s output, there’s no Python running when you view it on GitHub. But you can also download that file, run the Python code on your own computer, and modify it however you want. That makes it an incredibly useful pedagogical tool. There are complex notebooks you can download that are effectively whole college courses in computing topics. And you can keep your own notebooks around as documentation of the work you’ve done. It’s a very powerful tool.
Behind the scenes what’s going on is the browser window acts like an attachable debugger. There’s a headless IPython server process running somewhere and the browser connects to it. It’s easy to run IPython yourself on your own machine or there are other options including cloud hosted live notebooks. Most of the display magic works by having objects define their own _repr_html_ methods, that’s what lets Pandas show that nice HTML table in cell 6.
Installing and starting IPython is pretty simple, just install it with pip and run ipython notebook. You’ll also want %matplotlib inline for inline plots. Notebooks seem particularly popular with data scientists; if you want a full Python data environment with Pandas, scikit-learn, etc then the Anaconda distribution is an easy way to get going.
Astound is a good ISP. I started getting Internet from them a few months ago, upgrading from a $50 6Mbps DSL link to a $70 100Mbps cable link. And it’s like I can see through time. The difference in usability is astonishing. Equally importantly, Astound has been entirely reliable and trouble-free.
The key thing is Astound is not Comcast. Comcast is an evil company with a long history of breaking TCP/IP in various ways that harm customers. Astound just provides pure, sweet, clean bits. Installation requires they bring their own coaxial from the pole to your house. They also offer phone and TV packages. The customer experience is a bit squirrely, I wouldn’t count on them for email hosting or tech support. But the basic Internet service is terrific.
I’d previously been a very happy Sonic DSL customer. They are also a terrific independent ISP with fantastic service. Unfortunately DSL is limited by the technology, the best they could deliver to my house is 12Mbps and that would have been significantly more expensive than Astound. Sonic is now working on fiber-to-the-house, including San Francisco, which should be terrific if they can do it.
We’re very lucky in SF to have a competitive ISP market. We have two DSL providers, two cable providers, and a surprisingly robust fixed wireless provider in MonkeyBrains. Most of the urban US only has two options and large parts of the rural US don’t even have that. The Sonic CEO’s 2011 blog post about broadband duopoly is fantastic background for how we got to have such crummy service in the US.
Ancestry.com is a good web site. It’s a tool for researching and maintaining family history, genealogy. It’s also a remarkably sophisticated database, data repository, and user interface with a lot of lessons for people who design webapps. I’m particularly fascinated that their target market is older people, your grandma who’s not so good with computers but has gotten interested in family history. But in no way is Ancestry dumbed down.
The web UI is great. The primary view is a visual family tree, a refocusable graph view that’s not much like a web page but works great in the browser. You then click through on a name to get to a person’s profile page that’s more like a normal document view. From there you do extra research, add information, etc.
The facts and sources tab on a person’s profile is my favorite part of Ancestry. They don’t just track a fact like “Born on 29 May 1917”, they also track the source of that fact, like “birth certificate” or “census record”. With a link right to a scan of the source document with the relevant information highlighted. Most people’s genealogy is full of bad data. (No, you’re probably not related to that 16th century king.) Ancestry provides a model for establishing the veracity of the data you record. Crowdsourced databases like OpenStreetMap and Wikipedia would benefit from more explicit attribution.
Ancestry is particularly useful because they have a fantastic collection of American genealogical records. The census records are the ones I use most frequently. Meticulously transcribed images of 100+ year old handwritten pages, completely searchable on fields like name, address, age, etc. They’ve collected all sorts of other data too: immigration records, social registers, railroad payrolls.. All this diverse hand written data, presented in a uniform computer search interface. They even proactively find hints for your family members for you to review and add to your data.
The app has some problems. Most of their data collections are only useful for researching Americans. Grassroots genealogists complain about Ancestry being too commercial and proprietary (see GEDCOM). Some people snark about the site being so grounded in Mormonism, although that criticism seems unfair to me. I’ve enjoyed doing a bit of family research in Ancestry. Mostly I’m impressed with the usability of the web app given how complex the data is.