Things That Don’t Belong in Browsers

December 2, 2014

I still have a soft spot in my heart for Firefox, but it’s not my primary browser. I use Safari for just about everything, except the rare occasion when I need flash, then I use Chrome. Firefox is only used in the even rarer occasion that I need to use a site that Safari doesn’t support properly. Since I use all three browsers, I keep an eye on new features and development, wondering if something new from Firefox will draw me away from Safari.

I don’t think it’s going to happen.

Firefox released version 34 yesterday, which included a handful of fixes and improvements, but also included these two new features:

  • New - Firefox Hello real-time communication client
  • Developer - WebIDE: Create, edit, and test a new Web application from your browser

This isn’t the first time a Mozilla browser included a “real-time communications client” as part of the browser. Feature blot that leads to including features that would be better suited as separate applications is one of the reasons Firefox was initially split from the Mozilla browser to begin with, as this quote from the release notes of Phoenix 0.1 highlight:

Third, “Mozilla” is not the name of an application; it is the name of a monolithic suite containing a browser, a mail client, an irc client, and an indoor skating rink (we hear that’s coming, anyways.) Even if we did decide to call this browser Mozilla, we’d still have to call the standalone mail client (see below) something else. We also believe Mozilla, in general, is going in the wrong direction in terms of bloat and UI, and see no reason for our releases to carry those connotations.

To come full circle, Firefox now includes a browser, a video chat client, and an integrated development environment in addition to the indoor skating rink. Firefox was amazing because it was super fast, and it attributed much of that speed to being very focused on the browsing experience. Mozilla has seen fit to morph Firefox over the years into a platform, one that is ill suited for most users everyday needs.

The tools and features that Mozilla builds into Firefox are high quality, especially the developer tools, but they would benefit far more from being separate applications.

New Mac Essentials - 2014 Edition

November 24, 2014

It appears I’ll be getting a new Mac soon, which means it’s time to take inventory of what I need. I’ve written about this a couple of times before, and it’s interesting to look back and see what apps stick, and which have gone by the wayside.

Obviously, I’m still using OS X, and I’m still using most of the built in apps like Safari, Mail, Calendar, Contacts, and so on. I still backup with Time Machine, although I’ve added a secondary, off-site back up with Backblaze.

Apps from 2008 I stopped using:

  • Adium - Work forced me to move to Lync, which is terrible, slow, and bloated, but at least it crashes every now and then.
  • Shimo - The built in VPN client in OS X is so good I don’t need Shimo anymore.
  • Google Calendar - I don’t use Google anything anymore.
  • MarsEdit - I’ve got a lot of respect and admiration for Daniel Jalkut over at Red Sweater, but I manage this blog with Jekyll, and do all of my writing in MacVim. I think at one point I just didn’t upgrade my license.
  • TextMate - I mentioned in the old post that I couldn’t get my configuration working for vi. Well, that’s no longer an issue, and my MacVim setup works just fine.
  • Yojimbo - I wish I could say that I still used Yojimbo, and that Bare Bones came out with an iPhone client that synced seamlessly using iCloud. But, that didn’t happen, and Evernote ate Yojimbo’s lunch. Even when I obsess about file storage and personal information organization, I eventually realize that Evernote is the best choice for what I want, which is to not think about what I’m storing where.

Apps from 2012 I stopped using:

  • NetNewsWire - I really, really wanted to believe that Black Pixel was going to do great things with NetNewsWire. I decided I didn’t want to wait anymore, and I’ve moved on.
  • DEVONthink - Call me when DEVONthink To Go 2.0 is out, and has sync that works.
  • Chrome - Used only when I absolutely, positively, have to use Flash.
  • Read Later - Beautiful app, but I moved on.
  • The Hit List - I finally drank the MacSparky Kool-Aid.

Now, what I am using.

Essential Utilities

  • Quicksilver - Still the best. I’ve tried switching over to Spotlight full time, but there are too many features from Quicksilver that I miss.
  • Dropbox - Until iCloud Drive makes sense.
  • Caffeine - So my Mac won’t fall asleep when I don’t want it to.
  • Moom - Keyboard window management, this is a fantastic tool.
  • TextExpander - For all your text expanding needs. I don’t use this nearly as much as I think I could, but I get enough out of it that I notice when it’s missing right away. Normally as soon as I go to name a file.

Library Applications

  • 1Password - I can’t imagine trying to keep over 400 strong, unique passwords without 1Password.
  • Evernote - Sometimes I go a little nuts on information management. Evernote sits and waits patiently for me to get my wits about me and come back.
  • Day One - I’m an infrequent journaler, but the more I use Day One, the more I value this app. Looking back at the past year of entries is a great way to put a smile on my face.
  • Oh, and, um, iTunes, I guess.

Tools for Creation

  • MacVim - Still the best tool for writing words and manipulating text.
  • Marked - Recently upgraded to v2, Marked continues to earn its spot in my Dock, right next to MacVim.
  • OmniGraffle - The best diagramming tool.
  • OmniFocus - For keeping all the big and little things I need to do, and helping me know when to actually do them.
  • Photoshop - I bought a copy of CS5 while in grad school, Photoshop is the only part that I’m probably going to keep using. Possibly Illustrator, depends on what the next year or so brings.

Spare Time

  • Hibari - Still my favorite Twitter app, although I’m not sure if I’ll be able to keep using it for long
  • ReadKit - ReadKit combined both Read Later and NetNewsWire, and although the reading experience is first rate, I miss the smooth keyboard navigation of NNW. However, ReadKit integrates with all the latest RSS services, and NetNewsWire does not. Like DEVONthink though, call me when you’ve got good sync to iOS.

In addition to the apps, I use a handful of command line tools from time to time, installed with Homebrew. I’m getting too old not to.

If my transition of apps that I use had a theme, it would be moving to systems where mobile is a priority. I’m no longer using Yojimbo or NetNewsWire, and to be honest, I’m a little disappointed in that fact.

AWS re:Invent Conference

November 21, 2014

The re:Invent conference was fascinating.

Culture

First, the overall experience of the conference was fantastic. There were, of course, a few hiccups along the way, that’s going to happen anytime you put 13,000+ people in the same conference, but overall everyone I talked to was enthusiastic and positive about what Amazon is doing. The feel was energetic, and, importantly, diverse.

I met people from many different races and nationalities at the conference, and saw quite a few women attending as well. The men outnumbered the women, probably by 10:1 at least, but they were there, and that’s important. I’d like to see that number getting closer to 1:1 as the years go by.

The conference had a Japanese track, where popular sessions were given again, this time speaking in English a bit slower, and live translation provided for a primarily Japanese speaking audience. The sessions were never very crowded, and I found that I could easily get a seat at the front. Of course, if I ever saw any Japanese waiting for a seat I would have given mine up, but there were lots of empty seats.

One of the most poorly designed aspects of the conference were that it didn’t stagger the sessions out, so at the same time each hour, 13,000 people crowded the hallways and escalators, making it difficult to get from one session to the next.

Scale

The most interesting session I attended was held by James Hamilton, AWS VP and Distinguished Engineer (quite the title), titled “Innovation at Scale”. James Hamilton has been part of the tech industry for quite a while. He was formerly at Microsoft, and IBM before that, and was the lead architect on DB2 when it was ported to Unix. This guy knew what he was talking about.

This is the next decade in our industry.

I knew Amazon was big, but I didn’t realize just how big till I sat in on this session. Amazon S3 has grown by 132% in the past year, and EC2 over 99%. AWS has over five times the capacity in use than the aggregate total of the other fourteen providers in the industry. That includes Azure, Rackspace, IBM, Joyent, and all the rest.

Every day, AWS adds enough new server capacity to support all of Amazon’s global infrastructure when it was a $7B annual revenue enterprise, back in 2004. They are big, and growing fast.

AWS is split into eleven regions world-wide, and private AWS fiber interconnects all major regions. Inside each region are very high levels of redundancy. For example, in the US East region, there are 82,864 fiber strands connecting their availability zones and data centers. In each region, there are at least two Availability Zones (AZ). Latency between the AZs is less than 2ms, and normally less than 1ms.

Peak network traffic between AZs reaches 25Tbps, and yes, that’s terabits per second. All AZs are in different data centers. Capacity in an AZ is added by adding new data centers. Failover between data centers within an AZ is transparent. Each AWS data center holds between 50,000 and 80,000 servers. Inbound bandwidth to a single data center is up to 102Tbps.

Another interesting fact I learned is that Amazon has custom chips built only for them by Intel for their custom-built servers. The chips have a faster processor at a given core count than what is available to the public from this partnership because of the scale Amazon operates at.

Amazon also builds all of their own networking equipment. They found that it was a lot cheaper to build their own networking gear. Not only did the overall cost of the networking gear go down, but the availability went up. It turns out that building their own gear allowed them to specialize on solving only their problems, which is a much smaller set of problems than the entire worlds that commercial networking vendors have to solve for. Amazon spun up 8000 servers to test their networking gear before they went into production.

Amazon runs their own version of Linux, which originally started off life as a Red Hat clone, something like CentOS, but has subsequently been heavily modified for Amazon’s particular needs. For example, Amazon has built their own networking stack tuned for the volume of traffic they need to process.

A lot of the work on their hypervisor has been to eliminate the virtualization tax. In the latest system they are rolling out, the NIC in each server supports SR-IOV (Single-Root I/O Virtualization), and each VM gets it’s own hardware virtualized NIC. This results in much lower latency, and less latency jitter from the instances.

Building the Future

I’m not sure how long Amazon is going to own this space, but they are certainly not slowing down and waiting for their competitors to catch up. I’m more in favor of a distributed Internet than one modeled after the old mainframe, client-server approach, but the capabilities that Amazon gives other businesses can’t be ignored.

My favorite analogy is the electric company. Any business that wanted to could build their own power generators and distribution infrastructure, but it would be crazy for them to do it. The economics just aren’t there. It’s far, far more affordable, and reliable, to let the specialists do it for you, and just pay for what you use. That’s what AWS is building, computing on tap, just bring your code.

The times are changing; either keep up, or get out of the way.

Open Source News Design

October 28, 2014

Finding good design in open source can be hard, but it’s almost impossible to find in open source news sites. These sites take “reader hostile” to a new level. Take example “A”, Phoronix:

The advertisement completely obstructs the text. Once the ad is closed, which I’m assuming counts as a “click”, the site is not too terrible to read. Of course, it’s no Daring Fireball.

The problem is compounded when using an aggregator site like Linux Today. Initially, it looks like a series of links:

But, as soon as you click on a link, another full screen, text obstructing ad appears.

OK, fine, close the ad, and see that you still have another link to click on to get to the article you want to read.

Now I’m wondering just how much I care about the Debian Civil War (spoiler: not much), but by this time, I’m invested, let’s read that article. Click the Complete Story link.

Nope! Close the ad, and, finally, find the text I was looking for.

Has it really come to this? Apparently.

Sensible Information Organization

October 27, 2014

There is no one application or system that is right for managing all of your information. If there were, we wouldn’t need apps like Contacts or Calendar, those things would just be merged into the Finder, or whatever mythical computing system I found myself wishing for the past couple of weeks. This is a good thing, even if not having a single view into all my data drives me a bit nuts sometimes. Specialization allows applications to provide a better experience for the specific type of data they were designed to handle.

I lamented on Twitter the other day that personal information management is still not a solved problem. It’s a hard problem, because everyone’s needs for what they wish to keep and access on a computing device, how much they care about format and privacy, and the interface they prefer for accessing their data are different. What I thought I wanted, and what I spent far too long looking for, was a single application that I could actually dump everything into. It doesn’t exist, and it shouldn’t.

The system I’ve come up with, the system that works for me, and probably only for me, is to corral the different types of data that I wish to keep in different applications, based on what they are, and if I need access to them while mobile.

Types of Data

The kind of data I frequently find myself wanting to keep falls into a few categories.

  • Notes - Small pieces of text, normally nothing more than a few lines. Like meeting minutes, lists of books to read, random ideas, etc…

  • Writing - Longer articles or blog posts. May include links, images, or other media.

  • Technical or Academic Reference - PDFs or Web Archives containing detailed technical information gathered for later reference when writing and professional development.

  • Archived Reference - PDF scans of bills and statements. Needed at times for trend analysis (is our water bill going up?).

  • Disk Images - Install files for applications like Microsoft Office, or downloaded disk images for operating system installs. Rarely needed.

  • Screenshots or other images. Sometimes needed to explain or convey ideas, Also collected for inspiration or to indulge a hobby (Someday I’m going to find the perfect 1967 VW Beetle).

  • Scripts or Automator workflows - Home-built tools for automating reproducible Mac workflows.

  • Recipes - Everything from scanned PDFs of my wife’s great-grandmothers notecards, to saved web pages.

  • Receipts - I need to be able to grab scans of these on the run quickly and easily. Good to have for later analysis of spending habits, and for tracking business expenses while traveling.

Requirements

Deciding on the right place for this data depends on defining the requirements up front.

  • Data must be stored in, or easily exported to, an open format.
  • Mobile data must be available and editable on all devices.
  • It should be fast and easy to get to and add to my data. The less friction in the workflow the better, but not at the expense of the previous two points.

Mapping Purpose to Application

Accessable Only on Local Device

  • Financial or Medical Data - Filesystem
  • Disk Images - Filesystem
  • Archived Reference Files - Filesystem
  • Technical or Academic Research - DEVONthink

Accessable On Mobile Devices

For things like the directions to my kids soccer games, dragging and dropping the PDF to nvAlt will extract the text and create a new note. If need be, I can open the note in MacVim and clean up the formatting, then drop the original PDF in the filesystem under archived reference files.

Some data types can benefit from the organization of a database application. For that type of data, I’m leaning on the additional capabilities of DEVONthink to help me process the files and clippings I collect into new knowledge. DEVONthink’s AI engine helps me find connections to other entries that I might not have realized myself, and helps me to build a more solid understanding of the topic.

I think the same basic concept applies to recipes. I’m working on building a system that can take the basic ingredients as search terms and return a collection of recipes, as well as tags for things like “lunch”, “dinner”, and “family favorite”. For now, I’ll keep the recipes in Dropbox and index them in DEVONthink. Hopefully, I’ll soon be able to import them and sync them over to the mythical DEVONthink To Go 2.0.

This system is new to me, but each of the components I’ve been using on and off for years. While I do like to simplify my computing environment, doing so at the expense of a sensible system is foolish. My attempts to combine unlike files and data into the same system failed, but allowing each type of data to be manipulated by an application specifically designed to handle it looks promising. I’ll be sure to post updates as the system evolves.