Category Archives: Computers/Internet

Why Net Neutrality Matters

The FCC wants to abolish “net neutrality”, which states that ISPs should treat all traffic the same, and not block, throttle, or promote data based on what service you’re using or who you’re connecting to.

In short: Your cable company shouldn’t decide where you get your news, what businesses you buy from, which video chat services and streaming services you use, or who you talk to.

ISPs are people’s and businesses’ gateway to the internet. They shouldn’t also be gatekeepers. Net Neutrality protects free speech, communication, and economic activity that could otherwise be limited or adjusted to push a carrier’s own agenda at the expense of alternate views, create barriers to competition and innovation, and further entrench existing monopolies. The internet works best when it’s allowed to innovate at the edges, rather than locking us all into a near-monopoly’s choices.

This isn’t a hypothetical problem: ISPs have violated net neutrality in the past. ISPs have intercepted search queries and redirected them to their own portals. AT&T once forced Apple to block Skype on the iPhone. Verizon used to block tethering apps. Multiple carriers blocked Google Wallet in favor of their own payment services.

We fought this battle years ago. And now we have to fight it again. The FCC’s plan to roll back net neutrality doesn’t help subscribers, doesn’t help businesses, doesn’t help startups, doesn’t help publishers, doesn’t help you — doesn’t help anyone except the existing carriers and those they might decide to prop up.

I sent the third paragraph (minus the link) as a comment to the FCC through this Free Press Action Fund petition. Mozilla also has a petition, and is collecting voicemails to forward to the FCC before the May 18 meeting. So far they’re up to 50 hours’ worth of audio!

UPDATE! On July 12, 2017, the internet will come together again. Like the SOPA blackout in 2012, and the Internet Slowdown in 2014, everyone from tech companies to small websites to individuals will sound the alarm. Learn more and join the protest at the Battle for the Net.

Badgered Over HTTPS

I’ve been checking in on redirected & dead links lately, a few minutes here and there, updating, replacing, and removing where appropriate. And I’m happy to see that a lot of sites have moved to HTTPS. News sites, online stores, social networks, personal sites, publishers…. Not everyone, of course, but it’s a lot easier than it used to be. Now more than half of all web traffic is protected from eavesdropping and alteration when used across insecure networks.

The one that made me laugh, though: Badger Badger Badger. Now there’s a flashback!

It’s a silly animation loop that went viral back in 2003. The canonical site is still around…and even they upgraded!

So Much for the Pebble Smart Watch

For a long time I’ve thought that if I wanted to get a smart watch, it would be a Pebble, because they actually understand that a smart watch needs to work as a watch. So when they announced their Kickstarter for the revamped Pebble 2 and Pebble Time lines this summer, I decided it was time to try out wearable computing. My Pebble 2 arrived in late October, just in time for LA Comic Con, and I’ve been figuring out how best to use it over the past month and a half. I feel like I haven’t really found the watch’s full potential yet, but I’m not sure what point there is now, because I’m not sure how long it’ll be supported.

Today they’ve been bought by FitBit, and will be discontinuing the entire hardware line as FitBit picks up the software, cloud services (for now), and part of the development team.

Getting to Know the Smartwatch

Pebble 2 does work great as a wristwatch. You only need to charge it once every 5-6 days, and the screen is always on, so you can see the time and date at a glance. I’ve already gotten back into the habit of glancing at my wrist for the time instead of reaching into my pocket and pulling out a bulky phone.

Third-party watch faces range from the aesthetic (mimic classic designs) to the informative (cram every bit of time, weather, and health tracking data you can onto the main view) to the whimsical (show time using a binary counter, or Pac-Man, or the dots on a pair of dominoes). My six-year-old loves picking new designs and seeing them show up on my watch, but I keep coming back to the basic one because it works for the key thing a watch needs to do: let me tell the time quickly.

Notifications and calendar events are a key use case for a smart watch, but you have to manage them. I always pare down my phone’s audio notifications in order to avoid getting distracted, and that goes double for something that buzzes on my wrist. Once I got it down to just texts, calls and calendar appointments, it helped me avoid missing texts…for a while. Eventually I started missing them anyway. I’m not sure whether they’re not reaching the watch or my brain has started tuning it out.

When I do catch them, though, it is nice to see a preview of the message so that I know whether I should pull my phone out right away or it can wait a few minutes.

Fitness tracking is most useful if you have an actual workout routine (which I don’t) or you wear the watch constantly. It checks your heart rate every 10 minutes, counts steps, and tracks sleep and deep sleep. The watch shows your current status, and the phone app tracks daily, weekly and monthly stats. It’s interesting, but I can’t wear the watch 24/7 because the wristband ends up irritating my skin. A nicer watchband might help, but it might not, since I need to wear it tightly to keep the heart rate sensor in place.

I haven’t explored the Pebble app ecosystem as much as I could (but who knows how long it’ll be around). A few things I’ve looked at:

  • Music control is nice: you can pause and skip your phone’s music player using actual physical buttons.
  • I don’t want to play games by tilting my wrist.
  • Transit apps would be helpful if I rode the bus or train more often.
  • There’s a to-do list app that syncs with Google Tasks, which seemed great at first…but it’s a lot easier to pull up the tasks on my phone and look at a dozen items at a time than to scroll through three items on a tiny screen.

And that brings me what I think is key for smartwatches:

What a Smartwatch Needs to Do

To really be useful, a smart watch needs to be better than a phone at certain tasks. Cases where it definitely works:

  • Always-on at-a-glance info. Time/weather/step counts/etc. most of the time, with notifications and events as they occur.
  • Health/activity sensors.
  • Quick actions. Dismiss a reminder, or reply to a text message with a pre-canned “OK.” Menus are a pain, but I can imagine voice commands would help a lot.

If it takes longer to do something on the watch than to dig out your phone, unlock it, and do it there, the watch has failed at that task. If the watch makes it more convenient, then it’s succeeded.

Using WP-CLI with WordPress 4.6 on DreamHost

I use WP-CLI from time to time to do maintenance on my WordPress sites that I host on a DreamHost VPS. But today I tried to run the search-replace function and found that wp wouldn’t run. Instead I got this error:

Fatal error: Call to undefined function apply_filters() in /path/to/wp-includes/load.php on line 317

It didn’t take long to confirm that WordPress 4.6 had changed things around, breaking the version of WP-CLI on my server. As it turns out, WP CLI 0.24 fixes this, but DreamHost is running 0.24-alpha.

So I tried installing the current version locally on my account, only to get a different error:

Fatal error: Class 'Phar' not found in /path/to/wp-cli.phar on line 3

I found this article very helpful for enabling PHAR support on a DreamHost VPS. I went into ~/.php/5.6/phprc (create this file for your version of PHP if you don’t have it) and added:

extension=phar.so
phar.readonly = Off
phar.require_hash = Off
suhosin.executor.include.whitelist = phar

Once I verified that it would work by running /usr/local/bin/php-5.6 wp-cli.phar --info, I took the opportunity to (a) override the wp command with the local one and (b) make sure it used php 5.6 by adding the following alias to my .bash_profile:

alias wp='/usr/local/bin/php-5.6 ~/bin/wp-cli.phar'

This won’t be needed once DreamHost updates their WP-CLI package, but for now, it solves my problem faster than waiting for a response from tech support.

I miss my Galaxy S4

I recently dug out my old Samsung Galaxy S4 for some Android testing. I replaced it with a Nexus 5x last fall, and for the most part I love the newer phone, but there are a few things that I really miss about the S4.

  • The size is perfect. It’s literally as big as it can get and still be comfortable to use one-handed and fit in my pants pocket. The Nexus 5X is barely 1/8″ wider and 3/8″ taller, but it’s just enough that I can’t quite reach the whole screen with my thumb. I have to loosen my grip until it feels like I’m going to drop it, which means I’m extra motivated to keep it in the case, which makes it even bigger…
  • The Galaxy S4 display is polarized diagonally, so I can use it in landscape mode while wearing sunglasses. This is helpful for things like daytime GPS navigation. The Nexus 5X is not.
  • The volume buttons are positioned out of the way of the middle, making it easy to clip on a dashboard mount.

Those are three things that the Galaxy S4 does better (for me, anyway) than the Nexus 5X. They’re all form factor. Of course since giant smartphones are all the rage these days, good luck finding another one that’s just the right size for my hand.

Otherwise, I love the Nexus 5X’s display, the up-to-date Android OS without Samsung’s modifications (and knowing I’ll actually get security updates), the camera, the convenience of the fingerprint sensor, the speed, and just about everything else about it.

I wouldn’t go back. I considered setting up the S4 as a dedicated GPS until I realized that it wouldn’t be able to get traffic data without a SIM card. (Maps can store the actual maps offline now, and GPS works independently of cell service.)

But if Google releases their next Nexus device in a form factor just 3/8″ shorter, I’ll be tempted to upgrade early.