I never thought I’d link to one of those terrible sites that forces you to scroll through an entire page worth of image before you can even begin reading, but here we are. If you haven’t visited Wired recently, be warned: it is very user-antagonistic. But this article, despite its brevity and reading like an ad for Cloudflare, is pretty interesting. The gist is that one of Cloudflare’s hardware random number generation techniques involves photographing an array of lava lamps.
I recently purchased a Sangean HDR-141 compact HD Radio receiver after the local station that broadcasts baseball decided to move their AM/MW2 station (and most of their FM stations) exclusively to digital HD Radio broadcasts. In their announcement, they established that the time was right now that 20% of their audience was equipped to listen. That’s… an astonishingly low percentage, especially given that the technology was approved as the U.S. digital radio broadcast format over fifteen years ago. I, myself, was able to find one acquaintance capable of receiving HD Radio (in their car), and this receiver only handled FM.
Adoption has seemingly been low in the other direction as well. Though the airwaves near me seem flooded with broadcasts, the only HD Radio content is coming from the aforementioned station. Part of this is almost certainly because the standard itself is patent-encumbered bullshit from iBiquity3 instead of an open standard. Transmitting requires not only the encoder, but licensing fees directly to iBiquity. The public-facing language is very vague on the HD Radio website, but receivers also need to license the tech and I imagine if this was free they’d make a point of it (and there’d be more than three portable HD Radio receivers on the market).
It’s ludicrous to me that one company gets to bank off of having a proprietary standard accepted by the government. This would be bad enough on FM, but it’s downright heartbreaking on MW. Radio, especially AM, belongs to the realm of tinkerers. It’s about the most open form of distant communication beyond shouting from a mountain. By its very nature, a receiver can be built from a tiny handful of parts, and it won’t even require power. HD Radio on MW changes all of this. I can’t build a receiver without a power source, a licensed decoder, and a DAC at the very least. On top of that, MW HD Radio transmissions require additional bandwidth, and partially overlap with neighboring frequencies, polluting the airwaves. All of this for what? What iBiquity describes as ‘FM quality sound’. We have an existing technology for that: analog FM radio.
There’s an argument that broadcast radio usage is on the decline, particularly MW. I can’t see how HD Radio is going to do anything to remedy this; though I believe opening up the airwaves would. Most MW radio has historically been talk-based, which does not need anything approaching high fidelity. If there’s a concern over music stations running out of bands on FM, that actually is solved by HD Radio with the advent of multicasting. And again, while I don’t love the idea of FM going digital, I’d prefer a bunch of multicast nonsense in that band over MW losing its essence. And when I have DXing radios3 that pull in MW from 400 miles up the coast and SW from China, I’d definitely prefer that stations spouting digital noise that interferes with neighboring frequencies stay out of the MW spectrum.
I suppose I’m bitter about this whole thing because I didn’t see it coming. As mentioned, iBiquity’s proprietary format was approved for U.S. broadcasting in 2002, and anecdotal evidence suggests it hasn’t really taken off. Even in markets where it has seen adoption, I’ve fortunately mostly seen it on FM. For the intellectual-property-burdened, license-waving capitalists at iBiquity, I’m sure it makes perfect sense. For consumers, for radio enthusiasts, for believers in open communication… it’s not only a travesty, it’s entirely illogical. Nobody listening to MW has ever expected CD-quality transmissions – that just isn’t the point. I would imagine iBiquity’s adoption boasts are what they are not because consumers give a shit, but because their car has an HD Radio receiver and the FM station they already knew happened to start a simulcast. Coincidental consumption is not a great metric.
I hope this experiment fails for my local station. I hope FCC licensing is opened up to remove the burden for amateur broadcasters on MW, if there’s any genuine concern out there about the airwaves falling out of favor. If iBiquity wants to leach money from the air, let them leach it from FM. Free and open AM is too precious.
- I may review the radio later, but so far my take is that the UI is poor compared to the C. Crane Pocket I used in the bed/bath before, but reception is very strong. It seems sensitive to placement, though, easily wiped out by nearby electronics. The quality of HD Radio is so unimportant, but the noise floor is noticeably silent which may be appreciated. RDS is certainly nicer than Shazaming everything. ↩︎
- For folks who aren’t radio nerds, AM (Amplitude Modulation) is the manner in which the signal is broadcast, whereas MW (Medium Wave) is the band of frequencies typically associated with ‘AM Radio’. Since amateur/shortwave transmissions also use AM, this is a distinction I will be making throughout this post. I won’t be discussing FM (Frequency Modulation) enough to need to distinguish technology from band. ↩︎
- iBiquity was a merger of USA Digital Radio and Lucent Digital Radio, now owned by DTS (a brand of Xperi). I don’t want to link to any of their sites, though it’s tempting because they’re so comically shit. Completely transparent buzzword-laden marketing nonsense and intellectual property wankery. ↩︎
A while back, I started testing two things to switch up my browsing habits (and partially free them from Google): I began using Firefox Quantum1, and I switched my default search provider to DuckDuckGo. I have been spending pretty much equal time with both Google and DuckDuckGo since (though, admittedly, I have many prior years of comfort with Google). This has been more than just a purposeless experiment. Google started out as a company that I liked that made a product that I liked. This slowly but surely morphed into a company that I was somewhat iffy about, but with several products that I liked. Nowadays, the company only increases in iffiness, but Google’s products are increasingly feeling bloated and clumsy. Meanwhile the once-laughable alternatives to said products have improved dramatically.
As far as results are concerned, Google (the search engine, from here on out) is still quite good. When it works, it’s pretty much unbeatable for result prioritization, that is, getting me the answer I’m seeking out with little-to-no poking around. But it’s not infrequent that I come across a query that simply doesn’t work – it’s too similar to a more common query, so Google thinks I must have wanted the common thing, or Google includes synonyms for query terms that completely throw off the results. The ads, and sponsored results (aka different ads) are increasing to the point of being a distraction (particularly on mobile, it can take multiple screens worth of scrolling to actually get to results). AMP content is prioritized, and AMP is a real thorn in the side of the open web (Kyle Schreiber sums up many of AMP’s problems succinctly). Finally, Google is obviously an advertising company, and we all know by now that everything we search for exists as a means to track us. This is not a huge complaint for me; it’s a known ‘price’ for the service. For as much as it leads to targeted advertising, it also helps tailor search results. Of course, this seems nice on the surface, but is a bit of a double-edged sword due to the filter bubble.
To be fair, some of these things are mitigated by using encrypted.google.com, but its behavior is seemingly undocumented and certainly nothing I would rely on2. This is where DuckDuckGo, which was designed from the ground up to avoid tracking, comes in. DuckDuckGo makes its money from ads, but these ads are based on the current search rather than anything persistent. They can also be turned off in settings. The settings panel also offers a lot of visual adjustments, many of which I’m sure are welcome for users with limited vision3. Anyway, my experiences thus far using DuckDuckGo as a serious contender to Google are probably best summed up as a list:
- For the most part, normal search seems to have near-parity with Google, that is, if I’m looking to be taken elsewhere on the web, I will likely get a helpful result as quickly or nearly so as I would with Google. More niche searches, Google definitely does better diving deep for. Occasionally, if I’m looking to refer back to a specific post on this blog, I’ll just lazily search ‘brhfl firefox’ or the like, and Google definitely gets me there more quickly.
- Google seems to crawl (or at least re-crawl) more often, that is, the descriptions for pages seem like they update quite a bit more often.
- I loathe infinite scrolling, which means that Google has the ‘better’ pagination UI in my opinion. You can disable the automatic loading of more results in DuckDuckGo, but it still loads ‘pages’ in a gross, AJAXy way instead of having real pagination.
- Infinite scrolling aside, however, the minimalist UI is much cleaner than Google’s increasingly messy results list. It also (again, infinite scrolling aside), feels snappier, though I doubt it’s actually faster. I think the immediacy of the content simply makes it feel like good things are coming fast.
- DuckDuckGo has great keyboard support, whereas Google has… none. DuckDuckGo lets you navigate results with either cursor keys or vim keys, and vim keys override Firefox’s instant search, making for an incredibly convenient keyboard-driven experience.
- ‘Instant Answers’ are a mixed bag in that they just work… differently than Google’s analogue, with some being more useful, others less. Right now, for example, searching for ‘Ada Lovelace’ brings up images and Wikipedia on Google, vs. news and Wikipedia on DuckDuckGo4. In this instance, I think DuckDuckGo made a better choice, but it’s hard to say when images of a person would be more or less useful than news. Some really weird math (like ‘days in a year times 2) works in Google, but not DuckDuckGo. Oddly, ‘days in a year’ yields a weird calendar result via TimeAndDate.com from Google, whereas DuckDuckGo tells us the answer: 365.25. Instant Answers have been created and submitted by the community, so there is some weird, frivolous stuff like the ability to play 2048.
- Bangs are my saving grace as far as Firefox’s terrible search bar is concerned, they’re just handy shortcuts to other search engines. For example, ‘!a sailor moon luna plush’ to search Amazon for, well, a Sailor Moon Luna plush. These, too, have been at least somewhat user-submitted, and presumably this is why these are fairly inconsistent. Translation (via Google Translate) is an obvious show of this: many have three distinct forms (to Estonian, for example, can be !gtes, !gtestonian, or !gt-estonian), but not all. Remembering which languages have what bangs available is an exercise for the user. One also has to consider what would be an Instant Answer vs. what would require a bang – ‘translate river to estonian’ pulls up an instant result in Google, but in DuckDuckGo one must rely on a bang. I don’t know that I would give these a second thought if not for trying to fix Firefox.
- Some trivial matters…
- The DuckDuckGo team seems really responsive and open to discussion on Twitter, which is always nice.
- There’s a mobile browser app, which is sort of… a heavier version of Firefox Focus, almost? Just a privacy-focused browser, with something called a privacy grade that ranks sites based on how much tracking it finds, and reports the tracking to you. It’s a welcome addition to the browser space.
- They also make desktop browser extensions that I haven’t used but that I believe do basically the same stuff as the mobile browser.
- Google doodles will always be great, that’s like a really weird human edge that Google has.
All in all, I have no qualms using DuckDuckGo as my primary search engine. I will not pretend that I do not occasionally need to revert to Google to get results on some of the weirder stuff that I’m trying to search for – although, as mentioned earlier, Google thinks it’s smarter than me and rewrites my obscure searches half the time anyway. DuckDuckGo isn’t entirely minimalist or anything, but its straightforward representation, its immediacy, and its clarity all remind me of how clean Google was when it first came to exist in a sea of Lycoses, AltaVistas, and Dogpiles. It returns decent results, and it’s honestly just far more pleasant to use than Google is these days.
- I’m about 50/50 on Chrome/Firefox usage these days. Mostly Firefox on mobile, exclusively Firefox on Linux, and an odd mix elsewhere. It’s not an officially supported browser at work, so I stay in Chrome more since I have to test things. Anyway, I’m getting along with it well enough – still really love the sync; still really, really hate the 1999 URL bar. ↩︎
- There’s a security.stackexchange.com thread about encrypted.google.com which answers a few questions about it, but doesn’t mention things like AMP results seemingly not being foisted upon users at encrypted.google.com. ↩︎
- I, on the other hand, just opted to make mine pink. Clicking this link will make yours pink, too, so don’t do that unless you want a pink search engine. ↩︎
- Note that Lovelace was in the news around the writing of this post, as a manuscript of hers had just sold for £95,000 at auction. It seemingly rewrote the query URL to include a news flag, so I’m curious what this link will end up doing in the future. Regardless, I doubt it would have pulled up a bunch of old news in the Instant Answers section if there was no current news. ↩︎
Meta-post time, as I’ve made a few site updates. Most notably, HTTPS works now. I wouldn’t say that Chrome 68 pushed me to finally do this, but hearing everyone talk about Chrome 68 was a good reminder that I was really running out of excuses. So, only this site as of right now, I’ll get around to fenipulator, the archive, and a couple of other projects that aren’t actually tied to my name shortly. My hosting provider, NearlyFreeSpeech.NET, has a little shell script in place that makes setting up with Let’s Encrypt an entirely effortless ordeal, with full ACME tools available if necessary. I still need to edit my
.htaccess to force the matter.
A while back I also did some category overhauls. There are still quite a few categories that only contain a single post, but that seems likely to change in the future. I got rid of any categories where I didn’t really see myself adding more. I do have a tag taxonomy in place, which I need to start making better use of, for more detailed keywords. I planned to use this (plus categories, plus titles) for a sort of half-baked keyword search implementation, which I may still do at some point. I also ‘fixed’ the problem of categories showing up out of order by just making them all lowercase for the time being. It’s ludicrous to me that Hugo has no case-insensitive sorting.
When my Mac Pro recently slipped into a coma, I began thinking about what my next primary computer will be. Until this past week, Apple hadn’t updated any Macs in quite a while1, and the direction they’ve taken the Mac line continues to puzzle me. It all started (in my mind) with ubiquitous glossy screens, and has worked its way down to touchbars and near-zero travel keyboards. Last week’s update to (some) Macbook Pros is welcome, but underwhelming. Six cores and DDR4 is great, but that’s only in the large model. Meanwhile, if I wanted to suffer through a 15″ machine, HP’s ZBook 15 has either hexacore Xeons or Cores, inbuilt color calibration, a trackpoint, a keyboard that I feel safe assuming is superior to the MBP’s, and a user-upgradable design.
I remain consistently confused by what professionals Apple is targeting. As a creative user, I’d whole-heartedly prefer the aforementioned HP. Most illustrators I know rely on Surfaces or other Windows machines with inbuilt digitizers. I know plenty of professional coders on MBPs (and Apple seems to push this stance hard), but I don’t know why23 – that funky keyboard and lack of trackpoint don’t make for a good typist’s machine. The audio world makes sense, Logic is still a big deal and plenty of audio hardware targets the platform. But honestly, when I see people like John Gruber saying the updated MBP’s “are indisputably aimed at genuine ‘pro’ users”, I’m a bit baffled, as I simply can’t think of many professional use-cases for their hardware decisions as of late. They’re still extremely impressive machines, but they increasingly feel like high-end consumer devices rather than professional ones.
- This MacRumors buying guide shows the timeline of updates rather well. ↩︎
- iOS development, perhaps? Apple’s developer tools are very good, and much like coding for the Mac on a Lisa back in the day, the only way to get iOS apps that aren’t horrifying (engine-dependent cross-platform games excluded, I suppose) is to do it on a Mac. ↩︎
- I would assume the UNIX compliance of macOS is also a large reason. And even out of the context of ‘what pros’, macOS is a huge draw. If Windows was a better (and native UNIX) OS (or if I could run Creative Cloud in Linux), I’d be a lot less confused about what my hypothetical next computer is. ↩︎