Articles about software or hardware.

Libations With Linda, Episode 4: Jeremy Epstein – Electronic Voting Machine Security

With the presidential election just over a week away I thought it would be timely to talk about, not politics, but our voting infrastructure and the steps we can take to ensure our votes are counted as we intended. With the talk of rigged elections and the periodic news stories of voting machines misrecording votes I turned to Jeremy Epstein, an expert in the field of the security of electronic voting machines. He tells us about the pros and cons of these machines. Along the way we enjoy some Strongbow Gold Apple Cider.

Here are the links mentioned or shown in the video:

This episode runs longer than the pervious ones but Jeremy does a great overview of the issues involved with DRE voting machines and it’s worthwhile for anyone interested in the integrity of the voting process.

On the technical side, the audio is better this time but I am still working out the best way to get a clean chroma key.

IOS 10 iBooks Woes

There is a lot to like abou the iOS 10 update. The new maps layout is better and one can finally set the routing to avoid tolls. But, I opened the book I was reading in iBooks on my iPad and instead of the normal two-column layout in landscape orientation I get one giant column.

I don’t recall there being a setting for this but I go looking for one to no avail. The iOS 10 iBooks app seems to have taken a giant step backwards. Reading a single column in landscape mode is, well, awful and an iPad pro is too large for me to comfortably read in portrait orientation.

Fortunately, I won’t buy books with DRM that locks me in to a single provider so I was able to move my ePub over to MapleRead which is a decent ebook reader. It has a lot of great features that iBooks lacks though it sometimes gets the formatting not quite right. But, in this case it continued to properly do two-column layout in iOS 10 so the problem is an iBooks-specific bug (don’t even try to tell me there is a good reason for it).

So, if like me, you are having issues with iBooks and you have the option to use any non-DRM ebook reader then check out MapleRead. I have the SE edition since I keep my books in Calibre and MapleRead can talk to Calibre directly.

Fitbit: No Healthkit = No Sale

I’ve been a big fan of fitbit. I had a One and later upgraded to the Force. I’ve put up with fairly lame software and fairly fragile hardware because I got something out of it. However, fitbit’s recent decision to not implement health kit for iOS will end up costing them future sales. Mine to name just one.

Fitbit’s decision was posted here. Elsewhere they basically said they didn’t want to implement something that was only of value to iOS users. I get that companies have limited resources and need to prioritize their efforts, but in this case turning away from iOS users is probably a mistake. I chose to remain with iOS, in part, because of new features like health kit and home kit that will integrate across products. Fitbit’s decision to remain a private information silo is shortsighted and limits their product’s usefulness to me. Enough so that when it is time for me to upgrade, fitbit won’t be on the radar.

Of course, there are other factors. My first fitbit force wouldn’t sync. The replacement worked properly until this week when it decided not to sync. The strap likes to pop open on its own with only the slightest brush against something.

We’ve directly bought five fitbits over the years for ourselves and as gifts and probably been responsible for several other sales.  The newly announced Surge looks interesting but if it doesn’t fully support  the environment I use then I don’t see the point.

Rant: Stop Preventing iPad Zoom

This has gone from an occasional nuisance to an epidemic. Too many websites are deciding they know best and preventing the user from zooming in. While there may be legitimate reasons for some web applications to do this, none of the sites I’ve experienced this on actually are in that category.

To make matters worse, these sites tend to use a small font. While this might make the whole page look nice and balanced it also makes it a major squint zone for those of us with less than perfect vision.

While there are some things the user can do to mitigate the problem, they are workarounds that are quite awkward. Here are the two options I’m aware of:

You can enable zooming in the accessibility section of the Settings app. This lets you zoom into any app with a three finger double tap and zoom out the same way. The problem is that navigation is now awkward and the whole experience isn’t as clean as the normal double tap or unpinch to zoom.

The other option is to get a browser that allows you to specify the user agent. Then your iPad can pretend not to be an iPad and websites won’t prevent your zooming. The problem here is that any app that uses the default browser internally won’t get the benefit.

Ultimately, this is a decision by some designer thinking he knows best and foisting the choice on all of us. I, for one, am tired of the eyestrain headaches this is causing.

Just stop! Apple developed an elegant zooming system and unless you have a very good reason to prevent zooming then leave it alone!

A Few Days With Fitbit

Lauri and I picked up a couple of Fitbit One’s to help with our fitness efforts. For those that don’t know, the Fitbit One is a small pedometer that you wear on your body and it tracks all your steps. It also tracks the number of floors climbed. It gives you an estimate of calorie burn throughout the day based on your activity. Combined with food tracking it can help you manage your food consumption relative to your exercise a bit more easily. It can also give you a sense of how active you are and how much you move around. You can also wear it while you sleep to get an estimate of when you are asleep vs. awake.

Over the last few days I’ve worn it continually during the day. It’s so unobtrusive I forget I have it on. It silently monitors my steps though it will show them to me on demand. When I come in range of my computer or run the iOS app it sends over the current information to my fitbit.com account.

It’s been fascinating seeing when I move around. As a programmer I lead a fairly sedentary lifestyle so I’m trying to make sure I get enough exercise. Fitbit “rewards” me with virtual badges for achieving activity levels throughout the day. That’s cute and might help some people but I’m motivated by data. Seeing how much I’ve moved and how many calories I’ve burned really helps motivate me to keep moving.

It seems fairly accurate. The floor counting sometimes misses and sometimes give me credit I don’t deserve but it seems to average out. The number of floors may not match the physical number of flights of stairs climbed since Fitbit defines a “floor” as a 10 foot elevation change. This means that I got credit for 11 “floors” during a walk that had enough small ups and downs to account for 110 feet of elevation gain over the course of the walk. This seemed high to me but matched what an iOS walk tracking app said within a few feet. If it is wrong it at least matched the result from a totally different method so they are consistent.

I’ve used it to track sleep a couple of times. The velcro wrist band you sleep the Fitbit into seemed like it would annoy me but I was totally unaware of it after a few minutes. It’s idea of when I was awake pretty much tracked what I remember though there was one definite false negative where it said I was asleep but I know I was awake. I haven’t fiddled with the sensitivity setting for sleep yet but that might rectify that. According to Fitbit I’m sleeping with 95-100% efficiency, falling asleep within 10 minutes and sleeping throughout the night with only a few points where I wake up.

The website is fairly basic but you can integrate with other services like Withings, Lose It! and MyFitnessPal and others. People doing food tracking may find MyFitnessPal a better choice to log food since they are reputed to have a better database than Fitibit. With connected devices like Fitbit and Withings you can remove the need to log weight or most exercise leaving only food to be accounted for. This minimizes the amount of data entry needed so should help minimize the drudgery.

In five days I’ve taken 32,000 steps and climbed 74 “floors” for a total of 14.1 miles. That puts me in the middle of the pack of my four Fitbit friends. Have to see if I can move up to second place!

Reunion 10.0.2 Offers Partial Map Fix

An update to Reunion 10 was released today and one of the fixes allows manual placement of the map pin when geocoding locations. This is a welcome change as the automatic geocoding doesn’t always provide the right choices (particularly when using historical place names). Unfortunately, if the geocoder doesn’t come up with any choices, we don’t get any option for map pin placement. So, while it’s better, it still makes it impossible to fully utilize the feature without jumping through hoops.

They also claim stability improvements though since the release of 10.0.1 I haven’t had the program crash on me (10.0.0 crashed early and often).

Hopefully another update will address this last outstanding map issue.

A Quick Look At Reunion 10

Just as I had lost hope that Reunion 9 would ever be updated, version 10 was released. Given that I just recently did a comparison of Reunion 9 to RootsMagic 5, I figured I ought to do a short note on how Reunion 10 compares.

It’s certainly prettier than Reunion 9. Instead of a main family card window with a lot of auxiliary windows flowing around it, there is one window with two sidebars. This makes it a little easier to find things. Navigating around the tree is easier and this feels generally improved to the way things were before.

One of my biggest hopes was the program would be less modal when editing. This is a bit true but you can still only edit one individual at a time. This continues to be a major weakness in most of the desktop genealogy programs I have used. Unfortunately, to make matters worse, Reunion 10 forgoes version 9’s “save” and “cancel” buttons with a single “done” button. This wouldn’t be a problem on its own except that it doesn’t implement the multilevel undo that needs to exist when it is otherwise impossible to cancel an edit. Editing has now become significantly more dangerous in Reunion 10 and this is a major step backwards in data safety.

One of the major features missing in Reunion 9 was mapping and version 10 adds this in. You can geotag using a name look up or by entering coordinates directly. Unfortunately, you can’t geocode by selecting a location on the map directly making the feature much less useful than it would have been. It’s a step in the right direction but it’s not complete enough to be particularly useful. On the plus side, place management has become much easier with the ability to drag and drop to merge places.

Source management hasn’t changed. The application still lacks any concept of master source or repository (the latter is a major oversight). It has the same, very flexible, template system that version 9 has and while it is quite flexible, there isn’t much help with standard template formats.

Stability has taken a large step backwards. Reunion 9 was very stable and I can’t recall it ever crashing on me. Reunion 10 crashed three times in the first hour of usage.

Reunion continues to be the most capable of the Mac genealogy applications but it’s glacial update rate and its rigid conformance to one-at-a-time editing make it a tough recommendation. There really isn’t anything on the Mac that is as user-friendly or as capable but it continues to force the user into an editing model that feels like a straight jacket. While Reunion 10 is a major upgrade over Reunion 9, it doesn’t feel big enough given the time between updates. It feels rushed out the door and given how long they’ve had to work on it that doesn’t inspire confidence.

If it sounds like I have a love/hate relationship with it, that’s certainly true. It’s pretty good and it could be utterly fantastic but the few things it gets wrong continue to drive me crazy.

Comparing RootsMagic to Reunion

It seems kind of odd to compare Windows and Mac genealogy apps. But, these two apps seem to be the best or at least among the most used for their respective platforms.

I’ve been using Reunion 9 since 2009. There is much to like about it. It’s powerful and capable. I don’t think there would be much argument that it is the most powerful of the Mac genealogy applications. While that isn’t saying much by itself since the state of Mac genealogy apps is rather woeful, Reunion is generally quite good.

It allows you to define custom events, create source templates, link to media, create multiple kinds of notes, generate many charts and reports, autocompletes fields and even gives you control over what gedcom tags are associated with each event type.

There’s an awful lot that Reunion gets right. But, what does it get wrong?

It has no mapping functionality. There is no way to visually see how events and people relate geographically within the program.

The source template functionality is useful but isn’t very portable. If you export your sources as “structured” (with each source field as a separate gedcom field) the odds are good that no other program will import most of that information. If you export it as “flat” (with all the fields concatenated together) it doesn’t format then nicely and makes it hard to read and parse.

Reunion lacks the idea of concept of a master source or repository so it’s impossible to really organize sources. On the positive side, it make the citation process very easy. You can drag from a list, select a recent citation from a drop-down or enter a number. It’s easy to get a list of all the events that use the citation.

Most windows in Reunion aren’t modal with the major exception of the data entry for a person. Because of this you can’t have two or more people open at the same time. If you are updating a family of five for a census, it would be nice to open all five and do the data entry together. Reunion forces this to be a linear process: open person 1, edit, cite, close, open person 2, edit, cite, close, and so on.

I’ve been looking for a good online home to share my research, both with family and other interested parties. The gedcom files that Reunion produces are generally not imported without loss of data, particularly with source and note information.

Finally, Reunion hasn’t had a major update in the three years I’ve been using it. In one sense that’s a tribute. It just works. But, nothing new has come along and they’ve done nothing to address any shortcomings. They say they are working on Reunion 10 but won’t offer any insight into when it will be available or what it might contain.

Despite those problems, it generally outclasses the other major Mac app, MacFamilyTree. MFT is slicker from a looks perspective but has a very clumsy UI and drops a lot of information on gedcom imports.

Because of those limitations I took a look at RootsMagic 5. I didn’t really want to run a Windows app, but I’ll use the best tool for the job. I know a lot of people think highly of RootsMagic.

Compared to Reunion, the RootsMagic UI fees less polished (and Reunion could stand a fair bit of polishing itself). It has a late ’90’s Windows feel to it. To be fair, this is coming from a Mac biased person but I tried to be as objective as I can.

RootsMagic suffers from the same modality problem as Reunion. I can only edit one person at a time. Worse, when editing a person I can’t open any other windows (save for a few that are opened from the editing dialog itself and they are themselves modal). Sigh. One big hope was dashed.

On the positive side, RootsMagic can check (some) of your place names for correctness and you can also enter place details. It’s likely that no other app will understand the exported place details but that’s more a statement about gedcom interoperability than either RootsMagic or Reunion.

RootsMagic can also geocode place names and show them on a map. You can show all the events at a place or all the places for a person. But, the UI is fairly ugly. There is also no easy way to look for migration paths over time.

RootsMagic place checking is both a blessing and a curse. It’s nice to know you misspelled a county name or that this county didn’t exist in 1847. But, if you are geocoding from the place list as I am having done an import from Reunion then it offers up the standard, modern place name. You have to pay attention rather than blindly accept this if you want to preserve your historically accurate place names (“Province of Massachusetts Bay” vs. “Massachusetts, United States”). Even so, it’s a feature that shows a great deal of promise and hopefully they will expand upon it in the future.

RootsMagic claims that citations are a major strength and they seem to be. They provide templates following the Evidence Explaned format and allow you to specify whether a citation is primary or secondary and the quality of the citation. Great stuff!

Unfortunately once you choose a template you can’t change it without reentering a new citation and then having to re-cite wherever it was used. Reunion gets that right even though their template system isn’t as useful out of the box. This means that I am stuck with badly formatted sources unless I go back and re-cite everything and that’s a challenge for a database with 800 people in it. It’s a major disincentive to switch.

RootsMagic imported the media links from Reunion and allowed me to specify a new directory for the images and in a few moments all my images were re-linked! This was unexpected and very nice! I know Reunion can do a similar thing because I moved my images to a new disk and it was very easy to relink them though I’ve never had reason to do an import and see if the links were preserved.

One of my problems with Reunion’s gedcom exports is that event comments are generally not imported by other apps. RootsMagic did import them but as event notes. It would be possible to move them manually into RootsMagic event description field which most other apps do seem to import. That would be a nice thing though a bit tedious to accomplish since I’ve used comments extensively in Reunion.

RootsMagic has extensive reports and charts but many things that need to be active parts of the UI and buried in reports. Getting a list of what events use a citation can only be done through a report and not through an active UI element that would let me navigate through them and make changes. That’s a bit clunky at best.

I’m at a bit of an impasse. RootsMagic does some things that Reunion doesn’t. Its gedcom exports seem (I haven’t tested exhaustively by any means) to be somewhat more interoperable than Reunion’s. But, it’s UI is a fairly big step back from Reunion’s thanks to being more modal. It’s source management is impressive but it gives you no help on migrating to it.

To best utilize RootsMagic I would have to spend days, if not weeks, fixing citations and converting notes to descriptions. The only incentive I have for doing that is that online sites seem to consume RootsMagic gedcoms better than Reunion gedcoms. I’m not yet certain that it is worth the effort. The problem is the longer I wait the worse the problem becomes as my Reunion database grows.

Reverting From Picasa Web Albums to Flickr

It looks like my ten month experiment with Picasa Web Albums is coming to an end. Though there are somethings I really like about PWA, overall, flickr is still a better match for me. I’ve updated flickr with all the sets taken since the experiment began and I’m creating a post here for each photo set.

I’m still not enamored with flickr; their persistent inability to supply an RSS feed of photo sets is appalling. They finally show a map on the photo page, but not on the set page. You can’t see an overall map. Really, only one of my presentation issues has been addressed. Still, of the options out there now, they suck the least.

Rudimentary PDF Support in ibooks Update

With the release of iOS 4, Apple also updated the ibooks app for the ipad. I was looking forward to one app for dealing with epub and pdf’s. Unfortunately, ibooks is not very usable for reading pdf’s, at least for me.

The first problem is organizational. You have an epub bookshelf and a pdf bookshelf. I would prefer a unified bookshelf. It would make things easier to find when there are large numbers of documents and one doesn’t remember what the document type is.

The more important problem is that pdf support doesn’t have a way to crop margins that I can see. You can unpinch to zoom in but that’s a bit fiddly and to make matters worse, it zooms back to full page view when you change pages. I was hoping I could use ibooks as the One True ebook reader but it’s not there yet.

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