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Category: Cool Websites

Posts about cool websites, including this one.

Music History Graph

Music History Graph

Above is a small part of my music listening history as reported to over the last year and a half. Time is plotted left to right, overall number of tracks by the width of the shape, and the colors represent individual artists. I used LastGraph3, which if given your user name will make a set of graphs from your data.

If you click on the image above, you’ll see the full history. It looks like I go through periods where I listen to a fair bit of music, and then stop, and start again. I think there’s a fair amount of smoothing of the data. I think my history would look even more jagged without smoothing.

I like plots like this because they show multidimensional data using colors and shapes in an intelligent way. Of course the classic example is Minard’s famous depiction of Napoleon’s 1812 Russian campaign. I think everyone should have to learn how to make good plots, and understand how to read one. When I was a TA, I constantly had to remind students the point of making graphs – I think nearly all of them felt it was busy work rather than a way to organize and visualize data; a way to recognize a physical effect.

Just like significant figure errors (I am bothered enough by those to contact newspaper reporters: I’ve done it in the past), I cringe at the sight of misleading or poorly organized graphs. The worst offenders tend to use Excel, whose plots are instantly recognizable as probably being garbage. I also dislike the USA Today charts and many plots seen on the various network evening news shows. Too much artistic influence from graphics artists (no offense K.P.!), and not enough substance.

New Hosting Service

New Hosting Service

Two and a half years ago I moved my website off my father’s computer at home to Site5. For a while it was great, especially compared to serving a website over a cable modem connection. However, over the last year or two it’s gotten progressively worse, something I discussed in this post about a year ago. Also over a year ago, Site5 promised to move everyone to new servers. It hasn’t happened, and my service has gone steadily downhill.

My first two-year prepaid period with Site5 went up in December last year, and I seriously thought about moving. I looked at other shared hosting companies, but I felt I would probably have the same problems on a new shared host. I looked into hybrid solutions, but that too didn’t seem a guaranteed improvement. I liked the idea of Virtual Private Servers (VPS), but I couldn’t find one with enough disk space in my budget.

A few months ago, my lab mate Rick pointed me towards s3fs, which intrigued me. s3fs puts your data on Amazon S3, but allows the data to appear to be local to the server, like another hard drive. You pay for only what you use with S3, and it has virtually unlimited space. Suddenly, a VPS hosting solution fit into my budget. I could pay for a VPS with less disk space than I needed, but still get the power of VPS. It was also an upgrade because now me and my family could upload as much data as we wanted, and it would be much more secure from disk failure than before.

This website and other sites that were on the old server are now being hosted on a machine from I’m using their lowest option, which has 10GB of space. I installed Ubuntu Hardy Heron which seems like a solid Linux distribution. s3fs has proven to be reliable and fast enough, although it’s much slower than having the data on a local disk. Using Apache rewrites, my father and I have made it such that when a web browser asks for items on a page that exists on S3, the request goes there instead from this server, which saves lots of time. I’ve also figured out how to shoehorn Gallery2 into using S3.

So far I am very happy with the new server. Oh, and you may not have noticed, I moved my blog to, although will get you the same thing.

Yahoo! Mail Tries, and Misses

Yahoo! Mail Tries, and Misses

I have written thrice (1, 2, 3) in the past about the new Yahoo! mail interface, the Ajaxed interface to Yahoo! mail. It is incredible how slowly they make improvements to it. It’s not like Yahoo! cares what I say, but of the points I raised over two years ago in my first post, they still haven’t all been fixed.

But Yahoo! maybe trying harder. There is now a preference to add the greater-than signs on replied to messages:

Which is great. Until you try to use it. Here is a message I sent myself:

Here is what I get when I hit ‘reply’ (this is a screen shot of the compose window, the text is editable):

Yes, each and every word of the message I’m replying to gets its own line. But it gets worse! Here’s what I get when I send the replied message without touching anything:

Here each word of the replied to message gets its own line separate from the greater-than signs. I hope this is just a simple bug (I will submit a bug report about this) but this is simply ridiculous.

Yahoo! Does Know All

Yahoo! Does Know All

Yahoo! has rolled out a new search service with predictive search hints. As you type it tries to guess what you’re searching for. It will also give you an ‘Explore Concepts’ tab which gives you words to associate with the search you just performed. I was playing around with this and I searched my friends name, Chris Nekarda, and I discovered that Yahoo! pretty much has him nailed down.

Donuts are truly the gateway to understanding his soul. It does a slightly worse job with me. I don’t own anything made by Nikon.

And it misses Melissa by a wide margin.

Site5 Could Be Better

Site5 Could Be Better

A week ago I saw a posting on digg about how Dreamhost sucks. It got me thinking about the problems I’ve been having with my account with Site5. Let me say that at no point has my experience been anywhere as bad as the one described in that link.

My hosting plan is on a shared webserver. Here is an informative page about my machine, named iaso. It has four Intel 2.8Ghz Xeon processors, and four gigabytes of RAM. It runs Linux which is a solid server OS.

My big problem are periods when this very website is unresponsive. There are lots of other websites on the same computer. And by lots I mean on the order of 600 websites:

-bash-3.00$ cat /etc/passwd | grep -v nologin | wc -l

The number of users with logins is not a one to one list of websites served, but it’s probably a good estimate. All it takes is one of the 600 users with a bad webpage to clog up the machine.

Below is a plot of the load level for iaso over the course of 15 days last month. Without going into specifics, a load level of one means that there is one process needing a processor at any given moment. It will be many different processes, and that’s fine. Practically, a machine can stay responsive with up to about a load of three or four per processor. So, on a four processor machine like iaso, a load level of 10-15 is about the highest comfortable level.

What you see above are many occasions when iaso went well above load levels of 25. The highest peak was a load of 230. In my experience, once the load reaches 25 my website becomes more than slow: it doesn’t work anymore.

For comparison, below is a plot of the same thing on one of the nodes of the supercomputer I use, Datastar. This is the node where scientists do heavy-duty analysis on their datasets. For instance, I use this node to process my multi-gigabyte datasets using IDL. People also run Mathematica and other very computationally intensive tasks on this machine. It’s got 32 1.7Ghz Power4 processors and 256GB of RAM (what do you have on your workstation, huh?). It runs IBMs AIX 5.3. As you can see below, for the first four days, the load level stays below one process per processor. In the fifth day something happens and it goes above 60 for a while, before the machine gets rebooted and things return to normal.

The kind of processes that run on the two computers above are very different. However, the supercomputer is supposed to run big jobs and get beat on. A webserver isn’t. Anytime the webserver’s load goes above 25, it’s like the supercomputer’s load shooting to 256. At no time did the supercomputer shoot to 256, while the webserver goes above 25 many times. Of course, I’m comparing 15 days to 5 days in the two plots, but I think the differences are clear.

Site5 pays a third party to monitor their webservers, with results listed here. iaso has 99.8% uptime overall and 99.4% over the last month. This is bad enough that apparently I’m due a 5% credit on my next billing cycle. iaso isn’t even living up to Site5’s own service standards.

Every time I catch my website being slow, I contact Site5 tech support. I know that this is a common problem with shared hosting. I’m sure that Site5 is aware that these outages, and does what they can when they happen. But, when it does happen, it’s annoying. It shouldn’t happen in the first place. Sometime this summer, Site5 is changing their hosting solution which may help with these problems. We’ll see.

Yahoo! Mail support is a joke

Yahoo! Mail support is a joke

For some reason, lately when I go to Yahoo! Mail (, occasionally instead of going to my inbox, I get a page of raw PHP. Here are the first few lines:

<?PHP ini_set('display_errors', 0); $data = yahoo_reg_login_setup(); if ( $data === FALSE ) { exit(); } else if ( ! isset( $data['DISPLAY_FORM'] ) ) { error_log( "yahoo_reg_login_setup didn't set the DISPLAY_FORM field" ); header( "Location:"); exit(); }

Here is the rest of the PHP code. It is obviously the PHP code that runs the base of Yahoo! Mail, which decides where to forward you: either to your inbox or to a login page. At any rate, there's no reason why Yahoo! Mail's servers should be sending me raw PHP.

When I get this page, if I hit 'refresh' I'll get the correct page, so things aren't totally broken. This slightly annoying, and it's obviously a problem with Yahoo! Mail's servers. My web browser is incapable of producing raw PHP code, much less with a Yahoo! Mail bug tracking number (see the full text).

Trying to be proactive, I sent this code to their help department. I also wrote "Please don't tell me it's my problem, as there is no way my browser can generate raw PHP." They wrote back telling me:

We understand that you're receiving a HTML error message in your account ... To help us troubleshoot and assess the issue, please take a screenshot of the entire page when the issue occurs next.

They then proceed with instructions on how to take screenshots in Windows. As a Mac OS X user, I found this help insulting and useless. I am no common Windows user, and they shouldn't assume I am. Furthermore, providing a screenshot is even less helpful than my original post, as the PHP code covers more than one contiguous window - I have to scroll to see all the PHP code. It's clear that either my message wasn't read, or the person reading it had no idea what I was saying and put in the most general pre-written reply they could find.

It says something about your company when this kind of 'help' is allowed. This person should have forwarded my message to someone who had a clue. They shouldn't have sent me anything, much less nonsense, when they no idea what I was writing about. Perhaps there is no conduit for this kind of thing between the Yahoo! Mail help staff and the actual programmers. If that's the case, it's a shame, and it's more evidence why GOOG is kicking YHOO's butt.

Shift/Tilt Photography

Shift/Tilt Photography

I’ve recently discovered an obscure kind of photography, Shift/Tilt Photography. By using a lens that can shift laterally as well as tilt the lens elements, some very interesting effects can be achieved.

Shifting the lens laterally has the effect of keeping the edges of a vanishing object stay parallel. Buildings or door frames often suffer from this, here is an example of this vanishing effect. This happens because the film is not parallel to the plane the parallel vanishing lines define. Conveniently, wikipedia has some nice graphics showing that the goal in shifting the lens is to keep the image plane parallel to the object while also keeping the image on the film.

Another attractive ability of a shift/tilt lens is shown below. By tilting the lens, the sides of the shot can be brought out of focus in creative ways. There is a stripe of the photo which is in focus, and on each side the image is out of focus. Obviously, by rotating and shifting the lens, the location of the stripe can be moved on the image.

At first glance, this image above looks like it’s of a scale model. It is in fact not a model, rather it’s an aerial photograph (or from a tall building) using a shift/tilt lens. Here are more examples of this kind of photography from the same site. I’m fairly certain that these “the bitter* girls (place in your life)” (#) photos have been photoshopped to enhance the colors because they look just too saturated to be real. This has the effect of making things look more like a scale model with clean, unweathered paint. I think there’s also been some down-sampling because even where the photo is in focus, there’s not very much detail.

Through extensive searching online, it seems the widest variety of shift/tilt lenses are Russian-made. Here are a couple lenses which claim Minolta compatibility: MC 35 mm ($600) and MC 80 mm ($400) tilt/shift lenses. If any of you are feeling particularly generous, go ahead and buy me either lens. If you’re feeling especially generous, buy me both!

(#) The Japanese are weird. I can’t even imagine how that makes sense in Japanese. Perhaps it’s mangled English for the sake of mangled English.