Turning inner space into outer space

August 22, 2021

Bring back the Mac grabby hand

Poolsuite with the grabby pointer and grab bar

If you want to move a window on your Mac, you position your mouse cursor so you can click and hold on the top part of the window. But it's not always that easy.

There's a lot of stuff up there. If you're using a web browser, it might be full of tabs. If you're using Word, it might be full on functions. Finding the right place to click might mean resorting to trial and error. What looks like a free spot might actually be yet another thing you can do with the app.

Back in the day, there were two big hints to let you know where you could grab. First, the cursor would transform from a pointer to a gloved hand with outstretched fingers. The fingers would close when you clicked. Second, the part of the window you could grab had five or six horizontal lines on it — a sort of grab pad.

There is still one app that has this feature, although it's not quite the same as what we had in the classic Mac interface. I'm referring to a collection of music with a retro look called Poolsuite. Not only does the cursor turn into a grab hand, but it can also turn into a hand with a pointing finger when you hover over buttons in the top left.

Maybe the thinking among app designers now is that people are so used to working with apps that they don't need these cues any more. But I see it as a sort of courtesy. Poolsuite's developers want us to feel comfortable when using their app. Making the grab space obvious is a nice touch. Much appreciated.

July 2, 2021

espanso is a great app for expanding text

There are plenty of recommendations for text expansion apps for the Mac, but neglected in the reviews is quite possibly the most awesome of them all — espanso.

A text expander, for the uninitiated, is an app that allows you to create shortcuts that expand into longer words or phrases as you type them. If you're tired of having to type the same set of words over and over again, a text expander is a godsend.

There is a limited expander built into your Mac that can be set up in the keyboard system preference under the text tab. There are also several good apps you can buy — do a search on Mac text expanders and you'll find them.

You might have a little difficulty finding the unheralded espanso, so let me tell you more. One: it's free. Two: it has a ton of features that keeps growing. And three: it's available not only for Mac but also Windows and Linux.

I was at first turned off because you need to use Terminal to install it. I had been getting the dreaded command not found error in Terminal, which made the thought of installation even more off-putting.

Anyway, I finally got my command not found woes cleared up, thanks to OSXDaily. espanso is now installed and doing great things.

Let me be clear: it has a lot more going for it than being free. (The developer does ask for donations, so please make one if you can afford it.)

There is a ton of stuff you can do — the documentation is massive. My favourite so far is a clipboard trigger you can use to create HTML links. You copy the URL you want, type in the trigger (:a), and there it is — a link with the URL in it and the cursor sitting between the tags.

Plus, there are packages of text triggers you can install so you don't have to make your own. They range from emojis to HTML utilities. I installed one that creates a shruggie text emoticon because why not? So far I've resisted the temptation to install one that generates random dad jokes. You can pitch in by creating and uploading your own package using YAML.

And not to be overlooked is the espanso community, where you can get help from other espanso fans.

All this might seem like a lot of uber-geekery just to save some typing. But digging into the Terminal and doing a bit of coding is what makes computing fun.

June 10, 2021

Top iPad weather apps for Canada

After some digging, I discovered that iPad weather apps using Environment Canada data do indeed exist. They're just hard to find. The App Store search buries the good stuff under scammers and review-gamers. The one-star written reviews are your best warning — stay away from them.

You may have better luck using a search engine, although even these results are mostly more about making money from affiliate links or pushing you to download an ad-riddled app.

I found three of the apps in this list in the comment section of an article. Comments can also be cesspools of hawkers trying to sell their stuff, but there are still a few good people out there genuinely trying to be helpful.

In my mind, the best Canadian weather apps for iPad should have two things: accuracy and a nice layout. Accuracy means data from Environment Canada and a nice layout means, at the very least, no ads.

Here are the top five contenders:

1. Celsius: uses Environment Canada data

The first screen has a list of locations with the current weather plus the forecast high and low.

Tap and go to a second screen with details including hourly forecasts, seven-day forecasts, wind, humidity, dew point, visibility, pressure, sunrise and sunset. Radar is available but you have to find it on the Environment Canada website.

2. Météo: uses Environment Canada data

The list of locations and details are on the same page, making the layout more cramped than Celsius. It works better horizontally.

There are more details, though: hourly forecast, seven-day forecast, wind, AQHI, pressure, visibility, humidity, dew point, normal temperatures, yesterday's temperature, yesterday's precipitation, sunrise and sunset. Alerts, radar, satellite and lightning and available within the app.

3. WeatherCAN: uses Environment Canada data

This is the official Environment Canada app. It is an iPhone app that also works on iPad.

Locations are in a tap-down menu with details on the same page. Details include past 24-hour conditions, current conditions, sunrise, sunset, COVID-19 trends, hourly forecast, seven-day forecast, radar and weather-related messages such as news about World Environment Day, World Oceans Day or solar eclipses.

4. Atmosphérique: uses Environment Canada data

Locations are in a tap-down menu, with details on the same page in a layout that seems cluttered compared with the other apps. It only works vertically, and there is a banner ad at the bottom.

You can also find Atmosphérique Pro, which is end of life and refers you to Atmosphérique 4. I wasn't able to find it.

Details include seven-day forecast, hourly forecast, past 24 hours, radar, normal temperatures, sunrise, sunset, humidity, pressure, humidex, wind, visibility, dew point, yesterday's temperature and yesterday's precipitation, records and averages.

5. Weather Network: unknown source of data, but appears to be based in Canada

Locations are in a tap-down menu with details on the same page including two ads, one in the middle and one at the bottom.

Details include hourly forecast, 36-hour forecast, 14-day forecast, wind, humidity, pressure, visibility, ceiling, sunrise, sunset, yesterday's temperature, air quality and UV report (appear to be the same thing), pollen and radar.

May 25, 2021

Tweet roundups take journalism to a new low

Never mind the outrageous click-bait headlines that don't match the story. Never mind the press releases that are copied and pasted verbatim.

The so-called journalism that's really been grinding my gears lately is the tweet roundup.

Here's how the formula works. First, do a lame summary of some major event that's trending. Second, search Twitter for reactions. Third, embed a dozen of the most inflammatory tweets into your story. If you want to seem balanced, try to find a few that take an opposite stance.

You might think this is lazy journalism, but it's just the opposite. This is the story you write when you're required to churn out stories by the dozen throughout the day.

It's making the most of the news of the moment. Sure, these stories are terrible, but quality is not the point. The point is to keep readers engaged for a few more minutes until the next thing trends. Advertisers demand it.

When I come across a story like this, I refuse to read it. I have no idea who these people being quoted are since none of them use their real names. And even if they did, who cares what a bunch of random strangers wrote as a knee-jerk reaction? Am I supposed to admire how clever and witty they are?

And it's getting worse. In the past you could be sure that what was being quoted was indeed from Twitter because it was embedded from Twitter. Lately I've been seeing stories where they don't even bother doing that. All you get is a quote that the writer purports to be a tweet.

Maybe it was from Twitter. Maybe it wasn't. With standards this low, they could write anything and say it was from Twitter. How could anyone possibly check?

More and more, I'm thinking the solution is for every reputable news service — big and small — to put its content behind a paywall. If you want solid, reliable news, you should have to pay for it.

May 24, 2021

Now with more outer space than ever

It's the first redesign since newsonaut started in 2010. What took me so long?

I think I clung to the old design for so long because I thought it had a classic look that stood the test of time. But I was wrong. It was looking dated.

And there are a couple of other factors. First, the pandemic is at long last coming to an end. Second, I'm pretty close to retirement. Both of these things are cause for optimism and even celebration.

So newsonaut now has a brighter, bolder, outer-spacier new look.

Will anything else change? I'm thinking of focusing more on writing about the news and journalism, but that could change at any moment.

May 2, 2021

My other website got a major makeover

An old thriftmac T-shirt in all its dingy glory

thriftmac is a project that has been been kicking around since 2006 — almost an eternity on the internet. It's older than that if you count it's predecessor. There was a thing called Free for X for a couple of years.

It's a place where you can find 100-per-cent free Mac apps. It's not like the Mac App Store, where "free" might mean free trial or useless unless you pay for a subscription.

You can download these apps and use all the features for as long as you want. Yes, apps like this really do exist.

In its heyday, thrifmac was chock full of Google ads, bringing in $100 US on good months. It peaked at $200.

The site wasn't just a collection of links to apps. I blogged like crazy. Nothing was too trivial to write about if it involved a free Mac app.

I actually ran contests. thriftmac has a worm for a mascot (because apples sometimes have worms in them) so I ran a contest to name the worm. The winning name was Scrimpy, and the winner got a free thriftmac T-shirt.

Another contest was based on the Survivor TV show. I listed 10 apps I thought were only borderline deserving of being on thriftmac, and people voted in weekly rounds to eliminate one of them. The loser was OneButton FTP.

I wrote literally hundreds of articles until I finally ran out of steam. Since that time, thrifmac has existed for the several years as an app repository only — no blogging. (Although that might change soon.)

The thing is, the site is basically a database with a lot of useful information in it. thriftmac presents that database through a content management system called Textpattern.

That means it remains, after all these years, something to play with. What are the various ways I can present this database?

And so we have arrived at version five in 2021.

The biggest change for visitors — aside from the spiffy new look — is the switch from sections to categories. Before, you would have to click on one of eight sections, then look through the categories within the section.

Now, you can just go straight to whatever category you want.

Behind the scenes, I set several challenges for myself — challenges only a coder might appreciate.

  1. No divs. Much of the web code I see is littered with divs. I've seen tutorials where they have a div for the sidebar with a class of "sidebar" and a div for the main content with a class of "main." It's bizarre. Why not use the perfectly good tags we have available to us — aside and main.
  2. No classes. If you use semantic tags throughout, you can dispense with many classes. I managed to whittle them down to just one.
  3. No JavaScript. I've got nothing against JavaScript — in fact, I've used it to make a lot of fun staff. But I wanted to resist the temptation this time.
  4. Use grid and flex. I wanted to be done with bolting on third-party layout solutions like Bootstrap or Foundation. thriftmac now uses grid for layout, with a touch of flex.
  5. Creative use of CSS. There's a few touches so far, and I hope to sneak in a few more.
  6. No CDNs. I wanted to dispense with third-party dependencies, but I couldn't resist one Google font (Raleway, which was also used in the previous version of thriftmac) and Font Awesome. I thought about just using the generic sans-serif and letting people use whatever system font they have on their computer, but it seemed too lacklustre. I'm also a sucker for icons, and the site has precious few graphics otherwise. But that doesn't mean I'm using CDNs. I downloaded both, and they're being served up from the site.

I enjoyed the exercise, and I think the site looks pretty good. When it's a hobby site, it's really only your own opinion that counts anyway. And there's sure to be more tweaks coming.

March 7, 2021

Mini Diary has the basics for beginner diarists

I never thought I would be the type to keep a personal diary, but I've been wrestling with a big decision lately and decided to give it a try.

There is a nice free and open source app called Mini Diary that is perfect for beginners like me.

I like that it has a calendar on the side so you can keep track of your diary entries in chronological order.

It also has a search, a few formatting controls, and a word count. And I like that it has password protection.

I'm OK with writing about things — like this app recommendation — that other people could conceivably be interested in, and publishing them on this blog. But the personal stuff needs to stay private.

So far it's been going well. I've done three entries and feel confident that I will write more.

This reminds me of a Netflix series called about the death of a young woman from Vancouver at the Cecil Hotel in Los Angeles. Much of it was devoted to voice-overs and screenshots from the woman's Tumblr account. She was open with her feelings, and those thoughts live on as a testimony to her life.

That's not me, though. That stuff stays locked up in Mini Diary.

March 6, 2021

Apple's weird idea of free

Speaking of the Mac App Store, I am annoyed every time I look at the Top Free Apps section. It includes Microsoft Word, Excel, PowerPoint and Outlook.

There is absolutely nothing free about any of these apps. You download them, launch them, and they immediately invite you to set up a paid account.

You cannot do one single thing for free.

I can only assume that Apple is in on this scam, which makes it all the more disappointing.

March 5, 2021

Free love at the Mac App Store

Sometimes there's a weird disconnect on the Mac App Store — in the section called Apps and Games We Love Right Now.

Let's deconstruct this a bit.

First the "love" part. According to Wikipedia, "mostly commonly, love refers to a feeling of strong attraction and emotional attachment."

To say that you love something is about the highest praise you can give it.

Then there's the "right now" part. I take this to be a way of amplifying the love — that it transcends all other considerations.

Finally, there is the "we". I have a vision of Apple employees making these choices, but that's probably naive. There's no way employees are being trusted to make independent choices without corporate approval. These apps have the Apple seal of approval.

All in all, it's a bunch of marketing bafflegab, but I'm sure most people would agree that the message is that these apps come highly recommended by Apple.

So it's only natural to check them out. After all, Apple, it would appear, has gone through the thousands of apps in the app store and chosen a few of the most outstanding.

The first one I looked was DaVinci Resolve, a video editing program. Maybe this was just coincidentally a bad choice, but it felt like I had entered an alternative reality.

The app has 19 ratings for an average of 3.2 out of 5 — kind of mediocre. And it's a generous 3.2, given the stream of complaints in the written reviews.

"I uninstalled and reinstalled and it still will not load"

"It won't let me add in any files"

"It did not work at all after multiple attempts."

"Cannot add files, progrm hangs... Complete dissapointment..."

"When i try an add things to a project it does not work please fix this"

And these complaints go back three years! In other words, this app suffers from major issues and the developer has apparently not fixed or even acknowledged them.

How, then, did Apple come to love DaVinci Resolve right now? Did Apple employees seriously look at the reviews and decide they loved this app anyway?

A new version came out about a week ago. Did it solve the problems? There is no mention that they even existed.

The most generous thing I can think of to say is that DaVinci Resolve is free, so just download it. Who knows? Maybe you'll get lucky and it will work for you.

January 3, 2021

Reclaim your habits with Streaks

I've used pencil and paper to keep track of my habits, and was doing well for a few months. Then came December.

First, I put off printing a new sheet at the beginning of the month, as is required with this method. Then I thought I would just sort-of remember my habits — they were habits, after all.

By the end of December, most of my habits were in disarray. In fact, there was one I couldn't even remember.

So once again, I checked out some apps. There are some really nice ones, but almost all of them want you to register, subscribe or both. I will do neither.

Which leads me to Streaks — you buy it for $7 (price varies by country) and it's yours.

It has a beautiful interface where you set up your habits. Mine are mostly things I want to do once a day, but there are other options and variations, such a certain number of times per week or month. You can also set lengths of time and distances.

Each habit gets its own icon. I was pleasantly surprised to see it choose the yin-yang symbol for my tai chi habit.

As you complete your habits, little charts and calendars keep track by showing your streaks. The longer you keep up the habit, the longer the streak – and the satisfaction that comes with that.

You can set it to send notifications so you don't forget. Another reminder comes in the form of a badge on the icon with the number of habits you still need to fulfil for the day.

I put the app on my phone in the same area as my news apps, which I obsessively check. That makes it even harder to ignore.

So far, I'm pretty happy with Streaks. I wish there were more apps like this — a simple service at a fair price.