newsonaut

Turning inner space into outer space

October 23, 2020

Space wars: Extra space, yes, but not necessarily two spaces

A couple of years ago, a study came out supporting the idea that two spaces after a period makes sentences easier to read. A great cheer went up from two-space supporters.

You can read about it in the Washington Post.

But it makes you wonder — where are these people even seeing two spaces?

Looking around the house, two spaces are nowhere to be found. Not in a letter from the bank that arrived this week, not in a textbook published in 2004, not in a novel published in 1983.

They are also nowhere to be found on the internet. Anything more than one space is stripped out by the web browser when it renders the code.

There are ways to ensure two spaces after a period, but they are laborious, and no one is going to pay a web developer to waste the time. A special bit of code would have to be inserted wherever you wanted the extra space.

Automated solutions would take a lot of time and effort to devise because of the difficulty in determining what constitutes the end of a sentence. Take this example:

Our hours are Monday to Friday from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.

There are four places that might be a period ending the sentence. You could write a program that made exceptions for a.m and p.m., but then you’re stuck with an infinitude of other abbreviations to account for.

The best solution would be for web browsers to have a built-in way of adding extra space after a period, although not necessarily two spaces. The amount of space would have to be balanced with all the other spacing in the context of the article.

Why is this best? Because not only does it recognizes that extra space indeed makes it easier to tell where one sentence ends and another begins. But it also because it recognizes that the concept of “spaces” that we learned from typewriter days is long gone.

Spacing has become a more subtle art, and should be measured that way.

October 22, 2020

Top 10 reasons people hate forms

1. Repetitive: You’ve filled in the same information on a gazillion other forms.

2. Unnecessary: The form is a sneaky way of generating sales leads. “You want this ‘free’ thing? You have to give me your email.”

3. Privacy: The form asks for personal information that is none of their business.

4. Long: Not just long, but all the fields are required so you can’t skip them.

5. Security: The form asks you to give up your email for the bazillionth time. Eventually something will go wrong and you’ll wind up the victim of ransomware, or who knows what.

6. Password: The form asks you to create a password, but you’ve created a zillion passwords in other forms, so you have to think of a new one because you’ve been told they should all be unique. And then you have to have a system for remembering all the passwords.

7. Unclear questions: The form asks you to do something, but you’re not sure what it means, so you have to search their site for an answer, or find a way of getting in touch with support.

8. Dishonest: The form tries to trick you into buying stuff you don’t want or subscribing to an email newsletter you don’t want.

9. Doesn’t work: After filling it in, the form doesn’t do anything, so you’ve wasted your time.

10. Unnatural: When you buy something from a bricks-and-mortar store you don’t have to fill in a form. Why should you have to do this when buying something online?

October 21, 2020

Crosswords for persistent puzzlers

Here are some of the best sources of crosswords if you like them challenging. Many publications offer quick and easy crosswords — these can’t be aimed at true crossword lovers.

On mobile it’s tough to beat New York Times Crossword. They start you off with free packs ranging from mini to midi to full size.

When you run out of those, and are hooked, they ask for a subscription: monthly $9.99 or annual $54.99.

Is that a lot? It depends on how you look at it. If you’re dropping $5 or $6 a week on crossword books from the local newsstand, it’s a good deal.

The best crossword app for the Mac is Black Ink from Red Sweater. It links to the Wall Street Journal, the Chronicle of Higher Education, New York Times Premium, American Values Club and The Inkubator.

The app itself costs $29.95, but the good news is that some of the crossword sources are free — you get a lot of bang for your buck.

In the magazine section of your local store there are many publications to choose from, but few for puzzlers who enjoy a good challenge.

Two of the best are Dell Sunday Crosswords at $4.99 and The National Observer Book of Crosswords at $6.50.

Dell says its puzzles “are edited with clever, challenging clues that will make you think, smile and solve.” It should be noted that sometimes the smile is accompanied by a groan — but that’s OK.

National Observer promises “these puzzles are, and will continue to be, tough but fair.”

October 20, 2020

Outlook for Mac still has a long way to go

Unresponsive buttons in the Save As Template dialogue.

Every once in awhile I get my hopes up that Microsoft will put out a product that I like. So I was cautiously optimistic when I learned there was a new version of Outlook for Mac.

As the saying goes among English football fans: “It’s the hope that kills you.”

It’s slow to launch, which wasn’t a surprise, but at least the new interface cleans up the clutter. At least it does at first.

If you click “New Message”, you can, of course, create a new email. But try clicking on the button that opens the message in its own window — you’re right back to the clutter of the old Outlook. It’s like they forgot to do this part, right down to the ugly icons. It’s the same thing with the preferences pane.

There are couple of things I like about Spark that keep me coming back, so I thought I’d see if they exist in Outlook. One of them — quick reply — does not. In Spark, you can click a button at the bottom of the message, choose your reply, and off it goes.

The other is templates. Since I find myself saying the same thing over and over, I’ve set up a couple of templates that save me from tedious typing. Outlook has something called “Save As Template …” I opened a new email in its own window (won’t work otherwise), put in a message and did the save-as.

This did not result in a template. Instead I got a dialogue box that wouldn’t go away unless I force quit Outlook. Both the Cancel and Save buttons were unresponsive.

At this point, it was no longer worth the stress. Spark, despite being new-ish, is as comfortable as an old shoe. The only thing I miss is the ability to set up rules. This used to be an advantage for Outlook, but the function appears to have gone missing, which is strike three. At least I can still set them up in Apple Mail.

October 19, 2020

My belated discovery of Farley Mowat

A Canadian who hasn’t read Farley Mowat should be ashamed. So it’s with a red face that I admit to finally getting around to reading my first Mowat book — The Dog Who Wouldn’t Be.

I’m about halfway through, and I’m thoroughly enjoying it. Mowat was a great Canadian storyteller. He had a wonderful command of the English language, and he knew how to spin a spellbinding yarn.

The Dog Who Wouldn’t Be has me laughing out loud at regular intervals. I love the fact that it takes part in Saskatoon — a nice change from foreign locales I don’t identify with.

This is a book that sat on a shelf unread for more years than I care to admit. The good news is that there are two others — People of the North and A Whale for the Killing. They’re next on my reading list.

And it turns out that Mowat wrote dozens of books. I could be in Mowat mode for years!

October 18, 2020

Lower Decks may finally be the new Star Trek we grow to love

Riker and Troi in the Lower Decks finale

Now that its first season has ended, Star Trek: Lower Decks finds itself in a strange new world — a new Star Trek TV show with good reviews.

Discovery and Picard have not fared well with the critics. The biggest problem is that these shows don’t feel like the Star Trek we’ve come to know and love over the years. In the end, what critics and fans want is Star Trek: The Next Next Generation.

Picard, despite the presence of the main character in TNG, plus the presence of three others, didn’t cut it. For one thing, this version of Picard (the character) is old and tired. For another, he’s no longer the captain of the best starship in the fleet — he’s merely the leader of a band of renegades.

Lower Decks, on the other hand, takes us back to the TNG days with no apologies. Their ship isn’t as great as the Enterprise, but it looks and functions the same. Although it’s played for comedy, the feel is like good old TNG.

At least three of the old TNG characters have shown up, and they are young and vital — like they were before.

The first reviews for Lower Decks, based on the first four episodes released to critics, were mostly not good.

Alan Sepinwall, for Rolling Stone: “Whatever the reason, Lower Decks is the latest disappointment in the Star Trek stewardship of CBS All Access and producer Alex Kurtzman.”

Mike Hale, for the New York Times: “There are several Prime Directives being violated there, one having to do with lazy joke writing.”

By the time we get to the finale, things are looking better, Swapna Krishna, writing for Vulture (part of New York magazine), says “Mike McMahan and his team deliver a funny, heartfelt, and satisfying conclusion that holds a lot of interesting implications for the second season of the show.”

And: “All in all, this was a strong and well-written first season.”

At Comic Years, Joshua M. Patton sums up the shift in feelings toward Lower Decks:

“Humor is subjective, of course. So, while more than a few scenarios in this series didn’t work for me, there were plenty that did. The holodeck episode and the episode about the Starfleet medical colony were two particularly standout episodes. They were able to leverage the idea of Starfleet as something less-than a force for good into some great comedy. However, the Star Trek: Lower Decks finale episode is the pinnacle of the season, perhaps intentionally so.”

Assuming that Lower Decks will continue to improve in Season 2, there is much to look forward to.

October 17, 2020

Extensibility could push this notes app to the head of the herd

Obsidian graph view

Unbelievably, yet another notes app has surfaced. How many variations on this theme can there possibly be? The answer, apparently, is lots.

The latest to come to my attention is Obsidian, which is billed as “a powerful knowledge base that works on top of
a local folder of plain text Markdown files.”

Since any searchable collection of notes could be considered a knowledge base, this claim might be more of an emphasis than a stand-out.

The second part, though, is important for many people because they don’t like the idea of their notes in a proprietary format. If the app ever disappears, the notes may not be retrievable. This potential problem is solved by storing the notes in a folder on your computer (instead of the app’s database) in plain text, which future computers will always be capable of reading.

This is an important point if you’re thinking about entrusting your work to an unknown quantity — and at this point, still in beta, the future of Obsidian is very much unknown.

Another feature is the ability to create links between notes because “the human brain is non-linear: we jump from idea to idea, all the time.” Other apps, such as Bear do this, but what really makes Obsidian different is the ability to display all these links in a graph.

This allows you to visualize all the connections — a big plus if that’s the way your mind works.

The thing that could put Obsidian ahead of the pac is its extensibility. That means anyone can create a plug-in that makes the app do more. At this point there are already dozens of plug-ins from both the developer and the Obsidian community.

This is one of the things people love about text editors such as VS Code. It creates a community that can snowball an app’s usability. Instead of bugging the develop to create a new feature, you can create it by yourself. Or, chances are, someone else has had the same idea and done it for you.

Obsidian is worth watching. If you’re settled into a satisfactory routine with your current apps, it will be tough to switch. But if the right plug-in shows up, that could be a game changer.

October 16, 2020

Check my proposed new flag for Kamloops

The current flag of Kamloops is what is known in vexillology circles as a bedsheet — the coat of arms on a white background. There are red bars to the left and right edges, similar to the Canadian flag but slimmer. Arched over the shield are the words “City of Kamloops”.

It was designed by former mayor Jim Walsh and adopted on Oct. 1, 1985. Sorry, Jim, but it’s atrocious on every level.

With the bar set low for improvement, I tried my hand at creating a new one.

The blue represents the confluence of the two rivers that trisect the city. The green represents the sagebrush on the mountains and hills that surround the city. The sun represents our optimism and connection to both nature and natural resources. It also alludes to the 316 days with sunshine that brighten our lives in an average year.

The yellow of the corona and the blue of the rivers are borrowed from the flag of British Columbia as an homage to the province.

For awhile I was hung up on having the flag more obviously represent the confluence of the rivers. After all, the word “Kamloops” is an anglicization of the Indigenous word denoting the meeting of two rivers.

Someone made a flag like this for Kamloops in a contest on the vexillology subReddit. It looks pretty good. And one of the better city flags, St. Louis, beautifully represents the confluence of the Mississippi and the Missouri.

Either way, I didn’t feel that I could compete.

I had in my mind one of my favourite world flags — Ukraine. It’s yellow on the bottom and blue on the top, representing blues skies over yellow wheat fields. It’s perfect.

For Kamloops I’m proposing green sage over blue river. I could stop there if this were a country flag, but a city flag can afford to be more homey. Thus the addition of the sun.

Things I’m not sure about:

1. The colour of the sage may be overly optimistic. It’s normally a duller colour, but I can’t see that looking good on a flag.

2. The sun might be cartoonish, but it’s the best I can do for now given my limited artistic abilities. I might do an update if I can come up with something better. It also might be too big.

October 15, 2020

News-cation: interim report

Half way through my October news-cation, the changes I’ve noticed in myself are a mixed bag — but mostly good.

I feel more focussed on my immediate world, including my family, which is a good thing. But also on self-improvement habits such as writing, tai chi, reading and walking. I think I’m also more calm and relaxed — it’s hard to say for sure.

If there is a downside, it might be that I’m stressed more work. Without the distraction of pandemic stats and the Idiot in Chief, I may be thinking about office politics more than usual. On the other hand, there’s a lot going on, so it’s possible a news diversion wouldn’t have helped.

I had hoped that detoxing from bad news would help me sleep better, but I haven’t noticed a difference.

It’s been a worthy experiment, and I intend to see it through. Come Nov. 1, I’ll gradually ease my way back by only reading news about the city and the province. After a couple of weeks, I will expand to the nation. I may never go back to world — at least not until the Orange One is ousted, which could be in a few months or a few years.

October 14, 2020

Introducing, Captain Gullivant

Captain Gullivant, like Lemuel Gulliver of Gulliver’s Travels, journeys far and wide on voyages of discovery and adventure. But he lives far into the future — so far that it might be considered an alternative reality — and goes from planet to planet throughout the universe.

Technology has advanced to the point where you can build a spaceship capable of going anywhere within a few days. You don’t buy the spaceship, because resources are so abundant that they have become free for everyone. The knowledge required to build such a craft is also freely available.

Captain Gullivant is not actually a captain. There are no ranks in this far future. Everyone can be anything they want to be. “Captain” is his first name, which was bestowed upon him by his parents. Many people change their names in this far future, but “Captain” has a special meaning for him. He is inspired by the last two lines of Invictus by William Ernest Henley:

I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.

It’s not clear whether he takes true inspiration from the poem, as have famous people through history, or whether he has a more superficial relationship with the poem. His last name, after all, is a combination of gullible and gallivant.

But it definitely shines through in his actions. Wherever he travels, he is certain that he knows better than the inhabitants of the planet, that they should change to be more like him. And just as certainly, they prove him wrong, usually with irony or some twist of fate.

None of the matters to him. He learns nothing, always knows himself to be right, and moves on to the next planet in his travels.