newsonaut


Outer space? What about inner space?

October 20, 2019


The amazing adventures of Jean-Luc Picard

Jean-Luc Picard and Will Riker
Credit: startrek.com

I was excited to learn that Jean-Luc Picard is returning in a new Star Trek series — with appearances by Data, Seven of Nine, Riker and Troi, no less.

But the icing on the cake has to be Michael Chabon as showrunner. His novel, the Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, which won the Pulitzer Prize for literature in 2001, raises hopes that the Picard series could itself be amazing.

One of the main characters in the novel, Joe Kavalier, is a Jewish comic book illustrator who escaped Nazi-run Czechoslovakia in the 1930s. He had to leave his family behind, and makes it a mission in his life to help his younger brother join him in the United States.

He works out his frustrations, with the help of cousin Sam Clay, by producing story after story where a superhero called the Escapist pounds on Nazis. His great pride is a cover illustration of Hitler getting slugged in the jaw.

This is pure speculation, but I wonder if Chabon will take on the role of Kavalier with Picard becoming his Escapist. It would be entirely believable for a much-loved hero such as Picard to go up against personifications of the evils of our time. Racism, nationalism, immigrant-scapegoating — we’ve got many demons to contend with here in 2019.

If Picard does indeed take them on for us, don’t expect that there will necessarily be a happy ending. The Escapist was killed off by comic-book industry court battles. And for Kavalier and Clay, life turned out bittersweet at best.

I have a feeling we will learn new things about Picard’s humanity. The man will remain legendary but not quite as heroic. And we might also learn some uncomfortable things about ourselves, because the villains we fight are, to some extent, in all of us.



August 17, 2019


Three free ways to organize the windows on your Mac

If you’re multi-tasking with two apps, it’s nice to have the window for each app neatly take up half the screen. Here are three ways to do it.

Split View

This is built in to macOS. If you’ve never heard of it, you’re not alone. I just discovered this functionality recently myself. To make it work, grab and hold the green dot in the upper left corner of a window. When you let go, the window will be tucked over the left half of the screen. You’ll then be able to pick which window you want for the other half. Once you have the split, you drag between them to get the window widths exactly how you want them. You can learn more from Apple support.

Spectacle

This free utility has been around for several years. When launched, it places an icon in the menubar. You can then start organizing with keyboard shortcuts or clicks on the menubar options. It doesn’t take over the whole screen like Split View.

Tiles

I found this one by digging around at MacUpdate. It works the same as Spectacle, but also lets you drag windows to the edges of the screen to get them organized. This might be something you’re used to doing if you’ve ever used a Windows PC.

Which is best?

At this point, I’m kind of leaning toward Tiles.



July 20, 2019


Mind maps and web design

All these years I guess you could say I’ve been winging it when it comes to planning out the structure of a website.

Mostly I would use indented lists, occasionally a spreadsheet — or just let the site grow organically.

Then I saw someone with a beautifully designed sitemap. She told me she made it in draw.io. And that got me thinking — are there other tools that come to mind when mapping out a website? Hmm. How about a mind map!

To my amazement, there are literally dozens of apps and online services devoted to mind mapping. It’s practically an industry unto itself. And these are not necessarily fly-by-nighters. They charge a lot of money to corporate types who need ways of collaborating on projects. The brainstorming that mind maps allow is a big piece of the collaboration puzzle.

Even so, there is a place for the lowly web developer. And I have recommendations.

Mindmeister

This online service is super easy to use. Between tabbing and entering, you can have a visual sitemap put together in no time. They have an org tree layout that is great for presentation of a complex site. Or you can do a before and after — current site on the left, proposed changes on the right.

I am enamored with the ability to share with clients. You can give them a link that lets them get in there and move stuff around. Now, that’s collaboration! On the other hand, if you don’t want them making a mess, you can share a link without giving them the ability to edit.

There’s a free version that allows you to do up to three maps. So far, this has been fine for me. I delete old maps and move on. But the paid versions are reasonably priced with a big discount if you work in education.

XMind Zen

You can download this app and use it for free as long as you like. Some of the features are disabled, but none of them are deal breakers. They put a watermark on exported PDFs, but I’m OK with that. One way around this would be to take a screenshot and convert it to PDF with Photoshop.

The app has a more features than Mindmeister, but getting it to the org tree display is tricky. This is just the way I prefer to look at things, so you might not care about it.

There is no way to do online collaboration the way you can with Mindmeister, but on the other hand you can make as many maps as you want.

The verdict

Currently, I’m using a combination of Mindmester and XMind Zen. I have a feeling, though, that I will eventually spring for a paid version of Mindmeister. It’s not a huge amount, and I love being able to show clients something that looks professional and allows for collaboration.



April 20, 2019


Sift News Therapy aims to reduce your news anxiety

The trouble with the news is that the focus is on what is new — what’s happening now. We sometimes get analysis that allows us to see the bigger picture, but even that is fairly limited. In the end, the news can leave us feeling apprehensive, even outraged, because so much bad stuff is happening and there is nothing we can do about it.

Sift News Therapy screenshot

A snippet from Sift on the topic of U.S. immigration

Making things worse are those who take advantage of the situation by offering quick-fix political solutions designed to make us feel like something is being done. This helps governments stay in power and helps opposition parties win power. It helps us not at all.

The makers of an app called Sift News Therapy believe that we need way more context. For example, when you’re reading about the latest tragedies and controversies at the U.S.-Mexico border, what you really need to know about is immigration policy.

This is a much bigger topic, covering a lot of territory. But if you learn something about it, you’ll find that there isn’t really much in the way of news at all. Much of it, in different forms, has happened many times before. Opportunists have been whipping up anti-immigrant sentiment for hundreds of years.

Sift looks at U.S. immigration policy in two parts: the economy and cultural identity. In each section, you swipe through pages with snippets of information that together leave you much better informed.

Included are interactive charts, tables and quizzes — all of them nicely designed. And along the way are deep dives into related topics such as the tech industry.

Backing it up are credible sources. For example, the two for entrepreneurship are the Americas Society and the Center for American Entrepreneurship.

When you’re done with a topic, you can check in with your anxiety level. After reading about immigration, I chose the lowest.

The other topic currently available is guns. Coming up are climate, education, heath care and media literacy.

If you want to read about them, though, you’ll have to pay for a subscription. You get a one-week free trial, then it costs $26.49 every six months in Canada or $19.99 every six months in the United States. That’s around $4 a month.

Is it worth it? Well, for one thing these topics are covered very much from an American point of view. If you’re an American, that’s great. If you’re a Canadian who gets their news from CNN and the New York Times, it could also be great.

I’m kind of surprised at how many apps are asking for subscriptions — sleep apps, yoga apps, meditation apps. And now news apps. Where does it end? How much are people willing to pay?

The old journalist in me hopes that a lot of people are indeed willing to pay for the news. Good journalism requires good journalists, and they don’t come cheap.

The other problem for Sift is that it is a new. Will they get around to finishing those other topics? Can we count on them to create new topics on a regular basis? You might want to wait and see before paying. But if everyone does this, the lack of cash flow could kill Sift before it has a chance to prove itself.

The company behind Sift is All Turtles Corporation, which funds startups with a focus on technology. They cite a study from the Pew Research Center that shows most Americans suffer from news fatigue. Their own study shows that people feel less anxious and overwhelmed and more informed after using Sift.

If true, I hope they succeed.



March 31, 2019


Apple News only works well with the +

The message you get from Apple News is clear: unless you’re willing to pay for a subscription, don’t bother.

The epitome of this message came today in the form of a headline from the Wall Street Journal: Apple News+ is great for magazine lovers, but it’s not the future of news.

And right underneath it: an Apple News+ label.

In other words, we have a deep-dive story about Apple News+, but can only read it if we subscribe to Apple News+.

But maybe we don’t really need to, because so much is said in that headline that rings true.

Apple News (without the plus) is a collection of news and magazine stories, some of which are free and some of which are only available if you subscribe to Apple News+. The split is about half and half.

The free stuff is mostly news articles that you can find elsewhere — either on competing news apps or by going to websites.

The stuff you have to pay for is more exclusive. That article from the Wall Street Journal likely contains insights you won’t find elsewhere — at least not of the same high quality.

But it’s mostly magazine articles that demand a subscription. There are a lot of them, and they all look good. Gaining access ($12.99 in Canada, $9.99 in the U.S.) is an amazing bargain.

So if, as the Wall Street Journal says, you’re a magazine lover, paying for Apple News+ is a no-brainer.

Apple News (sans plus), on the other hand, will leave you unsatisfied and annoyed. You’re stuck with navigating around half the articles because you haven’t paid for them. And for the other half, well, there is much more satisfying way of discovering and reading them. It’s called Flipboard.



March 16, 2019


The anti-apps you won't find on your phone

Sherlock Holmes
On a quiet little street in Norwalk, Connecticut, across from a thrift store and a pre-school, just down from a large church, is the headquarters of a puzzle empire that spans hundreds of publications filled with crosswords, fill-ins, logic and math problems, sudoku, word seek, and just about any other puzzle you can think of.

PennyPress and Dell publications are tucked in with the magazine section of pretty much every grocery and drug store in Canada and the United States. They hearken back to a time when doing a puzzle meant putting pen to paper, not firing up an app on your phone. These are puzzles that might seem too hard for the attention-challenged brains of today.

Yet their continued existence is proof that ordinary, everyday people were and are capable of solving complex cryptograms and perplexing logic. You can tell there is nothing elitist about these collections. Just look at the cartoon image of a bunny sitting in a top hat to symbolize anagram magic squares. Or the cliché Sherlock Holmes looking for cryptogram clues.

You might think these puzzles are best left to old folks who can’t figure out how to use a computer. But you would be wrong. They are for anyone who wants to grow new connections between the synapses in their brains. Or at least nourish the ones they’ve retained.

Think of them as anti-apps. Think of them as a way of renewing your ability to think.



February 20, 2019


You, too, can learn to love WeatherCAN

Your first impression of WeatherCAN, the free new weather app from Environment Canada, is inevitably made by its icon.

I want to say it’s fine example of brutalist design, but that would imply that someone who knows something about design made the conscious decision to do it that way. But I’m pretty sure it was actually done by some well meaning federal government employees.

Four types of weather are squeezed into that tiny space, and the government of Canada logo is jammed in for good measure. And when you fire up the app, things don’t get any better.

But how about we accept the design as charmingly naive, and leave it at that. Because the actual weather information is really quite good — better in some ways than the stock Apple app.

There are five sections to explore: the current weather, the hour-by-hour forecast, the seven-day forecast, the satellite image, and fun weather facts that show up every couple of days.

There is no skimping on detail for these forecasts. When I say hour-by-hour, for example, I really do mean one forecast for each hour of the day.

You play a short looping video of the satellite image to get an idea of where the clouds are headed. On the downside the map is kind of minuscule on my iPhone SE. It might look better if you have one of the monster phones that are the new normal.

I find the fun facts more interesting than I thought I would. I’ve learned about ice pillars, sun dogs, and the lack of wind on the day Canada’s flag first went up a pole in front of parliament in 1965.

One strange thing I’ve noticed is that the forecasts are consistently more pleasing in the WeatherCAN app than they are with the Apple Weather. In the midst of a cold spell, it’s heartening to see the warmer days ahead predicted by WeatherCAN.

Kidding aside, this difference is puzzling.

The Apple app gets its data from The Weather Channel. But where does The Weather Channel get its data from? Do they have an army of meteorologists that rivals the resources of Environment Canada? Seems hard to believe, and I couldn’t find anything on their website to answer this question.

In any case, WeatherCAN makes me happier so I’m sticking with it.



February 17, 2019


lire settings

In my review of lire, I griped about some of the settings being hard to find in this RSS feed reader. So here’s a bit of documentation for those who would like to polish their experience with the app.

When you first fire up lire, there are three places where you can find settings:


  • The filter

  • The folder

  • A bunch of other stuff

The screenshots below show how I have them set up for unread in the filter, subscriptions in the folders, and font in the other stuff.

Locations of settings:

1. Filter for default to unread.

2. Set for subscriptions in folder:

3. Set for font, theme, etc.


To get at the typography settings, you have to open an article. This is where I found the all-important line-spacing. I made the margins a little wider as well. These settings will apply to all articles.

Location of typography settings:

Set for line-spacing, etc.:



February 16, 2019


lire close to being perfect RSS feed reader for iPhone

RSS feeds are the best way to keep up with the news, and lire is the best way to wrangle them on your iPhone — with just one niggle.

It’s bizarre that anyone uses Facebook or Twitter for their news. Posts and tweets come in at random times chosen by an algorithm that is not explained to us. The sources of news might be reliable, but just as often they might be fake.

With RSS, you get to choose your news sources — everything from a local newspaper to a national TV network to a new site specializing in a topic. If you can’t can find the feed for a site, send them an email. I got a local paper to put one in that way.

There is only one thing bad about RSS feeds. Sometimes you only get a headline or a snippet of the story. If you want to read the whole thing, you have to go the site. All too often, this means having to wade through ads and trackers to get at the precious content.

Some feed readers have a third-party add-on that pulls in the story, but they can be slow and maybe not work at all.

When I found out that lire was a “full-feed” reader, I was intrigued. The description at the App Store promised I would never have to go to a website to read a story unless I wanted to.

The reviews were good, and I liked the fact that the price ($6.99 in Canada) is a one-time payment. There are no subscriptions to worry about, although you can add a “tip” later if you really like the app. I’ll probably give one myself.

After a few weeks of exploring lire, I was able to make it do pretty much anything I could think of. For example: it defaults to unread, the font is Helvetica Neue, the line-spacing is much looser, the background colour is muted, the margins are a little bigger.

That’s the good news. The bad news is that it took me a few weeks.

The line-spacing was way too tight for my eyes, and I thought regularly about sending a suggestion the developer about adding a preference for it. Turns out that there are a bunch of typography-related preferences, but you have to go into an individual article to find them.

Even when I found them, I suspected that they would only work for that one article. They would much easier to discover if they were in with all the other preferences.

Which leads me to one last discovery that makes lire close to being perfect.

My feeds are divided into folders named for categories of news — regional, national, world and so forth. The default is to show all the subscriptions in the folder together, but I like the option of being able to read one subscription at a time. You can set a preference for this (again not easy to discover) but it’s a either-or situation. You can’t choose as you go along.

This is not a deal-breaker for me, and likely isn’t one for you either. So if you’re looking for a great RSS feed reader, go ahead and take a chance on lire.

PS: Could we please have a version for macOS?



May 27, 2018


How to block Facebook login / signup pop-up

I’ve been thinking about deleting my Facebook account, but I’m worried that I will still need access to it from time to time. For example, I might want information about a local event, and they’ve decided to post about it only on Facebook.

You can visit Facebook pages without signing up or logging in, but you have to contend with an annoying pop-up that covers a big chunk of the bottom. It grows to cover the entire page if you scroll down.

I found a way to stop this, but it took a fair bit of searching. So I thought I’d post it here in the hope that this will make things easier for other people in my boat.

First, install uBlock Origin as an add-on or extension to your browser. This is a great open source ad blocker that works flawlessly. It has the option of allowing you to whitelist sites that you favour, so there’s no need to feel guilty about denying ad revenue to the good guys.

Open uBlock, and click on the dashboard icon at the top right.

From there you can click on the My Filters tab. This is an area that allows you to customize what gets blocked — including Facebook’s annoying pop-ups.

Copy and paste the following into the dashboard, and click Apply Changes.

www.facebook.com###pagelet_growth_expanding_cta

That should do the trick. You can check out Facebook to your heart’s content without Facebook knowing about it.



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