Outer space? What about inner space?

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.

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

July 31, 2017

How my web skills helped cultural tourism in Tanzania

The three weeks I spent in Tanzania as a volunteer web designer in the Leave for Change program were a perfect fit for me. Except for Joomla, but even that turned out to be a blessing in disguise.

When I first heard about the program at Thompson Rivers University, I was working as an auxiliary, which meant I wasn’t qualified to apply. It was also soon after having been laid off my job of over 20 years at the Kamloops Daily News. The family financial picture was uncertain, to say the least.

But three years later, I was on full-time and my wife agreed that this too good an opportunity to pass up.

I went to the Uniterra website to check out Leave for Change openings and was surprised to find a couple of openings for web designers. The one in Tanzania seemed closer to what I was doing in TRU’s marketing and communications department, so I made it my first choice when applying.

A few months later I was on my way.

Looking back on it, I can’t really say why I was so nervous about going. I worried about every little detail, even though I had been assured by other volunteers that the organization would take good care of me. And in fact, they did.

I was greeted at the airport and taken to a beautiful bed-and-breakfast in Arusha, a city near Mount Kilimanjaro. In fact, I viewed this fabled peak from the airplane on the way in. It was an impressive sight.

In spite of a warm welcome, I found myself overwhelmed by the foreign-ness of the place. The closest that I have come to a similar country was Sri Lanka back in 1982. I was a lot younger then, and a lot more fearless.

I felt not so much cultural shock as cultural overload. There was just so much to take in.

Needless to say, I adapted. And what helped — as I mentioned at the beginning — was the fact that my assignment was a perfect fit. The work set out for me on the Tanzania Cultural Tourism website was a lot like the work I’ve been doing for years at TRU.

Updating. Coding. Editing. Organizing.

It all came together because it was stuff I was already used to doing. The upside to being an old pro (the downside being that you’re old) is that you have confidence that you can solve pretty much any problem that gets thrown your say.

The first problem, and the biggest, was trying to figure out Joomla. This is a content management system along the lines of WordPress. Unlike WordPress, it is poorly documented and ugly as sin.

At first I struggled to do the simplest tasks. How do you update an article? It can’t be that hard. One thing that helped immensely was a theme I found for the back end that at least cleaned up the clutter and made the interface look like something that was designed in this century.

I persevered and eventually discovered how to do all the things I needed to do. The key was creating my own documentation. I wrote down where everything was, along with step-by-step instructions on how to get stuff done.

So how was this a blessing? By teaching myself I was better able to teach others.

The bulk of the assignment entailed updating a website that hadn’t been updated in five years. A lot had changed, and a lot hadn’t been coded correctly in the first place. It was a big job.

But the other half of the assignment, which in some ways was more important, was to leave behind the knowledge I had gained. Those step-by-step instructions I created for myself forced me to break things down into manageable bits of training for three staff members of the Tanzania Tourism Board.

They had initially wanted me to work with their IT department on training. But I assured them that using a CMS to update a website was no more difficult than using Microsoft Word to update a document.

They were pleasantly surprised to learn that I was right.

The real test, of course, will be to see whether they actually do keep the site up to date now that I’m back in Canada. They have my email address, and I offered several times to give them guidance if they need it.

My fear is that the staff is quite small, and even with the best of intentions they just might not find the time to do the updates. Other things might take priority. We’ve all been there.

Regardless of the outcome, I’m satisfied with what I accomplished in 12 working days. I did as much as humanly possible for a good cause.

Cultural tourism, which I had never heard of before, is a great idea. Local groups around the country organize tours of their village or region, and apply to the Tanzania Tourism Board for support. They must meet strict guidelines.

I saw one such enterprise in a place called Tengeru. The people there were incredibly friendly. To a certain extent, it was rehearsed — how could it not be? — but I also felt a genuine warmth.

The day consisted of two main parts: a coffee tour and a canoe ride at a nearby lake. Our guide had a great personality and proved to be quite knowledgable. His English was impeccable. The fact that he had experience guiding tourists on Kilimanjaro probably didn’t hurt.

I learned where coffee comes from, and had a lot of fun doing it.

But the best part was knowing that most of the money people spend on these tours (I met three Americans and three Belgians while there) stays in the community for local initiatives such as education and health care.

The website I worked on helps promote these tours. Visitors and tour operators can refer to it and find something that suits them. Pretty much everyone who visits Tanzania comes for Kilimanjaro, the Serengeti or Zanzibar. But they often have a few days where they are at loose ends, and these cultural tours are a great way to fill the gap.

If I was even in some small way able to keep these tours thriving, I will indeed be quite happy.

July 26, 2017

A day in the life of a web designer in Tanzania

First, you have to get there. That means surviving wall-to-wall people at Addis Ababa airport.

But it’s all worthwhile because you start your day with a glorious sunrise like this.

Or on a sunny day, like this.

I stayed in a nice little bed-and-breakfast type place.

It was called Adia’s Place. Adia made me breakfast every morning, except for a couple of days she took off to have a baby.

This dude did the laundry and other stuff.

This guy drove me to work every day.

Why did I need a driver? Because you never knew who might be lying in wait at the side of the road.




So we had to drive fast.

I didn’t work in a clock tower, but it was near a clock tower.

So here’s the building where I actually worked.

I shared a tiny space with other volunteers.

It seemed even smaller when these guys moved in.

And this guy.

Luckily, we had some other guys building new furniture for us.

The boss was kind of grumpy.

And this guy was kind of shifty.

I never did find out what these guys did.

After working really hard, I got a promotion and moved into this office.

On coffee breaks, we had fresh coffee. Really fresh.

First, we would pick the beans.

Then we would dry the beans.

Then we would shell them.

And roast them.

And, of course, grind them.

Finally, we had a nice drink of coffee.

By the time that was over, it was time for lunch. We went to a nice place by the lake.

And had a hearty meal for $3.

For dessert, it was bananas.

Sometimes, we would have company for lunch.

And more company.

By the time I was done lunch, it would be time to go home.

The wildebeest crossings could really slow you down.

But the turtles were even worse.

Finally, I made it home.

And had that great feeling that I had found my TRU

December 18, 2016

Three steps to freedom in web design

One of the coolest things about Resilient Web Design is that it is a web book. Yes, entire book with chapters and an index, created first and foremost for the web. It looks good and reads great on any device.

But a book is nothing without content, and this one delivers. Mostly, Jeremy Keith presents a history of web design, but along the way we learn about the founding principles of the web and the philosophy they infuse in everything we do today.

It’s taken awhile, but we’re finally reaching the point where it’s considered normal to design a website so that anyone, armed with any device, can use it. Knowing the history of the web, it’s easier to understand past mistakes. It’s also easier to understand why we need no longer repeat them.

Keith’s big takeaway is his three-step approach to web design:

  1. Identify core functionality.
  2. Make that functionality available using the simplest possible technology.
  3. Enhance!

In many cases, the simplest technology might be nothing more than semantic markup. If someone can visit your site and get want they want with no CSS or JavaScript, count that as a victory for the web.

I would be tempted to go one step further. Before you even think about design, create all your content — or at least get it close to what you want. Then mark it up. Then design it.

Following this approach, by the time you reach Keith’s Step 3, you can go nuts.

November 11, 2016

Facebook users need to speak up: we don't want fake news

Facebook's global reach, as visualized by Facebook intern Paul Butler in 2010.

If you read — and believed — a news item saying that a candidate was involved in child trafficking, would you vote for them?

I sure wouldn’t. But on other hand, I would have found it hard to believe — especially if this was being said about a reputable charity and if the source of the news was one I had never heard of.

Yet, this is exactly the kind of thing people are reading and believing on Facebook. I know of two people who believed something they read “on the Internet” about the Clinton Foundation being involved in child trafficking.

It didn’t take much for me to track this “news” to an anonymous comment on an obscure forum. But for a lot of people, Facebook is a trusted brand. They don’t think to question what they read there.

The child-trafficking story is just one example of fake news on Facebook. And before you pooh-pooh the influence of Facebook, have a look at the latest statistics from the Pew Research Center.

Almost 80 per cent of Americans on the Internet have a Facebook account. And about three-quarters of those with accounts check in every day. The figures for Canada and much of the world are likely similar.

That is the power and reach of Facebook, something that the company has carefully cultivated over the years, because it help it helps them sell stuff and make money — worthy goals for any business. But on the other hand, they can’t turn around and blithely ignore the fact that if they are influencing people’s ideas about what to buy, they are also influencing their ideas about how to vote.

CEO Mark Zuckerberg is in denial:

Personally I think the idea that fake news on Facebook, which is a very small amount of the content, influenced the election in any way — I think is a pretty crazy idea. Voters make decisions based on their lived experience.

Emily Bell, writing for the Columbia Journalism Review, has a perfect response:

Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg posted a picture of himself in quarter-profile, with his toddler daughter Max, as they watched Donald Trump become president of the United States. The smiley emoji on his post says he is “hopeful.” “Holding Max, I thought about all the work ahead of us to create the world we want for our children,” he wrote.

The good news for Zuckerberg is that, unlike most people, he can make the world a better place almost immediately just by taking more responsibility for Facebook’s publishing policies. By acknowledging that Facebook can and should play a more active part in editing—yes, editing—its own platform, and hiring actual people to do so, Zuckerberg will further the civic commons as well as address a growing problem of how people perceive Facebook.

We used to worry about people being uninformed and apathetic. Now we have to worry about them being misinformed and taking action based on misinformation.

I fear we may reach a point where news becomes more disreputable than advertising. At least advertising has to adhere to certain minimum standards of truthfulness. The purveyors of fake news, on the other hand, can crank out all the junk they like and get away with it.

There is hope, though. Facebook did finally back down from allowing race-based advertising. In the end, they had to respond to an outcry from their users, because a tarnished reputation would be bad for business.

If Zuckerberg refuses to do anything about fake news, he risks Facebook eventually suffering the same fate as other platforms that have become abandoned cesspools.

I don’t expect people to leave Facebook in droves any time soon, but in the mean time there are things you can do.

First, understand that everything you read has a source. News articles, even fake ones, are written by someone who works for an organization of some kind. Check out the source. If it’s something you’ve never heard of, and if the news isn’t being carried by an organization you know to be reputable, then chances are it’s not real.

Second, if an item is obviously fake, don’t click on it. A lot of these stories are so outrageous that you can’t help but want to read more — if only for entertainment value. Resist the temptation, because Facebook’s computer algorithm will take your click as a sign you want more stories like that. Don’t encourage them.

Third, if you are concerned about fake news, then say so in a Facebook post. It might not seem like they are listening, but if enough users express a concern, they will have no choice.

According to Forbes, Facebook is the fifth most valuable brand in the world. That could easily change if enough of us no longer trust them.

October 30, 2016

How the MacBook touch bar went from meh to wow

Of course, the touch bar has emojis.

A couple of new computers were announced last week. My initial reactions were wow to the first one and meh to the second one. After some thought, those opinions have completely reversed.

What had me going wow at first was Microsoft’s Surface Studio. In case you haven’t been paying attention, Microsoft has become a major manufacturer of computers. It started with iPad-like tablets called the Surface. Now the product line has grown to the point where the latest Surface looks more like an iMac that you can tilt and use as a giant tablet for your art.

Microsoft has a video showing artists using a stylus and a new gadget called a dial to instantly make beautiful creations. It’s amazing to watch.

The meh settled in when I thought about the cost. Because of the power needed to run the Surface Studio, it costs a lot more than an iMac. Graphic artists, as much as I love them, are a small niche. Graphic artists with big budgets are an even smaller niche.

The price of an expensive new product often comes down if it gains traction in the market place. That might eventually happen with the Surface Studio, but I doubt it.

It turns out the real wow was the touch bar on the new MacBook Pros. With its latest laptops, Apple has removed the F keys at the top of the keyboard and replaced them with a long, skinny touch screen that changes depending on which program you’re running.

For example, if you’re in Photoshop and you want to adjust the colour in a picture, you can run your finger back and forth on the touch bar until it looks right. It’s not just the novelty of using a finger instead of a mouse that’s appealing, it’s the fact that the controls you need are easier to find and more intuitive to adjust.

I can see where this could catch on, especially as developers come up with innovative ways of using the touch bar.

As noted by The Verge, the touch bar is actually a mini version of the Apple Watch. This opens up the possibility of the touch bar eventually running standalone apps that could be used for multitasking.

Many people already work with two screens, but that gets awkward if you’re on the move with a laptop. But imagine this problem being solved if the touch bar could handle things like email and a calendar.

Apple has taken a confusing and seldom used part of the keyboard and turned it into an area with the potential for becoming a powerhouse of productivity.

That alone is worth a wow — but there’s more. The touch bar includes something called Touch ID. According to Wired:

. . . that’s what you can now use to unlock your Mac, pay for items online, and even replace the bulk of your passwords altogether. It can recognize multiple fingerprints, allowing for secure, simple access to multiple profiles on the same device.

Hallelujah for the day we can do away with passwords.

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