Showing posts from 2019

Follow Space Events With Spaceflight News for Android

Spaceflight News is an Android app that aggregates space news stories and data on space events such as launches and orbital maneuvers.

The app lists the headlines of the stories and links to the respective sites and blogs for reading the full text. The headlines come from the Spaceflight News API, a project by the same author of the Spaceflight News app. The API lets developers add to their own apps spaceflight news from selected sources. So it doubles as a demo app for the API.

The Spaceflight News API is inspired by the Launch Library, a project to provide developers with an API for adding to their apps a wealth of data on space launches collected and maintained by a group of volunteers. The Spaceflight News app provides also Launch Library data, and other information on space events such as vehicle rollouts, docking and berthing maneuvers, and more.

Although there are great and more advanced launch data apps such as Space Launch Now, the free Spaceflight News app combines and prese…

Blogging Awareness in 2019

If you've been on the web for more than a decade, you’re familiar with blogs and how they work. But don’t take for granted that others do.

Two recent Reddit threads in r/Blogging hint at how low awareness of blogs and their infrastructure is in 2019. A blogger wondered how to follow a blog and suggested using Twitter, completely ignoring RSS. In a different thread, another blogger shared an anecdote that made him realize many young people don’t know what blogs are.

What’s more worrying is the demise of RSS, a valuable source of repeated, interested traffic that bloggers own and can control. It’s comparable in effectiveness and growth potential only to email newsletters.

Suppose a typical user stumbles upon a blog they like and want to follow. They don't know how to do it as RSS, the best tool for that, is even less known than blogs. Visiting the blog from time to time is impractical, the user forgets and moves on. They may follow the blog's social profile. But, given the wa…

Why I Stopped Using My Xiaomi Mi Band 4

I bought a Xiaomi Mi Band 4 from Amazon and returned it the day after it arrived. Why? Because of some usability issues tech reviews don’t tell about.

Why I wanted the Mi Band 4 I actually didn’t want a fitness tracker.

My Moto 360 2015 smartwatch is apparently dying. So I wanted a replacement for the Moto 360’s most useful feature to me, the ability to show the notifications from the phone when it’s more convenient to twist the wrist than to reach and grab the phone. I thought the Mi Band 4, a popular and affordable device, could do an acceptable job at that.

Usability issues The Mi Band 4 seems like a good and useful fitness tracker with a clean user interface.

But, when I tried it, I realized it has some usability issues that make it less suited for what I needed. The first is the font of text longer than a few words such as in notifications is so tiny, with prescription glasses I have to strain to read most of the text — barely — if I keep the device close to the eyes. A related i…

In Praise of Cheap Keyboards

I’m typing this with a keyboard that is cheap and looks cheap, and I’m loving it.

It all started with my first Chromebook, an Acer C720 I got to learn about and explore Chrome OS. I loved it so much I switched to using Chrome OS as my only desktop operating system. Back then my daily driver was an i3 ASUS Chromebox 2 hooked to the Logitech K120 full travel keyboard I had kept around from my last PC.

Having a main desktop machine, I put aside the Chromebook for a while. But later something motivated me to play with the Chromebook more: its keyboard.

The screen of the Acer C720 has notoriously poor viewing angles. But I realized I could view it more comfortably by setting the Chromebook on a slightly taller desk, which made the angle optimal. This led me to use the device more and appreciate its chiclet keyboard with its good feedback.

To have a similar experience on the Chromebox I bought the only low profile chiclet unit I found that had the extended Italian layout with accented lette…

A List of Free Python Books

If you’re like me, you love learning by reading books.

So, when I set out to learn the Python programming language in the last days of 2018, I started looking for good books. I googled, browsed Reddit, checked major Python sites, and came out with a list Python books, including several free ebooks. I shared the list of free books to Reddit as I thought it may help others. Not only was the list a huge hit, some users suggested more great books.

Given all the interest, I put together my initial list, integrated it with the suggestions, and published the list of free Python books.

Go check the list, there are good titles covering many topics, from introductory guides to advanced language features and techniques, from software engineering to game development, and more. Including a few gems, such as the unusual book Boxes: Your Second Python Book that explores digital typesetting and text layout algorithms.

How to Zoom the Screen on Android

You have no trouble viewing the screen of your Android device, but sometimes you squint and struggle with tiny text or small details.

What to do? Use Android’s triple-tap to magnify gesture.

This is actually an accessibility feature, but it’s very handy also for general use. Enable the gesture in the Android system settings under Settings > Accessibility > Magnification > Magnify with triple-tap > On.

Now, each time you can’t read or see something on the screen, triple-tap on it. Here’s what the tiny text of a street name in the Google Maps app looks like when magnified:

Android magnifies — effectively a digital zoom — whatever is at the spot you triple-tap on. Pinch to magnify even more. Drag with two fingers to scroll and pan. You know the screen is magnified because there’s an orange frame around the edges. Triple-tap again to turn off the magnification and go back to the default screen. Here are all the actions you can take:

This simple gesture makes my Android experie…

Reading Impractical Python Projects

If you experienced the home and personal computing revolution of the early 1980s, you may have read some books that got you hooked up with programming. These books led you through the intellectual adventure of using computing to explore interesting problem domains.

I got a recent book that brought back that fascination and excitement with programming, Impractical Python Projects: Playful Programming Activities to Make You Smarter by Lee Vaughan.

The book is not a Python tutorial or guide. Instead, it presents stimulating coding projects for non-programmers who want to use Python for doing experiments, test theories, or simulate natural phenomena. This includes professionals who are not software developers but use programming to solve problems in science and engineering.

Exploring and understanding the problem domain is an integral part of the book’s projects along with the coding. This is unlike typical programming books where the examples are often trivial, have little or no domain d…

Space Apps for Android: 8 Sep 2019 Update

I released a new update of my book Space Apps for Android: Discover the Best Astronomy and Space Apps on September 8, 2019. If you purchased the book, you can download the latest version for free from your Leanpub library.

This new version comes with the complete rewrite of chapter The Sun, which now has an introduction. I removed all the material on Solar Observer because the app is partially obsolete and doesn’t provide much value. I also added the entries for Eclipse Calculator 2, the best eclipse app, and SunViewer 2, which lets you view the latest solar images.

Why an update? Because I’m self-publishing the book as a work in progress with the Lean Publishing process, so I’m constantly updating and expanding it.

NASA Removes HDEV Support From Its Android App

The HDEV experiment on the International Space Station stopped working sometime in July 2019. The official NASA app for Android removed HDEV support in version 1.90, released on August 30, 2019, as its change log entry notes:

Removed the ISS HDEV section which has reached end of life
HDEV (High Definition Earth-Viewing ) was a set of commercial HD video cameras mounted on the exterior or the ISS and aimed at the Earth. The purpose of this NASA experiment was to evaluate the effects of long-term exposure to space radiation of off the shelf video equipment.

The cameras streamed beautiful live images of the Earth from space and worked continuously, except for the night side of the orbit or when operational constraints prevented it.

The loss of the payload is not unexpected as the harsh environment was eventually going to damage the devices. Still, the general public loved these views and hoped for more. NASA unsuccessfully tried to restore the system but had to give up, declaring the expe…

A Conversation on Repurposing Blog Content to Publish a Book

Some bloggers write a book by putting together their posts, revising the content, and expanding it with new material. I always used Google+ as a blog and I did something similar by using my posts as an early draft of the book Space Apps for Android I self-published.

In a video conversation with Nina Trankova, Monika Schmidt, and Bob Danley, a part of Nina’s "On e Board" series, I explained how I repurposed the posts of one of my Google+ collections as the backbone of the book. I also discussed the Lean Publishing workflow with which I produce the book.

How I Fixed the Fingerprint Sensor of My Pixel Phone

Some time ago the failure rate of the fingerprint sensor of my Pixel 2 XL Android phone got worse. The device was failing to recognize my fingerprint more and more. Two simple things I did fixed the issue, here they are in case you experience something similar.

The first was to clean up the fingerprint sensor. I had been using the phone for a year or so and the sensor had likely gathered significant dirt.

Another thing I did was to scan more fingerprints of the same finger to increase the recognition accuracy. 2-3 scans of the same finger should be enough, try more if there is little or no improvement. You may want to scan also a different finger.

Leanpub and Lean Publishing Featured in Carnival of the Indies #107

The Carnival of the Indies is a blog carnival for indie authors.

Every month the blog The Book Designer posts a collection of links to selected posts by indie authors on industry-related topics such as book design and production, success stories, writing tools and tips, and more.

I closely follow this resource packed with valuable information and now I’ve had the opportunity to contribute. Issue #107 (August 2019) of the Carnival of the Indies includes (under Book Design and Production) a link to a post to my blog, Leanpub and Lean Publishing. It’s an overview for authors who are not familiar with the process and the platform.

20 Years of Google Blogger

Google Blogger turned 20. It was actually Pyra Labs that launched the blogging platform on August 23, 1999 before Google acquired it in 2003.

Peggy K celebrated the 20th anniversary of Blogger by briefly telling its history, which is part of the history of blogging, and explains why it’s still worth blogging and using Blogger in this social era. Peggy wrote:

While it feels like social media has taken over much of publishing over the past decade, the tide may be turning. As there have been increasing concerns about privacy breaches, harassment and fickle algorithms on Facebook and Twitter, there are rumblings that blogging is making a comeback.
I recently came back to Blogger and my motivations are similar to Peggy’s, such as Blogger having the features I need and being integrated in the Google ecosystem. I also share her hope the tide may be turning and blogging may be making a comeback, or at least growing a little more visible and relevant.

What about the future of Blogger? Google is…

My First 10 Years With Android

I left the Vodafone store at a shopping mall near Milan, Italy, in the early afternoon of a summer day. Precisely at 02:24pm on August 26, 2009, as printed on the receipt of the HTC Magic Android smartphone I had just bought for €449. It was my first Android device, 10 years ago today.

Google unveiled Android in November 2007 and HTC released the first consumer Android device in September 2008. I’d say I qualify as an early adopter.

Until that summer I had owned two feature phones, an Ericsson R320s and a Nokia 6151. WAP2 on the Nokia seemed an experience straight out of science fiction. But there were things I wanted on the go that only a smartphone could do easily, such as email, Twitter, and real-time text chat. Although the iPhone was already popular, Android looked promising and as a Google enthusiast I was committed to its ecosystem.

The HTC Magic shipped with Android 1.5 Cupcake, soon replaced with the 1.6 Donut OTA update.

The first days with the HTC Magic taught me a lot on s…

The Change Logs of Android App Updates Are an Opportunity, Not a Burden

Many Android developers made the change logs of Play Store apps useless by skipping them or providing useless information. Google didn’t set high standards either. It’s time to improve change logs or make them go away.

Or perhaps turn change logs into an opportunity.

A typical Android user may get half a dozen updates per day. With no change logs or some indication of what changed, no user is going to check each feature of each updated app just to figure out what's new.

Although not many users may read change logs, those who do can help promote an app and generate buzz around it.

Think for example of the tech bloggers, YouTubers, and journalists who report on what new features come with app updates. Or the power users who let their friends know about cool new features. In these days of visibility challenges and millions of apps in the Play Store, the information on updates can help spread the voice about apps and make them stand out.

Change logs are an opportunity also for the dev…

How to Work With Astronomical Data: A Tutorial

Markus Pössel posted the review paper A Beginner’s Guide to Working with Astronomical Data. It’s a comprehensive overview of processing astronomical images, spectra, and catalog data with application software and the Python programming language. The paper also covers simulations and simulated data.

The value of this paper is it distills into a single resource a lot of material available elsewhere, and provides guidance on getting started with the major categories of astronomical data.

Google Finally Pitches Chromebooks to Consumers

Google has updated the Chromebooks landing page and is doing a Chrome OS marketing campaign. These promotional activities focus on consumers and switching to a Chromebook from a traditional desktop operating system.


So far Google targeted Chromebooks to the educational and corporate worlds, where it was easier to get a head start, and more recently to creators. But it has always been in the consumer space where Chromebooks can provide significant benefits to the majority of ordinary desktop users at home. They spend most of the time in a browser anyway and Chrome OS offers additional advantages such as nearly no maintenance, simplicity, improved security, unobtrusive system updates, affordability, and more.

Now, if only Google could make it easier for consumers to buy Chromebooks outside of the US...

The Killer Use for My Google Home Mini

I found the killer use for my Google Home Mini: listening to podcasts and audiobooks while in bed.

The device provides the perfect combination of content and user experience. Audiobooks and podcasts are good bedtime content and I can operate the Home Mini completely hands-free. Using a phone wouldn't be as convenient for me, as the closest thing I have to a bed stand to set my phone to is not within arm’s reach.

The commands to operate audiobooks and podcasts are few and very simple, which contributes to a smooth experience.

How to listen to audiobooks I began getting audiobooks only recently. I buy them at Google Play Books and the Home Mini accesses the books from there. Although there are several commands to control audiobook playback, I use only a couple to start listening to an audiobook from where I left off and end a reading session:
“OK Google, read Book Title”“OK Google, read my book” for the most recent one“OK Google, stop”
How to listen to podcasts The selection of podca…

How to Work Offline With a Chromebook

My daily driver on the desktop is a Chromebox.

Although I have also a Chromebook, my mobility needs are pretty limited and I don’t move the device much, not even across rooms. Therefore, since I have an excellent Internet connection and good Wi-Fi at home, I virtually never use Chrome OS offline.

But I found JR Raphael’s guide to using a Chromebook offline useful and I encourage you to read it, especially because working offline with Chrome OS devices is a little known, often misunderstood feature. The key insight is working offline with a Chromebook requires some preliminary steps:

configuring Google’s web apps for offline usebookmarking the web apps you needdownloading the Google Drive files you plan to work on
The guide provides all the details and a few more tips, for example for finding Android or Linux replacements for web apps that, like Google Calendar, don’t provide offline support.

Simulate Eclipses With Eclipse Calculator 2 for Android

Eclipse Calculator 2 is the best Android app for eclipses and planetary transits.

It calculates and simulates solar and lunar eclipses as well as transits of Mercury and Venus across the Sun. It’s the best because it provides all the information to visualize the circumstances of the events and plan the observations. In addition, it presents this information through highly effective charts, data, and maps.

You start by quickly searching for the events you’re interested in, such as by type or observing location, and drilling down to the ones you want to know more about.

Then the app summarizes all sorts of details and information. For a total solar eclipse, for example, you get a map of the lunar shadow on the Earth, a view of the solar disk, a map of the sky with the visible stars, and even the lunar limb profile with Baily’s beads. Letting time run or interactively adjusting it shows how the event changes.

If you think like an astronomer, the app’s well designed user interface feels i…

StreamYard as an Alternative to Hangouts on Air: First Impressions

Google discontinued Hangouts on Air on August 1, 2019. The StreamYard video streaming platform is the best replacement I found among the alternatives. I'm going to tell how I tested StreamYard in a demanding situation and what I've learned.

StreamYard can livestream video feeds from up to 6 participants and save a recording to YouTube or other video platforms. It works fully in the cloud, a huge plus for a Chrome OS user like me. And it’s even better than Hangouts on Air as it has additional useful features such as showing user comments in the YouTube chat of a livestream and banners, i.e. text cards. It also provides a few preset layouts for arranging on the screen the camera feeds of the participants.

A key feature is the ability to screenshare a desktop window or browser tab as well as any audio playing there. This allows, for example, to stream a YouTube video along with its soundtrack.

The product has a free tier that overlays StreamYard’s logo in livestreams and misses a…

Leanpub Conference Purchase Program: Book Discounts for Conference Giveaways

Leanpub announced the Leanpub Conference Purchase Program, which allows conference and event organizers to buy at steep discounts multiple copies of ebooks to give away to attendees. The eligible ebooks for sale at Leanpub are the ones the authors enroll in the program.

If you are an organizer see the instructions for buying ebooks to give away to attendees. Leanpub authors can learn more about the opportunities and risks of the Conference Purchase Program.

Leanpub is a self-publishing platform with a storefront. It supports the Lean Publishing process for publishing works in progress. It’s a perfect fit for the way I work and I use Leanpub for publishing and selling my book Space Apps for Android.

The Conference Purchase Program offers to organizers very low prices, such as $1.25 per book copy for 400 planned attendees, and Leanpub’s large selection of technical books on software development and tools, science and technology, and more. For authors the program is an opportunity for wi…

Behind the Scenes of Translating Samantha Cristoforetti’s Logbook

From July 2013 to September 2015 ESA astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti posted to her Google+ profile hundreds of entries of the Logbook, a mostly daily journal of the training and space flight for her first mission to space.

The Logbook is a unique resource and public outreach project, likely the most extensive such account by any astronaut. For example, on launch day she shared her thoughts just hours before riding a rocket and blasting into space. No astronaut had ever done that.

Samantha is an European astronaut and, although her home country is Italy, she wrote the Logbook in English for reaching a wider audience. I had the privilege and opportunity of providing the official Italian translation of all the Logbook entries, which were published to the AstronautiNEWS website and later also to ESA’s Avamposto 42 mission website.

Following so closely Samantha’s training and space flight from her direct account was as much an adventure for me as it was living it for her. Here are some be…

The Bezel Is Back Thanks to the Pixel 4 Tech

The tech press is finally starting to question some hyped and ugly smartphone design choices such as the notch, cutouts, and bezel-less designs.

Now, as Google teases more and more features of the upcoming Pixel 4, Ben Schoon over at 9to5Google finally says loud and clear the bezel is more than justified by the technology it packs. In the Pixel 4 the bezel can not only improve the design of the device, but provides a home for a lot of valuable sensors and technology.

The History of the Web, Volume I

I love the book The History of the Web, Volume I by Jay Hoffmann. It’s a collection of essays from the author’s newsletter The History of the Web.

Although I’ve been using and closely following the web since its early days, and used or visited several of the tools and sites Jay tells about, I’ve found many things and projects in the book I wasn’t aware of back then. It covers the history of the web from many angles such as the technology, the software, the infrastructure, the protocols, the communities, the spirit of experimentation, and more.

The book is based on solid, in-depth research and gives a concise but complete account of the projects and events it discusses.

My Brain Is My Ad Blocker

These days ad blockers are used mostly for improving privacy, security, performance, and resource control.

But, when it comes to their primary purpose of blocking ads and advertising content, I don’t need these tools. I have been using the web since the early 1990s, when the first annoying and disruptive ads started spreading. And I’ve been doing such a deliberate effort to ignore them it eventually became second nature. When I visit a web page, my brain instinctively forces my eyes to tune out any areas with anything resembling advertising content, especially animations.

This avoidance is so effective I don’t notice ads even on the sites I want to support by checking anything to click I’m genuinely interested in. I invariably forget and move to the next site.

Although I don’t have true ad blockers, I do occasionally use a tool for reading pages with highly distracting or disruptive content, including ads.

It’s the Mercury Reader Chrome extension, a reader mode option that reformats a…

The Chrome OS Shutdown Dialog

Chrome OS is pretty robust and rarely crashes. I always use the shutdown option in the status area to turn off my devices. So I missed the relatively new, Android-like shutdown dialog you get when long-pressing the power button of a Chromebook or another Chrome OS device, for example along with pressing the reload button (F3 on an external keyboard) to force a shutdown.

Here’s what the dialog looks like on the screen of my ASUS Chromebox 3. Although the system language is set to Italian you’ll easily recognize the icons.

There are options for turning off the system (Spegni), signing out of the account (Esci), and locking the session (Blocca). The dialog is another Android feature brought to Chrome OS.

Android Usage on Chrome OS Grows But the Experience is Still Suboptimal

According to Google, in Q4 2018 21% of the notebooks sold in the US were Chromebooks and Android app usage on Chrome OS increased 4X over the past 12 months.

Google is encouraging developers to target or adapt their apps to Chrome OS, for example by adding large screen and keyboard support to Android apps so they can run well on Chromebooks. But few or none of Google’s own apps do, starting from the Play Store. There are a few notable and encouraging  exceptions, such as the Roblox game that was optimized to run well on Chrome OS and take advantage of the additional exposure it can get on the platform.

Google isn’t leading by example and doesn’t provide enough incentives to developers.

Android Hardware

I took this photo of the wall décor of a bathroom stall at Google’s offices in Dublin, Ireland. I always wondered what Android hardware and plumbing look like under the hood.

Not surprisingly, nearby there was a lovely sign directing to the restroom where the stalls were. I couldn't resist checking whether the facility was appropriately themed.

My First Nine Years with Ebooks

In July 2019 it’s been 9 years since I switched to reading only ebooks instead of traditional ones printed on paper.

Two reasons contributed to the switch. The first is back then my aging eyesight was making it increasingly uncomfortable to read printed text. The other reason is in July 2010 a friend bought an ebook reading device, a 6” Cybook Opus e-ink unit, and, as a geek, I was intrigued. I bought one for myself, started experimenting, and loved the experience, which I told in an ebook.

The Opus, with its high legibility and ability to increase the font size, made reading enjoyable again. And it made me discover the convenience, affordability, and wide selection of ebooks.

I later bought a Kindle 3 ereader but ended up doing most of my digital reading on Android phones with the Kindle and Google Play Books apps. I use the Google Play Books website on a desktop system, currently a Chromebox, to read content that’s not a good fit for small screens, such as programming books with sou…

What it Means the Cloud Is Someone Else’s Computer

The cloud is someone else’s computer.

It’s a catchy and widely popular line, regardless of its meaning and implications. But it’s typically used to emphasize its cons and negative connotations, such as data in the cloud may not be safe or may disappear.

However, there are also pros. If the cloud is someone else’s computer, they’re likely less sloppy with backups and security. And they have a team of skilled technicians and engineers who work around the clock to fix issues while you sleep, without the need for you to lift a single finger.

By the way, your money is data in someone else’s bank.

I Deleted My Facebook Account

I deleted my Facebook account on July 4 because Mike Elgan’s declaration of independence from Facebook inspired me. However, even if many others delete their accounts now, Facebook won’t likely notice any fluctuations in the noise of a rounding error.

Why? Why did I delete my account? I’m not against tech giants. For example, I feel comfortable with Google and use Amazon. But Facebook repeatedly crossed every possible line to such an extent it’s difficult to see any good faith or willingness to change.

It’s easy for me to delete my account because I never used Facebook much. Ahead of deleting the account I downloaded my Facebook data. It turns out I never used it much. Over the 4-5 years I have been active on the platform I generated 4.1 MB worth of data. By comparison I have used Google+ daily since day one for 8 years until it was shut down and I downloaded around 1.7 GB of data.

Deleting their accounts may be more difficult for others who have many contacts and use the platform ext…

Why I Want a High-end Chrome OS Experience

There are lots of cheap Chromebooks that provide a great value and are good for many tasks.

This may be the reason many just can't wrap their head around why one may want a high-end, premium Chrome OS device like a Google Pixelbook. They think it must be for running some kind of fancy Linux or Android apps, or for processing huge amounts of media and data. See for example these Reddit threads where some users wonder in disbelief:

People with high end Chromebooks What do you use them for and do you need all that performance?"Overpowered" Chrome OS devices

I have such a high-end Chrome OS device, an i7 ASUS Chromebox 3 with 16 GB of RAM and 256 GB SSD. But I got it for doing the exact same stuff a cheap Chromebook can do, just with better performance.

That’s it.

Feedly's AI Assistant Misses the Point of RSS

Feedly is testing an AI assistant that short-lists selected articles based on user preferences and machine learning.

However, such an algorithmic recommendation feature misses the point of RSS and feed readers, the ability to skim all the headlines of a feed in chronological order. If I wanted algorithms to organize my feeds I might as well use a newsreader like Google News or a social platform like Twitter.

With features like this Feedly is apparently trying to differentiate, attract more users, or pivot. But they’re neglecting the core reading experience. For example, it took Feedly several years to update the Android app and some of its usability issues still have not been addressed. And search, one of the key features of paid plans, is so ineffective I gave up on it long ago.

How to Limit Data Usage on Tethered Chromebooks

When I tried tethering my Chromebook to my Android phone I noticed it constantly used cellular data. Not much, but it adds up quickly.

Chrome Unboxed explains why and how to limit data usage. The reason is Chrome OS synchronizes account data and offline Google Drive files, which may be many and large. Turning off these options significantly reduces data usage.

Leanpub and Lean Publishing

I published my book Space Apps for Android to Leanpub, which, unlike other self-publishing platforms, focuses on works in progress rather than completed books.

This is unusual and unique in the self-publishing space and, since Leanpub is less known than the major players like Amazon KDP and Apple Books, I often have to explain how Leanpub works when discussing it with other authors. Therefore, I decided to put together this overview I can refer to.

Lean Publishing Leanpub bears its name from Lean Publishing, a process for publishing works in progress inspired by the Lean Startup methodology.

A book is seen as the product of a startup, often a Minimum Viable Product. You write and release successive improved versions of the book, get feedback from readers, and iterate. Although Leanpub is genre-agnostic, the process is best suited to non-fiction and technical works on topics that change frequently, such as computing and technology, or that you plan to keep up to date.

An advantage of L…

Apollo-themed T-shirts

Here are the cool Apollo-themed t-shirts I bought from The High Frontier spaceflight apparel, an online store selling unique, well done designs inspired by the history of space exploration. The ones I got feature the Apollo Lunar Module and the Command and Service Module.

I Want My Bezels Back

JR Raphael wrote a great piece on the insanity of smartphone screen notches and holes: The enduring absurdity of our smartphone bezel obsession. He points out the compromises punching holes into and cutting out parts of screens in the name of no bezels imposes for little or no design gain, which often defeats the whole point of making those changes to screens in the first place.

In the article No, the Pixel 4’s bezels are not a major crime against smartphone design, Andy Boxall later discussed why bezels are not an issue and why the dislike for bezels is largely irrational.

Beyond aesthetics, there are also practical drawbacks to using a device with thin or no bezels. I can’t tell how many times I inadvertently touched or activated unwanted user interface elements of apps on my Pixel 2 XL Android phone, which still has some bezel. This typically happens when I grab the device ringing for an incoming call, which often results in a declined call because I touch the wrong areas close to …

There’s More to Linking Sources Than Crediting

The links or references to the original sources of the media, quoted text, or other content shared online are increasingly less common. Not that they ever were much common.

Academia has always had a strong tradition of crediting and referencing and this is what such users have been doing also online since the early days of the Internet and the web. Most of those who still do are in academia or in communities with similar values like bloggers and open-source developers. It’s a lost art, especially as more and more ordinary users come online.

Why take time and effort to link to sources?

The most obvious reason is fairness to the original creators of the content, who deserve recognition for their work. But there’s more to linking than crediting and fairness.

The references to the sources and other metadata are invaluable research tools. They allow to track where ideas originate, how they spread, how influential they are. And they are essential for accessing the original content in its fu…

IndieWeb: Some Assembly Required

For a couple of months in 2019 I used the microblogging platform. Although it’s based on and inspired to the IndieWeb principles and technical standards, my motivation for using was mostly the rediscovery of blogging that’s a side effect of the IndieWeb.

Blogging has always been my favorite online genre and, in a way or the other, I always blogged, even on social platforms.

How worked for me I liked for its immediacy, low-friction posting, and features such as Markdown support.

But it was still a bit spartan as the other IndieWeb tools I tried. It felt like a mix between a throwback to the early 1990s web, when publishing content required editing HTML, tweaking a site’s design, and familiarizing with network protocols, and contemporary web development with APIs and endpoints.

Consider for example a basic feature like attaching an image to a post. The major traditional blogging and social platforms let you upload an image file and then take c…

Plan Your Astronomical Observations With Nightshift for Android

Nightshift: Stargazing & Astronomy is one of the best Android apps for planning astronomical observations and assessing visibility conditions.

Through a combination of charts and data cards the app shows at a glance the observing conditions on a given night. It provides information on cloud coverage, moonlight, rise and set times, angular altitudes, celestial events, and the visibility of various bodies such as the planets and deep-sky objects. In addition it can compute visibility predictions for telescopes and other optical instruments.

The strength of Nightshift is it effectively presents and summarizes a wealth of relevant data in a clean, simple format that’s quick to scan.

More handy features are coming. The developer, for example, is working to support predictions of conjunctions between the planets, the Moon and bright stars, and so on.

Are You Recording a Screencast? Slow Down!

Most instructional and tutorial videos featuring screencasts have a common issue that makes them less effective.

They zip by very fast over details such as menu and option selections, settings changes, and manipulations of user interface elements. And screencasts are often published as animated GIFs that don’t provide any control over playback speed or pausing. These key decision points and actions the users can glimpse only briefly are the whole point of a screencast. And they take place fast. Too damn fast.

Instead, let each action remain visible and still for at least 3-5 seconds, leave menus open more, and don’t release the mouse button too early after a selection. Also, screens with a lot of text to read or complex graphics should stay still for longer.

Why I Stopped Cross-posting to Medium

When I joined I found out it can cross-post from a blog to a few other platforms, including Medium.

I thought about it a bit and decided to set up my blog, then on, for cross-posting there even if I don’t feel comfortable with Medium. I don’t mind paid platforms or paying creators for their work, but Medium has something that puts me off. Maybe it’s the constant nagging and prodding for purchasing a subscription or signing up.

However, I decided to cross-post there anyway for a couple of reasons.

The first is I hoped my content would have a wider reach. The other reason is selfish. Mike Elgan encourages to use social platforms to our advantage by having them bring traffic to our own sites for once, given how much they used us so far. But it turns out unless you enroll into Medium’s partner program, your content won’t be algorithmically recommended to signed in users or subscribers. Instead I want my writing to be accessible on the open web without an account or a…

Never Let Support Agents Backup the Photos on Your Phone

If you bring your Android phone for servicing, never ever let support agents take care of backing up your photos or data for you. Instead, make sure the photos are safely in the cloud or offline somewhere other than on the device. If you have the Google Photos app use a computer to visit the website and double-check all the photos are there.

In the official Google Photos Help Community I’ve seen too many reports of users whose photos were supposedly “backed up” by a repair center’s support agent, yet went missing after a factory reset.

I Was Interviewed by the Leanpub Frontmatter Podcast

Len Epp, co-founder of Leanpub and host of Frontmatter: The Leanpub Author Stories Podcast, interviewed me in the May 22, 2019 episode. We talked about my background and interests, my work in astronomy and space popularization, Google+, the Google Product Experts Program, my book, and more.

Leanpub is the self-publishing platform I use for my book Space Apps for Android. It provides a Markdown-based toolchain that gives its best for publishing books as works in progress, as well as a storefront for selling them.

Many thanks to Len and Leanpub for the opportunity of chatting about me and my work.

Why I Don't Write With Pen and Paper

In these digital days writing with pen and paper seems all the rage.

A few decades ago I used these tools to write a full-length book, all 216 pages of it plus a third more material I cut while editing, and kept a personal journal for years. Although a practical necessity back then, it was an awful, time-consuming experience that brought no value to me. No more. Now I use pen an paper only for short notes of up to a couple of lines, and computers or other devices for all the rest.

You’ll have to pry my digital writing tools from my cold, dead hands.

Slide Rules Were the Space Apps of the 1960s

Rocket scientist and Apollo flight controller Poppy Northcutt shared some photos of the slides rules aerospace corporation TRW Systems Group, an Apollo contractor that designed and built the LM descent engine, gave away as promotional materials for the early Apollo missions.

Digging thru one of my “space” boxes in storage, turned up this nifty Apollo 11 slide rule that TRW Systems was handing out. Also found an Apollo 13 slide rule. Needless to say, the latter rapidly became inaccurate. — Poppy Northcutt (@poppy_northcutt) July 14, 2019
These amazing pieces of 1960s engineering could compute and display several flight parameters and mission events based on the nominal flight plan. That’s why, as Northcutt noted, the Apollo 13 slide rule rapidly became inaccurate.

Half a century later, in these days of ubiquitous smartphones and tablets, aerospace companies or space agencies develop and publish free mobile apps for space missions and science. They do similar …

Book Promotion Visuals Ideas for Social Platforms and Blogs

Leanpub is the self-publishing platform I use for my book Space Apps for Android. It provides a toolchain and workflow for publishing works in progress, something similar to releasing new versions of a software package.

Publishing a new version of a book in progress is a good opportunity for posting to my blog and social profiles a short note summarizing the changes or providing other updates. This lets readers know what’s new and helps spread the voice about the book.

It’s also a good idea to add some visuals to the posts to make them stand out, especially in the busy feeds of social platforms. But what kind of image to use?

The book’s cover is an obvious start but some variation may be appropriate, especially after a few updates of the same title. So another option is a screenshot of the cover opened in an ereading app, with a device frame around the edges of the screenshot. There are mockup generation apps (I have Screener) and tools for inserting a screenshot into an image of an a…