The Robservatory

Robservations on everything…


Images replace content in USA Today’s iOS app

Yesterday, I noticed that USA Today had a new iPad app out—they released it as a separate app, so it didn’t replace the old version. After trying the new app, I’m incredibly glad they chose to release the new version as a new app, because it sucks. Absolutely, positively, sucks.

Like the recent CNN redesign, USA Today has chosen to focus on pretty pictures instead of information. In other words, it’s become another news app that has decided not to show any news.

Here’s a side-by-side comparison of the old (left) and new (right) apps:

As you can see, the new app is dominated by one massive image, and very little of anything else. Here’s a quick comparison of just how bad things are in the new app:

Data points… Old App New App
Stories visible 6 3
Words shown 148 43
Weather visible Yes No
Navigation visible Yes No
Ads visible 0 1
Largest image on page 386×220 1024×475
% of page covered by image 10.70% 61.80%

If you’re scoring at home, which I am, the new app has a 50% reduction in the number of visible stories, and a 71% reduction in the number of words. And that insanely-huge ‘hero image’ covers nearly 62% of the page!

In addition, there’s no visible weather, and navigation between sections is now hiding in a hamburger menu. Overall, the usability of the app has gone from very good to basically worthless.

This is progress? I don’t think so. I’m staying with the old app, and giving the new one a one-star review on the App Store. Bad move, USA Today!

The odd story of the single-country multi-country airport

I have traveled through a fair number of airports in my lifetime, but the EuroAirport is the strangest one I’ve ever been in. (I was there because it’s the closest major airport to Freiburg, Germany, where I was working with Peter, my Many Tricks business partner).

The EuroAirport isn’t strange due to layout or location or weird weather or anything. It’s strange because the airport itself is split between two countries, even though it doesn’t straddle a country border—it’s 100% within the territory of France, but a portion of the airport “lies in” Switzerland.

This oddness is a result of the airport’s development history: Basel, Switzerland wanted an airport, but lacked the space. France had the space near the town of Mulhouse, but lacked the money.

The two countries agreed to a joint development effort, starting just after World War II. The end result is an airport in France, paid for by Switzerland, and with portions of the airport physically being in Switzerland, despite the airport’s location completely within France.

You can actually see this in Apple Maps, as seen in the above-right screenshot. Search on EuroAirport and you can see there’s a set of country borders drawn on the airport itself; the outlined region belongs to Switzerland, even though the entirety of the airport lies in France. (Not shown is that the road leading from the airport to Basel is also Swiss property.)


Review: Canmore G-Porter GP-102+ data logger

I recently bought a new big-size camera, bucking the trend of simply using one’s iPhone for photographs. That’s not to say I don’t use my iPhone; it is my main picture taking device. But I wanted a camera that could capture native retina iMac images (at least 5120×2880), and the iPhone can’t do that.

After much looking and sweating over the costs, I chose a Nikon D5500, mainly because I already had a Nikon and didn’t really want to replace all my lenses. While this is an excellent camera, it was a bit of a budget compromise—it didn’t have all the features I really wanted. In particular, it lacks a built-in GPS to geocode all the pictures I take.

As a workaround, I decided to buy a GPS data logger, which is just a small GPS receiver that records GPS coordinates at some interval. Toss the logger in your pocket (make sure it’s on and receiving the GPS signals first!), then go take pictures as you normally do. When you return, you can use an app like HoudahGeo to sync the recorded GPS track with the timestamps on each photo. (I’ll have more to say about this whole sync process in a future post.) Presto, instant geocoded images!


Semi-Review: Bruce Springsteen The River concert

First off, I’m calling this a semi-review, as I am not a big concertgoer, so I’m hardly qualified to be posting an actual concert review. This is especially true for big acts in larger venues, and even more so since the kids arrived (in 2003 and 2006).

In fact, before last night’s Portland stop on Bruce Springsteen’s The River tour, the last big show I saw was Bruce Springsteen on the E Street Band Reunion tour, back in the spring of 2000 (at this same venue, though in the Eucker seats). So yea, it’d been a while.

I am a long-time Springsteen fan, coming aboard with Born to Run, which was released when I was 11 years old (egads). While I own most of Springsteen’s albums, I’d only seen him perform live three times prior to last night. But it was the memory of those performances that had us forking out $339.50 (plus the hassle/cost of finding a sitter for the kids) for two reasonably-decent seats to The River tour stop in Portland.

My memories of his prior concerts are of an eminent performer, able to connect with the audience even in a massive 75,000 seat football stadium, with boundless energy and the ability to make songs he’d played thousands of times seem fresh and new.

However, with Bruce now 66 years old, I wasn’t really sure what to expect of last night—would it be the Bruce I remembered from years past, or would it be someone just trying to cash a paycheck by phoning it in?

A useless analysis of OS X release dates

Updated and republished for the OS X 10.11.4 release; skip it unless you really really care about all the OS X releases. Originally published on November 14th, 2005.

Below the break is a table showing all major releases of OS X from the public beta through the latest public version, which is OS X 10.11.4 as of March 21st, 2016. Note that this release marks the 94th release of OS X (counting major, minor, and released-then-yanked updates). Wow.

Note: Click the ⓘ symbol to read Apple’s release notes for a given update.


Tracking uncredited reuse of a popular tweet

The other day, I saw a funny tweet by @gsuberland, and it got me wondering if there were other such bad-tech soldering images out there.

So I went looking, found a few, and sent what I thought was a stupid-simple yet somewhat funny tweet: I stitched together three stock photos showing the actors holding the soldering irons in such a way that they’d be badly burned. I stuck a super quick caption on the image, and off it went:

If you click the image link, you’ll see the media has been removed—the copyright owner made a copyright claim. I could probably fight this on the grounds of fair use, education, or satire, but it’s not worth the effort, and not really what this post is about. (If you’re really curious, here are the three original images.)

The tweet, much to my surprise, took off like wildfire, eventually being liked and retweeted over 2,500 times each, and garnering 250,000+ impressions. I’ve never sent such a popular tweet. Today, when Twitter removed my composite image, I became curious as to whether it’d been cached anywhere (I didn’t save a copy when I made it). So I did a quick Google search on the phrase “all three were taken to the ER” from the original tweet. What I found surprised me, though I suppose it shouldn’t have: My tweet was reused dozens of times, and almost never with attribution:

A quick glance through the links finds that most are probably bot-driven sites reposting content from reddit or 9gag. Best as I can tell, the first uncredited reuse—taking my composite image and my text—was in this post to reddit’s /funny subreddit.

From there, it was picked up by tons of sites, always without credit or link back to the original source. In fact, of 30 sites I quickly scanned, only one included a linked version of the original tweet: Make wrote about one image in particular (which was the first one I actually saw on Twitter), and included my source link. So thanks, Make, for doing it right.

And to everyone else, glad you enjoyed the humor … maybe next time you could leave an attribution in place? Hell, who am I kidding, this is the internet.

Looking for a camera recommendation

I’m looking for some help from the camera experts out there for my next camera. At present, I own an aging Nikon D40x, which I generally love except, well, it’s bulky as heck, only shoots 10MP, and is getting quite old. So I want to replace it with something else, with these constraints:

  • Resolution of at least 5120×2880, the native resolution of the 5K iMac.
  • Smaller and lighter than my Nikon, so I think that means APS-C or Micro 4/3rds sensor size.
  • Weatherproof, so I can shoot outside in Oregon in the winter rains.
  • Total cost for the camera plus a base lens and a zoom lens in the $750 to $1500 range.

In my research, I’ve only really found one camera that actually meets all my criteria, that being the Panasonic DMC-GX8. It’s weatherproof (and shoots 4K video), and I could get the camera and a couple lenses for right around $1500. However, it just barely makes the resolution limit, at 5184×3888, leaving not much extra room for cropping.

Reviews have also noted that it’s quite large for a mirrorless camera, and that’s what I’m trying to get away from.

The Sony a6000 is a near-fit, as its 6000×4000 resolution easily meets my needs, but it’s not waterproof. It is, however, smaller and lighter than the Panasonic, and has a faster burst mode. Compared to the GX8, it only shoots 1080p video. But it would also be somewhat less expensive, I think, with a couple lenses. (The camera body is much cheaper, but Sony’s lenses seem much more expensive.)

Sony is also launching the a6300 in early March. According to this comparison article, it’s got a number of nice improvements, such as 4K video recording, a weather-sealed magnesium-construction body, many more autofocus points for fast autofocus, and a much better viewfinder.

However, this camera is about $500 more than the a6000, which means I’d be close to the budget limit after adding a zoom lens.

I’ve visited Digital Photography Review to read reviews, and to compare the samples for the A6000 and GX8 … but I’m still no closer to a decision.

I welcome any advice from those with experience in these cameras, and/or more information on image quality comparisons and lenses. At present, I’m leaning to the a6300, even though it’s quite a bit more money. It meets all my criteria, has the fastest burst rate, shoots 4K video, and is smaller and lighter than the GX8. But is there something else I should be looking at instead?

Replace the departed free iTunes Radio with free iTunes radio

In case you missed the news, Apple has now officially ended the free streaming of iTunes Radio. To listen to these stations now, you have to subscribe to Apple Music, which isn’t something I want to use. (If they offered a “use but don’t integrate into library,” I’d subscribe in a heartbeat…but they don’t.)

There are any number of other radio services out there – Pandora, Spotify, etc. But I wanted something that existed in iTunes, as I didn’t want to have to run another app, nor (shudder) use my browser as a radio station front end. Then I remembered that iTunes has a huge—as in tens of thousands—assortment of Internet Radio stations.

I hadn’t looked at internet radio in a long time, as I’d been quite happy with my selection of iTunes Radio stations. But Apple’s move inspired me to take another look, and so far, I like what I’ve found. If you’d like to explore the world of Internet Radio in iTunes, here are a few tips to ease the exploration.

  • Make sure Internet Radio is enabled—open iTunes Preferences, go to Restrictions, and make sure that Internet Radio is not checked in the Disable section.
  • To view the station list, you’ll probably have to click the three dots in the iTunes icon bar and choose Internet Radio from the pop-up menu.
  • To make it simpler to access Internet Radio, select Edit from the three dots’ pop-up menu, and then check Internet Radio:

    From now on, Internet Radio will appear in the iTunes icon bar, alongside Music and Movies, etc.

  • You can add any station to a playlist by dragging it to the left edge of the iTunes window; when you do this, the iTunes sidebar will slide out, and you can drop the station on an existing playlist, or into a clear area to create a new playlist. (Can I just mention how much I hate hidden UI like this? It’s horrid!)

    You can then access these playlists while viewing your Music, where the sidebar can be set to be permanently visible.

  • The audio quality of a station’s stream depends on its bit rate, but by default, that information isn’t displayed. To remedy that, right-click on the header bar (where it says Stream and Comments), and select Bit Rate from the pop-up menu. Once visible, click on that column, and you can sort by bit rate to find the highest-quality streams:

    I find anything down to 128kbps sounds OK on my desktop speakers; below that, things take on a decidedly “AM radio” quality.

I’ve only been playing with Internet Radio for about a day, but I’ve already found a number of stations that are working well to replace those I used in iTunes Radio…and that play more music with less idiotic blathering than Beats 1.

Force Awakens Day, based on the greatest movie speech ever given*

* No, not really. Not even close. But the President’s speech in Independence Day is perhaps corniest, most over-the-top movie speech ever given. And as such, it’s a good basis for this bit of Star Wars: The Force Awakens corny, over-the-top speechmaking…

Good morning. In less than four hours, people from this household will join others from around the world. And you will be launching the largest opening weekend for a movie in the history of cinema. You, Star Wars Fans, will be doing it.

Star Wars Fans—those words should have new meaning for all of us today. We can’t be consumed by our dislike of Episodes One through Three. We will be united in our love of the one Original Trilogy.

Perhaps it’s fate that today is a Saturday, and you will once again be having an amazing weekend, not being subject to the tyranny of one man’s horribly wrong vision of the prequels. You will have freedom from the annihilation of the Original Trilogy through misguided editing.

We’re watching for our right to be entertained, to believe in The Force.

And should we all enjoy the movie, this Saturday will no longer be known as a simple weekend day, but as the day when the world declared in one voice:

“We will not be forced to watch the prequels! We will not endure any more Jar Jar Binks! We’re going to live on; we’re going to survive the prequel era!”

Today, we celebrate our Force Awakens day!

And with that, I’m off to see a little movie this morning.

Retina lollipops

A candy store at the local mall had the most amazing wall of colorful lollipops, and I thought it’d make a wild desktop image for a retina iMac. As I snapped the pic on my iPhone, it took a bit of upscaling to reach 5120×2880, but I think it still looks fine; here’s a small-scale version:

I also thought a tunnelized version would be interesting; here’s how that came out:

I have these in my normal “rotate random every 15 minutes” cycle, and still get a kick out of the lollipops when they get chosen.

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