The Robservatory

Robservations on everything…


Interesting Sites

Web sites that I find particularly interesting.

Create CSS gradients using an online tool

I recently needed a gradient background for a page I was making. My usual method of creating gradient backgrounds is to muck around in my image editor until I find some combination I like, then futz around in my text editor getting the syntax just right for CSS gradients across all the browsers.

But then I discovered the Ultimate CSS Gradient Generator from ColorZilla. This handy tool lets you create gradients directly in the browser, and it outputs all the required codes for full browser support. The UI is very much like any image editor’s gradient tool:

Drag the slider thumbs, click them to change the colors, click along the gradient to add color stops, etc. This tools works like a charm, and saves me a bit of time and aggravation whenever I need to make a CSS gradient.

A unique way to see the weather

Ever wanted a “light” weather check web site, free of ads and other visual clutter? One that you could maybe even use from Terminal? Then you want

Sure, you can use it from your browser, i.e. see the weather in Boston or Montreal, by just appending the zip/postal code of interest to the URL, i.e. If you omit the location, will get the location based on your IP address—for me, that’s never anywhere near correct when I’m at home, though.

What’s really neat is you can use it in Terminal, too, via curl:

$ curl

The output is graphical, but done so with text characters (click for zoomed version):

At a glance, you get a few days’ worth of conditions, including temperature range, wind speed, visibility, and precipitation. There’s even animation—check somewhere with thunderstorms, and you’ll see flashing lightning bolts.

There’s a help page that explains lots of other options, like forcing metric or US units, and looking at weather by airport code.

Construction of the Millau Viaduct

I’ve long been fascinated by massive engineering projects, whether they be for ships or tunnels or skyscrapers…or in this case, a bridge.

The Millau Viaduct is an amazing structure in the south of France; it spans a deep and wide valley with incredibly tall pylons and an elegant design.

Photo by logopop. [original photo]

While browsing YouTube the other day, for something completely unrelated (isn’t it always like that?), I stumbled on this excellent show about the construction of the bridge:

Just amazing what they did to get that bridge built—and without a single worker injury of any note, despite working hundreds of feet above the ground for four years.

Useful site: Find and use fonts at Font Squirrel

I recently tweaked the look here a bit, greatly simplifying the fonts and lightening the visual weight of the site quite a bit.

As part of that process, I wanted to find a larger lighter yet highly legible font. So I went back to Font Squirrel, the same site I used in my 2014 redesign.

They offer a huge assortment of fonts, all licensed for free commercial use, with a nice set of categories and search engine. And free…though the tradeoff is a fairly heavy advertising load. After much looking and testing, I’ve got the site running on three font families: Open Sans for most of the content and sidebar, Open Sans Condensed for headlines, and Ubuntu Mono for code snippets.

As part of the cleanup, I was able to remove 40+ font-family and font-size statements from the CSS, and the site should scale a bit better on small-screen devices. (I’m still not completely happy with things, so expect minor changes going forward.)

Font Squirrel not only has a great collection of fonts, but they offer a free web font generator. Using the generator, you can create fonts that are embedded in your page, so that they’re available even when users don’t have those fonts installed locally. Just upload a font you’re licensed to use, and Font Squirrel will create a web font, complete with CSS. Upload the converted web fonts to your server, copy and paste the CSS bit into your CSS master file, and you can use the fonts on your site.

There are 20 web fonts on the site now (two forms of 10 font faces across the three font families), and in total, they’re 200KB in size—or less than the typical “larger” image I often post here.

There are lots of sites that offer free-to-use fonts; I really like the assortment at Font Squirrel, and the web generator is an added bonus.

Useful site: iTunes Artwork Finder finds more than artwork

Ever want to grab the cover art for some album? Or have you ever wanted the full-size icon from an iOS app? Or the cover image from a movie or TV show? A podcast’s icon? Ben Dodson hosts an excellent web-based tool that lets you do all that and more: The iTunes Artwork Finder.

Usage is about as simple as it gets: Pick a category, enter your search term, set the geographical region, and click Get the artwork.

Note that this only works for things available from the iTunes Store in the specified region, so you can’t use it to find cover art for that digitized copy of some obscure record you found at an underground music store in New York City back in 1973.

Also note that if you have your own web site, you can host your own artwork finder, as Ben has made the code available for all. I wouldn’t recommend making it publicly available, though, unless you have bandwidth to spare—a single search for “Friends,” for instance, returned about 25 high-resolution images.

Here’s how I set it up on our family’s web site; it’s really easy to do, and it works great:

  1. Download the zipped archive from GitHub.
  2. Create a new folder on your server. I called mine getart.
  3. Upload the two files (php, js) from the archive into the folder.
  4. Add basic HTML tags (html, head, body) to the stub of HTML shown on the GitHub page, and save it as index.html in the same folder. If you like fancy and have time to spend, go ahead and pretty it up with CSS and layout. I just left it bare.

That’s all there is to it; you can now look up artwork by loading http://yourdomain/getart (or whatever you called it) in your fave browser.

Useful site: iStockNow finds Apple products

During today’s recording of our The Committed podcast, Ian mentioned a site he uses to check for sometimes hard-to-acquire Apple products. The site, iStockNow, is very nicely designed and makes it really simple to check availability not only at your local stores, but also globally.

Start by clicking the left-side filters section for the products you’d like to check on, then view the map on the right to see where they’re in stock. For example, a search for the 15″ MacBook Pro Touch Bar in Space Gray shows that it’s available throughout North America, except in Mexico City:

But if you search for a 42mm Apple Watch in Stainless Steel in retail stores, you’ll see that most of North America is a sea of red. Zoom in on the map, though, and there are some stores with stock:

When you find a store with inventory—the green pushpin—click on it to get the details of that store’s inventory:

If you’re looking for something particularly hard to find—cough AirPods cough—iStockNow may just help you secure your item. According to Ian, at least, that’s exactly how he got his AirPods!

My post-CNN news sources

With the horrendous redesign of CNN, I quickly determined I had to find a new news source (or sources). After browsing the comments to my post, and doing some searching, here are the changes I’ve made in my news reading.

The first change is the biggest—I now use an RSS reader for the majority of my news reading. I’ve always used an RSS reader for most non-news sites, but preferred reading news directly on a web page (not sure why).

But as most sites seem to be heading in the image overload direction, I decided to find news sites with good RSS feeds, and read them using Vienna, my RSS reader of choice.

Why Vienna? I’ll write about that in a future post, I think…but its excellent keyboard controls, and its ability to open articles in background tabs, are two of its key features for my reading habits.

The second change is obviously what sites/sources I use in Vienna. Here’s my list of new sources, with both the web site and RSS URLs provided:

BBC – US and Canada web RSS
UPI – Latest News web RSS
UPI – US News web RSS
Reuters – Top News web RSS
Reuters – US News web RSS

There’s obviously some overlap between these sources, but that’s OK; it’s easy to mark/skip duplicates in Vienna. When I’m visiting a site on the web, all three (BBC, UPI, and Reuters) present a clean interface, without invasively large photos, and zero auto-playing videos or scrolling marquees. In short, all three are a joy to use on the web, unlike the “new and improved” CNN.

Sorry, CNN, but you’ve permanently lost at least one viewer; your new site makes it too hard to get what I want, which is news. The BBC, UPI, and Reuters understand that news is what viewers come to a news site to see. Perhaps there’s a lesson there for CNN, if they can see it behind those enormous photos and CPU-sucking videos.

RIP Mac OS X Hints, Nov 4 2000 – Nov 4 2014

Note: The following is my unofficial eulogy for Mac OS X Hints; IDG has not announced any plans regarding the site, though I would hope they’ll leave it online, even if no new hints appear in the future. The site is now officially in read-only mode; there will be no new hints. So it’s officially comatose, at least.

Dearly beloved…

On this, the occasion of its 14th birthday, we’re gathered here to mark the passing of Mac OS X Hints.

While it can be hard to tell exactly when a web site has died, the signs are fairly obvious. It’s been over 45 days since the last new hint appeared on the site. There is no way for new users to sign up for an account. There’s been one new comment posted in the last two days. A sidebar box proudly proclaims Latest Mountain Lion Hints. The site design, logo, and icons were last updated when I worked for Macworld, over four years ago. To paraphrase a Star Trek character, “it’s dead, Jim.”

To be fair, it’s a bit more Monty Python “I’m not dead!” than officially dead, but really, the site is a dead man walking. Now that I’m done with movie analogies, let me explain why the passing of Mac OS X Hints isn’t a bad thing. (Note that Mac OS X Hints’ passing is in no way a reflection of its management by Macworld. In fact, the opposite is true: I believe the site would have ceased to exist years ago without their involvement.)

The simple truth is that the need for OS X hints has tapered off to near zero over the last 14 years. And that’s a good thing.


Mac OS X Hints turns 14

Fourteen years ago today, I launched Mac OS X Hints, with this simple post. The Mac OS X 10.0 Public Beta was only a couple months old, and many Mac users (myself included) were feeling lost in the land of Unix and Terminal. (Despite anything Apple said at the time, Terminal was very much a required aspect of using Mac OS X in those early days!)

Related post: RIP Mac OS X Hints, Nov 4 2000 – Nov 4 2014

At the time of launch, I knew nothing about content management systems or PHP; I knew enough HTML to be dangerous, and very little about anything else—including design, as you can see from the image at right.

That image, courtesy of the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine, was taken one month after launch. Could it be any brighter and uglier? Probably not. While I did many things wrong during that launch, I did get a few things right…

  • The site was all about the community; it was my intent from day one that it would be a users helping users site, not a “me telling the world what to do” site.
  • The content management system I chose, Geeklog, has proven to be very long lived—fourteen years on, and it’s still what powers the site. In all that time, we had (I believe) exactly one hacking incident. Not bad.
  • The site had a laser focus on hints; I’d do a pick of the week, but outside of that, it was all about the hints.

So despite my poor design and lack of PHP skills, the site flourished. So much so that Macworld purchased the site and hired me in June of 2005. I spent nearly five years with Macworld, before leaving in 2010 to join Many Tricks.

In looking back, never in my wildest dreams did I imagine the site would flourish to the point where it would actually change my career. But it did, and for that, I’m eternally thankful to everyone who helped make what it was. So happy birthday, Mac OS X Hints!

Got tables? Use

Whether writing here or on Macworld, I often find myself relying on tables to convey lots of data points in an easy-to-read manner. As examples, check out the tables in my Nintendo add-ons pricing rant, or in my analysis on the cost of LED lighting. (Or even in my mother-of-all-tables post on OS X release dates.)

Tables play a key role in all of those articles…but creating tables in HTML (or even Markdown) is, quite simply, a pain in the butt. The syntax is simple enough, but structuring complex tables with some entries spanning multiple rows and/or columns can be time consuming.

Often, too, my work starts in Excel, and it seems like a lot of redundant effort to take Excel’s table-based layout and recreate it in an HTML-based table layout. (Excel has an export to HTML function, but the HTML it builds is heavily styled and needs a lot of editing.)

Enter TablesGenerator, an amazing tool for creating tables. Not just HTML tables, but pure text tables, LaTeX tables, and even MediaWiki tables (whatever those might be).


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