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Interesting Sites

Web sites that I find particularly interesting.

The most popular letters in Wordle and its relatives

Each morning, I spend a few minutes doing a set of word puzzles—I find they help clear the sleep and get me ready for the day. My daily set includes (in the order I do them):

My focus today is on the first three games in the list. Everyone is probably familiar with Wordle, where you have to guess a five-letter word in six tries.

Canuckle uses the exact same rule set, but all the words are related to Canadian history and culture.

Quordle also uses the same rule set as Wordle, but you solve four five-letter words at the same time. (If you like that kind of thing, Octordle (8 at once), Sedecordle (16), Sectordle (32), and Sexaginta (64) take it to extremes.)

When I started playing Quordle, I had troubles as I'd focus on one word and use up too many moves, preventing myself from solving the others. So I thought I'd "do the math" and see if I could find better opening words for the three Wordle-like games.

To do that, I looked at all the words that had been played so far, figured out which letters were most likely to appear, then created a set of four starting words, based on letter popularity, for each puzzle.

Note: The remainder of this post includes an analysis of all the words used in each game, and ranks the letters by occurrence counts. It also includes graphs showing the distribution of the letters. The images are hopefully unreadably small before clicking, and the top letters are ROT13'd to prevent accidental reading. Still, if you don't want to know, stop reading now.

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Bookmark both of Apple’s system status pages

I've long known about Apple's general System Status page, which provides a dashboard showing the state of most of Apple's consumer-focused services:

https://www.apple.com/support/systemstatus/

Until yesterday's "why can't I launch any apps?" outage, however, I'd never known that they also have the same type of status page for developer-focused services:

https://developer.apple.com/system-status/

But this page is useful to more than just developers (and it doesn't require a login to view). Had I known about it earlier, yesterday it would've shown that they were having a problem with the Developer ID Notary Service, which is why apps wouldn't launch.

In typical Apple understatement fashion, they've posted the resolved status for that service today:

"Some users were affected" and "Users may have experienced issues with the service" certainly make it sound less painful than what it was, i.e. "A ton of users were unable to use their Macs" and "Mac users could not launch their apps for over two hours." Somehow Apple needs to come up with a better failure mode for the service, as the results yesterday were unacceptable.

Note: If it happens again, simply edit the /etc/hosts file as root, and add this as the last line:

0.0.0.0      ocsp.apple.com

That will prevent your Mac from trying to contact the validation server at all. Note: This seems to break the App Store app, but it let me keep working, which was more important at the time.

A new set of Hubble deep space iMac retina desktops

Back in 2015, I created a set of 5120x2880 deep space desktop images for my then-newish Retina iMac, using images from the Hubble space telescope.

Recently, the Hubble team released the absolutely mind-bogglingly-massive Hubble Legacy Field image

The snapshot, a combination of nearly 7,500 separate Hubble exposures, represents 16 years' worth of observations. The ambitious endeavor is called the Hubble Legacy Field. The new view contains about 30 times as many galaxies as in the HUDF. The wavelength range stretches from ultraviolet to near-infrared light, capturing all the features of galaxy assembly over time.

The image mosaic presents a wide portrait of the distant universe and contains roughly 265,000 galaxies. They stretch back through 13.3 billion years of time to just 500 million years after the universe's birth in the big bang.

Despite those staggering figures, this image still represents only a tiny portion of the sky, covering roughly the area taken up by the Moon in the night sky.

I downloaded the 700MB 25,500x25,500 PNG version of the image, and set to work making some new 5120x2880 desktop images. You can read more about the process in an upcoming post, but for now, here are the resulting images…

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Easily compare Intel CPUs across generations

As part of my research into Frankenmac, my homebuilt Mac clone, I stumbled across this page at Intel that lets you easily compare CPUs across generations. Just click the Processors button, then choose a family (Desktop), then choose a CPU family (7th Generation Intel Core i7).

Click directly on a processor's name to go to its data sheet, or click the Compare box to add it to a comparison. Select as many as you like; the final layout includes horizontal scrolling to display those that don't fit onscreen at first.

I found this site useful when selecting a CPU for Frankenmac. Comparing the 6th and 7th generation Core i7, for example, the 7th generation has a slightly faster clock speed, faster RAM, and support for Intel Optane memory, whatever that might be. Based on these mild differences, and on Apple not yet shipping a Mac with the 7th generation chip in it, I chose the 6th generation Core i7 for Frankenmac.

Easy Unix date formatting

I use the date function quite often in scripts, mainly to append date/time stamps to filenames. For example, something like this…

newtime=`date +%Y-%m-%d_%H%M`
cp somefile $newtime-some_other_file

That particular format is the one I use most often, with the full date followed by the hours and minutes in 24 hour format: 2017-04-12_2315, for example. I use this one so that filenames wind up sorted by date order in Finder views.

Once I move beyond that format, though, the vagaries of date string formatting leave me dazed. Enter strftime.net, where you can build any date string you like using a point-and-click editor with real-time previews:

It doesn't get much easier than that.

Browse Apple’s clearance aisle

Back in August of 2015, Apple removed the distinct online store from its web site. The new store is integrated through all the pages of the site, which is a change for the better. However, I used to enjoy simply browsing the store itself, but this change mostly ended that pasttime.

The one (good) notable exception to "no store browsing" is the Refurbished and Clearance Store, which is still linked at the bottom of every page on Apple's site. This is a great spot to look for deals on used but reconditioned Apple gear, typically for 15% to 20% less than brand new.

The site is nicely laid out, with links on the side of the page to each type of equipment. Click in, click around, browse at will.

To make it easier to jump into a given section of the refurb store, I took the top-level links and tossed them into a Keyboard Maestro macro group set to activate a pop-up palette:

You can download this simple macro for your own use, if you wish.

Now a browse of the refurb store is only a keyboard shortcut away. Good for me, bad for my wallet.

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 wttr.in.

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. http://wttr.in/95014. If you omit the location, wttr.in 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 wttr.in/80301

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:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AHACv9hs9ds

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.

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