Official Google for Work blog

February 10th, 2016

If  you use, or have any interest in Google for Work, their office/productivity suite for business, check out their official Google for Work blog. Even if you don’t use the business suite, it’s worth checking for information on the standard consumer products like Google Docs, especially since Google updates features quite frequently.

Today’s post is about templates for Forms.

Send websites to your Kindle

February 9th, 2016

Frankly, I find reading long articles on the web a pain. Computer monitors just aren’t meant for long-form reading and most websites’ design is horrible with bad typography and distracting adds and unnecessary page breaks. So I like to use Instapaper to save articles and later download to my Kindle. I’ve been doing this almost ever since I got my Kindle and it makes my life much easier.

There are several ways you can get web content to your Kindle, and although Instapaper works for me, it may not be your best choice.  Gizmodo has an article that covers most of the options, including other read-later apps like Pocket and Readability, Amazon’s own apps, and some others. If you haven’t tried one of these, give it a shot – you may find yourself reading a lot more web content (which, of course, may or may not be a good thing).

As entertaining as the internet can be, who has time to read all of it? Even employing the services of a read-it-later app such as Instapaper or Pocket can make catching up on articles difficult. What you need is a dedicated reading device, free from social media pings, email alerts, and other distractions—and that’s where Amazon’s Kindle comes in.

The Kindle comes with its own experimental web browser installed, but it’s not very good. Ideally, you want to be able to save articles on the web and then read them later on your Kindle when your laptop’s closed down and you have time to think. Fortunately, there are plenty ways to accomplish this.

Long-term impacts of climate change

February 9th, 2016

Time for another “the sky is falling” post about climate change.

First, something I heard on the radio this weekend – actually a couple of things, not necessarily connected to climate change, but related to climate change unless you think that there’s a connection between this year’s extreme El Nino and climate change (possible but not proven). First, native communities in Canada’s north are suffering because the winter ice roads that they rely on for transportation of heavy goods aren’t passable because the winter has been so warm. (Remember that climate change affects the arctic more than temperate regions). This has serious consequences for communities that rely on the ice roads to bring in fuel and bulk goods (including food) to last them through the rest of the year. Also, the caribou aren’t migrating south, so families that rely on hunting caribou during the winter aren’t getting the meat they would normally freeze and store for the rest of they year.

Now on to even grimmer things. A new study published in Nature Climate Change says that it could take 10,000 years for the Earth to recover from the changes now being forced by human fossil fuel consumption.

To put our predicament in a broader context, the authors looked at the impact of four possible levels of carbon pollution—1,280 to 5,120 billion tonnes—emitted between the year 2000 to 2300. (We’ve already put 580 billion tonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere, at a current rate of 10 billion tonnes per year.) Drawing on paleoclimate datasets that describe the relationship between carbon dioxide, temperature, and sea level over the last 20,000 years, the researchers projected what will happen to global temperatures, sea level, and ice cover over the next 10,000 years.

While each scenario has carbon emissions falling to zero by 2300, in all cases the impacts of industrial society last for up to 10,000 years. For instance, in the high-emissions scenario, global temperatures rise to 7 degrees Celsius (12.6 degree Fahrenheit) by 2300 AD. By 12,300 AD, the planet has only cooled off a single degree.

One of the most disturbing aspects of the new report is the long-term march of sea level rise, which is likely to continue unchecked for thousands of years after carbon emissions fall to zero. “The amount of sea level rise was startling and chilling,” study co-author Peter Clarke of Oregon State University told Gizmodo in an email.

Brother PT-D400AD label printer

February 8th, 2016

We broke down and bought a Brother Personal Touch labeller today. I got tired of digging through the freezer trying to figure out the difference between a chicken soup and a pork gravy meal. For anyone interested, it’s a PT-D400AD.

A couple of comments. The basic label printing functions are fine. It will do a lot of fancy stuff but all I want is a simple label with type big enough for me to read. (It uses up to 18 mm. tape). The main limitation is the display, which is a crappy LCD with no backlighting. I almost took it back to the store. I finally figured out that I could use the default settings as long as I had enough light on the display.

The second issue is that it uses about an extra inch of label every time you print, and you can’t do much about it. It’s because of the physical construction of the print head in relation to the cutter. I did find a hack though – if you are printing multiple labels, you can set it to “Chain Print” and then cut the labels with a pair of scissors. Considering that the tape is about $30 for 8 metres, which probably works out to about $.25 per label, saving tape is important.

I thought about buying a printer that hooked up to the computer, but they’re significantly more expensive. This will do.

Finding the best ebook format

February 4th, 2016

I haven’t looked up survey results to confirm this, but I doubt that very many technical writers are producing their documentation in ebook format. However, some of the things that you need to think about when producing ebooks also apply to the new responsive HTML formats that current tools like Flare, RoboHelp, or WebWorks ePublisher can produce.

DBW has a good article that examines some of the design issues in producing ebooks that were originally based on a print design. Writers producing responsive help need to consider some of the issues raised in this article, even if they’re not specifically producing EPUB/MOBI/iBook files.

One purpose of print design is helping readers find their way from chapter title to text to sidebar to footnote. Another is decoration: using typefaces, color, imagery and ornament to embellish. Sometimes navigation and decoration work together to provide extra meaning (for example, in a cookbook, blue recipe titles can indicate main courses; red titles, desserts).

But navigation, decoration and meaning work differently in reflowable ebooks. Users change font and font size at will, causing reflow; decoration may or may not display well in different reading modes (particularly night mode); and light-blue heads may not be very visible in e-ink devices, and text to speech doesn’t mention that it’s reading a blue recipe title instead of a red one.

Developing reflowable and fixed-layout ebooks is a combination of design and technology. Developers need to know how to build solid, semantic HTML documents, and how to wield CSS to create attractive, useful books.

Rescuing Columbia

February 2nd, 2016

Yesterday was the anniversary of the Columbia disaster in which seven astronauts died when their Space Shuttle disintegrated on re-entry over Texas. In the subsequent investigation, it became clear that at least some of NASA’s engineers were worried that the foam impact had fatally damaged the orbiter and had lobbied for access to classified assets (spy satellites) to take photographs of Shuttle so they could try to ascertain the damage. If they had known conclusively that Columbia couldn’t safely re-enter, was there anything that could have been done.

Hindsight is always 20-20m but in retrospect it seems that a rescue mission could have been launched. It would have been insanely risky, but there was at least a chance that it might have worked. Ars Technica looks at the plan and what would have been involved.

During the writing of its report, the CAIB had the same question, so it asked NASA to develop a theoretical repair and rescue plan for Columbia “based on the premise that the wing damage events during launch were recognized early during the mission.” The result was an absolutely remarkable set of documents, which appear at the end of the report as Appendix D.13. They carry the low-key title “STS-107 In-Flight Options Assessment,” but the scenario they outline would have pushed NASA to its absolute limits as it mounted the most dramatic space mission of all time.