The Book of Dust

I was pretty excited to find out this week that Philip Pullman will be releasing the first volume of his new trilogy in October of this year. The trilogy isn’t exactly a sequel to His Dark Materials, but it’s in the same universe, and features some of the same characters. More details can be found at NPR and The Guardian.

I read His Dark Materials back in 2004, starting in January and finishing in June. I remember it well, since I was reading it when my brother passed away, in February 2004, so those memories are linked together in my head. It was also the first time I read anything substantial in ebook form. (I was reading it with Microsoft Reader on a Toshiba Pocket PC. It wasn’t a horrible experience, but neither was it a good one, and I never did buy anything else to read on that device.)

At some point in 2010, I think, I bought a trade paperback of the trilogy, with the idea that I’d reread it eventually. (Of course, the Pocket PC was long gone by then, along with the DRM’d ebooks that were tied to it.) I still haven’t gotten around to rereading it, but I’m thinking about it again.

I could just go ahead and start into the trade paperback, or I could listen to the audio version of Golden Compass, which I seem to have bought via iTunes in 2007 and forgotten about. Or I could buy the graphic novel version of Golden Compass, which I didn’t know about until I started poking around on Amazon tonight. So, plenty of options.

I’m kind of curious as to how I’d process the books right now. I think I’m a different person than I was in 2004. Am I capable of enjoying them as much as I did the first time through? Would I find new things in them that went over my head the first time? Would reading certain sections trigger specific memories? I don’t know. I’m usually not big on rereading books. There are just so many that I haven’t read yet, and I’m such a slow reader these days. But rereading these books would probably be worth my time.

Twitterrific, Overcast, and Ted Leo

Twitterrific is my favorite iOS Twitter client. (But also, honestly, the only one I’ve used other than the official one, so that’s not saying much.) I appreciate the fact that Twitter even still supports third-party clients. Facebook never really did, and Twitter’s support has wavered quite a bit over the years. But anyway, I get a lot of use out of Twitterrific. I bought it back when it actually cost money. (Now, it’s free with ads and various in-app purchases.)

I also used to use their Mac client. But they stopped development on it quite a while ago. I now just use the Twitter web page and occasionally the official Twitter Mac client (which really isn’t bad). But Twitterrific is looking to fix up their Mac client, and have put up a Kickstarter to fund new development. I’ve managed to avoid Kickstarter up until now, despite being tempted by a few things I’ve seen there in the past. But I finally gave in for this, and registered a Kickstarter account and pledged $30. That seems reasonable. The project isn’t fully funded yet, but it’s doing well, so hopefully they’ll actually do it.

And, since I have a Kickstarter account now, I’m tempted to go in on the Kickstarter for Ted Leo’s new album too. He’s one of my favorite artists, and it’s been a while since his last full album. I am worried now about getting sucked into the whole Kickstarter thing and spending money on stuff I don’t really need. There’s no reason that I can’t just wait until Ted Leo’s new album is out, read the reviews, then make an informed decision to buy it or not. And that’s probably what I should do in most cases.

Getting back to the subject of iOS & Mac software that I use a lot, Marco Arment has just released a new version of his podcast player, Overcast. This is another iOS app that I paid for the old-fashioned way at some point, but is now a free app with ads and in-app purchases. The new version is a pretty major redesign. I was pretty happy with the previous design, so I wasn’t really looking forward to this. But it’s a pretty good redesign. I’m getting used to a few things, like swiping left (or is it right?) to get to the episode notes instead of swiping up. Reading through Marco’s blog post on the redesign, it’s clear that he thought about it a lot and put a lot of work into making it as easy to use as possible. So it’s still my favorite podcast player out there. (I kind of wish he’d create a Mac client too, but I can understand why he hasn’t.)

WordPress post formats

In addition to doing my taxes today, I also spent some time messing around with this blog. The theme I’m using, Stargazer, supports post formats. I’ve messed around with them a little, marking some posts as video, audio, quotes, and images. I thought the feature was kind of nifty, though it didn’t seem to have that much utility.

Over time, though, I’ve started to see some downsides to post formats. There seemed to be some issues with the way they were treated in certain plugins. (Specifically, it looked like they were being ignored, and the plugin would only see standard format posts.) So I thought it might be a good idea to just reset all the posts to “standard,” and avoid using them in the future.

I couldn’t initially find a way to get a list of posts by format. I did some searching and found the Post Format Filter plugin. It hasn’t been updated in a long time, but it still works, so I used that to search out and reset all my posts to standard. That was kind of boring work, but it allowed me to stumble across some fun old posts.

President’s Day

I’ve got today off from work, because it’s President’s Day. (We’re not actually closed, but we get a floating holiday that can be used today.) And it’s a nice day out. So of course I decided to stay in and get my taxes done.

I’ve been using an accountant for the last several years, but I’ve been feeling kind of silly doing that, since my taxes really aren’t that complicated. So I decided to go back to using tax software this year. The last time I did my own taxes was in 2011 (for my 2010 taxes), and I used TurboTax that year. Prior to that, I’d used TaxCut every year from 2001 to 2009. I decided to go back to TaxCut this year, though now it’s just called H&R Block Tax Software. I bought it for $30 from Amazon, with free Federal e-file, and paid another $20 for NJ e-file. I paid my accountant more than $500 last year, so $50 total is a big difference.

The H&R Block software is still quite similar to what I remember from the last time I used it. One new option is the ability to download some tax documents rather than enter them. This option worked with my W-2 and my 1099-DIV, so that was nice. Overall, it was quite easy. I’m likely to stick with the H&R Block software for the next few years at least, assuming there’s no big changes in my life that complicate my tax situation.

WordPress miscellany

Every once in a while, I spend some time messing around with WordPress, evaluating plugins, looking into minor issues, and stuff like that. I’ve got a few little items that might be worth blogging about, so I decided to combine them into a “miscellany” post.

I recently got a puzzling email from Google, telling me that my WordPress install was out of date. My WordPress install, in fact, was completely up–to-date, and it seemed weird for Google to be sending out an email like that anyway, never mind an incorrect one. I thought it might be a phishing attempt or something, but all the links on it seemed genuine, plus it seemed really unlikely that GMail would deliver a fake Google email to my inbox rather than my spam folder. Well, this article at WPTavern clears everything up. So that’s a relief.

I’ve been keeping WordPress and all my plugins up to date, generally speaking. I also noticed at WPTavern that WP Super Cache was just updated to patch some vulnerabilities and fix some bugs. I’ve been using WP Super Cache for a long time, and have never had any trouble with it. Of course, this site has never been hit with enough traffic to really need a cache, but I guess it’s nice to have one, just in case.

I have a test WordPress site, with all the same plugins as my “production” site, and I generally update that one first, then update the real site if everything is OK. I’ve thought about getting rid of the test site recently, since it didn’t seem to be serving much of a purpose. But I recently had an incident where updating a plugin broke the site, so I’m glad I still have that test site. And I’ve been experimenting with some new plugins recently too, so the test site is a good place to do that.

In particular, I’ve been experimenting with syntax highlighting plugins. I think I like WP-Syntax. I haven’t installed it on the production site yet, but I probably will. I’ve also been experimenting with Jetpack’s Markdown support. I really want to embrace Markdown, but I can never quite talk myself into it.

And I’m still on the fence about backup. I’m currently using the free version of UpdraftPlus, with a little script of my own that I run periodically to copy backup files from my host to my local PC. But I’ve been thinking about switching to the paid personal Jetpack plan, for $39/year, that includes daily site backups.

Instapaper Outage

I was a bit preoccupied with the snowstorm yesterday, but I did notice that Instapaper was down. No big deal, really, but I see that they’re still having trouble. And now they’re saying that they won’t have their full archives restored until February 17.

When they went free a few months ago, they mentioned being “better resourced” since their acquisition by Pinterest. The current outage likely has nothing to do with Pinterest or going free. But it’s not a good sign that, not long after they stopped taking my money, they’re having such a major outage.

Instapaper, of course, isn’t really a critical service. If I lost access to GMail for that long, I’d be in a lot of trouble. And, now that I think about it, I have enough stuff in Evernote that losing access to that for a week would be pretty inconvenient too. (I’m assuming that I’d still have access to my local Evernote files on my hard drive if Evernote had an outage. But I’m honestly not sure about that.)

Anyway, earlier this week, I had bookmarked an episode of Canvas that talks about “read later” services. I should listen to that. I don’t plan on switching to Pocket, but it’s worth looking into.

And maybe I should think about ways to back up my Instapaper articles and Evernote notes. (I’m already backing up my GMail account on a semi-regular basis.)

Art and Literature for Troubled Times

OK, that post title might be a little pretentious. But I’ve been seeing a lot of stuff on the internet over the last month about art and literature, with relation to “our current political/cultural situation,” and enough of it is interesting to me that I thought I’d toss together a post.

I’ve previously mentioned Philip Roth’s “The Plot Against America.” And of course 1984 has gotten a lot of attention. (And, speaking of Orwell, a school in Connecticut has removed Animal Farm from their curriculum, right when we need it the most.)

WNYC this week has been asking people to post about their current reading & watching habits on Twitter, using the hashtag #CulturePack. That’s gotten some interesting responses, in the areas of relevant non-fiction, relevant fiction, and pure escapism. (One popular answer is Harry Potter books and movies, which I think falls into both the relevant and escapism categories, if you think about it.)

The New Yorker just published an article called The Books We’re Turning to Now, which I haven’t read yet, but should be interesting.

Going a little further down the road of dystopian fiction, William Gibson’s The Peripheral has been mentioned a lot lately. Gibson himself has compared the current administration to the concept of the klept from his book. The Peripheral is actually the only Gibson novel I haven’t read yet. (I should fix that soon.)

And to work a little black humor into all of this, here’s a comic strip about how 2017 is looking a lot like a 1990’s cyberpunk dystopia. Speaking as someone who read a fair amount of cyberpunk in the 90s, this is pretty accurate.

Meanwhile, on the art front, MoMA is hanging some works by Muslim artists to protest Trump’s entry ban. This seems like a pretty minor thing to do, but it’s important, in a way, and it’s appropriate, for a museum. MoMA’s exhibit Insecurities: Tracing Displacement and Shelter is relevant too, but just closed. Maybe they should have kept that going for a few more months.

As for me, I’ve been reading The New York Times and The New Yorker a lot lately. Though I’m not just reading the “current events” stuff: I’ve also been reading long-form stuff, digging into older articles on art, literature, and what-not. (And, yeah, I know that makes me sound like a typical East Coast liberal. Guilty as charged, I guess.)

For escapism, I’m still reading a lot of the DC Rebirth comics. I keep trying to talk myself into dropping one or more of the ones I’m buying regularly, but I haven’t managed to do that yet. They’re all still pretty good and worth reading.

SharePoint: plain text, rich text, AutoHyperlinking, and Markdown

I’m just about finished with the SharePoint project that I’ve been working on for the last few months. One requirement for the project was to allow arbitrary “comments” on the main documents for the project. There are some built-in ways to accommodate comments in SharePoint, but I gave up on those after experimenting a bit. Instead, I created a new list that would act as a child table to my main list, in a simple one-to-many relationship. And I decided to use plain text (rather than rich text) for the comment field itself.

I’ve had problems with SharePoint rich text fields in the past, and I wanted to put some constraints on the users, so they wouldn’t go nuts with the vast array of bad things rich text fields in SharePoint let you do. And I didn’t see any reason why plain text wouldn’t be “good enough” for this particular case. However, for this application, a lot of URLs and email addresses are going to get posted in comments, and I wanted to be able to “linkify” them. I almost wrote my own code for that, but then found the SPUtility.AutoHyperlinking method. It works pretty well, and also translates quotes, angle brackets, and other possibly confusing characters into their corresponding HTML entity codes.

I also got a little interested in the idea of supporting some limited formatting (like bold, italic, etc.) without going full-on rich text. My first thought on that was to look into the SharePoint wiki functionality. I was hoping for a function like SPUtility.AutoHyperlinking, but which would convert some simple wiki markup into HTML. But SharePoint’s wiki capabilities are limited, and really only support links.

So I then gave Markdown some thought. There’s obviously no built-in support for Markdown in SharePoint, but I figured that I could find a .NET library that would let me handle the MD to HTML conversion on the back-end. There are, indeed, several libraries available for Markdown conversion. I found two that stood out as probably the best, for my use:

  • CommonMark.NET is a pretty popular one that’s been around for a while.
  • Markdig looks like it’s probably newer and slightly less popular than CommonMark.NET, but it has some interesting extensions, including an auto-linking extension that would have been useful for me.

In the end, I decided that it was pretty unlikely that the user base for this project would embrace anything as nerdy as Markdown, so I didn’t bother adding it to the project. But I had some fun messing around with it.

And I should mention that I figured out, at some point, that SharePoint 2013 supports two levels of rich-text: one that is the “full” rich text mode, allowing pretty much anything and everything, and one that is limited to a pretty reasonable subset (bold, italic, text alignment, links, and stuff like that). In retrospect, I probably should have gone with the limited rich-text, though even that might have caused unexpected issues. (I have learned to trust SharePoint only as far as I can throw the server on which it’s running…)