Some software notes

Two weeks in, and we’re still cleaning up after the security incident at work over the July 4th weekend. I’ve gone into the office most days since then, and I think all that extra exposure to other humans has gotten me sick. I’ve been mostly useless since Friday. I’m hoping I can go back to my usual schedule this week (M/W/F at home, Tue/Thu in the office). Or maybe work from home all this week, if I don’t start feeling better by Tuesday.

Anyway, all the security shake-ups over the last two weeks have gotten me thinking about some of my software choices, and I thought I’d write up some notes on that.

LastPass vs 1Password

I’ve been using 1Password for my personal password storage since 2014, and I’m still happy with it. But I just (finally) got added to our company’s corporate LastPass account, so I can use that for work. And that comes with a free personal LastPass Families account, so I went ahead and signed up for one.

Short version: I don’t think I’ll be using it for anything. I think it’s probably fine for casual users who need a simple password management solution, but it’s not nearly as good as 1Password. I guess my biggest gripe with it is that it’s very much oriented towards in-browser use. There’s a native Windows 10 client, but it’s very limited and just not very good at all. Again, I think it’s probably fine for a lot of people, but it’s just not good enough for a power-user like me.

LINQPad

I mentioned in my last post that I was thinking about upgrading my LINQPad Pro license. I went ahead and did that, and upgraded to the “Premium” version. The NuGet integration works well.  Access to NuGet is still blocked from my developer VM, so I can’t use it there yet, but I can use it on my desktop PC, where I’ve also installed it. I haven’t tried the debugger yet, but I’m curious to see how well that works.

And the dev VM is still so locked down that I couldn’t actually activate the new license over the internet, but the developer provides a way to get around that, so that was appreciated.

TextExpander vs AutoHotKey

On Windows, I generally use AutoHotKey for my keyboard macros and text expansions. I’ve been using it since 2007. I don’t have the actual AHK product installed on any of my work machines, but I have a compiled script that I do run on my work machines. It was starting to look like that might be an issue last week, due to some new security software they were running on our machines. It now looks like it’s OK, but that got me briefly looking at other solutions that might work, and which I might be able to get whitelisted at work.

So I went back to TextExpander, which I used to use on my Mac, circa 20142016. I stopped using TextExpander when they went to a subscription model, since I was having some trouble with it anyway, and it didn’t seem to be worth the money. But that was a while ago, and they now have a Windows client too, so it seemed to be worth looking into it again.

I signed up for a 30-day trial and installed it on my personal desktop PC and MacBook. It works fine, and does some interesting stuff, but it still has some of the same issues with secure input fields that it had when I last used it. That’s not really TextExpander’s fault, but it does limit its usefulness on the Mac. On Windows, it seems to work well, but it’s not nearly as powerful as AutoHotKey. (Or at least it doesn’t seem to be.)

On the Mac side, this has got me thinking again that I should really try Keyboard Maestro. It looks to me like it’s closer to what I want than TextExpander is, and it’s a one-time purchase rather than a subscription. Maybe when things have settled down a bit, and I’m feeling better, I’ll finally give it a try.

I still have some time on the 30-day TextExpander trial, so I’m going to continue messing around with it. Maybe I’ll figure out how to do some fancier stuff with it, and/or how to work around some of its limitations. I really like the idea of having a single macro program that works across Mac and Windows, so that’s a motivation not to give up on it yet.

 

MacBook issues, browsers, and bookmarks

I did a nuke & pave on my MacBook Air a few weeks ago. My main reason for doing that was to see if it would clear up an occasional problem I have where the machine crashes if I’ve been using it for more than an hour or so on battery power. Well, it crashed again yesterday, so clearly the nuke & pave didn’t cure the problem.

One other possibility I’ve considered is that maybe it’s Firefox’s fault. The crash has always happened when I’m watching a video in Firefox. That doesn’t necessarily mean much though, since watching long YouTube videos is about the only thing I’d do on the MacBook that would stress the battery for a good bit of time. Regardless, I decided to try switching my default browser on the Mac to Safari, and see how that works out.

I’ve been a big fan of Firefox since before it was Firefox. And I still like it, and use it as my default browser on both Windows and Mac. It’s been losing market share to Chrome though, and now has only a tiny sliver of the browser market. So maybe it’s time to give something else a try, at least temporarily. Safari is supposed to be very efficient in terms of battery use on the Mac, so maybe, if my underlying problem is the battery, switching to Safari will fix it.

Switching browsers, of course, means that I need to try to replicate my Firefox setup in Safari, to the extent that I can. A few of my Firefox extensions are available for Safari, but some aren’t. The two big ones are probably uBlock Origin and Privacy Badger. But there are alternatives, and I’ll play around with some of those.

Getting my Firefox bookmarks into Safari wouldn’t be difficult if I was just switching over entirely, and didn’t care about keeping them up to date in both browsers. But I want to keep using Firefox on my PC, so I really want to keep the bookmarks in sync. The best way I could find to do that was via iCloud for Windows. This article describes the process of setting it up and enabling bookmark sync between iCloud and Firefox. I went ahead and did that, and it seems to work OK. So now I have Firefox Sync keeping my bookmarks in sync between my desktop and laptop PCs, iCloud sync keeping my Safari bookmarks in sync between my iPhone, iPad, and Mac, and iCloud for Windows bridging Safari and Firefox. I think that, even if I decide to switch back to Firefox on the Mac, I may keep iCloud for Windows running, just so I can have the same bookmarks across iOS, Mac, and Windows. (I’ve always used Safari on iOS, but never really did much with bookmarks there.)

Combining my Safari/iCloud bookmarks with my Firefox bookmarks left me with quite a jumble of duplicates. I had, at some point in the distant past, used Safari as my default Mac browser, and had a bunch of very old bookmarks in there that I’d never cleaned up. And I had a bunch of out-of-date bookmarks in Firefox too, that I’d just been ignoring. So I spent some time this morning trying to clean up my bookmarks. I did that in Firefox on my PC, and hoped it would sync back to iCloud with no problems. So far, it seems to have done that.

Browser bookmarks, in general, aren’t as important as they used to be. But I’m still a weirdo who wants a nice selection of useful bookmarks organized in a sensible hierarchy. I’ll see how my current setup works over time, but I’m also considering some alternatives. On the Mac, I’ve been curious about URL Manager Pro. That might be a good home for my bookmarks. There’s no PC version, but I could just get them over to the PC via iCloud for Windows, I think.

I currently use Pinboard as a place to dump miscellaneous bookmarks, but that’s not a carefully organized collection of stuff that I can traverse easily. I’ve got over 18,000 bookmarks in there right now. So I can’t really use that for my browser bookmarks. There’s a similar service called Raindrop that seems to allow you to apply a bit more organization than Pinboard does. Specifically, it allows you to use both tags (like Pinboard) and something they call “collections”, which can be nested. So that makes it seem like I could combine my carefully organized Firefox/Safari bookmarks and my Pinboard bookmarks into one service. I’d keep the stuff I use regularly in top-level collections, and toss all of the random old Pinboard links into a “miscellaneous” collection or something like that.

Well, anyway, this is mostly just me messing around on a Sunday morning. It’s now almost noon, and I haven’t done much else with the day, other than organize bookmarks. But, hey, it’s relaxing.

MacBook Air nuke and pave

I’d been thinking about doing a “nuke and pave” on my MacBook for a while now. The machine is close to four years old. I bought it in May 2018. I didn’t really want to buy it, but my previous MacBook had died, and I wasn’t quite ready to give up on macOS entirely, so I needed something. It’s served me reasonably well over the last few years, I guess. It’s only got a 250 GB drive, which has been a frequent problem, but I’ve managed.

Anyway, it’s recently developed a problem where it crashes after I’ve been using it on battery power for more than an hour or so. The battery level will still show at around 80%, but the thing will just crash with no warning. I tried some of the standard troubleshooting steps for stuff like this, but didn’t come up with anything that helped. I had AppleCare+ on it, but that’s expired now. I thought about calling Apple about it anyway, and seeing if maybe a battery replacement would fix the issue, or if they had any other ideas. I also thought about just giving up on it and getting a new MacBook.

But, first, I decided to try a clean install of macOS, and see if that would help. I’ve got no particularly good reason to think that it will, but it’s a useful exercise either way, since it forces me to make some backups, and clean some stuff up, which I would have needed to do anyway, if I was going to either send it in for service or replace it.

It’s been a long time since I’ve done this, so I had to do some web searching first. I found a page on the MacPaw site that I used as a guide. (MacPaw has a bunch of how-to guides on their site, which they use mostly to advertise their products, but, unlike other sites that do this, the guides are actually helpful.)

I thought it might be useful to detail some of the stuff I did for this, both for my own reference and for anyone else that might be looking to do the same thing.

I started out by creating a bootable Monterey installer. I didn’t have any USB sticks that were big enough, but I had a 128 GB MicroSDXC card, so I used that. (I’d bought that card in 2018 with the vague idea that I’d stick it in my MacBook and leave it there, and use it as a secondary hard drive. But it sticks out too much, so I gave up on that idea. It’s just been sitting in my desk since then.)

I also did a couple of backups: one final Time Machine backup, and a Carbon Copy Cloner backup. There actually aren’t a lot of files on the MacBook that I need to worry about. Most everything is in iCloud or OneDrive or some other cloud service now. For the files that I knew I was going to want to copy back after the install, I saved them to the SD card.

I then booted from the card, wiped the drive with Disk Utility, then did a clean install. It went smoothly. I then proceeded to reinstall software, copy files over, and so on. I’ve been working on this, on and off, for about a week. The machine is usable now, and I just have a few things left to set up, and some new backups to do.

I’m a little surprised at some of the decisions I made as part of this process. There are a lot of things that I would have done differently in the past. Old-timers like me might find some of this interesting:

  • I gave up on my Music / iTunes library entirely. Now that I’m using Apple Music, it’s all in the cloud. And I have a local copy of all my “owned” music on my desktop PC. So I didn’t bother trying to move any of the local files from my old install over to the new one. That seems to have worked fine, and cleared up a lot of disk space. (I probably still had some TV shows and movies in my library, which really didn’t need to be there, in addition to all the local music files.)
  • I’m using iCloud Photo Library now, so I decided to just start from scratch on that too. This was a bigger deal, since I don’t have that library backed up on my PC. But I trust that it’s all in iCloud. After the macOS install, Photos did pull the library back down from the cloud. I guess the “optimize storage” setting is turned on by default, so it might not have pulled down full resolution copies of all my photos, but it did pull down about 10 GB, and I had to leave it going overnight for it to finish. But it seems to be OK now.
  • The Books app is a bit different, and kind of annoying. I had some DRM-free audiobooks in my library, and there’s no cloud backup for those. I didn’t try to copy them out of the Books library on the Mac though. I know I have copies of them all on my PC and/or in OneDrive, so I’ll just copy them back as I need them. I might be switching from Books to BookPlayer for my DRM-free books, so maybe I don’t even need them in my library.
  • I had my FastMail account syncing down to Mail.app, but I wasn’t really using it. I always use the FastMail web interface. So I gave up on Mail.app, and saved maybe another 3 or 4 GB.
  • I had OneDrive set up on my Mac so that it did not try to keep everything local, but I probably did have a lot of local files taking up space. Microsoft recently made some changes to their OneDrive client that were necessary to move forward, due to changes that Apple has made to macOS. There’s a good blog post on that here. These changes bothered some people, but I’m actually happy about them. So my new macOS install has the new OneDrive client, and is keeping almost nothing local right now. That’ll change over time, but the client should do a good job of managing itself, and freeing up space when needed.
  • For most of my third-party software, I didn’t bother trying to back up settings or preferences or anything. A lot of software is tied to an account, so the preferences are in the cloud. And for those few that aren’t, starting over seemed reasonable.
  • In the past, I’ve had a variety of oddball development software on my MacBook (MySQL, PHP, Ruby on Rails, etc). I decided to just give up on all that and start from scratch. I wasn’t actively using any of it. (I’ll probably install XCode at some point. That’s one thing I couldn’t install previously, since I didn’t have enough space.)

So, in the end, there wasn’t really much to worry about, and I freed up a ton of hard drive space. Before all this, I had only about 30 GB free. Now, I’ve got around 180 GB free.

My next task is to get good Time Machine and CCC backups of the new install. I’m doing the Time Machine one now. I’m still using the same old 2 TB drive that I’ve been using since 2015, I think. It still has free space on it, and still works, so I guess I’ll keep using it. It’s pretty slow and pretty big, but I guess it’s OK for now.

For CCC, I’ve been using an old 500 GB laptop drive in an external enclosure. I have two of these drives, one from my old MacBook (before I replaced it with an SSD) and one from my old ThinkPad (before I replaced that one with an SSD). I’ll probably hold on to the one I’ve been using for awhile, and switch to the other one, which has nothing of value on it.

I’ve been thinking about my external drive situation a bit. In addition to the Time Machine drive, and the two 500 GB drives, I also have two 500 GB SSDs lying around. These are the drives I stuck into the old MacBook and ThinkPad, and which I stripped out of them when I got rid of those two machines. I went ahead and ordered a couple of new external enclosures for them today, and I’m going to try to find something to use them for. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to bother, since the enclosures were around $20 each, and a single new 2 TB external drive would be around $60. But I don’t like to let old drives go to waste.

Going back to my original problem, where the Mac was crashing if I used it too long on battery, I haven’t hit that yet, but I haven’t used it for that long in a single stretch yet either. So maybe this weekend I’ll try to watch a long YouTube video or something like that and see what happens. And if it turns out that this didn’t fix my problem, then at least I’ve got a clean install that I can migrate over to a new MacBook Air with a minimum of hassle.

iOS notification issues and MS Authenticator issues

This is going to be a bit of a gripe post, but there might be some useful stuff in it. Or not. But it’s one of those things where writing it up might help me feel better about it, and might also come in handy later if someone has a similar problem. (Or if I have the same problem again and can’t remember some details.)

So this all started, I think, after I spent some time messing around with the new iOS 15 focus modes. I’d played around with them a bit when iOS 15 first came out, but something made me decide to mess around with them some more. To make a long story short, I tried out the “sleep” focus mode for a day or two, then decided that it wasn’t for me and went back to just using the “do not disturb” mode, scheduled to turn on at 10 PM and off at 5 AM every day.

After that, some of my notifications stopped working. I’m not sure that messing with focus is what broke notifications, but I’ve read up on the issue a bit, and it seems like that’s the most likely culprit. It seems like there’s a bug in iOS 15.2 that messes up notifications in some cases, often after you’ve messed with the focus setup. I’m pretty sure these were all notifications that would fall under the “push” category. So I wasn’t getting notifications on new emails from my Fastmail app, which was annoying but not a big deal. But I also wasn’t getting notifications on MS Authenticator, which is kind of a big problem for me.

I have more than a dozen accounts set up in MS Authenticator, mostly for CSP-related accounts. They all require MFA, so when I log into one of those accounts, it sends a push notification to my phone that I need to approve. And that wasn’t working. There’s a fallback, where I can get a six-digit code from the app and type that into the web browser. That’s what I’d been doing for a few days, but I really wanted to fix that.

I’d seen some advice online about fixing the notification issue by removing any app that wasn’t working, and reinstalling it. That worked for the Fastmail app, so I thought I’d try it for the Authenticator app too. Now, the Authenticator app has an option to back up its configuration to iCloud. And I had that turned on, so I thought I would safely be able to pull it back in after reinstalling the app. Well, it turns out that it’s not that simple. I did manage to pull in the backup, but for most accounts, you have to go back and redo the setup on the account anyway. You’re just pulling in a placeholder from iCloud. That was a pain, but not a huge problem, for accounts where I had my cell phone number set up as a backup. But for some of the oldest accounts, I either don’t have a backup, or I have my work desk phone set as the back up. And I’m working from home and don’t have a way to get to my desk phone. So that’s a problem.

Tomorrow, I’m going to try to find someone else with admin rights who can go in to Azure AD and set my cell phone # as my backup auth method so I can finish the setup on these accounts. I’m a little worried that I may have to bug someone at a fairly high level to do this, which could be a little embarrassing. But hey, we all screw up now and then. And this is more Apple and Microsoft’s fault than mine. (Apple’s fault for screwing up notifications in iOS 15.2, and Microsoft’s for not making it clear that the MS Authenticator iCloud backup isn’t really much of a backup.)

So the lesson here is that, before wiping out MS Authenticator, go into all of your accounts and make sure you have a good phone # and/or email address set under your backup authentication methods.

Once this is all straightened out, I need to write up a good procedure for transferring my MS Authenticator setup from one phone to another. My current iPhone just hit its three-year anniversary, so it’s time for me to start thinking about a new one. Setting up a new iPhone generally isn’t that hard these days, since you can just restore from an iCloud backup and most of your stuff will work. But there’s always some odd bits, like MS Authenticator, that trip you up. Even with all of my accounts set up correctly with backup auth methods, it’ll still take me an hour to get them all done. For each one, I basically need to open a new private browsing window, log in (using the SMS message backup option), then go to my account profile, delete the old MS Auth setup, add a new one, scan the QR code, wait for it to send a test push notification, approve that, and then finish the setup. That can take five minutes per account. I’m wondering if there’s a better way to handle this. Probably not. Most people don’t have Azure AD accounts in a dozen different domains, all requiring MFA, so my situation is not exactly a common use case that MS would have designed for.

Post-Thanksgiving stuff

I survived Thanksgiving, but it wasn’t a great day. The fire alarm in my apartment building went off on Thanksgiving Eve, at 11 PM. So I had to get out of bed and go stand around outside in the cold for about a half-hour, before being allowed back in. I’d gone to bed at 10, and was pretty well asleep at 11 when the alarm went off. And afterwards, I just couldn’t get back to sleep. So I didn’t have a lot of energy on Thanksgiving. About all I did was re-watch some episodes of Doctor Who and nap. I guess that’s a reasonable Thanksgiving, really.

I tried to get back to something closer to normal yesterday, Black Friday, but that was also a pretty low-energy day. I didn’t read anything on Thanksgiving, and read only one comic on Friday. I’m noticing that my resilience just isn’t what it used to be, physically (and sometimes, mentally). One bad day or night can screw me up for a few days afterward. I’m not sure how much of that is just normal for my age, vs. being something I should worry about.

Anyway, what I wanted to write about was really just some Black Friday stuff. I don’t buy a lot of physical stuff on Black Friday, typically, but I keep my eye on some digital deals on software, subscription services, and stuff like that.

  • Last year, around this time, I signed up for a free one-year subscription to Calm. The deal was for one free year, and a second year at half-price. I’ve been using it pretty consistently this year, so I was ready to let it renew for the second year. But Calm runs a Black Friday deal every year, where you can get a lifetime sub at 60% off. So I went ahead and took advantage of that, and paid $160 for a lifetime sub. That’s a fair amount of money, but I’ve stuck with my meditation habit pretty consistently this year, and I think I’ll keep it up for the foreseeable future. That was my big Black Friday purchase.
  • Another thing I did last year was to sign up for Hulu’s Black Friday deal, which was $2/month for their ad-supported tier, for a year. So that was coming to an end. For that, I decided to pause the subscription for a few months are reevaluate it later. There’s some good stuff on Hulu, but I feel like I’ve got too many streaming services going right now, and too much stuff to watch.
  • I also subscribed to Letterboxd Pro last year, on Black Friday, for $12/year. I’ve been using Letterboxd a lot this year, so I let that renew, and it looks like I’ll continue to get the discounted $12/year rate.
  • It’s also about time for me to do my yearly review as to whether or not Pluralsight is worth renewing. I’m currently on a “legacy” plan, which should renew in January at $179. If I cancel my account, then I won’t be able to get that old rate back. Though it seems like their current Black Friday deal would let me subscribe to their “standard” plan for $179, so maybe there’s a little wiggle room there. I haven’t actually used Pluralsight that much this year, so maybe it’s time to give up on that. I’ll have to decide on that before the end of the year.
  • Meanwhile, my Amazon Prime subscription renews on December 1, for the usual $119. I’m always a little unhappy about supporting Amazon to the extent that I do, but honestly, it’d be kind of hard to live without Amazon at this point, and dropping Amazon Prime would not affect Amazon’s fortunes in the slightest. So I’ll just let that one renew too.
  • I generally think about various hardware upgrades around the end of the year. I don’t really have anything pressing this year though. I looked at the Kindle deals at Amazon. I’m happy enough with my current Kindle, but the new Paperwhite is supposed to be really good. But I just don’t need it. I might want a new iPhone next year, but, again, I don’t really feel like I need one just yet, and there aren’t any really good deals on iPhones. So probably no new hardware this year.

So that’s about it. Nothing much exciting, but it kept me out of trouble for an hour. I need to try to get back in the swing of things today and tomorrow, so I can go back to work Monday and have a good productive day. I know there’s going to be a lot of work waiting for me on the first day back from vacation.

Playing with Postman

Postman is a tool that I’ve been meaning to learn for years. I’m not sure when I first heard of it, but I’m pretty sure it was back when it was just a Chrome extension. So it might have been almost ten years ago. I didn’t really get serious about it until 2019, at which point I was doing enough REST API work that it seemed like I should take some time and see what all the fuss was about. At that time, I would have primarily been using Fiddler for API testing. Fiddler’s Composer tab is pretty good for basic API testing, but you can do a lot more with Postman.

Alas, when I tried setting up Postman on my development VM in 2019, I couldn’t get it to work. It would just hang every time I launched it. I went back and forth with support for a while, and tried a number of things, but I just couldn’t get it working. So I gave up and went back to Fiddler.

But I switched to a new VM a while back, so I thought I’d give Postman another try. I successfully installed it on my VM at some point last year, and poked around a bit, but never had time to actually learn it. So last week I had a bit of free time and decided to spend some of it figuring out Postman.

I started with this Postman 101 for Developers video on YouTube. The Postman YouTube channel has a bunch of useful videos. After that, I moved on to a couple of LinkedIn Learning videos:

  • Introducing Postman – This video is from Dave Fancher, and was created in 2019, so it’s a little out of date, but still useful. It’s about 90 minutes.
  • Postman Essential Training – This one is by Kristin Jackvony, and is from 2020, so it’s a little closer to up-to-date. It’s also about 90 minutes. It covers some more advanced testing stuff, like the collection runner and Newman.

Then, I moved on to a Pluralsight video: Postman Fundamentals, by Nate Taylor. That one is about 2.5 hours long, and gets a bit deeper into what you can do with JavaScript for testing API calls. I found it to be very useful for the kind of stuff I’m likely to be doing.

All three of these courses are old enough that they predate the new v8 Postman user interface, so it can occasionally be a little challenging to figure out where something is in the current version vs. where it was in 2019 or 2020. But it’s not too bad.

So I think I now have a pretty good grounding in the basics. Of course, now I’ve gotten busy again, and haven’t gotten back to Postman in the last few days. But I did at least set up a collection/workspace for one of the APIs that I work on, by importing the Swagger JSON for it. I need to clean it up a bit, but I can certainly use it for ad-hoc testing now.

Next, I need to find the time to maybe write some test scripts. My current “smoke tests” for the API are in C#. I have a number of console programs that exercise different aspects of the API, to test out different stuff. An I have a C# script that I run in LINQPad after every deployment that just does some quick non-destructive tests, to make sure the deployment didn’t break anything obvious. But I’d really like to have some more structured and exhaustive tests that I can run. I’m not 100% sure that I want to commit to Postman for that, since it does add some complexity. But it might be worth it. It was worth spending several hours learning about it, either way, and I think I’ll be using it for a lot of my ad-hoc testing now.

paying for Pinboard

I’ve been using Pinboard as my primary bookmarking service since 2010. When the service first started up, the creator (Maciej Ceglowski) charged a one-time fee to open an account. Since then, he’s switched over to a yearly subscription model, but all of the old-timers (like me) have been grandfathered in. And we still are, but Maciej sent out an email recently politely asking us old-timers to consider switching over to the subscription model. So I went ahead and did that today, paying $51 for 3 years.

Pinboard has been a pretty good low-key service over the last ten years, but I’ve had some frustration with it. It’s really just run by Maciej, on his own, so he can only do so much. There’s no official iOS client (or Mac or Windows client), just the bare bones web site. And the API that third-party developers can use has been pretty iffy of late. I briefly considered switching to raindrop.io instead, and I might still experiment with that, but Pinboard is good enough for me, for now.

Even before I got the email about switching to a subscription, I’d been meaning to write a blog post about Pinboard. I’ve made some changes in the way I’m using it, and I thought it would be a good idea to write some stuff about that.

First, the Pinboard bookmarklet stopped working in Firefox a couple of weeks ago. (The developer is aware of the issue.) That was kind of annoying, but it got me looking at Firefox extensions for Pinboard. The last time I’d done that, I didn’t find any that seemed to be worth using (vs the bookmarklet). But I have now found a pretty good one and have started using it. It doesn’t really offer much beyond what the bookmarklet would do, but it works fine.

Second, the iOS app I use to save stuff to Pinboard, Pushpin, has been acting up lately. Trying to refresh my bookmarks almost always results in a timeout. I’d stumbled across a new app, called Pins, and decided to try that out. Initially, that didn’t seem to work at all, but it turns out that Maciej was just having trouble with the API that weekend. Once the API started working again, Pins started working fine. I’ve since paid the $10 to unlock the full version of Pins. I still have Pushpin on my iPhone & iPad too, but I think I’ll try to start using Pins instead now, and see how well it holds up.

On my Mac, I’ve been using an app called Spillo to help organize my Pinboard bookmarks. Spillo hasn’t been updated since 2017, I think, but it still works. And the new Pins app also has a Mac version, so I’ve installed that too, though I haven’t had a chance to play with it much yet.

I’m the kind of weirdo who spends way too much time organizing and maintaining my bookmark collection. I have a little over 17,500 bookmarks in Pinboard, and really there’s no good reason for that. Of those, 1700 are still marked “unread”. The general idea of the unread status is that I stumbled across something that I’ll want to read later, but I’ve clearly just let it turn into a link graveyard. And, for the “read” ones, the purpose of bookmarking them is usually that they contain something that I think I might want to reference later. Most of the time, that never happens. I bookmark a page and never return to it. But having all this stuff bookmarked does come in handy sometimes.

There’s a second tier for Pinboard accounts, where Pinboard attempts to archive the actual content of all the pages that you bookmark, so you can do full-text search on your collection, and so you can access content that might have disappeared from the web. When I switched to a paying subscription today, I didn’t bother going for that extra functionality, though I did think about it. I do have a lot of dead links in my Pinboard account, but honestly, that’s fine. (One of my pointless rainy day tasks is to identify dead links in Pinboard and delete them. This doesn’t really serve any useful purpose, but I guess it keeps me out of trouble for a little while. Spillo can identify dead links, so that’s what I’ve been using for that task.)

burning data DVDs in Windows 10

I’ve never had a problem with burning data CDs or DVDs in Windows 10, as far as I can remember. I’ve generally used the built-in burning function in Windows Explorer. Well, today, I bought a bunch of comics via this Humble Bundle, downloaded all the comics in it, and then wanted to burn them to disc as a backup. I’ve done that plenty of times before, but I couldn’t get it to work today.

After going through a bunch of troubleshooting steps, I finally gave up and downloaded CDBurnerXP. That worked fine. I’m pretty sure I’ve used CDBurnerXP in the past. (I had an entry for it in my Pinboard account from 2009, so I was at least aware of it.)

I briefly considered going back to Nero, which used to be my go-to program for CD/DVD burning, as far back as 2004. But I’m not sure about Nero anymore. They do still sell their “Nero Burning ROM” program, but there doesn’t seem to be a freeware “light” version anymore, nor is there an obvious way to get a 30-day trial of their full product, so I didn’t want to spend money on that, not knowing if it would work or not.

And there’s still a Roxio product for burning CDs and DVDs, but again there doesn’t seem to be a freeware version or a trial version available.

All of which leads me into a rant about trying to find legitimate freeware/shareware Windows software these days. I’ve found that the best way to find something is to go back through my own Pinboard bookmarks and/or blog entries, and try to find something familiar that I’d used in the past. There used to be good semi-trustworthy sites for finding freeware/shareware, like Tucows (which surprisingly was still around until about a month ago.) There were a few others, but at this point, I can’t ever remember their names.

Nowadays, we’ve got the Windows Store, which should be good and trustworthy, but there’s a lot of questionable stuff in there. Is MajorGeeks.com good/trustworthy? Maybe? Their burning tools page looks pretty good. And this Best Free Software of 2020 article from PC Mag has some good stuff in it (including CDBurnerXP). I guess PC Mag is still reputable.

I get worried about downloading freeware programs that may contain malware. The Windows Store should take care of that, I guess, but it still seems like there’s a bunch of crap in the Windows Store, and a bunch of the more useful freeware utilities don’t ever make it into the store.

I wound up tweaking some security settings as part of my troubleshooting today, and I just noticed that Windows has flagged the installer for an old version of ImgBurn from 2010 as a risk. I let it delete that. (A more recent installer, from 2016, didn’t raise any alarms.) Makes me wonder if that was a false positive or not. Did I download a hacked version of ImgBurn in 2010? I guess it doesn’t matter at this point, since I wasn’t going to install a ten-year-old version of ImgBurn anyway.

Oh well. This is just another blog post from a cranky old man who wanted to spend five minutes burning a DVD backup today and wound up spending an hour or two troubleshooting and working around annoying Windows problems.

more fun with audiobooks, on Presidents Day

Today is Presidents Day, and I have the day off from work. In a normal year, I’d maybe take this opportunity to go into New York and visit some museums, or maybe just go out and see a movie, but this year, between the pandemic and the coming ice storm, I think I’ll just be staying home and doing largely pointless nonsense. (I could maybe look at this Times article, and do something meaningful that ties in to the holiday, but.. nope.)

Pointless activity number one for today has been “messing around with audiobooks”, so this post is going to be a follow-up to my last fun with audiobooks post. Since that post, I’ve finished Charlotte’s Web, borrowed from my local library via OverDrive. And I’ve started The Witch Who Came In From The Cold, via Serial Box.

From an iOS app perspective, I’m realizing that I need to use multiple apps now, depending on where my audiobooks are coming from. Books bought from Apple, and DRM-free books that I’ve dragged into Books on my Mac, can be listened to via the Books app on my phone (or with Undulib or something similar). Audible books need to be listened to via the Audible app. Library books can be listened to with OverDrive or Libby. And Serial Box books probably need to be listened to via the Serial Box app.

I have figured out, though, that it’s possible to save OverDrive audiobooks (if they’re in MP3 format) to my local PC (via the OverDrive Windows app). And it’s probably still possible to export Audible books via OpenAudible or AudibleSync. And I’m pretty sure that it used to be possible to download MP3 files for Serial Box titles, but they seem to have discontinued that and locked it down, so you’re stuck with their app now.

I’ve also been messing around with utilities to combine MP3 files into consolidated audiobook files. I’d been looking at Join Together and Audiobook Builder. Those are both $5 apps available for the Mac. I wound up buying Audiobook Builder, though Join Together would probably have also worked well. I don’t really need to create consolidated audiobook files, but it does allow me to clean things up a bit, specifically for audiobooks that I’ve ripped from CD. I’ve run a few books through Audiobook Builder, and it seems to work fine. I’ve pulled in MP3 files and output M4B files, and the output always comes out smaller than the input, and seems to work fine in Books (on Mac/iPhone) and iTunes (on Windows). I can edit the metadata for the combined file, and for the chapter titles.

Since paying for Audiobook Builder, I noticed Audiobook Binder, which is quite similar, but free, and open source. I probably should have tried that first. The visual similarity between the two programs is kind of suspicious. If Audiobook Builder didn’t have a fairly long history, I’d think it might just be a fork of Audiobook Binder that somebody tweaked a bit, then tossed up in the Mac App Store. But it’s been around since 2006, so that’s unlikely.

It would actually be more convenient for me to have a program like this on my PC, but there doesn’t seem to be much available for Windows. I found something called AAC Audiobook Creator, which might work, but it hasn’t been updated since 2011. So I guess I’ll stick with Audiobook Builder for now, since I’ve paid for it and it works well enough.

Getting back to iOS apps, I haven’t really had any issues with the multiple apps I’m using now, though it would be nice to just have one great one. The Apple Books app works well enough, for both books bought from Apple and DRM-free books synced from my Mac. The OverDrive app works fine for library books. (I’ve also installed Libby, and took a quick look at it, but I don’t think it’s any better than OverDrive.) As I mentioned last time, I think the Audible app is working for me now, though I haven’t actually tried to use it to listen to anything lately. And the Serial Box app is a little clunky, but good enough. All of these apps have the basic controls available, plus multiple speeds (if you’re interested in that) and sleep timers.

Having content spread across multiple apps and providers does make things harder to keep track of, but that’s what Evernote and Goodreads are for. And speaking of content, I’ve got plenty to keep me busy. The current Serial Box book I’m listening to, The Witch Who Came In From The Cold: Season One, is pretty good. I’ve previously listened to the first season of Bookburners, and enjoyed that one too. I thought I’d written a blog post mentioning it, but I can’t find it. I did write a relatively long review on Goodreads, though. I got the first seasons of four different Serial Box serials as part of a Humble bundle back in 2018. Serial Box is a pretty interesting publisher. They publish stuff as serials, in both audio and text format, and use a “season” format similar to the way a TV show would be produced. The “seasons” have individual “episodes.” There’s generally a group of writers working on a season, with individual episodes written by individual writers, but sticking to a consistent voice and style. It works pretty well, for the two serials I’ve tried so far. When they started out, they were doing original stuff, but now they’re also doing serials featuring licensed characters from Marvel, like Black Panther. And they have a subscription service now too, which gets you access to a library of more traditional audiobooks in addition to their own stuff.

Once I’m finished with the serial I’m listening to now, I’m not sure what I’ll listen to next. I’ve got a lot of options. Maybe some of the Neil Gaiman stuff that I haven’t listened to yet. Or maybe I’ll get back to the Big Finish Doctor Who audio dramas.

 

fun with audiobooks

I have a long history of complaining about audiobook-related issues on this blog. The most recent entry in the saga is here, from November of last year. I’ve been playing around with some audiobook stuff again recently, so I thought I’d write another post.

First, let me say that my issue with the Audible iOS app seems to have resolved itself. The issue started back in June, and was still an issue in November. The app would always crash after about 30 seconds or so. I tried every combination of deleting, reinstalling, rebooting, etc., that I could think of. I guess Audible eventually fixed the issue, or it went away on its own, or something. Either way, I’m pretty sure I could listen to an Audible book now, if I wanted to.

I’ve also been messing around with my library of audiobooks in Apple’s Books app. I mentioned the annoying limitations of the macOS Books app in that November post. Those all still exist. But I spent some time recently cleaning out some old audiobooks that didn’t need to be in the library, and moving some into folders in OneDrive for safekeeping. So now I feel a little better about that.

While looking through the handful of audiobooks that I’d bought from Apple over the years, I discovered that at least one of them was no longer downloadable from them. I still have a copy of it, and it still plays, but if I delete it, I think it’ll be gone forever. So I backed that one up. (Not that I’m ever going to listen to it again. It was a nice mystery novel, but nothing special.) Several of the oldest audiobooks that I have from Apple don’t seem to be available anymore, at least in the same version that I originally bought. They do still show in my purchase history, and seem to be re-downloadable though. These go back to the early days of Apple’s audiobook store, when they were really only reselling stuff from Audible. (I guess that, technically, they’re still reselling a lot of stuff that’s provided by Audible, but they’re not just doing that.)

And I’ve still got a lot of DRM-free audiobooks and audiodramas in my “waiting to read” pile. The next time I want to read one, I might try out Bound, or something similar. Or I might try to create a consolidated audiobook file with something like Join Together or Audiobook Builder, so maybe I can get a cleaner listening experience in Apple’s Books app.

Right now, I’m listening to an abridged version of A Short History of Nearly Everything, by Bill Bryson. I’m pretty sure I’ve listened to it already, but it would have been back before I started assiduously logging everything I read (or listen to). Anyway, I’ve forgotten it all, so it’s good to get a refresher. And listening to Bill Bryson calmly talk about science is a nice way to wind down at the end of the day.

Speaking of which, I’ve gotten back into the habit of listening to a bit of an audiobook near the end of the day, on most days. If I’ve got the right book, I think it helps me wind down a bit. Prior to the Bryson book, I was finishing up a BBC adaptation of War and Peace. That was also pretty good for winding down. I’ve got at least one Harry Potter book in audio form. And I’ve got The Hobbit, and some version of Lord of the Rings around here somewhere. And a few Neil Gaiman books. So I should be OK for end-of-the-day listening for the foreseeable future.