Apple News+ (UK) – A Review

Having caught up on my backlog of reading during lockdown, I decided to accept Apple’s offer of a free trial of their News+ service. The concept seems attractive for someone who would like to read widely without the great investment of time and money needed to take individual subscriptions to many publications. Unfortunately as I near the end of my month-long trial, I do not intend to continue with it.

The News+ “anchor-tenant” for current affairs in the UK is The Times. It had been my expectation that I could open the News+ app every day and peruse a digital newspaper, with all the in-depth articles and quality journalism that one gets that is so often missing from the 24/7 Internet news cycle. However the News+ service just seemed to give me access to a selection of online stories from The Times, with little to differentiate this offering from non-News+ providers such as The Evening Standard, The Independent or BBC News.

Some of these aforementioned providers have very aggressive advertising on their websites so even an advert-free reading experience would have potentially been a benefit, except News+ continues to display adverts, mostly terrible ones, in a way that seemed to maximise the interruption to the reading experience. In contrast, The Guardian app has the option to remove all adverts for £5.99 per month.

News+ also offer a selection of electronic magazines on a wide variety of topics. Some of these magazines are natively formatted for the app which offers a pleasing reading experience on screens both large and small (such as a phone). Sadly the majority I am interested in are just PDFs. Many local libraries (including my own) already offer free access to e-magazine services that include what are termed digital replicas of paper magazines so there is little incentive to subscribe just for the magazines.

Website Changes: 2004–2014

Over the Easter break I spent some time making changes to this blog so that the posts from 2004 through to 2014 are displayed in the style in which they were originally posted rather than the current theme. This might seem like an odd thing to do: these old designs do not conform to modern layout standards, nor are they optimised for the typical screen resolutions in use today. However, as I looked through the older posts, some of them had visual oddities where the original formatting had not translated properly to a new theme, and even when the formatting was OK, there was something odd about reading text written 15 years ago but presented in an up-to-date way.

Method

I was able to implement this by creating a directory structure for the older years and populating it with static files for the older posts. The default WordPress configuration means that if these files and directories exist then they are served instead being given to WordPress to render dynamically. The easiest way to generate the static pages is to use the Preload setting of the WordPress Super Cache plugin, then copy the files it generates from wp-content/cache/supercache to the correct location. Before doing this you should review your theme to make sure that any time-sensitive dynamic content (for example, an instagram feed) is turned off, otherwise the generated pages will remain stuck with today’s content which which may look rather odd in a few months time.

One problem I encountered is that my initial approach broke some of the auto-generated year archive pages (e.g. /tooBusy/2005). The monthly archive pages were produced consistently, but the year ones were sometimes missing. I used the curl command to fill in the missing ones, but it also highlighted that any private posts will no longer appear in these year and month archive pages when you are logged in, although they will be shown in other views such as tags and categories.

Executing this for posts using two older themes, presented a slightly harder problem. I did not want to reconfigure my live website while I experimented with this setup, so I spun up a copy of WordPress on my laptop using Docker and loaded into it a backup of my live website. I then used the WP2Static plugin which, in addition to generating the files, can also post-process them to change any references to the web server running on my laptop to the correct one.

I reviewed many, but not all, of the generated files—if you spot any problems, please let me know. Getting a good quality result using an offline copy of the website took considerably more time and effort than I hoped, but looking through those older posts I am struck by how much better many of them look in their original style, while I find the current theme to be equally good for more recent posts. WordPress continues to offer a first-class writing experience for new posts, and the fact that the same software is still running this blog after 16 years is a triumph of longevity and backwards compatibility. The existence of practical solutions for migrating away from it are just another point in its favour.

MacOS Keyboard Shortcuts for Terminal Users

Despite its reputation for flashy graphics, macOS has a number of nifty features and shortcuts for terminal users. Here are some of my favourite keyboard shortcuts within the Terminal application itself:

  • ⇧⌘a (“shift-cmd-a”) to copy the output of the last command.
  • ⇧⌘v (“shift-cmd-v”) to paste the currently selected text.
  • ⌃⌘v (“control-cmd-v”) to paste escaped text.

The following keyboard shortcuts work in other applications:

  • ⌥⌘c (“option-cmd-c”) in Finder will copy the path to the selected file(s) (via @scriptingosx).
  • ⇧⌘. (“shift-cmd-fullstop”) toggles show hidden files, even in file open/save dialogs (via @howardnoakley).
  • ⌃t (“control-t”) transposes the two characters to the left of the cursor (via @eWhizz).

While testing the copy & paste shortcuts in this post, I also discovered—after 15 years of being a Mac user—that Finder has the ability to show the current contents of the clipboard (Edit→Show Clipboard).

MacOS External Storage Setup

A combination of a growing volume of personal media from 24+ megapixel cameras/4k HD video-recording phones, the switch to smaller solid-state internal drives, and the increasing life-span of our desktop computers, means that at some point you are likely to find yourself needing to offload data to an external storage device. Having gone down this path earlier in the year I thought I would share my experiences with the WD My Book Duo.

Continue reading “MacOS External Storage Setup”

The complexities of Apple’s Photos.app

Since I have recently written about and recommended multiple Extensions for Apple’s Photos.app, I thought I would share a link to this article by the author of the RAW Power application on what happens “under the covers” when using an Extension. It also covers the difference between an Extension and the “Edit With..” functionality. What is happening is far more complex than you might imagine and will probably explain various inconsistent behaviours you may have observed.

Coffee Subscriptions

In my review of the Blue Coffee Box I observed:

In addition to the quality of the coffee, important considerations include the ability to control the frequency of delivery since even a well-sealed bag will only keep coffee properly fresh for a few weeks. Another factor is how much choice is there over the style of coffee delivered? Does the service allow for some flexibility and choice around that?

To review these aspects of the service I signed up for a subscription. The first decision as whether I would like Light, Medium, or Dark roast, or there was an option to “surprise me” with each bag. Although I had sampled three bags of their coffee already, these had not been categorised in this way so I was unsure which I would prefer and plumped for the Medium option.

The next decision was frequency of delivery: fortnightly, monthly or every two months. Finally, I could choose to pay monthly, or pre-pay for 3, 6 or 12 months. Prepaying for 3 months saves 50p per bag, for 6 months it is £1 per bag. If you go for fortnightly deliveries then prepayment options are 8 and 16 weeks for a 50p and £1 discount accordingly. I placed my order on a Saturday, it was dispatched on the Tuesday and arrived two days later on Thursday. The coffee was again excellent.

The medium roast was exactly as you would expect a medium roast, rich but well-balanced and not over-powering but I remained undecided: am I a light roast or a medium roast subscriber? I decided that the only way to check was to change to a light roast for my next bag. I duly emailed the team at Blue Coffee Box, explained that I was still on the fence, and they were very happy to switch my subscription for my next bag. Their IT systems were not quite as obliging as it inadvertently generated a new order for me and charged my card again, but another email to them saw that swiftly corrected.

Once your subscription is live you can view it on their website and make some amendments, such as switching the pre-pay period, skip your next renewal (the date of which is clearly shown), cancel and add a new subscription. Cancellation seems to be the only way to change the frequency, having first cancelled the existing subscription, hence I had to email them to change from medium to light roast.

Blue Coffee Box offer a great subscription product which is simple and easy to use. The variety of coffee is supplemented by the different roasters used, so every delivery is going to feel like a mini-surprise present to yourself. The downside is that the coffee is only posted to you on a fixed schedule (2, 4 or 8 weeks) so if your coffee consumption does not fit one of those patterns then you will find yourself accumulating a surplus or running short and needing to “top up” from other sources.

The need for flexibility and low-stress stock management is something I think Pact Coffee have solved. I have been using them since 2013 and while their product started off as a weekly or monthly subscription service, their website has evolved to include precise scheduling and handy features like “choose my subscription frequency in days” (mine is 21), and buttons for “skip this delivery” and “ship today” (or “tomorrow” if it is after 1pm). Thus my routine is: realise while making coffee that I have only a few days supply remaining, pull up website on phone while waiting for it to brew, request coffee be posted that afternoon and it generally arrives within two days. Pact also requires you to choose your coffee from a rotating menu of around 6 or 7 they have in stock on any particular day—great if you like a particular coffee and want more of the same—but there is enough turnover that you can probably have something different every time if you prefer too.

Conclusion

A coffee subscription allows you to enjoy, with minimal effort, high quality freshly roasted coffees that you will never find for sale in your local supermarket. As with most subscription products, there are discounts available to tempt new customers so I recommend you try them both using the offers below and decide which style of subscription works best for you. Cheers!

  • Blue Coffee Box are offering Too Busy To… readers £5 off your first order using code TBTO5.

  • Pact Coffee: Use code NATHAN-US3CIQ on your first order and we both get £5 off our next respective deliveries.

Blog news: self-hosting photographs

A few months ago I noticed that the home page of this site was taking multiple seconds to load. Common wisdom is that a “good” loading time is under 200ms, and even though a photo blog such as this might be a bit slower than a text-heavy site, multiple seconds is just too long to wait.

The best lead I had as to why this was taking so long was the comment inserted by the WP Super Cache plugin at the bottom of every page recording how long it took to generate in seconds. This was frequently more than 3 seconds which suggested that the problem was either my web server being too slow or a problem with my WordPress setup. Discounting the first as unlikely, I did some reading up on WordPress performance-tuning. The most practical advice was to minimise the number of plugins you use, and turn off each plugin in turn and check the effect on load-time before and after. I use few plugins but had been fond of Flickr Justified Gallery for displaying my Flickr-hosted photographs, and of course this was the culprit. The problem is not the plugin itself but Flickr’s own API—generating each gallery requires a query to Flickr to retrieve the list of photos in the album.

My preferred solution was to host my own images. This blog is 14 years old now and as I learned last year, third party services can disappear or change unexpectedly. Sadly the built-in gallery layout with WordPress 4.x remains an old-fashioned looking grid of square thumbnails that can fail to represent the underlying photograph properly (example). The JetPack add-on comes with a more attractive gallery layout but automatically uploads and serves all your images from their servers, which has its own downsides.

I looked at a number of third-party gallery plugins but anything outside the WordPress core also has the same “third-party risk” as Flickr: the code could stop working in the future, breaking all my old posts. None could also match the slick efficiency of Flickr’s upload workflow for optimising, arranging and captioning images. Fortunately while I was investigating this, WordPress released their new Gutenberg Editor. This comes with a new Gallery, the first version of which was a bit buggy but has the modern look that I wanted, and has improved over the last few months. (At time of writing there remains a bug where clicking on any photo in a gallery displays the first photo in the gallery not the one you clicked on. This is due to be fixed in mid-January.)

Switching to the new gallery improved page-generation times but without Flickr to optimise my images, I need to do this prior to upload to keep page-load times acceptable. This involves a two-step process:

  1. Use ImageMagick to resize images to no more than 2048 pixels on their longest edge: mogrify -resize 2048x2048 *.jpg (be careful, this changes the original files!)
  2. Reformat to be progressive JPEGs and apply lossless optimisation. There are a number of tools that can do this but ImageOptim is an efficient open-source drag-and-drop option for MacOS.

The final tweak, as recommended by Google’s PageSpeed Insights tool, was to defer offscreen images. This should make the initial page render faster by not loading images that are not yet viewable, and was already available as part of the Jetpack add-on (Lazy Load Images).

Software Review: On1 Photo RAW 2018

On1 Photo is one of the many editing applications I use to process my photographs. I have previously written about my journey from using a single application (Apple’s Aperture) to many so an update post about the latest version seemed overdue. [Due to a delay in publishing this article, RAW 2019 is now available and 2018 is no longer the latest version!]

The upgrade from On1 Photo 10 to On1 Photo RAW had been a bit bumpy. The new features were great but some older ones had not made the transition. While I did not directly experience too many bugs, there were frequent bug-fix releases with the consequence that it seemed like every time the program was opened it wanted to update itself, interrupting my photo editing session. Consequently I did not rush to upgrade to the 2018 version when it was announced, the new features were not initially compelling and the current version was working well enough.

A few months ago I received a significant discount offer to upgrade. (This was before On1 had announced the 2019 version.) I also noticed that their most recent point release (free upgrade within the 2018 version) had added the ability to manage RAW+JPEG pairs in Browse.  Since this is how I shoot, I had found managing the sets of files separately to be tedious and been looking for a better file management solution.  I was also looking forward to trying out the panorama feature since I capture them too infrequently to invest in dedicated panorama software.

Immediately after starting with Photo RAW 2018 I realised that this was a more significant upgrade than I had expected. The interface felt comfortably familiar but also subtly tweaked to be more streamlined to use. The performance was significantly better too—I could not help feeling that this was how Photo RAW should have been at release, and had now arrived after 18 months of feedback and iterative improvements. 

If you were disappointed with the initial release of On1 Photo RAW then I can thoroughly recommend the upgrade to the 2018 version if you have not settled on some other tool instead. I have not upgraded further to the 2019 version, for similar reasons to why I did not upgrade to 2018 at the beginning. I am also waiting for Luminar 3 to be released since its promised libraries feature is very similar to the browse functionality that I use extensively in On1 and it will be interesting to compare them before committing my money. If you have yet to try On1 Photo RAW then their extensive collection of video tutorials is the best starting point—they can really help you understand how to get pleasing results from it.

Review: Blue Coffee Box

This is a review of the Blue Coffee Box I received a few weeks ago. To be completely transparent, I was given a free review box by Blue Coffee Box, I had not heard of their subscription club until their offer popped into my inbox. They are also offering £5 off your first order using code TBTO5.

As I wrote about in my previous post, this is a well put-together package that exudes class and quality. As someone who enjoys the range of flavours and tastes that coffee offers, I really liked that there were three different varieties to drink. Each bag has a good resealing mechanism so it is easy to keep fresh in the bag once opened—a good thing when you get excited about having to compare and contrast three different bags of coffee for a review and decide to open all three on the same day!  Each bag is 155g, a little bit smaller than a standard 227g supermarket bag, but with three in the box that adds up to about the same amount of coffee as two supermarket bags.  

My first opportunity to sample the coffee was for a cup of mid-morning pick-me-up. Using the flavour notes I decided that the occasion called for something a little bit lively, so went with the Finca La Bastilla, which was described as “notes of apple, pear, citrus, caramel.” This produced a drink that was smooth and natural tasting, with a rounded mouth-feel and was a little bit more-ish. Subsequent tastings showed it to be a really good all-rounder that could be drunk black or with a drop of milk, perhaps a little middle-of-the road but there is definitely room for that in my cupboard.

A bag of coffee

The second coffee I tasted was Bosque Lya. The flavour notes of milk chocolate and praline suggested this would be a little darker than the Finca La Bastilla and indeed it was. The chocolate flavour definitely came through but without any bitterness. The description of “milk chocolate” was very apt and I found it to be a very agreeable mellow coffee: perfect for after-dinner, but highly enjoyable at any time of day.

The final bag was Aldea Capucas. I was not sure what to expect from flavour notes of golden syrup, caramel and lemon since they are not flavours I would normally associate with a coffee. However it was another delicious cup of coffee, mild and rich-bodied with subtle flavours, and surprisingly sweet—milky coffee without any milk!

After tasting all three, I am happy to report this box contained three different, truly excellent, high quality coffees. Combined with the luxury presentation I have no hesitation in recommending this box as a gift for someone who claims to be a coffee aficionado, they will not be disappointed. This would also be a great present for someone who has yet to discover the joys of gourmet coffee, or coffee subscriptions, and would appreciate an introduction. 

Having established this is superb coffee that no one could be disappointed to receive, what about the subscription service itself? In addition to the quality of the coffee, important considerations include the ability to control the frequency of delivery since even a well-sealed bag will only keep coffee properly fresh for a few weeks. Another factor is how much choice is there over the style of coffee delivered? My three bags were all at the lighter, subtle, mellow and mild end of the roast spectrum which is serendipitously my preference, but I do know people who prefer a strong big mouth-feel dark roast so does the service allow for some flexibility and choice around that? These are important questions require a little more research so will be answered in a future post.

Blue Coffee Box

Since moving to suburbia, a Saturday morning run to Monmouth Coffee’s near-by roasting house to taste their current selection has required a lot more effort and travel.  The best alternative I have found is a coffee subscription: I am unable to taste a selection of coffees before purchase but it does ensure I have a constant supply of fresh and delicious beans available at home.

The good news for me and my fellow suburban dwellers is that there are an increasing number of home delivery options available and the nice people at Blue Coffee Box have just sent me one of their signature boxes containing three 155g bags of beans to try. The box is beautifully presented with a card describing the farm where the coffee was grown, and a few words to describe the flavours you might notice.

My box contains three coffees, two roasted by the same boutique team, Gentlemen Baristas in East London, and another by a small two-person roaster in Yorkshire. The post was unable to get it through our standard-sized letterbox but he was  happy to leave it in a safe place so there was no hassle receiving it. When I tested the parcel in the letterbox I could just about get it through, but it was a tight fit and required some wiggling—your mileage may vary, as they say.

A full review of the coffees will follow when I have had chance to fully enjoy them, but if any reader would like to try a box for themselves then the company have generously provided a £5 discount code for you—enter TBTO5 at checkout to claim.