December 24, 2019


Cutting the cord – cable alternatives

A couple years ago I got tired of the rising cost of cable, and the lack of control as a consumer I felt over that cost, so I decided to ditch the service. A couple things made this an easy choice: 1) HBO Now came out so I no longer needed a cable subscription to access streaming premium Sunday night entertainment and 2) some new cable streaming alternatives (particularly SlingTV) had entered the market. I did a test of Sling and found that the little app on my Roku as actually a much better and faster experience than the old cable box I was previously relying on. I can also add it to my phone or computer so it was available anywhere I had internet access, making it a lot more accessible. In addition to being a better experience, Sling was a service I could cancel and reactivate at will, so no contracts involved, and it was a good deal cheaper than cable.

There are now several choices for cable streaming alternatives: SlingTV, YouTubeTV, ATT TV Now. (However, sadly the Playstation Vue service is going away.)

I have since completely cut off cable alltoghter but I like that I can reactivate Sling or Hulu+LiveTV anytime I want for a month at a time to watch something like the World Series, the Olympics, World Cup, etc.

If you’re looking for a free cable alternative you might consider PlutoTV. Being that it’s free, you’re not exactly going to find a lot of premium content on PlutoTV but the ad-supported service does have a lot of content and it is presented in a traditional live tv format. But their is a surprising amount of content, and a surprising amount of good on-demand movies - and all for free. Among the channels available are a channel streaming all the classic James Bond films, a channel with endless reruns of American Gladiators, channels dedicated to all sorts of genre’s from westerns to holiday films. And there is lots of Comedy Central content (Pluto is owned by Viacom). You’ll also find a lot of live news sources (such as live CBS News) that could make individual news apps unnecessary.

Outside of live sports and tv news, there isn’t a lot of reason to want a streaming cable alternative.

As for live news, I have found the CBS News live service is on par with their cable alternative. But there are a bunch of other free news services that anyone cutting cable should consider. First and foremost, if you want to be informed, I always rely on NPR and PBS. You can get your local NPR station on your Roku using the TuneIn app, or if you have an Apple TV you can use the NPR One app. You can get PBS with their own app, or stream their daily broadcast of NewsHour right off YouTube. If you’re looking for local news, chances are the NewsON app offers a lot of your local news stations. My favorite news app to recommend is the ReutersTV news app - it’s available on Roku, or just steaming in your web browser. The interface design of the Reuters app is excellent.

I use a Roku but all of these suggestions would be available on an Apple TV or Amazon Fire device as well.


My favorite iOS apps

There are an infinite number of “best apps” lists, so I thought, “why not make another one?” So here is a list of my favorite apps…maybe some of these will be lesser known gems!

  • Dark Skies - there are so many weather apps, but they either seem to have too much or too little info. This app is the perfect balance of just what you need, and it’s extremely precise!
  • Transit - there are lots of popular navigation apps (WAZE, Google Maps, etc) - what makes this one awesome is that it’s focus is on helping you navigate public transit. The UI is awesome. I’ve always thought that public transit can be a little frustrating to figure out, but this app makes the experience easy to understand.
  • iA Writer - I really love the iA Writer app’s minimal distraction-free writing interface.
  • Brave - all browsers that run on iOS are required to use the WebKit rendering engine. This is a requirement of Apple for a browser to be allowed on the App Store, but Brave comes with built in add blocking and the HTTPS everywhere extension built in.
  • Spotify - music, podcasts, a great UI make this the best music app on iOS
  • Pixel People - I was really sad because my favorite iOS game was gone for a long time but now it’s surprisingly been resurrected! It’s kind of a city-building game like the original Sim City with the added job or repopulating humanity. The graphics are in the style of retro games from the 8 and 16-bit era. It’s amazingly fun and addictive.
  • Downwell - a very fun game with simple mechanics, a retro 8-bit style macabre art style. The user falls down a well (hence the title) and uses gun-boots to blast enemies as they plummet further down.
  • Flipboard - I’ve always liked the way that Flipboard presents interesting articles.

You’ll notice I didn’t include any social media apps in this list. Well that’s because it’s become clear to me that social media is a form of digital poison that should be minimized in our lives.

December 23, 2019


Web Privacy Tips

Recently I’ve had some conversations with family and friends and realized that I probably take for granted some privacy tips that I should share. In this day and age where our every increasingly tracked behavior is a product sold by marketing agencies, and in a world were we can’t assume our governing bodies will have consumers best interests at heart, it seems all too critical to be vigilant in protecting your digital privacy. So here goes: my tips at basic privacy protection.

The TL;DR version

Choose a good browser

First, rather than the default web browser that came on your machine (Microsoft Edge, or Safari if you on a Mac) I highly suggest using Firefox as your web browser. Firefox is the best browser when privacy is your concern**. Be sure to configure it to clear your browser cache when you close the exit. Here is how to do that. Use the Do Not Track feature that Firefox pioneered – this is now a default setting. Firefox is also available on the iOS app store, and they have an ad blocking tool, Firefox Focus, that allows you to protect against ads on the default browser Safari. Other browsers seem to eventually catch up with Firefox when it comes to privacy, but Mozilla Org being a privacy-focused non-profit has a vested interest in your privacy unlike competitors Microsoft and Google which have a vested interested in knowing as much as they can about you for marketing purposes, as a result Firefox is often giving you the best access to control your privacy. Also, side note, as a web designer I find the dev tools in Firefox to be outstanding! I actually suggest having a few different browsers for surfing the web, and configure all of them with browser focused extensions (see below). Besides Chrome and Firefox, there are lots of other good ones: Opera, Vivaldi. **Another excellent browser you should consider is Brave, from the co-creator of Firefox – It comes with Ad Blockers built in, as well as HTTPS Everywhere (see below).

Second: Whatever browser you use – always make sure it’s updated. Most browsers will update automatically by default.

Third: Do not enable Flash on any browser. Most browsers are configured to block flash be default now. But if a site wants you to enable Flash, always say “no”.

Use privacy-focused browser extensions

I am usually hesitant to install a browser extension unless I am certain it’s from a reliable source. Here are some that are known to be very reliable and helpful:

Use DuckDuckGo as your default search engine instead of Google, Bing or Yahoo. DDG is a search engine that doesn’t track you. I find the results are just as good (or darn close) to using Google. Here’s how to set it as default on Firefox.

Use an Ad blocker to prevent that item you were thinking about buying from following you around from website to website. Ad blockers prevent unseen advertising companies from tracking your every step on the net. There are lots of Ad Blockers and they are not all created equal. uBlock Origin is the best. Get it for Chrome. Get it for Firefox. Ad Blockers also have the benefit of making your internet faster because all those ads aren’t loading, as well as making your browsing safer when visiting a site that may unintentionally be serving up a malicious ad via an unreliable ad network. To see the difference: Install uBlock Origin and then go to any YouTube video and you’ll see dozens of ads blocked in the extension’s indicator.

Use HTTPS Everywhere – from the Electronic Frontier Foundation, an organization founded on users’ digital rights and civil liberties - this extension helps ensure you’re visiting the secure version of a web site for every visited web page. The Wirecutter does AN AMAZING JOB of explaining the differences of viewing a non-secure (HTTP) verses a secure (HTTPS) web page - highlighting the granular data an ISP can collect about you in a non-secure page. Obviously HTTPS provides a great deal more privacy than HTTP - my ISP may know I went to Amazon, but at least on a secure version of the URL they can’t determine based on the query string which items I am interested in buying. Extrapolate that to other searches like health concerns, etc and you can get a scary idea of the kinds of profiles your ISP can generate about you.

Use Facebook Container - Mozilla, makers of Firefox, have provided an extension that traps Facebook’s tracking abilities from cross-site tracking. A lot of people don’t realize this but Facebook injects tracking codes on lots of sites you might visit in a given day, and if they know you’re the same user they are storing data about (even if you don’t actually even have a Facebook account) they can map your behavior. This extension traps each tab in a separate session and prevents cross-site tracking from Facebook.

Control your DNS

Configure your domain name server (DNS) to NOT USE your internet service provider’s default DNS. Unfortunately thanks to a recent decision from our government to overturn a provision to protect consumers from their internet service providers (ISP) from tracking their customers’ online behavior and building profiles of their users, it is now more important than ever to use secure (HTTPS) sites and. Your ISP can now even send you to one of their own bogus domains if they do not recognize the domain URL you are trying to visit. I noticed this not long ago when I tried to visit a website for a web design conference that had been shut down, but since the URL was no longer valid my ISP redirected my browser to their own bogus link farm which looked like a hacked website, rather than a standard “page cannot be found” message. Fortunately there are some things you can do to prevent this from happening. Typically when you have an ISP they route your URL requests through their own domain name server (DNS) but if you happen to own your own router and modem (which is always good idea), you can configure the DNS manually to go though a responsible DNS server just by logging into your router and (while you’re in there be sure to change the router log-in into something other than the default). Google provides reputable DNS IP addresses, as does OpenDNS. Here is an explanation on configuring your router to use Open DNS as it’s domain name server.

Use a VPN

When you are on a public wireless network your data is not safe from prying eyes, so it is highly recommended to use a VPN. If you must use a public internet connection, using a VPN will keep your data encrypted. The best VPN is debatable but Wirecutter provides some decent suggestions. Most importantly, make sure the VPN is reputable and a paid service (the free ones sell your data).

Avoid social media (Facebook especially)

Avoid (if you can) Facebook. I know it’s hard to get by without Facebook, but just know that whenever you use that service you are handing over your personal data to be sold to anyone. YOU are the product that they sell for massive amounts of marketing dollars, and you have no idea who’s buying that data. You might be amazed at what they know and can determine about you with algorithms. Here is how you can view all the data Facebook stores about you. BTW, if you use Instagramor WhatsApp you’re just another part of Zuckerberg’s empire.

By all means, do not use Facebook as a means to log into other services. I see this a lot lately. This is just a way for Facebook to know more about you, and prevent you from leaving Facebook for fear of loosing access to those services. Whenever possible do create a unique account for every unique service.

Other tips

Put a piece of paper of your computer’s web camera. it’s old school, but even Mark Zuckerberg does this. Firefox will allow you to set when it’s ok for a site to access your web cam or microphone. Pasteabout:preferences#privacy into the URL bar to access your privacy controls. Nefarious website have been known to hijack cams and secretly record users.

Don’t jailbreak your iPhone or Android and always update whenever Apple/Googleprovides system updates. They often patch security vulnerabilities.

Use 2-factor authentication for all of your important services (email/financial/medical/etc). 2-factor authentication requires that when you log in with a password you get a text message to your phone with a random authorization code. This prevents a hacker who may have already acquired your password from accessing your personal info. For an even more secure log in, many services offer a way to use an encrypted app to provide 2-factor authentication.

December 22, 2019


What I've Learned This Year, and What I Want to Learn Next

This year I feel pretty good about what I’ve learned in web design/development, and as always I am excited about what I can look forward to learning next.

This year I’ve learned a good bit about:

  • SASS and CSS Variables
  • CSS Animations
  • CSS layout with Grid and Flexbox

CSS is my favorite part of web design/development. My CSS skills feel like they are improving a lot in the last year. I like using CSS variables to create art. Here is an example of the American flag created with a base unit defined as a CSS variable. All other measurements are based on that root variable using the calc property. I also spent some time exploring CSS Animations as in this example of a CSS dog I created named Codee (pronounced “Cody”).

Probably the most exciting thing I learned this year was how to layout a page using CSS Grid. Here is an example of a world made with CSS Grid.

Next I want to learn:

  • Development Frameworks: React, Angular, but especially Vue

I like that Vue is independent from a big tech company. In the same way that I prefer Firefox over browsers provided by large corporations (Chrome, Edge, Safari), I also like the idea that Vue is not from a large tech corporation (React is from Facebook, Angular is from Google). Diversity in browsers, frameworks, software is a good thing. The independence of Vue is a big pro. But I know that knowing all of these frameworks is indispensable, so while I will start with Vue, I will progress to trying all of them. From what I’ve read they are often used in conjunction.

I’m also interested in trying out some Static Site Generators, and 11ty is at the top of my list.

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December 18, 2019


CSS Grid is the web layout standard of the future

Today I Learned that Mozilla has a great guide for comprehending CSS Grid!

If you have been a web designer/developer for any length of time you’ve surely used your fair share of float:lefts and clear-fixes to arrange content on the web, and despite the frustrations of that, you gladly accepted them for giving up the old way of table-based layout back in the pre-responsive web design days. And you probably gladly switched to the grid-based Bootstrap approach despite having to load in all that extra code, because up until now there was not a built-in layout language for the web. That all changes with CSS Grid (and Flexbox), a layout structure that is built-into CSS and widely supporting by the major web browsers. Best of all, Grid (and Flexbox) seamlessly with with older techniques so you don’t have to choose one of the other.

CSS Grid is certainly the layout tool for future web development, and it’s worth noting that it can be used hand-in-hand with Flexbox (or ‘Flexible Box Model’) which has a lot of similar features, attributes, naming conventions and so on. It’s a little confusing at first, but once you at least kinda* get the hang of it creating layouts for the web is a dream. (*I say Kinda because no one would be expected to be a repository of everything there is to know about Grid, or Flexbox, or the rest of CSS for that matter - this is one reason we have Google).

One way to distinguish Flexbox and Grid is know that Flexbox is one-directional (horizontal or vertical) and Grid is bi-directional (horizontal and/or vertical), as this article clearly explains.

CSS Tricks also has an excellent reference for Grid (based on their reference for Flexbox) that I use every time I work with Grid. And my favorite version of my favorite Browser, Firefox Developer Edition, has some amazing tools built in for visualizing and working in Web.

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