Hi. I'm John.

Sometimes I make games. Sometimes I make websites. This is my blog.

Category Archives: Cool Apps


Help The World By Hosting Academic Torrents

Reliable access to information is important. Like electricity, we don’t think about it much until it’s gone.

Just imagine how much harder your daily life would be if you weren’t able to access a given piece of information. Whether it’s because the server is down, workplace firewall rules, or some sort of government censorship, how would you get what you need in order to do your work? Is it even possible?

If you’re a student looking for data for your research paper, or you’re a automotive dashboard designer trying to reduce driver distraction, or you’re a marketer looking for data to analyze customer habits, you need access to quality information that will help you make decisions based on data.

It’s no secret that most academic and non-profit organizations are constantly strapped for cash, often requiring donations or tax breaks just to keep the lights on. While it’s always welcome to donate money, there are other ways you can help out.

Have you ever considered donating a bit of hard drive space to help host academic files for universities? Many of us (myself included) have a home theater computer connected to our living room TV. Whether it’s an old laptop with a broken screen, a Raspberry Pi, or an Intel NUC, we’ve got something that’s available for most of the hours of any given day and has a hard drive that is almost never used.

Why not donate 10 to 15 GB of space to host important and much needed legal torrents?

 

Torrent Academic Data

 

This is what I’ve started doing. Using Transmission, which is available for free on Linux, Windows, and Mac, you can easily set up a folder to host legal academic torrents.

 

Transmission Torrent Software

 

Worried about it killing your Internet speed or receiving hefty bandwidth bills? You don’t need to be. If you click the little turtle in the status bar, you can set sane speed limits. To not interfere with my Netflix streaming and gaming, I’ve got mine set to low speeds. It won’t be a deluge of data being sent, but just imagine if 50 of us all had these settings, the speed for the files will be fast, because that’s how Torrents work: splitting the file across multiple people to increase speed and reduce the chance of one down server stopping everyone.

Take a look at Academic Torrents to learn more about how you can help out.

Sued by Canada Post for listing Canadian postal codes

Did you know that attempting to build a list of Canadian postal codes by region can get you sued by Canada Post?

I think most Canadians would agree that it’s fair for Canada Post to charge companies for a list of Canadian postal codes by region, since it does require actual work to organize and maintain that list. What I think most Canadians would disagree on is suing someone for building their own list from scratch, based on people submitting their address and postal code to help out. But, that’s exactly what’s happened to Geocoder.ca, an Ottawa-based mapping firm which supplies the postal codes to free and open mapping services like OpenStreetMap.

From Geocoder.ca’s release:

This is the gist of the matter: Since 2004 we have crowdsourced* the generation of the “Canadian Postal Code Geocoded Database.” When you make a query to geocoder containing for example this information “1435 Prince of Wales, Ottawa, ON K2C 1N5”, we then extract the postal code “K2C 1N5” and insert it into the database that you may download for free on this website.

It’s been nearly 4 years since they’ve been sued and they’re finally going to see their day in court soon.

Donate to the Geocoder.ca defense fund to keep their home-grown list free.

Download the list of Canadian postal codes by region, released under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.5 Canada License.

 

Use Pocket Without Being Tracked

Save to Pocket (mini)

I’m a huge fan of Pocket. It’s a read-it-later service that helps relieve some of the pain of losing Google Reader.

What I’m not a fan of is being tracked online.

Pocket has a bookmarklet that lets you save whatever website you’re on to your read-it-later list. I used this happily for months until an odd, compulsory update came along that changed the permissions from read/write access to anything done on only Pocket’s own site to read/write access to every website in Chrome. So, I deleted it, let Pocket know it was a problem via Twitter, and stopped using Pocket. I still loved the service, but without the ability to immediately save a web page to my Pocket, I no longer had exposure to it, and it fell out of my workflow.

That is, until an Internet friend recommended Save to Pocket (mini)! It is an unofficial Pocket Chrome extension that replicates the original bookmarklet’s functionality. Just click it whenever you want to read your current web page later and it goes right into your Pocket. No cross-domain cookies needed. Yay!

Super Useful Windows App: Sticky Previews

I run into this situation all the time when working on graphics, 3d models, or converting web wireframes to HTML+CSS: the need to keep a mini snapshot of what I’m mimicking in the same frame as the window that I’m creating it in. Think Picture-In-Picture but for your desktop.

Enter Sticky Previews.

This handy app lets you create an arbitrarily-sized rectangle snapshot from anywhere on your desktop then lets you place and scale that rectangle on another screen or over other work on the same screen. Take a look at a quick 2 frame video showing a Chinese character in my Google Doc then the Sticky Preview in the bottom left of my Blender window. I’ll use this reference to model the Chinese character in 3d.

I purchased Sticky Previews years ago and have used it hundreds of times to speed up my work-flow. If you’re a web developer or designer, I’d definitely recommend it.

Microsoft is killing it

Here’s a blog post you wouldn’t normally expect to see on this blog. In the past, I’ve not usually been big on the Microsoft stuff. That is quickly turning around. Take a look at all the amazing stuff they did in the last day:

The only bad thing they did was this:

On Hacker News, a chain of people posted the following, which struck a chord with me:

Who would have imagined it 5 years ago?

Who would have imagined it five months ago?

For me, I wouldn’t have even imagined this five days ago.

Oculus, Facebook, Carmack, and Abrash

Oculus Rift DK2

Oculus Rift DK2

My first reaction, similar to that of most other developers who are working with the Oculus Rift, upon hearing of the Facebook acquisition of Oculus, was one of intense disappointment. It felt like our favourite band just sold out to a huge record label. Oculus was the embodiment of the VR industry itself: the scrappy little guy, fighting against all odds to prove to the world that he can do it.

All that changed this past week when it was announced that Facebook acquired Oculus.

Enough has been typed and said over the past week, with emotions ranging from “take our ball and go home” to “this is the best thing that could have happened to us.” After letting it settle, thinking about it, seeing John Carmack give his support, then Michael Abrash  leaving Valve to join the team, my feelings on it have completely changed. This change at Oculus is a big deal, in a good way. Oculus now has the best chance of making true VR a reality. They have the best team in the world and the biggest budget behind them to do it. Colour me excited.

Google Drive Is Pretty

Google Drive Is Pretty

Sleep better with f.lux

I didn’t believe in this software until I tried it. It started working the first day I used it.

Essentially, it changes the colour temperature of your screen depending on what time of day it is. If it’s daytime, your screen will be normal. If it’s nighttime, it’ll be more red. Apparently there’s a lot of research data to suggest that this helps with sleeping patterns of humans (something to do with the sun). Anecdotally, I can verify that it has helped my sleep patterns immensely.

I just wish it had the incremental colour change option enabled by default. Out-of-the-box, it switches from blue to red quickly after you cross a certain point of day. I like it when it’s more subtly done.

http://justgetflux.com/

UPDATE! Just a few days after this post, the developer of f.lux updated the software after a period of inactivity. The new features include the ability to go even dimmer during evening hours and a new “movie mode” which disables f.lux for 2.5 hours (long enough for your average movie to play through).

Download old 3.5 version of Unity3D

Unity 4 was released three days ago, on the 12th of November. I installed it as soon as I saw that it was available. Unfortunately, it overwrites any previous version of Unity you have installed, so I lost my install of Unity 3. To make matters worse, I could not find any download link on the Unity3d website.

Thankfully, the official @unity3d twitter account pointed me toward the installer for Unity3D 3.5. Here it is.

For PC: http://download.unity3d.com/download_unity/UnitySetup_update-3.5.6.exe
For Mac: http://download.unity3d.com/download_unity/unity-3.5.6.dmg

Enjoy.

Neat Gmail Feature: Custom Theme

I just learned about the custom theme feature in Gmail. For a long time I’ve wanted to use my own background in Gmail and now I finally can.

If you’re a fan of Minecraft and you’re looking for a good background to use in Gmail, I put one together. Feel free to click the image below and use it. I recommend the Dark theme option when using this image, but the choice is yours. Enjoy!

From Game Blaster 64

Send a Text Message From Your Browser

Are any of your friends using Bell, Rogers, or TELUS? Check this out! Each of these carriers let you send text messages to people on their network for free, in your browser. Does anyone know if WIND Mobile has something similar? Also, the Rogers one requires you to sign in before you can text. So, if you’re not a Rogers customer, you can’t use this one.

Another thing you could use this for is determining which carrier a number is using. Enter the number in these sites and if one works, you’ve got your answer.

YouTube’s New UI

If there was one website that needed a new UI it was Youtube.com. The site’s design hadn’t changed significantly since it’s introduction in 2005 and it was slow, heavy, and out-of-date.

Since the purchase of Youtube by Google, a few new features have shown up from time to time including the ability to sign in with your Google Account. Unfortunately, the site still felt like a third-party product and not part of the Google package.

In line with the across-the-board design upgrade to all of Google’s offerings, Youtube has just upgraded its design to match its Google siblings, Gmail and Docs. It’s a huge boost in terms of design and functionality, but it’s not all peachy. First, the bits that work well.

  • The Account Switching feature that’s found on Google Docs and Gmail is a very welcome addition, especially for people that make Youtube videos but also have a personal account with separate preferences and subscriptions.
  • The site is much faster. It’s hard to describe how good it feels to actually watch videos on the site now. Before, the site would stop loading randomly, usually just as we sat down to eat after clicking Play or when showing someone a video you’ve raved about.
  • Buttons are in the right spots and don’t move while the site is loading. I’ve griped about this sort of UI mistake before on other websites, especially twitter.com. The problem is something will move as soon as I go to click on it because another part of the website has loaded. I end up clicking on something else (usually an ad) that I didn’t want at all. It’s terribly frustrating and (thankfully) has been much improved in the UI upgrade.

And now for the not so good. Don’t worry, there isn’t much.

Is this Yahoo or Google?

There is way too much stuff on the front page. When Google first launched their search engine, designers lauded the simplicity of their design. It was common to compare yahoo.com up against google.com. Unfortunately, the front page of Youtube seems to be going in the wrong direction: more and more things just keep getting piled on the front page until it becomes a cluttered mess and I’m unsure exactly what I’m supposed to be looking at.

What’s your take?

Dropbox For Teams?

Anyone who knows me knows that I’m a huge fan of Dropbox and have been using it for years. I learned about a new service that they’re offering called Dropbox Teams. One would assume that this version of the software would offer tighter integration with teams or some other features to justify the $795 cost which includes 5 seats.

Looking over the FAQ offered a lot of technical questions and answers but not what I was looking for: Why would anyone choose this option over the free or $10/month 50GB option?

Is there anyone out there using Dropbox Teams that can shed some light on why they went that route versus the regular service?

Edit: I see now. It’s basically a huge jump in the amount of storage capacity with some support thrown in that one will likely never use.

Building a website in real time

Today I stumbled upon this really nifty web app that lets you edit HTML and CSS as it shows a live version of what it looks like as you type. Check it.

qipli website builder in real time

 

Cool JS App: Treesaver.js

If you’re looking for a web-based flipbook that works great on iOS (and other Flash-less devices), take a look at treesaver.js. It’s an open source script that automatically builds properly formatted pages that swipe great on the iPad and look great, too. Since it’s stock HTML5 and JavaScript, it works great almost everywhere.

Lightweight and fast, the Treesaver.js app doesn’t add any crazy overhead to your content but putting your content into the system and making it look nice still requires quite a large bit of elbow grease. This is due, in large part, to the unfinished documentation on the Wiki.

But, the software is only at version 0.9.2 currently, so there’s plenty of time for the community to help out. I love open source software.

Get Google Analytics to E-Mail You Scheduled Reports

This may not be new to many folks, but I just discovered a neat feature in Google Analytics that lets you set up scheduled, regular reports in several common formats.

This came in handy with a Powerhouse Web Solutions client who wanted to know who was hitting their website, when, and where from, but is not technically savvy enough to navigate the myriad of options found on the full Google Analytics website.

E-Mail Reports Button in Google Analytics

Setting it up is simple.

To get started, simply log into your Google Analytics account and view the stats for the site you’d like to have reports for.

Then, click the E-Mail button as seen in the above screenshot and set your options. I like the idea of the Analytics Overview page being E-Mailed but if you want one of the drilled down reports E-Mailed, simply click the E-Mail button while browsing that particular page.

Image of Google Analytics schedule E-Mail form

Tons of options.

You can E-Mail yourself (and CC to other E-Mails) reports on a daily, weekly, monthly, or quarterly basis and they can be generated in the PDF, XML, TSV, and CSV formats.

Normally, I configure Google Analytics to have a separate client user for each website so that they can log in and see their full stats directly. But, this works really well in circumstances where the client may not have the time or technical know-how or where you’ve got to send a report to a higher-up.

What other neat tricks are hidden in Google Analytics? Share them in the comments!

 

Placeholder Images For Your Site

kitten

Sean Yo from last night’s Guelph Web Maker Meetup shared a few awesome web tools I’d never heard of and I thought they were so neat I resolved to share them (and a few extras) today with everyone here.

Every web designer and developer under the sun has used (or at least heard of) the default ‘lorem ispum‘ text that is used as a filler for unfinished text copy on websites that are a work in progress. Well, now us web developers and designers have an option to use something similar for our images as well.

The image on the right should give you some sort of indication where is going… check it:

 

Save Time With Sync

Firefox Sync Logo

Firefox Sync Logo

There are a couple of cloud tools that I use to make my life easier and to increase my productivity. I’ve written before about using Dropbox to help share and sync your files with the cloud, but today I’d like to share another tip/tool that I use daily: Browser Sync.

As a web developer I’ve usually got several browsers open including Google Chrome and Mozilla Firefox. Thankfully, both of these browsers offer a neat option called Sync that lets you share your bookmarks (and other preferences) with yourself, on any computer.

This is handy because during the day any number of bookmark-able links come up but I haven’t got time to look at them. Or I may find a link that I need to save and install software from on another machine.

Using Firefox Sync and Google Chrome Sync, any bookmark I save will show up on any PC/Linux/Mac computer I use. No more E-Mailing myself links, no more USB keys, no more losing my bookmarks due to viruses or re-installing Windows.

But it’s not just bookmarks that can be shared securely. With Google Chrome sync you can sync your passwords, preferences, and extensions. That means if you buy a new laptop, the minute you sign into Google Chrome Sync, all your data and extensions are ready to roll. No installing required.

This is really powerful stuff and it’s exactly why the Internet and the cloud are changing the way we work and live. I’d like to hear how you use Browser Sync in your work/life in the comments below if you’d like to share.

Featured WordPress Plugin: W3 Total Cache

Let me be straight with you: Every WordPress blog on the web should have this plugin installed.

And, no, I’m also not being paid to say that. :)

W3 Total Cache is exactly what its name suggests: A total caching solution for WordPress blogs. WordPress is a good publishing platform and content management system (CMS) but runs into problems quickly when more than a few visitors hit your site. Even moderately busy websites can buckle under the strain of the database connection pools, stylesheets, Javascript, and HTML that WordPress uses.

Some of the neat features that W3 Total Cache includes:

  1. “Minifies” CSS, Javascript, and HTML by removing all whitespace. To see an example, view the source code of this page. This means there is less data to send to viewers of your website which also means your website loads faster.
  2. Final output is cached and then re-served to the next viewer without having to rebuild. This means that in many circumstances, your blog might only be recreating your site dynamically once an hour. Otherwise, the cached version will be served, greatly increasing the performance and stability of your site.
  3. Uses advanced disk caching techniques to cache output or can also take advantage of Memcache technology (if supported by your server) to increase speed even more.

Before W3 Total Cache I was a fan of WP Super Cache. And before that, I used WP Cache. Neither of the latter two can hold a candle to the capabilities and caching power of W3 Total Cache.

For more information on how this plugin can increase your website’s performance, take a look at W3 Total Cache on the WordPress Extend website.

Learning PHP Using Google Wave

Tonight at Guelph Coffee and Code I walked the group through the first steps of learning PHP. Because our projector was unavailable, I substituted its functionality with Google Wave. Even though I’ve had access to Google Wave since the summer, this was the first time I had truly used the service.

When I first heard about Google Wave, the idea seemed intriguing enough. I had a hard time figuring out exactly what it could be used for. I’m a huge fan of Gmail and other Google communication tools including Google Apps, so I had faith they’d pull something cool off. However, my first few attempts at trying it were met with less than stellar results.

Truth be told: I couldn’t quite see how it could help me communicate with my friends and colleagues any better than Gmail. So, a few days after receiving notification of my acceptance into the world of Wave, I abandoned it and went back to my life with E-Mail.

What We Did

Using Google Wave, the group followed along with my presentation of syntax and functions and contributed their own code snippets and links. I was able to quickly type example PHP code into the wave and have it appear on their screens as I was typing it instead of all at once when sending the message. The removal of the wait-message-wait-message barrier is critical to its success in groups. It’s just as easy as talking.

This sort of instant chat has been done before, however, most notably with ICQ chat back in the 1990s. But, back then we weren’t quite the society were are today. Have to give credit where credit is due, though.

I knew it was going to go well when after pasting my first code block into the wave, the others in the group started to modify the code without me prompting them. After returning from the fridge, there were already 3 or 4 new lines of code directly beneath mine were with perfect syntax. It was fun!

Is It E-Mail 2.0?

To be perfectly honest, I am not sure. I love Gmail and it will take a lot to move me away from it. Perhaps its a case of uncertainty with respect to how it will interact, if at all, with Gmail in the future.

Even after tonight’s experience, I still have a hard time defining Google Wave or identifying its place in my communication paths. But there are two things I know for sure: It’s great in groups and makes an excellent discussion platform when your projector is down.