Blog logoMatthew Lang


A 10 post collection

Reviewed: On Writing Well

 •  Filed under Books, Reading, Reviews, Daily Post

I finally finished William Zinsser's On Writing Well last night.

Cover of On Writing Well

I've been making slow progress through it due to the fact I read it last thing at night and only managed a few pages at a time.

I've been chewing through a number of books on writing ever since I read Stephen King's book, On Writing. Educating myself on writing is just as important as my continual learning of software development, which is why I spend the time I do reading books like this.

I didn't take as many notes as I probably should have done, but I've queued the book up again on my reading list so that I do take notes on it the second time around. The main reason I enjoyed the book is that it doesn't focus on non-fiction writing.

I was glad to see there was even a section on writing about science and technology including this gem of advice:

Describing how a process works is valuable for two reasons. It forces you to make sure you know how it works. Then it forces you to take the reader through the same sequence of ideas and deductions that made the process clear to you.

On Writing Well by William Zinsser

I recommend this book for anyone interested in improving their writing regardless of the form it takes. This book won't make you a successful published author but it will make look at your writing in a more critical way and that's not a bad thing if you want to improve.

Still Using Gauges

 •  Filed under Reviews

A few weeks ago I wrote about how I was still using Feedbin as my goto RSS Reader. Well it seems that's not the only product I'm still using after three years.

Gauges is my choice of analytics tool since moving away from Google. It might not be as feature rich as Google Analytics has but it definitely suits my needs and is probably a better fit for most people that want to measure traffic on their sites.

Why the move to Gauges?

When I wanted to go Google-free I tried to find feasible alternatives to all the Google products I was using. At the time I needed an analytics tool to replace Google Analytics. To be honest I only used it for the pageview count for my blog. I had no interest in using the search, e-commerce or other advanced features. I just wanted to track page views and visitors. One service that caught my eye was Github's Gauges service.

What has changed since moving?

I've been using Gauges ever since that day. Gauges itself has changed hands and is now owned by Expected Behaviour, but the service itself still remains fault-less and reliable. I don't think Gauges received any updates during its time owned by Github but since changing hands, the service has received a steady stream of improvements. The latest being the mobile and tablet support. The is a stand out feature for me. I like having apps on my phone but for things that I check on a less than frequent basis when I'm away from my desk I'd rather use the browser.

Another plus for me is the Gauges API. When I used Jekyll for blogging, I used a script and Gauges API to pull the top content for the month and add it to my blog during the generation process. The API is easy to use and well documented. Even though Gauges has a limited set of data for views and visitors across different time periods in their web client, you can quickly get the API to return the data you need.

I'm also using a Slack bot that can fetch the stats for my websites. I had been using the Gauges daily summary email for this but I've been trying to curb the amount of email I get on a daily basis and instead I'm funnelling content like this through a private Slack channel. I just put the Gauges bot command in and the bot returns the views and visitors for each of my sites for today or yesterday. Handy for when I want a basic overview of the past day's activity.

Would I recommend Gauges? Definitely.

Not only do I get all the essentials like page views, visitors and referring links but there's also development tools that allow you to analyse what percentage of browsers using your site support different features.

Sure Gauges doesn't have all the bells and whistles that Google Analytics has, but for me Gauges has just the right amount of feature for tracking visitors to my websites without making it too difficult. Right now I'm running four websites with Gauges, two blogs and two products, and it more than covers all my needs.

Review - The Amazon Fire 7 Tablet

 •  Filed under By Me, Technology, Reviews

It's been 4 days since our Amazon Fire 7 tablet arrived in the post. The idea behind buying the tablet was as a short term replacement for Ethan's iPad which has really become temperamental. It's three years old now and despite the good condition in which it is kept, we are looking to replace it soon. I also wanted to try out the Fire as a writing tool so that I could take my writing on the road and get away from the desk for a couple of hours a day.

Amazon Fire 7

The suggestion of the Amazon Fire tablet was by a friend of mine who bought one for his son. I looked at reviews of the tablet online and it appeared to be able to do everything that I wanted it to do. After a few days with it though, there are a few observations I've made that would make me question buying one of these again.

First the benefits. You can't argue with a £50 tablet. Really you can't. Looking at the price and who sells it, you would immediately think this is the right tablet for me. Well the tablet itself is sturdy enough. Obviously not as thin as a new iPad, but the added thickness was a slight reassurance the kids will be able to get a good grip of it and be less likely to drop it.

It has a non-HD display but the kids won't really know the difference between that and the HD display and to be honest I'm not that fussed not the difference either. The display was good enough especially for such a cheap tablet. Lastly the Fire is able to expand it's storage capacity with the the use of a micro SD card. So we're covered for storage.

The tablet is fast and responsive enough that I couldn't call it sluggish. There are a number of apps included in the tablet but none of these are on my requirements list with the exception of the Amazon Prime app and a few other apps I can download from the app store.

Now the drawbacks. If you're hoping to do some work on the Amazon Fire tablet then I suggest you make sure that the apps you need to use are available on Amazon's app store. Not having had an Amazon tablet before I wasn't too sure what apps would be available to use. I did see the Trello app listed but that was all. There are no apps for Todoist, 1Password or Instapaper. Not that this is a reflection on the company that make these apps. The Amazon store is not as prolific as the Apple Store or Google Play, and so it means that the apps available on Amazon are limited. I had hoped that the tablet would serve as a writing tool. With a browser, Trello, Todoist, and a nice markdown editor, I thought I would have a portable writing tool that would allow me to move away from my desk. Not so. There just isn't enough applications that would allow me to do this effectively using the Amazon Fire. The inclusion of a web browser on the device means that I can access things like Todoist, Trello and Draft but for such a device I would prefer to use a native app.

For me the Amazon Fire is more in the consumer target group than the creative target group. With Netflix, Spotify and of course Amazon Prime video available on the device, I see it now as nothing more than a portable entertainment center, which is a shame really as the tablet itself is quite neat and could really do well with those on a tighter budget or looking for something smaller than an iPad to carry about.

So a few days with the Amazon Fire and I'm less than impressed with it. The tablet itself is nice and compact but the availability of apps on the Amazon app store means that if you're looking to do anything more than entertainment with this then I would suggest you keep you're money for an iPad Mini 2 or an equally sized Android tablet. Both of these will have a greater range of apps to use on them, thereby increasing their usage over the Fire's restricted consumer use.

Chris Gonzales has a review of the Kids version of the Amazon Fire 7 tablet at Tools & Toys.

Logitech K811: A Review

 •  Filed under Reviews, Tools, By Me

It's been a month now since I started using the Logitech K811 keyboard. The reason I made the switch was that my old Apple keyboard was getting rather old. Five years is a long time for a keyboard, in fact it's probably the longest time I've ever owned a keyboard. As a result the keys on the keyboard were sticking and one of the keys needed a fair amount of beating before it would register the key press. I needed a new keyboard.

Two things the new keyboard had to do. Be OS X compatible and wireless. Anything else after that is a bonus. After looking at a number of different keyboards I filtered this down to a number of keyboards from Logitech. In the past I had a Logitech keyboard when I worked as an ERP developer. This was a great keyboard, so I started to look at the rest of Logitech's range. The K811 stood out for a number of reasons.

My Logitech K811

The keyboard itself is light and while it doesn't exactly match the build quality of my Apple keyboard, it has been sturdy enough for every day use. The top of the keyboard has a plastic backing while the rest of the keyboard has a nice aluminium finish. It's a shame the aluminium finish doesn't extend to the whole of the keyboard. There is also a greater degree of flex in the K811, but then that it would take a great amount of pressure to snap the keyboard this way.consists of an has a small profile. The K811 is thin and doesn't have as steep an angle as the Apple keyboard. Looks wise it's definitely up there with my old keyboard.

The keyboard can be charged using a USB cable. This is good but in the last month I've had to charge the keyboard three times. This maybe partly because I've left the keyboard on when I leave my desk. If I turned it off when I wasn't using it then it would probably extend the life of the battery between charges. I'm not going to worry too much over this though as it does mean that I don't need to replace the batteries for it.

Another nice feature of the K811 is that you switch between multiple devices at the touch of a button. With my iPad almost unusable (long story), I haven't used this feature although when it comes to getting a new iPad, it's good to know that I'll be able to switch between my iPad and my MacBook if I need to.

The last thing that I like about the keyboard is the backlit keys. My hours of work can vary from day to day and during these dark winter nights it's been good to know that my keyboard is easier to see when I'm working late with just my desk light on.

The only real gripe I have with the K811 is that the connection to my MacBook cuts out about once a day. I've searched the support forums on Logictech for a resolution to this but I've yet to find one. The connection does come back after a few seconds, so I'm not going mark this as a big drawback to the keyboard.

Other than that the K811 has been a great keyboard to use so far and is definitely a worthy replacement to my old Apple keyboard. It's more expensive than an Apple keyboard and maybe not worthy of the price difference but I was happy to fork out the money to get something that would work for me on a daily basis and offer a little bit more than other keyboards do.

Book Reviews #2

 •  Filed under Daily Post, Books, Reviews

Just a few books I read towards the end of the 2013. I've still got some on my list but a few I've started and given up on.

  • The Broken Blade by Kelly McCullough - First book in a series about a washed out assassin and his shadowy companion. Very unique for a fantasy book in that it's more like detective noir. A great read and definitely not like anything I've ever read in the fantasy genre.
  • War of the Roses - Stormbird by Conn Iggulden - This is the first book by Conn Iggulden in a series that will cover the people and events during the War of the Roses. Mostly factually correct, but again the story is great to read just like Conn's Emperor and Conqueror series.
  • You, Only Better by Nicholas Bate - I've read the book a handful of times now, just because it's easy and quick to read, and each time I take a couple of extra notes from it. If you're looking for a book to reboot yourself this year, then get this one. No nonsense and easy to digest.
  • Crafting Rails 4 Applications by Jose Valim - I was expecting more of a reference book when I first heard of this but I was surprise when I read it to find it was more of a recipe book. Once I started to actually read it though, the recipes are simply there to explain techniques that you can use in your own Rails 4 applications. A must for Rails developers.
  • The NOW Year by Mike Vardy - A very short ebook, but a great reminder of tools and techniques you can use to make working with your calendar a lot easier.

Book Reviews #1

 •  Filed under Posts, Reviews, Books

I decided to lump these together in one post rather than drag them out into seperate posts. I'll also try and keep the reviews short and light. Watch out for more as I get more books read.

HMS Surprise & The Mauritius Command by Patrick O'Brian

These are books three and four in the Aubrey/Maturin series. I couldn't possibly summarise the plots of these two books in a few short sentences, but they were both terrific reads. Like the first two books in the series there is great attention to detail in not only the characters and the plot, but also on the naval aspect of the stories. If you like your books short and fast paced these might not be for you, but I do love the way Patrick O'Brian has written these. They do require a fair amount of time to get through, but they're definitely worth the time.

Don't be an idiot: Learn how to run a viable freelancing business by Curtis McHale

I am fairly new to freelancing as are many others I would imagine. Most of us might have taken the plunge to freelancing without a thought to planning your finances. I did this a few years ago and the result was a disaster. I was completely burnt out and I didn't even make that much money from it. Fast forward to now and despite a rocky start, I'm getting there and that's thanks to this book.

In the book Curtis explains what's needed to make that initial jump, setting the right payment terms, project goals and reviews and more. This book won't tell you everything you need to know, I've yet to read a book that does, but this is a great starting point for those either looking to freelance or are currently freelancing but want to take it to a more professional level.

I hope that Curtis writes more books on freelancing in the future. He definitely has the right experience to draw from and he's proof that setting the groundwork can make your freelancing career really prosper.

The Freelancer’s Guide to Long-Term Contracts by Eric Davis

When I decided to freelance at the start of the year, I was unsure about how many clients I should have and how often I should be advertising myself as being available. What I didn't know was that there are in fact long term opportunities out there for freelancers. It's sort of the happy balance between working for yourself and full time job security. This was a form of freelancing I hadn't read about before but was really interested in.

Eric's book however has been a great guide through the possibilities of long term contracts. Thanks to this book, I now see them as being the premium service in my freelancing career. If you're looking to start freelancing and want the security of long term contract work then I would recommend that you get this book. It's a different way of working than short term contracts and thankfully Eric has all the advice you'll need.

Next on the list are War of the Roses: Stormbird, Frictionless Freelancing, You Only Better and Crafting Rails 4 Applications. I'll be hoping to report on these at the start of next year.

Feedbin: A Review

 •  Filed under Posts, Reviews, Tools


With Google Reader going soon, people have been looking for a replacement RSS Reader. Fortunately for me I decided look for an alternative a few weeks ago when I wanted to go Google free. I looked at a number of different options for an alternative RSS reader at the time, but Feedbin really stood out for me.

It's a paid product. Not free. That's important for me because I want to use the product in the long term. Supporting this product by paying money to use it is just common sense. Free products can come and go but investing your money in a product provides some sense of insurance that it will be around longer. This is by no means a guarantee that Feedbin will be around forever. An annual Feedbin subscription is just $20 per year.

As an RSS reader, Feedbin does everything you expect a reader to do. You can subscribe to feeds using the textbox at the top of the screen. Underneath this are three panes. The far left is your list of feeds or folders of feeds if you like to be organised.

The feeds and folders pane

The next pane is the items in that RSS feed or folder. You can navigate these easily with the mouse or with keyboard shortcuts.

The items pane

Finally the far right pane is the current item you are viewing or the reading pane.

The reading pane

Keyboard shortcuts can be used to move about between feeds, folders and items. From what I remember most of the shortcuts are similar to Google Reader so those migrating from Google Reader should be able to pick up the new shortcuts quite fast. As an ex-Reader user, I find it easy to navigate about Feedbin.

Feedbin also has support for sharing to an extensive range of services. You can share items to many services like Instapaper, Pocket and Evernote. This is done through the use of URLs that many services provide. Feedbin provides tokens that can be used within these URLs so that you can include the entry title, url and feed name within the URL to the service you wish to share to. I love this feature as it simple to customize what you're sharing. Some people may not like that it's not truly integrated with other services and instead relies on just URLs to share to other services, but given the number of services Feedbin can share to, I can wait for better integration.

Finally there's iOS support. The Reeder app is the best way to view your Feedbin feeds on your iPhone. Unfortunately at the moment there is no Reeder support for Feedbin on the iPad or OSX, however Reeder development will resume at the start of July and hopefully we'll see more Reeder support coming.

It's an interesting time for RSS readers. Many people are turning to Feedly as a replacement for Google Reader, but I just didn't like the Feedly interface or the it's iOS applications. In the time that I have used Feedbin I've had no reason to complain about the service. Aside from the unread counts being a little out on some feeds Feedbin really is a great little RSS reader. I'm looking forward to seeing what the future holds for Feedbin.

Update: Shortly after this review was written, Feedbin was moved to much faster servers. Performance of Feedbin on the previous hardware wasn't much of an issue for me but I did read about others complaining of speed and response time. On the new setup though Feedbin is definitely faster than it was previously.