5 stars
Great for keeping up with JS and the web platform

The web platform has many cynics and critics. The litany of complaints includes: incompetent developers (there’s nothing techies love more than being critical of other techies), bloated libraries, framework hell, recalcitrant browser makers, security nightmares, ever-changing specifications, and an unrelenting hype machine. All those criticisms have elements of truth. But there’s also an upside: web development is an open, decentralized, vibrant community, one which seems to inexorably stumble towards making better web applications at least possible.

And it also has open, welcoming subcultures that reject cool, detached cynicism and dominance displays. From projects like Nodeschool to the Recurse Center, there are thousands of people concerned with equipping more of us with the skills to build a better web. I associate Pony Foo with that same culture of learning & sharing. Started as a blog by Nicolás Bevacqua from Buenos Aires, Pony Foo has grown into a larger community that publishes in-depth articles about the web platform (i.e. the JavaScript language, HTML, CSS, various libraries, tools and frameworks).

Given the rate of change in web development, such resources are indispensable for anyone who wants to do more than maintain a legacy application. And Pony Foo helpfully provides a roundup of various findings from around the web (courses, tutorials, news, etc.), in a weekly email newsletter, which is just about the right frequency to not be overwhelmed.

While the newsletter highlights Pony Foo’s own articles, they are only a fraction of the content, and the biggest value-add is in the curation of resources from elsewhere. A typical example of a summary:

Error Handling in React 16

Dan explains how error handling works in React 16, which is out on public beta since yesterday. React 16 uses Fiber under the hood, although its async rendering capabilities aren’t turned on yet. It is expected this is enabled at some point in the React 16.x release line.

Dan Abramov

As the summary shows, occasionally the newsletter might benefit from some effort to make technical jargon more accessible or to provide a “why should I care” hook. But the headlines are easy enough to scan for stuff that seems relevant to you.

The newsletter does have sponsored posts in it, which are clearly marked. I don’t find them especially problematic and occasionally even useful. The content is under the Creative Commons CC-BY-NC-SA License, which is a bit restrictive (incompatible with Wikimedia projects, for example) but a lot better than conventional copyright. Whether you love or hate the web platform (or love-hate? :), if you regularly build upon it, I highly recommend subscribing (read a sample issue to see if it’s for you).

4 stars
Fairly useful, and of course a little bit creepy

I’ve had an Echo since May 2015 and it’s since joined a two person household. The main functions we use it for these days are: 1) playing random music, mainly from Amazon Prime’s free catalog, 2) as an alarm clock and kitchen timer, 3) as a news/weather info source, 4) as a calendar reminder. Voice recognition is usually solid except when it occasionally can’t hear us at all, e.g. over music playing. Typically both of us use it at least 1-2 times per day. The fact that it’s plugged in means it becomes seamlessly integrated into your day-to-day life at home without having to worry about yet another device to charge.

There’s an app library but we’ve never used it — it just seems a little bit clunky to do anything more complicated through this interface. We also don’t use the online shopping features. The device occasionally comes on randomly when it hears the “Alexa” command on TV or radio, and starts sputtering random nonsense. It’s amusing but also a bit annoying.

Beyond that, you can converse with it through its (surprisingly large) catalog of canned jokes and limited AI. For the kinds of questions Google can give you a pre-computed answer for, it can be helpful, though I’m usually near a keyboard when I have those. Having a microphone in your room may seem a little weird at first (and continues to have that “a little bit creepy” factor), but honestly, your phone or laptop have the same capabilities.

The sound quality is good for casual listening, and the overall usability of the device is great with lots of nice little touches. Very straightforward setup, a remote control you can easily attach to your fridge with a magnetic holder, multiple ways to adjust the volume including on the device itself, etc. I’ve found the Android app a bit sluggish and mostly end up using echo.amazon.com instead.

What’s nicest about Echo is Amazon’s dedication to making the product better, which you really do notice as a user. There are typically a couple of new features per month, such as calendar integration or IFTTT support. At $99 with a Prime membership it was a good deal.

5 stars
The only bookmark(s) you'll ever need

i-clip in use
i-clip in use on Charles Darwin’s “Voyage of the Beagle”

i-clips are little folding magnets to use as a bookmark or paperclip. The front has a design (there are several to choose from), the back has a little arrow that marks the specific spot in a book you’re reading. The packs currently sell for $2.59 per pack of 8 at Amazon, and for $3.95 per pack directly from the manufacturer, Peter Pauper Press.

As someone who often has multiple books unfinished (and who prefers paper books in most situations), I find these little guys indispensable. They have two main advantages compared to paper bookmarks: they’re less likely to fall out, and they can mark the specific page and line where you stopped reading.

I can’t think of anything to improve. They make a nice gift, too.

(One note of caution — since these are metal, you do have to be a bit more careful, as they’re fully capable of tearing into a page when pushed into it. It’s only happened once so far and should be easy to avoid.)

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