I Was Interviewed by the Leanpub Frontmatter Podcast

Len Epp, co-founder of Leanpub and host of Frontmatter: The Leanpub Author Stories Podcast, interviewed me in the May 22, 2019 episode. We talked about my background and interests, my work in astronomy and space popularization, Google+, the Google Product Experts Program, my book, and more.

Leanpub is the self-publishing platform I use for my book Space Apps for Android. It provides a Markdown-based toolchain that gives its best for publishing books as works in progress, as well as a storefront for selling them.

Many thanks to Len and Leanpub for the opportunity of chatting about me and my work.

Happy 10th Astronaut Anniversary Samantha Cristoforetti

Ten years ago today, on May 20, 2009, I watched the live stream of a press event the European Space Agency (ESA) held in Paris to ntroduce an international group of candidates selected to become the new European astronauts.

As the six members of the new group entered the room I instantly recognized my friend Samantha Cristoforetti, who was the first to take the floor for a short statement.

I had known Samantha since a couple of years earlier, before she applied to become an ESA astronaut. I had the opportunity of following her progress in the selection and, as the date of the ESA event approached, I noticed something was off. She had deleted her Facebook profile a few days earlier and kept radio silence. This was a hint she had a chance, which turned out to be true.

Samantha was launched into space for the first time on November 23, 2014 and spent almost exactly 200 days on the International Space Station.

Happy 10th astronaut anniversary!

As a geek I’m excited about the Google Assistant. But as a user I’m frustrated because localization is significantly more complex than translating the user interface text and documentation, which typically delays the release of new features to non-English speaking countries by up to a year or more.

Simon Owens interviewed Robert Cottrell who runs a paid email newsletter with over 10,000 subscribers. It’s an inspiring story but it screams outlier as Cottrell is no average creator. He is a professional journalist who worked for The Economist and The Financial Times and it took him 6 years to get that many paying subscribers.

Via Revue.

Quill Posting Test

I'm writing this with the Quill Micropub web client, an editor for posting to Micropub platforms.  More specifically I'm creating a long post, a post with a title and some amount of text as opposed to a short note that doesn't have a title.

The editor doesn't support Markdown like Micro.blog where I host my blog but it has some of the basic formatting tools of typical rich text editors such as bold, italics, and bullet lists:

  • first
  • second
  • third

If I understand correctly the documentation Quill also supports raw HTML, let's try again with <strong>bold</strong> and <em>italics</em>. I like that the editing area doesn't have a fixed size but it expands as I add more text. Finally, I can attach images with a couple of optional layout options but I'll experiment with image features in a separate post.

Well, that's it, Quill doesn't seem to have other features.

Writing and publishing books with Markdown

In a post to the BookWorks blog Carla King discussed a Markdown-based book writing and publishing process and briefly reviewed a number of tools and platforms.

The tools she covered range from specialized Markdown and text editors to full platforms like Leanpub. Leanpub provides both a Markdown-based self-publishing toolchain for works in progress or finished books, and an online storefront for selling these and other works like courses. The storefront is pretty flexible as it supports options such as a variable pricing scheme, bundling, and selling additional digital content.

I use Leanpub to self-publish my book Space Apps for Android. I write the manuscript with Leanpub’s Markua Markdown flavor designed for formatting books and similar works.

My favorite image annotation Android app

I loved Skitch, the handy little image annotation Android app Evernote discontinued in 2015. It took a while but I eventually found a full replacement that’s even better than Skitch.

Annotate - Image Annotation Tool is a vector image annotation and editing app for Android. It provides drawing tools and shapes that cover the most common annotation needs, as well as a few advanced ones such as highlighting text or image areas and creating magnified insets of specific details. These features are packaged in a clean and efficient user interface that doesn’t get in the way of quick annotations.

Here’s what an annotated screenshot looks like in the app on my Pixel 2 XL phone.

Annotate’s key feature is it’s a vector drawing app, not a bitmap one, which lets you easily make arbitrary edits such as changing the sizes and positions of graphical elements. This is essential as in most cases working on an annotated image requires some tweaks before saving the final version.

As a bonus Annotate works fine on Chrome OS and supports Chromebooks and other such devices by providing a layout for their large screens.

Micro.blog Markdown Table Test

Micro.blog supports most of Markdown but it’s not clear whether it can format tables too. So here is the code of a sample table from a well known Markdown cheat sheet:

Tables Are Cool
col 3 is right-aligned $1600
col 2 is centered $12
zebra stripes are neat $1

Let’s see how Micro.blog renders it.

Update 1

No joy, the table code looks like ordinary text. Micro.blog doesn’t support Markdown tables. Bummer.

Update 2

I initially thought Micro.blog didn’t format the Markdown table but I was wrong. I didn’t realize it because the table’s font is smaller than the body text, multiple blank lines don’t separate the table from the following text, and there’s no padding between columns, which stick together without space between them. This may depend on the theme though.

Evereyone in self-publishing advises to find the right target audience for a book. But there’s little or no practical advice on how to find that narrow segment with the required razor-sharp precision.

A photo of the wall décor of a bathroom stall I took at Google’s offices in Dublin. I always wondered what Android hardware looks like under the hood. 📷

Testing syntax highlighting of code blocks on a Micro.blog blog

I customized the theme of my Micro.blog blog to support syntax highlighting of source code blocks via GitHub-flavored Markdown 3-backtick fencing. @lazylifeninja explained how to do it in this post, I’m using the option discussed under Method 2: Enable Highlight in Code Fences.

Here’s a snippet of Python code, let’s see how it goes:

def square(x):
    "Return the square of the argument."
    return x * x


Only syntax highlighting worked but the font was still proportional. In the discussion we were having on GitHub on a related issue @lazylifeninja suggested that I edit the theme’s CSS to add this code:

code {
    font-family: monospace;

I did this change to the theme’s CSS under Account > Edit Domain & Design > Edit > Edit CSS and this did the trick. Fenced code blocks are now both monospaced and with syntax highlighting.

How to Embed Content in Micro.blog Posts

The easiest way of composing a post on the Micro.blog site is to enter the text into the editor using Markdown code to format links and rich text such as bold, italics, and lists. But the editor also accepts arbitrary HTML, which makes it possible to embed many types of content like media or other posts.

For example, here is a YouTube video of a stunning timelapse my friend Riccardo Rossi made from photos taken in space by the ISS crew of the launch of the Progress MS-10 cargo spacecraft:

And here is a tweet showing an image sent from the surface of Mars by NASA’s InSight lander:

The code is usually available by clicking the content’s share icon or a similar feature.

Micro.blog likely supports most other types of embeds, just copy the HTML embed code and paste it into the editor on a blank line by itself. You can type text and add Markdown formatting as usual and insert any embeds on separate lines at the spots where you want them. Be sure to preview a post before publishing it.

Reading Shoot for the Moon 📚

As a longtime space geek I’m familiar with the history of space exploration and the Apollo program. I read the classics and after so much time it’s difficult to tell something new or from a different angle. So I’m selective with what I read, especially with anything published long after the facts or that’s not technical.

But although Shoot for the Moon: The Space Race and the Extraordinary Voyage of Apollo 11 by James Donovan is a recent work published in March 2019, ahead of the upcoming 50th anniversary of Apollo 11, deciding to pick it up was a no brainer. The reason is this blurb by legendary astronaut Mike Collins who was a crewmember of the historical mission:

This is the best book on Apollo that I have read. Extensively researched and meticulously accurate, it successfully traces not only the technical highlights of the program but also the contributions of the extraordinary people who made it possible.

Collins is himself a great author and space historian. Back in 1974 he was the first astronaut to write his own autobiography instead of relying on a ghostwriter. His book, Carrying the Fire: An Astronaut’s Journeys, is a candid and ironical account of his life and astronaut experiences. It’s one of the classics of the history of space and possibly the best book about an astronaut ever. So his opinion was enough to pick up Donovan’s the book and start reading it, specifically the ebook version.

I’m still not far from the beginning where Donovan covers the early space race from Sputnik and von Braun. So far the book doesn’t go into much technical detail and, as Collins noted, it tells the space race through the stories of the people who worked on it, their personal journeys, and their accomplishments.

I’d say it’s a pleasant reading well worth the time of a space geek. In a way it’s a page turner as the story motivates me to keep going even if I already know most of it and the people involved. The book fills in the details of those events by adding depth, anecdotes, and context.

I’ll see how it goes.