Sunday, 14 August 2011

Sunday Stuff: Dashboard widgets

Despite the fact that I've owned an Apple computer for almost 9 months, I've only just discovered that I can download and install widgets on my dashboard. How embarrassing. I've been trying to rectify my ignorance by spending the weekend searching for science- and nature-based widgets. Here are a few of my favorites:

Endangered Species of the Day, from the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources. True, the species featured here may not be geographically "relevant" for all users, but an endangered species in Ontario is still an endangered species, and is in need of help. Hopefully more developers will be inspired to come up with widgets that cover other geographical areas or, better yet, the whole globe. They could even build in a function to allow users to easily make donations to conservation causes.

Starry Night. This widget lets you go stargazing anytime, anywhere. You can use it as an aid for identifying astronomical features, or explore what the night sky looks like in other locations, both in the past and the present. It's not as detailed as an actual nature guide, but it should familiarize you enough with constellations that you can impress your friends next time you're out together after dark. On the other hand, if you'd rather see images from the deeper, darker reaches of space, try the Astronomy Picture of the Day widget, featuring images provided by NASA. Or, if you are already an astronomy pro and want to know when you'll get the best view of the sky, you might want to download the Clear Sky Clock.

Sunset. If you're an outdoorsy person who wants to go birdwatching at dawn or stargazing after dusk, it can be useful to know exactly when the sun will rise and set each day. This widget provides these times, accurate to the second, and also calculates how many hours of sunlight are available each day. You can set the location to anywhere in the world, and type in any date--a useful feature for people who are planning field work, camping trips, and other outdoor activities in far-flung places. After the winter solstice, it should be particularly uplifting to see the day length steadily increasing as spring arrives.

iTide. Surfers, fishermen, sailors, beach bathers, swimmers, and rock poolers alike should enjoy this widget, which provides information on high and low tides for harbors around the world. If you don't mind some depressing news, you might also take a peek at NASA's Global Climate Change Vital Signs widget, which tracks changes in sea ice cover and sea level, among other things.

Mendeleev's Table. Unless you're currently enrolled in a chemistry class, you may not use this widget too often. However, it's beautiful and informative and gives your dashboard a distinctly scientific feel. You never know when you'll need to look up the atomic weight of hydrogen or remind yourself of how to abbreviate potassium. If that's not nerdy enough for you, download ProteinGlimpse in order to visualize important biological molecules. If nothing else, you can marvel at the diversity of shapes and formations found in our bodies.

WORLDview. For those who are bad at geography, WORLDview provides maps, photos, and basic information about every country in the world. Alternatively, if you just want to take in a real-time, 3D view of the planet, you can download Earth and set it spinning in the middle of your dashboard.

Although I've focused on Apple widgets here, there are countless more available for your website, browser, blog, Facebook page, etc. Developers of dashboard widgets have, unfortunately, not yet exploited the full range of possibilities available to them. I couldn't find any functional animal cam widgets, or anything devoted to conservation, recycling, general science, or nature. This is not a problem among the other types of apps available online; for instance, check out the U.S. EPA's options for Earth Day-inspired widgets. Hopefully tech-savvy nature-lovers will continue to improve the selection of science-y widgets for all platforms!

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