Bye-bye 2007

For 2008, I resolve to be more resolute when working on my resolutions.

And for once I don’t mean screen or print resolution! I mean actively working towards achieving one of my MANY professional and hobbyist goals.

2007 was a great year… I had quite a few happy moments, including getting married and building my own video game arcade cabinet from scratch (my brother has visited our house more in the last two months than he did all of last year!). Good times.

I enjoyed 2007 in a professional sense, too: I renovated my website, contributed to a bunch of small and large projects at work (2007 was the year of ‘putting out fires’ in our office), presented at the eLearning Guild’s DevLearn 2007 event, attended a few great web design conferences (esp. @media2007 in San Francisco, where I got to have a beer with some world-renowned web development experts and all-round nice people), and helped hundreds of people with code problems in the SWFObject forum. Helping people makes me happy.

Most importantly, I feel as if I’ve grown by leaps and bounds as a coder/programmer, especially with JavaScript, ActionScript, PHP, ASP.Net (C#) and SQL. I value personal growth more than just about anything, so this means a lot to me. 2007 was a good year.

But, like everyone else, there are a few things I wish I had taken care of in 2007. Yes, I’m among the millions of middle-aged men (is 34 middle-aged?) who regret not sculpting abs of steel over the past summer. I have a great job but still don’t make $1,000,000/year salary with a Google-esque working environment. And don’t even get me started my guitar downtime — I played guitar steadily for about 18 years before getting sucked into a lifestyle of long hours of sitting in front of the computer, coding web development and/or e-learning projects. Now my fingertips are soft… I lost my callouses on my fretting hand! That’s downright embarrassing. But I digress.

What I really wish I had done in 2007 was get started on some of my personal ‘professional’ projects. I have about 3 or 4 professional-grade personal projects that need fleshing out, and will continue to drape the floor of my closet until I give them the respect — i.e. time and energy — that they deserve.

I won’t list them here. Not for fear of being called out if I don’t finish them, but because I’m not quite ready to reveal my plans for world domination just yet. Rest assured some charitable work (perhaps in the form of open-source, Creative Commons or MIT-style licensing) should rear its pretty head before I write my next eulogy for unaccomplished tasks, scheduled for December 2008.

In the meantime, here are some things that made me happy in 2007 (in no particular order, and forgive me if I repeat myself):

  • My wife, stepkids, family, and friends (aww, shucks)
  • Google (esp. GMail and Google Reader, my new best friend)
  • Mozilla FIREFOX!!!! (esp. the extensions, most notably the Web Developer Toolbar and Firebug)
  • Adobe CS3 (esp. Photoshop, Dreamweaver and Flash)
  • The support of my boss and coworkers for all of the crazy projects I work on
  • Good books
  • TiVo!
  • My stepkids’ Wii
  • My new iMac
  • My arcade cabinet! (FYI even after buying all the tools and materials — including expensive power tools — it was still cheaper to build it myself than buy a pre-built kit)
  • Web 2.0 goodies like Meebo.com, Flickr.com & picasaweb.google.com, RSS feeds, etc. These things made web life interesting again.
  • ESPN.com and si.com (I hate to admit ESPN made me happy, but I’m a baseball news junkie).
  • My 1TB external hard drive. Backups have never been so easy!

I’m sure I forgot something… I always do. 🙂

(Heroes, you’d have made the list if the first season’s finale didn’t suck so bad.)

Happy new year to all of you! Haoli Makahiki Hou!

– philip

Tip: Quick and efficient screenshots without special software

I’ve noticed many people use programs like TechSmith SnagIt to get screenshots. While SnagIt is a fine program, I think in many cases it’s overkill. Here’s a really simple way to get screenshots without needing any special software.

  1. Grab screenshot using Print Screen.
  2. Paste screenshot into Paint.
  3. Save in your preferred format (TIF, BMP, GIF, JPG, PNG, etc.).
Note: Apple Macintoshes come with the utility “Grab”, which is pretty nice and easy to use.

Print Screen

In the old days, pressing the keyboard key “Print Screen” literally meant “make a printout of screen.” Nowadays, it means “take a snapshot of the screen and place the snapshot on the clipboard.” Once it’s on the clipboard, you can paste it into any program that accepts images, such as Microsoft Word, an email program like Outlook, image editors like Photoshop, and even specialized production software such as Flash or Illustrator.

The biggest headache people usually face is editing the screenshot once they’ve pasted it into their program of choice; many times you only want a portion of the screen, not the contents of the entire monitor. Tip: Holding “Alt” on your keyboard while pressing “Print Screen” will only capture the active window. See the illustration below. This can save you a ton of time if you’re taking a lot of screenshots.

Illustration of the difference between using Print Screen and ALT + Print Screen
Use the ALT key to limit the screenshot to the active window instead of the entire monitor.

Pasting into Microsoft Office Documents — Beware!

Microsoft Office’s default document resolution is 96 pixels per inch (ppi). However, all major operating systems (Windows 200/XP/Vista, Mac OS X, Linux) and all major web browsers (Internet Explorer, Firefox, Safari, and Opera) use a default of 72ppi. When pasting a 72ppi screenshot into a 96ppi Microsoft Office document, MS Office automatically scales/stretches your image to match the document’s resolution, often rendering the image blurry or distorted.

Sample image illustrating how Word makes screenshots look blurryScreenshot pasted directly into Word. Notice how blurry it is.

What does this mean for you? It means you should never paste your image into Word or PowerPoint unless that’s the image’s final destination.

If you need to send someone a screenshot for them to use in whatever program they use (InDesign, Illustrator, Dreamweaver, Photoshop, Fireworks, etc.), you should send it as an image file, such as a TIFF, JPG or PNG. DO NOT paste the image into Word or any other MS Office application.

How Do I Make the Screenshot Look Crisp in Word?

If you intend to use your screenshot in Word, you should prep the screenshot by changing its resolution to 96ppi without resampling the image, then import the image into Word (don’t use ‘paste’).

Changing the image’s resolution will require an image editing application such as Photoshop or Fireworks. Trust me, it’s easier than it sounds. Here are the steps:

  1. Paste the screenshot into the image editor (in this example, Photoshop)
  2. Go to the image’s properties and change the resolution from 72 to 96. (In Photoshop, go to Image > Image Size, and be sure to UNcheck “Resample image”)

    Photoshop's Image Size settings

  3. Save the image in a Word-friendly format. I find BMPs work the best.
  4. Go to Word, and select Insert > Picture > From File
  5. Choose the image you just created and click OK.

Your result will look something like this:

Comparing the two different images in WordTwo screenshots: one edited to be 96ppi then ‘inserted’ into Word (left), and one pasted directly into Word (right).

Big difference, eh?

A Tale of Two (or more) Computers

A computer is born, and another computer dies (“I’m not quite dead!” he says in his best Eric Idle imitation).

(Mac) Hi, I’m a Mac.
(PC) And I’m a PC.

I’m sure all of you know this commercial by now. As with many other geeks around the world, I started salivating with the advent of Intel-based Macs that can run Windows natively. Mmmm… Maaaac…

And to me, it’s funny that many of my coworkers and friends are surprised at my interest in the Intel Macs. You see, these days I’m known as a PC guy; everyone thinks that’s how I got started, and that I’m a total Windows nerd. Even my stepkids. [I’m trying hard not to yell “WELL, I’M NOT” right now.]

This is probably because I build my own PCs, by which I mean I buy parts and assemble them. These PCs are used for everything from my workstation(s) to my arcade cabinet. At last count we had six functioning PCs in our house (2 laptops and 4 custom PCs for anyone keeping score).

But I wasn’t always Mr. PC.

Let me take you back in time, to 1990. My stepfather, who has his own business, has been an Apple user since the green-screened Apple IIe. Around 1990 he was using an Apple SE, and decided to get a PowerBook. It was easy enough to use, and I typed a few (very few) high school papers on his Mac. I was also a guitarist in a rock band; one day we needed to make some flyers for a gig, and somehow I wound up using my stepfather’s Mac to make the flyer. A romance was born.

In the late 80s and early 90s, my brother had been a total PC guy (he aspired to be a computer programmer), and was always telling me how many great things you can do in DOS. I was highly bored and uninterested. The closest I had come to DOS at that point was a Commodore 64 in middle school. The Mac had a nice GUI, and was fun! (See any parallels to e-learning, anyone?)

Over the next decade, I worked as a prepress typesetter/graphic designer. Not surprisingly, I was a staunch Mac user and advocate. I graduated from OS 6 to OS 7, then OS 7.5, which I highly enjoyed. Around OS 8, when the PowerPCs came to life, things started becoming less fun for me; it seemed my Mac was crashing more often, the computers were getting more expensive, and with each new OS, the software I owned would stop working! Being a poor student at the time, I couldn’t afford a nice new PowerPC, and prayed Apple would let other computer companies start making Macs, which I had hoped would drive the price down. Sure enough, they tried, but it was a short-lived affair with a messy divorce.

By OS 9 my Mac (my 4th Mac in 10 years, I think) was barely functioning. Even the Macs at school kept crashing. I was also increasingly frustrated at the lack of software titles available for Macs. The few you COULD get were much more expensive than their PC counterparts.

At this point I had dabbled with Windows PCs a bit at work, and was forced to use Windows 98 at one of my jobs. I was pleasantly surprised that my beloved Adobe and Macromedia products worked just as well in Windows as they did on a Mac! But I still refused to give up my Mac at home.

In 2000 I wanted to get another Mac, this time one that could run audio software such as ProTools; I wanted a DAWto do computer-based multi-tracking, but they were WAY out of my price range. ProTools systems at the time were around $10K, AND ProTools was only supported on a select number of Mac models. Sheesh.

One day I complained about it to my PC-loving brother, who whispered in my ear “build your own computer! It will be cheaper, you can just get the parts you need, and you can control the quality of the components!”

I thought about it and realized that while audio recording software had long been the domain of Macs, things were changing. The tide was shifting, just like how Adobe and Macromedia made their products work great in Windows.

I took the plunge and built my first computer. It was easier than I expected, and probably 1/3 the price of a comparable Mac. I embraced the extensibility and flexibility of PCs (though I’ve never loved Windows), and gave up my Mac allegiance. That’s right, I went to the Dark Side. Besides, Steve Jobs was back and putting out a new operating system every 6 months; I was tired of keeping up and couldn’t afford it anymore.

Fast-forward to today: my 6 PCs all run some version of Windows, though I’ve got Ubuntu (Linux) here and there. But something has changed inside me. I’m tired. I’m worn out. Windows is stale as hell, and after seven-plus years, I’m still building and rebuilding computers… it feels like it never ends. Sometimes I find myself thinking it sure would be nice to buy a pre-configured system so I don’t have to work under-the-hood anymore. I want to be a user, not a builder. I see entire Dell computer systems going for less than the price of my computer monitor in 1999.

And I see Intel Macs.

Mmmm… Maaac…

My birthday was in November, and guess what I did? I finally bought myself a Mac for doing audio production! I bought an Intel iMac with 4GB of RAM and a 500GB USB drive, and it cost less than my PC laptop from 2004. Sweet. I felt as if a new world was dawning.

As I unpacked my iMac (which the wife refers to as the iMistress), I dreamed that the days of configuring my computer, spending hours installing software, and all the other tedious ‘administration’ stuff was gone. If you’ve ever unpacked these new iMacs, you’d think the same thing: they’re ready-to-go out of the (very pretty) box, with only ONE cable to plug in, aside from the mouse and keyboard. I had it unpacked, assembled, and turned on in about 5 minutes. Mmmm… Maaaac…

Then something funny happened; I checked the OS software version and discovered that my NEW iMac didn’t have the latest flavor of OS X installed! I had to WIPE THE HARD DRIVE AND DO A CLEAN INSTALL! D’OH! This is something I had done a million times on my PCs, but nonetheless, I thought was behind me.

And let me tell ya something, Mac OSX does NOT install any quicker than Windows XP. Actually, If I had to bet money, I’d say Ubuntu is the easiest OS to install, hands-down.

Installing Logic Pro (audio software) took over FIVE HOURS. Oh.. my… God. And am I the only Mac owner who hates iTunes and likes two-button mice?

But this is a tale of TWO computers… so let’s get to #2: my Windows workstation.

I use this computer for everything, from general email and web surfing to critical development projects. It’s my cornerstone. And it died unexpectedly Saturday night. I’ve been troubleshooting PCs for years, and for the life of me I couldn’t figure out what was wrong with this PC.

I started wondering if it was a sign to go out and buy that pretty MacBook Pro I’ve been flirting with. Since it’s an Intel Mac, I can install Windows on it and use all of my existing software. It even has a DVI port and can run my 21″ widescreen LCD. But on reflection, I wondered if it would be any better than my iMac (which in case you’re wondering is in a different part of the house and reserved for my audio work).

Just as I was about to throw in the towel and pay a visit to the Apple store, I discovered the problem with my PC: corrupt RAM. An easy fix.

So there goes my half-baked dream of becoming all-Mac, and here comes yet another trip to the PC store to get some RAM… and maybe a few other components to tinker with when I have time. 🙂

Oh, and in case any of you are wondering why I’m not responding to your emails, it’ll probably take another night for for me to install all of the Windows service packs and security updates, then another 2 nights to reinstall all of my production software. Should be a blast. Not.