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. πŸ™‚

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.

Assistive computer technology and web accessibility

Just thought I’d pass this link on: http://www.assistiveware.com/videos.php (short write-up here — thanks to Roger Johansson for the link.)

These are video profiles of people with disabilities — mild to severe — who use assistive computer technology to improve their lives. Some people use their computers to simply help them with their jobs (such as a blind person who is a professional French-to-English translator), while others use their computers as a lifeline to the rest of the world.

I want to publicize this link for two reasons: One reason is because the people in the videos are completely inspiring; I can only hope that if faced with a similar situation I can be as positive and productive as they are.

The other reason is because as e-learning/web developers, we have a responsibility to be aware of the needs of people with disabilities, and try our best to make our work accessible. For e-learning and web development, this has become surprisingly easy, yet many developers still don’t do their part, or even realize that what they create isn’t particularly accessible.

Armed with a basic understanding of accessibility, and with a little planning, a web developer can create courses and/or websites that contain rich content — even Flash movies and videos — while supporting a majority of assistive computer/alternative web browsing technologies.

If you Google “web accessibility“, you’ll find a ton of tips and rules of thumb for making websites accessible. Here’s a great starting point: http://www.w3.org/WAI/quicktips/Overview.php

I hope you can spare some time to read a little about the subject; in this case, I think a little knowledge can go a long way. It isn’t hard to make sites accessible, I promise! πŸ™‚

PS – I’m not affiliated with nor do I endorse AssistiveWare, the company that produced the videos.

Coming along now…

Still working on the site. It seems to be shaping up well. For the curious, I’m using a hybrid WordPress and static XHTML site architecture. Basically my site root (pipwerks.com) is static XHTML, and my journal section (pipwerks.com/journal) is a WordPress installation.

This makes it tricky to maintain consistency between my custom WordPress template and my Dreamweaver template (yes, I use Dreamweaver, although I wind up coding most of my pages by hand). It’s a bit of a pain, but I really didn’t want to work in a pure WordPress and PHP environment. I only intend to use PHP for a few pages.

Which brings me to… displaying WordPress blog content in a PHP page outside of the WordPress installation. I wanted to show my latest blog entry (or an excerpt) on my homepage, but as I mentioned, the WordPress installation is inside a subfolder. I wasn’t quite sure how to go about it. A few google searches later and I ran across this [link no longer available], which got solved my problem in two minutes flat. Sweet. πŸ™‚

I also added some Google ads and Amazon book links. I’m not convinced anything will come of it, but I figured I’d at least like to know how the system works and how to get ads up and running.

The Amazon ads posed a particular problem, as the original style of ad I chose (the tall iFrame with pricing info) killed my XHTML validation. Ugh… no way around it, other than to change ad types. I wound up opting for the simpler image-only ads, which still needed tweaking to pass validation (no “/>” on the image tag, no alt tags, etc.).

I only have a few small tweaks to the structure and layout before I really start digging into the content. I’m excited, are you? πŸ˜€

So here it is, the new site.

Only took about a year to get off my duff and do it!

The new, re-dedicated pipwerks.com will focus specifically on the technological aspects of e-learning and online courses, as well as the design/scripting/programming of general-purpose web pages.

I can’t make any guarantees that I’ll be consistent in my blogging, but I know I’m always learning new tricks, and hope to share them with you from time to time in the “tutorials” section. I’ll also be posting my latest experiments (“web 2.0” widgets, CSS, javascript tests, etc.) in the “lab” section.

If you’d like something to read right away, I’ve imported some of my old blog entries from LearnSomethingNew.org!

Thanks for stopping by! πŸ™‚
– philip

Classes and OOP in Flash

Being the non-programmer that I am, I was recently scouring the WWW in search of good examples and tutorials on using class files in Flash. I have read that class files and object-oriented programming (OOP) are generally considered a ‘best practice’ in the programming world, and wanted a better understanding of their principles and how they can be used in Flash’s Actionscript 2.0.

While I’ve read plenty of posts by people complaining that OOP is overrated, I have yet to read a convincing reason NOT to use it. It’s a clean approach, it promotes re-usability, and generally forces the developer to think ahead and plan out the code more carefully than a haphazard conditional programming approach would allow.

I’m still an OOP newbie, but I thought I’d post links to some tutorials I’ve found enlightening and very helpful so far.

– philip

Flash and XML

Macromedia Flash is a great tool for presenting content. XML is a great format for storing content. Unfortunately, getting the two to play together nicely can be trickier than expected. I’ve spent countless hours over the last month reading up on XML and Flash integration, including trying no less than eight different methods of importing XML data to a Flash movie. It’s been kind of tough sorting through all these different methods and somewhat flimsy documentation.

But I’m here to tell you the good news: I stumbled upon a wonderful and extremely in-depth tutorial that explains many of the mysteries and gives very useful how-to tidbits, including many sample files.

http://www.kirupa.com/web/xml/index.htm

For what it’s worth, this site (kirupa.com) is a great resource for other Flash topics, too.

FYI I will be posting a plethora of excellent Flash-related tutorials soon, I have found many useful sites in the last month but just haven’t had time to post them all.

– philip

I have seen the future…

…and it still kinda creeps me out. I’m referring specifically to the Adobe-Macromedia merger. While both companies have a history of making excellent products, Adobe seems to have lost its way the last few years, and I’m worried it will drag the Macromedia product line down with it. I’m especially dismayed about the future of competing products: Freehand versus Illustrator, Fireworks versus ImageReady, Dreamweaver versus GoLive, Flash versus LiveMotion, FlashPaper versus Acrobat. Adobe’s programs (with a few exceptions) have become massive bloatware… try installing CreativeSuite 2 sometime — it takes up over 2GB of hard drive space!

Will Adobe force its interface standards onto Macromedia products? Personally, I prefer Macromedia’s “docked” interface style to Adobe’s tab system… it’s easier to manage and more efficient for my workflow. Will Adobe force the PDF format into all of the programs? (The answer is yes… they’re even planning on integrating PDFs with Breeze.)

So what’s my point? I’m concerned — like MANY others — about the future of both Adobe and Macromedia product lines because of how it will affect the work I do. Which brings me to a Bruce Chizen (Adobe head honcho) interview I just read. While he doesn’t address some of my concerns, he does give a pretty thorough overview of Adobe’s plans for the near future. This will potentially affect anyone who uses Office-style software, online services, and mobile devices, so I thought I’d post a link for you to read. Enjoy! πŸ™‚

http://knowledge.wharton.upenn.edu/index.cfm?fa=viewArticle&id=1399

– philip

The Fonthead

My brother recently sent me a link to a webpage with free font downloads. This tickled my on-again off-again love affair with typography, and triggered me to post a quickie blog about the subject. The more intricate details of typography (kerning, leading, metrics and the like) seem as obscure as ever to the everday computer user these days. Most people — quite understandably — only know what MS Word requires them to know. Then there are people like me who know a bit about the subject but still get too lazy to follow all the etiquette, such as using em and en dashes appropriately (see the previous sentence for an example) or using ligatures in printed documents.

What’s the difference between a font and a typeface? No, they aren’t the same thing (at least they didn’t used to be). What about the difference between Times Roman and Times New Roman? And why is using Times Roman (either iteration) NOT a good idea for webpages and other on-screen purposes? (Short answer: it’s a serif font designed for newspapers — specifically the London Times in the mid-1800s — and therefore has a smaller x-height than fonts designed for on-screen use, such as Verdana.)

Anyway, being a geek about this sort of thing, I figured I’d present you with links to some typography sites I’ve been browsing recently. They contain excellent primers on typography, its uses and some typograhical history. Enjoy!

Now if I could only remember how to do that pesky em dash…

I hate to say it…

But I found another Microsoft product helpful today.

It pains me to say it, but it’s true.

I have created an XML template for an online course delivery system I’m building at my workplace. The course data for each course needs to be placed into a copy of this XML template. The problem is that I don’t want to work directly in XML all day, and my coworkers can’t be expected to write course content directly in XML format. I needed to devise an easy-to-use method for inputting data to an XML document (filling in the blanks).

My initial research into the subject found some ‘export-to-XML’ methods that use Excel and/or Word, but they are prone to formatting errors and require extensive workarounds such as oodles of conditional formatting. Didn’t sound very fun. Not to mention the custom XML schema I’d have to write to enable the Excel/Word file to be properly transformed to my custom XML. Other methods involved databases and content management systems, which I wanted to avoid for simplicity’s sake.

Enter: InfoPath. A “how’d I get that?” program that came with our Office 2003 update a few months ago. I had never heard of it until I saw it while randomly browsing my computer’s Program Files shortcuts.

Turns out it’s a program for designing forms that are connected to a data source such as an Access database or… you guessed it… an XML document. And what I truly found surprising is that you don’t need an XML schema, just a sample XML document that follows the format you want your future XML docs to be in. A copycat, so-to-speak. InfoPath will automatically infer the schema from your sample XML! Note: you should probably go in and check the schema details, such as using a “date” data type rather than “integer”.

InfoPath was very easy to use. I created a new blank form, then selected my sample XML file as the data source; InfoPath made the XML tags available as drag-and-drop items, kind of like Flash components. I quickly arranged the items how I wanted them (including using “repeating regions”), and voila!, I had a fully functional form in one afternoon. The data entered into the form is exported to a fresh XML file — based on and validated against my custom XML — whenever I hit “save.”

Of course, that’s a very simplified explanation of how InfoPath works and what it does… I’m still a newbie with the program. However, I can say it greatly simplified the work I needed to do (no crazy workarounds using multiple programs), gave me a form I can share with my coworkers (although you need InfoPath to use the form), and produced valid XML that I can import into other programs as needed, all in one afternoon.

I should note there are other programs that perform similar functions, including Adobe Designer (companion to Acrobat Professional). I will have to investigate the alternatives — I hate being beholden to Microsoft — but so far InfoPath is leading the pack.

http://office.microsoft.com/en-us/FX010857921033.aspx [link no longer available]

Daily newness: An online XML-to-XSD Converter

OK, most of you probably don’t know the difference between an XML file and an XSD (“XML Schema”) file. For a brief intro check out W3Schools’ XML Schema tutorial. A brief quote: “The purpose of an XML Schema is to define the legal building blocks of an XML document, just like a DTD.”

This week I needed to create an XML Schema doc for work. The XSD file would be used to validate XML files I’ll be making for my online courses. Well, being a newbie to XSD files (though not XML), I was making decent but very slow progress when a thought occurred to me: it should be possible to reverse-engineer an XML file to create an XSD file. And, considering how prevalent XML is these days, someone probably posted an online converter for it! Google to the rescue!

I found a number of tools (mostly software downloads such as XMLSpy), but the easiest one I’ve tried so far is by — gulp — the Evil Empire itself: Microsoft.

http://apps.gotdotnet.com/xmltools/xsdinference/ [link no longer available]

All I can say is whether you love ’em or hate ’em, their tool works great and is completely free. On my first try it pointed out some invalid XML I had written. After correcting my mistake, BAM!, I had a complete XSD file. It wasn’t perfect and needed some tweaking (optional versus required tags, string v. integer, etc.), but it eliminated most of the heavy lifting for me and I’ll be finished a heck of a lot sooner than I would have been without it.

Umm… thanks, Microsoft! (For once…)