Jun 1 2006

WordPress Upgrade

Jeffrey Larson

Update: I’m now on the newest version of WordPress 2. The upgrade process was a lot easier than I expected. None of my customizations were overwritten so it upgraded seemlessly.

I think I’ll upgrade my weblog software pretty soon. I haven’t been writing here… I know, but I think I’m going to get back into it.

Two projects at work are winding down and so new projects should be just around the corner. I find that at the beginning of projects I am less drained and can find more motivation to work at home that when I’m swamped at work.

I’m also considering a rebuild of my FC2 box (webserver) and a reconfiguration of the network in my home office. We’ll see what I find time for… summer’s coming and I like playing outside!

May 15 2006

Free SkypeOut for 2006

Jeffrey Larson

I have written about Skype before. I just had to post this note.

Skype is now allowing Free calls to all landlines and mobile phones within the US and Canada… for the rest of 2006!

Read about it here: http://share.skype.com/sites/en/2006/05/free_calls_to_all_landlines_an.html

If you still don’t know what Skype is you really need to go find out, free calling between computers… and now, free calling from computer to any phone in USA or Canada! Awesome!

Nov 5 2005

Webpages that only work in IE

Jeffrey Larson

I love using Mozilla Firefox instead of Internet Explorer. It makes me feel warm and fuzzy inside.

The caveat with using only Firefox is that some webpages just don’t work, since they require some IE specific “feature” (be it an ActiveX component OR a non-standard rendering bug). Among these pages is Microsoft (Windows) Update and Office Update… we’ve been forced to run these pages from Internet Explorer.

If any of you have played around with Netscape 8, you would know about the feature that allows you to switch between the Firefox rendering engine and the Internet Explorer engine. This feature exists specifically to solve our little IE web page problem.

I’ve recently found a new Firefox extension that adds this feature for us non-Netscape users. IE Tab allows you to view webpages from Firefox using the IE rendering engine. You can even set certain webpages to automatically use the IE engine such as your favourite http://windowsupdate.microsoft.com and http://office.microsoft.com. This extension is also a bonus for us web-developers that have to make sure our designs behave in IE… we don’t have to run Internet Explorer anymore.

Oct 31 2005

Google Reader

Jeffrey Larson

My posting titled RSS Reader Application was a plug for RSSOwl, a Java powered application I started using for reading blogs and news sites.

I have since uninstalled RSSOwl from my desktop computer at home. The main motivation for such was the lack of the ability to synchronize read/unread articles between my office and home computers. I wanted to be able to read some articles at work, and some at home, and RSSOwl wasn’t doing the trick.

From there I went to find a web-based RSS Reader that would keep track of my read articles no matter where I read each of them. I found Gregarius which did the job quite well. It’s a PHP powered application that you can host on your own webserver, so I liked that.

Recently though, I found Google’s Reader on the Labs page and I’m really liking what I’ve seen. I’ve imported all my news and blog site RSS URLs with the handy OPML import feature and now I’m reading with the online feed reader that holds to my requirements. The other good thing about it is I didn’t have to create a new account with another website, since Google accounts are all integrated. I’ve got a Gmail account and to use the reader it’s the same account.

Aug 11 2005

Intuitive User Interfaces

Jeffrey Larson

I’m struggling, at the moment, to create a really simple user interface for a CMS I’ve developed for a missionary website.

Take a look at HillsofJapan.com – Praising and Praying. I’m attempting to create an administration page that allows my client to edit the contents of these postings. The admin page needs to be simply layed out and preferably look very similar to the public page.

I’ve played around with the idea of WYSIWYG Editors. The problem with this is that I can’t find an editor which is light-weight enough… most of the ones I’ve tried are slow-loading Javascript apps. I did see one editor (XStandard) that was quicker and lighter (because it was a browser plug-in and not Javascript) but the full version which includes support for image insertion is way too expensive! Another problem is that each posting would be split into sections, and each section would require its own editor… multiple instances of an already too heavy/sluggish javascript isn’t going to work.
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Aug 6 2005

Flash MP3 Player

Jeffrey Larson

In certain cases, playing music on websites can be good. I know that some people think that adding a soundtrack to your personal website gives it that little bit of extra distinction… but when I come across those sites I usually end up turning off the sound because it gets annoying.

Since websites are about communicating content to viewer, some of that content could be sound bytes or music. A band’s website for instance, should probably have some way to allow the users to hear their latest track.

The most common way to ’embed’ music into a website is by using Macromedia Flash (I won’t go near the alternatives). Flash is mainstream, it comes installed in almost all web browsers, so it makes compatibility easy.

Flash supports a couple of different ways to play audio: embedding the audio files right in the ‘swf’ files as well as playing external files. There are a few Flash based MP3 players which use an external XML file to load the audio from a (possibly dynamic) list of tracks. I found a pretty cool player that Jeroen Wijering has created.
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Jul 28 2005

VNC over RDP

Jeffrey Larson

If you use Windows XP a bunch you have probably heard of Remote Desktop (Connection). This is Microsoft’s implementation of remote control software, they have built in right into the Windows Operating System. Microsoft has implemented the Remote Desktop Protocol by utilizing their Terminal Services within the OS. What this means is that when a remote connection is established a new user session is created. This is pretty much how the Fast User Switching Feature of Windows XP works as well. Although it may seem handy to have a separate session to run programs and such, it means that you must open and close your commonly used programs (even those you like to keep running all the time) each time you connect. There is also the issue with license and Microsoft Windows. The EULA for Microsoft Windows includes a clause that states something about only being able to use one session at a time. There is actually a limit in the Remote Desktop software that will Log off the current user (actually in front of the computer) if a remote user connects.

VNC — which stands for Virtual Network Computing — is a technology similar to Microsoft’s Remote Desktop. VNC was originally developed by AT&T but is now open source. This solution allows the you to view the screen and control the keyboard/mouse input remotely as well. Modern implementations of VNC use hooks to capture the video that is displayed on the screen, this data is then compressed and sent out on the network to the attached client. This means that whatever is on the screen is shown to you remotely, none of this logging off users and creating new sessions. So if I have a program I run all day and like to check on the status of it, I can log in to my computer using VNC from anywhere, and check on it, without shutting down or restarting the program.

My current VNC flavour of choice is UltraVNC. UltraVNC gives me a stable remote desktop connection with a bunch of added features: optional encryption, file transfer, chat, connection optimization (compression/speed) and more. UltraVNC is currently at version 1.0.0. It is one fine piece of software. There are a couple of other cool add-ons that can work with UltraVNC too: NAT-to-NAT, Repeater, and SingleClick. I have played around with SingleClick (SC) which allows me to provide online technical support to those who I have distributed the software (the image thumbnail shows how this tech support software looks). You can read more about the others on the UltraVNC website. An added bonus from UltraVNC is the fact that the user authentication system can be integrated into Windows such that you can use the Windows users and passwords for authentication… smooth!

The one thing that UltraVNC doesn’t provide that Windows XP’s Remote Desktop does, is remote audio. I find this to be an almost useless feature anyway. I don’t really see the lack of this feature as a detriment to the UltraVNC product.

I’ve trialled products like Radmin and PcAnywhere but was unsatisfied. I think UltraVNC is the best solution for your money… oh did I mention that it’s completely FREE? I love open source freeware!

Jul 28 2005

DebugMode Wink Tutorials

Jeffrey Larson

Have you ever needed to help someone with configuration or use of a particular piece of software? Ever wanted a quick way to make a movie for your family or friends, they could follow along instead of writing out word instructions that didn’t seem clear?

For me, one thing being a computer engineer means is being the guy in the family that can help you with your computer stuff. I give help where I can, teaching people shortcuts for using their programs and setting up applications, and so on. I have used a couple tools to make videos for such a thing but it has always been quite time consuming to get the videos just right, in order to avoid confusion.

Recently I found an application by DebugMode called Wink. This program makes it really easy to create Tutorials and Presentations for using/configuring software. Wink renders Flash movies that can be simply displayed on webpages. The movies can also be saved as Windows Executables if you prefer.

I’ve created a sample tutorial to show you what Wink can do. This tutorial demonstrates how to set up a new mail account in Microsoft Outlook Express. Click on the thumbnail below to view it. Note that this sample presentation is about 1.5 MB so it may take a moment to load.

It should be noted that this sample presentation took under 10 minutes to create.

It’s amazing how easy this software is to use.

Jul 15 2005

Accessibility: Web Standards vs Hacks

Jeffrey Larson

Web design is a lot of fun. I’ve been coding websites for some time and while HTML has remained fairly static, my design philosophies have not. Although I would love for this post to be details about a new way to design better web sites — it isn’t.

Back when I marked up my first piece of HTML I used a really loose version of the HTML 3.2 standard, although back then hyper text processing was pretty elementary in 3rd generation browsers. Layouts were all tabled or framed… content mixed in with markup.

Instead of presenting a new solution, I put forth my dilemma. I have coded web pages using web standards compliance, holding to syntactically correct code and markup (see W3C), but I have also coded webpages using as many hacks (standards non-compliant tricks used to just get stuff working) as necessary in order to get them working/displaying consistently in the majority of browsers.

Example of standards compliant design: http://www.hillsofjapan.com/
Example of hacked for consistency design: http://www.jeffothy.com/

Both of these design tactics are used when the audience of the website is not known; what OS do they use? what web browser? what screen resolution/color depth? etc.

Standards compliant design fails when it comes to users who still use outdated browsers (which are not usually standards compliant in their hypertext rendering). Another drag of standards compliant design is that even the newest browsers (Mozilla Firefox 1.0 and Microsoft Internet Explorer 6) are not consistent in how the standards are interpreted and implemented: this means even standards compliant design may fail to render consistently and that also means broad ranged testing is required.

Hacks for consistency have there own problems as well. The method is basically trial and error, aside from being able to have a thick book of tricks that make certain code render one way in one browser and render a different way in another browser. BUT, once you’ve got a design that you’ve tested to work in all (or most) of your audience’s browsers you still have to worry about new versions of browsers coming out and breaking what these hacks seemed to fix.

I know I am not the only one with this dilemma. Many many times I’ve caught myself trying to make a perfectly consistent page using any browser I can get my hands on. After long struggles with the code I often think, why am I trying to make this page work on these old browsers who barely anyone uses?

I have grown to truly hate websites which are “optimized for” Internet Explorer or 1024×768 screen resolution. This usually means the site looks like crap when using my preferred browser or a different screen resolution. So here’s one of the reasons I aim to make the code/markup I write work in as many browsers as possible. Backward Compatibility is a great fundamental. I mind less if there is a nifty feature or two supported in one browser but not in another, however, site layout, look and feel *need* to be cross-browser compatible.

These days, standards compliant websites are usually coded using validated XHTML and CSS. One of the frustrations I have when developing with XHTML/CSS is lacking consistent control over layout. Many things that seem quite simple using tables and traditional HTML 4.0 can become challenging brain-teasers when going with CSS.

Google has developed a number of web applications that are cross-browser compatible but are definitely not standards compliant. Being such a large scale web company, there audience is diverse, and as such, the applications they develop need to work almost everywhere, if not everywhere. Google Maps for instance supports a handful of newish browsers, but is explicit in stating that it does not support all. Aside from the simplest of designs, websites that want to use certain features cannot support all.

I think I need some comments here. Remind us why we shouldn’t code a website using “old technology” (tables in HTML4.0) even though we know that for the most part, newer browsers support it through backwards compatibility.

Jun 15 2005

Why Google?

Jeffrey Larson

I want to work for Google. They are doing some really cool stuff when it comes to how the general public uses the internet, and I think I could contribute my creativity and ability to make things work.

Is your web browser’s home page set to Google.com? Do you use a Gmail account for web-based emailing?

As an engineer I like succinct lists:

  • Gmail gives 2300 megabytes of free storage for their email accounts.
  • Google Maps provides maps, driving directions, and locations of local businesses and services… I prefer this over Yahoo! Maps or Mapquest.
  • Google Local allows searching for items in a specific location (like Calgary, Alberta)

… and the list could go on.

Two web-pages I browse every once in a while to see what Google is up to are: Google Labs and the Google Search: More page. These pages provide links and info on what projects Google is working on and what services Google provides.

I want to show a brief example of Googles Maps. You can search for any address you want, I have attached images of my searches for my own home address. Once you’ve got a map with your address, Google allows you to get directions to or from it, by entering the second address. Since we’re relatively new to Calgary, figuring out how to get to new friends houses or giving directions to our house for new friends is simplified with Google Maps.

Back in October of last year (2004), Google bought a company called Keyhole. Keyhole provided software for digital photo mapping. Since then, Google has added a satellite image mode for their Maps search. It’s fantastic! To view the satellite version of a map, click on the “Satellite” link above the map and to the right. Find your house, or a landmark of some significance… play with it a bit to impress yourself.

Here are some maps I think are fun:

Do you use Google? How? Why? How much? When?