Writing ... or Just Practicing?

Random Disconnected Diatribes of a p&p Documentation Engineer

  • Writing ... or Just Practicing?

    Are Geeks "Creative"?

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    A colleague pointed me at an interesting discussion the other day about whether geeks are actually "creative". It comes partly from a recent post by Ian Betteridge that rails against the claims that App Inventor, which is designed to encourage development of simple programs for Android, "enables people to be creative and not just passive consumers". However, what he doesn't explore is the real meaning of the word "creative" in today's terminology.

    OK, so the dictionary defines "creative" as meaning "producing or using original and unusual ideas", with synonyms such as "original", "imaginative", "innovative", "artistic", and "inspired". These seem fine if you are talking about someone producing a stunning work of art in Corel Painter, or some spectacular new soundtrack using Roland Cakewalk. But nobody knocked up this software using a utility such as App Inventor. Instead it was created by a team of engineers working to fine tolerances and requiring a deep knowledge of the subject and technologies. Dare I say, "geeks"?

    Looking at most Web sites, social network pages, online photo albums, TV programs, and magazine adverts, or listening to a large proportion of recently recorded music, it's hard to find much in the way of material you could even charitably describe as "original" or "innovative". Even computer applications seem mostly to be evolution rather than "inspired". How many word processors or virus scanners have you seen that you can actually say are "innovative", and when did you last install a program that was truly "original"? Maybe, as today's focus seems to be all about style (generally over content) you could perhaps ascribe the term "artistic" to many of these things - but even that rather stretches the imagination in the majority of cases.

    However, according to my thesaurus, "creative" also spawns synonyms such as "inventive", "resourceful", "ingenious", and even "productive". So your modern word processor, spreadsheet, photo editing tools, and more - with their clever "automatic everything" and powerful Wizards for anything more complicated than typing a sentence - would fit well with this definition of creativity. Though, personally, I feel that equating creativity with productivity rather stretches the point. If I can type fast, I'm more productive. But the result often isn't creative in terms of the content.

    I suppose, as a geek, I don't really want to be "artistic", or even "original", anyway. I'd like to be "productive", "inventive", and possibly "ingenious". I want what I build to be architecturally robust using tried and trusted techniques and proven technologies, and I'm happy to leave it to the UI designers to inject the artistic stuff. And, as I've never been on a creative writing course, I assume that what I do most days here at p&p is more about being technically accurate and informative rather than relying on artistic license (unlike my blogs posts).

    Ian also suggests that we geeks no longer rule the universe, and that our era is over. Yet, without us, none of this creative stuff would exist - and the world would be very different. I can't see anyone using App Inventor or similar utilities to implement the software that controls a nuclear power station, or powers communications satellites. And I doubt that most corporate and financial data centers rely on programs written by a media analyst or a fashion designer. Was the O/S for the Android (or even App Inventor itself) written by a social communities coordinator or a society wedding planner? I don't think so. Geeks still do, and always will, shape our world. OK, so it doesn't look very pretty when we've finished with it, but we just hire in a creative artist to make the UI look nice afterwards.

    But I guess where all this is going is that - today - the word "creative" actually has negative overtones in many scenarios. In a previous life as a salesman, I could almost guarantee that my manager's response to reading my monthly sales report would be to praise my creativity...

     

  • Writing ... or Just Practicing?

    Your Giraffe Is Upside Down...

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    Reading a UK computer magazine last week, I came across the delightful phrase "like playing a recording of a swarm of hornets to a group of blindfolded mime artists". It conjures up a vivid mental picture of events such as might occur at a product development meeting where somebody suggests rewriting a whole legacy application in Objective Fortran and linking the components using DCOM. Or allowing the marketing department to choose the name for your wonderful new product.

    Generally, I have to avoid such colorful language in the documentation I create. Somehow, flowery terms such as that may be felt to be taking the reader's attention away from the main points of the technical description, or even tending to make the software seem less than seriously "enterprise-capable". Let's face it, when you're trying to explain something like interception for virtual methods, or attribute-based validation at interface level, tempting users' minds to go wandering off and luxuriate in some wildly unrelated (or even humorous) description of the effects is unlikely to comply with the stringent rules of our style guide.

    However, at the moment I'm writing guides that are not technically "documentation". They're designed to be entertaining and make it fun to learn about the products. I probably can't get away with a "Mr. Bunny's Guide" equivalent - which, for example, shows a Visual Basic Form in both front view (useful) and top view (just a straight line). Besides which, I'm no good at drawing pictures of farmers and animals. But, maybe I can sneak some vivid descriptions past the editors.

    Perhaps I can describe the process of architecting an application as "like doing a crossword puzzle in a foreign language when they forgot to print the black squares and your pen's run out"? Or the complexity of writing a multi-threaded interception authorization behavior as "like explaining AC theory to someone who thinks the electricity leaks out of a light socket if you don't put a bulb in it"? And how about painting a picture of reaching feature complete and code freeze for your product as "like trying to finish a bowl of soup when sitting outside a French café in the pouring rain"?

    Unfortunately, one of my U.S. colleagues once described me as having a "British sense of humor" (notice that he missed the "u" out). I guess this is where it will all fall over because it's likely that a large proportion of the readers will have no idea at all what I'm talking about. Especially when it's been translated into a range of other languages. And I suppose it could get quite annoying if you have to re-read the same section a few times just to grasp what’s going on. Oh well, it was a thought.

    Mind you, talking of animals, several years ago a co-author and I decided to have a competition to see who could get the most lifelike picture of an animal created as one of those "boxes and arrows" schematics into a book. I managed to get an only-marginally-recognizable dog into one of mine, including the Internet "cloud" symbol for the result of processing various inputs - neatly positioned just below the tail. I assumed they'd cut or modify it during edit, but to my amazement it actually survived intact. I never did get round to mentioning it to the publisher. However, my co-author won the competition hands-down by including a very realistic giraffe, and disguising it by drawing it upside down. I complained about this, but he simply reminded me that the rules didn't specify orientation.

    And I guess that, if my editors read this, it's a lost cause now anyway. They (and our customers) will be seeing animals in all of my schematics. Maybe I've just invented a new form of the Rorschach Ink Blot test.

  • Writing ... or Just Practicing?

    Having A Bad Where? Day

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    Isn't it funny how - after a while - you tend not to notice, or you ignore the annoying habits of your closest colleagues. As I work from home, some 5,000 miles away from my next closest colleagues, the closest colleague I have is Microsoft Vista (yes, I do lead a sad and lonely life doing my remote documentation engineering thing). I mean, I've accepted that sometimes when I open a folder in Windows Explorer it will decide to show me a completely different view of the contents from the usual "Details" view I expect. I suppose it's my own fault because I happen to have a few images in there as well as Word documents, and Vista thinks it's being really helpful by telling me how I rated each one rather than stuff I want to know - like the date it was last modified.

    But worse of all is the search feature, or perhaps I should call it an unfeature. In XP, I could select a folder and enter a partial file name then watch as it wandered through the subtree (which, with my terrible memory of where I put stuff was often "C:\"). It told me where it was looking, and I knew it was just looking at filenames. If I only wanted to search the contents of files, I could tell it to do that. In Vista, I type something in the search box and get a warning that the folder isn't indexed, then a slow progress bar. I've no idea where it's looking, or what it's looking for. And neither does it by the look of the results sometimes.

    It seems to decide by itself whether to look inside files (so when I search for some part of a filename I get a ton of hits for files that happen to contain that text), yet it seems incapable of finding the matching files by name. I have to either wait till its finished or open the Search Tools dialog before I can get at the advanced options to tell it what kind of search I want and if I want all subfolders to be included. And when I do look for something in the contents of the files, I get either 1,000 hits or none at all. In fact, I've actually resorted to using TextPad to search for strings in text files recently. And after all that, I have to go clicking around the folder tree (while trying to cope with the contents oscillating widly from side to side as I open each one) to get back to where I was because it helpfully moved the folder view to the very end of my long and complicated list of folders.

    I can see that the Vista approach may be easier and quicker for simple searches, but I can't help feeling that it often just gets in the way by trying to be too clever and "usable" (something I've grumbled about before - see Easter Bonnets and Adverse Automation). Maybe some of the problem is that I'm continually creating and deleting folders and moving stuff around as I gracefully slither between projects and my other daily tasks. I've tried setting default folder and search options, but I guess Vista can't cope with my indecisiveness. Perhaps I should just keep everything in one folder called "Stuff". But then I'd need a really good search engine...

    Probably a lot of this ranting comes about because of the totally wasted day spent trying to get some updated software to run on my machine. The software in question uses a template and some DLLs that get loaded into Word, some other DLLs that do magic conversion things with the documents, and some PowerShell scripts that drive the whole caboodle. So after the installation, PowerShell refused to have anything to do with my scripts, even though I configured the appropriate execution policy setting. Finally I managed to persuade it to load the scrips, but all it would do was echo back the command line. In the end, I copied the scripts from the new folder into the existing one where the previous version was located, and the scripts ran! How do you figure that? Is there some magic setting for folder permissions that I have yet to discover?

    And then I had to run installutil to get the script to find some cmdlets in another assembly, and delay sign a couple of other assemblies that barfed with Vista's security model. After about 6 hours work, it looked like it was all sorted - until I went back into Word to discover that the assemblies it requires now produced a load error. In the end, the only working setup I could achieve was by uninstalling and going back to the previous version. And people wonder why I tend to shy away from upgrading stuff...

    At least there is some good news - the latest updates to Hyper-V I installed that morning included a new version of the integration components, and (at least at the moment) I've still got a proper mouse pointer in my virtual XP machine (see Cursory Distractions). So I guess the whole day wasn't wasted after all.

    Footnote: Actually it was - my mouse pointer has just gone back to a little black dot...

  • Writing ... or Just Practicing?

    Too Clever By Four And Three Eighths

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    I'm fast coming to the conclusion that you actually need to be quite stupid to use a computer these days. Within a few years those with even a minor modicum of capability, or just a hint of innate common sense, or even mental agility that verges on a level around normal, will find themselves completely excluded from the ever-present, always-connected, online virtualness and technological future of man (and women) kind. We'll be reduced to writing on stuff called "paper" and sending these hand-written messages to others by buying "postage stamps". Or actually talking using ordinary words over a voice connection called a "telephone".

    OK, so this partly comes about as a result of my daily battles with software that is either so simplified and "user-friendly" that it's almost impossible to make it do what you want, or which seems intent on trying to hide from you anything that does not involve answering inane questions. Yes, I know I've ranted on about this in probably far too many blog posts in the past. And I appreciate that software should be as intuitive and easy to use as possible to open up our wonderful world of computing technology to the widest possible audience.

    But this week I've seen with some horror the effects of our attempts to achieve this in gory close-up detail as I've tried to help some friends get set up with their new computer. And these aren't stupid people trying to do difficult stuff. They have both run retail businesses before they retired from full-time work, and can quite successfully manage things like programming a video recorder, working the latest types of mobile phones, and eating gum whilst walking. And what's worse, they actually had another friend who is technically quite competent help them get their modem and Internet connection set up and working, yet fail to complete the job.

    So these people looked on in horror as I tried to get them started with a bit of basics on using a GUI, starting and stopping programs, and gentle Web surfing. Questions I never even anticipated, such as "Why are there so many different ways to do the same thing?" and "What are all these little pictures on the bottom for?" (the notification icon area which contains no less than 11 icons that do nothing when you click on them). And even "How do I turn it off?" They didn't seem to intuitively grasp that you need to click the button that says "Start" if you wave your mouse pointer over it when you wanted to stop.

    Then there's the free 60-day trial of Office that continually pops up a dialog asking you to register it, sends you (after several clicks) to a page that gives you a product key and tells you to copy it into the Office "register" dialog, but then sends you an email to tell you to do it all over again. Or the Norton program that nags continually until you click the "Fix" button, then does a few tricks, and then starts to "check your system" - at which point everything stops with no indication of what it's doing or how long it will take. And then it starts to "backup your files" to some online repository (no idea where). It says you can carry on working, but reports that the process failed when you close the nag window.

    On my first visit, I set up a Windows Live email account for them so they wouldn't have to keep changing their email address when they change ISPs (I've read enough horror stories about the one they are with, though I suspect that all ISPs have a reasonably equal number of these circulating the 'Net). But the next day they told me that they hadn't managed to get into it again because they couldn't figure out what to do when presented with the initial Home page. "Why do I have to wave my arrow thing all over the page to see which bits do something?" they asked. I'd explained that links were usually blue and underlined, so they were completely fooled by links that are black and only go blue and underlined when you move the mouse pointer over them; and doubly fooled by the main login one that lit up blue. Though no doubt, after a while, they'll get used to the strange and often unintuitive conventions we take for granted (like "I can understand Maximize and Minimize, but what does Restore Down mean?").

    Still, all of this is just a familiarization process, and they'll soon become proficient and inclusive members of our high-tech community. Though where the fun really started was trying to get their ISP email working so they could receive messages and online bills. My ISP (British Telecom) allows you to specify any email address to receive the "important information about our services" messages. But their ISP insists that you use their own email system, so we had to persuade Windows Email (a.k.a. Outlook Express) to talk to their mail servers. No, you can't just use the Webmail feature because the email setup process (which you have to do yourself) requires that you verify mail server registration using an "important information about our services" email that they send you before you can log in (?).

    You kick off this registration process through their own Web site, after logging into it with your "broadband account details" - which are different from your email account details they send you in the welcome pack with your modem (even though you don't yet have an email account). And here we come to the nub of the issue that drove me (and them) crazy. The ISP provides a password to log onto their site in the "welcome" letter. But after endless attempts we couldn't make it work. So we phoned the automated "password reminder" service. The nice electronic lady read out the user name and password - exactly the same as in the welcome letter.

    Now I don't know about you, but faced with a password (and this isn't the real one) such as "H6C2W9A3", and being canny enough to guess that - like most systems - it is case-sensitive, what would you type in? My guess is the same as we did over and over again: "H6C2W9A3". What you actually have to type is "h6c2w9a3". Yes, it's case sensitive, but to save confusion they print it in the welcome pack using "letters that look the same as the ones on the keyboard". And the automated password reminder service read it out as "haych for Henry, number six, see for Charlie, number two, double-you for Whisky, number nine, 'ay for Alpha, number three". Not even a suggestion that there might be some lower-case stuff in there.

    Now you see what I mean about stupid people? The only people who will be able to use the Internet in a few years time are those who WRITE EVERYTHING IN CAPITAL LETTERS and don't even realize that there are such things as "small letters". And, after all that, when we finally did get to the "My Account" page, we found the following message (and note the interesting use of grammar): "My Account is currently unavailable. We making some improvements to our customer service and online systems over the weekend".

    Probably they're making them more compatible with stupid people...

  • Writing ... or Just Practicing?

    Generically Modified

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    Despite being a writer by profession, and regularly castigating my colleagues for being recalcitrant in reviewing stuff I write, I actually dislike doing reviews myself. When I was an independent author (before I signed my life away to Microsoft), I was often approach by companies offering to pay me to write reviews of their products for their Web sites and literature. Even taking into account the presumed integrity of the author, this type of review seems somehow to be tainted when compared to an independent review by someone who doesn't stand to gain from it.

    Yet I depend on reviews and reviewers, of both the technical and editorial kind, not only as part of my daily job creating guidance, but also when buying stuff generally. If I'm looking to buy a new ADSL modem or NAS drive, I'm likely to check out the reviews from real users to see if the one I fancy (the product not the reviewer) is actually any good. A typical example is when recently researching mobile Internet connection dongles and packages (which, from the majority of reviews, all seem to be equally useless). If I'm looking to buy a book, I'll read the independent reviews from readers. Only when I'm buying something as personal as music do I tend to avoid being swayed by the opinions of others. But that's mainly because, underneath this suave and intellectual exterior (?), I'm really still a heavy metal fanatic with a weird taste in classic rock music.

    So I always feel that I should do my bit by contributing reviews where I think I can add some useful feedback to the discussion. And there's no point in writing a review unless you tell the truth. OK, so my blog is not generally known for being exceptionally high in factual content, but I do try very hard to be fair and even handed. So, let me start by saying that the latest book I've been reading is not actually bad - in fact, in general, it's well-written, informative, useful, and I didn't find any glaring errors in it.

    And as you are obviously now waiting for the "but", here is comes. I bought "Accelerated VB 2008" (APress, ISBN 1590598741) based on reviews and the publisher's blurb in order to provide the equivalent training for VB as I undertook with Jon Skeet's "C# In Depth" book (see Syntactic Strain). According to the aforementioned blurb, it covers precisely what you need to know to use VB 2008 (a.k.a. VB 9.0) and .NET 3.5 effectively. This includes the newer and more advanced features such as generics, operator overloading, anonymous methods, and exception management techniques. And a whole paragraph of the description talks about the coverage of LINQ, extension methods, lambda expressions, and other VB 9.0 features.

    Yes, the book covers these. But the really new and exciting stuff only gets a very brief summary in the introduction (5 pages), and just the final chapter of 43 pages. And the new topics I'm interested in get about a page each, yet there are 14 pages on using LINQ with XML. It's not that the VB 9.0 stuff isn't covered at all, but it certainly feels like it was added as an afterthought. OK, so there is a whole chapter earlier in the book devoted to generics, which is really quite good, and there is certainly adequate coverage of other VB 8.0 features. But it feels like the book is actually "Accelerated VB 2005 updated to VB 2008". And having been an independent author in a previous life I know that this is what happens. As soon as a new version of a product is announced, the publisher is hounding you to update your previous book to the new version. In three months. And without them paying you much money.

    I guess this is the core difference between the two books I've been using. "C# In Depth" feels like it's telling you a story, and the features of the versions of the languages are partially intertwined throughout so you understand how each addition to the languages serves a specific purpose and simplifies or extends previous features. "Accelerated VB 2008" feels more like a tutorial that aims to cover advanced uses of Visual Basic without really explaining the evolution and purpose of the language. For example, there's a whole 45 page chapter devoted to threading, which seems to me to be a feature of the .NET Framework rather than a feature of Visual Basic.

    Perhaps I expected something different because I was looking for a book that covered the new language features in depth, whereas "Accelerated VB 2008" feels more like it is aimed at bringing VB programmers who basically still write like they are using VBScript into the real world. But it surfaces issues that I suppose I always recognized are part of the overarching view of programmers and programming languages (at least in the Microsoft world). It's like VB programmers have to be protected from reality; and must always be reminded how you define a class, use an interface, and handle exceptions - irrespective of the "advancedness" of the book.

    Again, I must repeat that this is not a bad book. It is really quite good, and will be a useful addition to the Visual Basic programmer's library - especially if (like me) you are still a bit vague about generics, delegates, lambdas, and similar topics. It also helped me more clearly see how the process of creating and updating documentation is a lot harder than it may at first seem. When I work on updates to the guidance for new versions of our deliverables here at p&p (such as Enterprise Library) I try really hard to interweave the new features with the existing content. In the previous two versions, for example, we've completely reordered the sections and topics, added new overviews and "how to" sections, and modified the structure to give the new features the appropriate precedence alongside the existing ones. And it really can be tough to do when there's already over 1,000 pages of it.

    And while Jon's "C# in Depth" book did wind me up with its repeated use of the term "syntactic sugar", "Accelerated VB 2008" also has one overarching feature that I found extremely annoying. Like so many other books, they insist on printing complete listings of the example code, even when it covers two or more pages, with the explanation only at the end of the listing. The result is much page flipping to understand what's going on. But worst of all, when there is a minor change to one line of code to illustrate a feature of the language, they print the entire code again with no highlighted line or indication of where the change is until you read the text after the listing. After a while I started just believing what the text said because it seemed too much effort to go back and try and find the changed line.

    So here's a challenge. Is there a book out there that covers the language features of Visual Basic 8.0 and 9.0 without describing how to declare variables, write a class, handle exceptions, and interact with the basic .NET Framework classes? One that explains in detail how features such as extensions, lambdas, LINQ, and generics work, and which makes it easy to understand their purpose and usage? Or am I just expecting publishers to commission books that focus only on stuff that I've been to idle to learn about so far? Maybe a market sector consisting of one person is not a viable business proposition...

  • Writing ... or Just Practicing?

    Move Over Harry Potter

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    I can't honestly say that I've ever been much of a patron of the dark arts. Mind you, a few years ago I was fascinated to see a chapter for a book on ADO.NET that I'd written come back from review with fifteen paragraphs about devil worship in the middle of it. I was about half way through editing this when I suddenly realized it sounded unfamiliar, and seemed to have little to do with asynchronous data access and stored procedures. I assume that the reviewer had got their Ctrl-somethings mixed up, and I still can't help wondering if there is a Web site out there somewhere that has a detailed description of the behavior of a DataReader in the middle of an article about witchcraft and sorcery.

    Anyway, it seems that I have a friend and colleague who actually is a "dark arts" expert. At least he is when the dark art in question is Cascading Style Sheets (CSS). OK, so I long ago accepted that we needed a way of separating style from content in Web pages, and I don't know of any other technology that accomplishes this as well as CSS does. I mean, you can even do dynamic styling in response to UI events and all kinds of clever stuff with it. I'm still amazed at sites like Zen Garden where changing the style sheet actually makes you believe you navigated to a different page.

    Yet all my attempts to use CSS to achieve a design that doesn't look like a 1985 Web site (with everything centered and in Times Roman font) seem to result in a page that only works on a 42" screen, or requires you to scroll a mile and a half downwards then read it with your head on one side and one eye closed. It's like they designed the language to be impenetrable to mere humans. I mean, I can fix DNS servers, edit the Active Directory, administer Group Policy, understand design patterns, and I even know a fair bit about enterprise application design and development. But I can't even get margins or padding to work most times in CSS (probably 'cos I don't know which I should be using), and end up with nbsp's and transparent GIFs all over the place. Or (horror), tables for layout...

    So when I discovered that a site I manage for the local village residents group was broken in IE8 (and, obviously, had always been broken in Firefox), I put off trying to fix it for as long as possible. The site is based on the Microsoft ASP.NET Club Starter site, and a glance at the stylesheet with its myriad of clear thises and float thats meant I'd probably need to stock up with a month's worth of coffee and cold pizza. After a couple of hours randomly changing stuff (the usual geek's approach to fixing things you don't understand) I'd reached the point where the entire site was totally incomprehensible.

    So I emailed my pal Dave Sussman, who has spent the last several years of his life doing clever Web stuff with CSS and other complicated technologies. I know he's good at this kind of thing because he hasn't phoned me for ages to complain about rounded corners and designers generally. And, you know what? Within ten minutes I got the answer. Just take out a clear something or other, or change a margin this to a float that, at it would "just work". And he was, of course, absolutely correct.

    Mind you, he admitted he'd resorted to using one of his dark art tools - a wicked device called "Firebug", which does sound like something used by wizards or witches. I'm not sure if he dances around the fire naked at the same time, but I'm too polite to ask...

  • Writing ... or Just Practicing?

    Evolution Through Technology Selection

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    You have to wonder whether the increasing use of tablet computers and touchscreens means we'll soon be back to the equivalent of a world that depends on stone axes and making fire by rubbing two sticks together. At the moment I'm doing my utmost to hang on to some semblance of advanced device interaction technique but there's a good chance that, in time, I'll also succumb.

    This musing began when I noticed the gradual change in proddy-finger technique used by my wife with her new Nexus tablet. Previously, her frantic interactive facebooking and emailing sessions were rudely interrupted every few hours by the fact that the text on the screen became unreadable through a layer of greasy finger marks.

    However, the fancy cover she bought to protect the device came with a neat pen-shaped, rubber-tipped stylus, and within days she'd become completely dependent on this. Now the screen is pristine after even the heaviest sessions of online social interaction. She tells me it's not only easier than using your finger, but more accurate and faster as well. And I have to admit that, after trying it out on my Surface RT, I can only agree.

    But here's the thing. While I'm not the fastest or most accurate typist, I do manage to employ several fingers most of the time, and even a thumb or two for spaces now and then. And I can do it quite easily with the onscreen touch keyboard (in fact I'm doing it right now). However, watching my stylus-converted wife I realized that she was back in the world of one-fingered pecking using the equivalent of a pointed stick, rather than actually typing.

    I suppose you could use a combination of fingers and stylus in the appropriate places, but that doesn't solve the greasy finger problem. Maybe the answer is gloves that have rubber tips of the correct flesh-matched consistency on all the fingers. Or just keep some wet wipes handy. Perhaps somebody already makes a cover for popular models of tablet computer that has a special holder for a packet of wet wipes.

    Of course you could apply the "horses for courses" argument and say that some tasks should be carried out on a tablet, and others only on a real computer. During a recent discussion about applying Microsoft's Accessibility Standard (for example, you can't say "right-click" because there might not be a mouse) to a Hands-on Lab document we are creating, a colleague suggested that "nobody in their right mind would use a touch-screen device to run Visual Studio." OK, so basically I have to agree that writing programs in VS on a 7" tablet wouldn't be my idea of fun.

    But many new laptops and convertible devices have a proper keyboard, a mouse track pad, and a touch screen. So I could just as easily be tempted into some proddy-finger action after typing a Lamba expression, rather than reaching for the mouse. Comments I'm already hearing from converted users of convertible devices is that it's a real shock going back to a computer where finger-on-screen action results only in greasy fingerprints. Jabbing at onscreen buttons with an index finger is much quicker than grabbing a plastic desk-bound rodent, or scratching around on a track pad to find where you left the mouse-pointer last time - and then manoeuvring it around the screen.

    And maybe this transition to touch-screen interaction is becoming more obvious through its impact on the industry as a whole. I recently read that Logitech, best known for its keyboards and mice, went from a profit of $37m a year ago to a loss of $24m last year. That's a lot of unsold mice. Though it's likely that the difference was also caused by a reduction in sales of other traditional accessories that we no longer seem to need.

    For example, instead of a monitor riser stand we now crouch uncomfortably over the tiny screen of a desk-located or knee-bound laptop or tablet. We don't need an ergonomically designed keyboard with soft-touch keys any more, we just get finger-impact injuries and stiff shoulder muscles. No requirement for a carefully designed mouse means additional wear on elbow joints as we scroll and point all around the screen. And the lack of a cushioned wrist rest is certain to speed the development of RSI.

    Of course, evolution will soon resolve these problems for us. In only a few thousand years the successful members of the human race will have developed a long cranked neck, thin pointy grease-free fingers, and even a much larger nose to support our Internet-enabled glasses.

    Those of us with small noses and fat fingers who fail to evolve will, of course, be easy to identify. We'll be the ones searching Amazon for sharp stones and abrasive sticks...

  • Writing ... or Just Practicing?

    No Network? Forget It

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    Sometimes I think I'm the only person who takes Wi-Fi security seriously. Unlike all of my neighbors, I run my Wi-Fi access point with a hidden SSID so that nobody casually browsing the available networks will be tempted to try and connect to it. I also run it on half power, which is plenty sufficient to reach all round the house and garden without exposing it all along the street.

    Of course, I also have it set to use WPA2-PSK, and it has a long and complex non-dictionary password. On top of that I enabled MAC authentication so that only known devices can connect. Yes, I know that most of these features can be cracked by determined attackers but all the good books say that defence in depth is the best approach, and the more layers of protection I have enabled the less the risk.

    Should I actually worry about anybody connecting to my internal network through Wi-Fi? There's several other computers and devices on the internal network, although they are all secured with user names and passwords different from the wireless router credentials, and all sensitive folders and shares are locked down to the network admin account. But I really don't fancy having somebody I don't know wandering around my network.

    Plus, anyone who did connect could get out onto the Internet through my proxy server, absorbing my bandwidth and exposing me to the risk of action if they do anything illegal over my connection. And I have to pay for my bandwidth, so why should I let other people soak it up browsing Facebook, playing games, and viewing doubtful content.

    So it seems like my security approach is sensible. Unfortunately, Google doesn't agree. I recently bought my wife a Google Nexus 7 tablet so that she can soak up my expensive bandwidth browsing Facebook, playing games, and viewing pictures of cats. All the reviews I read said it's really easy to set up - you just choose your locale and your network connection, enter your Google account details, and (as we say over here, though I don't know why) "Bob's your uncle."

    Yeah, you reckon? At step two you have to choose an existing wireless network and connect to it, or select "Add a network" if you use a hidden SSID. That's fine, but if I don't enter the MAC code of the device into the wireless router's configuration I can't connect. At this point the screen just says "Not in range" and you can't do anything about it.

    Usually, when setting up any other computer, I skip the network setup and then go into the device information page to find the MAC address (that's what I had to do with our HTC Android phones). But Android on a tablet is obviously paranoid about not being able to talk to its Do No Evil home because there's no option to set up a network later. I guess they think that nobody would ever dream of using a tablet (where you can read books, watch videos, and listen to music) if there's no Internet connection.

    And just to make matters worse, when you set up a new connection and don't get it exactly correct (such as the wrong letter case in the SSID, or an incorrect password) you can't edit it. The only options are "Connect" and "Forget It" - you have to remove the connection and then start all over again. And the dialog quite happily closes without saving the settings or warning you they'll be lost if your finger wavers a little on the onscreen keyboard.

    So the only remedy to finish the setup seemed to be to go into the router's configuration and turn off MAC authentication while the tablet connected. Then, after setup is complete, find the MAC address in the tablet's system information pages, add it to the list in the router, and then turn MAC authentication back on. Assuming, of course, that turning off MAC authentication didn't lose the list of existing permitted addresses (I suggest you take a screenshot or copy them into Notepad first).

    However thankfully, after three attempts when I finally got everything right in the tablet's connection dialog, my wireless router configuration page (after I turned MAC authentication off) detected that some unknown device was trying to connect and displayed the MAC address for me to add to the permitted clients list. After that I could turn MAC authentication back on and it worked. So completing the tablet's three page setup wizard only took the best part of an hour. Including swearing time.

    It was only then that I discovered why I had so much trouble with the connection settings dialog - the tablet was suffering from the "phanton keystrokes" issue several other people have encountered (search the web for "nexus 7 phantom typing" for more details). So the next day it was back to the store to swap it for another one. From a different batch. And go through all the MAC authentication thing again because the MAC address is different.

    And now I just need to figure out how to get it to talk to my wife's Exchange Server email account - which is exposed as a service over HTTP by our remote email hosting provider. And convert all the music she indoors wants putting onto it from WMV to MP3 format. Perhaps I'll need to take a holiday and stock up on new swear words before then...

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