Previous month:
January 2007
Next month:
March 2007

Notes on the Usable Help refresh

I recently finished the first phase of my long-planned updating of my other blog, Usable Help. (If you've never visited, it's for technical writers and instructional designers.) Since launching the site, in 2002, I have been using a slightly-modified version of templates that were provided with Tinderbox, the application I use to write, manage, and build the site.

Keeping the same design for five years seems like an eternity in the online world, but there were always other projects to distract me from changing it. And, quite frankly, it worked so smoothly that whenever I got the urge to change the design I reminded myself that I could just write new content instead. (Such is the demon that sits on my shoulder.)

I started the redesign by searching for a new CSS-based blog template. After poking around at a few, and not getting anywhere, I finally thought to closely examine the template that I was already using. It uses tables for positioning, but has a solid stylesheet for markup, which meant I didn't have to start over from scratch. With the aid of Macrabbit's CSSEdit, I very quickly had a new "pure" CSS design.

Once the basic design was in place, and the "greeked" content I used for development replaced with the Tinderbox export tags, the fun really started. Here's where Tinderbox as a content management system shone. I rebuilt the whole site dozens of times as I worked on it. Hundreds of posts, tens of thousands of words, all reflowed into the new design in a matter of seconds. I could literally, with hardly any investment of time, see how a design change would look across the whole site.

You know, when EDS trained me to be a professional programmer they taught me that computer cycles are expensive. "Before spending any processor time on a task," they drilled into me, "make sure the code is solid and well designed. Furthermore, having the compiler find a syntax error is an embarrassment." I could see their reasoning, but here on my computer--where I'm not sharing resources with anyone--using Tinderbox to experiment felt just great. I laughed at the voice of Ross Perot in my head as I tried something new, exported the whole site, then backed-out my change when I didn't like it or it did something unanticipated. Whee!

Tinderbox is very much under active development and there were a lot of new features I hadn't yet exploited. I took advantage of several of them with the new design. For example, the "do macro" feature allows me to easily add category art to each post without having to enter all the HTML parameters each time. My friend Fuge created the new artwork for the site.

I also tried out the "similar notes" feature, which finds previous content that is related to the current post, but ultimately decided not to use it as an automated process. With five years of archives it's easy for anyone, even me, to overlook older topics that are related to current ones. For now, I'm letting Tinderbox suggest related topics after I write something new, but I'll manually add the cross-references that I like. (Another place where those macros are handy, by the way.) It's not that "similar notes" doesn't work, it's that with the narrow subject range in which I write the list of candidates needs to be carefully pruned, lest everything get linked to everything else, without significance.

Another change I made was completely modularizing the sidebar and splitting the old one into two. Now, since each link is a separate note, I can rearrange, add, and remove items from the blogroll and other sections with less fuss than before. Tech writing blogs seem to have a life shorter than tsetse flies, so this will let me keep up more successfully. The sidebar work also had an immediate payoff when I signed up for AdBrite. Their affiliate code was put into a Tinderbox note as-is, the site re-exported, and now Usable Help is sullied with shameless commercialism. I'll let you decide if that's for good or evil, but it simply could not have been any easier to implement.

Another change I made was to have the name of each individual post reflected in the HTML title. Previously, every page was titled the same, which was fine and dandy until I adopted Mint, in an effort to better understand how my readers utilize the site.

Finally, I moved the Gallery of Onscreen Help to a completely new system. I previously used iView. I haven't liked that product's direction for several years, especially recently, so now I'm using Gallery instead. All in all, moving from iView to Gallery took considerable more effort than the Tinderbox-twiddling I did, and I lost a bunch of metadata in the process. Frustrating.

I have a couple more changes waiting in the wings, but for now, I'll let the dust settle. Please drop me a note if you notice anything strange with the new design. I've already had some puzzling IE6=specific CSS problems crop up, but I think those are resolved.

Notes on heyu

The nifty, free Unix application 'heyu' lets you easily send X10 commands from the command-lne. It's slick, quick, and fills a very specific need for home automators. I've used it a bit on Mac OS X, and always keep a copy handy for just the right job. I don't use too often, however, but I try to keep an eye on the heyu users discussion group on Yahoo.

Charles Sullivan's message, late last month, said that support for the W800RF32 is coming soon. That's great news, the W800 is a very handy wireless receiver that lets you use security devices and remote controls. You can learn more about the W800, and other ways of using it, in "Hack #78: Know When Your Doors and Windows Are Open" in Smart Home Hacks.

Also, Kris Beazley recently described a concise heyu project for controlling lawn sprinklers. Just the sort of task that you can easily run in the background, without the overhead of a full-blown home automation package. For more on sprinkler control, see the hacks in Chapter 5 of Smart Home Hacks.

Expert advice about Windows virus and spyware removal

In his column for Feb 19, 2006, Windows computer expert James Coates answers a question submitted by a reader who is "at wit's end" dealing with all the spyware and viruses that infect his IBM laptops. He is frustrated with spending money on "security software" that never really fixes the problems.

Coates expert advice for avoiding malware on Windows? Well, its simple, just wipe the hard drive and re-install your entire operating system, and all of your applications and data, every six months.

I have a much better solution.

Ceiva: Rising prices for declining service

So far, this year is shaping up to be my year of bad tech support experiences. First, there was HP Tech Support, then the never-ending hold-and-transfer game at Linksys tech support, and now I've been going around-and-around with Ceiva Tech Support.

In case you're not familiar with Ceiva, they sell digital photo frames that download new pictures to display every day. You can either load them up with your own photos, by putting the pictures in a private account on their servers, or "subscribe" to commercial galleries with a wide variety of art and information. The Ceiva frame has a built-in modem for downloading the photos, and you have to pay an annual subscription fee for the service.

Every year the cost of the service increases slightly. This year, it jumped about 15% and now stands at $95 a year. Yikes!

Accompanying the increase is really bad technical support. Ever since the new year, my frame has had trouble downloading new pictures from the Ceiva server. The message on the frame says that the server I'm calling into did not answer the phone. I've reported this to Ceiva tech support repeatedly, and in response they always send a brain-dead auto-response that tells me to make sure that my frame is connected to a phone line (duh) and that the phone line works (duh, again).

When I reply to the auto-response and repeat that, yes, my phone line works and none of the voodoo steps they suggest has resolved the problem, and that clearly something is wrong on their end, they always respond that I must call and talk to a tech support person to resolve this.

Excuse me? How is talking to me going to fix the problem of their dial-in node not answering? Perhaps its nearby and they're going to ask me to drive over and reboot it for them. Otherwise, it defies all logic, and is disrespectful of my time as a customer. Apparently, until they talk to me personally, they refuse to report the problem to their network administrators. So, the next time it fails (which is about 50% of the time lately), we repeat the same ignorant, inefficient dance.

And for this they want more money per year? As you may surmise, I've stopped recommending Ceiva as a useful device.

UPDATE: Someone from Ceiva saw this post and contacted me. Kudos to them for searching out complaints on the web. I was told that they ran some diagnostics and decided my frame needed to be replaced and that it was not a dial-in problem. When I got the new frame, the exact same problem still occurred, and when I reported this, I was back in the same circle of tech support. Shortly thereafter, I let my Ceiva account expire.

Linksys Lifesaver

I recently purchased a Linksys WET54G v3 Ethernet-to-Wireless Bridge in order to connect my LaserWriter to the home wireless network. I selected this model because of its (relatively) low price, and the promise that it is fully-configurable via a web browser interface. In other words, you don't have to use Windows to set it up.

Unfortunately, my setup experience was less than smooth. It was quite bad, in fact, and I nearly returned the bridge for a refund. The issue was that the bridge's configuration application would not respond via the web interface, nor could the Windows-only setup application find the bridge on the network. Various permutations of resetting, trying different connections, and general tech voodoo didn't help at all.

I even gritted my teeth and called Linksys technical support. Everyone I spoke with was very polite, and English-speaking (and female), but after being transferred and put on hold continuously for 40 minutes, with no actual troubleshooting in sight, I gave up in exasperation.

Then, after some creative Googling, I found this page from Ross Koning. It completely solved the problems I was having. Thank you, Ross! I hope by writing about it here I can further strengthen its Google ranking and help out some other suffering Linksys WET54G Ethernet Bridge customer. If only Linksys would have included this information in their manual!

Mac users should note, however, that this bridge won't pass AppleTalk packets. That sucks, but my LaserWriter speaks plain old IP, so it's not a showstopper for me. Other than an Airport Basestation, I'm not sure that anything bridges AppleTalk these days. If you know of such a device, please leave a comment for others to learn from. Thanks.