Wednesday, January 30, 2008

What are they thinking?

For some reason, I like office supply stores. I enjoy looking at paper, and desk caddies, and envelopes, and rubber bands, and . . . oh, yes, computers and software. And there's actually a Staples a couple of blocks from me, so I get a little exercise walking over and checking it out.

Yesterday, I was looking at the software aisle for maybe a game or something for my home computer when a couple started looking, too. They spotted one of the bargain disks and said, "Oh, there it is. PowerPoint."

Well, I figured they could use some help and pointed out that it was a disk on how to use PowerPoint, not the software itself. They told me that their daughter needed PowerPoint for school. I told them about PowerPoint, that it wasn't cheap, and discussed potential replacements.

I happened to ask what school their daughter was going to, figuring it would be a local college.

"She's in the ninth grade," they said.

I think they noticed my double-take.

Now, I can understand why a teacher might want a ninth grader to use PowerPoint: it's a program used in college and the business world, so the practice is useful. But to expect them to have access to PowerPoint is just crazy. The school does evidently have computers in their library, but don't let students use them for PowerPoint (probably for good reason: they're probably there to let students use the Internet for research). But if you're going to insist on they're having the program ($109 alone, or $129 in the most basic Office Suite), the students should have a place like a computing lab where they can use it without buying it. What if the student couldn't afford a computer at home?

I still keep shaking my head over this.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Avoiding E-mail Overload

Microsoft has put out a very good guide to help you reduce the feeling that you're getting overloaded by e-mail. The main suggestions are:
  • Slash the number of new messages by unsubscribing to e-mail lists.
  • Respond appropriately by not responding to every message.
  • Take advantage of subject lines so people don't have to read the message to know what it's about.
  • Summarize a message when forwarding and copying*
  • Be disciplined and don't check your e-mail every five minutes. It will be there for you.
  • Use e-mail tools.

The last one is the most overlooked option. Your e-mail client offers some good tools that can manage messages. For instance, I subscribe to several mailing lists. I use Outlook's Rules function to sort the messages into folders as they come in. The messages don't come into my Inbox and I don't get warnings as they arrive. Instead, when I have a moment, I check the folder.

There are also things you can do to help others. For instance, don't click the "Reply to All" button. Too often, people click this automatically, so everyone who recieved the message will also get your reply. There are very few cases where that is necessary; replying to the sender is sufficient. But if you use "Reply to All," people who weren't interested in the first message will get a second message they're not interested in. If you're discussing things among a group, then "Reply to All" makes sense, but not for general messages sent to groups. Alway use "Reply" unless you can come up with a good reason to reply to everyone.

*This is a real peeve of mine. Everyone has gotten the old "Fwd:Fwd:Fwd:Fwd:Fwd:" subject line where you have to scroll down four pages of nothing in order to get to the original forwarded message. Don't send off this sort of thing -- or, at least, delete everything except the message that you want to forward in the first place.

Friday, January 25, 2008

Registering your new games

Good news, everyone (well, not news, but it's still good): Siena does allow gaming systems like Playstation Plus, Xbox, Wii, etc. on its network. You just need to register your system and will be allowed to game online.

Some students have been having some problems registering. The issue is that the registration requires that you enter an Mac Address. This has nothing to do with Macintosh computers (though Macs do have Mac Addresses. Confused yet?). The Mac Address is a standard set of letters and numbers that uniquely identify network devices. Mac Address consist of six pairs of hexidecimal characters, usually written as separated by colons of hyphens: 01:23:45:67:89:ab ("hexidecimal" means the letters a-f are used in addition to 0-9). Each gaming device (and any network devices) is assigned a Mac Address (sometimes called a "Physical Address" -- for some reason, Microsoft doesn't like using "Mac.").

OK, the technical part is over. Let's go back to the instructions.

When you go to register your Gaming system, there are instructions on finding your Mac Address at the top left of the page.

Click on the name of your device for instructions on how to find the information.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Preparing to Switch

Eventually, Office 2007 will replace Office 2003. I've talked about it before and gave some suggestions about the differences. And I've just discovered something that will make the transition easier.

But first, as is my wont, a little history. I wrote previously about Lotus 1-2-3 and how Microsoft had to work to detrone it as the standard spreadsheet. One of Microsoft's techniques was to let you type in Lotus commands and have Excel translate them and give you a quick demo of how to do it in Excel. Soon users learned the new commands and had very little downtime.

Microsoft is doing something similar with the Word 2007 demo. They have both a web-based and downloadable Flash presentation that shows what a give Word 2003 command looks like in Word 2007. The short clip below shows how it works. I've chosen the "Headers and Footers" command, since it's one of the least logically located one in Word 2003.

Blogger made this display too small to use. To see the full-size demo, go to the demo link. (Requires Windows Media Player)

You can find the online demo at and the downloadable demo at It's actualy kind of fun, and a nice reference (Tip: You can download the downloadable version and it will work nicely on your computer. Very easy install: only one file.)


Rene Molineaux here at I&TS has pointed out that Microsoft has similar interactive demos for all the Office 2007 products. A full list can be found on their website.

Friday, January 18, 2008

What the heck is Document Writer?

This occasionally pops up on your computer when you want to print. Instead of a printer, you'll see "Microsoft XPS Document Writer." You may not even notice it until you are asked to specify a file name and location. So what is this?

Both a problem and an opportunity.

The problem: Document Writer is the default printer for all Windows XP/Vista computers. If you're suddenly printing to it, it means that for some reason, your default printer is unavailable. Either it has been uninstalled, the settings for the default printer have been changed, or it was mapped properly on your computer. For most computers, you can check your printers to make sure the correct one is listed as your default (on the list of printers, right click on the printer and select "Set as Default Printer").

If installing the printer as the default doesn't work, contact I&TS about your printer mappings.

As an opportunity, since XPS is on all XP/Vista computers, you can use it to create documents for other users, even if they don't have the same software as you do. This works in the same way Adobe Acrobat does, except that you don't have to install anything to read the document -- it's read in Internet Explorer.

Mac users will need to install Adobe Acrobat 8.1, which reads XPS files.

This can be a great quick tool for sharing documents, especially if the recipient doesn't have the same software, and you don't have Adobe Acrobat or PDF creation software. (Office 2007 has a "Save as .pdf" add-in, so you probably won't need to use Document Writer if you've switched over.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Life in ITS

Sometimes a simple request turns out to be hours of work. For instance, a few days ago, I was asked to install some software on a staff member's computer. No big deal -- faculty/staff computers are managed so that we can make sure there are no conflicts or issues. So I went to try.

Then things got complicated. The software kept putting up an error message when it was run. It took a bit of work to figure out the cause: we redirect some items routinely, and the software was not doing it right. We got this error:

You do begin to doubt software where they misspell "preferences." In any case, we had to search until we found the root of the problem was the file redirection (if you don't know what that means, it doesn't matter -- just something we use around here). We were able to get things to run if the user wasn't redirected, and luckily, the person who was installing the software could log in with an account where redirection wasn't used.
Then he dropped the news: this was for a class, and they wanted it on a bunch of lab machines, in order to teach the students how to use it. And, of course, we don't give students administrative privileges on the lab machines; student accounts also have that redirect, so it wasn't going to work for them.
So our plan was to install this in a lab, and then create an account that didn't redirect and have the students log in with that. Clunky, but it will work. So I spent the morning installing the software.
As I was doing so, I asked how many students in the class. And the answer came back.
Well, I installed the software on eight computers and sat back to deal with setting up the new account.
Over lunch, I got an email from the software company. I'd been asking them a few questions, and they told me that they had a beta version of the software that solved the problem, and they would let us download us. Good solution.
Only I had to uninstall the old version and install the beta version. It seems to be working, but the entire project took me and one other person a total of about six hours of work.
Just one more adventure in the exciting world of I&TS.

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

New Office

Office 2007 is coming (actually, it's already here, but Siena hasn't adopted it quite yet).

I'm pretty impressed with the program. Items are designed in a fairly logical manner, and are simpler to find. Fewer mouse clicks. In addition, there are some really nice formatting options.

Microsoft has put together a nice quick demo of some of the changes*. The most obvious difference is the menu. You don't have the same options you've gotten used to in the past decade. Instead, there is a "ribbon" that gives far more options than previously. Instead of trying to remember what menu to click to display what you want, you can very often see it without clicking.

Most confusing is the Office Button. It's a little button at the upper left of the screen that leads you to the type of options you see on the file menu. Since it looks like a design element and not something to click on, people are going to find it hard to find things at first.

I also wonder why they don't put a print button on the top menu. You can add it manually, but normally you have to click an extra time to print.

But these aren't deal killers. They'll cause confusion at first, but after a little time working with the program, people will get the hang of them.

Here's a nice description of the differences between Office 2003 and 2007 (pdf). If you want to test out Office 2007, log on to Citrix (either through Program Neighborhood or via the web) and try it out.

*Though I wish they wouldn't sound so enthusastic about how the software changes they way they work; most people like the way the currently work and would prefer not to change, even if the result is better.

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

My Third Computer

My third computer was probably a GE-235 Information Processing System. I say "probably," because by the time I used it (at Union College in Schenenctady), GE had sold its computing business to Honeywell. But the picture looks something like what I remembered.

This was the computer you saw in 60s movies about computers; the closest thing to it in a more modern movie was WOPR in WarGames. The big difference was that there were no flashing lights, the one feature Hollywood set designers thought were on all computers.

Most of the memory was from tape drives (the other element of Hollywood computers). There was also something I hadn't known of before: a disk drive. The disks were about three feet across and made of some brown plastic-looking material. I have no idea of their capacity (there was an array of about five of them), but if the held a Meg, I'd be surprised.

Input was by punch cards. We were told never to call them "IBM Cards," since IBM looked askance at that sort of trademark infringement (they probably don't care now). The cards were the size of an old dollar (not the ones in your wallet right now -- an inch or so bigger on each side). You ran them through a card punch -- a typewriter keyboard that took a blank card and punched holes in patterns according to the letter you chose.

I learned some programming on these: BASIC and later FORTRAN. Every card was one line of the program and if you made a typo, you might have to discard the card (though there were tricks to change the mistyped character into something that the card reader would ignore).

After you typed your pile of cards, you put it into a bin. One of the advanced Computer Science students would run it and put the printed out resulted (18" tractor feed paper with pale green strips). If your program ran, you could hand it in. If it didn't (which was likely the case), you'd retype the cards that contained errors and tried again.

Of course, a setup like this was primarily for programming; Word Processing, Spreadsheets, and any function of a modern computer just didn't work. I would also guess that the computer you are using right now has more memory and more storage space that the roomful of equipment back in the early 70s.

But if you wanted to be on the cutting edge back then, this was it.

Friday, January 4, 2008

Software Graveyard: Lotus 1-2-3

For month after month, year after year, Lotus 1-2-3 was the best selling software program. If you ran a business, or if you had to keep track of finanaces, it was the first thing you put on your computer after DOS.

Lotus wasn't the first spreadsheet -- VisiCalc came first -- but it quickly became the most popular. It was relatively easy to use and by far the industry standard.

One interesting feature of Lotus was the slash key. Instead of pressing a function key* to activate what are now menu fuctions, you pressed slash to bring up the menu, and could use the arrow keys to move around.

The most annoying feature of Lotus -- at least, until it was fixed -- was that you could quit without saving your work. Slash and Q would get you right out of the program. And if you hadn't saved things first, they were gone. This probably caused as much cursing as any software invented. By version 3, you would get a warning, but before that, make sure you saved.

Also, Lotus didn't like to be on a hard drive. There was a strict copy protection scheme. First, you couldn't do it at all without cracking it. Then, they set up a system where you transferred Lotus from the disk, erasing it, as you copied it to the hard drive (this was common back in that era). But you still had to keep the original disk: Lotus would look for it on startup. If it wasn't in the A: drive, Lotus wouldn't run.

What happened to Lotus? Windows 3.1. They never got how it worked; the first versions of Lotus for Windows were still using keyboard controls instead of using the mouse. Microsoft also pushed Excel, and designed it so that Lotus users could easily adapt, including an automatic translator that would turn Lotus commands into Excel ones so you wouldn't lose effieciency while learning. Lotus took at long time to get their version 4 up and running on Windows.

They also wasted time with their integrated "Symphony" program, which was supposedly a word processor, spreadsheet, and database all in one. I think that integrated programs got the short shrift -- they probably would have worked just fine for most people's uses instead of a suite of features you don't use -- but Symphony was just a Lotus spreadsheet where you could type in text and have rudimentary word processing functions. It was even in the same file format (if you changed the extension)!

Lotus was eventually bought out by IBM, not for 1-2-3, which by then was dying, but for Lotus Notes, a nice bit of hypeware that was going to change the way we did business. Notes was both an e-mail client and a "database" -- a confusing use of the term, since it was nothing like a database. The Notes database was more like a message board. The idea was the people would collaborate on projects via computer. The idea is still "hot" in computing, but still hasn't caught on.

In any case, 1-2-3 is now part of Lotus Smartsuite, so it's really not dead, but Smartsuite isn't really all that popular. And compared to the way Lotus was all over back in the mid-80s, it's certainly taken a big fall.

*F1-F10 were used in the DOS days to activate what are now menu functions. F11 and F12 were added about the time Windows was replacing DOS and the function keys became obsolete. When was the last time you touched one?

Thursday, January 3, 2008

Software Graveyard: The Death of a Pioneer

Last Friday, AOL announced it was ending its support for (i.e., putting an end to) the Netscape web browser. I doubt many people will be affected by the news; no one is using Netscape any more.

But not so long ago, Netscape was the web browser. It was the first in general use that displayed graphics. Old timers like me might remember Lynx, which did let you look at web pages, but not graphics. That didn't matter much, since you were connecting with a 2400 baud modem and graphics took ages to load.
But Netscape made web browsing attractive. It turned it from the abode of geeks to an experience that everyone can enjoy. Its interface was what all web browsers emulate, with the Home, Back, Forward, and Reload buttons still an integral part of any web browser. It used the term "Bookmarks" to mark web pages.

Doesn't look so different, does it?

It's hard to imagine that Netscape once had 90% of the web browser market. However, they fell victim to Microsoft deciding to give away Internet Explorer (odd as it seems now, but Netscape used to ask people to pay to use their software). Suddenly, there was competition, and if MSIE wasn't quite as good, it was good enough, especially at the price. Netscape had to give away their product, and without the resources of Microsoft, was not the same technically.

Several different business models were tried, but eventually Netscape was purchased by AOL in 1999. And AOL quite rightly decided to get out of the browser business. Netscape was down to less than 1% the browser market in 2004, and just could not compete with Firefox, Opera, or Safari.

The road is littered with software that went from being ubiquitous to forgotten: Lotus 1-2-3, Harvard Graphics, Wordstar, MultiMate, and many others. I'll be talking about them from time to time. But Netscape was a major player and important milestone in the creation of the World Wide Web, and its passing deserves note.

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

We're baack!

The holiday break is over at Siena, and we're back to work.

It went pretty well. Nothing crashed (at least, not too badly) and few calls/e-mails to the helpdesk. Now, I&TS has a little time to get ready for the Spring term.

We're taking the weeks between classes to upgrade some of the computers in the labs. We've started in Hines 116; computers there now have upgraded memory, LCD monitors, and new desks (for some). Here's what they look like:

A few new things about the setup:

  • The keyboard and mouse are in a drawer.
  • The monitor is recessed to give you a full desktop to work on.
  • There's a cable to plug in your USB device like a flash drive. No need to crawl around underneath.
  • There's also a cable for Internet connection. You can plug in your laptop and be able to go on the network.
  • Computers can't use these new cables to print documents.

We'll be putting this setup in other labs in the next few weeks.