Archive for 2005

Brain Storm

Published on November 11, 2005

I have had a number of unrelated ideas lately, all of which I’ll share:

  • I’m thinking about upgrading my processor and motherboard. Some of the latest games (the Lost Coast demo for example) have really shown a bottleneck in that region. I have no idea what to upgrade to, however. Suggestions are welcome.
  • I hope to get a new build of Googlebar Lite out soon.
  • I also hope to put together a downloadable version of my toolbar tutorial. After that is done, I’ll begin work on the next incarnation of said tutorial (which should be a big improvement).
  • This weekend, I’m going to begin playing with Movable Type. My ultimate goal is to move the main Born Geek website away from hand-coding, which would be very convenient for me. I may provide some links to my testing, so that you can see what’s going on.
  • The Lost Coast demo for Half-Life 2 has inspired me to play through the game again. I’m approximately 2/3 of the way through, and am enjoying every minute of it.

RC2 Available

Published on November 10, 2005

As Asa indicates, Firefox release candidate 2 is now available (at least through the auto-update feature in Firefox).

The Importance of Background Color

Published on November 9, 2005

Many websites use an image as the background of a page element (take the header of this website, for example). And all too often, those websites do not provide a corresponding background color to go along with that image. Take, for example, the games section of Slashdot. The purple background for each headline is an image. In order for the headline text to be readable on this background, the text color is set to white. The following rules are used in the corresponding CSS file (the image URL has been chopped for formatting reasons):

.generaltitle h3
{
    margin: 0;
    padding: .3em .8em .2em .8em;
    color: #fff;
}

#slashboxes h4, .article h3, .generaltitle h3
{
    background: url(<path>) repeat-x;
    padding: .3em 0;
}

Note that no background color has been specified for the h3 element. What is the effect of this omission? If images are disabled, we end up with white text on a white background, rendering the page illegible! “But who would turn images off?” you ask. People on dial-up may turn them off (to speed up download times). Some low-vision users may also turn them off, to prevent distracting backgrounds (and presumably improve text contrast). And keep in mind that the image file may be corrupted, or the server that actually serves up the images (if they are located separately from the site content) may go down, causing images to be inaccessible. Regardless, a specified background color would fix this problem. The image would override the color (when images are available and enabled), but the color would get used when images are disabled.

If you ever develop a website, and you use images to specify a certain region, make sure that you also specify a corresponding background color. Web users the world over will thank you for it.

Home Improvement

Published on November 6, 2005

Nearly 40 days ago, my family and I moved to a new house. And sadly, there are still boxes nearly everywhere you look. But we’re definitely a long way from where we started. Most everything major has been repaired, and several exciting new features are coming this week: our backup generator and wood-pellet stove.

Just tonight, I actually got around to unpacking a couple of boxes in my room (something I’ve been horribly negligent about). I just counted, and was shocked to learn that I still have 13 boxes left to open! Fortunately, the majority of them are in my sister’s room (which isn’t being used). With any luck, I can make more progress on the unpacking front this week. Most of the remaining stuff will go through the following decision making process:

  1. Is the item in question something I need to keep? Yes: keep it. No: proceed to 2.
  2. Is the item valuable enough (and in good enough condition) to auction off on eBay? Yes: auction the item off. No: proceed to 3.
  3. Can the item live somewhere else? Probably not, so proceed to 4.
  4. Throw item away.

Lost Coast

Published on November 5, 2005

I recently downloaded the tech-demo level Lost Coast for Half-Life 2, and all I can say is … wow! This level is a fantastic piece of work. The game play isn’t anything new (you fight a few Combine soldiers, those ultra-freaky head-crabs, and a Combine gunship), but the technology behind the level is simply amazing. The high dynamic range (HDR) lighting is stunningly gorgeous; it makes the HDR technology in Serious Sam 2 look like something a child came up with. The effect is surprisingly effective, and it adds an incredible amount of realism to an already excellent game.

Half-Life 2 is one of only two games released in the past several years that really impressed me with its graphics capability (the other game being Far Cry). Half-Life 2 just feels real. And HDR only makes it more so. The wet sand on the beach in the Lost Coast level is truly dramatic, as is the lighting in the monastery. Also, the new character (the old fisherman) is so well done … you just have to see it to believe it! Be warned that you need some serious horse-power to play the level in all its glory: an ATI x800 or NVIDIA 6800 (or better), 1GB of RAM, and a 2.9 P4 or AMD 3000+. My processor (at 2.8 GHz) is a little under-powered, but got the job done beautifully thanks to my 6800 GT.

The in-game commentary system is also an excellent addition. It was cool to hear the thoughts of the developers, why they chose to do some things and not others, as well as what technical challenges they faced. Hopefully they will include this feature in future games. All I can say is that I simply cannot wait for the Aftermath expansion; I’ve got to have more HDR!

Fixing the JavaScript Console

Published on November 4, 2005

For those who don’t already know, the JavaScript console is one of the greatest tools built in to Firefox. It makes finding JavaScript errors a breeze, and can be a life-saver for extension developers. Unfortunately, the console has become rather bloated in Firefox 1.5. Not only do JavaScript errors appear, but now CSS errors (which are way more likely to appear on various websites) are also logged. This results in a terribly cluttered console, making it hard to find what you’re looking for.

Thankfully, I was recently pointed to the Console2 extension (which only works in Firefox 1.5). This extension makes it possible to filter out CSS errors, in addition to a number of other great features. It smartly renames JavaScript Console to Error Console (CSS != JavaScript), and is an excellent light-weight solution to the bloat added in 1.5.

Unintended Audience

Published on November 3, 2005

In looking at my site statistics this morning, I noticed that my previous post on Google and OpenOffice actually made it to NewsForge. That was surprising to me (albeit a pleasant one), but I certainly didn’t expect such a wide audience for my thoughts on the matter. Had I expected such a turnout, I would have put a little more thought into the post before actually publishing it. As such, I’d like to clarify a few of the points I made.

My ultimate point was that, in my opinion, the office application battleground is likely to see more cut-throat action in the short term than operating systems are. I certainly cannot support this claim with fact. But operating systems seem to me to be a much more difficult problem to solve, simply because they are bigger, more complex beasts. As a result, it seems like it would simply take longer to create an excellent OS than it would an excellent application.

I also believed I oversimplified my stance on the Linux community. The points made by Greg Raiz in his recent article on Linux are exactly how I feel. Linux is certainly poised to encroach on Microsoft’s territory. But desktop users need to have a reason to want to switch. As Mr. Raiz pointed out, a unified environment, where there’s One Way to do things, would appeal to many people (particularly “newbies”). Apple was heading down that very road before they made the switch to a UNIX base.

A unified environment, where the user interface paradigm is the exact same for every application would be awfully appealing. I would certainly consider switching to such a solution. I want Linux to succeed. The more developers can weaken Microsoft’s iron grip on the market, the better the universe will be for everyone. But there’s a long road to ride down before we reach that point. Let’s get to work!

Greg’s Linux Thoughts

Published on November 2, 2005

There’s a story over at Slashdot that points to an article written by Greg Raiz, a former Microsoft employee and user-interface designer. In it, he discusses what’s wrong with Linux, and how Linux can catch up (and perhaps surpass) Windows. His points not only hit the nail on the head, they drive the nail into the board.

Unfortunately, but not surprisingly, a number of Linux fanatics are doing nothing but whine in the article’s comments. This only illustrates Greg’s point even further. Operating systems are no more than religion. You have your beliefs; I have mine. And just like with actual religion, it turns out to be rather difficult to convert people to your point of view.

Firefox 1.5 Release Candidate 1

Published on November 1, 2005

The first release candidate for Firefox 1.5 has just been released. Exciting times! I’m thinking about trashing my default profile (gasp!) and starting fresh for 1.5. Recreating my profile will take some time, but I think it will be worthwhile in the long run.

In semi-related news, I hope to have Googlebar Lite 3.1 available very soon (I’m only waiting on one more translation), so 1.5 RC 1 users can continue using GBL. CoLT should be upgraded soon as well.

Google and OpenOffice Sitting in a Tree

Published on October 31, 2005

So apparently, Google is hiring programmers to work on OpenOffice. Microsoft has to feel threatened at the online search giant’s latest move in the office document arena. Google is the one company that Microsoft simply cannot figure out. And I couldn’t be any happier to see the folks up in Redmond sweat just a little. For too long they’ve been the bully on the playground. But a new kid has come to town, and he’s beginning to look a little bigger than ever.

I don’t have any facts on the matter, but Office has to be one of Microsoft’s largest revenue generators. To have someone announce that they will offer a competitive solution, for free, is quite an obstacle. And it’s Google’s way in to several markets which Microsoft has owned since what feels like the dawn of time. This will certainly be the first arena where Microsoft will face true pressure. Lots of people claim that Linux is a threat to Windows, but that’s just not true (at least not yet). The Linux world is too fragmented. There are too many flavors, everyone has his favorite, and no one wants to try another one. Until the Linux community can get that particular act together (not to mention the ease of use factor), the office application arena will be the main battlefield. And I’m glad to see another player has finally joined the game.

The whole thing should be interesting to watch. I question whether Sun’s involvement will doom the project (seeing as Sun has doomed virtually everything else they ever touched), but perhaps Google’s brains can prevent such a catastrophe. I, for one, salute our (hopefully soon to be) office application overlords.

FF RC 1

Published on October 30, 2005

According to Asa, this Wednesday might be “ship day” for the first Firefox 1.5 release candidate. Once it’s released, I think I’m going to replace 1.0.7 with RC1 as my primary browser. The beta releases weren’t nearly as stable as I wish they had been (I unsuccessfully tried switching to them shortly after their release), but the latest nightly builds have seemed very stable. All of the new features and bug fixes in 1.5 make it awfully hard to pass up.

Star Light, Star Bright

Published on October 29, 2005

One of the greatest things about our new house is the lack of light pollution at night. I’ve seen more stars here at this house than anywhere else I’ve ever been. Our last house was located in the land of cul-de-sacs, and all of the lighting made it nearly impossible to see dim objects. We were, however, able to see a number of fairly bright objects including the International Space Station, the MIR space station (before it crashed into the Earth), and the Hubble Space Telescope. All of this was thanks to Heavens-Above, an awesome website that helps you figure out when and where to look for satellites (and other celestial events).

I stepped outside tonight for a few moments and saw a total of three meteors crashing into Earth’s atmosphere. That’s something I never would have seen at our other house. Sometimes, it’s good to be in the dark.

High Dollar Wares

Published on October 28, 2005

There’s a fair amount of software that I’d like to buy, but every single product has a ridiculously high price tag. First on my list is Adobe Photoshop CS2. Retail price tag: $599. I have Photoshop 5.5 (a truly ancient beast), and I don’t think the upgrade (only $149) supports versions that old. My dad could buy it at the academic price (since he’s a professor), but the license is listed as “basic”; what exactly does that mean?

Next up is SlickEdit: retail price of $284. There’s no doubt this is a great editor (although a tad on the bloated side, one might say), but the price used to be $99! What’s up with that? I’m not sure any programming editor (regardless of how great it is) is worth three Benjamin’s.

Finally, there’s Dreamweaver 8. The upgrade edition (which is the route I would take) is $199. Two hundred dollars for an upgrade? Proof positive that Adobe does in fact own Macromedia.

All of the aforementioned products are great, but are they hundreds of dollars great? That’s an incredible hard call to make. It’s going to take a lot of thought before I drop that much money on something that consists of nothing but 1’s and 0’s.

Content Management Woes

Published on October 27, 2005

I recently stated that I was looking at adding site search capability to Born Geek. And I have indeed been looking, but the solutions I have been able to find are (at least on the surface) somewhat lacking. As such, I have been giving a great deal of thought to moving Born Geek to a more automated content management system.

This blog is powered by WordPress (a great piece of software by the way), which is geared more towards dynamic web content. Seeing as the majority of Born Geek’s web content is static, I don’t think WordPress is the best fit. I have spent some time looking at potential solutions, but it’s so hard to decide what would best fit my needs. I definitely want something that produces well structured XHTML markup, using CSS for the presentation (web-standards are a must). Perhaps Movable Type is a decent solution, but it’s not free (although a free-version is available). Does anyone have any suggestions?

Going Once, Going Twice

Published on October 24, 2005

I occasionally watch any number of items up for auction at eBay (most recently, they’ve all been auctions for Prince Valiant books). And, almost as frequently, I forget to actually bid on the items I’m watching. This happened just today as I was watching five separate auctions, all of which ended this evening. When I left work, I reminded myself to check the items once I got home. Several hours after I actually got home, and well after the items had closed, I remembered my reminder to myself.

I would eventually like to write some sort of Perl script that would do the bidding for me. But, unfortunately, this would involve HTML scraping (the eBay API doesn’t support bidding, for obvious reasons). Such a script would involve a little more work than I’m willing to put into it at the moment, although it would be a neat project to work on. If you know of any (preferably free) services that automatically bid, let me know.

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I Like DreamHost (You Should Too)

Published on October 19, 2005

Nearly one year ago, after a substantial amount of research on the subject, I chose the nice folks at DreamHost to fulfill my web-hosting needs. Having never previously paid for web hosting service (my sites were always hosted for free at various places), I had no idea what to expect. Most everything I read was positive, and they had all the features I needed to bring Born Geek to life. Plus, their prices were (and still are) very reasonable – as low as $7.95 a month!

Now, nearly one year in, I can say with confidence that I am glad I chose to go with DreamHost. Since I signed up with them, they have increased the offerings on my hosting plan, at no cost to me. The changes include:

  • A gigantic increase in disk quota (I started out with between 1 and 2 GB, and I now have 5.7 GB of available space)
  • An increase in my monthly bandwidth allotment (it started at 40 GB/month and is now 162 GB/month)
  • Nearly double the number of available user accounts and email accounts
  • The number of sub-domains and domains I can host has become unlimited

To celebrate this (nearly) one year anniversary, I have created a promotional code which allows me to share my rewards with you. If you sign up with DreamHost, use the promotional code borngeek to get a discounted price. With it, you will save a total of $47.00 on whatever plan you choose, with the exception of the monthly L1, L2, and L3 plans (on which you will save $25.00, $30.00, and $40.00 respectively). A new promotional code has been activated as of January 11, 2006, allowing you to save even more! Be sure to check it out.

This little promotion is just one way I can say thank you to everyone who visits this site. If you are looking for a great web host, look no further than DreamHost. I have been incredibly impressed with their service, and I’m sure you will be as well.

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My Impressions of Serious Sam 2

Published on October 17, 2005

I picked up Serious Sam 2 yesterday for three reasons: to celebrate my new monitor, to continue the Serious Sam saga, and to support a developer who is willing to do something original. Having only played the game for a few hours, I cannot comment on much. But I would like to comment on what I’ve seen so far.

First on this discussion list is the graphics engine. I’ve been impressed with what I’ve seen for one reason: it’s original. No, the locales don’t look like something you’d see in real life, but that’s the point. This is a fictitious story about a fictitious character in a fictitious universe. The cartoon-like aspect of the game lends itself well to this formula. Everything is well rendered and the enemies are definitely over-the-top (as they should be).

I was glad to see that the humor in the Serious Sam universe has been retained. Several of the early cut-scenes are funny, and a number of jokes occur throughout the early levels. Unfortunately, there a few low-brow jokes, undoubtedly to satiate the teenage demographic. But (at least so far) these have been few and far between. All of the fun-filled secrets are still around (some of which are fairly difficult to locate), as are the Sam one-liners (which certainly provide a laugh).

All of this good comes at a price, however. The game has crashed on me twice (even with the patch installed), the user interface is still too “console oriented,” and the weapons don’t seem quite as fun as the original. Levels are much smaller than the original (although they are much larger than the demo level), and there don’t seem to be as many enemies this time around. I really enjoyed the frantic pace of having to deal with several hundred enemies at once; here we only get a handful (or two) of enemies at a time.

I still have a ways to go in the game, and I’m looking forward to completing it. The human-hamster ball is worth the price of admission alone (best original vehicle ever!) and the humor makes it all the more worthwhile.

Giddy as a School Girl

Published on October 15, 2005

Yesterday, I received my NEC FE2111SB 22″ CRT monitor from Azatek.com, and I finally got a chance to set it up this morning. What a beauty! The monitor was listed as “not exactly new” on Azatek’s web page. I have found only two flaws with the monitor: the face plate is lightly scratched (you have to be looking for it to see it) and one of the buttons on the front plate is indented (it looks like it’s stuck in the depressed position, but the button is completely functional – it’s just cosmetically out of line with the others). Both of these items are minor; I think they give the monitor “character”.

I only have good things to say about Azatek. I placed my order last weekend (on Friday morning) and was assured that it would be mailed that day. When I received notification from UPS that it had not been mailed, I contacted Azatek’s customer service. They promptly replied via email, stating that the monitor was not able to fit in that day’s UPS shipment (the box this thing came in is gigantic, and apparently the UPS truck was full of other packages). My monitor was sent out first thing Monday morning, and got here (via UPS ground) yesterday. The monitor was extremely well packaged (these folks really know what they are doing) and it’s in awesome shape! If you’re in the market for a CRT, check Azatek out. I was pleasantly surprised by their fast, friendly service. And the low, low price of $337.80 (that includes shipping) didn’t hurt either!

Zen Micro: Three Months In

Published on October 11, 2005

Over three months ago, I purchased a Creative Zen Micro MP3 player. And at the time, I commented on my initial impressions, all of which were favorable. Now that I have had sufficient time to play with it, I’d like to post a follow-up to that earlier article, expanding upon those initial impressions.

On the whole, I still adore this little device. I use it nearly every day at work and I have taken it on a trip or two. Because the Micro is indeed rather tiny, it makes the perfect traveling companion (no more CD wallet and bulky CD player). And with 5 GB of storage, I can take most of my music with me wherever I go. My Zen Micro currently holds 61 albums (851 tracks) and there is nearly 2 GB of available space left!

The battery life is quite good; I can listen to music at work for two days before I need to charge it. However, I am rather conservative on battery usage, so your mileage may vary (I only ever let it get down to one bar left on the battery indicator). One of these days, I should let it run all the way down to see how far I can go.

I mentioned in my earlier report that the Zen’s ear buds were a little too large for my ears. I have since obtained a pair of Sony buds which hang over your ears. They sound great (although the bass is weaker than the Creative buds) and they don’t fall out so easily.

Creative has certainly done a great job with the Zen Micro. Although I haven’t tried all of its features yet (I still need to give the AM/FM radio a go), it has served me quite well. If you are in the market for an MP3 player, I highly recommend this one from Creative. You won’t be disappointed.

Accessibility Improvements

Published on October 10, 2005

It has recently occurred to me that Born Geek is lacking in several web accessible areas (Year of the Code Monkey is not without its share of similar problems). Because I still develop the Born Geek website by hand (old school!), it lacks the most common feature available in automated web-generation systems: site search functionality. The only way users can currently search Born Geek is to perform a site search at Google. How tragic! I am currently looking at two Perl-based site search scripts, and I hope to implement one of them in the very near future.

One other area that needs some updating is the site contact form. I am currently not making use of the <label> tag, which would greatly improve the accessibility of the form. Not only would screen-readers be a little happier, but users could click a control’s associated label to set the keyboard focus (instead of having to actually click inside of the control).

Are there any other blatant mistakes I’m making as far as accessibility goes? If so, let me know about it!

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