| Introduction | Spring-Cleaning | Plugsy | Book Review | In Brief | Resources |
Last month I said, "The Web sites that excite me tend to have been created with powerful programs like JavaSoft Java or Macromedia Director/Shockwave." Having just finished the great catharsis known as spring-cleaning, Iím surprised to see whatís leftover in my bookmarks. Iíll tell you about that as well as a plug-in manager, a newly published book that is just possibly about you, and several brief book reviews.
Itís that time of year again. Time to dust away the cobwebs, turn the mattresses, clean the venetian blinds, sweep the porch, beat the rugs (outdoors, please), vacuum the carpets, and clean the computer. This is a good time to crack open the case (metaphorically speaking) and dust it out, reseat the cards, and clean the fan vents. More significantly, this would be a good time to go through your hard disk and clear out the excess garbage. Once youíve recovered some disk space and defragmented your hard disk itíll feel like a kid again. While youíre at it, look at your email, cache and temporary Internet file folders. On my system I have about 40 MB cached (almost 3,000 files) and a whopping 70 MB of email files. Zounds! Do I need all this? Actually, all that isnít so bad as it doesnít affect my productivityóI think. What really got to me the other day was looking for something in my bookmarks or favorites. Oh, having two lists is dandy. Canít these guys get together and share a common file? Anyway, the choice was clear. Either clean it out or write a search engine. I cleaned.
I attacked this chore with great vigor (slash and burn) and recklessness (working without a net or a backup), and when the bloodletting was done and the dust settled there was very little leftóalthough still probably about twice as much as I need.
Iím going to tell about some of the survivors, although at great personal risk. I realize that my bookmarks and favorites, or yours or anybody elseís, reveal about as much about our personalities as do the lines on our palms. Nevertheless, here we go.
Learn2.com contains an eclectic collection of "2torials" or "how-tos" from shaving (faces or legs), to tire care, to avoiding junk mail, to finding a nanny, and on and on. These cleverly written and illustrated pieces are presented on well-designed pages and are full of sound advice. I donít mind telling you that Iíve taken a lot of these tutorials seriously and have accordingly changed the way I do some things (including shaving).
The Tide Stain Detective remained as well. Yup, everybody spills food and all kinds of other junk on their clothes, and this is where you can find out exactly how to remove any kind of spot from any type of fabric. Not as exciting as a trip to Cybertown, but quite possibly more useful.
I like movies, and this is reflected in the surviving links. To find out whatís playing where, I always turn to MovieLink: 777-Film. Here you can type in your zip code and search for movies by theater, film name, or show time. I believe that Cinemania Online has a similar facility but Iím not as familiar with it. As for what to see, I usually make my decisions based on the movie trailers but I can be persuaded or dissuaded from seeing a film based on reviews. I usually watch Siskel & Ebert on television, but if I miss the show I can hear the full audio clips of all the reviews at Siskel and Ebert Online. You can also catch their reviews in the Chicago Tribune and the Chicago Sun-Times, respectively. I keep these links handy in my bookmarks as well.
I read a great deal, too, but unfortunately there are no trailers for books. And sometimes I get tired of, not to mention disgusted with, some of the authors whom I read regularly. I canít even begin to tell you how disappointing the most recent books by Scott Turow, Michael Crichton, and Patricia Cornwell were. Thatís when I know itís time to reach for the New York Times Book Review to find something new. Besides the current issue, usually containing about 50 book reviews and articles, the site contains an archive going back several years and an effective search engine to boot. This is an invaluable resource for readers.
The Hale-Bopp (Comet) Magazine has been in existence for over a year, even before Hyakutake was discovered, and continues to provide interesting information about new data and interpretations of the cometís behavior, albeit at a slower pace than a few months ago. I doubt this site will survive the next purge, however.
Toiletology 101 boasts "A Complete Course in Toilet Training" or "Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Your Toilets! And some things you probably never knew you needed to know." Letís face it, s--t happens. This is where to go to get it fixed. Who knows? It may spare you from an expensive repair bill.
Of course I kept Search.com in my bookmarks. Itís my personal favorite for access to all the major and minor search engines and directories to be found on the Web. Itís my one-stop shopping spot. [Note added in proof: Since this review of Search.com was written, the site has been radically changed. It appears that c|net sold its search page to various private (read: big-money) interests and is no longer a viable general-purpose search tool. I can no longer recommend it. If you have any suggestions, let me know!]
The Gadget Guru Online is Andy Parghís online home. Perhaps youíve seen him on the weekday or weekend "Today Show" on NBC. This is an extensive site with reviews of all manner of electrical and mechanical gadgets from computers and peripherals to vacuum cleaners to automobiles. I keep it handy so I can follow up on some of his television reports.
Finally, I keep "everyday" links such as Whatís New on Yahoo, The Dilbert Zone and Callahan Online handy, as well as some personal links for my hobbies, work, and software drivers. Basically, itís so easy to find a company online that it hardly pays to take up valuable space in your bookmarks with something like "http://www.companyname.com/" because in Netscape you can just type "companyname" in the location box and youíll get there.
Well, I feel better now that my system has been purged. (NetLax, anyone?) Do I worry that thereís something Iíll need again? Nah. Besides, nature abhors a vacuum and Iím sure the bookmarks and favorites will soon be bursting at the seams again.
Digigami Plugsy is a comprehensive plug-in manager for Netscape Navigator. Plugsy eliminates conflicts between different plug-ins by allowing you to select plug-ins on a case-by-case basis. For example, you could use one audio/video plug-in to play your video files and another to handle your sound files. Without Plugsy many plug-ins will simply not coexist.
Plugsy opens a small window on your desktop with a list of all your plug-ins by MIME-type, along with the name of the library file by which it is handled. Plugsy allows you to "disconnect" the MIME-type, remove it, or change the plug-in by which it is handled. It will also provide you with a pop-up Window with plug-in information including the name, description, version number, vendor, and MIME-types handled by it.
Plugsy is an interesting product worthy of your attention if you have lots of plug-ins. It costs only $30 and can be ordered online from Digigami, or you can download a 30-day trial version for nothing. Try itóyouíll like it. While youíre there, check out Digigamiís other interesting products such as CineWeb, their all-in-one audio-visual plug-in that handles four types of video files (QuickTime, AVI, MPEG, and Autodesk Animator) and three types of audio files (MPEG, WAV, and MIDI).
Naked in Cyberspace
In 1949 George Orwell painted a chilling picture of a totalitarian state whose authorities exercise mind control in his novel, 1984, and popularized the expression "Big Brother is Watching You." Well, let me tell you, Big Brother isnít the only one. Your employer, your creditors, your paramours, even the kid next door may be watching. How is this possible? Well, itís a consequence of the proliferation of databases from various sources that track your life from cradle to grave and are largely available online or on CD-ROM.
Just what kind of information is available online? Well, what would you like to know about someone? Oh, yeah. And what are you willing to let them know about you? Oh.
Naked in Cyberspace by Carole A. Lane (Pemberton Press, $30) takes an objective look at the business of personal information gathering. The book is subtitled "How to Find Personal Information Online," but I found that itís somewhat more than that. I think it serves as a guide to finding many other kinds of information online as well. I received an advance copy of this important and unique book as I was preparing this monthís column, and I put everything else aside so I could get a review into print right away. The book should be on store bookshelves by the time you read this.
The author contends that there is very little she cannot find out about you online, just starting with your name and address, and that this information is available to anyone with a computer and modem. Of course, this is a two-edged sword. The same databases you might use to look up an old friend, lost relatives, or family genealogy may be used by others for malevolent, malicious, or mischievous purposes. Thus, it behooves you to find out the extent of your exposure in cyberspace, as well as to learn how you may put all this information to your own good use.
Itís hard to know where to begin describing this book. There are three main sections comprising over 30 chapters covering an introduction to personal records in cyberspace, how personal records are used, and types of personal records. A fourth section describes where to find more information (books, periodicals, and organizations), and 15 extensive appendices list many, many kinds of databases and where to find them.
I spent several hours reading random sections of the book and found interesting, sometimes compelling, information throughout. This book will serve you well, both as a tutorial and a reference work, and I highly recommend it. The publisher is also providing a Web site with links to appropriate resources which will be regularly updated.
Brief Book Reviews
Producing Web Hits: Fear, Loathing, and Getting Over It by David Elderbrock, et al (IDG Books, $30) is one of a growing number of books about developing a Web site which is aimed at managers rather than technical people. Taking a business point of view, the book considers the potential of the Web as a new marketing and advertising vehicle. Then it proceeds to use that goal as the basis of Web design and implementation. The book addresses such topics as planning a marketing strategy, clarifying the purpose of the Web site, creating and realizing a Web identity and, finally, how to draw an audience to your site and take advantage of the medium. I didnít see a stitch of HTML code in the book; rather, it tells the manager how to build the team to do the software development. Unfortunately the bookís title doesnít do justice to its content.
Castanet and Bongo are the first products from Sun Microsystems/JavaSoft spin-off Marimba, Inc. Castanet is a new technology that tackles the inherent ephemeral nature of Internet connections (e.g., applets must be loaded or reloaded every time you visit a Web site, data canít be stored locally, for the most part applets canít be stored locally, and so on). Castanet contains two major partsóa tuner and a transmitter. The tuner resides on your system and is used to locate and acquire channels. The transmitter broadcasts or publishes to the channels so that tuners can locate them. When you locate a channel with your tuner, the software or revisions are downloaded to your system. Bongo is the first of what I presume will be a series of programs or tools for Castanet technology. Bongo is an interface-building tool for standalone programs. Basically itís a high-level tool that extends the Java widget class and is itself extensible. Bongo allows you to create Java applications and interfaces without a lot of Java programming.
If all this sounds up your alley then check out these new titles from Sams.net: Official Marimba Guide to Castanet by Laura Lemay ($40/CD-ROM) and Official Marimba Guide to Bongo by Danny Goodman ($40/CD-ROM). Both CD-ROMs contain evaluation versions of the Castanet Tuner; Castanet Transmitter; and Bongo for Windows 95, Windows NT, and Solaris. These are the "official" Marimba guides done with the approval and cooperation of the software developers, and are written by some of our best computer book authors.
Laura Lemayís Java 1.1 Interactive Course by Laura Lemay, Charles L. Perkins, Michael Morrison, and Daniel Groner (Waite Group Press, $50/CD-ROM) is a complete (not to mention huge) book which teaches all about the Java language and how to create applets for the Web and standalone applications. It will take a beginning Java programmer through all the steps in 25 chapters (plus appendices) with almost 500 quiz questions. And itís written by the team who literally "wrote the book" on Java programming. Equally important is that the book is tied to Waiteís eZone, which provides a number of services and resources to help you work your way through the book. Purchase of this book gets you access to the eZone where you can take quizzes online and work toward CEUs from Marquette University, have access to a live mentor to answer your questions, and access other resources and reference material.
My next selection is diametrically opposite from the above. Whereas Lemayís book focuses on the mechanics of programming, Java Design: Building Better Apps and Applets by Peter Coad and Mark Mayfield (Prentice Hall, $40/CD-ROM) is about the cognitive processes behind (or should I say before) the programming. This book is about design, not programming. Specifically, itís about design strategies that grow out of the intrinsic language features found in Java. After an introductory chapter, the book covers Design with Composition rather than Inheritance, Interfaces, Threads, and Notification. Using the method of teaching by example, the book follows two hypothetical developers through the complete design process. The book is shy on code (as it should be), and abounds in illustrations and Coad diagrams (a graphical representation of objects, their attributes and methods, and their interactions). This book is recommended for experienced programmers who wish to improve their precoding planning and design.
Hands On Visual Café CD-ROM tutorial from MindQ Publishing ($50) is not a book at all, but an interactive computer-based training course. The key word here is "interactive." Unlike earlier MindQ CD-ROMs Iíve looked at, this one requires user participation. As the concepts are being discussed the user is encouraged to carry out the steps being described, albeit in a simulated Visual Café environment. Nevertheless, itís effective. (So actually, you donít even need Visual Café to learn about it.) Occasionally the program pauses to send you off on a hands-on exercise on the real Visual Café (which it presumes you have). These forays into the real world are accompanied by step-by-step instructions, plus optional hints if you get into trouble. I found these to be helpful and moreover they made me rethink how I would approach a new Visual Café project when faced with a blank form. The tendency with rapid application development (RAD) environments is to work on the form right away, but realistically there is a need for critical planning and top-down design. Anyway, given the dearth of books on Visual Café, this CD-ROM will give you a good introduction to this RAD product. My only regret is that there is no hard copy for reference later on. (Donít forget to read my review of Visual Café in WWWiz).
This next book is a tough call. The information content in Mind Grenades: Manifestos from the Future by John Plunkett and Louis Rossetto (Hardwired, $33) would fill a page. Really. What makes the book interesting are the graphics. Absolutely every page is edge-to-edge full-color graphics, many of which are very exciting. If youíve seen Wired, youíll find yourself in familiar territory. The design and content of the book are very much what I (perhaps mistakenly) call the Generation X style. Okay, the bottom line is that the book is visually exciting and you should take a look at it even if the content is somewhat banal. But to say that it contains manifestos from the future is on the level of saying you learned all the important things about life from a three-minute song.
Designing Infographics by Erik K. Meyer (Hayden, $40) is a book about graphical conveyance of information. Information graphics has been with us for a long time but seems to be growing in importance. Perhaps it has something to do with this era of sound bites and declining literacy. At any rate, the author gives a good introduction to the subject, a crash course in computer drawing, and then detailed descriptions of six types of infographics: glances, graphs, maps, diagrams, sequences, and illustrations. In the last part of the book the author discusses how this material extends from traditional media into cyberspace. The bookís shortcomings are its very brief coverage of color and the complete absence of color illustrations.
Java Network Programming by Elliotte Rusty Harold (OíReilly & Associates, $35) is a recent entry in the Java networking book category. This is a fairly recent book, and it is able to explain many topics in terms of JDK 1.0.2 while pointing out differences (or additions) with respect to JDK 1.1. The author apologizes for not being more JDK 1.1-specific (because the book was finishing up when JDK 1.1 came out to the public), but I think he does a pretty good job of pointing out the JDK 1.1 features. Overall, this book is a good mix of traditional network programming that gives a good background in networking itself (which applies to any language you program in), and Java-specific topics such as writing class loaders and content handlers. This book offers numerous examples throughout the book, and the examples are actually pretty good. Some are handy utilities that stand well on their own and others are programs youíll probably end up using to test your own network programs. The book doesnít come with a CD-ROM, but all the examples are online, so you donít have to type them all in. I donít always see eye-to-eye with the author (for example I donít agree with him that software agents arenít very useful if theyíre not mobile), but I do think this book is well worth looking at if youíre interested in network programming. [Guest review by Stephen Pietrowicz.]
Visual InterDev is Microsoftís latest addition to their family of development tools. Itís a Web site development application designed for experienced programmers. Naturally it will spawn a brood of new books; one of the first is The Visual InterDev Handbook by Brian Maso (Osborne/McGraw-Hill, $30). The book starts with an overview of Visual InterDev, covering the program layout and basics of creating a Web site. It then goes into considerable depth on creating and integrating content, and adding interactivity, specifically with scripts, ActiveX controls, and Java. Another section covers the creation, use, and programming of databases. The book is completed with a section on advanced topics, including security and electronic commerce. Visual InterDev is a $500 software product so obviously neither the software nor the book are for the casually interested. However, the book is an inexpensive way to find out if the program is for you.
Practical Object-Oriented Development in C++ and Java by Cay S. Horstmann (Wiley, $35) is a different kind of programming book. The author assumes familiarity with the basic syntax of these languages and sets out to give you insights into programming. The book goes into detail on the similarities and differences in C++ and Java for those who have to work in both worlds, and teaches you how to exploit the best features in each language while avoiding the pitfalls. The book makes extensive use of CRC cards and UML methodology. In my estimation this book is for serious programmers who wish to learn more about, and improve, their craft.
<designing web graphics.2> by Lynda Weinman (New Riders, $55) is now in its second edition and is bigger and better than before. The book is impeccably designed by Ali Karp (whose work I have previously admired in <coloring web graphics> and <deconstructing web graphics>), and is itself an object study in design. This edition is nearly twice the size of the original and has been thoroughly rewritten and updated. The book is about putting together a Web site, but with design emphasized over coding (although there is plenty of the latter). In addition to the basics of Web graphics, the author covers issues of typography, layout, animation, sound, and interactivity. This book is suitable for beginning Web designers who wish to learn the process from A to Z, as well as for experienced designers who can benefit from the many tips and tricks. This book is a keeper...at least until the next edition.
Cascading Style Sheets: Designing for the Web by Håkon Wium Lie and Bert Bos (Addison-Wesley, $30) was written by the developers of this important advance in Web page design. Both authors are with the World Wide Web Consortium. The book begins with an overview of HTML and then jumps right into cascading style sheets (or CSS, for short). You will find that style sheets are more complex to program than straight HTML but will give you infinitely greater control in designing your Web pages. This book will teach you all there is to know on the subject in a clearly written, logical progression of ideas. Among the things covered are fonts, structures, space, images, and colors. The authors also cover management of large numbers of Web pages, and details of cascading and inheritance for the technically inclined. To get an idea of just what CSS can do for you, check out the bookís home page with Netscape Navigator 3 (which doesnít support CSS) and Microsoft Internet Explorer (which does). Go do it!