A commentary about software in, from, about or somehow remotely connected to the Pioneer Valley of Western Massachusetts.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

A-Z blogs for Eons

Congratulations to Amy Zuckerman, principal of A-Z International, who joins actress Jane Seymour and a couplAmy Zuckerman now blogs for Eons.come dozen other Experts and Celebrities recruited by Eons.com, the social networking site for folks on the flip side of fifty.

Eons is the brainchild of Jeff Taylor, UMass Amherst grad ('01) and former Daily Collegian business manager, whose earlier venture, Monster.com, burgeoned into the number one job search site on the internet.

Amy Zuckerman is no stranger to social networking, having created and built up Hidden Tech, an alliance of independent technical professionals and other home-based workers in the Pioneer Valley. It is her expertise in Eons.comvirtual businesses such as those widely represented in Hidden Tech that she shares in her Eons column as well as in her personal blog, Living the Virtual American Dream.

Eons has undergone rocky times of late, laying off a third of its workers earlier this month. However, if Taylor’s baby has yet to boom, it continues to address an audience still underserved on the web. Eons' attractions include the web's largest database of online obituaries with 81 million entries.

Jeff Taylor and Jane Seymour celebrate Eons' launch
Jeff Taylor & Jane Seymour

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Serenading Al

Professional page builders throughout cyberspace agree. One of the deadly sins of web design is embedding a background sound in a web page. Instantly and relentlessly presenting visitors with a constant audio clip is a sure-fire way to turn a pleasant web experience into aural torture. As a coding no-no it ranks up there with DraftGore.comthe cussed <BLINK> tag.

Therefore it was with some reservation that I assisted Monica Friedlander, head of DraftGore.com, in setting up a background sound on the organization’s home page. On the other hand, perhaps this case was justified. Amherst songwriter Paul Kaplan, for whom I’ve done some web work over the years, had written a real winner of a song urging Al Gore to join the 2008 presidential race called Run, Al, Run, and the Draft Gore folks were interested in adopting it as their anthem.

I edited an mp3 recording of the song to make it as innocuous as possible, toning down the volume, reducing the sampling rate to conserve bandwidth, and shortening it to a 22-second segment. I emailed the clip to the webmaster with instructions to include the following line in the <HEAD> section of the home page:

<embed src="RunAlRun_clip.mp3" loop="0" autostart="true" hidden="true">

To the song’s credit, it lasted as a background sound for several weeks. It has since been demoted to a clickable, but prominent, link on the DraftGore home page.

With the Democratic presidential primaries fast approaching, the interest in Run, Al, Run remains high. Critiquing Gore's The Assault on Reason earlier this month, writer Michael Tomasky quoted the song’s chorus in the The New York Times Review of Books. And a music video, edited by Paul’s daughter Brittany, has garnered acclaim and charged up Gore supporters since being posted out on YouTube.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Find an Outlook Contact in 8 Keystrokes

Outlook 2007I’m not a dyed-in-the-wool Microsoft fan, but I have to admit that several products from the Redmond folks have become ingrained in my work routine. First by professional necessity, then by force of habit I have come to rely on MS Office and Internet Explorer as well as Visual Studio when needed. I am proud to say I gave up FrontPage for Adobe Dreamweaver a while back.

As part of the Office suite, Outlook 2007 (aka Outlook 12) is one of my mainstays. I use it daily, not only for email, but also for calendaring and contact management. My productivity received a boost with the discovery that I can look up virtually any entry in my set of Outlook Contact folders in 8 or fewer keystrokes. The trick is to take advantage of a couple of Outlook 2007’s shortcut keys and the new Instant Search feature.

Outlook 2007 Instant Search

I have contacts spread over a number of folders, e.g. I’ve created a folder containing family and friends, another for recipients of a newsletter I send out, and yet another for clients of a small business that my wife runs. When looking up an address or phone number in the past, I often stumbled around looking for the right contacts folder, then clicked on the “File As” column header to sort by last name and scrolled down until I found the person I was looking for. Not quick.

Now I do this:

  1. Type Ctrl+3. This is the shortcut key for Go Contacts and brings me to a view of the Contacts root folder.

  2. Type Ctrl+Alt+A. This moves the cursor to the Instant Search box and sets the scope of the search to “All Contacts Folders.”

  3. Type the first 3 letters of the last name (or any other distinguishing field in the contact entry) of the person you are looking up. Quite rapidly Instant Search will display a list of contacts containing these 3 letters. I have several hundred contacts, but entering a search string of 3 letters usually results in no more than a screen full of results, and I can quickly locate the contact I’m after.

A similar process can be used to quickly find mail messages, calendar appointments, etc.

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

The Old Plastic Bag over the Credit Card Trick

We were low on kitty litter and soy milk, so I made a late night jaunt down to the Hadley Stop & Shop to pick up a few things. Going through the checkout line, I slid my Florence Savings Bank MasterCard through the scanner and was greeted with the message, “Invalid Magnetic Stripe Format.” I tried again – same result. The old plastic bag over the credit card trickThe soy milk was getting warm and a queue was building up behind me. What to do?

The cashier noticed my consternation and handed me a plastic bag. When I shrugged stupidly she snatched my credit card, put it inside the bag and swiped it through the reader. Bingo! I saw the reassuring words, “Debit or Credit?”

I had just observed a workaround that is apparently fairly well known among the cash register community. When a card is scratched or somehow has bad chemistry with its reader, it can fail its parity check, a common software error detection technique. The addition of the layer of plastic above the magnetic strip dampens the magnetic noise that is responsible for the bad reading. A piece of scotch tape reportedly works well, too.

For 16-digit Visa and MasterCard numbers, the parity check algorithm looks like this:

  1. Add up the digits in odd positions (i.e. 1st, 3rd, 5th, …, 15th) and multiply the sum by two. Call the result ODDSUMDOUBLED.

  2. Add up all the digits in even positions (i.e. 2nd, 4th, 6th, …, 16th). Call this result EVENSUM.

  3. Go back to the set of odd-position digits that you added up in Step One. Count how many of these digits are greater than 4 and call this BIGODDCOUNT.

  4. Add up the numbers calculated in the first three steps. Call the sum CHECKSUM:
    CHECKSUM must end in “0”. If it doesn’t the credit card number is invalid.

The card's final digit is called a check digit and is there is only one value for it that will enable the validation to work. Find a more detailed description at Anatomy of a Credit Card. If you are exceedingly curious or perhaps a sodoku fiend, pull out your wallet and validate your own card.