| November 25, 2011 7:47 pm

KDE just published their newsletter for Quarter 3 2011. It covered the Desktop Summit, held in Berlin during the summer. Working on this edition was quite a bit of fun due to the joint nature of the summit and the location. Berlin has a wonderful history in design, from the Bauhaus school to the grunge design of the 1990s. It was fun to pay homage to the German School. You can download a PDF copy of the report here.

 | November 18, 2011 8:05 pm

Note: The entries in this series are adapted from a lectures I’ve been giving to my Apps101 course. It will also form the basis for a presentation that I plan to give at a conference next month. If you have any thoughts, I would love to hear them.

Every Sunday, my wife and I read stories to small children. It started as one of those strange opportunities that life sometimes presents and has grown to become one of the highlights of my week. There is something wonderful about kids. I’m not sure if it’s the innocence, the wide-eyed wonder, or the capacity for faith; but when a child looks at you, it’s possible to believe that a better world might just be possible.

Not to whitewash the whole thing, though. For all of their wonderful qualities, small children can also be difficult. Those wide-eyed moments of innocence are easily shattered. Small children scream, they cry, they tantrum; they hit, bite, claw, push, and shove.  They’re very good at taunting, alienating, and belittling others.

Which is to say, small children are much like adults, except … smaller. They have many of the same capacities for good and evil, creativity and destruction, kindness and cruelty. The seeds of the men and women they will become are all present, and you can see interests and passions already at work.

Small children are also notoriously distractible. They’ll move between games, toys, playmates [1], and activities. They’ll build, break, and bless. You’ll see moments of heartbreaking tenderness, comic relief, and dangerous volatility. A single play session can hold all of the drama and frivolity of a Shakespearean play.

There is one thing, however, which never fails to hold the children’s attention: story time. When the book is opened and the story announced, the effect is magical. The fussing screams quiet, the rowdy sit still, and the distractible engage. An entire room of two and three year olds will sit in a circle, and raptly listen while read to.

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 | November 17, 2011 4:58 am

The shot below was taken at Zion’s National Park in Southern Utah, above the Emerald Pools. In the vernacular of Mormon Pioneers who settled the region, Zion means “Place of Sanctuary.”

Zion-2011-11-1

 | November 16, 2011 5:59 pm

For the past several months, I’ve found myself teaching technology courses. (Which is strange, since I’m not really a technologist.) To date, I’ve taught courses about Web Development, Programming, Networking, and (most recently) … Microsoft Office. I hope that you can appreciate the irony in this.

While I don’t have anything against Microsoft [1], I have a grudge against Office. This isn’t because it’s unstable, that it often makes easy things impossible, or that it has mangled and masticated my work. No, my single biggest complaint against Microsoft Office is that it contributes to an uglier world.

Don’t believe me? Consider the default typefaces: Times New Roman and Arial [2].

There is a reason that Times New Roman (as used by Word) and Arial are reviled. The one is a knock-off of a newspaper font meant for narrow columns, and the other is a Helvetica copy. In Word, they are used for the body and headings, respectively, and that is wrong. Using Times New Roman for body text results in way too many characters per line and makes the text more difficult to read. Using Arial with Times New Roman leads to a font-mismatch of epic proportions. Fonts have histories, personalities, and contexts and Arial and Times New Roman just don’t fit.

And I’ve said nothing about Word’s notoriously poor type-handling and typographical quality [3]. Whether it’s optical margins, font kerning, ligatures, or numerals; it’s all consistently wrong. Microsoft is a big company, if they wanted to get things right, they could.

But, they don’t.

For that reason, I spend most of my time convincing people not to use Word. I steer them toward writing tools like Scrivener, which provides a lovely way to capture ideas and create drafts; page layout tools like Scribus and InDesign, where they can exert fine-toothed control over the appearance of their document; or (best of all), technologies like LaTeX and LyX, which combine the best of both worlds.

Unfortunately, though, Microsoft Office is one of those pieces of software that everyone needs a familiarity with. It’s in every industry, and many companies, universities, and organizations mandate its use. For this reason, I’ve kept most of my venomous opinions to myself. (Moreover, it would be bad form — crass, even — to directly slander the Office Suite to students taking an introductory course in Microsoft Office.)

* * *

Instead, I’ve decided to take a different tack. Rather than directly attack Word as the embodiment of “good enough,” [5] I’ve been trying to cultivate an awareness of beautiful communication.

We’ve had class discussions about what it means to communicate responsibly, looked at why an author [4] has a special accountability to her audience to facilitate understanding, and I’m planning a discussion about how beauty influences understanding. And while I’d prefer to be teaching LaTeX, LyX, Scribus, and the related technologies, these conversations have made the course extremely enjoyable; insightful, even. What’s more, I’ve been tremendously impressed at the depth that many of the students have shown.

For the most parts, these aren’t graphic design students or art connoisseurs. Yet, they know what beautiful communication looks like. They recognize carefully crafted writing, differentiate between effective and distracting illustration, can filter out chart-junk, and appreciate beautiful design. Nothing needed to be taught, they just knew. Certainly, they might not have the vocabulary to express the technical details, or the knowledge to produce similar work on their own, but the apps students know what good is when they see it.

I’ve been so impressed in the comments and insights, that I’ve found myself wanting to repeat the conversations with a slightly different audience: the readers of this website. You, dear readers, are an interesting group. Some of you are coders, designers, and artists. Others are scientists, engineers, and technologists. Still others are horse people. But despite the diverse backgrounds, many of the people I’ve met through the postings here have greatly impressed me with their knowledge of writing, typography, art, and design.

For that reason (and if you will indulge me), I’d like to pose a few of the same questions that we’ve been discussing in my apps class and to hear your thoughts [6].  Here is the first:

While the soul of a message lies in what you have to say, there are other aspects of creating a presentation, numerical report, or written draft that are important as well. One of these is how beautiful the final product appears.

Whether we like it or not, Western culture has a bias for beautiful things. We like slick electronics, nicely designed clothes, and carefully typeset literature. Indeed, in many cases, it is expected.

Companies like Apple, IKEA, the Gap, and others spend millions of dollars each year making sure that the materials their customers come into contact with – literature, advertisements, signage, etc – are beautiful. In the advertising world, such branding and impression management offer lucrative opportunities.

But how important are such considerations for individuals? Should a teacher judge the contents of your final report based on the font you choose to use? Should an employer reject an applicant because they used Comic Sans when composing their resume?

For that matter, what makes for a beautiful report, poster, paper, or flyer? How can you strike the balance between what you have to say, how you have to say it, and the impression that the final product gives to others?

Please let me know what you think in the comments.

__________________________________________________

[1] Indeed, unlike many open source people, I have a great deal of respect for the people at Redmond. They’ve created some very nice technology. Their developer tools, for example are superb (though costly) and their expression design tools are handy (once you get the hang of them).

[2] I will concede that more recent versions of Word have gotten much better in the default fonts department. The default font in Word 2007 and 2010, Calibri (for body texts) and Cambria (for Headings) are nice fonts, but … the default document settings are still lackluster. And when you start considering the default color palettes … well … we’re back to ghastly.

[3] Yes, I know that Word 2010 supports advanced OpenType features. But it is inconsistent and requires quite a bit of work to get right. As far as I’m concerned, another example of actively making the world an uglier place.

[4] I’m using the terms “author” and “audience” very broadly. In addition to those who string words together, I’m also including those who speak, present, and use numbers to communicate larger truths about the world.

[5] I’ve got a serious peeve about “good enough.” The enough is a qualifier. Good enough prevents people from striving for excellence. Instead of making the additional refinements which would transform the draft, picture, service, or product into something truly outstanding, people stop at “good enough.”

[6] In full disclosure, I also have a somewhat selfish rationale. I am currently workshopping the last few chapters of Open Source Writing and I’ve found these conversations help to inform the information found in the book.

 | November 2, 2011 6:07 pm

Since reading Malcolm Gladwell’s “Outliers” several years ago, I’ve been really interested in the question, “What results in success?” Part of the interest is intellectual; the psychology of success is fascinating and surprising. Part of the interest is developmental; like most people, I want to cultivate habits that lead to achievement and impact.

Most of the interest, though, is personal. One of the hats I frequently wear is that of an educator. I’ve mentored medical students, engineering students, and computer science students; and I really enjoy it. More than that, though, I enjoy seeing people succeed. When someone comes up with an improved treatment, product, or idea; it improves the world. I know it’s corny, but still true.

For this reason, I’m fascinated by questions like:

  • What does it mean to be “world-class”?
  • Why it is that so many people never arrive?
  • Are there habits that can be cultivated, traits that can be taught, or ways to share knowledge that can facilitate the journey.

It also shouldn’t come as a surprise that I read widely on the subject. This morning, I came across a marvelous article on the 99percent.com, which looks at several of the topics related to world-class success. As good as the article is, though, I really enjoyed the TEDxBlue video that the article linked to. In it, University of Pennsylvania psychologist Angela Duckworth expounds on her theories about what makes world-class success.

According to Duckworth, it isn’t intelligence and it isn’t talent. She even argues that it isn’t self discipline, according to the common definition of the word. Rather, what matters is “grit.”

The video is about 18 minutes long and well worth the time.

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 | October 31, 2011 9:51 pm

FTP is one of the oldest network protocols still in use. In its first iteration, it was created in 1971 as a way to quickly move files between computers and has been in continuous use ever since. It’s particularly common on the web, where it is responsible for moving files and data.

Unfortunately, while common, it is also insecure. FTP transmits user credentials, file contents, and other data in the clear. For that reason, anyone with a packet sniffer and a bit of patience is free to take a look at it. This video looks at the security of FTP traffic and why it is problematic. It covers:

  • How to set up an FTP server on Windows Server 2008 and configure a simple site
  • The use of a packet sniffer (Wireshark) on Ubuntu to monitor network traffic

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 | October 28, 2011 6:05 pm

Server Security, Part 2 Title SlideGood network security begins with good server security. Unfortunately, though, server security is a multifaceted problem.

There are the straightforward issues, such as how to make sure that the physical machine is safe. But there are also the software challenges, and that is where things can become complicated, difficult, and ugly.

The plan for securing two different servers might vary widely, depending on what the servers will be used for and how they will be accessed. This can make planning the security a nightmare. Luckily, Windows Server offers one very powerful feature that can make planning and configuring the security options a little bit easier: Security Templates.

This video will introduce security templates on Windows Server 2008. It will show how to create them, how they can be used to audit the security settings for a server, and how to change settings that might not be in compliance.

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 | October 26, 2011 10:27 pm

As difficult as it can be to secure individual computers, making sure that a network is secure is even more challenging. This is because, instead of working with a single machine, you have an entire network of devices to worry about. It’s a classic case of, “if the security of one is threatened, we’re all threatened.”

Luckily, there are several tools that can be used to “harden” individual computers, thereby making the network as a whole more secure. This series of videos will explore a few of those, including the Windows Server Security Configuration Wizard, the Role of Security Templates, and some of the Linux/Unix Security best practices.

This first video kicks things off by looking at the Windows Server 2008 Security Configuration Wizard and shows how to configure a simple firewall setting.

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 | 5:24 am

Windows Server Core is a relatively new version of Windows Server. Like it’s slightly more mature sibling, the “full” version, it is tremendously powerful. Server Core allows you to set up Active Directory domains, DNS/DHCP, and web servers. It can help secure your infrastructure, and probably floss your teeth.

But that isn’t what makes it interesting. Server Core is interesting for what it doesn’t have: the Windows Server GUI. Like in the case of Linux servers, nearly all of the action happens in the command line. This makes Server Core light weight and an excellent candidate for network virtualization, as it can run all of the core networking services need to administer a domain.

In this video, we take a look at how a Server Core installation can be configured to run as a DHCP server. It will walk you through the process of installing the DHCP server role from the command line, registering the DHCP service with Active Directory, and configuring the first zone. When combined with the earlier Active Directory tutorial, this video describes a way to run the three core networking services needed for domain administration – DNS,  DHCP, and Active Directory – on a single server.

This lays the groundwork for later networking and security tutorials by allowing us use the less resource intensive Server Core for simulation and exploration rather than the full Windows Server virtual machine.

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 | October 25, 2011 2:57 pm

Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it. They just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while.

That’s because they were able to connect experiences they’ve had and synthesize new things. And the reason they were able to do that was that they’ve had more experiences, or they have thought more about their experiences than other people.

Unfortunately, that’s too rare a commodity. A lot of people in our industry (technology) haven’t had very diverse experiences. So they don’t have enough dots to connect, and they end up with linear solutions without a broad perspective on the problem. The broader one’s understanding of the human experience, the better design we will have.

— Steve Jobs, Wired, February 1995

via Swiss Miss via Brain Pickings