Sunday, January 3, 2016

What are the "Digital Humanities" Anyway?

When I read academic job listing for "Digital Humanities" the skills range from HTML coding to video editing. Some list audio editing. The jobs are so varied that you cannot pinpoint what the phrase means. Is my doctorate in rhetoric, scientific and technical communication sufficient? Often it is not. Some posts suggest an MFA or Ph.D. in media production.

Starting January 2016, I am going to be working towards completion of my MFA in Film and Digital Technology. This feels like a last-ditch effort to revive my academic career, while also giving me more credentials to support my creative writing. With or without an academic revival, I'll benefit greatly from the courses and the exercise of creating and editing digital works.

One of the frustrations I've had on the job market is that nobody seems to know what the "Digital Humanities" are or how to prove you have the skills to teach the courses.

My age and my experiences are a serious obstacle on this job market.

When I completed my undergraduate degrees, I had been working at the USC Computing Services on what was the BITNET and ARPANET. I was using USENET newsgroups and performing online searches with WAIS and Gopher. (See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wide_area_information_server)

As someone who grew up in the PC era, the time of Apple, Atari, and Commodore (and Sinclair, Tandy, and TI), I was programming at a time when there were few programming degrees (computer science is not programming, generally). My wife and I launched a dial-up Internet service in the early 1990s. Think about that. We were among the pioneers who had multi-line BBS servers. By the time classes on HTML and Web development were offered, I had been using markup languages for a decade.

I can set up database servers and write SQL fairly well. I can crunch data with SAS, SPSS, and JMP. I know scripting languages like PHP and Perl (ouch), though those are a bit out of style. Not to whine too much, but I certainly consider myself a "digital" person.

When I apply for jobs, I'm competing against people with degrees that did not exist when I was doing the work. I'm competing against transcripts that list courses and skills I have taught or could teach. That's a lousy situation, so I turn to portfolios and other ways to demonstrate my skills.

Online, I maintain these Blogger accounts (old tech) because I'd hate to lose all the old posts and the loyal readers I have. However, I also develop new sites using newer technologies to prove my skills are current. That's what you have to do, right?

My passion is the rhetoric of narrative, sometimes called the "rhetoric of fiction" or the "rhetoric of story" — though none of these names really captures what my interests are. I want to use digital media (online distribution) to tell stories to wide audiences. I also want to study how others share their stories, both fiction and non-fiction.

I am a playwright and screenwriter. Several of my plays have been produced regionally and I've helped with screenplays that have been sold. (Admittedly, my screenplays by me and for me have not been produced.) As a writer, I seek to reach as many people as possible, which means I do have a bias for "creative" writing over academic writing.

I hope yet more credentials help on the academic market. If not, I'll write some great plays and keep chasing the screenplay dream, too.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Edutainment: Move Beyond Entertaining, to Learning

Randomly clicking on letters, the young boy I was watching play an educational game "won" each level. He paid no attention to the letters themselves. His focus was on the dancing aliens at the end of each alphabet invasion.

Situations like this occur in classrooms and homes every day. Technology appeals to parents, politicians and some educators as a path towards more effective teaching. We often bring technology into our schools and homes, imagining the latest gadgets and software will magically transfer skills and information to our children.

This school year, I left teaching business communications to return to my doctoral specialty in education, technology and language development. As a board member of an autism-related charity, I speak to groups on how technology both helps and hinders special education. Business students will always have the best professors. Special needs students deserve more attention.

Like many educational technologists, I have visions of technology enabling more access to education and better results for all students. Idealism tends to meet classroom reality. Our schools are victims of the best intentions, forced by the public and politicians to embrace the latest trendy theories with the slightest evidence. Technology companies have been selling their magical elixirs to schools since the 1970s, with mixed results.

Unfortunately, most educational technology embodies little more than "edutainment" that might transfer some factual knowledge through repetition, but primarily entertains the player-learner.

The young boy I observed was playing a top-selling educational game. He was learning little or nothing because the game did nothing to discourage guessing. Researchers know that failure is a part of learning, as is some frustration. The game, however, didn't frustrate the player who was merely guessing. The player always "won" the game and received the reward.

The next youngster I watched was playing Super Why! The game, based on a popular PBS series, had the same flaw as the first edutainment title. The girl playing would click and click, until "winning" each level. The game had no time limits, no consequences for guessing or offering incorrect answers.

Don't misunderstand, "educational game" is not an oxymoron.

The classic game The Oregon Trail has both deaths and a final score for players. With nearly 100 million versions sold since the game was first released in the 1970s, Oregon Trail has won praise from educators and researchers for helping students understand the Westward Migration. Students tend to replay the game, trying to improve their scores by reaching the West faster and with more survivors in the wagon train. Today's versions of the game look better, yet the basics of the game remain unchanged.

Parents, teachers and school districts looking to buy effective educational games need to consider how the game challenges players and rewards right answers. Research suggests games that decrease the time allowed to complete levels or increase the difficulty of problems also help retain knowledge.

At best, games and activities reinforce what a teacher or parent has taught a child. Younger students still need teachers, because they haven't learned how to teach themselves through reading and research. Some of the apps and games I have evaluated this year are good for reinforcing knowledge, but most seem to be advertisements for popular characters.

Reinforcement is part of learning. That's why children repeat favorite songs and love to hear the same stories over and over again. If games use familiar character for reinforcement of basic skills, then the games are useful. But, the popular titles generally fall short of what is possible.

Maybe it is my age, but I find that nothing beats the standard "newsprint" paper with blue solid and dotted lines for learning to write. Observing students use LeapFrog Scribble and Writer toys, which teach basic lettering through tracing, I noticed the students don't always transfer what they did on screen to paper. For young children, it can be difficult to recognize that the screen and paper are similar.

LeapFrog's LeapReader, which is an electronic activity book device, does seem to work for young children. You can add books to the set, which work with the LeapReader pen. The pen is impressive technology. It can be too complex for some youngsters to operate without an adult around to help.

I'd like to see more research on the LeapReader's effectiveness versus paper pads, especially with the cost of the device and several books easily surpassing $50. I buy the newsprint pads at various dollar stores for $1 each, along with 50 cent crayon boxes. It's hard to beat the price of crayons and paper.

The most educational applications are not games or glorified activity books. Analysis, evaluation and creation represent the highest levels of cognitive development. I encourage parents and teachers to seek out technology that fosters creative play and creative expression.

Kid Pix, KidsPainter and other simple illustration apps are ideal for children. TuxPaint, originally for the Linux OS, is a free painting program for children. Drawing with a computer improves spatial skills and awareness of geometry. Best of all, students go from drawing copies of what they see to creating new imaginary worlds. The reward for learning to use the drawing app is intrinsic, an image that belongs to its creator.

Likely the best option for allowing a child to type on your computer is the WordPad or TextEdit applications included with Windows and OS X. You'll be surprised at how quickly young children who know simple words master a basic word processor. Show a child how to change fonts and colors, and you've just introduced a new favorite computer activity.

Tablets, with touch interfaces, are easier than a mouse for children. A LeapPad is inexpensive and rugged, but the games are overpriced. The games vary in their effectiveness, so you need to read online reviews before spending $15 or $20 for a game. I'd consider an inexpensive Android tablet with a case, instead. As an Apple user, I'd only suggest an iPad if you are passing one along to the child; they simply aren't a good buy for the minimal needs of a child. An iPad is better suited to preteens and older users, though, with some great content available.

Focus on a child's learning, not only on how entertaining an app or gadget might be.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Dictating as Writing

Speaking is composing, but is it writing?

I have long used dictation software to quickly compose drafts of short stories, plays, essays, and magazine columns. The results tend to read more naturally than when I type directly into a word processor. I am pondering whether or not the dictated documents are "better" because they are more approachable for many readers.

When I type, I aggressively attempt to avoid forms of "to be" and a list of "weak" words and phrases lacking precision. For this reason, I have considered my typed documents superior to dictated documents. After all, we tell our students that writing should be more refined and precise than the spoken word.

Yet, when I read student papers, their attempts to sound "educated" produce jarring prose. In their eagerness to demonstrate vocabulary skills, they instead expose a lack of reading and true word comprehension. Overly complex sentences also reflect internalized models students have developed based on past teacher expectations.

Our students have learned that big words and long sentences are associated with higher grades on writing assignments. Overworked teachers with too many papers to grade skim for these indicators of academic skill and implied intelligence. This is precisely why automated grading often parallels human grading. Computer models based on analyzing teacher graded samples easily mimic the models are students have developed, often without the students realizing they have accomplished this impressive task.

Many writing instructors, including myself, encourage students to read their papers aloud to classmates. Even better, asking another individual to read the paper allowed quickly reveals how artificial and affected attempts at academic writing can be.

By asking my students to dictate short assignments, those not requiring complex formatting, I was able to reveal how their spoken language differs from their typed assignments. The students argued that the dictated papers sounded "casual" – yet they also said the papers were more enjoyable to read. Notice the criticism students are offering of academic writing, without realizing how insightful this critique is. Class discussion led some students to conclude that dictating could be used for first drafts, and then revised for a more "academic" final papers.

Dictation software has improved greatly since I first purchased Dragon NaturallySpeaking more than a decade ago. Early software required speaking slowly and artificially, yet today I can dictate this blog post at a natural speaking speed. The only complications, for me, are attempts to format text while speaking. However, I would rather focus on the words first and the formatting after a document is drafted.

Creative writing is not the same as academic discourse. My characters speak like "normal people" and I do not need to use the language, the jargon, of academia. The more natural my writing, the more appealing it might be to its intended audience.

I encourage instructors of writing, both academic and creative, to experiment with dictation software and consider the lessons learned by students and by us, their professors.

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Call for Papers: Rhetoric of Typography and Letterforms

Call for proposals for an edited collection:
Type Matters: the Rhetoricity of Letterforms
Edited by C.S. Wyatt and Dànielle Nicole DeVoss

Stephen Bernhardt warned us almost 30 years ago that our "preoccupation with conventional essay format" excludes the rhetorical rigor of typographic elements. Later, John Trimbur extended this argument, noting that "one of the main obstacles to seeing the materiality of writing has been the essayist tradition and its notion of a transparent text." Many visual rhetoric scholars have interrogated the ways in which meaning-making happens iconographically, photographically, and via other visual means. Few, however (save for Anne Frances Wysocki), have paid much attention to the rhetorical work that typography does.

Although always part of any text's argument, the choice of typeface is an under-articulated and under-studied aspect of textual production within composition and rhetoric. Today, even as there are thousands of font face options available to us, composers and rhetoricians often take the power of  letterforms for granted or—worse yet, we would argue—situate typography as ideally invisible, meant only to convey thought and ideas and not as itself contributing to rhetorical meaning. Typographic choices convey meaning.

Design scholars—including Robert Bringhurst, Steven Heller, Ellen Lupton, Alex White, and Edward  Tufte—have emphasized that the layout of a page affects the reading and interpretation of the text. Type Matters seeks to bridge the scholarship of typography and design with the field of rhetoric.

We thus invite authors to situate "texts" broadly; to think rhetorically, technologically, and culturally; to draw from scholarship ranging from rhetoric and writing studies to graphic design theory and beyond; and to explore the ways in which the visual and tactile shapes of letters convey persuasive information to audiences.

We seek chapters in which authors articulate the ways in which and places where typography rubs up against rhetorical principles. Specific questions we ask proposal authors to consider include but are not limited to:
  • How does text design function rhetorically? In what ways are letterforms persuasive?
  • What have been some perhaps common trends and intersection points in the history of rhetoric and typography?
  • In what ways can we—rhetoric and composition studies scholars—better attend to the work of typography in our teaching and our scholarship?
  • Where and in what ways do typefaces and culture intersect? To what end?
  • What are the interconnections and/or implications of typefaces and dis/different abilities?
  • How have decorative fonts and even emoji fonts changed the concept of "writing?"
The deadline for 500-word proposals is September 30, 2015 (with notification to authors by October 30, 2015, and draft chapters due by January 15, 2016).

Queries are welcome and encouraged. Direct proposals and queries to C. S. Wyatt (wyatt050 -at- umn -dot- edu) and Dànielle Nicole DeVoss (devossda -at- msu -dot- edu).

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Google Docs and Writing

My students like to use Google Docs for collaborative drafts of projects. They like the "Suggesting" mode for editing, though it takes time to get used to this approach compared to Microsoft Word, and they really like the "Chat" mode for working together remotely.

I'm not as comfortable with Google's "Suggesting" edit mode. I like the "Track Changes" approach of Word, but that might be out of familiarity.

The "Revision History" is also little clunky in Google Docs. Students have rolled back edits by accident, especially on tablets. Maybe the location of the "Editing Mode" and "History" (the upper right) makes them prone to accidental "palm clicks" when holding the devices.

I've not used the JavaScript-based macro features, but I am glad there is a way to automate editing tasks. One of the reasons I love Word is the ease of Visual Basic for Applications. JavaScript ("GScript") macros might enable me to add similar editing tools to Docs I have created for Word.

The extensions and add-ons for Docs range from lousy to okay. I've not seen many that are "WOW!" and my students don't seem to be curious about the add-on library.

Writing always changes with technology. I'm not sure Google Docs is a step forward, but it is a step towards greater convenience.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Newsreaders Collecting Virtual Dust

I have Feedly, Newsify, and NetNewsWire on my various computing devices. Only a couple of years ago, I used RSS readers daily to check headlines on Slashdot, RealClear, MacWorld, and many other websites. Maybe it is me, but I felt there were great stories every few hours — and RSS made keeping up with the news easy and convenient.

This week, MacOSXHints went into "archive" mode. Slashdot traffic has fallen dramatically. News sites favor Facebook and Twitter over RSS. Even some apps for news sites don't work well. Tom's Hardware for iOS wasn't updating for nearly a month. Only last week did updates start appearing on my phone and tablet again.

Newsreaders and dedicated news apps are collecting virtual dust.

The most disappointing failure might be Apple's Newsstand app for iOS, another stale and nearly useless slot for magazines and newspapers. Apple, which effectively killed RSS along with Google, just doesn't seem to value virtual periodicals.

I don't want Facebook and Twitter to be my news feeds. But, as RSS faded, I stopped using newsreaders, becoming yet one more bit of evidence for sites that they don't need RSS and news apps. There is a downward spiral of news, and I'm part of that.

I wish Apple, Google, and others would somehow revive RSS. I want Google Reader, RSS in-browser, and reader apps to flourish again. The pleasure of using a text-only newsreader with all the latest stories in one place is something only a news geek can appreciate, I realize, but I miss it.

Feedly and Newsify just aren't the text-based, fast, easy RSS experience I used to enjoy.

Monday, November 3, 2014

Robots for Home: Not Yet the Jetsons

NXT Robot
NXT Robot (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Visalia Direct: Virtual Valley
November  3, 2014 Deadline
December 2014 Issue

Robots for Home: Not Yet the Jetsons

Rosie the robot maintained the Jetson household more than 50 years ago. To the disappoint of many of us who still enjoy the classic 1960s cartoon, Rosie remains science fiction. The only robots in our houses are round bumper cars that vacuum floors. The iRobot Roomba offers no witty banter and no sighs of exasperation.

Growing up, I expected Twiki, the android that followed Buck Rogers about for no apparent reason, to become a reality. After all, Twiki didn’t do anything except carry a much smarter talking computer about his neck. Sadly, Rogers was stuck in the twenty-fifth century. All the good androids and robots seem to be way off in the future or in other galaxies.

Although we have no Rosie, robots are on the rise. They build our cars, deliver medications, defuse bombs, explore planets and even perform surgeries. Machines excel at work that can be translated into defined tasks, especially those jobs that are repetitive. If a task is dangerous or grueling, why not give it to a robot?

The best jobs for the future include designing, programming, building and maintaining the machines that are poised to take over the roles of many humans. Young people who explore robotics and programming are more likely to be passionate about those future jobs.

LEGO Mindstorms (http://mindstorms.lego.com) offer a great way to learn about robotics and programming. Yes, these are programmable LEGO kits. Any LEGO kit can be mixed with the base Mindstorms robots, allowing LEGO fanatics the ability to create whatever they can imagine. There are servos for moving joints, claws for grabbing and all sorts of additional pieces available.

All Mindstorms robots begin with an “intelligent brick” that is a complete computer. The brick contains a ARM9 processor, 64 megabytes of RAM, 16 megabytes of system memory and a Mini SDHC slot for up to another 32 gigabytes of storage. The brick runs the Linux operating system, which is also the basis for Google’s Android system. When you glance at it, the brick looks like an original iPod, complete with a small screen.

SciFi fans know a robot needs to see, and LEGO offers a variety of visual sensors for Mindstorms robots: color, infrared and ultrasonic eyes give the robots vision. The visual sensors resemble eyes, because that familiar arrangement enables distance calculations.

Robots need to be programmed. The EV3 programming environment works on Windows and OS X, and there are apps for iOS and Android devices. Dragging and dropping “code blocks” that resemble LEGO bricks makes programming simple.

For those who would rather bolt pieces together to build robots, VEX Robotics (http://www.vexrobotics.com) brings the classic Erector set idea into the twenty-first century. As with Mindstorms, sensors and motors let enthusiasts create functioning robots. Though there are some basic plans included, VEX kits target students and hobbyists interested in creating new robots.

Designing and programming VEX robots requires learning more complex tools, too. Autodesk, the software publisher famous for AutoCAD, provides free design software for VEX robots. Autodesk Education also allows students and teachers to download additional software. By introducing students to CAD applications, they learn industry standard tools.

The RobotC and EasyC programming languages for VEX robots are subsets of the C language. Following the VEX philosophy of developing technical skills, the programming tools resemble popular integrated development environments (IDEs) used by professionals. Enthusiasts have developed RobotC tools for LEGO Mindstorms, too, making it possible to run the same programming code on kits from different vendors.

Learning about robotics teaches students about electronics, physics, math and programming. These are the skills of the future, and the skills already in demand. Too often, these topics are taught through memorization, with drill-and-kill testing instead of hands-on application. Building a robot makes science something real to students.

VEX and LEGO market classroom kits encourage schools to incorporate robotics into science and math lessons. Class or school competitions make robotics more compelling. The suggested competitions range from moving and stacking blocks to robot bowling. VEX also sponsors regional, national and worldwide competitions for students.

Kits offer the ideal introduction to robotics, but some people want to build robots from scratch. Make magazine (http://makezine.com) offers do-it-yourself guides to building robots, alongside guides to almost every DIY project imaginable. The robotics guides focus on Arduino controllers and Raspberry Pi computers, affordable electronics kits for home projects.

The Raspberry Pi is a complete computer, like the LEGO intelligent brick. The Raspberry Pi adds the ability to connect a keyboard and screen, making it possible to program the computer directly. Not only is the Raspberry Pi more powerful than the LEGO brick, it is a fraction of the price. The Raspberry Pi costs $35, compared to $150 or more for the LEGO system.

The low cost of parts to build a Raspberry Pi and Arduino robot might be tempting, but remember that this approach is best suited to serious hobbyists willing to solder wires and learn microcontroller programming. In only an hour, you can assemble and test a simple LEGO Mindstorms kit. In a few hours, with patience, you can assemble and test a basic VEX Robotics kit. But, you can’t build a robot from scratch as quickly.

If you’re interested in buying or building a robot, visit RobotShop.com, the most popular kit vendor online. The LEGO Mindstorms kits are available from many toy and hobby retailers.

Though the kits are expensive, I consider LEGO Mindstorms the best introduction to robotics and programming. The familiarity of LEGOs and the ease of construction allow students and hobbyists flexibility without the frustration of other robotics kits. Also, there are dozens of online communities for LEGO Mindstorms enthusiasts. People share plans and programs for their creations, making learning more collaborative.

Maybe we will have Rosie the robot in my lifetime. If so, it is possible that a child growing up with Lego Mindstorms will be the adult who finally brings household robots to reality.

Monday, October 6, 2014

Thankful for Computing Technology

IBM PC XT with green monochrome phosphor scree...
IBM PC XT with green monochrome phosphor screen and 10MB full height 5,25" hard disk drive (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Visalia Direct: Virtual Valley
October 6, 2014 Deadline
November 2014 Issue

Thankful for Computing Technology

Computing technology touches every minute of our lives, and it has made life better for most of us. Though I am thankful for computers in general, some inventions have changed my life in dramatic ways. I am celebrating this Thanksgiving by listing the technologies for which I am most thankful.

Home Computers

The early Apple, Atari and Commodore computers I used in school and at home during the early 1980s ushered in the personal computer revolution. Costing a fraction of business computers, these devices empowered the young people who would launch the dot-com revolution. We learned to code in machine language, BASIC and Pascal on computers with memory measured in kilobytes, not megabytes or gigabytes.

When IBM decided, somewhat half-heartedly, to enter the “personal” computer market, it was far from a certain winner. For several years the pioneers continued to innovate. By the third generation of home computers, the Commodore Amiga, Atari ST and Apple Macintosh showed the future was graphical interfaces. Cheap, ubiquitous and popular with businesses, the IBM PC and its clones crushed the competition, but many of us owe our successes to the pioneering computer brands we met before the rise of DOS.

Portable Computers

They began as luggable crates, little more than regular computers crammed into cases with small screens. Portables evolved until they could be used on a laptop without burning your lap or crushing your knees. Laptop computers changed when, where and how I work.

My first laptop was heavy, slow and featured a monochrome screen. It had an 80286 Intel CPU and came with MS-DOS 3.3. It was a mediocre computer that changed my life because I could take it to school, work and home. Before that computer, I had to hope the same software was on each computer I used. Worse, I had to hope the computers had 3.5-inch floppy drives at a time when desktop computers rarely had the smaller drives.

Today, my wife and I have phones and tablets with thousands of times more power than that early laptop. These new wonders of computing allow us to surf the Web, respond to some emails and perform other simple tasks, but they cannot replace a laptop for me.

The MacBook Pro I use today matches a mid-range desktop computer. It has a fast Intel i7 CPU, 16 gigabytes of RAM, a terabyte solid-state drive and high-resolution screen. There’s nothing I need to do that the MacBook Pro cannot do, and do well.

The laptop has replaced desktop computers, and I’m thankful.

PDAs and Smartphones

When the Palm Pilot appeared, I knew the personal digital assistant (PDA) would change my life. Owning several of the devices, and using them long after Palm was no more, I came to rely on the calendar and task list for my daily schedule. I used my Palm Tungsten E3 until the second battery failed.

Smartphones are the merger of phones with PDAs. Palm offered a smartphone line, the Treo, as its last gasp before Hewlett-Packard bought (and closed) the company. Today, I own an iPhone 6 and rely on it for the same basic tasks at which the Palm excelled. The calendar, task list and note apps keep my life on schedule. I only have four phone numbers stored on the device, no music, and four basic games. Yes, they are the same games I had on my Palm Pilot: chess, solitaire, mahjong and Scrabble.

When I used a traditional planner and notepad, I struggled to track my appointments and the hours worked on various tasks. As a consultant, I bill clients for my time, so forgetting to indicate when I leave a client site could cost me money. Today, I adjust calendar entries as I leave appointments, easily and quickly tracking my hours.

I am thankful that great minds invented the PDA and the smartphone.

The Internet

More than any other technology, the Internet has changed our lives.

Although the term “Internet” first appeared in a 1974 document explaining the Transmission Control Program/Internetworking Protocol (TCP/IP), it wasn’t until 1988 that companies agreed to “internetwork” their servers. Before the computing industry standardized how information was sent, received and interpreted over networks, the commercial services were isolated islands. Companies marketed their online services based on unique content and features.

During the 1980s and 90s, millions of users paid monthly membership fees to American Online (AOL), CompuServe, Prodigy and also used local bulletin board service (BBS) networks. An AOL user couldn’t send messages to a CompuServe user until the two adopted the Simple Mail Transfer Protocol (SMTP).

Today, we take all the magic of networking standards for granted. There’s a lot happening behind the scenes to deliver Web pages, files, mail and video. It is easy to forget that there was no graphical Web in 1990.

The Internet has shaped my professional life since the 1980s. I was working at the University of Southern California’s Computing Center in 1989. USC was a major hub on the all-text Internet at that time and I learned how the Internet worked as I wrote the “USCMail” application. I saw hints of the future, and knew I wanted to be a part of it. My future wife and I operated a dial-up BBS during the early 1990s. In 2006, I entered a doctoral program to study online education. Without the Internet, I wouldn’t be a professor at a major research university. As my friends and family know, I am thankful for this career path.

Living Computing History

I grew up during what might be the most exciting era in computing history, and it has been a wonderful experience. From entering BASIC programs into a Commodore VIC-20 with 1.5K of RAM to designing complex Web applications, I’ve not only observed but also participated in history.

Looking back at the technologies that continue shaping my life, I am thankful that I was born before the personal computer revolution so I could experience these wonders firsthand.


Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Skills My Students Value

In the last two weeks, several of my students have mentioned that employers expected them to know macro programming for Microsoft Office applications, including Word, Excel, and Access.

I've written many times that students should aim for at least intermediate knowledge of Word, including the concept of macros if not coding skills. However, the inclusion of Excel and Access was a little surprising. Maybe it shouldn't be, since what made Lotus 1-2-3 the "killer application" for PCs was its macro abilities. WordPerfect also had exceptional macros back in the DOS days, helping it become dominant for many years.

Note: I'm not sure I'd call the VBA code in Access "macro" coding, but it is Visual Basic and often the code used in workplaces exists in snippets. I won't post my gripes with most of what I've seen done in Access, but I have a long list of bad habits I've seen in workplaces. Still, employers use it for small projects and it isn't a bad system — more often a "badly used" system.

Student groups have asked if I might speak to their members about macros, since employers want these skills. That tells me that our schools should be teaching these skills, starting as early as possible.

Why don't we teach the real power behind Office? Because teachers (and most other users) have no idea what is possible with macros.

Over time more and more features once possible with macros have become integrated into applications. But, macros are still a great way to do more with applications.

I cannot imagine an engineer or draftsman not customizing AutoCAD with LISP scripts. Or a serious Web developer not automating pages with JavaScript. Learning macros opens the door to other forms of coding.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Font Wrangling: Take Control of Your Typefaces

Visalia Direct: Virtual Valley
September 2, 2014 Deadline
October 2014 Issue

Font Wrangling: Take Control of Your Typefaces

Too many typefaces are cluttering up printed pages, online spaces and computer drives. Hundreds, or even thousands, of fonts on our computing devices prove too tempting for some people. It’s time to wrangle your fonts and refine your designs.

A high school teacher rejected the first term paper I typed into a computer. Notice that I didn’t write the paper on the computer; I entered text I had written on paper. I sought to avoid the hassles of using correction fluid with my typewriter by switching to the computer and its dot-matrix printer.

Despite using the “letter quality” mode of my Epson printer, the built-in font looked odd. The teacher complained that the lowercase g, p and q were squished and lines of ink smudges were unacceptable. Unless you could afford a daisy-wheel printer with its typewriter mechanism, a personal computer was an unacceptable writing technology.

As a sophomore at Golden West High School, I enrolled in journalism and joined The Pathfinder newspaper staff. We used the computers at the Times-Delta offices to phototypeset our stories and headlines, a process that fascinated me. For the nameplate and special headlines, we used Letraset transfer letters. Rubbing the letters with a rounded wooden stick was tedious and prone to mistakes.

A few years later, I obtained an OKI Data OL400 laser printer. Armed with WordPerfect 4.2 and a four-page per minute laser, my college papers were beautiful. The printer included Times, Helvetica, Courier and Symbol typefaces, each in four sizes, ranging from 9-point to 14-point. A Line Printer font at 12-points was also included. The printer emulated the popular Hewlett-Packard LaserJet II. Back then, printers and software maintained the original meaning of “font” as a typeface at a specific size, so the printer’s manual celebrated “17 fonts included!”

The Apple Macintosh and Microsoft Windows revolutionized printing at home and work. Bitstream FaceLift and Adobe Type Manager gave personal computers and affordable printers access to hundreds of typefaces, scalable to any size. I remember driving to Egghead Software in Culver City to buy ATM and a trio of font packs at the start of my sophomore year at USC. I couldn’t wait to spice up my papers with Palatino and Avant Garde.

Now, I’m the instructor telling students that their laser-printed papers and digital documents are unacceptable. I find myself longing for the limits of those early laser printers. Simply because you can use any of a thousand typefaces doesn’t mean you should. And you certainly shouldn’t mix and match five or six typefaces in a school paper.

There is no irony when a typophile, a font fanatic, advises students and clients to practice restraint. Although I do own thousands of licensed, high-quality fonts from the best digital foundries, I appreciate that pairing fonts and using them appropriately respects the artistic integrity of the letterforms. I own dozens of books on typography and the history of printing. The texts consistently recommend a handful of classic typefaces, and some experts suggest good designers rely on a dozen or so faces, turning to other faces for special uses like logos or advertisements.

Typefaces have the power to convey historical periods, personal moods and a sense of style. Choosing the right typeface requires thinking about a document’s purpose and its audience. You might love the uniform strokes of ITC Stoclet or Rilke, with their nod to the poster art of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, but those typefaces do not belong in a business résumé or as the body of a term paper. If you must use something other than Arial or Helvetica for sans-serif headings, try Gil Sans, Universe or Futura.

Most computers have too many fonts installed and activated. Although it’s convenient to have a thousand or more typefaces ready for immediate use, they can slow your software and create unexpected problems. Install a few applications for word processing and document design and there’s a good chance you’ll find a couple of hundred typefaces on your computer. My Windows 7 system has only the Microsoft Office suite and CorelDRAW installed, and there are 724 fonts available. I will never use most of the fonts.

Paring down the font menus of your software does not mean you have to delete the fonts or remove them from your operating system’s font folders. Instead, use a font manager to organize and control which fonts are available in various applications.

Popular font managers for Windows and OS X include FontExplorer X Pro, FontAgent Pro and Suitcase Fusion. If you buy CorelDRAW for Windows, Corel includes a copy of Bitstream FontNavigator. Apple includes the basic Font Book application with OS X.

My favorite font manager is FontExplorer X Pro, developed by the Monotype foundry. If you open a document with fonts it cannot find on your computer, FontExplorer offers in-app purchases of the typefaces. For designers, this is a great feature. FontExplorer also offers SkyFonts, a tool that downloads updated fonts from the Internet.

All three leading font managers allow you to search for fonts based on their classification, foundry, format and popular usage. Themed font sets like “formal” or “corporate” help guide the selection of typefaces for particular purposes. Period sets like “Roaring 20s” or “Wild West” give a sense of the right typefaces for the right “time” a design seeks to evoke.

The simplest classification grouping of familiar text fonts is serif and sans-serif. The serif faces have accents, called serifs, at the ends of the letter strokes, additional marks for artistic effect and improved readability. The sans-serif faces are smooth, lacking the extra flourishes. Times and Georgia are serif typefaces, while Helvetica and Arial are sans-serif faces. In the United States, it is common to use serif faces for smaller text and sans-serif faces for headings.  

The font managers can also automatically activate fonts found in documents, so you see what the designer intended. This automatic activation means you can have all but essential fonts disabled most of the time, which can speed up software loading times dramatically. For example, when Microsoft Word loads, it creates a font menu cache. The more fonts you have, the more sluggish Word might be.

Take control of your typefaces with a font manager. Your computer applications will be snappier and your documents will look better.