Jeremy Osborn: Designer, Educator, Writer

Sep 03

Techsmith does software trials right

Techsmith is a company that makes useful software for folks like me who spend a lot of time documenting what happens on the computer screen. I have paid for multiple licenses and numerous upgrades for different applications over the years and never felt any regret. In addition to the quality of the software, I have always respected how easy their website makes it for anyone to find and install their products.

Here’s a case study. I have a new system on which I need to install Snagit, their screen capture software. After going to the home page I see a clearly marked link for Snagit. I click on it and am presented with a group of three links, the second of which is labeled “Try for Free”.

Click to enlarge view.

Clicking on this link presents me with a big ol’ button labeled “Download Snagit Trial”. Clicking on this button starts the download immediately.

Click to enlarge view.

Three clicks = software download. To extend the experience, my Snagit trial is fully functional for 30 days. No export limitations or crippled functionality. Depending on the speed of my connection I can download, install and be using the application in about 3 minutes.

This is the way all trial software web sites should work. I don’t want to fill out a form. I don’t want a salesman to contact me. I don’t want a link sent to my email. I want the software up and running as soon as humanly possible. All companies should make it this easy for me to give them my money. My only criticism is that the site isn’t always consistent, for downloads to Camtasia for Mac, you need to go through the extra step of submitting an email.

Aug 24

Films at the Gate

Every summer, a vacant lot near Boston’s Chinatown Gate becomes a free, outdoor theater, showing Kung-Fu and classic Chinese-language films under the stars. Organized by “friends of the site”, you should go!
For more info see www.filmsatthegate.org.

Aug 23

Becoming an educator

I write quite a bit about the web and design matters here, but not as much about why I love teaching and how I got here in the first place. In 1994, I went to down to El Salvador to learn Spanish and to be an International observer for the Salvadoran presidential elections. The school I went to was the Mélida Anaya Montes Spanish School in San Salvador. At the school, learning the language was not separate from the cultural context of the Salvadoran country and political environment. In addition to traditional methods of learning vocabulary and grammar, the central method for learning was through conversation. The difference between this method and the way I had learned language in the past was the breakdown of the walls between the student and teacher. When we had conversations we talked about the lives of our teachers and they heard about ours back home.

I had never “learned” like this before, but it worked better than anything I had ever experienced. After 4 or 5 months of class and after the elections were over I and a few other of the current students were approached by the head of the school asking if we’d like to be teachers in a pilot English program. None of the group had ever had any official teaching experience before: we relied on some generic lesson plans and our recent experience as students.

My class consisted of 4 students and all were absolute beginners. Looking back on it I wonder why I wasn’t more daunted, the potential for failure seemed high and even obvious: in the end you can either comprehend and speak a language or you can’t. However, the power and support of the organization’s teaching model was very strong. My students ranged in age from 18 to 30 and had lived most of their lives under a repressive and brutal regime while fighting a civil war. This meant they had stories to tell and I was asking them to do it in English.

It became my job to give them the tools they needed to begin conversing, reading and writing. As I was learning how to teach, I was humbled by their stories and more motivated than ever to get them to the next stage. Every day was exhilarating and often frustrating. In the end though, all 4 of my students stayed through the entire program and when they graduated, the pride I had for them was overwhelming. It has been about 15 years since that class, and both the English and Spanish programs appear to be thriving and I would highly recommend either (or both!) to anyone. For me, the lessons I learned that year have helped shape my philosophy of education and style as a teacher. The image below is one of the few I have that completely captures my joy of the moment.
el_salvador_graduation

Aug 14

Deposit a check with the iPhone

My bank USAA recently announced they would be updating their iPhone app to allow users to deposit checks by taking a picture of it and uploading to the USAA service. It so happens that I hit the sweet spot, not only must you have (obviously) an account and an iPhone but they currently only allow customers who have insurance through USAA to make iPhone deposits. I fit this profile so I decided to give it a shot. To make a long story short, it worked great, but here are some of the details:

  1. Once the USAA app is open, logging in with my name, password and pin turns out to be the most difficult step. Because I use a fairly long and ornate combination of numbers and letters (due to it being my financial information and all), I was stuck tapping back and forth between the iPhones number and letter keyboards.
  2. After that ordeal, I chose to deposit into my Savings Account  (I could have also deposited into Checking). You can see here I deposited a whopping twelve cents. (Why do I have a pitiful 12 cent check lying around?  The irony  is that this was a credit from Sprint after I canceled my cell phone service.)

    iphone_deposit_01

  3. Next I was asked to take a picture of the front of the check. This was the part I was most worried would fall apart, merely because I have a second gen iPhone therefore no autofocus. But I framed the check as best as possible. After taking the picture I was given the chance to redo or submit the image. I went ahead and submitted.
  4. Next I needed to take a picture of the back. They gave me instructions on how to sign the check including the standard practice of adding my account number.

    iphone_deposit_03

  5. After submitting the photo of the back of the check I was given a thumbnail preview of my two images and asked to verify them. The thumbnails looked pretty dim to me, but I submitted anyway. As the images were uploading and going through whatever verification process they needed to on USAA’s side a message appeared asking me not to “navigate away from this page, answer calls, or allow your device to auto-lock”.

    iphone_deposit_04

  6. The deposit was accepted! I was now 12 cents richer and ready to paint the town red on Sprint’s dime (literally). I also was reminded by USAA to immediately write VOID on the check and then either destroy or file the check away.

    iphone_deposit_05

Conclusions: Depositing my check via iPhone rocked. USAA’s only branch is in Texas (I live in Massachusetts). They’ve apparently been on the forefront of remote depositing for  few years, I usually use a “home deposit” service that requires a scanner, but using the iPhone is actually faster, more fun and will likely be my preferred method from now on. I don’t quite understand what’s happening on the backend, is there some sort of character recognition software involved or perhaps a real live “human” double-checking the numbers? Whatever the case, it makes my life easier, so I’m on board.

Aug 01

This makes up for “Don’t Worry, Be Happy”.

World Science Festival 2009: Bobby McFerrin Demonstrates the Power of the Pentatonic Scale from World Science Festival on Vimeo.

Jul 28

Paging Dr. Milwaukee Shaffer

Every so often on my way to dumping my spam filter, something catches my eye (and no, it’s not the acai berry viagra shakes, but thanks for asking). This was too good not to share: with the subject line “Next of Kin (Payment)” here was a classic 419 scam, a certain “CHAVEZ RUDENICK FLAHARTY” had left me $125 million dollars, estate in Liberia, etc. All very exciting, but what really caught my eye was the sender’s name “Dr. Milwaukee Schaffer”.

Milwaukee. . . Schaffer. Seriously, Mr. Liberian Scammer?

I’ll have you know that “Schaefer” beer was originally brewed in New York, not Milwaukee! Hah!

Jul 22

Firefox 3.5 Geolocation Part 1

The latest version of Firefox (3.5) has a feature called geolocation. Simply put, through a series of calculations based on your wireless signal and other factors, your geographic location can be pinpointed and this information used to send you relevant data based on your whereabouts. (For a much more technical explanation read the Geolocation API spec. ) Simple example: you’re traveling and want pizza. You fire up a browser in your hotel room and go to a site (Google maps, Tripadvisor . .) which uses your current location to automatically show you all the pizza places within 5 miles of your location.

When I first explain this concept to people, the first response is usually something like: that’s scary. Understandably so, as this brings up new privacy concerns for web browsing. The ramifications of this technology are better left for another post, but I think Firefox does a good job of managing concerns. Whenever you visit a site that wants to make use of the feature, you are given a prompt that you can either accept or reject. This concept doesn’t seem so odd if you use the GPS features on an iPhone or other mobile devices, in this case, a mobile feature has paved the way for the web.

Actually, this technology has been usable as a plugin since Firefox 3.1, but is now built into the 3.5 version of the browser. One of the best places to see this in action is Flickr. The photo community site has long been on the leading edge of geotagging photos, there are roughly 80 million geotagged images on Flickr today. In addition to Flickr’s own geotagging tools, photographers have been able to add metadata to images for latitude and longitude since Photoshop 7 and you could cheaply and automatically add gps data to your images in 2006 (and perhaps earlier). Now, of course with millions of iPhones geotagging images with each shot, there is a mountain of gps data floating around.

See geotagging in action on Flickr

  1. Go to flickr.com/map
  2. Click on the FInd My Location button (As of this writing if you’re not in a geolocation aware browser, you won’t see this.)
  3. find_my_location_flickr

  4. You will be prompted by Firefox to either Share Your Location or Don’t Share. If you want to see it in action, click “Share . .”
  5. The Flickr map will now update to your location. Assuming there are geotagged images in your immediate area, you will see pink circles representing images on a local map. Additionally, a row of thumbnails representing these images appears at the bottom.

Click map to enlarge view.

The ability to view the connections between the geography of a location and images associated with this location is interesting to me. Here’s an example: last month some friends and I reserved a spot at a campsite none of us had ever been to. By using the Flickr map and browsing to the location it’s pretty obvious that there’s something of interest by the inlet near the eastern side of the lake. Might be a place to check out, right? What is interesting about this is that all things being equal, the “filter” of interesting images is generated by the collection of photographers and (in theory) was created organically. So you, the viewer, are making the connections, not a mapmaker or a moderator.

To learn how to add the geolocation code to your web pages and connect it with a web service, check this excellent tutorial from Studiowhiz.

Jul 13

Html “duh” moment #56372

I was recently doing a short tutorial on how to create named anchors in html. This is html 101 material, a basic concept most people learn on their first day or two of class. It’s a concept I’ve taught dozens of times before. However, today I learned something about anchors that made me think I should go back to remedial html class.

As a refresher, when you want to link to a section of a page rather than the top, you place a named anchor somewhere in your code. That might look like this:

<a name="myanchor">Yakety yak yak</a>

Then, you need to link to this named anchor using the following syntax:

Click <a href="#myanchor">here</a> for the yaks.

Ok, so far so good. Now, I was double-checking the details for the name attribute on the W3C site, a place I seldom visit because it usually ends up  scaring and confusing me. This time, I ran into something that was surprising. Because the name attribute and the id attribute both share common syntax: the pound sign (#), this means you can link to an id the same way you do with the name attribute.

So for example, I have an id named “social” at the bottom of my home page. I can directly link to this using the following syntax:

<a href="http:www.jeremyosborn.com#social">social</a>

In real usage it works like this

This tells me I might have to go back to remedial html class, because I had either overlooked or forgotten this. Looking at the syntax it makes perfect sense, both the name attribute and the id attribute use the ‘#’ sign. This knowledge exposes my old skool HTML training as I was using named anchors long before I started flinging Id’s all around with CSS.

Now that the veil has lifted from my eyes, I can see how this knowledge could be convenient when trying to link to an external site. You can  try this yourself in the browser, because all you need is the id name. For example, to link to the footer on Dan Cederholm’s Simplebits site, simply type http://www.simplebits.com/#extra into your browser. Crazy ey? (Of course, feel free to tell me everyone knew this already and I must be either a fraud or a dope).

The “duh” moment I had is that I’ve been targeting Id names for a while, it’s what allows for all that juicy Ajax goodness as in this example that smoothly scrolls your page to your anchors. Looking ahead, a  peek into the future tells me that naming everything with ids is the way the W3C wants us to go. According to the HTML 5 spec the “name” attribute will become obsolete, so goodbye “name” we hardly knew ye . . ..

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Jul 12

A book of famous Old New Orleans Recipes

This weekend I was at my parent’s house roaming around and I found this old cookbook in the attic named “A book of famous Old New Orleans Recipes.” I like cooking, was married in New Orleans and am a sucker for well designed old books, so this was pretty much the trifecta. After flipping through the pages I noticed that half the recipes required lard so I flipped to the front to see when the book was printed. Let’s see, “Copyright, 1900″. 1900?!

I love the simplicity of these pages with their sans-serif headings and readable measurements and directions. Even with the abbreviated recipes, some personality of the author peeks through the descriptions. (Although there is no author listed for the book anywhere, just a credit for the “Peerless Printing Company” in New Orleans). Compare these pages to modern cookbooks which fit one or two recipes per page and have luxurious color photographs every other page. Don’t get me wrong, I like food porn as much as the next person, but there’s something refreshing about a cookbook that fits 200+ recipes into 55 pages.

Click on thumbnails to see samples, you can also see these scans on my Flickr page.

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Jul 11

Wolfram Alpha and some Soba noodles

Sometime in May  (which feels like a year in Internet time) Wolfram Alpha was released to the public. Billed as a “computational knowledge engine” there was a bit of hype surrounding the technology behind it, the threat (if any) that Alpha might pose to Google and some backlash against Stephen Wolfram, the man lending his name to the technology.

Join me now, after the hype has died down,  in looking at a small slice of Alpha. On a whim I decided to jump over to the site when I became curious about Soba noodles. I wasn’t really sure what they were made of so I typed the phrase “Soba Noodles” into the input field.

I’m not sure what I was expecting, but it wasn’t the Nutrition Facts for a cup of Soba noodles:

One result for "Soba Noodes" on Wolfram Alpha

I was curious to know what kind of tech was behind this generated image: was it a .png, jpg, Flash? So I clicked on the image and was again surprised that a window appeared with the plaintext of the Nutritional Information making it easy to copy the data to your clipboard. (This is a feature of most results in Alpha, I discovered.)

Further down the results page, the Nutritional Information was divided into sections, my favorite was the “Highest nutrients in Soba noodles compared to other foods”. If you have a hankering for magnanese go get some Soba noodles.highest_nutrients_Soba_noodles

I modified my input to “2 cups soba noodles” and the results were quickly updated, which is kinda cool. This illustrates that Alpha’s name is apt, it is a “computational knowledge engine”, not a search engine. In fact, although it’s subtle, you can search either Google, Yahoo or Bing using your input by clicking the “Search the Web” section on the right hand side. In my case it was necessary, because nowhere on the page did it tell me that Soba noodles are made from buckwheat flour. It will be interesting to see how the technology behind the site evolves, I’m guessing it will gain a devoted but relatively small audience. I suspect if the company ever wants to have a larger profile their challenge will be explaining to the average user what it is they do.

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Jeremy Osborn's Blog

This is the weblog of Jeremy Osborn, a designer, educator and writer living in the Boston area. I write here about design, technology and other matters. Subscribe to the jeremyosborn.com RSS feed and follow me on Twitter.

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