Dick Tracy’s wrist radio is here

I remember reading about Dick Tracy in the funny papers when I was a boy. I always marveled at his nifty-neato wrist radio that sent pictures too. Years went by and I dabbled in all sorts of communication media, eventually finding my way to the wonderful world of webcams. At last I can chat with family and friends and there will be none of the maddening misunderstandings brought about by primitive text-only e-mail! Whoo hoo! Dick Tracy lives!

Excited beyond words (but not to worry, gestures come through fine on a webcam) I set about getting my friends and family set up to use their webcams – and thereby hangs this tale. While some of them had computers with built-in cameras others needed to buy an add-on. In some cases I discovered their computer simply didn’t have the oomph to make a webcam work properly. Eventually I came up with a short list of notes that any aspiring Dick Tracy would need to read:

  • If your computer is more than five years old you might not be able to use a webcam effectively. Processor speed over 1 GHz is helpful and more is better.
  • If you’re on dialup, stop trying and get cable or DSL.
  • Make sure there’s sufficient light for the camera to work – even the Bat Cave had lights.
  • Place the camera so when you look at the screen to see your fellow webanaut it appears you’re looking at them – i.e. the webcam app window should be close to the camera pickup. Otherwise you’ll appear to be looking in some random direction – distracting at best.
  • Make sure the camera is fastened down firmly or you’ll look like you’re in a continuous earthquake and your friends may need Dramamine.
  • Be sure to speak clearly and have as little ambient noise as possible – turn the heavy metal down/off and refrain from tapping on things.

Now that I had them wired up, the next step was getting on the right ‘wavelength’ – there’s a couple of ways you can connect webcam users:

Skype – originally an internet telephony tool, it now supports video and is available for PC and Macintosh computers. It’s fairly easy to set up and lets PC and Mac users connect seamlessly. You’ll need to get a free Skype account.

iChat – exclusively Mac but comes standard on new machines and is fall-off-a-log simple to set up and use. Requires an AOL instant messenger (AIM) account.

There are also literally dozens of other webcam-support programs out there but those two will give you the best chance of getting a relative newbie up and running.

So now that I’ve gotten my coterie of communication-savvy geeks and geekettes set up with webcams, good computers and software there’s only one question left:

What do we talk about?

Tune in next time when I’ll be discussing digital video. Until then remember: Webcams and wine don’t mix.

Doug Wray is webmaster for the CU-Boulder Alumni Association, an instructor at Boulder Digital Arts and a huge geek.

Geekspeak March 2010


How I learned to stop worrying and love writing on the web

All my life I’ve kept journals ― at first loose pages in a three-ring binder (remember THOSE?), which led to spiral-bound notebooks, hard-bound journals and finally as electronic files. Once I made the jump to the computer I thought, “Great! Now I’m really saving time and space.” But the further I got down the digital path, the more I realized I’d traded one set of limitations for another. Paper has a lovely random-access nature to it. You can leaf through a book and find an entry quickly, but not so with digital files. Folders of word-processor files are overwhelming and I didn’t dare keep it all as one big file. One mistake and I’d lose everything! So… what to do? About that point I started working on the web and fell in love with HTML and hyperlinked text. Now I was cookin’! Off I went building websites, linking pages and cranking out tons of content. Ultimately, I found the biggest obstacle to finding things was navigating to them. My navigation schemes got more powerful but were harder to maintain. There had to be a better way. That way turned out to be Web Content Management Systems (WCMS).

What’s a WCMS?

It’s a system for organizing information on the web by applying a navigation scheme/appearance to it. The navigation scheme/appearance is called a ‘theme’ and can be changed, essentially redesigning the site. The core of the WCMS is expandable via software plug-ins that add new features or change the behavior of core features.

What’s a blog?

First, it’s a neologism and a portmanteau word created from “web log,” which is a system of posting material organized by date and subject category. Readers are generally allowed to leave comments and some sites moderate user remarks while others just allow everything but investigate reports of bad behavior. So blogs now are very common and have spawned other forms of social media such as Facebook. There’s a lot of CMS systems out there – the ones that I considered using were Drupal, Joomla, MoveableType and WordPress.

Who needs a WCMS or a blog?

First, a brief overview: WCMSes create both pages and posts. The pages are what most people consider the website and there are parent and child pages, so information can be organized by the user rather than by date and category. So pages are the part of the site that’s more-or-less static and has fixed relationships, while the regular articles/announcements/etc in categories are the blog posts. has blog postings in these categories:

Posts enable, for example, your company’s event team to announce upcoming events, the communications team to publish their newsletter, the travel group to publish their upcoming trips and so on. It’s just dated material in categories. All these groups can enter new posts or update their information pages at the same time. It’s all done through the web. You surf to a page, enter credentials and step behind the curtain where you can edit the site’s content or appearance. Heady stuff.

RSS – Really Simple Syndication

One of the features of WCMSes is RSS. Sorry for the series of sequential sibilants. It’s for a website that has an audience (however small!) that wants to know when there’s something new to read. E-mail was the usual way until some bright person thought up aggregation and suggested that site operators have their CMSes produce a file ― the RSS file ― containing a standard list of the latest posts in their blogs. Then browsers like Firefox and aggregating programs can collect new post listings, alerting the faithful that the Wall Street Journal has a new article or their favorite cartoon superhero has a new adventure. It’s more of a user pull method than a provider push using e-mail. You get the news faster and have the ability to monitor many news sources at once. It’s created a whole new breed of netizen: the news junkie. So if a friend tells you about a great new way to get your news, beware. You may be on the road to news addiction! Here’s a little taste of RSS to help you get hooked started:

Note, you might want to investigate an RSS ‘aggregator’ like NetNewsWire for the Apple Macintosh or FeedDemon for IBM-PC. While your browser can aggregate RSS feeds, these programs provide some great features. I encourage you to check them out. So, ’til next time, keep your passwords obscure and your cache files clean when I’ll be talking about webcams. Doug Wray is the webmaster for the CU-Boulder Alumni Association.

The Future will be Padded

This is the inaugural posting of GeekSpeak, a monthly snapshot of web technologies (existing and brand new) as well as advice on how they can benefit you as a netizen.

This month I’ll be discussing the new Apple iPad and my thoughts on it.

When I was growing up information came in only a few channels: word of mouth, print and broadcast (tv and radio). The “information superhighway” wasn’t even a rude trail in the forest yet.

By the time I graduated from college the internet had appeared along with some new information channels: websites, e-mail and chat rooms. Computers went from being rare curiosities to commonplace fixtures.

With the rise of the internet came the decline of newspapers and magazines, rudely shoved aside by news sites and a wave of web logs (blogs). Consumers of this “new media” insist on up-to-the-second information and use specialized monitoring programs (feed readers and aggregators) to watch scores of sites for any tidbits that might appear.

For content-hungry consumers the smartphone isn’t quite enough (too slow, too small) and a laptop is too much (too bulky, too heavy). Apple’s “Air” portable sought to address those issues with an ultra slim design and improved battery life but was just slightly wide of the mark. Users wanted something compact, fast enough for general use and light enough to take everywhere – and I mean everywhere – remember the shower radio?

Enter the iPad.

A tool for web browsing, email, video and data entry, the iPad is a LCD touchscreen with a proprietary Apple chip driving it. The iPad eschews ungainly hard disk drives, using compact chip-based “flash RAM” instead. The all-solid-state storage has some excellent advantages: size, higher efficiency (i.e. longer device battery life), superior durability (no head crashes) and fast read/write speed. The primary drawback is price – roughly 10x the price of hard disk storage – so the advantages come with a hefty price tag.

However, once past the wallet-clubbing troll you’re over the digital bridge into a world where all the major newspapers are literally at your fingertips. A tap opens a story, a pinch-open gesture enlarges and a hand-swipe pans or scrolls. Video and music are simple and fun. You can video conference with a friend while you’re riding the bus to work thanks to the device’s 4G network connection. In short, it’s lighter than a laptop, nearly as fast (faster in some cases) and big enough to read like a folded-up newspaper – and no ink stains!

Oh, did I mention e-books?

Apple’s online store lets users download music, e-books and video effortlessly. Hear of a great new novel on a website? A few taps, pinches and swipes and you’ve got it in your hand. Love the book? Drop the author a kudo via e-mail. Did I mention you’re still on the bus? Reach your destination, drop the iPad into your briefcase or messenger bag and it will sleep (power save) on its own, ready to jump back to  work when you pull it out at coffee time or lunch.

We may just be seeing the beginning of the end for paper-based content.

My only question is: where’s all the content for this brave new world coming from?

We’ll talk about that next time when I discuss blogging software and content management systems.

Till then, keep geekin!