hippo's n00b adventures

a technology blog

“Please, no more Comic Sans!” Google Web Fonts & Typekit

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Phew!  I recently got a new domain name and web host and gave a fresh look to my website (one could say that I’m lazy with my designs, I prefer to call it “minimalist”).  The portfolio part is still incomplete as I have not yet determined how it will be organised (and what I should put in there, for that matter – is there anything really? Haha) but (fingers crossed!) I will complete it before uni starts again.

Anyway, while I was doing all of this I came across this cool tool to add fancy open source fonts to your website.  It’s called Google Web Fonts and it is currently a free service.

Fonts available include the standard open source fonts such as Open Sans, Droid Sans (found on the Android OS) and Ubuntu.

There are also some fancy unique fonts available.  My personal favourites are Questrial and Leckerli One, which I used on my new website (see below!)

It’s quite easy to install these fonts too. There’s no need to upload the font file onto your server and link to them into your code like in the good ‘ol days – just choose the fonts you would like to implement (there is also a handy guide to tell you how much time it will take for the chosen fonts and your web page to load), and copy and paste in the code snippets that they give you into your HTML and CSS code.

If you’re looking for a wider range of fonts and extra features, Typekit is a great service, which has recently been acquired by Adobe.  Typekit offers a wider range than Google’s service.  Corner Store is my personal favourite – reminds me of signs for a milk bar or diner in the 50s.

Typekit offers several pricing plans, including free trial plan. Fonts are installed onto your website in a similar way to Google Web Fonts.  This service also has the option of integrating your custom corporate font and fonts from other foundries.

The range of fonts and features on Typekit is ideal for professional web designers.  But if you’re like me – your typical stingy uni student – Google Web Fonts provides excellent fonts for you to use at your disposal for your website for free.  There’s nothing wrong with your standard Arial or Helvetica, but try these services out if you would like to go beyond your standard Sans-Serif font for your web design.

Just – whatever you do – please stay away from Comic Sans.

Heuristic Evaluation for Interface Designs

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At the moment I’m working on a major project for uni, which is a catalog and order database for telesales consultants of a department store (hypothetical scenario and company by the way).  I was part of the team for designing the user interface.

Being a total n00b (as usual) at Interface Design, I decided to go and do my own research in this area.  Then in one of my other subjects, Web Services Development, I came across a Heuristic Evaluation checklist, made by Jakob Nielsen.

This checklist evaluated an interface design’s usability according to a heuristic or a guideline principle.  I decided to put the 10 Recommended Heuristics into a table similar to this:

Guideline Principle Does it fulfil the principle? If not, how can we improve the design?
Visibility of system status
Match between system and the real world
User control and freedom
Consistency and standards
Error prevention
Recognition rather than recall
Flexibility and efficiency of use
Aesthetic and minimalist design
Help users recognise, diagnose and recover from errors
Help and documentation

(for a further description of the guideline principle, please visit the Heuristic Evaluation website).

Then use this table to quickly evaluate interfaces similar to what we wanted to achieve for our major project.  We evaluated existing Mail Order Databases and E-Commerce databases.

After our prototype for the database was completed, we decided to use the same checklist to evaluate our own design.  We got other members of the team to fill out this checklist.

We had a simple yet effective method of evaluating our prototype’s usability.  Try it yourself next time you have to design a prototype!  For more info, please visit the Heuristic Evaluation website.

Now that task has been completed, I am currently in the process of working on end user documentation.  Perhaps a future blog post on that as well? xD

Jacquard’s Web – James Essinger: Book Review

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Book Cover for Jacquard's Web

Book Cover for Jacquard's Web

So apparently the Information Age all started with a French silk hand loom made in 1804.  Whaaaaa?

I recently finished Jacquard’s Web written by James Essinger and it was interesting to see how the Information Age grew from (yes) a silk hand loom invented by Joseph-Marie Jacquard.  The concept of the silk hand loom, with its weaving patterns and punch cards, inspired Charles Babbage to invent the Analytical Machine and Ada Lovelace to become the first-ever programmer.  It also inspired Herman Hollerith to develop the punch card machine and Howard Aiken to build the Harvard Mark I – the first general-purpose computer.  And of course, these machines helped build a technology empire in the early 20th century – IBM.

Essinger also points out several events in the past which are prevalent today every time a new technology is created – for example, when Jacquard invented the hand loom, it replaced the jobs of many draw-boys who weaved silk manually.  “The path to acceptance of a new invention in the world at large is rarely a smooth one”, Essinger writes.

Another interesting fact that I discovered was that Babbage and Lovelace didn’t actually get to see the Analytical Machine in existence – the technology available to them at that time was insufficient.  The concept was waayyyy before their time – it was only until the 20th century the concept could be pursued further with Hollerith’s punch card machines.

Oh and another thing – Babbage actually turned down Lovelace’s help for the development of the machine. Intriguing stuff there.

This is the first book I’ve read on the history of computers.  I reckon it’s a great book and it doesn’t drill facts into your mind – Essinger almost writes it as if it were a novel, not just some dull university textbook.  Also I think sometimes we have to look into the past for guidance into the future, so IT geeks out there should find this book quite informative.  Just letting you know though, the latest publication was in 2007, so it only touches on the computer history up until that point (I’m not sure if there is an updated version).

Overall, Jacquard’s Web is a fascinating book on the bloom of the Information Age and I recommend it to any reader with an interest on computer history – tech-savvy or not.

GIMP/IOGraph experimentation

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So lately I’ve been playing around fun apps – one of them is IOGraph.  It’s a Java app which records your mouse movements and turns them into “art”.  It gives you an interesting perspective on your typical computer routine.

Once you stop recording, you can save the image on your computer.  You can do whatever you want with it – make it your desktop wallpaper, post it on your blog/Twitter/Facebook, etc.

I also used GIMP, an open source and totally free graphics program and a great alternative to Adobe Photoshop.  Years ago I wouldn’t have used it – I found it wasn’t as user-friendly as PS, Paint Shop Pro or even Macromedia Fireworks (do they still make that nowadays?).  Thankfully it’s improved, saving poor uni students like me.  You can even add really cool plugins to enhance your work in GIMP – I’ll try and review one in a future blog post.

A few days ago I used IOGraph to record the mousepaths used in my mockup design work.  I thought the end result was worth experimenting in GIMP.

What I did was use the “Sunset” gradient as a separate layer on top of the original picture, then played around with the Blending Modes (I think I settled on “Grain Merge”).  I found that the background was a bit too “chaotic” as a desktop wallpaper (it clashed with icons) so then I added a white layer on top and reduced its opacity (to be honest, it might still be too “chaotic”, but try it). This is the result below (click on it for a full picture):

GIMP/IOGraph Experimentation

Et voila – a free, decent, “arty” wallpaper using free programs.

Written by Hippo

July 19, 2011 at 4:46 am

The Quest to Uninstall MagicDisc

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So sometimes I play tech support to my dad.  He reckons it’s good practice for me, which is a pretty valid reason.  I often call it my n00b adventures, because I don’t know what causes the problem, but I can find out how to fix it (thank you Google, my friend).

Recently he decided to download a perfectly legal tool – or so we thought.  It’s called MagicDisc and it’s used for opening ISO files (after he discovered WinRAR didn’t do the job he wanted).  My dad did a bit of research of it and found plenty of good reviews (which I’m doubting that they’re real reviews at all at the moment).  Once he installed it, he found it didn’t work.  So he decided to uninstall it.  But he couldn’t.  His computer froze.  He rebooted, and tried again.  Still frozen.

As it turns out, he wasn’t the only one with this problem.  There were heaps of forum posts on this error.  But after much searching it all came down to the MagicISO SCSI Host Controller, also known as mcdbus.sys.  To fix it, he had to do:

  1. Enter Safe Mode (by pressing F8 during reboot)
  2. Go to C:\Windows\System32\Drivers
  3. Delete mcdbus.sys
  4. Reboot.

Now he could uninstall the MagicDisc program.  Another way (and probably more simpler) is a System Restore. However the above process shows which system file is the cause of the problem.

I’m not even sure why it happened.  It’s not even malware – but it’s considered to be 32% dangerous.  It could possibly be because it was an older version of MagicDisc.  However, dad’s now decided to search for more trustworthy software.

More useful resources:
http://www.sevenforums.com/software/3263-cant-uninstall-magic-disc-causing-crashes-2.html

Written by Hippo

July 15, 2011 at 1:53 pm

Supposed “Microsoft tech support” – beware!

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Hey guys! So yesterday I received a call from a supposed “Windows 7 tech support” and told us that something was wrong with our computer and it needed to be fixed. The conversation roughly ran something like this:

Dude on the phone: [garble, paper shuffling] Hello, I’m calling from Windows 7 Tech Support. There’s something wrong with your computer-

Me: What? What do you mean?

Dude on the phone: There is something wrong with your computer.

Me: There’s nothing wrong with my computer.

Dude on the phone: You may not be aware of it, but your computer has actually generated several error messages on our servers, telling us there’s something wrong with your computer, and we’re here to fix it.

Me: Hm, ok. So what now?

Dude on the phone: If you would like to reboot your computer ma’am-

Me: (now at this point, I could smell something suspicious. Also, I was pretty lazy that day and didn’t want to actually do anything productive – it’s friggin’ uni break!) Uhh sorry I’m actually pretty busy right now, can you call later?

Dude on the phone: When would be a good time?

Me: 6pm. [hangs up]

I kinda felt guilty for cutting him off like that, but I did think it was suspicious. So I decided to research it – I Googled  “windows 7 phone call error”.  Turns out there were tons of forum posts and articles from people who received similar calls. The caller usually asked you to do several things, starting off with booting up your computer.  These scams are pretty nasty – they get you to go into a certain website and enter in a code to see the supposed “error messages” of the computer.  They will then ask you to purchase software to “fix” your computer.

But in reality you have been tricked into downloading malware – totally ruining the computer. In addition the caller (or whatever evil hacking group he’s working for) now can access your computer remotely AND has your credit card details.

This cybercrime is known as “phone phishing”.  Apparently it has been occurring for a while now, but incidents like this have become a lot more common in Australia recently.  This has been my first encounter with them.

What makes it so tricky is the fact that these callers are prepared. They’re armed with your name, and your phone number. If you ask them for a number, they’ll give it to you (even though it only leads to a voicemail box).  If you ask them who they are, and where they’re calling from, they’ll give you their name and say they’re from Australia or the UK or whatever country you happen to be in. They’ll work hard to gain your trust. And if you’re not aware of the scams, it’s can be quite believable.

But all in all:

  • Microsoft will not make unsolicited calls to households telling them that there’s something wrong with your computer.  Don’t believe it!
  • If you feel there’s something suspicious about the call (e.g. they tell you there’s something wrong with your computer, even though you know there isn’t, and you didn’t call tech support beforehand), it probably is. Hang up.
  • Tell your friends and family about it, even the tech-savvy people. They need to be aware of this.
So the dude actually called up again, about an hour later than I had proposed.  I left them to my mother, who I told the scam about. She knows how to handle these people.

Dude on the phone: Hello, I’m calling from Windows 7-

Mum: Sorry, not interested. [hangs up]

Useful Resources:
http://www.smartcompany.com.au/information-technology/20110629-microsoft-tech-support-phone-scam-escalates.html
http://www.crn.com/news/security/230800173/microsoft-warns-of-tech-support-phone-scam.htm?itc=refresh
http://forums.whirlpool.net.au/archive/1200200
http://blogs.msdn.com/b/securitytipstalk/archive/2010/03/09/don-t-fall-for-phony-phone-tech-support.aspx

Written by Hippo

July 6, 2011 at 2:51 pm

Hello world!

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My first post 🙂 More to come soon, stay tuned 😀

Written by Hippo

July 3, 2011 at 2:52 pm

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