Continuing Development of Accessibility Aids

Technology continues to improve in its support for those with special needs. I try to read as many articles as I can on the subject because I truly believe that computers offer the means to provide a level playing surface for everyone. I’ve posted a number of other times about improvements in technology that will eventually help people lead better lives, even when they have special requirements. As our population continues to age, this technology will also help older people in the population to continue making valuable contributions to society as a whole, so these technologies aren’t just for the few—everyone is affected at some point.

I read with interest a story about new bionic hand. The problem with any prosthetic limb is that it doesn’t provide feedback. Without touch, using a prosthetic is incredibly hard. You must be able to feel what is happening at the end of your arm. This new bionic hand does just that—it provides some level of feedback using the person’s own nervous system. I find this amazing because it would have been science fiction just a few years ago. I had previously written about the ability of someone to simply think about the motion required to perform a task in The Bionic Person, One Step Closer, but this is different. Not only can the person think about what to do, but they can also feel the activity when they do it. Of course, it isn’t anywhere near as useful as a real hand, but technology takes small steps forward.

This new hand isn’t permanent yet, nor are any of the other exciting technologies in the works right now. The biggest problem is that the electrodes used to communicate with the brain cause problems—essentially, the body rejects them. In addition, the prosthetic limbs have a long way to go before they become as usable as natural limbs. For example, a natural hand has 22 degrees of controls, while the best that a prosthetic limb can manage is seven.

Many of the technologies used to help people with visual problems have been temporary as well. However, a new bionic eye may change that. In this case, the eye is designed to help someone with a specific eye disease and they must still wear special glasses to make the modifications work. However, the eye implant is permanent in this case, which means that after surgery a person has a permanent change in their vision that they can count on using.

This truly is an exciting time because it’s slowly becoming possible to give people their lives back when something catastrophic happens. Many of the articles that I’ve read say that it will still take 20 or 30 years before science has developed limbs and other body parts that function as well as the real thing, but every advance made does help at least a little. What are your thoughts on the bionic person? Let me know at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

 

Installing and Managing Third Party Products

Most of my books make recommendations about third party products that you can use to enhance your computing experience. Each of these products is tested during the writing process, but without any of the add-on applications that may come with the product. For example, if I test a Windows enhancement product, I don’t test the toolbar that comes with that product. So, it’s important to realize that the advice you obtain in the book doesn’t include those add-on features.

However, it’s important to take a step back at this point and discuss why the product includes an add-on in the first place. Just like you, the product vendor has bills to pay and must obtain money from somewhere to pay them. An important concept to remember when working with computers is that free doesn’t exist. Typically, product vendors who offer free products will do so by paying for them in one of these ways:

  • Advertisements: Advertising comes in many forms, not just banner ads. Marketing types constantly come up with new ways to advertise products and induce you to buy them. A developer can obtain payment from advertisements in several ways, such as referral fees.
  • Product Add-ons: A developer can provide the means to install other products with the product that you’re installing. The company who provides the additional product sponsors the free product that you’re using.
  • Marketing Agreements: The application collects information about you and your system when you install it and the developer sells this information to marketing companies.
  • Value-added Products: The free product that you’re using is just a sample of some other product that the developer provides. If you like the free product, the developer is hoping that you’ll eventually purchase the full-fledged product.
  • Government Grants: A developer creates a product after obtaining a grant from the government. You pay for the product through your taxes.
  • Sponsorship: A larger company supports a developer’s work to determine whether the idea is marketable or simply the seed of something the larger company can develop later. You pay for the product through higher prices when you buy something from the larger company.

There are other methods that developers use to get paid for their work, but the bottom line is that they get paid. Whenever you see free, your mind should say, “This product doesn’t cost money, but there is some other price.” You need to decide whether you’re willing to pay the price the developer is asking. In the case of a government grant, you’ve already paid the price.

When you install a free product, you must watch the installation routine carefully. In almost every case, you must opt out of installing add-on products that the free product supports. So, you have to read every screen carefully because these opt-out check boxes are usually small and hard to see. The developer really isn’t pulling a fast one—just trying to earn a living. Make sure you clear any check boxes you see for installing add-on products if you don’t want that product on your machine. The reason I don’t discuss these check boxes in my books is that they change constantly. Even if I were to tell you about the check boxes that appeared at the time I installed the free product, your experience is bound to be different.

Of course, you might accidentally install one of these add-ons, an add-on that you really didn’t want. In this case, you must locate the product in the list of products installed on your system, such as the Programs and Features applet of the Control Panel for Windows users. The product name won’t be straightforward, but a little research will help you find it. Simply uninstall the add-on product. However, it’s always better to avoid installing something you don’t want to begin with, rather than remove it later, because few applications uninstall cleanly (even those from larger vendors such as Microsoft).

Unfortunately, there isn’t much I can do to help you when you install an add-on product. I do have some experience with the third party product in my book, but I won’t know anything about the add-on product. You need to contact the developer of the third party product to ask for advice in removing it from your system. This may seem like I’m passing the buck, but the truth is that the add-on products change all the time and there simply isn’t any way I can keep up with them all. When in doubt, don’t install a product, rather than being sorry you installed it later. Let me know your thoughts on third party products at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

 

Seeing Ice Feathers on the Ground

One of the nicer things about living where we are is that there is always something unusual to see. Nature is always presenting us with something interesting—all we have to do is keep our eyes open to see it. That’s what happened the other day. The weather was just perfect for creating ice feathers. Here’s one view of the ice feathers:

IceFeathers01

If you get close enough, they actually look like little feathers. Another name for ice feathers is rime ice. The name ice feathers is a bit more poetic and also more descriptive of a particular kind of rime ice. The crystals form when moist air, wind, and cold surface temperatures combine to create a kind of artistic statement. This sort of ice feather is somewhat rare—I remember seeing it only a few times in my entire life.

Some people might also call ice features like this hoarfrost, and that would possibly be an appropriate name, except that hoarfrost is the result of dew, where ice feathers form from melted water carried on the wind. There are minor distinctions between hoarfrost, rime ice, ice feathers, and other ice formations—all of which are quite beautiful. When I saw these ice feathers on the ground though, I knew they would be something special. You can see them in a little more detail in this picture.

IceFeathers02

Nature is always presenting us with something pretty. Whether it’s a sundog, an ice draped tree, or ice feathers, winter does have its own vision of beauty to offer. What is the most beautiful feature of winter that you’ve seen? Let me know at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

 

Winter Cactus Color

One of the issues that we face living where we do is the bleakness of winter. Yes, it’s just lovely sitting in front of the wood stove soaking in the heat, but the short days and gray skies do take a toll after a while. Even the heartiest of us feels a certain yearning for summer months of long days and warmer climes. However, I personally wouldn’t be without winter because there is too much to see and overall, it’s a pleasant season despite the occasional bout of depression.

Fortunately, there are many ways to combat the fatigue that comes with extended cold and short days. One of the ways in which we do this is to have lots of plants in our home. My office has more than a few. I personally like cactus. They’re easy to care for, have interesting foliage, and the cats definitely don’t like to eat them. A favorite cactus of mine is the Mistletoe Cactus. The foliage really is interesting and it just looks fun. Imagine my surprise when it bloomed for the first time after I owned it for 16 years. It has bloomed again this year, much to my delight.

Cactus

The interesting thing about my mistletoe cactus is that the blooms are bright yellow, not white like many pictures you see of them. According to the source I read, there are actually 35 varieties of this delightful plant that produce blossoms in white, red, pink, and yes, even yellow. The flowers look almost like they’re made of plastic and it was quite tough to get the picture you see in my post today.

House plants of any sort can help lift your mood. If you find that you have a terrible case of the winter blahs, try getting a flowering plant to care for. A truly interesting plant can take your mind off the weather and can prove to be quite fun. I’ve had this particular plant for over 20 years now and I’ve heard of people who have had theirs for 40 or more years, so I imagine I’ll see it bloom a few more times. What are your favorite winter plants? Let me know at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

 

Animal Control

Self-sufficiency involves a certain level of animal control no matter where you live. A weasel, raccoon, or opossum (amongst others) can make short work of your meat chickens, laying hens, or rabbits. Unfortunately, literature on animal control is lacking. Even when you review many self-sufficiency books, it’s as if the authors purposely avoid the topic. When you do find information on the topic, it’s often biased or outright incorrect. Our experiences when we first moved here were frustrating in the best of times because we lacked animal control experience. When the deer weren’t eating our trees, the raccoons were feasting on our chickens.

We do have some significant animal control issues at times because we live next to a relatively big wooded area. Even though the woods look empty quite a bit of the time, there are animals galore in it. Of course, we have many of the same animals that appear in city parks, such as squirrels. Except for chewing holes in our bird house and occasionally through the siding on our home, squirrels present few problems. However, there are other animals that are much harder to control and they can cause serious damage at times.

Many sources recommend live trapping animals and moving them somewhere else, which sounds like a fine idea until you consider the repercussions of such a decision. Of course, there are the consequences for the animal, who has now been made homeless and may be in some other animal’s territory. In some cases, moving the animal is a death sentence at the hands of a larger member of the same species who will simply do away with the interloper. The consequences for someone like me are also unpleasant because your problem is now my problem. In short, live trapping and moving an animal seldom solves the problem unless you can be certain that the animal will end up in a friendly environment far enough from humans not to cause trouble.

Generally, we try to shoo animals away when we can. If you make the animal feel unwelcome enough, it’ll go somewhere else. Some animals will simply ignore you. Skunks are an obvious example and personally, I stay as far away from them as possible (not that we’ve ever had a serious problem with skunks, except for the time our dog got sprayed by one). Opossums are generally inclined to ignore humans as well. However, a few nips from a dog generally convinces them to go in some other direction.

Sometimes shooing doesn’t work, so then we try barriers—either physical or scent. A fence around young trees or blueberry bushes will generally keep deer away. However, rabbits, mice, voles, rats, and other animals will simply burrow under the fence to get at the delicious young plants unless you bury the fence about foot or so deep in the soil. Scents also have a powerful effect on animals, but you must reapply them regularly, especially after a rain. Soap does work for deer, while human or other barrier scents work for rabbits much of the time.

Passive barriers might not work in all cases, so then you have to resort to active barriers. To get our grapes to grow, we actually stationed a dog next to the young plants one season. It was an extreme sort of barrier, but the dog seemed to enjoy the change in duty and the grapes have now grown so that none of the local animals have much interest in them. We always station a dog next to our chicken tractors because racoons and weasels aren’t easily dissuaded from enjoying a chicken dinner. Even with a dog stations next to the cages, you need a strong cage to avoid predation by hawks and other larger predators.

Most of our efforts at animal control involve deterrence of some kind. We’ll keep experimenting until we find something that that animal doesn’t like. Unfortunately, sometimes there is nothing else to do but to get rid of the problem by killing the problem animal. It’s always our last option and we do it with a great deal of remorse. The other day I encountered a situation where an opossum had chewed through our rabbit cage, partially eaten the rabbit inside, and was busily working at getting to the rabbit in the next cage. (The same opossum had eaten some of our eggs the day before, so it was a repeat offender.) Shooing the opossum didn’t work and it didn’t seem to want to play dead either (a state in which you can move the opossum out of harm’s way). So, I ended up killing it. We use the fastest, most humane method possible. I offered the opossum to our local fox at her den in the woods (wasting anything is against my personal beliefs).

Animal control requires experimentation and a good deal of thought. The animals aren’t pests; they’re simply trying to earn a living in the only way they know how. Deterrence is always preferable to killing, but sometimes you do need to kill an animal because you have no other choice. Let me know your thoughts on animal control at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

 

Pros and Cons of Weight Loss

I’ve created two previous posts about my experiences with self-sufficiency as they apply to health benefits: Health Benefits of Self-Sufficiency and Health Benefits of Self-Sufficiency (Part 2). A number of people have read those posts and come away with some ideas that might not reflect the reality of my weight loss or weight loss in general. The five biggest concepts in my weight loss program are:

  • I never specifically set out to lose weight.
  • There wasn’t any dieting involved, the weight came off naturally as a result of the techniques I used.
  • The motivation was to become self-sufficient, which means eating food we grow ourselves.
  • Growing your own food involves a lot of exercise, but it isn’t the sort of exercise one gets from a gym.
  • Part of the solution involves getting proper rest and following the cycles of sun availability throughout the year (for example, we get up 2 ½ hours later in the winter than we do in the summer).

It’s important to step back at times and review how a specific set of actions has affected you, which is something I have done as part of this weight loss adventure. The person who crafted the statement, “There is no free lunch.” hit the nail on the head when it comes to weight loss—at least in my case.

Those previous posts stated a lot of benefits for losing weight. Getting rid of my medications, gaining stamina, lowering my blood pressure, controlling my diabetes through diet alone, and increasing my flexibility are all incredibly positive reasons for losing weight. Even though I have no way of proving it, I have probably increased my lifespan and I’ll be able to enjoy more of that lifespan. Just the decrease of pressure on my joints would be worth the loss of weight.

I keep getting asked whether I feel better. People seem disappointed when I tell them no. I actually don’t feel better—I feel different, but not better. When I weighed as much as I did, I was no less happy than I am today. I didn’t walk around constantly sad and I didn’t feel fat. A better word would be that I felt robust. The fact of the matter is that I was still quite active, even with all that weight in place. So, I would consider the whole issue of feeling better as a neutral element of weight loss for me.

There are negatives to my weight loss and there are people who seem surprised that I would have any negatives to express. The obvious negative is that I’m not able to eat all of the foods I used to enjoy. I’ve replaced those foods with healthier alternatives. To say that I don’t occasionally eye something that would absolutely trash my body and still feel a desire for it would be absolutely incorrect. I sometimes indulge, just a little, in those old habits, but they’re no longer part of my daily life. The reason is simple—I don’t want to spend my hard earned cash on those products (an answer that many find surprising). I do greatly enjoy my new food choices, but anyone who is honest about the matter of diet will tell you that the old food choices really do retain some level of appeal. I resist those options because they simply cost too much to attract my attention and I’ve grown used to the taste of better alternatives.

An interesting negative, at least for me, is that I can’t stay out in the cold as long as I once did. My body, sans the blubber that used to insulate it, simply doesn’t deal with the cold as well as it did in the past. The fact that I can work faster and that I’ve gained flexibility tends to overcome some of this limitation, but there are times when I would like to stay out longer, but simply can’t because my body won’t allow it. Observing nature is one situation in which I find the lack of durability in the cold to be an issue. I’m also having to be more concerned about the potential for frostbite when I work outside.

My work strategy has had to change. I replaced muscle and weight with flexibility and stamina. A log that I would have easily moved when I weighed more is no longer easy to move. I now have to apply other techniques to move the log and those techniques have to rely on my new fortes. A number of people have wondered why the muscle hasn’t been replaced since my weight stabilized. I don’t have an answer to that question, but I do know I have less muscle now than I once did, despite working hard to increase my muscle mass. I do have the muscle required to perform common tasks. For example, lifting 100 pound sacks of feed doesn’t present any sort of problem.

After talking with my doctor for a while, we decided that I do need to keep a little extra weight on for times when I get sick. I was finding that I would get incredibly weak quite fast when ill after losing weight. When I weighed more, I’d hardly notice any effect from being ill, except the actual illness (such as stuffy nose). The weakness afterward is a new wrinkle that I’m having to deal with. That said, I don’t get sick very often and the amount of extra weight is quite small (about ten pounds). Given the amount of weight that I have lost and the level of activity that I experience, the doctor and I both felt the trade-offs were acceptable.

The point is that any sort of major body change is going to involve choices and consequences. To gain the things that I have through weight loss, I’ve had to accept the consequences. Before you embark on a journey that involves a major body change, make sure you talk with your doctor and do some research. Be aware of the consequences of your actions and make sure you are willing to live with those consequences. Let me know your thoughts on weight loss at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

 

Perfect Love (Reposted)

A good friend requested that I post this poem again for Valentine’s Day. It is my hope that you are spending the day with a loved one and truly do have perfect love in your heart.

Perfect love casts out my fear.
Keep your perfect love so near
that I never fear again.
Perfect love for you attain,
‘til my heart with love is filled
and my spirit never chilled.

All around the world I see,
how a perfect love could be,
an answer for mankind’s woes,
when hatred and evil flows,
fueled by fires of doubt and fear,
no one lets the other near.

Open eyes to perfect love,
gift of wonder from above.
A love that gives, never takes,
love that grants others mistakes,
that counts no loss and no gain,
that makes our hearts young again.

Copyright 2012, John Paul Mueller

Future Directions in Computer Science

There are many people in the computer industry today claiming that the PC is dead. Even Intel is bidding a fond adieu to the making of motherboards—certainly that sounds the death knell for the technology! Before we all succumb to PC is dead mania, it’s time to do a little thinking. The problems with this perspective are many:

  • The PC has a huge installed base and no one in their right mind is simply going to throw all those machines away.
  • The PC currently provides the best method for speedy data input and many other mundane tasks.
  • Many current applications don’t scale well to smaller footprint devices.
  • Using a desktop system provides management with ways of monitoring employee activity that management won’t want to give up anytime soon.
  • From a cost perspective, the PC is an extreme deal because it has turned into a commodity, so people will continue to buy them.

What has happened to the PC is that it’s a victim of its own success. New systems provide faster processors, more memory, and larger hard drives. The displays get ever more impressive and there are subtle, though small, changes that are attractive, but nothing to cause people to throw out their old machine. The fact is that the modern PC is so fast and well equipped that it has greatly outpaced the requirements of the software running on it. There is no reason to replace a PC anymore until the system simply dies from old age. In short, sales are down because people only buy a new PC when they need to replace their old one.

However, people will continue to use their desktop systems or a laptop equivalent because they need the functionality that the PC provides. It simply isn’t possible to run a business by typing everything on a smartphone screen (not unless you’re into repetitive stress injuries). From a computer scientist’s perspective, the PC still makes a great platform for writing applications. It is the basic machine that everyone uses, despite the fact that everyone seems to think it’s dead.

There are many assumed dead things in the world of computers. For example, everyone assumes that COBOL is dead, but it isn’t. We’ve been reading about the death of COBOL as a language for years and it isn’t even taught in colleges anymore, yet if you used an ATM anytime recently, you probably relied on a COBOL application to make the transaction. PCs are coming to the same transitional phase. Everyone will continue to use PCs in some fashion, but the growth phase of the PC is over, so the PC will appear less glamorous in the years to come—it will become yet another tool. In some respects, the PC will become like a car. They’re both complex devices that people take for granted because they’re commodities. In addition, both require specialized skills to work on and yet have devoted legions of non-professional adherents.

The direction computer science is taking today is the browser-based application. The reason is relatively simple. People now use multiple devices to perform tasks, but the common element for all of these devices is a browser that can host applications. Having the same application to perform common tasks on each device is a necessity if the person is to accomplish anything useful. In addition, tastes in devices vary between people. These devices have differing capabilities and flexibility. An application today must run equally well in every environment. Even in a controlled environment, people are working with more types of devices from a variety of vendors—the focus is less on compatibility and more on what appeals to the person in the way of features.

This change in focus in the reason I’ve started to focus my efforts more on technologies you can use to create applications that work anywhere on any device. It’s the reason I chose to write books such as HTML5 Programming with JavaScript For Dummies and Java eLearning Kit for Dummies (which is completed, but currently on hold). Yes, I’ll continue to write about Microsoft technologies because I truly believe the PC has a future, albeit a less exciting one than in the past. However, look for me to embrace this new future in upcoming posts and books with greater fervor. I’d love to hear your input on the future of computer science. Where do you think applications are headed? Let me know your ideas at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

 

VBA and Office 2013 (Part 2)

I had posted some comments about using VBA with Office 2013 in my VBA and Office 2013 post. This post was based on the preview and not on the released product. Even so, most of the comments in that post still hold true. If you’re working with the desktop version of the product, you’ll find that most of the examples in VBA for Dummies will still work fine. However, the book is getting long in the tooth and the last version of Office that worked absolutely perfectly with the book was Office 2003. Since that release, Microsoft has made it progressively harder to use VBA as a viable development solution for the power user, hobbyist, and even the less skilled developer.

There are some new issues for Office 2013 that you need to know about. Most notably, it appears that some people can’t even access the Templates folder any longer without resorting to a kludge. By default, Office 2013 displays the Office.com templates and hides your personal templates, which should be a real productivity killer for the enterprise environment where custom templates reign. Yes, there is a fix for the problem (just click the links I’ve provided), but the issue is that you have to apply the fix to individual systems.

The fact of the matter is that Microsoft is making it abundantly clear that it would prefer that you not write applications for Office unless you’re willing to use Apps for Office. However, the process for creating an application in this manner is hardly as straightforward or as easy as using VBA. As far as I know, the template issue only affects one of the examples in Chapter 11. Please let me know if other chapters are affected by this issue (or any other Office 2013 issue for that matter). You can use the example in Chapter 11 after you apply the fix that is provided by Microsoft or third parties for regaining access to your personal templates.

Microsoft is also making a strong push for Office 365. This online version of Office can’t use VBA in any form. Even if you have your own templates and have carefully crafted VBA macros that would run with the desktop version of the product, you’re out of luck when it comes to Office 365. If you have this version of Office, you simply can’t use my book—attempting to do so is a waste of time.

You can continue to get full support for VBA for Dummies with desktop versions of Office, but may have to resort to some special changes as Microsoft makes Office less amenable to use with VBA. Please make sure you read the VBA for Dummies posts on my blog for updates and help with both Office 2007 and Office 2010 before contacting me.

Anyone who is attempting to write VBA macros for Office 2013 is in for a rough time and I’m sorry to see an era of personal productivity through VBA enhancement passing. If you own Office 2013 and contact me regarding VBA for Dummies, I’ll provide the best help that I can to you, but this support will be necessarily limited. Thank you for your continued support of my books. Perhaps I’ll eventually write an Apps for Office book to supplant VBA for Dummies. Please contact me with any concerns you have at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

 

Adding a Web Reference in Visual Studio 2010 (Part 2)

Some time ago I provided some step-by-step instructions for creating both a Web Reference and a Service Reference in Visual Studio 2010 in the Adding a Web Reference in Visual Studio 2010 post. In addition, the post explains the difference between the two to make it easier to understand when to use one over the other. The post has proven popular and a number of people have commented on it.

There are a number of questions about the post though and I wanted to answer them in this follow up post. The biggest question is where the WeatherSoapClient class comes from. The WeatherServiceClient() part of the code comes from the way in which Visual Studio interacts with the WSDL. If you look at:

http://www.deeptraining.com/webservices/weather.asmx?WSDL

you find that the WSDL doesn’t contain the word Client either. The WeatherServiceClient class is generated by Visual Studio in response to the WSDL it finds on that site.

 

Another complaint about that original post is that it relies on C#. Just to make things different, this post uses Visual Basic instead. Creating the Service Reference works precisely the same as it does with C#.


To see how this works, go ahead and create a Service Reference as specified in the original post. When you get done creating just the Service Reference, choose View | Class View in Visual Studio. You’ll see a new Class View window open up. Now, drill down into your project. If you create your example using Visual Basic, you’ll see something very similar to this:

WebService011

(The C# view of the dialog box is almost precisely the same.) What you’re seeing here is the result of creating the WeatherService Service Reference. I didn’t do anything else at all to this project. Highlighted in the upper window is the WeatherSoapClient referenced in my article. In the lower window you see the methods associated with that class.

Once you get done, you can recreate the example in Visual Basic. Just add two textboxes (txtCity and txtWeather) and one button (btnTest) to your application. Create an event handler for btnTest. Here’s the code you need to make it work:

Private Sub btnTest_Click(sender As System.Object, _
                          e As System.EventArgs) _
                       Handles btnTest.Click
 
   ' Create an instance of the Web service.
   Dim Client As WeatherService.WeatherSoapClient = _
      New WeatherService.WeatherSoapClient()
 
   ' Query the weather information.
   Dim Output = From ThisData _
      In Client.GetWeather(txtCity.Text) _
      Select ThisData
 
   ' Clear the current information and
   ' output the new information.
   txtWeather.Text = ""
   For Each Letter In Output
      txtWeather.Text = txtWeather.Text + Letter
   Next
End Sub

As you can see, the code is similar to the C# version I provided in the previous post. The point is that you really do need to use the Class View at times to determine how to interact with a Web service after you create either a Web Reference or a Service Reference. My book, LINQ for Dummies, provides a lot more in the way of helpful information on using Web services effectively for queries. If you want a simpler view of Web services using the C# language, check out C# Design and Development instead. Now you know that the names used by other authors don’t come out of thin air either, even though it might seem that way at times. Please let me know if you have any other questions about this example at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.