Thursday, April 03, 2014

Free: Technical / Professional Writing in a Device-Driven World

While technical and professional writing goals have remained the same, the world in which such writing is being produced has not. Smartphones, tablets, social media, GIS-enabled extreme interactivity have changed the way we communicate dramatically in just the last 18 months. What is the impact on you? How must you change your approach to maintain effectiveness?

View an archived webinar, Technical Writing Triage, offered free for a limited time, and learn how to create effective documents on all devices. 


If you are interested in more in-depth instruction, you can earn AAPG continuing education units and an AAPG certificate if you sign up for the guided 8-unit online course on technical writing


 

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Creating Quick, Responsive Web and Mobile Map Applications

It is not easy to find a GIS web app builder that takes you all the way from the basic initial steps of familiarizing yourself with HMTL, CSS, and JavaScript to fairly complicated web applications. 

Building Web and Mobile ArcGIS Server Applications with JavaScript, by Eric Pimpler and published by Packt Publishing has two main advantages: first, you can use high-quality GIS data (or at least data that is specific to your needs), and second, you can create light apps that work quickly over a number of different devices. You’re not likely to have obsolete apps using HTML 5 and JavaScript, which is what is featured here.

The book is very logically organized: you start by creating a base map, and then add layers of data to the map, and then have it all display as a web page. You’re able to add different types of data layers, which include tiled, dynamic, and feature. The section on adding data layers is very robust (as it should be), and it’s followed by adding Graphics to the Map. It’s important to keep in mind that the graphics layer sits on top of the other layers – so, some data management / housekeeping / filing protocols and customs are very helpful here. In this book, the basemaps are provided by ArcGIS Online.



For a person who does not work with GIS data or ArcGIS every day, it’s probably best to work through the examples and see how they’re being developed.  In that case, I’d look at chapter 8, “Turning Addresses into Points and Points into Addresses,” and then work through the example a couple of times. The chapter covers geocoding, which is at the heart of web mapping applications. It’s the way you turn physical addresses into latitude and longitude coordinates.  

The book clearly demonstrates how to write and test the JavaScript code in the JavaScript Sandbox, and then it gives you a chance to practice. I also like the little tips and tricks – example, use Notepad++ instead of Notepad for coding (to avoid the extraneous code problems of Word, etc.).

In addition to Geocoding, there is a very clear and easy-to-follow chapter on using Geoprocessor, which is very good for developing models.  

The appendix gives an example of using ArcGIS templates and also Dojo in order to develop user interfaces. This section alone is worth the price of the book. The instructions are very clear and the screenshots appropriate and easy to follow.

Some of the chapters contain a great deal of code and not perhaps as much detailed explanation as might be useful for people who are fairly new. It would not be a bad idea to have more callouts in the code to point to what exactly is happening.

Overall, this is a great manual – very practical and extremely timely.  

Just a last thought -- when you first read the title of the book, Building Web and Mobile ArcGIS Server Applications with JavaScript, you may immediately ask yourself two questions:  first, why ArcGIS and why not Google Earth or Google Maps integrated apps?; and second, why JavaScript?

First, ArcGIS Server is the most popular and widely-used platform for developing GIS applications for the web. It uses many different dynamic map sources, and is not tied to just one (such as Google Earth). So, if you use ArcGIS Server, you can incorporate the best possible map sources / GIS information.


Second, JavaScript works really well with modern web browsers (Internet Explorer, Firefox, Chrome, and Safari), and it works well with HTML 5. This allows maximum flexibility with mobile applications. Using JavaScript in web applications will optimize performance because the applications are dynamic and do not have to return to the server for data. As a result, they are very responsive and use-friendly, not to mention that they are also faster. 

Sunday, March 09, 2014

Narrative Milestones Capture Hearts & Minds

Narrative milestones can be your secret to presentations that capture the hearts and minds of your audience for both technical and creative writing.
Have you ever listened to a presentation or a story and lost interest because it's just a jumble of information? Did you get the sense that the forest was being lost for the trees?
Or, even though the presentation was well organized and the skeleton / structure clearly visible, your mind still wandered off, utterly bored?
Chances are, the presentation was missing narrative milestones, which are critical in the telling of any kind of story, whether in creative writing, or in business presentations such as project summaries, training, sales, and investor conference calls.
What is a narrative milestone?
It is a temporal or topical "marker" within the text.
How is a milestone different than a subheading or a chapter title?
A narrative milestone is a trigger and a marker and it marks not just the passage and unfolding of information but also the sparking of emotional connection which keeps the reader engaged.
What is it good for?
It helps the reader or the listener develop categories or patterns for the creation of schema (or schemata) that will search as a framework for organizing information. It also helps the reader stay "hooked" or engaged in the text.
Where are milestones most effective in a narrative?
There should be a milestone at the beginning of the text. It does not have to be the same as a topic sentence, but should definitely communicate how/why a listener should care about what is being said. Then, there should be milestones at regular intervals within your text. If you're presenting it verbally or via video conference, include a mini-milestone every 30 to 45 seconds, and a major one every 2 minutes.  
What are the characteristics of an effective milestone?
An effective milestone is a great "hook" and combines conveys important facts while sparking an emotional connection.
Are milestones simply factual? 
No. A milestone can trigger emotions, and so are effective rhetorically in utilizing both pathos (emotions) and logos (logic/facts). Thus milestones can be effective in a persuasive, emotionally compelling document or presentation.
Narrative milestones will help you avoid that terrible sense that no one is listening to your presentation, or, worse, after reading it, they had absolutely no recall of the facts, nor did they have any sort of  emotional response.
Building in narrative milestones can help you create a very effective presentation or story, and you can convince your audience to actually remember and care about it.
(also posted this blog entry in LinkedIn).

Sunday, February 02, 2014

Seven Top Cloud File Storage and File-Sharing Sites

Cloud-based file storage and transfer solutions change all the time, and it's often hard to keep up with their new features and plans. Here are seven excellent providers of cloud file storage and transfer, and each one has scalable solutions. I've made a quick list of their main attributes, but I encourage you to visit each site. Please share your own user experience, and let me know what you think.

50GB of online cloud storage. Free. Can file share quite easily. Edit documents online. Remote file transfer. Easy search tool. If you wish to share a file, you may do so via a link that is created when you upload our file. 

** 50GB storage free
**Easy file-sharing via link
**Edit word processing, spreadsheets, and presentations online. Uses Zoho. 
**Search your files via search tool
**Can remotely transfer files from external websites to your ADrive account

Google Drive:   http://drive.google.com  
5 GB of free storage / very convenient for sharing access to files. It is very simple to put files into the cloud, either by uploading them, or by dragging them from your desktop. File-sharing is also very simple. However, one should be a bit cautious, since it is distressingly easy to inadvertently share with your Google+ contacts or other individuals in social networks. You must be very careful review what you’re checking and giving permission for.  

**Easy to upload using your Google account
**Can email notifications of file sharing very easily
**Free
**Mobile app
**Interfaces with Google Docs for easy editing / collaboration

With Box.com, an individual may have a free account with 10GB storage space, and a 250MB file upload size. It’s very easy to use Box.com for file sharing, transfer, and storage. If you’re working with a team, however, it would probably not be a bad idea to upgrade to the $5/month version which allows you 100GB of storage, and a 2GB file transfer size. You can lock files, run access statistics, and also grant individual permissions.  

**Mobile apps
**Desktop sync
**Good file preview options 
**SSL encryption
**can share links / embed via email or social media
**can share / edit using online collaboration 

Hightail (formerly known as YouSendIt): http://www.hightail.com
2GB free, file size up to 250 MB. I'm not sure why YouSendIt would change their snappy name to something like Hightail. The emphasis is on speed ("hightailing it" suggests moving at a high rate of speed).  I like the idea of a "high tail" in conjunction with a "long tail" -- cloud plus persistence?  Hightail is very easy to use for file transfer. You don't have to worry about old files haunting you or bloating your storage space -- your files will automatically be eliminated after a certain amount of time. 

**Easy drag-and-drop approach
**Simple interface
**Works on multiple devices

5 GB free. Good for cloud-based backup for personal and enterprise computers. Need to download apps.  Here are the unique comparative advantages of iDrive:

**Very fast (incremental and compressed backups)
**Can backup multiple devices (PCs, Macs, iPhones, and Android devices) in a single account
**Can manage remotely
**Can backup Facebook information

Can automatically back up documents, photos, and music stored on your computer.  JustCloud seems to focus more on business solutions, with $19.95 per month for 100GB storage space and 5 computers. There is a free solution, but unless one signs up, it's impossible to obtain information. 

2 GB free. Expensive to add more storage. Can be a bit nerve-wracking / integrates with social media (Google Plus, etc.) Dropbox has great brand recognition, but is probably one of the most expensive. The website pretty unfriendly, too. It’s challenging to get a side-by-side comparison of the plans. 




Friday, January 10, 2014

Five Easy Ways to Improve Your Audio Recordings

I'd like to start by confessing that I am a huge audio quality offender, but I'm trying to reform. I've recorded hundreds of podcasts and videocasts, and have cheerfully distributed them, thinking that pops, stumbles, background noise, and long pauses did not matter. After all, they were just going to be listened to via smartphone from a podcast or cloud-hosted file (SoundCloud or YouTube, for example) -- do not spontaneity and authenticity trump quality?

The short answer is, "No." Of course, over-editing and over-rehearsing can certainly diminish the user / listener experience. But, straining to hear a voice though the sound of a gale-force wind, or listening to awkward pauses, stumbles, and verbal tics will frustrate the listener to the point that they may not listen to the entire production, even if it's 30 seconds long.

Use audio recording and editing software for good results. 
Here are five tips to dramatically improve your audio recordings, whether they are stand-alones, or are combined with video or presentation slideshows.

1.  Don't use the internal microphone on your computer or smartphone. If you're using your laptop, plug in a separate microphone -- perhaps a headset with microphone.  If you're using a tablet or smartphone (for the times you're "in the wild" and want to capture an event), please use an external hand-held microphone with windscreen. Be sure to check to make sure that your software is not defaulting back to the internal microphone. Some programs such as Camtasia seem to do that often, and it seems only to happen when you've had a perfect take.

2.  Invest in a headset microphone that puts money into the microphone and not just the headset. Gaming headsets are notorious for having wonderful headsets so that you can listen to all the game's music and sound effects, but they have the equivalent of a 4-dollar condenser microphone mounted into the swivel. Check into the specifications before you buy. Be prepared to pay more than $20.

3.  Record (if possible) using a computer (or in some rare cases, a tablet) that allows you to adjust your settings and then to save as a project that you can then encode and export into different types of files (.wav, .mp3, etc.). Make sure you have enough space and speed: 2 GB of RAM and 2 GHz coprocessor). You will have more of an opportunity to control and edit your audio.

4.  Use an audio editing program that has a number of effects, which include noise reduction, amplification, declipping, and more. Learn how to remove peaks, amplify, remove silence, and level your tracks, and to avoid clipping. Here's a great tutorial: http://wiki.librivox.org/index.php/Audacity_Tutorials (thanks to Librivox.org).

5.  Avoid editing and re-editing, and then re-saving copies of an mp3 file. If possible go back to the original recording and make all your changes from the original recording, rather than a processed copy of a processed copy of a processed copy.

View of Audacity while recording
Some of these tips seem almost laughably simple, but (I'm not laughing now!) -- I cheerfully disregarded them, since I assumed that no one would be listening on anything more than the most lightweight sort of smartphone and earbuds.

As technology advances and quality -- not just in the recording but also in the listening -- improves, it's becoming more important to take your skills to the next level. It's not too difficult once you've mastered the five basic tips, and you'll produce a much more agreeable sound.

I'm not where I'd like to be yet, but I'm working hard on taking my skills to the next level. I've invested in better equipment, and I'm working with

Recommended Audio Recording / Editing Software


open source audio recording and editing software
Audacity Open Source Audio Recording and Editing Software

Pros:
* Free and open source
* Very flexible
* Easy to use
* Easy to edit files
* Expanded and constantly expanding set of effects (including noise reduction and amplification)

Cons:
Fairly steep learning curve: Not all the settings are easy to find, and while there is quite a bit of support material on the web and in Audacity's website, it's scattered and not completely easy to find. If  is very worthwhile to take an online course that walks you through Audacity.

Creating mp3 files:  In order to convert to mp3, you have to download a LAME encoder program. The one that is most widely available for free can be downloaded from website that contains all sorts of extraneous links designed to entice you to purchase video editors or download personal projects (here's the link I'm referring to: http://lame1.buanzo.com.ar/). It's a mine field, but if you can make your way through it, you'll have the software you need.

Achieving precise volume levels:  If you're trying to hit a specific volume level in decibels, you're out of luck with  Audacity. The task is further complicated by the fact that the wave forms and volume levels will be different on every computer. There are a few programs / plug-ins that you can use, but they're hard to find. Here's one: mp3gain: http://mp3gain.sourceforge.net/download.php

***

I hope that this has been helpful.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Free Image-Editing Programs: A Review

It is always useful to have viable options to Photoshop and other expensive image editing software. However, which web-based and mobile friendly image / photo editors really work? This article reviews a few popular (and largely free) image editing software.

PicMonkey
Free version (which has numerous enhancements), which allows photo editing, creating icons, badges, and graphics. Large array of fonts and quirky seasonal graphics (Day of the Dead, etc.), touch-up tools included, also can make collages. Overlays include hair, hats, stars, fireworks, “critters,” “buggles,” “ordinary beasts.” It is very cute and easy to use.
Attributes: cloud-based, not necessary to download, very easy to use interface. Really cute library of built-in graphics and effects.
Downsides: Some of the more useful tools and attributes are not free

PortraitPro
Do you ever wonder what photo editing software celebrity publicists use? After seeing the examples in the PortraitProfessional.com website, I can see using the PortraitProfessional software before Photoshop. The lowest-cost version includes skin smoothing, eye enhancing, hair enhancing, face sculpting, mouth enhancing tools, along other portrait-specific tools.

There is a free 30-day trial, and three levels of features:
Studio Max: $119.95
Studio: $ 59.95
Standard: $ 39.95

Picasa
Picasa is ideal for use with social media, particularly since it's owned by Google and works well with Google+ sharing and tagging. It's not available for Macs. Picasa continues to expand its offerings and now includes 24 new effects. Unfortunately, Picasa is not cloud-based, but is necessary to download to an individual computer.

GIMP 2.8
GIMP is one of the longest-lived free image editing software. It is ideal for image authoring, image editing, photo retouching, and image composition. It's not cloud-based – you must download it. The good news is that GIMP is available for Mac OS X, as well as Windows and Linux.

Pixlr
Pixlr.com has three basic cloud-based / web-based programs, and you can use Pixlr with your mobile device:
Pixlr Editor: Allows you to create a new image, or open from file or URL, and edit with a wide array of effects (including adding text)
Pixlr Express: web-based, with many different built-in overlays and stickers to allow you to create custom greeting cards. You may use images downloaded, from your webcam, or from a URL. It works quite well with Flickr images (tried out and enjoyed it a great deal).
Pixlr-Omatic: Pixlr-Omatic allows you to add effects (reminds me of Picasa's effects), along with a wid range of overlays and borders. You can save to your computer and also to the cloud at imm.oi

Benefits: Web-based, and you can use it with your mobile device (as a download, rather than web-based)
Downsides: There are almost too many options (!) – a guide to creating effective graphics would be quite helpful.

Now that you have more options, what are you going to do with your holiday photos? This is traditionally a time when photos are uploaded and shared, and when digital cards, greetings, graphics are created not only for social networking, but also for end-of-year reports, new year brochures, catalogues, and marketing pieces. It's time to truly differentiate yourself by means of dramatic images.


Monday, November 25, 2013

Post-Postmodernism: What's Next?


I don’t think we’ll ever completely separate ourselves from postmodernist notions. After all, some postmodernist ideas have been percolating around in discourses of consciousness and meaning-making processes at least since Dante’s 13th-century Letter to Cangrande della Scalla in which the author (presumably Dante) discusses the fact that his work is polysemous. He expounds upon that notion and discusses four types of meanings which result in multiple strategies for interpreting texts.

Further, if postmodernist expanded the notion of “text” to include signs, natural phenomena, and more, well, we’ve had that in our consciousness ever since early Babylonian astrologers. In terms of creating patterns and developing codes / numerical strategies for text interpretations, we’ve certainly had that since Jewish gematria, and then also Kabbalistic practices.

This is not the place to develop a genealogy of postmodernist thoughts. I would love to do so, but I don’t want to deviate from the central idea, which is to say that for the last 10 or 20 years, theorists of all sorts have been attempting to declare postmodernism has declared officially “over” – and have proposed a wide array of alternative theories, many of which have to do with culture, technology, gender, and ethics.

There are aspects of postmodernist thought that I find very useful and I would not want to give them up. For example, I don’t want to give up some of the more interesting notions of reality and reality construction.

Perhaps it’s not productive to say that the world is completely an illusion, but it’s fun to think so. I also like the social constructivist ideas, especially when connected with power. For example, I have to say that I agree when Foucault and Baudrillard suggests prisons exist not only to enforce behavioral norms, but also to delude us into thinking that there is a “free” world and that “freedom” is an absolute, when in reality, there are all kinds of constraints to our freedom, beginning with language itself, and ending in behaviors, beliefs, and values that may be, in essence, coercive.

I think it is interesting that many of the new ideas of post-postmodernism have much to do with new technologies and the impact on identity (digital communities), selfhood (genetic engineering), privacy (Internet, surveillance, UAVs), communication (communications technologies), understanding the world (computing, Big Data), and more.

In fact, once one uses technology as the primum mobile of consciousness and global epistemological constructs, it’s easy to see how a next logical step would be a preferential shift to technocratic social organization, from individual communication to bodies politic. The implications could pretty scary. Technocracies are notoriously dehumanizing, especially when combined with command economies or oligopoly-tending capitalistic economies.

Here are a few recent ideas:

Pseudo-modernism / digimodernism: Digital technology can dismantle persistent postmodern issues such as “existential uncertainty” and “artistic anti-essentialism.” Kirby argues that the post-postmodern generation reverts to modernism, at least in the sense that there is a renewed belief in agency and in individual ability to influence others (by means of technology).  See Kirby (2009) Digimodernism: How New Technologies Dismantle the Postmodern and Reconfigure our Culture.

Automodernism:  Robert Samuels argues that new technology allow a new level of neutrality to emerge. At the same time, postmodernist identity “flux” is supplanted by new, hardened identity politics.

Complexism:  Philip Galanter has created a fusion of technology and the arts; it has been suggested that he echoes and updates the Russian and Italian Futurists (who were certainly pro-technology, with the idea that technology helps establish a coherent New World Order. Some of the enthusiasm died in WWI and in the early Soviet Union.

Hypermodernism:  Hypermodernism, coined in the 1990s, is a chaotic, high-intensity, fast-paced world of rapid and always evolving identity and social relationships. The hypermodern is not characterized by indeterminacy (as would the postmodernist world), but in quick moments of stasis, followed by discrete, lenticular “pods” of culture / socioeconomic / socio-political ontology.

Altermodernism: Nicolas Bourriaud embraces alterity and takes it further, suggesting that the creolization of our cultures in the global context will create a universal aesthetic. Multiculturism is worn out. The next stage is the “creole” (which will probably change, given the colonialist overtones implicit in the word itself.)

***
References

Alighieri, Dante. Letter to Can Grande della Scala. Accessed November 13, 2013 http://www9.georgetown.edu/faculty/jod/cangrande.english.html

Awet (2013). Other Post-Postmodernisms: A Glossary. Heterodoxia. April 2013. Accessed Nov 15, 2013. http://www.hyperboreans.com/heterodoxia/?p=896#more-896

Kirby, A.  (2009) Digimodernism: How New Technologies Dismantle the Postmodern and Reconfigure our Culture. London, NY: Continuum Publishers.



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