Archive for August, 2006

Standards compliant web development

The very foundation of the Internet is the various standards and protocols that allows it to function. There are various standards that are critical to the function of the Internet as a network of computers (the famous of these standards/protocols being the TCP/IP suite of protocols). Over the years, as the internet has become more than a network of computer and is increasingly integrated with the average person’s daily activity be it at the office or even at home.

I have been interacting with various web technologies for the better part of the past five years. During this period, I have interacted with various databases, web development platforms and indeed the browser. And it is the presentation of a great web application that ultimately determines its usefulness to its target audience. The history of browsers reads that there once was a browser war that pitted Microsoft Internet Explorer (IE) against Netscape (with a similar named browser). That battle was fought over dominance and market share and the overwhelming victor is IE but there has been a revival of the browser wars according to some web citizens. This new war is between IE on the one hand and Firefox (and its associated derivatives) on the other side. But the more interesting aspect of this war is that it mainly centers on security but standards compliance has also become a central theme of each camp’s endeavors.

From the outset, the Firefox camp strived to be standards compliant while allaying web surfers concerns about security. IMHO, Firefox has done a good job in coping with a web that has become used to IE and defaults to IE defined “standards”. On the other hand Microsoft has let its browser stagnate without significant improvements, much of which didn’t address web developers’ concerns about standards compliance (at least those web developers/designers who are concerned about the matter).

I started tinkering with Cascading Style Sheets a while back but have never followed up the subject enough to invest time to correct my errant ways of using tables for page layout. Gradually, through practical experience I have come to realize the power of CSS. These days, when I start a new web development/design project I usually start off by defining a CSS file which controls various aspects of the presentation of the web application. This all came about as part of an effort to have a design to produce a highly maintainable web application though it might have something to do with expecting a change at a later stage of the project. Clients will request various changes during the development of a web site and hence it is upon the developer to make allowance for such requests. When used properly, CSS can be effective in centralizing aspects of presentation such as background images, fonts, sizes and indeed positioning.

For web designers who have relied on tables for layout, CSS layout is  an uphill battle of epic proportions. It is not so much the perils of changing a habit as much as the dread over compatibility between browsers. Various browsers implement the CSS standards differently and as such not all CSS look the same across the board. Of course this cuts into development schedule as a single change in a CSS need to be test across the board to ensure the presentation is still acceptable. To make matters worse, older browsers need to be taken into account and these are browsers whose implementation of CSS can be considered virtually none existent. I feel the need to emphasize that backward compatibility in browsers seem to concern Microsoft’s IE as this is a browser that has been integrated with Windows and as such developers need to take into account the possibility that someone may still be running Windows 98 or worse still Windows NT 4.0. It goes without saying that in a corporate setting, there is a higher likelihood of uniformity as far as the OS is concerned. However, when a developer is producing a web site whose audience is the general public then the possibilities and hence the effort to account for them rivals the efforts to quantify infinity.

It is not all a gloomy picture though. Anybody who is still running Windows 98 for any reason at all is in a rapidly reducing minority. The majority of business and home users are running Windows XP or at the very least Windows 2000. These versions of Windows feature improved versions of Internet Explorer and of course relatively new browsers like Firefox have come along and grabbed a noticeable market share which is believed to be one of the main reason for renewed interest in Internet Explorer from within Microsoft. Additionally, Microsoft faces competition from Internet based companies such as Google and since Microsoft is driven by competition, they have responded by way of the Windows Live services. These are services that are internet based and hence there will be a self-serving interest from Microsoft to keep up with browser innovation as well as pour some of its immense resources towards innovation around Internet Explorer.

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New releases from Microsoft: Windows Live Writer, IE 7 RC 1

There has been a number of new software releases mostly from Microsoft recenlty. This blog post was composed using a beta software from Microsoft called Windows Live Writer. It is a beta and as such anything that is to be expected of a beta will likely show up at some point. I installed it but was not impressed by Windows Live Writer’s first impression so I left it alone for a couple of days.

Looking at it again today does not change my impression about it. First of all, it is just too basic and thus increases anxiety about its prospects for a break down. The first thing I did after installing Windows Live Writer beta, was connect to my blog on WordPress.com; I am not a veteran of the blogging world, but I expected at least an ability to see my previous posts and such. Oh wait, I can see my previous posts but I have to jump through a couple of hoops to get there.

The interface of Windows Live Writer is horrible: its like a cross between pre-Vista/Office 2007 layout and Windows XP/Office 2003 layout. There is no harmony in the whole interface; I can’t help feel like there are a lot more features lurking under those menus.

The other application that I have been looking at is called Windows Live Mail Desktop Beta. Well, it is not exactly new but this is the first time that I have downloaded and installed it. All in all, I am impressed and frankly looking forward to the final release of Windows Live Mail Desktop beta. The interface is Windows Vista style and the layout is great; there is a certain degree of simplicity in it which makes some pretty complex operations seamless and almost effortless.

I have also been exploring RSS feeds over the last couple of days. I spent some time configuring my page on live.com. I was pleasantly surprised that I can access the RSS feeds I added to IE from Windows Live Mail Desktop  Beta. Reading the feeds from the mail client is more convenient than having to follow them through the web. I have since then added a number of feeds to IE so that I can have a look at them from Windows Live Mail Desktop beta; browsing the feeds offline will be a great addition to the whole experience.

At the start of Windows Live Mail Desktop beta installation, it advertises its ability to manage multiple email accounts (Gmail, Yahoo and AOL Mail). I have tried setting up Yahoo Mail in Windows Live Mail Desktop beta without any success so far. I don’t have the required server info to connect to Yahoo Mail servers. I have had earlier attempts of setting up Yahoo Mail on Outlook and other mail clients like Thunderbird – the same ol problem of server addresses is alive and well. I didn’t try to configure Gmail as it will most likely work flawlessly. Well, I just don’t want to have both email accounts accessible from a single interface. Interacting with Windows Live Mail Desktop beta is an experiment though Gmail is a long running experiement in itself (judging by its long beta status – and it still continues).

Still on Windows Live Mail Desktop beta, it allows for blogging as well though that is a feature which I am yet to test but I can see its usefulness in blogging about the various RSS feeds that I come across.

IE 7 RC 1

IE 7 is nearing completion and so far I have not had any major problems with it since my struggle with the first beta. I have been using IE 7 beta for the last two months. Overall, it is an improvement over IE 6 and catches up with Firefox (oh good ol Firefox) on many features. I still prefer Firefox though. For some strange reason, I tend to think of IE when I am surfing MS ware such as MSDN, Hotmail and even live.com. My experience with these websites on Firefox has not been the best: the main problem is that the font size is just too small for comfortable reading. Yes, I am guilty of customizing Firefox settings but I don’t feel like making adjustments to accommodate MS websites.

I am still getting used to the IE 7 layout – I find myself looking for the stop button when surfing since it is practically hidden next to the address bar. Of course it could be residual programming from the days of IE 6 as well as my continuous interaction with Firefox.

I have not yet insalled IE 7 RC 1 but I don’t expect any new features … if I do find anything interesting, this post is going to be edited accordingly.

All the software I have mentioned in this blog post are some what connected in one way or the other: there is a tool bar that allows blogging from within IE 7. The toolbar is called Windows Live Toolbar.

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Networking progress

Networking is not my strongest suite so it is with some excitement (yeah) that I note the progress that I am making as far as my small network setup is concerned. This blog entry was type from my desktop which is planned to be part of the network – actually the central part of the network. It is suppose to be the gateway to the web but so far I think my Windows installation needs to be redone.

I have some networking theory as the foundation of my adventures into network but that is about where it all ends. Yes, I have setup computers to access a Wi-Fi network a couple of times, including machines that were in other languages (like Danish) but I digress. This is my first time setting up a network and the first opportunity I have ever had to configure some network devices such as an access point.

The problem

The problem with the desktop is that I cannot create a new connection. This is what I need in order to connect to the service provider. So I have gone through the normal procedures (warning: not step by step) of going to the Control Panel and then to the Network Connection applet. From here I launch the new connection wizard but when it comes to the part where I am suppose to select how I connect to my service provider, the first two options are greyed out; I am left with the option “connect using a broadband connection that is always on”. Well, the Internet connection I have requires the use of a username and password. I don’t know what’s causing this but I have attempted checking Windows networking components which didn’t work. So the only conclusion I have come to is that I am finally being haunted by the countless beta software I have installed over the life time of this PC.

The current hack

I have a laptop in the network and that is where I have been able to create a new connection without any problem. So the current configuration I have is as follows: the desktop connects to the access point and since the laptop connects to the wireless network, I have shared the Internet connection on the laptop.

This is not an optimal solution of course because if the laptop is not in the network then bye bye internet connection so I still need to figure out how to create a new connection on the desktop and have it setup as the gateway for the network.

Reinstalling Windows is a simple enough process but I have some good data on that hard disk so I would rather not format the hard disk until such time that I can spend some quality time backing up the data I have.

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Success vs fear of failure

In any endeavour that might yield results of significant consequence (which may be positive or negative) there is an associate fear of failure. Failure is not necessarily a bad thing; if anything it is important to fail, if only to closely examine the reasons for failure and hence get some idea of what to do differently the next time around.

Accepting to failure is a bit tricky though that seems to be as a result of the associated negativity of failure rather than any inherent harm in failing. Of course, it goes without saying that making a habit of failing smacks of failure in the absence of any attempts to succeed. Failing is perhaps the easiest thing to achieve because the much that any one can do is muster the courage to allow events to proceed with little to no intervention aimed at changing the outcome. Yes, in some instances not acting is the right course of action but most people work themselves into a frenzy so that they don’t just sit by as everything falls into pieces.

All in all, struggle to succeed but welcome failure when it seems inevitable. The old saying goes something like if at first you don’t succeed … Well, trying again requires a new dimension and a good source of this new perspective is the wreckage of earlier attempts.

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Networking

This week I setup my first network though the network is not yet completely done. I am not a fan of networking generally but I have come to appreciate the need to have rudimentary knowledge of setting up a small network and managing it. With my first network, I hope I will be in a better position to gain practical knowledge in setting up a network and managing such a network.

My first network is not huge: it comprises of a desktop computer, a D-Link DWL 700AP Access Point and at least two laptops. Other laptops will most likely come into and go out of the network. Initially I had problems accessing the AP’s web interface so that I can configure it. After an hour of googling I found a solution to my problem: I was not suppose to give the machine’s NIC card the same IP address as the default IP address of the D-Link AP. Such knowledge definitely belongs in the equipment manual but hey live and learn I suppose. It goes without saying that the machine’s IP address should be in the same range as the AP’s default IP. So, I finally got the AP’s configuration interface and setup all the aspects of the wireless network. I still need to do some further configuration before everything can work as I have envisioned.

My desktop computer dual boots Windows XP Pro along with Linux (I just upgraded to Fedora Core 5). So far, I have not been able to setup a connection on the desktop; it is about time I format the hard disk anyhow. It has never been formatted since it was bought about two years ago. The hard disk is of course a gold mine in itself so I need to back up much of the data I have, both under Windows and Linux and then go ahead with the formatting. I will probably dual boot again but this time I want to install Ubuntu along side Windows XP. Ubuntu has been famous as a desktop distro and I am not sure how good it is as a server. The latest release (Dapper Drake or Ubuntu 6.06 LTS) can be used as a server and being a Linux distro, it inherits the features of Linux as a server platform. Hmm, Ubuntu is based on Debian if I remember correctly.

Back to my small network: I need to have the machines talk to each other before bringing out the victory parade.

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Information Security: Principles and Practice

I started reading a book about information security. I like gathering informaiton generally but have never had the patience to go through a technical book or documentation for that matter cover to cover. It is a good habit so I have embarked on cultivating a culture of reading a book cover to cover. Of course the idea is not to read like I am reading for an exam but instead read for the enjoyment of reading.

Information security is a great topic to look at from a developers perspective. Hmm, I think the contents of this book will become relevant to my studies later on. Well, I hope I will remember most of what I read this time around to be useful in an academic setting later on.

I have had some interest in authentication and authorization with a view towards implementing a pluggable generic framework for authentication and authorization. I am hoping this book will give a good foundation from which to start the design and modeling process for such a framework. I have come across a number of good authentication and authorization libraries on the web but I think the process of attempting to implement a framework will broaden my understanding of the topic generally.

I am not far along with the book to warrant any discourse on the topic of information security but so far I am liking the way the author eases into the whole topic.

The book is called: Information Security: Principles and Practices by Mark Stamp.

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Disabled, handicap, physically challenged

The title of this posts says it all though not in any particular order. In every society there are people whose needs cannot be catered for by the commonly available resources/infrastructure in society. Such persons are largely called disabled for their “failure” to fit in the “normal” scheme of things. I have thought about this for sometime and each time I come to a conclusion that seems rational, there is something else that pops up to challenge my stance.

First of all I think there is nobody who is disabled: it is the failure of the environment to provide for the supposedly disabled persons’ needs. To label a person “disabled” is simply blaming this person for the failure of the environment to meet his/her needs. Disability is quite varied in its manifestations; even people of similar disability may not have the same needs.

Some governments have responded by creating communities for the disabled. That is a reasonable solution that makes sense but at the same time, I think it gets the “disabled” away from the rest of society and effectively creates a class of persons. The creation and existence of such a class of handicap persons is detrimental to the handicap persons in such a community and to the rest of society; an argument can be made against such communities on the basis of morality. Like I said it is a reasonable solution in a sense that it makes perfect sense to have the “disabled” people in one place so as to effectively provide for their needs. At the same time it reeks of an intention to have the disabled belong with their “kind”.

Personally, I like the idea of living as part of the rest of society but this does not mean that I become ignorant of the challenges that I must over come in order to function like everyone else in society. Hiding away in some part of society and belonging there will ultimately create the impression that there are no disabled people or worse still that the handicap people can’t survive with the rest of the people in society. Disability, by its nature, is already limiting enough and yes it is plausible to posit that the limitations of a disability threatens the ability of a handicap person to function in a “normal” environment. Such a perspective is best responded to by examining the value that a disabled person has to the rest of society; the contribution that disabled persons can make to the rest of society should be adequate justification to make every effort to have them participant in society to the best of their individual abilities. The need to segregate the disabled is based on the premise that disability is negative and indeed doubts about the contribution that the handicap can make to the rest of society.

Disability is not negative in itself; I dare say that it is kind of fun actually. I find myself in situations in which things are not as easy or clear cut as the “normal” people would naively believe. Perhaps the greatest excitement is mustering the strength to come up with solutions to these problems while maintaining a sense of justice by recognizing the intentions and contributions of other people – “disabled” and otherwise.

As time passes, it also becomes a question of how much strength do I expend in solving every other challenge that comes my way. At the end of the day, I am physically handicap and I have no intention of changing, except to live with it fully and completely. A friend of mind once told me how beautifully (I take this opportunity to blush lol) I cope with the obstacles in my environment. I only wish I could show her the perfection of what it means to be “disabled”.

Like everything else in life, up holding this perfection is a conscious effort that is impossibly draining mentally and spiritually. Perhaps as part of the disability, I think I am not that ignorant since I have to continuously account for what’s in my environment so as to properly adjust, sometimes in real time. The side effect of such a habit is that, I continuously pick up even the small shifts and changes around me and almost automatically react to them even before they happen. I suppose it attests to my dislike for surprises, generally.

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