Categories: "computer/tech"


Emma and I have been doing some programming together using Scratch, a visual programming language created at MIT. The image above shows the code blocks that you drag and drop to create your scripts. It's very easy to get started. You can have the basics of your idea working in a matter of seconds. I think Emma is actually understanding some of the building blocks of computer programming like conditional statements, loops and variables. She's able to come up with an idea, then I tell her what code blocks to drag in and she can run the first lines of code and see the images moving around the screen. Not bad for a five-year-old. I'm probably having even more fun than she is, though. Together Emma and I made two games: Turtle Hatchling and Man Finding His Dog. Scratch is available for free for Windows and Mac. Once you've installed it you should be able to open up our games and try them.

Emma has been saying that she wants a robot. We've talked about saving up for a Robosapien 2 or saving up even longer for a Lego Mindstorms NXT. I'm more interested in the latter. I've told her that first she needs to know how to read, do some math and some programming. So she's on her way to being a robotisist.

Geni - online collaborative family tree

I tried creating a family tree on the computer once, but I gave it up for two reasons. First, I only know so much, so there were lots of holes in the tree, and second, there wasn't an easy way for me to show it off to other people in the family. fixes both of those issues. It's an online collaborative family tree. You can start out in about 2 minutes and quickly add your closest relatives. If enter a family member's email address when you add them, they'll be sent an invite to log in and work on the tree, too. Then they can add people and invite them to help. You can add all kinds of information for each person, including a photo that shows up in the main tree view.

In addition to solving my problems, this site is very easy to use. The interface may remind you of Google Maps. You can drag the tree around and zoom in and out. You can select any person in the tree and make them the center of attention so that it shows the people that are most relevant to them and hides the inlaws. This is all done gracefully and without requiring any input from you. It's very well done. Did I mention that it was free?

If you're related to me, even distantly, don't create your own account, contact me and I'll make sure you're in my tree, then I'll add you. Otherwise, I recommend trying this out. You can have your immediately family added and invited about 3 minutes after starting.

Thanks to Matt for telling me about this.

Pecans and More Launched

I'm proud to announce the launch of, an e-commerce site for a local business. We've been working on the site for several months and now it's finally ready. You can buy Native Missouri and grafted pecans, which are grown right here in Bates County. They also have other nuts, jellies and crafts. If you're in the market for any of these items, please take a look at this shop. It's a local, family-owned business and they'll take great care of you.

If you would like to help get the word out about this site you could post a link to it on your site. The extra eyeballs and search engine traffic would be a big help. I've also listed the products in Google Base, which means they show up in searches. This looks rather promising. Only one day after submitting our items, we have results #1 and #2 when searching for Missouri Pecans.

Pleonast RSS

My brother has a weblog at a site that doesn't provide an RSS feed for its blogs. I like reading what he says, but I can't be bothered to go look at the site periodically to check for new posts. That's so twentieth century. So, I wrote a screen scraping script that generates an rss feed for me. Subscribe to this feed and get Mike's posts without leaving your feed reader. You can change the url and get other users, too: Angie.

Regarding feed readers, I'm still using Bloglines and I'm very happy with it. A lot of people are switching to Google Reader and it is very nice, too. I've tried it, but I miss the way Bloglines lets me reorder my folders and feeds however I want.

Live Hits

I just released another plugin for b2evolution: Live Hits. Most of my plugins have been of little practical value and this one is no exception. In fact, it's nothing more than a toy. But, if you have a b2evolution blog, a bit of curiosity and some time to kill, you may think it's fun. b2evolution records some info on every visit to the site, including their user agent, timestamp, what url they hit and their IP. The Stats tab of b2evolution provides a great way to sort through this data, including charts. But I wanted to write an interface for this data that was in real time. I took Digg Spy as inspiration and the jquery Spy plugin as some code to start with. Throw in a dash of sql and a pinch of Google Maps and stir briskly.

Using it is very simple. Just go to the Live Hits tab under tools, choose a blog (or None to see hits from all the blogs at once). Then you'll see the hits start rolling by, complete with a logo showing what browser or search engine hit the site and a matching pin on the map.

If you're a author, you should be able to see it in action right here.

The end result may be fairly pointless, but along the way I learned a lot about b2evolution and about jquery. JavaScript has always been opaque to me, but jquery makes it a lot easier, cleaner and more powerful. If you do any web development, I strongly encourage you to check it out.

Prevent malware

If you have a new computer and you want to keep it from getting slow, crashy and malware-ridden like your last computer, then take a look at this list. I wrote up versions of this for two clients in one week, so I thought I would post it here so I can copy and paste next time. If it's useful to you, too, then that's great.

How to keep from getting spyware, adware and viruses, in order of importance.

1. Get a Mac
( ) They're much more secure and are not generally affected by these problems. If you follow this step then you can skip the rest. If you already own a Windows computer, read on.

2. Email Attachments
Don't open them. If you know the sender and are reasonably sure that you know what the attachment is, then go ahead. Be careful.

3. Windows Update
If you're using Windows XP, then turn on Automatic updates and allow it to install all of them. If you're using something older than that, then go to Start > Programs > Windows Update once every 2 weeks and follow the steps to download and install all critical updates.

4. Firefox
( ) Firefox is a free web browser that is more secure and feature rich than Internet Explorer, the browser that came pre-installed on your computer. If you use Firefox instead of IE then you'll prevent many security problems.

5. Spybot Search and Destroy
( ) This security program will scan your computer for bad programs and remove them. It can also block bad programs ahead of time. Follow the instructions and update, scan and immunize once every two weeks.

6. AVG Free
( ) Free antivirus with updates. Just like before, update and scan every two weeks.

7. Adaware
( ) One more to update and scan fortnightly. This one sometimes catches what the others miss.

What I do at work

Last week I completed the sales site for the product I work on. used to just have a login page, but now we have some info about the product and some screencasts showing what it can do. If, for some reason, you have an interest in what I spend my days on, watch those videos and you'll have a good idea of how the application works.

b2evolution skins site

We've been talking about updating it for several weeks, but I finally decided to tackle the b2evolution skins directory. I upgraded it to the latest version, applied Francois' new site design, then I replaced the old text navigation system with a screenshot from each skin. It's also much easier to search. (Type Danny in the search bar to see the skins I've submitted). And you can sort by columns and colors. Finally I installed my star rating plugin, to which I added a nice notice popup with a pretty fade. Try it out by clicking the stars to submit a rating. We have 37 skins at the moment, but I'd like to see that get up over 100. (Yes, Dave and Henry, I'm looking at you.) There are links on the skins site for how to create and submit a skin. Open Source Web Design and Open Web Design provide some free designs that you can start with. Just follow these steps to turn the design into an evoskin.

At any rate, I'd like to hear what you think of the new skins site.

Firefox 2

I installed Firefox 2.0 beta today on my iMac. I had been having some problems with Firefox getting slow and eating up loads of memory. The Mac versions of browser haven't been all they could be and I heard that better Mac support was one of the priorities of version 2. So far it does seem to be doing much better. With six tabs open it's using 109 MB of RAM and 313 MB of virtual memory. Before the upgrade that was getting up around 500 and 1500, respectively. The interface has some minor improvements, which makes the fox more at home in this OS X habitat.

There are several new features that I should get some use out of. At this very moment I'm enjoying the built in spell checker. They've also added Xs on each tab to close them and an 'undo close tab' feature (one of the first extensions I always used to install). Built-in phishing protection, saved sessions and improved rss support also made this version. If you view an rss feed now you don't see the ugly source, but a nicely formatted version of the page with options for subscribing. All of these things were possible in extensions before, but having them built in is even better. The extension system gives the Firefox developers a great insight into what features people want. They're doing a great job of moving forward.

The new search engine manager makes it much easier to add more engines to the search window in the top right. Theme and extension management are now combined in an addon manager window.

I was nervous about upgrading because there are some extensions I can't do without, but I have Adblock, WebDev and Gmail notifier all working, so I'm pretty happy. Greasemonkey and all-in-one gestures aren't working at the moment, but I can live without them until they get updated.

The advanced bookmark system was pushed back to a later release, but I think this is going to be a very strong release with some great features and improvements. The world's best browser is about to get even better.

A month at Trinity

I've been at my new job for about a month now, so I thought it was about time for an update. I am working for a company called Trinity Transport. They're a transportation intermediary, or a trucking brokerage. You can find out more about them at their web site, but here's all you really need to know: When a company wants to move some freight, instead of calling a carrier directly they can call a broker. The broker arranges for a carrier and makes sure the load gets moved. Of course, they charge a bit more to the shipper than they pay to the carrier, but they handle all of the headaches. That's basically what the company does.

Trinity has offices and salesmen around the country, but the headquarters is in Delaware. I spent my first week on the job in Delaware. I went through the company orientation and sat down with the other programmers to learn about the projects we're working on. I was there over a weekend, so I spent a day in Washington DC. And I spent a day at the beach, which is about 40 miles from where I was working. Here are pictures from those trips.

I'm working on a product called TTI ShipDirect. You can't see anything there without a login and password, but it's a price comparison site for less than truckload shipments. It's written in PHP with a PostgreSQL database, but the company is starting to use Ruby on Rails for new projects, so I've been learning that, too. I made this little program in just a few hours. Feel free to poke around, create an account, add posts and add comments. The comment form uses AJAX, which is especially easy to do in Ruby on Rails.

While I was in Delaware, they gave me a laptop to get started. But now that I've got settled at my Kansas City office, I have a brand new Mac Mini with a 20" wide-screen monitor. I'm using Synergy to share the mouse and keyboard with both computers. And I'm using Textmate to edit code on the Mac.

I'm having lots of fun at the new job, and apparently I left the bank just in time. It was robbed at gunpoint last week, which had never happened in the bank's 70-year history. If I hadn't quit, I would have been covering the window that got robbed over lunch time.

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