Monday, May 30, 2005

An idiot's guide to backing up and burning CD/DVD images

Monday, May 30, 2005 0

As Peter Kent says, "smart people use idiot's guides", and you're clearly that because you're reading my site instead of buying his books. ;)

While legally distributed CD and DVD images, e.g. the vast range of Linux species, are available online in all sorts of obscure formats, they mostly appear in one of two flavours; they will have either a 'bin' or an 'iso' extension. To the end user there is very little difference between the two formats aside from the fact that bin images tend to be accompanied by a tiny configuration file known as a cue sheet. These are processed by your writing software rather than the archive file itself, and include all the pertinent technical information needed to extract and burn the file. Data CD and DVD images differ only in terms of size, the DVD variety being the larger of the two.

No matter what form your disk image takes, there are only two methods in which to get it up and running. The first is to extract the files to your hard drive and 'mount' them to a virtual disk drive - a designated area of your hard drive which simulates the operation of a burnt disk sitting in your optical drive. Choosing this path allows you to test a disk image before committing yourself to keeping it, or at least wasting a writable disk on it. If after play-testing a disk image, you find that it's not to your liking, you can simply delete the files and reclaim the hard drive space they were occupying. For the remainder of this tutorial I will be concentrating on using disk images in the manner in which they were originally intended to be used; by burning them to a blank disk that is, so for more information regarding virtual disk utilities try searching my blog for the key phrase, "Daemon Tools".

Method numero deux involves burning your image onto a blank disk to be used in your optical drive in the usual fashion. To help you remember which tool you would use to accomplish this task I've gone to great lengths to conceive the following Laureate-worthy rhyme: "To burn a bin you need CD-R Win". Oh, you do flatter me! *blushes*. Ahem anyway, firstly make sure that your cue sheet and bin file are in the same directory and that the path of the bin file documented in the cue sheet is correct. You can do this by opening the cue sheet in Notepad or a similar text editor, and checking that no path information is present on the top line of the configuration data. Prior to editing the cue sheet this line might read something similar to FILE "C:\Temporary Files\knoppix.bin" BINARY, but unless you create a directory on your C: drive called "Temporary Files" and place the bin file inside it, CD-R Win won't know where to find it. This is why it is best to remove all references to a particular drive and directory leaving just the name of the bin file, like so: FILE "knoppix.bin" BINARY.

So with the preliminaries taken care of, let's get on with the show. Once you have installed CD-R Win, open the program and push the 'record CD' button followed by the 'load cuesheet' button, and select your cue file from the relevant directory. If you're up to the challenge, take a blank disk, place it in your CD/DVD writer and push the 'start recording' button. Perhaps you should take a breather before moving onto the next segment of the tutorial - I don't want to wear you out. ;)

To burn a file with an iso extension you will need to switch your CD writing software; Nero or Disc Juggler will do the job very nicely - sorry, I don't have a poetic ditty to make this more memorable. In this case all you have to do is select 'open' from the file menu, scan through your directories until you come to your iso file and select it. Finally you would simply press the 'write CD' button and put your feet up. The hardest part is finding the right software for the task in hand - once you know which software to use you're laughing. If for any reason you can't get hold of the above mentioned software, all is not lost - a raft of alternative programs capable of interpreting bin, iso and cue files are available from the usual freeware/shareware repositories.

I'm sure there will be occasions where you will want to extract the contents of a disk image without first having to burn them to a CD or DVD. A few examples include installing an operating system from the hard drive, installing an application which doesn't need to access the contents of its setup disk once transferred to your computer or extracting standalone utilities from CD or DVD compilations. ISO Buster is perfectly suited to performing all these tasks as it can interpret and manipulate all the most popular disk image formats. If you want to create your own disk images, there's no need to switch tools as ISO Buster is extremely adept at this too. Have you got a CD or DVD containing critical data that you cannot retrieve through conventional means? Fret not; the author of ISO Buster prides himself on his application's ability to recover data from optical media no matter how mauled it may be.

Backing up your original disks

Despite the initial hype, CD and DVD media are not indestructible, and therefore to preserve them you may wish to use 'Alcohol 120%', 'Blind Read' or 'Clone CD' to make a backup copy of your disks. What these three programs do is dump the entire contents of a disk into a single image file, which can then be burnt to a CD or DVD, right away or at a later date. One question which is probably on the tip of your tongue at this point is, "but can't I just make a backup by copying the contents of a disk to my hard drive myself?". Yes, you could, but the chances are it won't work because it is copy protected. The crucial difference with using Alcohol 120%, Blind Read or Clone CD is that the copy protection is bypassed and the disk label is replicated exactly leaving you with an error free, identical copy of the original disk.

So where do you find these miraculous gadgets? Ah yes, I was coming to that. The official Clone CD home page is located at, Alcohol 120% you will find staggering in an intoxicated state at, and you can visit the home of Blind Read by pointing your browser towards Trial versions of all three programs are freely available from their respective web sites. Blind Read and Alcohol 120% are no doubt exceptional programs, but as my personal preference is for Clone CD this will feature as the exemplar used to illustrate the backup procedure detailed below. If Clone CD has trouble reading a particular disk you can try unleashing Alcohol 120% on it, and if that fails finally give Blind Read a whirl.

Let's begin our foray into the realm of disk imaging by downloading the trial version of Clone CD. If you find it useful you can purchase a license for it later - the demo version is fully functional for a limited time so you will not miss any of the features on offer in the registered version while you test drive the program. Fire it up, and if you have purchased a username/serial number combination, enter it in the relevant space under the register tab before continuing to the main interface. Insert the disk you wish to copy into one of your optical drives. Any of them will do if you have more than one to choose from, but bear in mind that your CD/DVD writer will often be more efficient when it comes to reading protected data compared with your ordinary CD/DVD ROM drive. Even if your writer is much slower than your ROM drive I would strongly advise you to use the former. A faster drive will only get the job done quicker if it can read the - often deliberately corrupted - data structure of the disk, which isn't always the case.

Skewer the 'read to image file' button with your pointer and select the drive in which you have inserted the disk you wish to duplicate. If it is a data disk be certain to inform Clone CD of this by choosing the data CD/DVD option. Similarly, if it is a game disk, select the game option before continuing (you don't really need me to tell you this, do you?).

Subsequently choose the drive you would like to store the image file on, making sure you have a sufficient quota of available disk space to work with, and finally give the destination file a name. Now if you poke the 'start disk read' button the data should begin transferring from the disk to your hard drive. This would be a good time to go away from your computer and do something useful for a few minutes; analogous to the burning stage, any break in the data flow can cause problems later on, so it is wise not to tamper with your PC once the process is underway. When you return, the operation should be complete and all that will remain to be done is to transfer the data from your hard drive to a blank CD/DVD, so find a suitable disk and pop it into your CD/DVD writer. Then if you hit the 'write from image file' button, select your newly created image file and click on the 'start disk write' button, Bob's your mother's brother... or in other words, your work here is done. Congratulations, you've produced your first cloned original disk!

Since the authors of all three of these programs have aimed for idiot-proof operation, once you've used one you've used them all. The interfaces are very similar so you shouldn't have any difficulties porting your newly acquired knowledge of Clone CD when making use of its rivals. Because some programs of this kind extract data from disks using different mechanisms depending on the way the data has been protected, it is sometimes necessary to inform them of which copy protection scheme has been applied to a disk prior to imaging it. If the program you are using does not detect this information automatically, you can do the detective work yourself by visiting Game Copy World and searching for the title of the game you are attempting to copy. GCW will provide very detailed instructions on how to copy each title, nonetheless, the only bit of information you need to pluck from the articles is the copy protection mechanism utilized e.g. SafeDisc, SecuROM, LaserLock etc. Alternatively you can instruct a third party utility to take care of the task for you. Once armed with this information, select the corresponding protection method from the relevant drop down menu and away you go.

An added bonus of using Clone CD or Alcohol 120% is that they both support CD/DVD emulation; that is deluding your operating system into thinking that the disk image on your hard drive is actually a real CD/DVD sitting in your optical drive. Windows never was the sharpest tool in the box, eh! Sorry, I couldn't resist taking a swipe at Microsoft. The advantages of this are fairly obvious; it becomes unnecessary to burn a disk image to a CD/DVD in order to use it - very handy if you happen to have run out of blank disks or if you do not intend to keep the disk images forever. Beyond this, there is a huge reduction in data access times since hard drives are many times faster than optical drives. Also, if for whatever reason, a disk image cannot be accessed properly you will realize there's a problem long before you create a fresh new coaster.

You will find more detailed information and relevant links on this subject in others areas of my blog, so feel free to make use of the search feature if you're still struggling to get to grips with it.

Now you've so meticulously assembled your first backup disk, you're not going to want to just scribble its title on a scrap of paper and shove it inside a jewel case, are you? The answer you're looking for is "no"! Come on, work with me here will you? If you want to make your backups look more professional you can download scanned versions of the original CD/DVD inlays from the internet and print them out providing you know where to look. Oh what the hell, it's nearly Christmas. Here are some links which you might find useful: CD Covers (.cc), Mega Search and CD Covers (.to). Amongst these sites you will find covers for games, applications, audio CDs, video CDs, DVDs and... well pretty much anything that comes in a CD or DVD case really. These sites are undoubtedly superb resources, but please keep in mind that unless you own the original disk the artwork accompanies, you are breaking the law by downloading and using it.

Monday, May 23, 2005

A web site design primer

Monday, May 23, 2005 0

If you believe what you read on the net you'll be well aware that your life is completely empty and meaningless unless you have created a home for yourself on the web. Well I wouldn't quite go that far, but it's always nice to learn a new skill and the words 'web designer' will look very impressive on your CV (resume to you Americans). Contrary to popular belief it's really not all that difficult to create and upload your own web site. If you've used Microsoft Word before - almost every computer user has at some point in their lives - you're already half way there. The stumbling block that tends to hold people back from creating their own web site is that they assume they will have to learn how to write their own HTML code, and often the mere mention of the phrase sends people running for the hills. For the uninitiated, HTML code is the behind the scenes, bare bones scaffolding of the web pages you view in your browser, but fear not wannabe web designers, you don't have to know how to construct 'raw code' to create a web page. Many programs will do this for you without leaving tell-tale signs to indicate that you 'cheated'. One exception is Microsoft's Frontpage - a simple to use, Word-like web page builder that produces horrendously convoluted proprietary HTML code which fails to render correctly in many browsers. Avoid it like the the black death - at least this plague eventually ran its course! Frontpage is still at large!

Tools of the trade

To begin with you aren't going to be interested in writing your site in raw code, that comes much later on when you've mastered the basics. Your first port of call should be to download a 'What You See Is What You Get' (or WYSIWYG for short) HTML editor. One of the simplest and best free ones is NVU. WYSIWYG roughly translates to 'any chump could use this program'. More specifically, such tools allow you to construct impressive looking documents without ever needing to see the underlying nuts and bolts that generate their contents.

Once you progress from NVU you may wish to apply your newly-acquired skills to Adobe's Dreamweaver, a much more advanced and versatile web page editor. You could even opt to use Dreamweaver from the outset - if you overlook some of the more complicated features to begin with, what remains isn't all that far removed from the NVU interface, and so most of what follows will also apply to Dreamweaver.

Before we delve into the world of web design I want you to know that I'm not an expert at this by any stretch of the imagination. I wouldn't call myself a professional web designer as I've only dabbled, so don't take what I say as gospel. If you want the guidance of a professional refer to the links at the end of this page. What I can tell you though is how to get started, which programs to use and how to make things easier for yourself.

OK, let's get this show on the road. Open up NVU and click on the 'new page' icon (actually when you open the program you tend to be confronted with a new blank page by default so this 'arduous' step may be redundant). There are more complicated templates for you to choose from at this stage, but to begin with we'll keep things simple and take it one step at a time.

When you type the URL of a web site into your browser you are automatically redirected to the default page - this is usually called index.html or index.htm. For instance, if you visit you will actually be viewing, even if the filename doesn't appear in the address bar. For this reason it makes sense to use the same filename for your first page. To do this click on the 'save' icon and type in the title you would like to appear in your visitor's web browser whenever they open the page (this will also be the default title for its entry in the favourites folder if someone decides to bookmark it). Now type in 'index' - the html or htm extension will be appended automatically. It is sensible to create a new directory to group all your pages together, so click on the 'new folder' button and give it a label. Done that? Select the new folder by clicking on it once and press the 'save' button to store your new page in that directory. Once this process is complete you will be brought back to your new empty page where you can begin to add some content.

Now this is where some experience of using Word comes in very handy. Many of the functions you will come across in Word, and the whole of the Microsoft Office suite for that matter, are standardised so that once you can use one application, you can use them all - see, Bill can get it right some of the time! So dive straight in and start filling in the blank space with some text. Any old gibberish will do just to familiarise yourself with the NVU environment. If you look at the top of the screen you will be pleased to discover that all the familiar Word menu bar functions are available. The most commonly used tweak buttons, those responsible for changing the font of your text, its colour, size and style are never more than a few clicks away.


If you want to create a hyperlink using some of this text, drag your mouse cursor over it while holding down the left button and poke the 'link' icon. If you want to link to an external web site, type its address into the space provided and click on the 'more properties' button. This is here to help you decide how you would like your new page to be opened. The options are fairly straightforward; if you want the site to pop up in a new window so that your visitors can continue browsing your site, tick the 'link is to be opened' check box and place a circle in the 'in a new window' radio button.

If you want the linked site to open in the same frame where the hyperlink is situated, select 'in the current frame'. Alternatively if you want the site to replace your site completely rather than just a single frame select 'in same window, getting rid of all framesets'. If you are planning to use the same format throughout your site you might like to add the code: <base target="_blank"> into the header section of your pages. In this instance the code is telling your browser to open all links on a particular page in a new window so that your visitors never have to leave your site - especially handy for links pages because it saves you having to set the target frame for each link. Three other target options are available, "_parent", "_self" and "_top". 'Parent' indicates that the new page should be opened in the parent frameset of the link, 'self' instructs your browser to open the page in the current frame, replacing the content in that frame, and finally, 'top' opens the link in the outermost frameset of the current document, replacing all frames.

Much of the time you will want to link to another page of your own site instead of an external link. To do this, it is a good idea to keep all your HTML files together in one directory and make sure that you recreate this directory structure on your remote server as it appears on your own hard drive. To allow your visitors to jump to another page of your site follow the instructions to make a hyperlink as detailed above, but this time click on the 'choose file' button instead of typing in a web site address. Browse to the file on your computer and select it. Providing you tick the 'URL is relative to page location' check box the hyperlink will look something like 'anotherpage.html'. There should be no trace of a drive letter, any Ws or an http:// reference. Doing things this way allows you to edit your pages offline so that they appear instantly instead of being loaded from the web server in your web page editor. An additional advantage of this method is that no matter where you store your pages, all your internal links will function correctly offline. If, at a later date, you have to change hosts, the process simply involves re-uploading the files without having to change any of your links.

If you are linking to a file in another directory of your site the link should look something like 'directoryname/webpage.html'. So you see, it makes no difference where your pages are kept as long as you point to them using the correct directory path without including the web address. From within the same 'link location' panel, a further option available to you is to insert a link to an email address. Whenever one of your visitors clicks on a link created in this way, their default email client will open a new message window with the selected address already entered into the 'to' field. A handy hint if you want to have the subject field filled in automatically for your visitors is to add "?subject=Your Subject Here" to the end of your email address.


If you've got an extremely long page, you may want your visitors to be able to jump to different sections of it without having to scroll manually. The point you jump to is known as an 'anchor'. To insert an anchor, highlight an object or piece of text you would like your visitors to be able to jump to and click on the 'anchor' icon. Give the 'quick jump' link a name and press 'OK' - an anchor symbol will appear alongside the text/object. To link to this section of the page, click on the 'link' icon as before and select the name of the anchor from the drop-down menu. The resulting link will appear in your browser as

To code or not to code, that is the question

This would be an opportune moment to share another tip - your ultimate aim in designing your site using a fool-proof program like NVU should be to learn HTML code a bit at a time as you go along. This way you can get started straightaway without having to refer to a text book. As you create objects and insert pictures and text the easy way, spare a few seconds to highlight these elements and click on the 'source' tab to see how they would be created if you were 'raw coding' in a bare bones text editor such as Notepad or TextEdit. Soon enough, using this code will become second nature and you can dispense with your web page editor altogether! Before you do though, it's also worth remembering that you can use your web page editor to open any web page on the world wide web to see how they were created. So get used to viewing the source code of other people's web pages as well as your own - note that the emphasis here is on learning from, rather than stealing the work of others.

Inserting images

The next thing you might want to do to liven up your site is to add some images. To do this I would recommend that you create a new directory inside your main web site directory called 'images' or 'pics' and place them inside it. Now prod the 'image' icon, find the picture you want to insert and select it. The picture should magically appear wherever you left the blinking cursor in your NVU window. This can then be moved around the screen by dragging it with the left mouse button. Alternatively you can centre it, or move it to the extreme left or right using the buttons to the right of the style buttons in the menu bar. If you so wish you can also turn your images into hyperlinks by using the 'link' option as detailed above.

To insert a background picture you would choose 'page colours and background' from the 'format' menu and select a suitable file from your images folder. Alternatively you can simply pick a solid colour to fill in all that white nothingness.


As your site expands it's very useful to be able to create a contents page full of links to its various sections. One way of doing this is to split your pages up using frames. You can think of frames as the scaffolding on which you place your pages. A page with frames really consists of several separate HTML pages simultaneously displayed on a single page separated by borders. The advantage with creating a contents page is that it can be made to remain in a fixed position enabling your visitors to navigate your site much more easily.

NVU doesn't include frame-based templates (probably because they are considered outdated and aren't easily indexed by search engines) so if you want to use them you will have to insert the relevant code into your pages manually. Here's some example HTML code you can use to create a page split vertically into two frames...

<frameset cols="200,*" frameborder="NO" border="0" framespacing="0">
<frame src="left-frame.htm" name="leftFrame" scrolling="NO" noresize>
<frame src="main-frame.htm" name="mainFrame">

The resulting page would be comprised of three separate HTML documents - one containing the code above (most likely an index page), a second page containing navigational elements caged in the left hand frame and a third page containing your site's core material.

If you intend to experiment with frames keep in mind that they aren't the ideal way to construct web pages. This is largely because they don't render well in all browsers/resolutions, individual pages are impossible to browse when opened in isolation of their parent structure and can often look amateurish. Nonetheless, when you're just starting out in web design you won't be expecting to win any awards for your efforts, so if you want to employ frames as an initiation learning exercise, go right ahead.

Out of curiosity you may like to look at the selection of frame-based templates offered by Dreamweaver. These allow you to split up your pages in a variety of different ways - for instance you could have a navigational frame at the top of your index page rather than the side, or even split it into many columns or rows aside from the obligatory contents frame. Having chosen the configuration that best suits your needs you can proceed to create new pages to go inbetween the dividers, or insert your existing ones. If you create a navigation menu in one of your narrower frames you can allow your visitors to jump between the different sections of your site. To make sure the pages linked from your navigation menu appear in the larger pane select 'main' from the 'target frame' menu (or cite the frame name manually in NVU), otherwise the new page might replace your menu and the frame will be far too small to accommodate it.

From time to time you may want to insert a frame smack bang in the middle of one of your HTML pages, and having fiddled with the frame templates in Dreamweaver you've probably discovered that neither of these editors are very accommodating when it comes to carrying out this task. This is because these frames, commonly known as 'iframes', are non-standard web page elements and originally weren't 100% compatible with all browsers. Although this is no longer an issue nowadays, the option to use iframes is still absent from most WYSIWYG HTML editors. Not to worry though, we're not going to be told what we can and can't do by an insubordinate piece of software are we. To get the job done we're going to have to edit the code manually. To do this, place your cursor where you want the frame to appear on your page, flip into 'code view' and enter the following into the space:

<iframe name="iframe" iframe src="file.htm"
width="310" height="250" frameborder="0"

The above code is fairly self explanatory, but just to be sure you know how to customise it to suit your needs let me clarify some of the tag options for you. The 'iframe name' reference is used to target your new window. For instance, if you call your iframe 'theblackhole', whenever you wish to open a page inside the iframe you would target it in the following manner: target="theblackhole". This ensures that your pages won't open over the top of your current page or leap out at you in a new window. 'Iframe src' refers to the initial page you want to appear inside the iframe when you first open the page containing the iframe code. The width, height and alignment parametres need little explanation. The frame border option allows you to specify whether or not you would like to add a solid line to your iframe to make it stand out. To ensure the contents of your iframe blend into the page containing the iframe code it is best to set this option to '0' and use the same page background colour for both pages; that way they will look like part of the same page.

Like SSI commands (see below), iframes are a great way of including the main layout elements of your site in each page without having to replicate them in every instance where you want them to appear. Using SSI commands is an ultimately superior way of performing this function, but if your server doesn't support the parsing of SHTML pages, iframes are the next best solution.

Server side includes (SSI)

The main drawback with using frames is that they aren't very versatile, i.e. they won't resize automatically to accommodate the differing screen resolutions of your visitors, and this can make your site look very disorganised when viewed using a browser configuration other than the one it was designed for. This, and the fact that many search engines have difficulties spidering frame-based web sites has recently led to a move away from their use by professional designers. This isn't to say they have abandoned navigational elements altogether, simply that they are inserting them in a more flexible manner.

For instance, if you wanted a navigation bar to appear at the left hand side of all the pages of your web site, you would create this menu as an isolated page much like you would if you were planning to use it in a separate frame, but instead of using frames to position the pages, you would issue an SSI command. Whenever a page containing an SSI command is opened in a web browser, the pages 'called' by the command will be incorporated or merged into the page seamlessly as though they were a single file. Rather than recreating your navigation menu in every single page of your site, you would simply copy and paste the calling command into your pages so that, if at a later date, you decide to edit your navigation menu, you only need to edit a single file. Any changes you make to this file will automatically be reflected in all the subsequent pages containing the SSI command calling your menu. So, as you can see, using SSI commands can be a tremendous timesaver providing you put in a bit of initial effort.

Before you rush off to start converting your site, you must be aware that not all hosts will allow you to make use of SSI commands, and the ones that do will require a bit of tweaking before they will play ball. As the SSI function is such a nifty party trick, any hosts supporting it will be understandably proud of the fact and will likely want to display this information in a prominent place on their home page. If you're one of the lucky ones in that your host is SSI enabled, to get started you will need to edit (or create, if you haven't already got one) a .htaccess file (for more information regarding this invaluable miniature marvel see the paragraph relating to creating custom 404 pages below). First of all, open your .htaccess file in a basic text editor such as Notepad and add the following lines to it...

AddType text/html .shtml
AddHandler server-parsed .shtml
Options Indexes FollowSymLinks Includes

If you now upload this file to the root of your web server, the whole of your site will become SSI enabled. Similarly, if you create separate .htaccess files for the different directories of your site you can specify the areas you would like to provide SSI support for, and those you would like to remain SSI disabled. These three lines instruct your web server to recognize SHTML files as a valid web page format in addition to the more commonly used HTML or HTM formats. The reason for this change is that SSI commands will only be acted upon if they originate from within a file with an SHTML extension. Don't let this format fool you into thinking that SHTML files are anything special; they are merely HTML files with a different extension - precisely why you can simply edit their extension to render them operational.

Finished that? OK, now we're ready to get down to the nitty gritty of SSI. Open up the SHTML page you wish to call your navigation menu from and select the 'insert' command from your HTML editor's options menu. Now if you click on the 'server side include' option you will be whisked away to a browser window from which you can select the file you wish to include. For those of you who want to know what is going on behind the scenes whenever you do this, switch to the code view tab of your editor and see if you can spot changes. The new code should look something like <!--#include virtual="yourfile.html" -->.

Note that previewing the page in your browser will not make it appear as intended; for the page to appear correctly it must first be uploaded to your web server. Another thing to keep in mind is that you must remove any header or footer code or any other styling information from the page you wish to insert, otherwise this code will be 'printed' as plain text creating an unsightly mess. And speaking of unsightly messes, inserted segments of SHTML pages have a habit of doing their own thing unless you restrain them using tables, so if you want to be able to set the location of your inserted elements make sure you place each inserted page in its own table (see the next section).

While we're busy noting things, also note that you can include dynamic script files into your static pages. For instance, if you wanted to place a bulletin board inside a graphical navigation interface you could insert the forum index page of your board into an SHTML page. Whenever a visitor opens one of your forums, the CGI, PHP or ASP page will change from within the SHTML page rather than opening a new page. An added bonus of using such a system is that you can assign your board with an easy to remember address because the URL in your visitors address bar will remain the same no matter where they roam on your board.

PHP inserts

Some hosts support PHP, but not SSI. If yours is one of them you could give PHP inserts a whirl instead. They serve exactly the same function as server side includes and are easier to implement. The example code below would allow you to insert a navigational header page into any document with a .php extension:


Observe that the code contains the full path to the file to be included, not a relative one or a web address. Use either of the latter and this trick won't work. You can usually find the full path to your web site's root directory listed within your control panel (if you have one) or by searching your host's FAQ documentation. If not, try quoting the folder structure I used in the example above - web hosts often adhere to standardized protocol where folder organization is concerned so its worth a shot.

This code will only work when inserted into files with a .php extension, though that doesn't mean you have to convert all your pages to PHP before using it. Rename your existing HTML files and you're all set to make use of PHP inserts. You can learn PHP later - for now let's take one step at a time, eh!

What looks like an SSI/PHP insert and functions like an SSI/PHP insert, but isn't an SSI/PHP insert?

There's no punch line, sorry to disappoint you. This is better than a cheap gag so pin back your ears and take note. If your server doesn't support SSI commands or PHP, but you want to be able to integrate identical headers and footers into your pages without having to code them manually in each page, this is the perfect solution. What you do is code all the repeating elements such as headers and footers and then save them as standalone HTML files. These can subsequently be converted into javascript and inserted into your pages wherever you want them to appear using a call function similar to the one described in the previous sections above.

For instance, if you wanted to insert a standard header into a particular web page you could create an external javascript file called header.js and then insert the following code into the head section of the page where you want the header to appear:

<script language="JavaScript" SRC="../javascripts/header.js"></script>

Note that the above example assumes you want to place all your external javascript files in a folder on your web space account called 'javascripts'. This is merely for the sake of grouping together similar files because they are easier to organize that way. This code informs your browser of the whereabouts of any javascript files you may wish to call elsewhere in the same page. To actually set the location where you want the header to appear you would move your cursor to the relevant section in source code view and enter the following code:

<script language="JavaScript">

Once this javascript referencing code has been inserted into each of your pages they can in future be modified by editing a single file rather than you having to replicate the changes in each individual page. This works in a very similar fashion to the SSI commands we discussed earlier, yet the pages will load much faster because they are processed client-side rather than server-side. I've also noticed that web caching seems to be much less problematic when you are dealing with HTML as opposed to SHTML pages, so this is a very welcome additional bonus.

This all sounds far more complicated than it really is, so stick with it and you'll be glad you took the time to get to grips with this little known, but invaluable technique. You'll be relieved to know that the HTML to javascript conversion process is totally automatic. Javascript Maker does the hard work, all you have to do is tell it where to find the files you wish to convert. The javascript code you must insert into your pages is also automatically generated so all that remains to be done is to copy and paste it into the relevant section of your web creations.


Another element you may want to incorporate into your site is a table. Tables are very useful if you need to divide up the text or images in your HTML pages while keeping everything neatly organised and under control. Take your average links page for example. These are often divided into several equal columns into which are placed a string of hyperlinks ordered from A - Z. The reason you can't see any lines in these tables is because the table borders tend to be hidden, but trust me they are there. Surprisingly enough, to insert a table in NVU you have to click on the 'table' icon. A dialog box will pop up prompting you to decide how many horizontal and vertical cells you would like your table to be divided into. Once that taxing decision has been taken care of, press 'OK' and your new table will appear. By highlighting its cells and right-clicking to bring up a context menu you can enter the properties menu to set its attributes (if you didn't do this when it was first created).

URL amnesia

You may have noticed that it is becoming fashionable to have a shorter, easy to remember web site address. Take for instance the long-winded and ugly URL:

If you registered a much shorter and snazzier redirector like:

(see the links below for a list of companies who provide this service) you could map it to your site's real location and never again have to cite the windy version. Whenever someone typed this shorter URL into their browser they would automatically be forwarded to your site's actual abode. This isn't just for aesthetic purposes, it's a very useful way of ensuring that you never lose touch with your visitors. Imagine you've chosen to host your site with a fly-by-night company. When they inevitably ...erm, fly into the night never to be heard from again, anyone who has booked your real URL won't know where to find your site once it re-emerges. By registering a shorter redirector you will always be able to login to your account and update it with your new address. Never again will your treasured virtual home be banished to the web site graveyard. Instead of advertising your real address you would urge people to bookmark your redirector. Likewise, if you are planning to submit your site to any search engines you would use your new redirector URL. Having these redirectors visible in your visitor's address bar is the equivalent of advertising for the companies who provide these short URL services so don't be surprised if they actually submit your site to the major web listing directories and search engines themselves saving you the hassle.

Hell, why not really push the boat out and claim a bona fide domain name to assign to your web project? They're as cheap as chips these days if you select the right registrar.

Search engines

...and speaking of submitting your site, whatever you do, don't attempt to do it manually by visiting the home page of each search engine one by one - your wrists will shrivel up and drop off in no time at all (well, maybe you'll just get RSI). Anyway, as Harry Enfield would say, "you don't wanna do that". Nope, what you should do instead is get yourself an automated search engine submission gizmo ('Submit Wolf' and 'Add Web' come highly recommended if you have the cash to spare).

If you're still struggling to get your site noticed you may want to opt for a web based submission instead. The most thorough ones aren't free of course, but you can submit your site to all the major search engines for gratis (see the links below).

Finding a host

Once you have finished writing your web pages you are going to need a remote host to store them on. There are literally thousands of these available; some are free and others aren't. Most web design guides will direct you towards the more obvious free hosts such as Geocities or Tripod, but I'm not going to because you can do much better. The problem with these hosts is that they will foist advertising banners onto your pages making them look tacky and amateurish. Alternatively, you will have to suffer an annoying pop-up, or an extra frame obscuring a large portion of your pages. Normally I would recommend stumping up a nominal fee for a basic paid host to avoid all this nonsense, but if you're just starting out and don't know how popular your site is going to be you may as well begin with a freebie and upgrade at a later date if you outgrow the limited features available. Incidentally, when the time is right, A Small Orange or Solid Internet would be an excellent choice.

Assuming your ISP account doesn't include a chunk of web space, head over to and click on the 'advanced search' button. This is your launch pad to finding the perfect host to suit your requirements. No matter what you're planning to do with your new home on the web, it is imperative that your host offers real FTP support. If you're considering signing up with a host and you see the phrase 'web based FTP account' plastered across their home page without reference to an additional real FTP account you would be well advised to give them a wide birth. With a web based file manager you are restricted to processing about five files at once no matter whether you are uploading, moving or deleting and you will not be able to make use of automatic synchronization programs (more on that later). On the other hand, with your own FTP account you can automate the whole process of uploading however many files you like while you put your feet up.

At this stage you are probably wondering how much space your new baby is going to gobble up. Well surprisingly little actually. Unless you're planning to re-write the Encyclopedia Britannica or post hundreds of high quality photographs, you aren't going to need huge quantities of web space. I would suggest aiming for around ten megabytes, but obviously the more you can grab the better up to a certain point. Any host claiming to offer unlimited space is likely to be highly oversubscribed and will often grind to a halt under the strain. Since you are unlikely to need any more than about twenty megabytes, it's wise not to be too greedy. The same rules apply even if you're putting together a site with lots of downloads since you don't necessarily have to store your goodies on the same host as your HTML files. Incidentally, the word 'unlimited' is a misnomer anyhow - no host will allow your site to grow exponentially without setting some boundaries where web space is concerned. If anyone knows where you can buy an unlimited capacity hard drive please let me know. ;)

So with this wish list in mind, you can tell the Free Web Space search engine exactly what it is you're looking for. First of all, make sure you tick the 'FTP' box, select the 'more than 20mb' option from the 'web space' section and select 'no ads' from beneath the 'ads' heading. Now click on the search button and commence thumb twiddling until the results appear. You should be presented with a miniscule list of maybe three or four hosts. That's not a problem - after all, you're asking for a lot from a free service. Armed with your shortlist visit the home page of each of these hosts and select the one offering the best deal. One other thing you may want to take into consideration - as a general rule of thumb, a home page that looks like it's been thrown together by your three year old niece or nephew reflects very badly on the reliability of the service. If the site is very difficult to navigate and is lacking in technical support you will often find that many other key services are also being neglected, so shop around before making your final decision.

Whichever host you choose you will have to fill in a few forms before you can start uploading. This involves choosing a username and password as well as handing over a few personal details such as your real name, address, phone number and so on. You could enter absolutely anything here if your privacy is a top priority, but if you do provide phony contact information don't be surprised if your host vaporizes your account for violating their terms of service agreement.

Providing your details are accepted you will be sent an email (instantaneously in many cases) containing all the necessary information you will need to upload your pages. It is very important that you do not forget these details, so for future reference make sure you save the email and keep it in a safe place.

Uploading your site

To get your web site from your desktop onto the world wide web you will need to get hold of an FTP client. If you aren't familiar with how these work refer back to my FTP tutorial. All the login details you need to gain access to your host's server should have been included in the confirmation email you were sent. What you will need is... an empty washing up bottle, a yogurt pot and... oops, I must have slipped into Blue Peter presenter mode for a second there... ahem... your username and password and the FTP address. Enter these details into the relevant fields of your FTP client and connect to the server. Once access has been granted you can begin uploading your pages. To do this enter the directory where your offline site is located and highlight all of its contents including the subdirectories, drag it into the 'files to upload' window and hit the go button.

This method is fine if you rarely update your pages, but if you start making changes left, right and centre you will quickly lose track of the pages you have to re-upload. This is where the miraculous Crystal Site Updater comes to the rescue. By pointing this tiny program towards your offline site it will compare it with the online version and track any changes between the two. If it finds that you have updated, deleted, added or renamed any of the contents of your web site since the last time you connected to the server it will automatically delete the old files from your server and re-upload the new versions in their place so they are always in synch. If you find that the fuctions offered by CSU are too simplistic for your needs make sure you look into the web site management system implemented by Adobe's Dreamweaver.

Once the process is complete, you can disconnect and check that everything has gone according to plan by typing the URL of your site into your browser's address bar. Internet Explorer or Netscape Navigator should then locate your index file automatically and display it for you in all its glory. Congratulations, you are now officially a webmaster and your site will be available to anyone with internet access anywhere in the world! It feels good doesn't it.

And now for something a bit more impressive...

First up, CSS rollover effects. No, these have nothing to do with teaching your dog to do tricks. A rollover effect is a dynamic web page element, composed of either text or images, that changes as you hover your mouse pointer over it. NVU doesn't yet support easily implemented rollover effects, so if you want to add one to your page you will have to do it manually. Here's a simple example...

<style type="text/css">
a:link, a:visited { text-decoration: none; }
a:hover, a:active { text-decoration: underline; }

Try inserting this code into the header section of one of your pages and open it in your favourite web browser. Observe what happens when you linger over a text link with your cursor and then move it away again. In this case both 'unmolested' (for want of a better word) and previously visited links are undecorated, whilst hovered-over links and those currently being tampered with i.e. in mid-click mode are underlined. Here the four modes (link, visited, hover and active) have been combined into two groups to produce a subtle rollover effect, though could just as easily be referenced individually if you wished to assign a different style to each one.

The code below will produce a slightly different rollover effect...

<style type="text/css">
a:link { color: #FF0000; text-decoration: underline;}
a:hover { color: #0000FF; text-decoration: none;}

In this instance, whenever a link is hovered over, it changes from underlined, red text to blue text minus the underline.

Other style attributes you can modify to produce interesting rollover effects include 'font-family', 'font-style' (e.g. italic, bold), 'font-variant' (e.g. upper or lower case) and 'font-size'.

Creating CSS rollover effects using images is a bit more complicated, but well worth the extra effort when you see the fruits of your labour. Very often people choose to use image rollovers in conjunction with navigation buttons to give the impression that their visitors are physically interacting with them. For example, you could create a 'home' button using two images, one embossed and one depressed, so that when your visitors hover their cursor over it they get the impression they are pushing the button into its socket. You can create these images in any old paint program or use an online button creation service (see the links below). Once your images are web-ready, visit this lengthy tutorial to discover where you go from here.

If you haven't got the stamina to complete all these steps, you might like to investigate creating image rollovers using dynamic HTML effects or javascript. The latter techniques literally take seconds to master though are frowned upon by more experienced web masters as they introduce a number of frustrating caveats such as the necessity for pre-loading and multiple images. The choice is yours.

How about inserting a java applet or two into your pages? The first thing to note is that java and javascript are two totally independent languages. Javascript is a much less sophisticated language and is used primarily to create simple web page elements like (old fashioned versions of) the rollover effects already discussed, or drop down menus; the possibilities are endless. Javascript is not dissimilar to HTML in that you can type its raw code into the 'behind the scenes' area of a web page to create all sorts of interesting effects. This isn't just art for art's sake, it can be used for all sorts of functional purposes as well.

Java on the other hand is a programing language used to create applications known as applets, which can either be used offline (or at least independently of your web browser) or by embedding them into web pages. Examples include chat applets, virtual hard drive interfaces and file sharing clients.

Unless you're a masochist, or you're getting paid for it, there is no reason you should even attempt to write your own javascript code or java applets. Take it from me, it's a very laborious and lengthy procedure and is best avoided at all costs. Luckily for us, every bit of javascript and every java applet you could possible want to implement on your site has already been slavishly coded by web script professionals and is available for free providing you know where to look (again see the links below). To get started, visit a free javascript/java site and find an applet or script you'd like to adopt. Click on its link and read through the instructions. You will quickly realize that this couldn't get any simpler; you merely have to copy the code from the web page using your right mouse button and paste it into the HTML pane of your web site editor under the relevant tag. Note that some applets or scripts will require you to upload a number of essential accompanying files to your web server before they will function correctly. Finally, skip to the preview pane and watch what happens. Hopefully you haven't unleashed a monster upon your unsuspecting visitors!

If you've ever wondered how those tiny favourites icons are created, wonder no more. All you have to do is design a 16 x 16 GIF image, save it as favicon.ico and upload it to the root directory of your web server. Whenever someone bookmarks your site this picture will appear alongside the title of your page in their favourites menu.

If you'd like to treat your visitors to a bit of eye candy while they're getting lost in your dead links you can create your own customised 404 page. Bear in mind that this only works if your host allows you to edit the .htaccess file in the root of your web site. Most free hosts don't, so it helps if you either own the server your site is stored on, or you are paying to lease a small chunk of it. You'll be delighted to know this requires only a minor, very quick and simple tweak. Begin by creating a new document in Notepad and type "ErrorDocument 404" onto the top line. Now save the file as .htaccess and place it alongside your HTML files (note that this file should not have an extension - if Notepad gives it the suffix .txt you will have to remove it later, otherwise it won't work). This time open your HTML editor and create a new page called 404.html, type something witty and original onto it (refer to the 404 Research Lab if inspiration isn't forthcoming) and upload both files to your web site. In future, whenever someone clicks on the link to a file that no longer exists, instead of seeing a bog standard, default 404 page they will be greeted with your new funky 'you've lost your way' message.

Have a break, have a Kit-Kat!

It feels as though I've been rabbiting on for an eternity and yet have still only managed to provide a rudimentary web design prologue. There remain many more complicated aspects of web design (such as Flash, Photoshop and the like) I've not even begun to touch upon, but by this stage you should at least have a good idea of how to get started and where to look for additional assistance. The rest you can learn as you go along, one step at a time. After all, there is no substitute for the hands on approach, so roll up your sleeves and get stuck in. Don't be scared to experiment with all the options NVU (and later Dreamweaver) has to offer - the rest will fall into place naturally. Have fun!


As promised throughout this tutorial, what follows is an eclectic mix of useful web design links...

24 Fun | Dynamic Drive - Two excellent sources of ready made javascript snippets.

100 Best Free Web Space Services - Fairly self explanatory this one.

1001 Fonts - Go on, guess what this site is all about.

Add Engine - Allows you to submit your site to 25+ major search engines for free.

Add Me - Submit your site to the top 30 most popular search engines for free.

Anfy - The best program available for creating 'off the peg' special effect and navigational java applets.

Big Nose Bird - Free CGI scripts, graphics and tutorials (some of the easiest to follow on the web I might add).

Boogie Jack - Free graphics and HTML tutorials.

Brain Jar - Web scripting at its very best. | | V3 | IP Fox - Free, easy to remember redirector URLs.

DHTML Shock - Free DHTML scripts.

Echo Echo - More tutorials to guide you through every stage of building your first web site. Also includes a selection of online tools, free resources and forums.

Flaming Text | Cool Text - A quick and easy way to create impressive looking logos and buttons.

Flash Kit -The no. 1 place to visit if you want to get to grips with Macromedia's Flash.

Free Image - A computer graphics community and resource site.

Free Web Templates - No prizes for guessing what this one's for.

Granite Canyon | My Domain | Every DNS | Indian Magic | Zone Edit | Easy DNS - Free DNS providers.

HTML Goodies - Lots of expertly written tutorials for both the beginner and more advanced web designer.

Netcraft Web Site Finder - Similar to performing a Who Is lookup, but lists many more complex statistics such as server downtime percentages and whether the host servers are running on a Unix or NT platform (essential information when you're setting up a bulletin board).

Net Mechanic - Free tune ups and web site analysis.

Pixel 2 Life - Excellent source of web design tutorials covering topics as diverse as Photoshop, HTML, Bryce, Flash, PHP and Poser.

Planet Source Code - One for the more adventurous web designer.

Team Photoshop - Lots of exceptionally well written and easy to follow Photoshop tutorials.

W3 Schools - The defacto standard for web site construction tutorials.

Web Page Tools - Free ASP, HTML and Javascript code generators and resources.

Xara - Home of Xara 3D and Xara Web Style, two of the best template based graphics creation programs around.

Zy - Make logos, buttons and web templates the easy way.

Sunday, May 15, 2005

Close encounters with The Pod People

Sunday, May 15, 2005 0

Since excitedly flagging down the MP3 player bandwagon and clambering aboard towards the end of last year I've been wracking my brains trying to concoct novel and inventive uses for my new gizmo. Topping the bill so far is transferring digital audio to it and playing the files back on the move. You can mock, but mark my words, you'll all be following my lead before you know it.

Music would be an obvious candidate, but then it's always been more of an accompanying treat for me. I like to let music wash over me while I'm doing something which requires a degree of concentration; reading, writing emails or articles and so on. In fact I can't recall a time when I've ever felt compelled to sit motionless in a chair, staring at the walls simply listening to music. Within seconds I'd be propelled into action - I'd be tidying this, fixing that and organizing the other. I suppose I'm a casualty of the internet age - multitasking has become part of the natural order of modern life and anything less feels slothful.

On the contrary, when I'm out and about traveling from a to b I'm captive, incapable of getting my teeth stuck into my 'to-do' list and I can devote my full attention to whatever is being pumped into my brain through my ear-buds. In other words, my mind is free to listen to something a bit more stimulating than background music; audio books, political commentary, debate shows and news programmes, for example - all of which are available in 'podcast' format.

'Podcast' is a voguish contraction of 'iPod' and 'broadcast', the iPod being last year's best selling tech toy; a hard drive based MP3 player devised by Apple (as if you weren't already aware). While iPod users have certainly put free audio content on the map, you don't have to embrace this fad to appreciate podcasts. If you're labeled a positively subversive outcast for using a flash-based MP3 player then so be it. Personally I like to flaunt my black ear-phones wire over my clothes against the backdrop of a Persil white t-shirt. One day my wild rebellious nature will get me into serious trouble. :|

A podcast can comprise all manner or combination of audio content that has been pre-recorded and jammed into a self-contained downloadable format. They are designed to be synchronized with your iPod or desktop via RSS feeds in much the same way as textual bulletins or articles, though should also be available directly without you having to wrangle with any kind of intervening software.

The emergence of podcasts appears to be a reaction to the lack of easily accessible online audio content. Many radio stations allow you to stream their programmes live, but this is only any use if you happen to be sitting near your computer when they're on air. Other stations make 'on demand' broadcasts available for a limited period of time, and while this is a step in the right direction, it doesn't make it any more convenient for you to capture this content and listen to it on the move at your leisure. This is precisely why it defies belief that some podcasters deliberately limit your access to their shows, forcing you to delve into their site's source code to locate direct links to their MP3 files. On one hand they're sticking two fingers up to the frustratingly precious commercial stations, and on the other they're following them down the same path. What's it all about, Alfie?

Niggles aside, podcasts have given a voice to Joe or Josephine Bloggs (Blow or Doe to you yanks), the average citizen who may or may not have an important message to convey, yet who does not have the leverage to publicize their opinions through traditional channels. They are revolutionary in that anyone with a computer and a microphone can get involved and penetrate a medium which used to be the exclusive domain of the rich and sponsored. Whether anyone will want to listen to your home-brew broadcasts is another matter entirely, though in theory, anyone can become a DJ, news anchorman/woman or talk show host overnight. As you'd expect, whenever you have a free-for-all system like this in operation you get to experience the whole spectrum of offerings ranging from 'why did they bother?' to 'wow! he/she/they should be syndicated worldwide!'. Husking the pearls from a seabed of decaying debris is a rewarding exercise in itself - it's what makes talent scouts show up for work every day.

Some podcasts are actually just audio blogs i.e. someone has decided to read aloud their text updates for the sake of lending their sites an extra dimension. Others would be better described as audio archives of commercial radio shows. These are really convenient because you don't have to capture the streams yourself to be able to make them portable. Nevertheless, they aren't really in-keeping with the spirit of podcasting - that is amateur DJs, radio personalities or musicians embracing the opportunity to showcase their talents on a shoestring budget.

Not one for casually dabbling I visited Podcast Alley, what appears to be the most acclaimed podcast ranking portal, and proceeded to download a random broadcast from 10-ish cast entries from each category - roughly a gigabyte worth of audio entertainment. Over the past few days I've been transferring a selection of these to my MP3 player before setting off on my travels to and from work to establish which ones will find their way into my favourites list.

Through pure random chaos, first up was Barefoot Radio. I was impressed by some of the unsigned bands they plugged, couldn't hear a word of the prank call segment because the volume plummeted out of range at this point (I had gloves on and was trussed up like a cold Brit in March so couldn't get to the volume button), and was then aurally assaulted by a totally out-of-the-blue torrent of abuse aimed at an ex-friend of the host. Listening to this retched, self-absorbed tirade transported me back to a time when I regularly found myself caught up in the middle of explosive rows between my parents; times when I would have given anything for a power-off switch. Curse you! - that's four whole years worth of therapy down the pan! ;) I didn't have a clue who he was ranting about and didn't much care to find out what he'd done to rub him up the wrong way (most likely he ate the last teacake or committed an equally heinous misdemeanor worthy of such a vitriolic diatribe). Apparently the guy is an f-ing, f-ing, f-ing f-er times 10, and so on and so forth. My three year old nephew has a better developed vocabulary than this prima-donna. Christ! Either get some new material or make your point and move on! I don't want to listen to you air your dirty laundry. Ever heard of email or the telephone? Needless to say I jumped to the next track long before this one ended. Somehow I don't think I'll be repeating the experience.

Getting off the bus I didn't catch the name of the next podcast because it was drowned out by the background traffic noise of some of the busiest streets in Manchester, but can tell you that the subject matter revolved around separating the many facets of contemporary life into one of two categories. Things either, like totally sucked ass dude, or you know, like soooo rocked. Before reaching for the 'next track' button again, I fleetingly wondering if it takes much practice to sound permanently stoned, or if actually being permanently stoned was the way to go.

"Ah, Free Talk Live sounds promising", I thought hopefully. I gather this one isn't quite a grassroots podcast since it's regularly aired on a variety of commercial stations, nevertheless, it was a breath of fresh air after listening to the previous dross. As the name suggests, the show is an ad-hoc phone-in affair directed by the callers themselves. That said, the hosts do a superb job of carrying the show - by offering their considered take on current affairs - whenever callers are thin on the ground. If you're looking for intelligent debate with few boundaries, FTL is definitely worth checking out.

Feeling uplifted by this discovery I was sorry to hear the final seconds of my FTL sample fade into silence. Following FTL was The Peanut Gallery, a podcast featuring a weekly-narrated short tale of the tall variety. I love the concept, the sardonic introductions, the delivery... the authors consistently present polished performances, spiked with vitality and set to appropriate music.

At present there are only three to choose from; 'Last Words', 'Telemarketing' and 'The War'. For me, a short story should be fast-paced and conclude with a short, sharp shock, or an intriguing twist that leaves you ruminating over all the possible latent themes and symbolism. 'Last Words' fits this brief like a glove, and I have high hopes for the latter two compositions. Even if you have no more than a fleeting interest in fiction, audio or otherwise, this is a podcast which deserves a prominent spot in your bookmark collection. I for one will certainly be keeping a close ear on it in future.

Next in my track-list would have been a podcast called 'A Brit Abroad', only my MP3 player gave it a snooty side-wards glance, curled its lip with a snarl and refused point-blank to play it. It posed no difficulties for iTunes when I got home, but was hardly worth the wait. It put me in mind of the sort of video postcards more tech savvy travelers like to beam back home to their friends and family to keep them abreast of their adventures. These can be fascinating if you know the movie-makers personally, but pretty uninspiring otherwise. That some podcasters refer to their nearest and dearest without first explaining to the listener who on earth they're talking about leads me to believe that their broadcasts weren't destined for public consumption at all - that they somehow accidentally found their way into cyberspace. You went to who's 21st birthday party, and who got off with who?

I wouldn't have mentioned the show at all except it got me thinking about British accents. Why is it that my fellow Brits in all the podcasts I've heard so far sound completely alien to me? Great Britain is but a piddling dot on the world-map - I've visited its north, south, east and west extremities and am familiar with the disparate dialects of its populace, yet when I hear them speak on air, my initial thought isn't, "ah, he's one of us". Is it that Brits who phone into radio shows, or record their own, are a different breed entirely? Until I'm officially certified as insane I'll presume something fishy is afoot here and tread very carefully when coming into contact with these impostors.

Several months before discovering this whole podcasting malarky, I had been searching for a new talk show host to keep me company on my way to work. A spot of Googling led me to a site hosting ripped versions of a phone-in programme called the Tom Leykis Show. I'd never heard of the guy until now (sorry to bruise your ego Tom), but reasoned that if someone had been going to all the trouble of capturing, editing (thankfully the commercials end up on the cutting room floor) and archiving a show which airs five times a week, it must be pretty damn good! Genuinely excited at this point (yes, I'm a sad individual I know), I downloaded a variety of his broadcasts - both past and present - to get a flavour of the kind of topics raised.

Every show opens with the same sound-bite:

"This is where America gets together to talk about the issues you (drawn-out, dramatic pause) reaaaaaaaaaaaally care about. It's a different kind of radio talk program. We're the radio talk show that iiiiis (another dramatic pause) not hosted by a right-wing wacko, or a convicted felon, no! I'm your host".

"Ah ha, so we're going to be getting to grips with some of the Big Issues then", I thought optimistically. No such luck unfortunately. To my disappointment I found that Tom is pretty much a 'one trick pony'. Once you've heard one self-absorbed pantomime, you've heard them all. The show exists to warn men of the wicked ways of money-grabbing, soul-sapping, devious, manipulative women. Tom aims to teach men to be as deceitful as he assumes most women to be so they can get "more tail for less cash" while avoiding the commitment of marriage, loyalty, responsibility and so on. He approaches relationships in the same way a soldier approaches a battle zone - peril is presumed to lurk around every corner; it's a case of kill or be killed. The guy is so shallow he insists that the few women who call into his show inform his screener of their height, weight and cup size before being permitted to speak on air! In the event of him losing an argument with a female caller, having these statistics close at hand allows him to resorting to calling them fat, greedy porkers, thus diverting our attention. The rules of Leykisland dictate that this renders him victorious by default. If his verbal sparring partners happen not to be obese, he employs his other hackneyed ruse; hysterically yelling at them to drown out any dissenting opinions.

In-between telling women to go on a diet and playing the same banal sound clips ad nauseam (every caller is 'taken out' in one style or another), he likes to point out that he earns a seven figure salary, oh and has a well-stocked wine (vintage of course) cellar and can afford a Mercedes or three. I gather we're supposed to gasp and shrivel up like a raison in fits of jealousy. Vacuous drivel aimed at the lowest common denominator - it's prototypal misogynist cavemen like Tom and his callers who give men in general a bad reputation. Until now I thought I was jaded and cynical - next to Tom I'm a beam of sunshine sporting a prozac perma-smile. I stopped listening because I was developing an unhealthy yearning to open up my wrists with something sharp and leave this world for good. Next.

Day two of my foray into podcasting kick started with the very upbeat and easy on the ear Leo Laporte aka The Tech Guy. If you're American and fond of computers you're likely already more familiar with Leo than I am - apparently he was, at one time, the star of technical support TV shows, 'Call for Help' and 'The Screen Savers'. Personally I've never watched either of these, but vaguely recall from bulletin board posts I've skimmed through that droves of fans were furious when they were canned recently (or the format changed for the worse). It looks like I missed the boat there, though the radio show seems to be plugging the gap admirably. Leo really is a breath of fresh air to me seeing as tech talk shows (TV or radio) are far from commonplace here in Britain. I've worked in lots of offices where you'd be given suspicious looks for so much as broaching such geeky topics of conversation as internet forums, file sharing and the like. These same people were perfectly happy for me to resolve their computer issues of course, as long as I didn't go into great depth explaining what went wrong and how to avoid the same problem in future.

I'm a highly competent computer user (modest too!) so tend to find that I already know the solutions to caller's conundrums. Even so I don't mind re-treading such familiar territory because Leo's commentary and news items alone are worth 'tuning' in for. He's an instantly likable character who has quenched my thirst for nerd culture immersion (just don't tell the people I work with I said that).

It's a Saturday now as I write this paragraph, and the first one since summer last year to be blessed with a glimmer of sunshine. The blue sky is gloriously vivid, the respective vocal equipment of the local bird population has defrosted sufficiently to allow them to chirp out a sprightly ditty or two and people are brazenly stepping outside without their coats and gloves. Everything is generally hunky-dory. To make the most of this unexpected bout of warm weather I decided I would wander a bit further afield than I usually do - a-field and in the fields actually - it's been a while since I paid those horses a visit so why not? Fully aware that the Dawn and Drew Show is presently the top-rated podcast, I enthusiastically loaded up my MP3 player with nothing but D 'n' D tracks and set off towards those awaiting green pastures feeling... well, however one feels when they want to say 'pretty darn chipper' without sounding like the antiquated Mr Burns of Simpsons fame.

I could barely hear the first installment of D 'n' D. Even with the volume ramped right up to the max it was as though they were whispering... oh all except for that brief segment where the couple's pet dogs come bounding into the 'studio' emitting the kind of high-pitched barks that would wake the dead. Yeah, thanks for that chums. I have highly sensitive ears, though luckily don't suffer from a weak heart. You would have been hearing from my lawyers otherwise! :p

Anyhow, as the shows progressed, the volume gradually normalized. Upgrading their microphone helped to improve the quality of their output a bit too. Now the show was reaching my ears at a sound level detectable by people as well as bats and other creatures that use echolocation to navigate, I realized that it is totally unstructured and ad-hoc. This isn't necessarily a bad thing as long as you have something stimulating to share with your listeners. I don't think I'm being too harsh when I say that I didn't find discovering what Dawn and Drew were wearing and what they ate for breakfast on any given day especially absorbing. Is it just me? Am I missing something here? Why is mundane chatter about nothing of any great significance so appealing? After subjecting my poor eardrums to a dozen episodes of the D 'n' D show I snapped and deleted the remaining tracks as if under the influence of an autonomic reflex. With an abrupt spine-quiver and shake of the head I regained my sensibilities, switched to 'radio mode' and listened to that for the remainder of my journey.

If you've ever read an article about podcasting you will have heard of the Dawn and Drew Show. Although they can't claim to have jump-started the podcasting phenomenon, they are regularly alluded to as the 'poster children' of this contemporary art form. The husband and wife duo 'aired' their first show in September 2004 and swiftly ascended through the ranks of the Podcast Alley chart to occupy pole position. So clearly hordes of listeners are voting for them; what is baffling - to me at least - is why?

Geek News Central and MacCast have a lot in common; one specializes in 'puter tech oriented information you probably shouldn't admit to caring about in polite company (maybe I'm being too Brit-centric here, I don't know?), and the other specializes in 'puter tech oriented information you probably shouldn't admit to caring about in polite company, albeit with a heavier focus on Apple gossip, official announcements and helpful titbits. Don't get me wrong; I'm as geeky as the next techno-junkie (and don't mind admitting it... erm, online at least), yet at the same time recognize that not everyone I meet offline will share my passion.

To be honest, having listened to both broadcasts one after the other I didn't feel I'd gained any more than I would by, for example, scanning through the latest articles at Slashdot or Mac Rumors. I suppose what I'm trying to say is that they're essentially blogs in audio format. Again, don't get me wrong (you keep doing that, damn it!) - being the aural equivalent of such esteemed, staple-diet favourites as Slashdot or Mac Rumors is kudos of the highest order (come to think of it, this seems to be precisely the aim of some podcasts). I wasn't disappointed in the least and will likely become a regular listener on both counts; after all, you can't read a web site while you're pounding the streets getting your daily exercise.

Sooo like, what-ev-errr. That's my, like, breakdown of what, you know, like toootally sucks ass dude, and what, like, you know, oh my Gawwd, majorly rocks on, you know, planet podcast, and stuff, you know? If you don't absolutely agree with me on every single point you're wrong, you worthless, imbecilic, fat, ugly loser. Please accept my apologies; in the process of researching for this article I've overdosed on radio shock jocks and can't help picking fights with anyone who crosses my path, even the ones who wholeheartedly agree with me, yet need to be insulted for their own good regardless. Are you still on the line moron? Sorry.

Saturday, May 14, 2005

Welcome to my world

Saturday, May 14, 2005 5

OK I confess, Kookosity is yet another blog. No wait, don't switch off just yet! It's a blog with a difference... a blog with a real purpose. Novel, eh? ;) Aside from being outrageously witty and irreverent (no really, honest) I'll be employing my pet project as a vehicle to impart all manner of (hopefully educational) computer-oriented sorcery. It will feature a myriad of tangential flummery - everything from retro gaming to movie and music playback, web design and computer building - dished up in the guise of tutorials, FAQs and opinion-based articles.

From time to time you'll catch me clambering aboard my well-worn soapbox to rant about the mess our esteemed leaders are making of planet earth and the lives of its inhabitants. Thrown into the mix for good measure will be a selection of random, waffle-laden musings, web site recommendations and other miscellany. While anything goes, you'll never read about what I ate for breakfast, the current mood of my iguana/cat/dog/stick insect/whatever, or how long it took me to get to work on any given day... sorry. I believe in posting only when I've got something useful or at least vaguely entertaining/interesting to say so don't expect daily updates... hang on a minute, if anyone else said that to me I'd take it as an insult. :D

I'm not new to writing for the web - I've been doing so since 1999 - though have never blogged before. I've got a tonne of material I want to re-work and re-publish as it's no longer available anywhere else online. Some of this is 'time sensitive' so I'll have to backdate it to set it in its proper context. The rest I will post tagged with the current date as and when I get round to re-formatting it. Just so you know, if you get the impression you've read some of my ramblings before, it's likely because you've read some of my ramblings before.

In case anyone is curious about the origin of my blog's title, let me clarify. You know that character from the British TV comedy sketch programme, The Fast Show, called Colin Hunt played by Charlie Higson? The one who was always doing and saying really random, zany things to try to convince people he has a more interesting personality than reality would otherwise suggest. To hammer the point home he would often blurt out, "I'm crazy I am" while treating his onlookers to an open-mouthed, wide-eyed, showbiz double-handed wave. Are you with me?

Well that has nothing at all to do with it. 'Kookos' means coconut in Japanese. To introduce the tutorials section of my former web site I concocted this patronising, meandering 'internet-as-coconut' metaphor (it's full of untapped bounty, you need the right tools to crack it open and so on - in my defense it was meant to be tongue in cheek). Despite the corniness, the goal was (and still is) to provide information to help people get the most out of the net. I suppose adding the -ity part alludes to an object or concept possessing the essence of coconutness... or something like that. I'm sorry I started this now.

Wednesday, May 04, 2005

How to read your Yahoo email in Mozilla Thunderbird, Mac Mail, Outlook Express et al

Wednesday, May 04, 2005 0

If you've got an e-mail account at Yahoo and would rather not have to return to their home page each time you wish to check for new mail, you can configure your e-mail client to download your messages instead. In future, all your Yahoo web mail will be conveniently downloaded to your inbox alongside your regular pop 3 e-mail.

To the dismay of a great many life-long Yahoo users, in April 2002 Yahoo decided to begin charging for this feature (known as pop 3 access). If you subscribe to their premium service it'll be business as usual for you, though even if you're not a VIP Yahooligan, this shouldn't spell the end for your Yahoo-email client relationship. With Yahoo Pops (or the Mozilla Thunderbird WebMail extension) you can continue to access your email through many of the most popular email clients, and reassuringly, as it emulates a pop 3 server rather than operating as an exploit of any kind, using it does not represent an infringement of Yahoo's terms and conditions. As a result you can continue to enjoy the convenience of pop 3 without worrying about having your account terminated.

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