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Scott's Column
New Design, Dreamweaver vs. Expression, Money vs. Quicken, Learning Web Development, Home Server

February 1, 2007
By Scott Lewis

Well, I finally finished the redesign of this site... and your looking at it. I am sorry to all of those that voted for the two blue color schemes (one with blue text on a white background, and one with black text on a white background for the main content). We will get to the color selection, the graphics, the tools I used. Everything. Sit back, because I have a lot to write about this month.

Current Topics:

Gaming

I have been way too busy with learning web development, redesigning this site, and other computer endeavors to have any time to play games. I did buy a game cartridge for my sons' Nintendo DS. It is called Brain Age, and it has a bunch of tasks designed to exercise your brain... oh and it has a pretty good Sudoku game. Everyone in the house is playing Brain Age... except me.

As for PC games, I am stuck on No One Lives Forever. I will need to find a walkthrough to get past the point I am at when I find the time to get back into the game.

I came across Microsoft's XNA Game Studio Express. This looks like a development tool to build games. Every time I come across a tutorial or book on game programming I wonder if I would be able to do it. I never get anywhere. However, a friend of mine (also a very good programmer) said we could be very god game programmers... if we were doing it full time. Full time for game developers is 60 - 70 hours per week. Ouch! I hate overtime.

I always say...it takes 6 month to become competent with a programming environment and a year to be great. I don't have a year of full time work to become a great game programmer. Maybe XNA Game Studio Express will enable me to develop a decent puzzle game without spending weeks or months on it.

Yea... when I get time.

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The Design

No need to wait any further. I came across a blog that gave me the idea of the banner graphic at the top of this page. I am not happy with it. I got the basic look I wanted, but after looking at it long enough I don't like a few things. First is the floating cars. Two of the cars in the graphic look like they are floating in space. I didn't have a choice with the two Camaros on the right as that is from one photograph. I would have to completely start over trying to find two images to work with so I could "lower" the red car, or raise the red car's reflection. Even if I did this I would still be stuck with the fact that it still doesn't look real. If a car was really on a sheet of water you would see part of the undercarriage of the car. The camera and laptop have the same weird floating look. I wish they all came out as good as the computer did.

I wanted to do a glass effect to go along with the release of Windows Vista. The menu bar with the Home, About, Subscribe and E-Mail links was done as a glassy graphic. I tried to do an animated reflection on it when you passed your mouse over it, but I couldn't get it to look good enough. I also wanted to have an aurora in the background of the page that faded to a single color. There was a problem with Internet Explorer and Firefox. I could get the background to work with only one at a time. Each one did its own thing when I tried to have a background image for only part of the page. So much for building Cascading Style Sheet based web pages that are browser independent.

In fact, I had to change a few things to suit the two browsers. I tried to design the page using DIV tags. I could get it to look good in only one browser at a time. Ultimately I ended up using nested tables for the page. The content below the menu bar is in one big table. Then the navigation is in a table, which allowed me to get the tight fitting graphics that gave me the box look I wanted. The column text is also in a table for the same reason, to get the rounded corner box to look just right.

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The Color

The big decision came to go with brown. I originally was going to go with blue. I mocked up a bunch of pages using a blue background, even for the column text. That's when I tried to do the aero/aurora thing. No matter how hard I tried I just couldn't get the look I was after.

I was ready to drop back to a simple blue color scheme when I came across a blog that used a very simple black and white schema. They had a fading background from medium gray to black which became the outer borders running down the page. This blog also had a nice banner graphic and a glass looking menu bar.

I tried doing the same thing with a rich blue. Then I was reading an article on the Microsoft Zune and decide I wanted to do a blown color scheme. If I get a Zune it will have to be brown. Why brown? Because Apple does the iPods in black and white, so brown is the anti-iPod color.

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The Tools

I used Microsoft's Expression Web product to build all the working pages to get to the final look. Once I had the look I wanted I ported the pages to Dreamweaver. This was to make sure I could use Dreamweaver if I had to. Microsoft is not making the Expression products available to MSDN subscribers. You can read all about that on my blog.

I wanted to use some form of template pages. To me this means that the major navigation and look of the pages is in a template, and the content is in the pages you see. In the background these are combined to make a great looking page. The goal is that once the look is done I can easily edit the content and not worry about the look anymore.

Both Expression and Dreamweaver do this about as I expect. I was very pleased with this. I actually like Expression Web. However, if Microsoft expects me to pay for it above and beyond the price of my MSDN subscription (a little more than $2,000 a year) then I will use the copy of Dreamweaver MX 2004 I have.

I used a combination of Photoshop CS and Paint Shop Pro 8 for the graphics. I find some things easier in PSP even though they can be done in Photoshop. Plus I have more experience using PSP since I have been using it for over ten years. I only use Photoshop when I need it.

The breadcrumb feature I mentioned last month is not working yet. It is here, but it  is still a work in progress as I don't have enough history with this design, yet. Hopefully I will have worked all that out by next month.

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Web Development

I am finally working my way though a book. "ASP.NET 2.0: Visual Web Developer 2005 Express Edition." It is relatively simple, but it is teaching me more than I know about building web sites/pages using data driven ASP.NET pages. This is what we do where I work, and I was passed up for a promotion because I haven't learned Visual Studio and .NET programming yet. Oops! I am not worried. I didn't put a lot of emphasis on it because I didn't see a career path. I reported to a Director, and he wasn't going anywhere. Well, they made a friend of mine my manager, and created a Senior Programmer/Analyst and put our best .NET programmer (beside my friend that turned manager) in that position. Trust me, I expect to get that same title by the end of the year... sooner if I can.

Anyway, I will finish this book and I have a downloaded book at work I will also work through. Then I will start asking for Web work. I'll keep you posted. Right now I am on chapter 5.

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MS Money vs. Quicken

It was time to update my personal finance software. I have been using Microsoft Money since Money 95 (4.1). I wanted to try online banking to the point of being able to automatically update my finance data with the bank's. Have the transactions entered and reconciled electronically, rather than the big manual event I go through every month when the statement comes in the mail. I also want to use the software to setup and keep a budget. Normally I do a budget in an Excel Spreadsheet.

I wanted the cheapest solution so I downloaded the trial edition of Money Essential. I connected it to my credit union and was amazed how easy it was. Then it became immediately apparent that Money Essential could not do a few things I wanted. Particularly, I wanted to create my own categories for payments, and use "forms" for data entry.

I downloaded the trial version of Money Deluxe and saw that it did the custom categories, and the budget setup was just about perfect. I then set it up to use forms for data entry, another feature missing in Money Essentials that I would greatly miss from Money 95. So far all was good.

The next time I got into Money Deluxe it would not allow the forms for data entry and a couple of other items seemed to revert back to Money Essential's way of doing them. Huh?

I was testing this on a computer I would not use for my final install... just in case of these things. I tried loaded Money Deluxe to a Virtual PC. This would be a self contained test environment I could rebuild easily. Unfortunately I could not connect to my credit union this way. I could still connect through the test machine with the "hybrid" version of Money.

At some point I needed to actually log onto my credit union account on the web. They implemented a new logon procedure that has you confirm a picture as part of your logon. Also, they changed from using your account number to using an account name. I didn't give this much thought at the time.

A couple of weeks passed and I figured I would just bite the bullet and install Money Deluxe on my laptop... a final install, if you will. I will also install the software on my wife's laptop when I get everything setup so she can see what's happening in our account as well.

I got the same results from Money Deluxe on my laptop that I did on the Virtual PC. I tried logging on the credit union's web site and saw the new logon. Oops. I forgot about it. I plugged the account name and password into Money Deluxe, but I still got the same failure to connect.

I went back to the test machine to see if it could connect and low and behold it could not. I contacted my credit union and they said simply, "we do not have a contract with Microsoft Money and they could not help me." Ouch! I remember them mentioning Quicken and Money on their web site. Quicken was mentioned more, but I did see one reference to Money. Maybe I should try Quicken. That means paying up front. Quicken does not offer a trial version. They offer a money back guarantee, so I supposed I will be able to get my money back if it fails to work with my credit union. I asked my credit union and they responded that they didn't have a contract with Quicken, but that several of their customer use it successfully.

I bought Quicken Basic (same price as Money Deluxe) and installed it on my laptop. I should have tried to use a Virtual PC in case I hosed things, but I didn't. Quicken ended up having the same issues as Money when connecting to my credit union. I contacted Quicken customer support. I must say they were pretty helpful. Some of their instructions where wrong, almost like they were giving steps for a different version of the software. In the end I was never able to make a direct connection to my credit union. However, I was able to download a "Web Connect" file from my credit union and import that into both Money and Quicken.

Now the battle begins. I will have to try each one and see which is better. I need at least a month of data to compare their budgeting features. Since this is going to press on Feb 1st, I won't have time to do the budget until I have all of January's data from my credit union. I could try to work with December's data, but that is a joke with all the Christmas spending. It is far easier to wait for a full month of January data.

My initial thought is neither will be perfect. I briefly looked at the budget feature in each and Money seemed easier to setup, but I did not have a chance to truly apply that with custom categories and pointing my transaction to those categories. Quicken did a much smoother job with importing my bank records from the file. I didn't notice the second time I went to download from my credit union that I downloaded data from my savings account instead of my checking account. Money took the data and tried to merge it with my previous checking information. Quicken told me it was for another account and asked me to create a new account. Cool!

I really liked how Quicken imported files. I did not like the budget feature in Quicken. This is all preliminary. I will have to see how easy it is to add a list of "payees" and setup the payees to custom categories.

I will be working on this during the beginning of February so hopefully we can start using the budget then.

I'll let you know which I finally use. Quicken is looking to get the node because they already have my money (no pun intended). Money will have to be good enough to make me ask for a refund from Quicken. We'll see.

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Windows Live Accounts

I had to create one of these when I signed up for URGE. However, I noticed after using it that I had entered my e-mail address incorrectly. A typo. There is no place to change your e-mail address. When I try to create a new account with my correct e-mail address it says it is in use. When I try to assign it to my current account it won't let me. I also saw someone else's name at one point during the Zune Marketplace setup, which also uses the Windows Live thing.

The situation got worse when I tried to play around with Microsoft Money. It requires a Windows Live account. I had to put in my incorrect e-mail address there to get going. These Windows Live accounts are a royal pain in the ass. I also don't like having to supply a "user name" to services like URGE and Zune Marketplace. I used miniburb (from by blog). It took it, but I can't use it to create a new account. It is bad enough having to remember passwords that you are allowed to set, but trying to get accounts on all these services when all the names you want to use are long gone is crazy. I won't be able to remember the account name. Why can't your e-mail address be your account name/handle/screen name/whatever. And why can't you change it if you make a mistake typing it. Heck... you should have to confirm it by them sending you an e-mail at the address you supply to make sure they can contact you and someone is not signing you up for some crap.

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Home Server (Software)

I built a home server a few years back. Since that time I have only had to replace one hard drive. So, if you didn't read the old article I will recap... my server is a 450 MHz Celeron system with two physical hard drives. The C: drive is split into two partitions and are seen as C: (30GB) & D: (90 GB). The second hard drive is seen as E: (60 GB). The computer has 384 MB of memory.

There is enough storage space on the server for its current needs. No one is storing movies yet, so pictures, music, downloads and my web site are all doing fine. I tried installing Oracle 10g on it, but it is so slow it is unusable (Oracle requires 512 MB. Oops!).

I would like to build a new server. I have read the occasional article on home servers. My needs are modest, and I am definitely in the camp that believes a file/print server does not need a lot of processing power. I still have the "old" motherboard and CPU from when I upgraded my main computer. This could be the starting point for a server. It should be fast enough, that's for sure. The big question becomes what will I really do with it and what components do I still need to make it all work.

Let's start with what I would do with a server... now that I have been running one for 4 years. Here are the items I need in a home server:

1) File server.
2) Print server.
3) IIS (Web) server.
4) Oracle server.
5) SQL Server.
6) Domain Controller.

Let's go over those. I am already doing the file & print server thing, so I have to continue that. I am also currently hosting this web site on my server. However, I am considering moving my web site to a domain name (something like www.myserver.com). That will have a monthly cost, but it might be worth it from a security standpoint. We'll see. Either way, I need the web server capability to practice programming web sites in Visual Studio 2005.

I need to install SQL Server to test deploying a web site that I am building as part of a book I am working on. SQL Server also requires 512 MB of memory. It also requires a 600 MHz processor. Oops again. We use Oracle 10g at work, and I would like to try building web sites at home that use Oracle. This would help be develop my skill set to match my work.

Now for the Domain Controller. For those of you that don't know I will try to explain. A domain controller is a special server that is basically the "master" server... master of its "domain." This is different from regular servers that do specific tasks (as we have above). When you put computers on a network with a domain controller these computers become clients to the domain. You can have a PC on a domain that is not part of the domain (you log on locally), but it means you have to access resources on the network manually. When your computer logs onto the the domain (it does this when you log on the machine itself) your network resources are available. In a home network this is not a big deal. But some of the things you can do with a domain controller can be handy. What I want to do is create accounts on the domain that everyone logs into with whatever PC they want. I will also try to implement two features of a domain controller. 1) Roaming profiles, and 2) home directories.

Every Windows computer has profiles. They are stored locally on the machine, especially in a home environment. But in work environments it is common to use roaming profiles so your profile is the same with every computer you log onto. The profile stays on the network (the domain controller). Think about it this way, you have two people using one computer. Each has a user name (even if you don't have a password). Person one logs on and changes his desktop background to a cool picture and puts a few shortcuts to his favorite programs on his desktop. When person 2 logs on they don't see person 1's desktop, but see their own that they can change. By putting the profile on the domain controller it can follow you from one computer to the next. You should be able to log into each computer and have all the same shortcuts, color scheme, etc. on each machines. Cool! If you change your profile on one computer it is changed when you log on the other. I would like to set this up so everyone in the house can log onto any computer and have their own settings.

The home drive is a special network folder for each users. Typically it is a drive letter that everyone has. For instance, I could set it up that the drive letter H: on my computer is a network drive that exists on the server and I would save all my files to the H: drive. When I log onto any computer I always have my H: drive available and all the file I need. Very cool! The real trick here is that everyone will have an H: drive, but each person's H: drive will be a different location on the server, so everyone's files are kept separate. You can't see my H: drive and I can't see yours.
Ideally you setup this "home drive" to be the location of "My Documents." This means that your settings follow you with roaming profiles and all your documents follow you because of the home directory. This is getting really cool. There will be issues to work out with the My Documents for when you are away (should we take our laptops out of the house) or if the server is down for some reason. And what to do if the network connection to the server is down.

Those are the two biggies. I would also like to standardize on mapping a drive that points to a common area... like a public drive that every computer on the network can see. This will be a place for people to put all the files they want to share.

One last reason for the domain is to do better backups. I want to implement an easy solution for backing up everyone's computer. If we are using the network for My Documents I could backup from one place. If My Documents is local I may put some kind of backup or synchronizing software in place that would keep copies of the files in the My Documents folder on the network. This means there are always (almost always) two copies of each file. Sort of a "live" backup all the time.

I don't know which method to use. I like the syncing thing because it means there are always two copies, one local and one on the network. If files are only saved on the network I have to backup the server more regularly to make sure there is no chance of lost files.

I have heard rumors that Microsoft is going to come out with a Home Server. I think this is going to be a hardware/software solution. I don't think this is what I want. I am not looking for a media hub. A media hub server to store music, pictures and movies is only part of the fun. I want the Oracle and Web servers as well for programming. What Microsoft needs to do is create a stripped down version of their server operating system that can be used for the home. How hard can it be to strip down Windows Server 2003 to just file/print/web services. Then I could install Oracle myself. I may install Windows Server 2003 on my next home server if Microsoft doesn't come out with something else. That is huge overkill for a home server, but if there isn't anything else that will let me do web development with Visual Studio then so be it.

Next month I will discuss my ideas for hardware to support this server. The big question is whether to use RAID or not. RAID is a system that uses multiple hard drives that look like one big drive. You can use RAID to have redundancy to prevent losing data. That sounds cool. But is it? You'll have to wait until next month to find out.

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Conclusion

That's it for this month. I am so busy. I am still trying to find time to compare photo album software. I need to build a budget and setup financial software from scratch. I am doing the music service comparison. I am doing the redesign, and have to move the archives pages to the new format. I need to get cracking on learning to build eCommerce sites in Visual Studio .Net 2005. I want to learn a little more about Flash and possibly incorporate a touch of it on this site. I want to get my domain name back, and look into creating a database aware web site on the Internet. The list goes on and on.

Stay tuned. I hope 2007 will be fun year!

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