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Beginning HTML5 and CSS3 for Dummies is out now!

My latest book, which I co-authored with Ed Tittel, is out now and available everywhere computer books are sold! If you have no previous experience with web development and you’re interested in learning to create websites, or if you’re already a web developer and want to brush up on the latest HTML and CSS technologies, this is the book for you!

Here’s the link:
Beginning HTML5 and CSS3 For Dummies

In just about 400 full-color pages, you’ll learn all of the essential skills you need to create websites, including:

  • How to create the structure of a web page with HTML
  • How to use images and multimedia in your web pages
  • How to create links in web pages
  • How to use CSS to make your pages look great
  • How to use typography on the web
  • How to use CSS3’s new properties to do advanced text and shadow effects
  • How to optimize your web pages for mobile devices
  • and much much more!

Plus, there are full-color pictures of our cats, Sparky and Mr. Jones, for those of you who might be more interested in pictures of the cats than in learning to make web pages. This book really does have something for everyone!

 

Online Learning Through the Instructor’s Eyes

I’ve been teaching an online course for several months now. For a year prior to that, I was writing the course and working with the team at Ed2Go to make it sparkle. My course gets an average of about 150 students each month.

Since I get asked about it pretty often, and since I feel like I’m starting to get a pretty unique perspective on online learning, I thought I’d share my experience with you, my excellent readers.

My course is called Creating Mobile Apps with HTML5. Needless to say, the course has to cover a LOT of technologies. To further complicate things, I designed the course to be useful for a very wide range of people — from those with very little web development experience to those with tons of experience, but perhaps not so much with HTML5 technologies. To elaborate and further set the stage….

I must teach:

  • HTML, JavaScript, CSS, JQuery, JQuery Mobile, JSON, web browser fundamentals, AJAX fundamentals, web performance tuning, offline database, web APIs, PhoneGap, and more.
  • In just 12 lessons.
  • To 150 students
  • Who are located all over the world
  • And who have varying levels of experience and knowledge
  • On the Web.

This is quite a daunting task…but I only have myself to blame for designing the curriculum and taking it on. When I first signed on to be an Ed2Go instructor, I was just finishing writing my book (WebKit for Dummies), and I was high on my knowledge of all things HTML5 and so I plowed on, despite my previous less-than-perfect experience with online learning.

I’m somewhat of a veteran of online teaching, having taught my first online course (for a community college) back in 2001. At the time, I was frustrated with the format and the lack of ability to really communicate with the students. After one semester, I threw up my hands and pretty much decided that online teaching was way more difficult than live teaching, and that it wasn’t worth the effort for the teacher or the students.

But that was then. Today, pretty much the exact same classroom software is being used for my online course (a learning-oriented forum system), but the entire process for developing and teaching the course has been very different.

I wrote my first online course (on web application development) over a period of about 2 weeks. It consisted of a sloppy powerpoint deck and some links to more information. There were no standards, no editorial review,  and no assistance from the school. I don’t think anyone else at the school knew what I was teaching.

Ed2Go, on the other hand, is extremely process-oriented. Deadlines are tight, and quality standards are very high. More importantly, both are strictly enforced. I consider my editor at Ed2Go to be one of the very best I’ve ever worked with. She kept me honest about whether I was doing my best work, edited me where I needed it (always making me look better than I am), and put up with (and maybe understood) my sense of humor and why I thought it was important to keep certain jokes in the lessons. Writing my course was probably the most difficult writing project of my career, and it took almost a year, during which I worked on it for 4 hours a day and got paid nothing.

Now I’m teaching the course (and getting paid, thanks). My students get a new lesson every Wednesday and Friday. The lesson contains 5 chapters of pre-written instruction, an assignment (usually a little programming task), some frequently asked questions, a list of additional resources, and a quiz. At the end of the 12th lesson, students take the final exam, which consists of 25 multiple choice questions. I’m available to answer questions in a forum area during the duration of the course, but the students’ successful completion of the course is based solely on how they do on the final exam.

The format really works, and the vast majority of my students that I get to interact with seem to get a lot out of it and have a good time. They rank me highly on the surveys at the end of the class and say really nice things in the course feedback.

So, where’s the big “but”? There really isn’t one. I enjoy interacting with my students and I firmly believe that I’m teaching them some really valuable skills and passing on some great information.

There is an occasional challenge brought on by a software dependency that suddenly makes part of the course obsolete or incorrect. Sometimes, a student may get frustrated and take it out on me (that’s what they make the delete button for!), and sometimes I may come home from happy hour too late and fail to do as good of a job explaining the inner workings of JavaScript arrays as I could have done several beers back. But, all in all, I’m really happy with my latest online teaching experience and I’m feeling really positive about the potential for affordable and high-quality online learning.

psst…Want to take my class? A new session is starting soon. Click Here!

How Writing a Book and Alcatraz Ruined My Health!

Last year, I wrote a book and an online course about mobile web apps. As you know, writing is generally a pretty sedentary activity that happens to go well with booze. Writing is also really hard work (mentally), and so it’s important for a writer to reward himself frequently with ice cream and various other snacks.

In spite of all these factors pulling me towards completely ignoring my health, I did make some attempts to be fit and forty early in the year (oh yeah, I forgot to mention that last year was also the year I turned 40). I registered for a 5k race and for a swim from Alcatraz, both of which helped me to focus on my training so that I wouldn’t die or get eaten by sharks. The problem, however, was that once the races were over, I felt like I didn’t need to exercise ever again. And, so I didn’t.

I think you can see where this is headed–writing and the successful completion of amazing feats of physical endurance have wrecked me! I’ve gained about 30lbs in the last year, and I have way more clothes that don’t fit now than I have that fit.

And so, like so many people with lame excuses for why they’re fat slobs, I’ve decided to start turning it around. I don’t have the guts to post a “before” picture of myself, but I’ll let you use your imagination. I look something like this:

Boss Hogg

And so, here I go! Stay tuned for updates!

Mobile Web Apps for Smart People!

My latest book (and my first book since 2001) is almost finished! The title is WebKit for Dummies, and it’s available for pre-order now!

I’m excited about the publication of this book (coming in February), and about the topic, but I’m finding myself having to explain what exactly it’s about pretty frequently, so I thought I’d write something about that here in order to clear up some misconceptions and possible confusion.

WebKit is the name of the open source browser engine that powers every mobile device’s browser except for Windows devices. This includes iPhone, iPad, Android, Blackberry, Nokia, and more. It also runs a large and growing percentage of desktop web browsers (Google Chrome, Apple Safari). My book isn’t really about WebKit, however — it’s really about how you can take advantage of the fact that WebKit is so widely available on smartphones and tablets in order to create cross-platform mobile apps with HTML5.

Also, the book isn’t really just for dummies. It is part of Wiley’s huge and successful “For Dummies” series, of course, but I want smart people to buy it as well. That’s not to say that dummies won’t also learn something, but I don’t think anyone needs to be excluded — with the possible exception of people who can’t read.

Now that you know all that, I hope you buy and enjoy the book!

Sweatshops of the future

When the renowned computer scientist Jim Gray went missing at sea last week, the internet community rose up to help in the search in any way that they could. One of the more ingenious, although unfortunately not successful, methods employed was to upload thousands of satellite photos of the area where he disappeared to the Web and ask volunteers to examine them for objects that might be his sail boat.

This massive online manhunt was enabled by Amazon.com’s Mechanical Turk service.

Mechanical Turk, named after the chess-playing mannequin illusion of the 18th century, is a web application that enables “artificial artificial intellgence” by dividing up large jobs such as photographic analysis or data entry into chunks that can be performed by people over the Internet. The basic idea is that certain types of jobs, such as jobs involving pattern recognition or identification of objects in photographs, are more easily and accurately performed by humans than computers. If these types of jobs also involve working with large amounts of data, splitting the work up among large numbers of humans can be a more efficient (read: cheaper) method of doing the work than writing or utilizing specialized artificial intelligence software.

Services such as Mechanical Turk are being touted by some as an important development in harnessing the “collective intelligence.” Some have gone so far as to suggest that such human-powered Web applications represent a new paradigm and possibly a new version number of the Web and a new way of doing business on the Web. Frankly, I love the idea of being able to employ volunteers to search photographs for a missing person, but I’m disturbed by the idea of using random Web surfers to boost your corporate profits.

Mechanical Turk allows anyone to create a job that they’d like other people to complete on the Web. The creator of the job can specify the amount they’ll pay for each HIT (Human Intelligence Task). Typical tasks involve looking at photos and identifying certain objects in them, or transcribing podcasts. Typical payments range from 1 cent to $1 per HIT. You don’t get paid for your work unless it’s accepted by the creator of the task.

At first glance, these rates and types of tasks looked to me like the digital equivalent of sweatshop labor. Companies are farming out jobs that are too boring, or that would be too costly to have someone on payroll do, to be done by the ‘collective intelligence’ for very low wages. I decided to try out a few tasks in order to try to get a better feeling for whether it was possible to actually make a living off of this type of work, or if it is really just exploitation and the first step towards “The Matrix.”

At 10:00 AM, I sat down with my laptop and a cup of coffee and started in on my first workday at Mechanical Turk.

I began by going to the list of available HITs and sorting them highest paying first. I’m not cheap. The first HIT said it paid 96 cents, with a bonus of up to twice that for accuracy, and there was a qualification test. The ‘test’ turned out to be just clicking a checkbox and hitting a submit button. So far so good.

The task was to transcribe a 9 minute podcast. I’m a fairly fast typer, but I guessed that transcribing a podcast would take at least 3 times as long as the length of the podcast, and there was a style guide to follow too. In theory, if I were to complete the task perfectly, I could earn $2.88 [I actually ended up making $1.92].

In the interest of making the best possible use of my time, I started listening to the podcast – something about making money on eBay – while looking over the style guide.

At 10:15, I started my work.

At 11:20, after typing 1570 words, I finished my first job. I had grossly underestimated the amount of work it would take to transcribe 9 minutes of audio. So far, the best case scenario was that I was making slightly under $3/hour. I decided to move on to my next HIT.

The next task I found was a simple Google bombing job. I was to search for a certain phrase on Google and then click on a certain company’s link. The idea (not spoken in the HIT description, of course) is that the cumulative effect of hundreds of people doing this same search will improve that company’s rank in Google. I refused this one on ethical grounds.

Several other jobs involved registering on different sites, various search engine scams, Google Adword fraud, and a lot of people looking for creative people to give them ideas or write content for their sites for 25 cents. At 11:30, I became so repulsed by the nature of the majority of the jobs, and by the piddly amounts people were willing to pay for my writing talents that I decided to quit my job as a human CPU.

Yelling “Take this job and shove it!” to my laptop wasn’t very satisfying, but it was actually the first time I had ever spoken those words when quitting a job, so that was one positive aspect of the experience.

Jim Gray is known for his work with databases, and several very large databases in particular, including, ironically, Microsoft’s database of satellite images, Teraserver. He also was the recipient of a Turing Award, which is named after Alan Turing, who famously created the Turing Test of artificial intelligence.

I never met him, but I suspect that Dr. Gray would agree with me that the future of the Internet should not be one in which human intelligence is devalued simply because we now have the technology to give 10 cents to anyone who’s willing to do our most menial tasks for that amount.

Tragically, as of this writing, it seems very unlikely that Jim Gray will return. The amazing volunteer effort to find him, however, stands as a testament to the power of the Internet community and of the Web to bring people together. My experience today with the for-profit uses of the same technology, however, reminds me that the collective intelligence aspect of Web 2.0 also enables less noble endeavors.

Where is Web 3.0 going? To Monaco, of course

While searching the Web recently to find out what other pundits believe Web 3.0 will come to mean, I found a blog post by Stephen Baker on BusinessWeek.com in which he says that his “assignment in Monaco was to lead a panel in defining Web 3.0.” After summarizing the ideas that his panel came up with, he ends his post by asking readers what they think. My favorite comment on this post (from ‘bob’) simply says “I think you all wasted your time.”

While it’s very doubtful that a trip to Monaco could be considered a waste of time (especially if it’s paid for by someone else), I certainly agree that serious discussions of questions as meaningless as “What features will the next version of the Web include?” are largely a waste of time concocted by marketers and conference-planners. The people who will build what will come to be called ‘Web 3.0’ don’t have these sorts of discussions. So, here I go again.

The fact of the matter is that most people define Web 3.0 in terms of what they’d like to see happen. Some say it will be defined by the widespread adoption of SVG, some say the key concept is “software as a service,” some say Web 3.0 will be when we fix the bugs in Web 2.0.

Personally, I believe that one of the biggest unsolved issues faced by the Web right now involves trust. Wikipedia, Google, Yahoo! Answers, and hundreds of other sites that are heralded as models of Web 2.0-ness all rely on user-contributed content. The theory goes that a crowd of people is smarter than the old-style “gurus.” Whether or not that’s true is a topic for another article (and maybe an experiment). The relevant issue that I think Web 3.0 will deal with is “Who do you sue when the Web 2.0 community gives you bad information?”

Traditional media companies have rules governing things like fact-checking, use of anonymous sources, printing rumors, and separating advertising from editorial. At some point in the past, they even followed these rules.

Today, this isn’t the case, and the media likes to blame it on the free-wheeling ways of the Internet. The logic goes like this: “Someone published this irresponsible or wrong information on the Internet, and so we in the mainstream media can report on the fact that someone reported this information on the Internet. If this information later turns out to be false, don’t blame us, blame the Web 2.0 bloggers.”

However, because many of these bloggers are anonymous or just repeating things they heard on some other blog, there’s no one in particular for mainstream media outlets to point a finger to when they get in trouble for reporting something they read on the Internet. They want this situation remedied pronto!

Clarifying who should be blamed will be the driving force behind Web 3.0. Just like Web 2.0 has it’s signature technologies (AJAX, RSS, Mash-ups), Web 3.0 will have its darling protocols and acronyms. The hot technologies in Web 3.0 will be RFID, biometric identification, and digital certificates. Logging into a Web site using your fingerprint will be marketed as a handy way to not have to remember passwords, but it will also provide solid proof that you were the person who posted that damaging information about that multinational corporation.

Web 3.0 identification technologies will also be used to reduce or eliminate spam. By blocking all email that isn’t signed with a digital signature, you could eliminate 100% of the spam you get. Unfortunately, it would also block all of your legitimate mail, because almost no one uses digital signatures today.

In Web 3.0, more people will start to use digital signatures, which will make everyone start using digital signatures for fear that if they don’t then their emails to or from their old high school sweethearts will get blocked.

Real Web ID will enable new forms of e-commerce, eliminate certain types of e-crime and piracy of electronic media, and reduce the number of fake Myspace profiles. Online privacy advocates will redouble their efforts in response.

Several years into the Web 3.0 revolution, the general population will begin to look for something else…some sort of improvement to Web 3.0. Right at about the point when Web 3.0 has outlived its usefulness, the conference planners, pundits, and marketers will get together somewhere beautiful and start to think of a name for what will come after Web 3.0. I’ll reveal my theories on what this thing might be called and what it might look like in a future column.

Looking for safe work…like boxing, for instance

Alternative computer interfaces (i.e. other than keyboard and mouse) have become a bit of an obsession of mine lately. The primary reason for this new obsession is the recurring tendonitis in my right (mouse) wrist.

As far as my wrist health is concerned, the last two years have looked like this: months of pain, followed by a decision to finally go to the doctor, followed by months of unsuccessful treatment with anti-inflammatory drugs, followed by a visit to the rheumatologist for a cortisone injection. The injection completely knocks out the inflammation for several months, after which the pain returns and I go back to trying not to use my right arm and hoping that the tendonitis just goes away by itself.

Some might say that I should just go to the doctor when the pain returns and demand another injection. But, even though no one has told me as much, I have a sneaking suspicion that anything that works that well can’t really be good for me. So, I’ve started looking for ways to do my job differently.

Talking instead of typing is the obvious first choice. I recently checked out the latest speech recognition software. It’s impressive, but I’m not yet convinced that it’s a viable replacement for the keyboard. Even with the wrist pain, I can still type much faster and more accurately than the computer can take dictation. Also, I run a small company with a small office. My co-workers would go crazy if they had to listen to me whispering sweet business and programmer-speak to my computer all day long.

Other alternative interfaces, such as tablets, touch screen interfaces, pen-like devices, and trackballs are fine–and if my job involved drawing or moving pictures around, I’d have plenty of choices. Unfortunately, there aren’t a lot of good ways to input words or code into a computer without using your fingers or your voice. Brain-computer interfaces aren’t nearly advanced enough, and my toes are just not long enough to press ctrl-alt-delete to log in, much less to type with.

So, when my wrist finally gives up the ghost, I’m considering taking up a safer profession–like boxing. Let me explain.

A friend of mine was among one of the lucky (or persistent) first people to get their hands on a Nintendo Wii video game console. The main attraction of the Wii is that it uses wireless controllers that can detect motion in three dimensions. What this means is that the golf game for the Wii is played by actually swinging the controller as if it were a golf club, for example.

Last week, as part of my research, we spent an afternoon playing various games on the Wii. One of the games that comes with the Wii is a boxing game in which players stand side-by-side and punch towards the screen. The screen is split down the middle—each player sees a character representing himself facing and punching the character representing his opponent. Note: to the players, this is all very cool. But, as my friend’s wife pointed out, it looks very dorky to someone else in the room watching two people duke it out by punching perpendicularly to each other.

The next day, while I was watching Rocky Balboa (aka Rocky VI), it occurred to me that I am really not that unlike Rocky. Besides the obvious–both of us are incredibly muscular–there’s also the unfortunate fact that we’re both suffering from ailments which make it more difficult for us to do our jobs.

The Wii could be the first version of the ultimate in alternate interfaces for people with jobs that require stresses that their body can’t handle any longer. For anyone who’s seen the latest Rocky movie, you know that virtual reality plays a key role in instigating the fight at the movie’s climax. I suspect that if there’s another Rocky movie, 80-year-old Rocky will use something like the Wii to crush his opponents while avoiding further head trauma.

This brings us back to my planned post-retirement career as a professional boxer. In the future, jobs that require long hours of typing–like computer programming or writing–will be left to the young. Careers involving competition, strategy, and the “eye of the tiger”–like boxing and hockey–will be left to those of us who have plenty of life experience and the will to succeed, but who are no longer fit to use a keyboard.