Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Getting the most of your email

Getting the most out of your email

In this blog, I am going to discuss how email works and what is a good way to utilize email.

How does email work?

Imagine that there is a post office box on the internet and it has your email in it. You can go to this post office box and get your email (and now your post office box is empty). Or, you can go and ask for a photo copy of all of your email (in which case, the originals are still in your post office box). On the internet, this post office box is called a POP (Post Office Protocol) server and it works essentially just like a real USPS post office box.

There are also mail boxes on the internet. You drop your email in a mail box and it gets sent to someone's post office box. This mail box is called an SMTP (Simple Mail Transfer Protocol) server. Again, it works pretty much just like a real USPS mail box.

In the real world, you read your mail at the kitchen table. On the internet, you access your email through an email client. There are a couple kinds of email clients.

Some clients run natively on a computer. Microsoft Outlook and Microsoft Live Mail are examples of this. Outlook goes to your POP server and retrieves your email and lets you view it. Outlook is fast and powerful. However, if Outlook takes the email from your POP email box then you can only view it on that one computer which is running Outlook. If you are tech savvy,  you can run Outlook on several machines and tell each of them to keep a copy of your email. Still, a native client forces you install a client and limits access to email to that computer on which you installed the client.

Other email clients are web based. Google's Gmail, Microsoft's Hotmail, Yahoo and AOL all have web based email clients. These clients run on the internet and can be accessed using any web browser (for example, Google's Chrome, Microsoft's Internet Explorer or Apple's Safari). You can also access your email from any device which can access the internet... your phone, your iPad, your laptop or your desktop. Better still, since the email is on the internet, you don't have to worry about your email being found on only one particular machine.

BigIron.com has it's own web based email client. You can access it at http://webmail.bigiron.com/.

If you're like me, you probably have several email addresses. A personal address and a business address, for example. Most, but not all, email clients will let you consolidate email from several email boxes. This lets you get all of your email from one source. 

How to get the most from your email

There is no best way to use email. But, for what it's worth, I am going to describe how I do it.

I use Google's Gmail, mail.google.com, for all of my email. Gmail is free and powerful and it works exceedingly well with my Android based phone. Because I use a web client, I can access my internet from any phone or iPad or computer. There is nothing I need to install. I just go out to the web and read my email.

I have many email accounts. For example, I have a personal account, johnweeder@gmail.com, and I have a business account, john.weeder@bigiron.com. I access all of them through one single Gmail account. I use my personal account as my master email account.

The key is that I can tell Gmail to pull email from each of my POP email addresses. It's a bit like telling someone to go to the post office and get email from several post office boxes. I will walk you through the process of setting Gmail up to retrieve email from other accounts.

Start by selecting Settings from the options menu.

Now go to the Accounts and Import tab. There is a section labeled Check mail from other accounts. As you can see, I am pulling email from 4 other accounts in addition to my johnweeder@gmail.com account. To add another POP account, click on the Add a POP3 mail account you own button.

Enter the email address you wish to retrieve email from.

Now for the tricky part, you need to enter your user name, password and POP server address. For BigIron.com, your user name is your full email address. Hopefully, you still remember your password. The password is case sensitive. The POP server address is pop.emailsrvr.com. For Stock RA, the POP server is mail.stockra.com. I am not sure whether the Stock RA user name is your full email address or just the name portion of the email address (sometimes this varies). That's pretty much all there is to it. The options screen will show the last time the POP email was retrieved and whether there were any errors.

You may want to tell Gmail to leave a copy of your email on the original server. This can be useful if you use other email clients to access your email. Generally, I don't do this but you sure can if you want to.

Sometimes it is frustrating when it seems you have typed everything in correctly and, yet, still your email is not working. The first thing to check is that your email POP server information is actually correct. I have a nice web site, https://www.wormly.com/test_pop3_mail_server, that I use to do this. Just enter your POP server information and click the button. If everything is correct, you will get an "OK" response.

When I send an email, I can choose which email address it comes from (sometimes I forget...).

Well, that's it really. All of my email comes to one account and I can access it pretty much anywhere.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

What exactly is a web page?

What exactly is a web page? 

You start your browser, Internet Explorer for example, and type in www.bigiron.com and then what happens? It must be some kind of voodoo right? No. Actually, it's pretty simple. Boring even.


The first thing that happens is that the server which runs the web site returns some text. Here is a sample:

The text is called HTML. HTML stands for hypertext markup language.  Basically, it contains words and some special tags. The tags look like this <tag>. They usually come in pairs. The start tag is <tag> and the end tag is </tag>. Everything in between is just text or other tags. For example, the "<p>My first paragraph.</p>" defines a paragraph with the text "My first paragraph.". The "p" stands for paragraph.

Your browser takes the HTML and formats it and displays it to you. Pretty simple right?


Well, like everything else, the devil is in the details. HTML just says what is on the page but not how it should look. If you want to make your text large or use a specific font, then we need something called a cascading style sheet (CSS). CSS is another file that the server sends. This is a very simple example of a CSS file:

This particular example says make every "p" (or paragraph) element use the font "Times New Roman" and be 20 pixels tall.


So far, our page just sits there and does nothing but look nice. To do something, programmers use a language called javascript (JS). Here is a sample of some javascript:

This particular example prompts the user for a name and then updates the page to show the name.

Basically, a web page is kind of a stool that rests on these three legs. The HTML defines what is on the page. The CSS defines how it looks. And, the javascript defines how it acts. Throw in some pictures and put it on a server and you have a web site.

Most browsers will let you view the source of a web page. Right click on a page and select "View source" and you can see exactly what the programmer has written.

Friday, November 16, 2012

ISR Manager

ISR Manager Q&A

What machines can run it?
The software is a Microsoft Windows executable. It should run on any box which supports windows applications and which has the full NET 4.0 Framework installed. This technical jargon means you have to have a common component normally distributed by Microsoft. If you install all of the updates that Microsoft releases each month, you probably already have this on your machine.

If you don't have it, you can install the Microsoft .NET framework from here: http://www.microsoft.com/net/download

Will it run on an Apple computer?
If you have a newer Apple computer, your Apple desktop or laptop will run the ISR Manager in the same manner it runs any other Microsoft Windows application. However, it will not run as a native Apple application.

I spoke with one of my Mac friends and they said that to run Windows software on a Mac you generally need Apple's "Boot Camp" or "Parallels Desktop" or "VMware Fusion" or "VirtualBox" and that you must install a Window's OS either as dual boot option or as an OS within the VM.  I was told you can have this installed at an Apple Store (at a cost).

I know that's probably not what some of you wanted to hear. As a developer, I face choices on what platforms to target and roughly 9 of every 10 PCs are windows based. I wish I had time and $ to write a native Apple app but I don't right now. I am trying to get to the point where the next major release is a web application (i.e. runs through a browser).  Until then, I would say that your Mac will run the ISR Manager but as I understand it, it will need some additional support software installed.

Will it run on my Android (tablet) or iOS (Apple iPad/iPhone/iPod)?
No. These platforms can not run a Windows executable.

Will it run on a Windows 8 device?
Loaded question. It will definitely run on a true Windows 8 computer or tablet. It will NOT run on a Windows RT tablet. Currently, some retailers cloud the distinction between Windows RT and Windows 8.  Yes, Windows RT looks a lot like Windows 8 but it is not the same thing.

What do I do if ISR Manager does not work or I am having trouble making it work?
Call me, text me, skype me, email me or stop by my house and yell at me. I am committed to supporting it and you.

My file is really large and I can't email it, what should I do?

I would like to ask that you do me a favor give Google Drive (see previous blog entry) a try. I really think you will like Google Drive. It has a lot to offer. It has little problem with large files. It automatically back things up. You can see your file and know it was uploaded to the office. You don't have to split things in pieces and hope the office gets each and every one of them.

Where are we going from here?
The new web site will probably support a pure web interface for submitting listings. A pure web application will, theoretically, work on any device which has a web browser. The downside is that you will need to have a connection to the internet in order to use it.

I don't have a release date but you will get to see a beta release long before it goes live.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Google Drive'ing

A Short Tutorial on Google Drive

The first step to using Google Drive is to sign in to Google.

The office can supply you with a shared user id and password. If you have your own Google account, you can use that (just send me an email and I will share the folders with you).

After you sign in, click on the "Drive" link at the top of the screen.

The Google Drive is currently sharing 3 folders. Click on the folder labelled "BigIron Shared".

Drag your file into the shared folder.

If you don't like dragging files, you can click on the upload button and select the files to upload.

A prompt will appear asking if you want to upload and share the file. Click on the button labelled "Upload and share".

The file will upload. You will receive a confirmation when the upload is completed.

You should now see your file is available within the Google Drive folder.

Optionally, you can download and install the Google Drive software. This software will create a folder on your machine which will synchronize files between your machine and the internet.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Windows 8 & Tablets

Microsoft has just released their new operating system, Windows 8. To really simply things, I would say that Microsoft feels they are losing to Apple and Google and they need a tablet operating system and an App Store. By most accounts, Windows 8 is a good tablet (i.e. touch screen) operating system. Also, by most accounts, people who like Windows 7 on their desktop or laptop will NOT like Windows 8.

My recommendation is that you only buy Windows 7 for your non-touch screen laptop or desktop computer. Wait until the market has had time to evaluate Windows 8 before you jump on the bandwagon.

Do not confuse Windows 8 with Window RT. Microsoft says that Windows RT is a version of Windows 8. True, I suppose. But Windows 8 will run your old Windows 7 applications and Windows RT will not. Windows RT will only run applications purchased through the Windows app store (known as Windows Store). You will primarily find Windows RT on mobile devices like phones or tablets.

My recommendation is that you wait before purchasing a Windows RT device. Windows RT is new and untried and the Windows Store has far, far fewer apps that either the Apple or Google app stores. It is very unusual when any market has 3 strong competitors. Here we have Apple, Google and Microsoft all competing. Apple and Google are well established. Microsoft, in my opinion, has an uphill battle.

There are a number of tablet-like devices that run Windows 7 and Windows 8. The market refers to most of these devices as slate computers. The existing devices are rather large and heavy and have poor battery life compared to tablets. Admittedly, the line between these tablet and slate is blurry. My recommendation is to stay away from slate computers, especially the ones running Windows 7. I believe these devices will be obsolete within months.

Microsoft has released their own tablet called Surface. Initially, it will only be available with Windows RT. In early 2013, a version supporting Windows 8 will be released. It will be known as Surface Pro. It is still too early to know whether the Surface will be a success or not. One current downside is the limited number of applications in the app store.

Google licenses a version of its Android operating system for use in tablets. Several hardware vendors supply tablets based on the operating system. Google also has its own tablet, the Nexus. The app store is similar to Apple's but not as large. Generally the Android tablets are cheaper but, I believe, of a little poorer quality than the iPad.

Apple's iPad established the tablet market. Apple's devices are well engineered and proven. The app store has more apps than you can count. Apple's devices will keep their value but they are also relatively expensive.

The Amazon Kindle Fire is a surprising alternative. It is cheap and well received. Battery life is outstanding. It is more than a book reader but not as functional as a full tablet.

It is hard to make a recommendation here. Today, you can't go wrong with an Apple device but you will pay a premium for them. Apple likes to say their devices "just work". This is because Apple's devices are closed. Apple controls everything. Unlike the closed Apple devices, Google's strategy is to be open. Theoretically, Google's strategy will lead to innovation and cost competition. Or, it may lead to a proliferation of problematic and incompatible devices. Only time will tell whose strategy is superior.

I will say that today I own an iPad tablet and an Android phone. My guess is that my next tablet will be Android based. I am strongly considering a Kindle Fire for casual book reading and browsing. Still, my advice on the matter of which tablet to buy is worth exactly what you paid for it.

Monday, October 29, 2012

CAPTCHA - Prove you're not a robot


Have you ever seen a screen like this on the internet? Believe it or not, they have a name. They are called "CAPTCHA" screens. It's pronounced just like it looks ;)

CAPTCHA stands for "Completely Automated Public Turing test to tell Computers and Humans Apart". The basic idea is that a web site wants to make sure that the person communicating with it is an actual person and not a program. There are lots of variations on this theme but they all revolve around asking you to do something that a person can do rather easily but which a computer only does with great difficulty.

It's called a "Turing" test in honor of Alan Turing. Turing could be considered the father of software development. In 1950, he wrote a paper "Computing Machinery and Intelligence," which opens with the words: "I propose to consider the question, 'Can machines think?'" Since "thinking" is difficult to define, Turing choose to replace the question by another, which is closely related to it and is expressed in relatively unambiguous words. Turing's new question was: "Are there computers which would do well in the imitation game?"

To demonstrate this approach Turing proposes a test inspired by a party game, known as the "Imitation Game", in which a man and a woman go into separate rooms and guests try to tell them apart by writing a series of questions and reading the typewritten answers sent back. In this game both the man and the woman aim to convince the guests that they are the other.

Turing then asked, "What will happen when a machine takes the part in this game?" Would the person asking the questions know the difference between real person and a computer?A CAPTCHA screen turns the tables a bit because now a computer is trying to decide whether the entity on the other end of the connection is a person or not.

The most commonly used CAPTCHA implementation is known as reCAPTCHA. It is a CAPTCHA program but it is even more than that. The computers are actually putting YOU to work!!! In the screen below, you are asked to enter two words. You can probably see that the two words are "morning" and "upon". However, reCAPTCHA only actually knows the word "upon". The word "morning" comes from a document that was scanned. The computer is not sure if the word is "morning" or not. So, it asks you to tell it what the word is. If you correctly enter "upon", then the reCAPTCHA program assumes that the other word must also be whatever you say it is... in this case, "morning". reCAPTCHA has verified you are a human AND it has gotten you to help spell check a document that was scanned in. Now, you tell me, who is actually running the world? Us or the computers?

About 200 million CAPTCHAs are solved by humans around the world every day. In each case, roughly ten seconds of human time are being spent. Individually, that's not a lot of time, but in aggregate these little puzzles constitute more than 150,000 hours of work each day.  reCAPTCHA attempts to put that work to use helping to digitize books, newspapers and old time radio shows

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Oh Say Can You C


C#, pronounced "c sharp", is the programming being used to write the new BigIron.com web site. It was developed by Microsoft in the early 2000's.

C#'s great grandparent is a language known as C. C was developed around 1970 and was the first general purpose programming language I used for real work. C is still widely used today. The successor to C was C++, pronounced "C plus plus". C++ was developed in the early 1980's. The "++" is programmer speak for incrementing, adding 1 to, a variable. So, C++'s name was a clever way of saying it was just C plus a little more. Similarly, C#'s name is just a clever way of implying it is a better way to write C programs.

C# is one of a series of languages, Visual Basic being another example, that target Microsoft's .NET (pronounced "dot net") framework. The .NET framework is a standardized framework that theoretically lets us write an application once and have it run on many different kinds of machines. For example, it might run on a web server or a phone or a tablet. That's the theory anyway. Reality is a bit different.

Below is a very simple C# program. For some reason, programmers always demonstrate a programming language by writing a sample that says "Hello world". I don't know why. We just do. This program writes the phrase "Hello World" 10 times. Notice the "for" loop which uses a "++". This line looks really complex but it actually says something relatively simple. It says, start with an integer variable named "i" whose value is 0. Then, while "i" is less than 10, do everything between the "{" and "}" and add one, i.e. "++", to the variable "i".

Here is the output from the little program I just wrote. 

That's your 5 minute lesson in programming. Now you are a programmer.