Editing screenshots with Paint.NET

Providing screenshots of a step by step process to a user is one of the most powerful guidance techniques. However, dumping a few megabytes of unprocessed image data into an email can crash your user’s mailbox. And if you copied the email to several other people as well? You had better be on very good terms with all of them.

This is where Paint.NET comes in. The software has features rivalling those of professional image editors. There’s the rotation and zooming, standard tool functions from Windows Paint, better colour selection interface, and unlimited * undos!

Doing more than just Print Screen
So you are at the screen for the screenshot, and you’ve hit the Print Screen button. Start up the Paint.NET program and paste the contents. You might be asked to expand the canvas or the working area for your image.
Expand canvas

Image cropping
Then you want to select the image area you are interested in (you are rarely interested in the entire image). Select the [Image] menu item, then [Crop to Selection], and you’ll get something like this:
Cropped image

Box and arrows
Then you make use of the rounded rectangle and line drawing tools on the Tools bar (located on the left by default).
Lines and rounded rectangle tools
You can also add pointed arrows at the end(s) of your lines, making process diagrams easier to draw.
Arrows for ends of lines

Add text for finish
Add some text and you’ll have a self-explanatory screenshot.
Screenshot with explanatory text

Bonus tip: Gaussian blur unimportant areas
You can even guide your user to focus on a certain area for emphasis. First select the area you want to highlight:
Highlighted area

Then do an inverse selection. Select the [Edit] menu item, then [Invert Selection]. Then select the [Effects] menu item, then [Blurs], then [Gaussian Blur] with 2 pixels as the radius. And you’ll get this:
Inverted selection with gaussian blur

So there you have it, simple steps to create good looking screenshots. The screenshots can then be used in documents or placed on the Internet (or Intranet) as part of an FAQ. So go get Paint.NET now!

* limited only by hard disk memory

Programmer’s dilemma – Making tough choices

I’m lucky to be given relatively free reign in my design and coding decisions. Unfortunately, that often means I have to choose between what is right, and what is easy. Here’s a few of them:

Usability – If it’s optional, then don’t make it mandatory
When given the choice of optional fields, a user can and will take the path of least resistance, which is to leave all optional fields as is. I recently developed a web page that retrieves records from a database. All fields are optional. Consequently, everything from the database is retrieved. Which crashed my web server.

Since I was giving a presentation to a customer when this happened, I was just a tad embarrassed. After the presentation, I went back, made a few fields mandatory, with corresponding error messages to avoid Raymond’s feedback form experience. Sometimes, I have to be a user too.

Result oriented – Programmers Don’t Like to Code
I used to tell people I love programming. I’m not so sure now. Then I realised what I really love is solving problems, and that I can express my solution in a program. Even though solving that CSS display bug or optimising that loop gives me joy, it means little to the result-oriented user. So I have to choose practicality sometimes.

CSS Design – Suckerfish Dropdowns
There is this web application I’m maintaining that displays a menu for navigation. The code is unwieldy and makes use of some Javascript copied and pasted without much thought. Hideous to look at and horrendously tedious if I have add a new page. Luckily I found a more elegant dropdown menu solution. It means I have to redesign the navigation element, but it’s worth the effort.

The one you never want to meet – The Brillant [sic] Paula Bean
I have seen my fair share of obnoxious idiots of programmers, and chose patience and understanding instead of exclaiming their ineptitude. But Paula, the experienced Java programmer, raises stupidity to an art. Brillant!

Socialise or be ostracised – In Programming, One Is The Loneliest Number
Not only is programming by yourself lonely, but it’s dangerous to your code, health and social life. It was tough when I first started interacting with people I don’t know but were on my office floor. Don’t have any programmer colleagues? Get help by persuading your manager to hire another competent programmer.

Chalcography, Die Hard and Gamberetto

The arts

For the past few weeks, I had passed by this bus stop where a post on the signboard had this alluring picture. It was Mona Lisa. It was also done in pencil, or so I thought (I was on the bus, and couldn’t see clearly).

So one day, I peered really closely, and discovered there’s an exhibition going on in the Singapore Art Museum on chalcography. Interesting…

Too bad that’s the only picture I could take. Galleries are off limits. Here’s what I found out during my tour of the chalcography displays:

  • Chalcography is engraving on copper to make templates to print paper (or some such)
  • Some of the prints are very detailed (individual tree branches, hair)
  • There are a lot of nude or semi-nude models in the prints (must be the Renaissance)
  • I find myself scrutinising at prints a lot (the backdrop, not the nude)

The exhibition is held at the Singapore Art Museum from 4 May till 22 July 2007.

Entertainment

I also caught the latest installment of the Die Hard series, starring Bruce Willis. Aside from the subtle nation protection messages, the bad guys used a lot of work from hackers, with the movie’s emphasis on the surviving whiz kid’s algorithm. Mathematical encryption program. Oh, that just warms my heart…

New experience

When I visited my favourite local pasta restaurant, they were offering a new selection. Thinking that it’s about time for me to try something new, I decided I could go for a gastronomical one. I chose the “Creamy Herb Gamberetto”. Normally, I prefer a tomato-based pasta, but since I’m going for new… It’s good. Oh, so gamberetto means shrimp or prawn. I think mine were tiger prawns.

I think I’m getting a headache from all the new experiences…

Live Earth 2007 – Post-mortem

It was a bright and cheery Saturday. I had an unexpectedly wonderful afternoon in the art museum (which is another story), and had already decided to check out what Live Earth program aired on the local TV network.

I watched a few minutes of the program, and decided that I don’t really know any of the musicians and that I’d be better off doing something else. Like reading.

Alright, fine, I surfed the Internet. I checked out the Live Earth web site again. And I finally noticed it.

The organisers are obviously not fans of the Law of Attraction. What you focus on, expands. Concerts for a climate in crisis, will keep the climate in crisis. I suggest “Concerts for a greener planet”.

I also found this interesting little nugget:
I have a sensitive nose and lungs. Anytime I see or hear “incense” or “smoke”, I try to stay far far away.

I thought burning stuff will contribute to the rising global temperature. Why do I need to light up an incense stick?

There has got to be a better way to check for window drafts. Forgive me for asking, while we’re here, can someone tell me why we need to check for window drafts? I live in Singapore, and if anything, I’d love a draft, because it’s unbearably hot here.

Save our Earth

Tomorrow, on the 7 July 2007, is when Live Earth, a huge music event is held. The event is held separately over 7 continents, and many musicians will be performing. The objective is to raise awareness about our planet’s climate crisis, and to get people to take action.

I am moderately pro-green, reusing plastic bags when possible, taking public transport, and rarely buy and drink from cans or plastic bottles. I switch off lights when they’re not in use and turn off my computer when I’m done at work or at home. (If you’re one of my colleagues reading this, please, turn off your computer when done. Saving the couple of minutes for Windows to start up is a ridiculous reason.) But I’m not an extremist.

Saving our Earth. Can we do it? If all of us make a concerted effort.

I’ve read some negative comments about Live Earth contradicting the very message it’s conveying. The argument is that top musicians and artists will need certain comforts, such as private jets, and these comforts will cost the Earth. And concerts consume an insane amount of energy, what with all the lights and sound equipment. And concerts bring huge numbers of people together in one spot. I’m quite sure there will be food, there will be trash, there will be human waste to be disposed of, and not necessarily in that order.

These are all valid arguments. I also want to point out something else. Remember the concerted effort part? To bring people together, with the same purpose, with the same ideal, is hard. As hypocritical as the arguments make of the Live Earth concerts, these concerts will do one thing: align a large number of people on the same wavelength. They just start out with music as the connecting frequency. Everyone sings along and dances with the rhythm. Which brings us to a secondary effect of concerts, that people are energised during the performance. People are enthusiastic, excited and eager, all very positive and supportive qualities for mass ideal alignment.

I’ve played a game, Final Fantasy VII, where the fate of the planet was at stake, the Lifestream of the planet was slowly depleted by inconsiderate acts. Then there’s the scene in Matrix, where Agent Smith was interrogating Morpheus, and Smith says that humans are considered a disease, a virus, because we destroy and consume anything in our path. We latch onto our planet like a parasite and sap the life out of it.

The question is not about whether Live Earth concerts are hypocritical. It’s not about giving up all the niceties that modern technology has brought us, and go live in a cave and eat only produce from our own gardens.

The question is, are you doing anything about it?

So much for web safe colours

Whenever I’m faced with a web design decision, it almost always involve the issue of colour. I will test and tune the colour theme and combination of graphics, page elements and text colours. Then I’ll have to switch to a low resolution setting with a colour depth from the early 20th century. Why do I care about this unthinkable and ugly setting?

Because some of my users still live in prehistoric times.

They are totally fine with Windows applications running on drab grey backgrounds, icons that seem to be straight out of a 3 year old’s art experiment and hideous colour combinations such as bright green, blinding yellow and depressing slate blue. And they are absolutely comfortable with web applications looking like those grotesque behemoths of applications they use every day.

I’ve studied proponents of web safe colours, and I say “Enough!”. We have to embrace our gift of sight. The human eye is capable to distinguishing many colours. Computer hardware and web browsers have evolved to the point where there are colours displayed which the human eye cannot separate with accuracy. We. Have. 32. Bit. Colour. Experience all the colours.

Now, the .Net Framework provides the KnownColor enumeration, so I’ve used that as a base. I wrote a C# program to generate a reference HTML page with the colours and their names and hexadecimal values in it. Every time I’m stuck, I’ll pull up this reference page and look for the closest colour I desire. Then I’ll dump that hexadecimal value into my image processing application for finer adjustments.

So much for web safe colours.

Transformers: More Than Meets The Eye

I remember when I was young, I used to watch the Transformers cartoons. I mean, it was like so cool that those machines could transform into humanoid robots and back into machines again (usually transportation vehicles). There were the Autobots with the red insignia and the Decepticons with their purple insignia. Then there were these double agents who could transform into both an Autobot and a Decepticon. Cool.

So I’m kinda excited when they are bringing Transformers onto the silver screen. I saw a trailer of the movie, and something nagged at me. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it, and I just saw how awesome the movie looks, with all the special effects and even the recognisable “transformation” sound when the machines change form.

It looks like they brought the Transformers universe up to speed with our current world. The “World Wide Web” became the tool of learning human languages (in particular, English), and even Ebay made it to the script (Autobots and Decepticons were both looking for Sam Witwicky, a.k.a ladysman217). I just checked, ladysman217 is a valid user name on Ebay. That is some marketing.

Well, if that radio-turned-mobile-phone Decepticon is any indication of how fast our electronic databases can be hacked, we are doomed I tell ya. Robots type darn fast, and somehow, they always have these mechanical devices that can interface with anything we have. And they download and upload stuff as fast as the hard drive can spin. It’s a lucky thing we have a human equivalent, Micah Sanders from Heroes.

Oh right, now I found it, my can’t-quite-put-my-finger-on-it mystery. My first impression of Bumblebee, the camaro, was that after he transformed into his humanoid form, there was just …  more of him. There seemed to be more metal on him, and he seems quite large. His car form seems small in comparison. So where did the extra metal come from?

Hot Fuzz – Hilariously Funny

After a long and tiring week, I was deciding what to do to amuse myself on this Sunday afternoon. I went to my usual local movie site, and found the movie “Hot Fuzz”. Then I remember seeing the preview a while back, and thought it was funny. So my plan for the afternoon was set.

Quick digression: fuzz informally means the police.

The movie is about this high flyer of a policeman, I’m sorry, police officer, Nicholas Angel, who was transferred to the quiet village of Sandford because he had a 400% arrest rate compared with his peers, and he’s embarrassing the entire department.

So there he was, itching to squash some crime, and he arrested some underage teenagers for drinking in a pub, the night before he was even officially to report for work. I can identify with him a little, when sometimes I feel my talents could be put to better use… oh well.

Amidst dealing with his recalcitrant colleagues, villagers with uncanny knowledge of goings-on and a partner who longs for big action, Angel manages to sit through a 3 hour long horribly blasphemous rendition of Romeo and Juliet, takes on the unexciting task of finding a swan, and taking care of his Japanese peace lily.

There are traffic accidents (I’m sorry, traffic collisions), flaming houses and exciting chases on foot. There’s arterial spray, decapitation and exploding bombs. If you can stand a little blood (CSI sort of conditioned me), and a little “colour” in the dialogue (officers dump change into a box whenever someone swears), and open-minded on your beliefs, then “by the power of Castle Grayskull”, you absolutely have to watch this movie.

E equals M C squared

The famous equation of Albert Einstein has a simple elegance to it. I knew of it when I was young, but it didn’t mean anything to me. It probably warms the hearts of scholars of physics though.

The magic happens when I read about something that Robert Kiyosaki (author of “Rich Dad, Poor Dad”) said. In his book, he mentions that money is an idea. This prompted me to think of our earlier human ancestors, where barter trade was the norm. If you have herds of good cattle, you are considered rich. If your sheep produces fabulously soft wool, you are considered rich. In our modern times, if you have tons of those paper notes that your country’s mints are producing, you are considered rich.

What I realised is that, being rich has little to do with money itself. You are rich, because other people consider you to be rich. Having herds of cattle makes you rich because other people need the meat they can get from you. Since they don’t have it, they consider you to be richer than them. If you have a huge bank account, then other people consider you rich because they believe in the numbers they see and in the integrity of the bank.

Money is an idea.

Going back to the equation, I understand it as dividing our universe into two parts, energy and matter (or mass). If money is an idea, then it’s an energy form. And wealth is the material manifestation of this energy. If I want wealth, then I’ll have to materialise it from its energy form. Let’s look at the equation again:

Energy = Matter(mass) x Speed of light x Speed of light

The speed of light is 300000000 metres per second squared. That’s a 3 followed by 8 zeros. I realised that my energy level for wealth has to be extremely high in order to materialise anything.

This explains why many of the millionaires I’ve seen, heard and read about, are passionate, lively, animated and energetic. They create wealth from their ideas! To do this, they have to match their energy levels with that of wealth.

I now look at this equation under a different light.

The “2nd best” theory – Overbalancing

You might want to read part one and two first.

There is this almost obsessive need to “work on your weaknesses” pervading our lives. As a child, when I submit my report book to my dad, he would look it over, and point at some line on a page, and say something like, “How come you got a [insert low grade] for [insert some subject]?”.

After I graduated from university, I came to the “real” world. At my work reviews, my manager would go over my achievements, point at some line on his report, and say something like, “You are very good at [insert strong point], but I want you to improve on [insert weak point].”

Unless the weak point is critically hampering your progress, strengthening the weak point is a colossal waste of time!

Why is this so? Because you have little interest in it. If you had even a passing interest in it, it wouldn’t have been a weak point. You’d want to find out more more about it, even if it’s not one of your natural strengths. You have no feeling for it.

An example of a weak point worth correcting is the ability (or lack thereof) to communicate and work with fellow team members. You do want to work well with others right? Then you’d have an interest in making your relationship with them work.

This is where overbalancing comes in. In this context, it refers to improving every single skill you have, whether or not they create the most value for you. You might have heard of the 80/20 rule. 20% of your efforts produce 80% of your results. It’s hard enough finding out what your strengths are. Using the productive 20% effort on improving your weaknesses is commendable, but impractical.

Use a large part of the 80% effort on improving your complementary skills (to your strengths). The rest of the 80%? Go ahead with improving your weaknesses to do as little damage to your success as possible.