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Back on the Trails

September 14, 2014

Osage Hills Thistle (click for Osage Hills slideshow)

A week into September 2014 the summer weather abated, allowing Wendy and me to venture out for our first hike since our vacation in New Mexico in early July. On a Sunday morning we headed west out of town to Osage Hills to hike four miles around the Bugle Loop on the Tower/Lake, Cabin, and Falls trails. We admired colorful thistle on the Tower trail and an intricate spiderweb above Lookout Lake. We lunched trailside on my favorite hiking meal, a QuikTrip turkey & swiss sandwich on berry wheat bread, before walking down to the Sand Creek falls. The water was running high from recent rains, and an extended family was enjoying the flow.

The next Sunday we drove to Owasso to have lunch at El Fogon, which was the top-rated Owasso restaurant on TripAdvisor. Wendy enjoyed her carnitas with corn tortillas while I dined on my typical order of steak fajitas. Then we drove east to the 120-acre Conservation Education Reserve at Rogers State University. I had visited it five years earlier, but back in 2009 I did not track my route. Before we left town to drive to Owasso, I’d done an extensive web search for a detailed map of the reserve, eventually tracking down a nice online GPS map created by students at the local vo-tech; I had exported and saved that map to guide our hike.

RSU Day Hike (click image for RSU Reserve slideshow)

This time the tracker was running as we entered the gate near the Terra Lab to circumnavigate the reserve on its Butterfly Loop, Southwest Trail, Wetland Loop, and Weather Trail for a total walk of 2.75 miles.

The butterfly garden was buzzing with bumblebees. Wendy got a shot of the fish and a frog in the pond, and a bloom. We were then driven onto the Butterfly Loop by the approach of grandparents with grandchildren.

Bumblebee

A glade with benches featured a trailside tree which had been fully consumed by bagworms. The trail wound around the southeast portion of the reserve, with another group of hikers in close pursuit. We lost them when we turned off onto the Southwest Trail, which had a profusion of yellow blooms.

Southwest Trail

A muddy pond had a turtle swimming along with only its eyes and snout protruding from the water. A meadow had sumac, while the wetlands featured small cattails and plenty of bugs. The big pond featured a windmill and extensive plant growth in the water teeming with tiny fish. A couple of dragonflies flew by and settled down, intent on, er, coupling.

Dragonfly Couple

It was a nice but still rather warm walk; I’m eagerly awaiting even cooler weather for future outings.

Click here for a slideshow from the Conservation Education Reserve

 
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Posted by on September 14, 2014 in day hike, photos, travel

 

A Tale of Two Schools

September 6, 2014

In September 2014 a story in the Daily Oklahoman newspaper in Oklahoma City highlighted both the high school I graduated from and the one I’ve taught at for 25 years. The context was an article about the number of high school graduates enrolling in Oklahoma colleges who have to take remedial coursework. It included bar charts of the state’s public and private high schools which send over 100 students to college and have the highest and the lowest percentages of students who have to do remedial work.

My alma mater, Putnam City West in northwest Oklahoma City, was ranked among the worst performers, with 50% of its graduates who went to an Oklahoma college having to take remedial classes. That compares to 20% for Bartlesville High School, where I’ve worked since 1989, placing BHS among the top seven schools in the state and in the top five public schools in this ranking.

Remediation rates at my alma mater and where I teach

Remediation rates at my alma mater and where I teach

What makes the schools so different? In a word…demographics. I have heard the junior high I attended, one of two feeder schools to PC West, called “the armpit of the district.” Nevertheless, I received a strong education at PC West back in the early 1980s, which propelled me to many academic awards, scholarships, accolades, and a rewarding career. But the demographics of the families it serves have steadily worsened. While Bartlesville High’s demographics have also declined since the ConocoPhillips merger at the start of the twenty-first century, it still serves a rather different clientele than PC West. Consider this data from the Profiles 2013 report cards for each school:

Demographic Statewide Average Putnam City West HS Bartlesville HS
Students Eligible for Free/Reduced Lunch 62% 83% 29%
Mobility Rate (incoming students) 11% 18% 4%
Suspension Rate (higher is better)
1 suspension per X students
124.4 85.4 280.7

My entire teaching career has been suffused in a never-ending drive to hold schools more accountable for their students’ performance. But Helen Ladd’s 2011 analysis stated:

…a simple bivariate regression of state test scores and state poverty rates indicates that a full 40 percent of the variation in reading scores and 46 percent of the variation in math scores is associated with variation across states in child poverty rates. The addition of one other explanatory variable related to family background, the percent of children who are members of minority groups, increases the explanatory power of the relationship to about 50 percent in reading and 51 percent in math. Clearly the mix of family backgrounds is highly correlated with patterns of student achievement across states.

The blogger at OKEducationTruths analyzed the data on the 454 schools in the data set the Daily Oklahoman was drawing from to identify how much different factors correlated with the college remediation rate. Given Dr. Ladd’s analysis, it is no surprise that in the Oklahoma data poverty factors had the strongest correlations with the college remediation rate.

Bartlesville works pretty hard at preparing kids for college. Teachers of courses with state tests are required to collect, analyze, and act upon data from regular assessments. There are remediation programs in place at each school to help identify and assist struggling students. I don’t know how much of that is done at my alma mater. But I know that BHS benefits greatly from having only about a third as many students who come from impoverished families and a mobility rate that is less than one-fourth of that at PC West.

So I’m not going to dump on my alma mater and praise my own school for their very different college remedial course rates. This is a tale of two schools who serve very different populations, with different challenges. What Dickens wrote in A Tale of Two Cities describes well the tumult public school teachers face in our own time:

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.

LATER POSTSCRIPT:

On Facebook, former Bartlesville school board member Vanessa Drummond asked a good question: how do the poverty rates compare among the top-performing schools? I expanded upon that with a look at all of the low and high performing public schools:

High-Performing Schools on College Remediation Rate:

School Students Eligible for Free/Reduced Lunch Mobility Rate (incoming students) DISTRICT Adults (25+) with College Degree
Statewide Average 62% 11% 23%
Stillwater 35% 3% 48%
Deer Creek 7% 3% 57%
Edmond North 18% 5% 51%
Edmond Memorial 24% 3% 51%
Bartlesville 29% 4% 30%

Stillwater is the outlier, but it is a town of 47,000 which is home to one of the state’s two leading universities. It is hardly surprising that a district dominated by a university would fare better in college course remediation rates. The percentage of adults over age 25 holding a college degree is illustrative; note that is a district-wide figure versus other school-specific figures. Compare those demographics to those of the low-performers:

Low-Performing Schools on College Remediation Rate:

School Students Eligible for Free/Reduced Lunch Mobility Rate (incoming students) DISTRICT Adults (25+) with College Degree
Statewide Average 62% 11% 23%
Tulsa Nathan Hale 100% 30% 25%
Tulsa Memorial 82% 28% 25%
Lawton 57% 48% 20%
Muskogee 81% 11% 18%
Midwest City 67% 12% 18%
Lawton Eisenhower 44% 12% 20%
Putnam City West 83% 18% 32%

Notice how Lawton High’s lower poverty rate is offset by its enormous mobility rate, although Lawton Eisenhower doesn’t have that excuse. The Putnam City district has a good percentage of adults with college degrees, but it includes three high schools, with PC North serving a much higher socioeconomic status group than PC West or the original PC High School. So we can’t discern the adults in the PC West area with college degrees.

 
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Posted by on September 6, 2014 in politics

 

Down in the Salt Mine

September 2, 2014

Labor Day weekend 2014 found Wendy and me 650 feet below Hutchinson, Kansas, touring part of a salt mine. It was the highlight of our first out-of-town trip in my new 2014.5 Toyota Camry XLE, which replaced Princess, my 2001 Toyota Camry LE.

Trip to Strataca (click map for slideshow)

Princess replaced by Silver Fox

Silver Fox

I was sad to have to let Princess go, as she was the best car I ever had. But with over 236,000 miles on her and repairs this month exceeding her bluebook value, it was time for me to move on. I drained the car fund I’ve been building for four years and, with some help from my always-generous parents, traded Princess in for Silver Fox. Yes, the new car is silver instead of white, and I picked that name since the car reflects my mid-life desire for some flashy luxuries, such as leather heated seats and a moonroof.

The most useful new luxury is linking my iPhone wirelessly to the car’s sound system via Bluetooth. That is more convenient than the wired option I installed in my old car back in February 2012, since the phone automatically links with the car when I get close to it, allowing me to control the music on the car’s dashboard touchscreen and conduct hands-on-the-wheel phone calls. I like the latter feature, since avoidance of visual-manual interactions with a phone when driving improves safety. The car has its own voice recognition system, but even after completing its voice training, I found the iPhone’s Siri to be far more accurate in interpreting my commands. I still keep my iPhone mounted high on the dash with a holder that attaches to an air vent, since I still rely upon its TomTom GPS app for navigation, and Toyota doesn’t yet have Apple CarPlay.

Oh, and another nice feature of Silver Fox is the ease with which it passes slower vehicles on two-lane highways. Its 4-cylinder engine produces 178 horsepower versus the 136 hp engine in Princess, while still getting highway gas mileage in the upper 30s. I could get even more power and mileage in the hybrid model, but it is more expensive, and the battery pack’s longevity seemed ill-suited to my typical decade-plus of active car use before trading in for a newer model.

Hutchinson by way of Wichita

Silver Fox transported Wendy and me 184 miles northwest from Bartlesville to visit Strataca, the underground museum in an exhausted part of the Hutchinson Salt Company’s mine below Hutchinson, Kansas. We stopped along the way for lunch in Wichita. The first two restaurants we tried were too crowded or closed, so we wound up at Five Guys Burgers & Fries. We’d heard about this chain but never been in one before. Our food took awhile to be prepared, but was delicious.

Strataca Entrance

We arrived in Hutchinson after 1 p.m. I drove around town to show Wendy the Cosmosphere, which we planned to visit the following day. I’d been there previously and would have shared it on this trip with Wendy, but she was catching a cold as we headed out, and that, along with plenty of homework for both of us, meant that we cut our trip short the following day and saved the Cosmosphere for a future return trip.

But neither homework nor head colds kept us from being transported 650 feet down to the huge salt mine below Hutchinson. Our first stop at Strataca was around 1:30 p.m. to purchase tickets. Strong winds of over 30 miles per hour pelted us with sand as we made our way from the parking lot, so I was glad the earliest we could descend was 3:20 p.m. That gave us time to do some shopping, and, upon our return, to strategically park my new car to avoid most of the blowing sand.

Back to the salt mine

We then waited in the above-ground lobby for our group’s descent on the elevator, reading posted quotations. One from Isak Dinesen appealed to me:

The cure for anything is salt water – sweat, tears, or the sea.

The museum occupies a tiny portion of the immense salt mine. The active area is mined by the Hutchinson Salt Company, a successor to the original Carey Salt Mine of 1923. They mine over 500,000 tons of rock salt annually, primarily for use in de-icing roads. The Carey mine has grown to over 980 acres, with inactive areas leased to Underground Vaults & Storage. They store various items in leased space roughly equivalent to 35 football fields encased in solid stone, more than 45 stories below ground. The entire played-out portion of the mine, however, is equivalent to almost 740 football fields, stretching miles in each direction. If linked end-to-end, the mined rooms would stretch over 150 miles. The temperature is a steady 68 degrees year-round, although large fans have to be used to circulate air brought down through the shaft. Abandoned areas of the mine are closed off so that they don’t have to waste energy moving air around in those spaces.

Down we go

Wendy before a wall of rock salt

Throughout our visit we had to wear hard hats along with small rebreather kits strapped at waist level. The roof of the mine can peel, although they inspect the public area daily and knock down any loose bits. The trip down took 90 seconds in a newer double-level elevator that was constructed by the underground storage company and the county historical society. The original 1923 shaft is still in use by the mining company. We stepped out into a long wide tunnel through the rock salt, lit by roof-mounted lights.

The museum is a big U formed out of several of the interconnected rooms in the mine. The tour is self-paced, with displays in each room showing the various types of mining technology used here since 1923. Since it is so laborious to get mining equipment down the small shaft, it is never hauled back up and out. That meant we had examples of the original equipment to see, along with short video clips explaining how the equipment was used.

We examined display cases and passed fellow tourists taking selfies; the underground museum is equipped with WiFi, so you can keep in touch with the world above even with 45 stories of rocks above your head. Wendy and I took turns posing by the mine’s walls of rock salt, which include occasional pure salt veins formed by water flow.

Down in the salt mine

Different eras of mining technology

Salt saw

The mine originally relied on rails laid on the floors to move its electrical machinery and to haul the workers and mine materials. We passed an old train that transported workers and saw how they use large saws to undercut a fresh face. This provides a nice level floor and allows the rock to collapse when it is blasted loose. Deep holes are drilled into the face, and explosives are inserted. In the old days they used dynamite, and there were lots of empty dynamite boxes in the mine, but today they use ammonium nitrate and fuel oil. The chunks of rock salt used to be shoveled by hand into train bins to be hauled to a crusher and lifted. The blasting saved some effort, but workers still had to manually shovel tons of rock.

Eventually they abandoned the use of rails, switching to diesel vehicles. On display were an old car and a pickup which had been dismantled and brought down the shaft, and then reassembled and welded back together. My favorite was a 1940 tractor which got stuck in a farm shelterbelt back in 1958 and abandoned. In 1994 a mine supervisor bought it for $60 and had workers cut it loose from tree that had grown up through it. They disassembled it and brought it down into the mine, put it back together and cleaned the carburetor, and put it to use. Since Star Trek: Voyager was popular at the time, they named the tractor after the eponymous ship in that show, and even labelled its battery holder as the warp core.

Voyager tractor and its warp core

The mine today uses front-end loaders running on bio-diesel to scoop up blasted rock salt into a crusher. The crushed rock spills out onto an extremely long conveyor belt for transport to the original shaft.

Front-end loader and conveyor belt

Storage

Dean Cain’s Superman suit

A fun area of the museum displays the history of the storage facility. I laughed at the incongruity of the 1959 Miss Salt Queen contestants. The mine was originally mostly six feet high, but the storage areas were raised to 10 feet. Today they use big cutters to lift the ceilings for storage areas, and this creates firmer ceilings and beautiful patterns in the rock salt. The much-appreciated bathroom facility they added in 2012 has walls which show the difference between the lower blasted mine area and the cut upper section.

This mine is the largest single storage facility for movie and television film internationally, thanks to its consistent 68 degree temperature and 35-40% humidity. A display illustrated the storage racks, and they had several movie costumes on display, including the Mr. Freeze costume and infamous “nipple” Batman suit from the 1997 movie Batman & Robin. I was a fan of Lois & Clark back in the 1990s, so I enjoyed seeing a Superman costume worn by Dean Cain.

Wendy with Dorothy II from Twister

Old animation drawings are also stored in the mine, and it was neat to look at original Bugs Bunny and Sylvester drawings. I was already familiar with data records storage in salt mines, since my mother worked for a savings and loan in Oklahoma City which stored records in a mine near Kansas City. The mine storage areas hold a variety of stored data records, and Wendy was impressed by the huge old IBM System 38 computer on display. Above it was a nice display of evolving data storage technologies, reminding me of my recent post about my own digital storage changes. It was amusing to see that the big IBM computer tape reels we used to always see spinning back and forth in old movies only held about 140 megabytes of data. My desktop computer currently has instant access to over 35,000 times that much local storage.

We came across the Dorothy II prop from the Twister movie; we’d seen the Dorothy I and other similar props in the Oklahoma History Museum last November. I enjoyed seeing old 35 mm film movie editing equipment used to view, cut, and splice films back in the days before digital editing.

Train and tram rides

We had purchased tickets allowing us to ride an electric train for a narrated 15-minute ride through parts of the mine dating to the 1940s and 1950s. We saw how they used to plug up spent areas with old dynamite boxes to control air circulation. There were areas where the floor had heaved up or a part of the roof had collapsed, and some of the old mine rails and cars. The mine is ever-so-slowly closing up under the pressure of the overlying rock; a study by the nuclear energy folks showed it might seal up in 36,000 years. The slow buckling of the mine was part of the reason why protesters successfully fought against having the salt mines used for nuclear waste storage, worried that waste might eventually be introduced into the overlying aquifer. That aquifer was a barrier to the construction of the shaft we took down into the mine; they punched through it by freezing the surrounding area during the drilling before lining that portion with concrete to keep the water out.

Other “remnants” of mining we saw along our excursion included a trash pile and portable toilet; they really do leave stuff down in the mine! We then took a tram for a “dark ride” through parts of the mine without electric lighting, but the low light levels and steady motion meant that the only shot I got was of an abandoned old car.

Heading up and out

As we left the mine, I posed with a pickaxe, and then we boarded the elevator for the ascent. Back outside, I looked at the small electric train engine once used for switching services at the Carey Salt Mine’s evaporation plant and mine. The wind was still strong and dust-laden as we drove back to Wichita, passing through large clouds of dust reminding us that this area was part of the 1930s Dust Bowl.

Dust storm outside of Hutchinson

Along the Arkansas in Wichita

We spent the night at the historic Drury Plaza Broadview Hotel along the Arkansas River in downtown Wichita. We were on the 8th floor in a nice spacious high-ceiling room with a great west view of the river. Wendy got a great shot of the sunset before we headed out to eat.

View of the Arkansas from the hotel

Wichita’s Old Town district seemed the best bet for finding some nightlife on the Sunday night before Labor Day, and we enjoyed pizzas at the Old Chicago Pizza & Taproom.

Spangles for lunch

The next morning Wendy’s cold had worsened, and so we opted to head home after lunch rather than drive back to Hutchinson’s Cosmosphere. Our first attempts for Labor Day lunch failed, since family restaurants were understandably closed, so we wound up at one of the many Spangles joints around town. Outside there was an old Chevy plunging out over the building’s entrance, and inside we found a Mustang Mach I, Phillips 66 signage, and good burgers.

We enjoyed our trip and look forward to returning to Wichita and Hutchinson in the future, but although we certainly enjoyed our tour at Strataca, we won’t have to go “back to the salt mine.”

Click here for a slideshow from this trip

 
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Posted by on September 2, 2014 in photos, travel

 

Going Solid State

August 17, 2014
Tubes gave way to solid state

Tubes gave way to solid state

When I was a small child, I would climb up onto the top of the black-and-white television in our living room. It was warm up there, and I would peer through the vents down into the television. Its innards were lit by the dim glow of vacuum tubes. I figured out those tubes were part of the reason why there was a long delay between turning on the set and getting a picture or sound; until they began to glow red hot, Mr. Magoo would not appear. Eventually I would clamber down and sprawl on the floor to watch the flickering gray images. I also remember being bewildered by that stupid lying NBC peacock, which would spread its feathers and proclaim the next show would be in living color…it never was.

My parents finally bought a Zenith color television around 1973, an emblem on its front proclaiming it as SOLID STATE. I wasn’t sure what that meant, except that the warm glow of the tubes was gone and the picture and sound came on very quickly. The peacock was proud and colorful.

Solid state circuits with transistors revolutionized electronics, and now solid state drives are changing local storage on our computers.

Hard disks vs. solid state drives

For decades we’ve relied upon the incredible hard disk drive first introduced by IBM in the 1950s. For years every decent personal computer had one or more of these spinning drives, with their steadily increasing capacity and decreasing cost, as I outlined in my previous post. But in 2010 I bought a laptop computer with no hard drive, a second-generation MacBook Air. I knew its 128 GB solid state drive meant it would boot up very quickly and perform admirably despite its somewhat dated microprocessor, but I was still startled by the performance increase it gained by dispensing with an electromechanical hard disk.

Solid state drives are now commonplace in our smartphones, tablets, and some laptop computers. But it has taken much longer for them to creep into our desktop systems because the old hard disks have so much more capacity and are far cheaper. I finally took the plunge this month of buying a one-terabyte solid state drive for my five-year-old desktop computer, and this post is about my experience of installing and using it.

Cleaning up my system

I debated doing a fresh installation of Windows 7 on the new solid state drive and then re-installing, one-by-one, the various applications I use on my desktop machine. That would clear a lot of cruft from the computer and its registry, but it would mean a lengthy process of locating, re-downloading, and re-installing software packages. Back when everything came on an optical disc, re-installations were fairly straightforward, but now many of my applications are downloaded from the web and I’d have to find download links and locate emails with their registration keys to get them back up and running.

That was too big a hassle for me, but I also wanted to make the image of my existing disk as clean as possible before cloning it onto the new drive. So I used Control Panel > Programs and Features to list the dozens of applications on my system and began working my way through them, uninstalling anything I thought I would not use. Over its five years of use, I have installed on my desktop machine many different video and photo editing applications and accumulated various utilities I needed once or twice and then never again. In the end, I wound up uninstalling over 40 different programs. After a reboot to ensure clean-up from the uninstalled programs, I was ready to install my new solid state drive.

My Crucial M550

My new solid state drive and installation kit

My new solid state drive and installation kit

I had ordered a Crucial M550 one-terabyte drive with a SATA interface from Amazon for $432. I also purchased a $24 desktop installation kit which provided a SATA cable to connect the drive to the computer’s motherboard, an adapter bracket to fit the laptop-sized 2.5″ wide drive into a desktop’s 3.5″ bay, and Acronis TrueImage HD software to help me migrate my system from my one-terabyte hard disk to the solid state drive.

Thankfully Windows 7 is new enough to know how to handle a solid state drive; if a new drive had meant moving to Windows 8, I would have refused. I hated Windows 8 when I previewed it back in the spring of 2012 and the few times I’ve used it since have convinced me to stick with Windows 7. I won’t get a new desktop computer until after the successor to Windows 8 is released; I often skip versions of Windows and have never regretted it.

Installing the new drive

My hard disks before the new drive was installed

My hard disks before the new drive was installed

I unplugged the power and all peripherals from my CPU and opened it up. I had two one-terabyte hard disks; one was the primary drive and the other for backup. Both were connected to SATA ports on the motherboard and to power cables from the power supply.

Four screws that came with my installation kit secured the tiny solid state drive into the wider adapter bracket. The drive is only 7 millimeters thick, which makes sense for a laptop computer, but looks comically thin compared to my system’s hard disks. The bracket then was supposed to be secured in a drive bay by four more screws that came with the kit. But my bay is not easily accessed on one side, so I was only able to easily screw in three of the four screws. It seemed sturdy enough, and solid state drives are much less susceptible than a hard disk to vibration damage.

The new drive installed in my computer

The new drive installed in my computer

Next I hooked one end of the keyed SATA cable which came with the installation kit to the new drive. The other end keyed into an empty port on the motherboard. I found an unused SATA power cord coming out of the power supply and hooked that in. With that, the hardware installation was complete. It was time to tackle the software side of things.

I needed to clone my boot hard disk to the new drive, tell the computer to start booting from the new drive instead of the old hard disk, and then tweak some Windows settings to help prolong the life of my solid state drive.

Cloning my disk

I closed up the computer and hooked everything back in. I flipped on the power and inserted into the optical drive the Acronis TrueImage HD disc from the installation kit. I was fast enough that the machine booted up in Acronis instead of Windows.

The Acronis software listed the new solid state drive and both of my hard disks. I instructed it to clone the boot hard disk C: over to the new solid state drive, which it had labelled as F:. It took 2.33 hours for the 772 GB of data on the hard disk to be copied over to the new solid state drive. I then exited Acronis and the machine rebooted.

Changing the boot settings in the BIOS

Pressing the DEL key repeatedly as it booted up interrupted the boot sequence to bring up the BIOS (Basic Input/Output System) menu where one sets boot options and the like. I changed the boot sequence to first try to boot from the CD/DVD drive, then each of the four USB flash drive slots on the front of the computer. This would allow me to easily bypass Windows if I needed to use a disaster recovery disk or a utility like Acronis. Next in the boot sequence came the new solid state drive, then the hard disk I had been booting Windows on, and finally the hard disk I was using for easy in-the-computer-case backups. (Yes, I also periodically make backups to a portable hard disk which I store off-site.) I saved the settings and exited the BIOS, and hoped that Windows would come up on the new drive.

It worked like a charm, with Windows 7 Home Premium booting up much faster than I’d ever seen before on my machine. I checked in Windows Explorer and verified that I had booted from the solid state drive; it was shown as drive C: while my backup hard disk was now drive E: and the hard disk I had been booting from previously was listed as drive F: (the optical drive is drive D:).

Making sure Windows 7 is being SSD-friendly

I’d noticed that Windows had installed some device drivers when it booted up, and one was for the new solid state drive. I hoped that meant Windows had been told to no longer try to defragment the boot drive and to use TRIM. Hard disks can be defragmented every so often to consolidate files spread out across the disk and speed up the disk’s performance; this was much more important in the old days than it is today with our enormous hard drives. But you should NOT defragment a solid state drive, since the resulting reads and writes simply waste rewrite cycles of the memory without improving performance to any meaningful degree. TRIM should also be enabled on a solid state drive; this changes how deleted files are handled to help preserve the usable life of the drive.

An article at Lifehacker helped me check that TRIM was enabled (it already was) and that defragmentation was disabled on the solid state drive. Older articles had urged disabling the SuperFetch service, relocating the Windows Page file to a hard disk, and the like. Other articles said those changes were not all that important, but I did them anyway, including implementing some more tips from ghacks.net.

The results

The new drive dramatically improved the boot process on my machine, which had become very slow and tedious with the hard disk maxing out as Microsoft Security Essentials and Dropbox and other services did their thing. Here’s a comparison:

Boot item Time after boot from hard disk (minutes:seconds) Time after boot from solid state drive (minutes:seconds)
“Starting Windows” screen 0:26 0:26
Windows password prompt 1:15 0:46
Desktop background appears 2:06 0:53
Desktop icons first appear 2:37 0:53
Windows logon sound 2:38 0:53
Desktop icons fill back in 4:20 1:02
Networking icon shows ready (most start-up services running) 6:40 1:08
Dropbox shows ready 16+ 2:08

As you can see, it was taking forever for my machine to fully boot up – a major reason why I invested in the solid state drive. For years I’ve examined the disk activity via Windows Resource Monitor and seen how processes associated with Microsoft Security Essentials and Dropbox, and sometimes the disk indexing service and iTunes, were maxing out my hard disk’s throughput.

Dropbox and other services were hogging my hard disk after boot-ups

Dropbox and other services were hogging my hard disk after boot-ups

I had used various online tips over the years to tweak various services and settings, but they didn’t help much. Eventually things would settle down, but sometimes that would take 15 to 20 minutes, during which time my system was very sluggish. So I almost never rebooted my machine, and dreaded when a security update or the like would force me to reboot.

The left graph shows my hard disk finally settling down 19 minutes after booting; the right shows my solid state disk less than 3 minutes after booting.

The left graph shows my hard disk finally settling down 19 minutes after booting; the right shows my solid state disk less than 3 minutes after booting.

The two graphs at right illustrate how much nicer things are with my solid state drive. On the left is a graph of hard disk use 19 minutes after a recent boot-up, when the hard disk finally settled down, transitioning back to more normal behavior after continually reading data as fast as it could. The right graph shows the solid state drive’s use less than 3 minutes after boot up; notice the change in the scale of the y-axis: the drive has already read all that was needed for the various services and is just doing minimal background tasks.

So thus far I’m extremely pleased with this upgrade. It will make booting and using my five-year-old machine much more enjoyable and hopefully allow me to stretch its useful life out for a few more years.

I have some nostalgia for that old tube television from my childhood; I remember the glow of the vacuum tubes, the comforting heat they generated, and the smell of hot dust as the television warmed up. But I will never be fond of my memories of the interminable boot times and sluggishness of my desktop computer before I installed the solid state drive. In this case, I’ve gone solid state and won’t look back.

UPDATE: One of my students this year told me that I needed a SATA III port to get the most of out of drive. My 2009 motherboard only has SATA II ports, which have less throughput. So eventually I might invest in a SATA III PCIe card. That would improve throughput even more, although still not reaching the level available on a motherboard-based SATA III port.

 
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Posted by on August 17, 2014 in technology

 

Slimming Down Before Speeding Up

August 17, 2014
Decades of data

Decades of data devices

I’ve been working with personal computers for over 35 years, so I’ve endured seven types of long-term computer data recording and storage:

  1. cassette tapes
  2. floppy disks
  3. hard drives
  4. ZIP drives
  5. tape drives
  6. optical discs
  7. solid state

Each had its pros and cons, and this post was prompted by my plan for another transition in primary storage: switching my five-year-old desktop computer from hard drives to a solid state drive. But first let’s revisit past transitions.

Cassette tape to floppy disk

My first computer was from Radio Shack: a 1980 TRS-80 Color Computer with 32 kB of RAM. It used a cassette tape to store and retrieve programs. At 1500 baud, the data transfer rate was about 4 million times slower than the transfer rate of the new solid state drive I’m planning to install in my current desktop computer. So it took a long time to record or load even the tiny programs of that era, and sometimes a cassette load would fail, meaning I had to fiddle with the volume on the tape player and try again.

My CoCo used cassettes

My CoCo used cassettes

The same technology was available for my 1983 Tandy Color Computer 2, but I convinced my parents to invest in a series of 5.25″ floppy disk drives to improve data capacity and transfer rate. The first drive was made by Radio Shack and the single-sided floppy would hold about 140 kB of data after formatting, which is about 7 million times less storage than my new solid state drive. I learned I could save money by cutting a notch in a floppy disk’s outer jacket and flipping it over to use the other side in the drive. Later I upgraded to a couple of double-sided drives for almost a half-megabyte of readily accessible storage.

First floppies

First floppies

Floppy disk to hard disk

My first hard drive was 10 megabytes in my Tandy Model 2000

My first hard drive was 10 megabytes in my Tandy Model 2000

The first time I remember using a hard disk drive was in the summer of 1985. I was working at the Oklahoma Department of Tourism at the state capitol as a minimum-wage office assistant. At one point I was plunked down in front of an old dedicated Wang word processor terminal. Next to me was a noisy 10-megabyte hard drive about the size of an apartment-size washing machine. But that was a government office, so the technology in use was already obsolete. Hard drives were making their way into personal computers, and I would add a couple of them to my next personal computer.

My 1985 Tandy Model 2000 started out with two 720 kB floppy disk drives, but later I spent $1,700 to add an internal 10-megabyte hard drive to it. Compare that cost of $170 per megabyte, in 1980s dollars, to the 0.043 cents per megabyte I paid for my new solid state storage, or better yet the 0.0057 cents per megabyte I paid for my latest 2 TB portable hard drive.

That was the beginning of an uncounted chain of hard drives I have owned, in capacities leaping from that initial 10 megabytes up to 2 terabytes, a 200,000-fold increase in capacity. Data transfer rates improved over time, with the 1-terabyte hard drives in my latest desktop computer, spinning at 7200 rev/min, reaching as high as 142 MB/s. But the solid state drive I plan to install should at least triple that transfer rate.

Backups of all sorts

The ZIP Drive

The ZIP Drive

Hard drives are great, but their inevitable mechanical failures mean you have to make regular backup copies of the data. The floppy drive was the basis for my portable storage and backup for years, first with 5.25″ floppy disks ranging from 140 kB to 1.2 MB of capacity. Hard drive backups on those floppies were a real pain, with me having to repeatedly swap dozens of 5.25″ disks to make a backup. Eventually hard-shell 3.5″ floppy disks took over, but their typical capacity was only 1.44 MB.

The nightmare of disk swapping led me to the ZIP 100 drive, a specialized floppy disk system which could hold an amazing 100 MB of data. I later upgraded to a 250 MB ZIP drive system. But hard drive capacities were rising so fast that it still took a lot of swapping of expensive ZIP disks to back up my computer.

Tape Backup

Tape Backup

So I went back to the beginning: using magnetic tape for storage. Tape backup cartridges had immense capacity and were much faster than my pitiful old cassettes from the early 1980s, with gigabytes of storage possible on specialized units like the Ditto Easy 3200. I could pop in a tape and let it run unattended during a long backup. But tape backup was noisy and sequential. It took a long time to recover just a file or two from a tape backup, and I always worried about a faulty backup recording or broken tape.

For awhile I used recordable optical CD and DVD disks to backup some data, but they were slow, and my recordable DVDs topped out at 4.7 GB. With my hard drives reaching tens of gigabytes by the 2000s, I needed something easier and faster.

Hard drives can backup hard drives

Hard drives can backup hard drives

So I switched to the kind of backups I’ve been doing for over a decade: backing up my primary fixed hard drives with portable hard drives. I still have my first portable hard drive, a 30 GB Backpack unit. Later I used 80 GB, then 120 GB, and finally 1 and 2 TB portable drives for backups.

And for years I relied upon dual hard drives in my desktop machines in a RAID 1 configuration where one drive was constantly mirroring the other. That way when one failed, the other could take over without a hiccup. Well, that was the theory. While my RAID 1 drives did indeed prevent any data loss when one failed, sometimes it took a lot of work and head-scratching to recover from a drive failure. RAID 1 is not very popular in personal computing, and it is now rather difficult to buy a computer outfitted for it, and the tools for doing it yourself are somewhat arcane.

Nowadays I use Dropbox to keep my most useful data readily accessible and synchronized on my various work and home desktop computers, laptops, tablet, and smartphone. But I don’t want to pay for a terabyte of more of online storage; my 100 GB Dropbox account has about 65 GB of data in it, which is less than one-tenth of the data on my primary hard drive. So I still have to manually backup a lot of data if I don’t want to risk losing it.

Compression

As hard drive capacity increased over time, so did my data storage demands. In one generation of hard drive after another I would begin bumping up against a drive’s capacity. I would try to prune obsolete files and then have to use the Windows Disk Cleanup buried at Accessories > System Tools to regain space, sometimes even uninstalling unused Windows components to regain space. For awhile Windows had built-in data compression software, and that let me stretch the use of my 1993 desktop system all the way to the year 2000. In my next system I avoided using the disk compression, instead adding a second hard drive when I needed more room. But it was a pain to keep some data on a separate D: drive from my boot C: drive.

My Desktop Computers’ Maximum Hard Drive Space

CPU Year Max. Capacity (GB)
1985 0.01
1990 0.14
1993 1.6
2000 85
2004 750
2009 1000

My last big leap in main drive capacity was the terabyte system in 2009, with two mirrored RAID 1 drives. Since then both of those hard drives have failed and been replaced, but it was proved difficult to get them reconfigured for RAID 1 mirroring. So now I have a 1-terabyte C: drive, a 1-terabyte D: drive I use as an in-the-case occasional backup, and several 1 or 2-terabyte portable drives I use for offsite long-term backups.

JPEGmini busily compressing my photos

JPEGmini busily compressing my photos

By mid-August 2014 the one-terabyte C: drive had about 275 GB of documents, 225 GB of digital photographs, 185 GB of music, and 200 GB of miscellaneous files and applications. That data horde is what remained after occasionally offloading data I didn’t expect to need again onto a 2-terabyte shared network drive which I don’t bother to back up. With formatting overhead, I was down to about 50 GB of free space on my desktop’s one-terabyte drive. 5% free space is not a good place to be. I certainly could prune some more data, since some documents date back to 1988 or earlier, but the big unified categories of data capacity usage were my huge collections of photographs and music. I’m not inclined to discard any of my photos, and my music is already-compressed MP3 and AAC files.

So when I heard about JPEGmini on the Home Theater Geeks podcast this week, I quickly tried out the utility, was suitably impressed, and bought it for $20 to optimize the JPEG compression settings throughout my digital photo collection. That has reduced the total space dedicated to photos from 225 GB to around 130 GB. So I have enough space to keep going with my five-year-old system without bothering with a drive capacity increase.

But what has really irked me is the hard drive speed bottleneck in my desktop system, even with fast 7200 rev/min drives. I have plenty of fast computer cores and lots of RAM, but after 5 years of use my Windows 7 machine takes forever to boot up and frequently bogs down because of Microsoft’s disk indexing services and the like. A lot of cruft builds up in a computer system when you install and use various programs and utilities and lose track of things, but even a clean install of Windows 7 and the applications I currently use would be limited by the data transfer rates of my hard drive. It used to be that adding RAM was the best way to speed up an older system, but now the best thing to do is to switch over to a solid state drive.

Hard disk to solid state

My MacBook Air introduced me to solid state drives back in 2010

My MacBook Air introduced me to solid state drives back in 2010

Solid state long-term storage first appeared in the form of USB keys. I’ve used a bunch of them over the years, and have some truly tiny ones with 8 GB of storage. But they were never my primary backup method; I just used them for portable storage. My introduction to the incredible speed and reliability of a solid state drive as the main drive was in my 2010 Apple MacBook Air. It remains my personal portable computer, and I am still surprised by how quickly it boots up and how it remains quite snappy despite its terribly outdated 1.6 GHz Intel Core 2 Duo microprocessor with 4 GB of RAM. That pales in comparison to the Intel i7-920 microprocessor with four 2.66 GHz cores in my five-year-old desktop computer with its 8 GB of RAM, but the MacBook Air seems brisk because of the speed of the solid state drive. And while I have backed it up a few times, I’ve never really worried about its data. Someday the solid state drive will reach its end of life and become unreliable at retaining data, but I’m pretty sure the computer will be so obsolete by then I will have already abandoned it.

Until now, capacity limits and costs prevented me from considering switching my desktop computer over to solid state storage. My MacBook Air’s solid state drive is only 128 GB, and I do not want to hassle with a solid state drive for booting, applications, and often-used data coupled with a separate spinning hard drive for the rest of my data. I want everything on the same drive, and I need a terabyte of storage to pull that off.

On a recent This Week in Tech podcast, guest Allyn Malventano mentioned his reviews of solid state drives and said that prices had fallen and Crucial had a one-terabyte solid state drive that was a good bargain. I verified that report and ordered the drive, along with an adapter kit to fit it into my desktop machine since it is sized for a laptop computer’s form factor.

In the next post I report on buying, installing, configuring, and using that drive in my 2009 desktop computer. As you have seen in this post, it is the latest link in a long chain of data leading back to my childhood. I’m hoping it will extend the use of my 2009 desktop computer for several more years.

 
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Posted by on August 16, 2014 in technology

 

Art Civi et Reipublicae

August 6, 2014

Recently I was in Norman on the campus of the University of Oklahoma, where I earned my bachelor’s degree over 25 years ago. I’ve been drawn to Norman on school-related business a few times over the years, but usually I only have found time to drive quickly by the various new and renovated buildings and campus improvements. My tourism has focused on the Sam Noble Museum of Natural History, which replaced the old Stovall museum in 1999.

But this time I had several free hours and my interest in art lured me back to the Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art. When I was an undergraduate, it was called the Fred Jones Jr. Memorial Art Center and restricted to an early 1970s building with outdated and somewhat dark and uninspiring galleries. Back in 2000 the university received the gift of the Weitzenhoffer Collection of French Impressionism, consisting of 33 works of art by Degas, Gauguin, Monet, Pissarro, Renoir, Toulouse-Lautrec, Van Gogh, Vuillard and others. It is the most important collection of French Impressionism ever given to an American public university, and in 2005 the new Lester Wing opened and became the home of that collection while providing much more space for other works of art.

OU’s Museum of Art (click image for slideshow)

I toured the wing before 2010 and liked the architecture but was underwhelmed by the Weitzenhoffer Collection, as I am not overly fond of Impressionism. So I had moderate expectations for this visit, but was happily surprised to find that the older section of the building had been expanded with several more gallery levels in the Stuart Wing, filled with a large collection of southwestern art and several temporary exhibits.

Mustang by Luis Jeminez

I noticed Adrian Arleo‘s ceramic Lead (Woman with Two Horseheads) with its odd striations, but Luis Jiménez‘s Mustang (Mesteño) with its glowing red eyes and blue-and-white body was a standout. Those eyes really add something to the fiberglass work. In the same gallery one will find the related lithograph. Both of these works relate to a larger one outside the Denver airport. Perhaps the Mustang is as evil as its red eyes make it appear: the artist was killed by a piece of the torso which fell as he sculpted the larger statue at his studio in New Mexico. His two sons, working with others, finished it.

Far less intimidating were a number of black-on-black pots by Maria Martinez, the San Ildefonso pueblo artist Wendy and I learned about during our stay in Albuquerque on the first of July. A wedding vase from 1929 and a huge lidded jar from 1967 showed the variations in her work with other artists over the decades.

Miniature Platter by Rebecca Lucario

Two small ceramic works by Rebecca Lucario of the Acoma pueblo were particularly striking in their studied intricacy. A miniature platter was covered in “eyedazzler” patterns which she painted with yucca grass and black slips, and a nearby vase showed similar creativity and attention to detail.

José de la Cruz “J.D.” and Sofia Medina, of the Zia pueblo, produced a nice Polychrome Jar with Dancers in the 1970s which depicted several different dancers on its white painted surface. I turned the corner from those happy scenes to be confronted by a Skeleton Figure Mask from Mexico.

Another sort of ambush was depicted in Henry Farny‘s Suspense, of gouache on paper from 1890. In it, an Apache waits in hiding to attack his adversary. I loved the expression on the Apache’s face.

Suspense close-up

The much larger Yeis in Chanting Procession by Tony Abeyta depicted three dancers in the cermonial guise of the Yéi or Holy People of the Navajo, likely involved in the Nightway ceremony of healing.

A large and quite striking oil painting was Hopi Snake Dance by Cornelia Cassady-Davis in 1897. The dancers are caught mid-step with snakes held in their mouths and hands, having just rounded a sacred rock. This painting once graced the El Tovar hotel on the rim of the Grand Canyon. You feel like the dancers are coming right at you as you stand in front of this fine work, being transported to the depicted surroundings.

The Stuart Wing

These works and much more grace the airy yet warm Stuart Wing. The more intimate Lester Wing has recreations of several rooms of the Weitzenhoffer home in Oklahoma City. So Impressionist paintings are joined by 18th century English furniture, Chinese export porcelain, and other antiques which Clara Weitzenhoffer left to the university. The dalmations I could well live without, but in the dining room I liked the bold lines and colors of Raoul Dufy‘s Paddock.

During a tour with Wendy of the museum, she pointed out Shoson Ohara’Nandina and Flycatchers in Snow from 1929, saying it reminded her of photos I’ve taken of my own nandinas in wintertime.

Bird on Sphinx

Having completed a tour of the interior, it was time for exterior sculptures. Out front, a bird was happily chirping atop Fernando Botero‘s typically bulbous Sphinx bronze, which squats outside the entrance to the Lester wing, its curves contrasting with the linearity of the building.

I’m not fond of that sculpture, a gift of Jerry Westheimer. Wendy and I both prefer the granite Interlocking Triptych by Jesús Bautista Moroles, which Westheimer also donated, grateful that it is the backside of that one sees from inside the Stuart Wing, and not the backside of the Sphinx. Across the street is Boyd House, where OU’s President Boren resides.

On the opposite side of the museum one finds Glenna Goodacre‘s white marble Bather, which is quite lovely, but quite still in contrast to the swirling liveliness of Kim Walker Ray‘s The Dance, a bronze ballerina tucked away on a small plaza for the Don Reynolds Performing Arts Center located south of the museum.

The Dance

A statue by Paul Moore of the university’s longest-serving president, George Lynn Cross, sits out in front of Evans Hall, the beautiful administration building of 1912 which anchors the north oval. Its Cherokee Gothic architecture is echoed in many of the university’s academic buildings, influencing the much more severe 1982 Neustadt Wing which is now the main entrance to the Bizzell Memorial Library. The E.T. Dunlap clock tower out front was a final construction project under the leadership of the somewhat controversial university president Bill Banowsky back when I was attending OU in the 1980s; we wags unkindly termed it “Banowsky’s Last Erection”.

Banowsky’s Last Erection

David Levy’s clippings

I ventured inside the library, where the large room filled with card catalogs back in my day now brims with computer terminals. But I was glad to find not everything had changed. Decades ago I prowled every corridor and stack of the library and was amused by how the door of professor David Levy’s office in a back hallway was plastered with funny newspaper headlines; the professor has retired, but the clippings are still there.

The latest wing at the art museum is just another example of how OU’s facilities continue to expand and improve, living up to its motto of Civi et Reipublicae: For the benefit of the Citizen and the State.

Click here for a slideshow from these visits

 
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Posted by on August 6, 2014 in art, photos, travel

 

Mobile site design tips

August 1, 2014

Browsing on small screens is a challenge

Browsing on small screens is a challenge

In the previous series of posts, I have outlined why the increasing number of mobile browsers being used on our school district websites led me to develop a new mobile website for the district. My next target was to build a similar mobile website for the high school, but my previous post described the problems our district has had with inconsistent websites, so I was determined that the two new mobile websites avoid those problems. I also needed to think about how to structure the high school mobile site to duplicate the functionality of the regular high school site, which is more complex than the district website, while keeping navigation easy and mobile-friendly.

In this post I discuss the deliberate design differences between the two mobile websites, features on the mobile site which helped address the complexity of the regular site’s navigation and content for small screens, the issue of when and how to redirect visitors to a mobile site, and designing alerts for the mobile site.

Similar but different

I needed to walk a fine line on how to make the two new mobile websites similar but different. I couldn’t make the high school mobile site look just like the district site, or users would become confused as to which site they were using. But I also did not want the shift from one to the other to be too jarring.

For the homepages, I used the same color scheme to unify the designs. But I used a different background color for the headers and adorned each homepage with a different upper-left corner graphic. I also used a different style of search and back buttons in the headers for the two sites.

UPDATE: Later I changed the styling of the upper right header icons at the high school site to resolve some issues with title text.

If you play “What is different?” you should also pick up on how I deliberately inset all of the main buttons on the high school website, whereas the district site’s buttons extend across the full width of the mobile screen.

The most obvious difference was how I included on every page of the high school mobile site, including the homepage, a horizontal button bar at the bottom of the header. It matches the primary entries in the regular site’s top horizontal button bar with its entries for News, Bulletin, Calendar, and Contact. While having these functions always readily accessible is nice, I was really more motivated by how that would distinguish the high school site from the district one, which has no recurring button bar in its headers.

A button bar in the header distinguishes the high school mobile site

Different header colors and buttons distinguish the two mobile sites, along with the high school site’s header button bar

That way, no matter where you are in either site, there are several distinguishing characteristics to help keep you oriented. The limited screen size meant I did not want to expand the header to include more than a simple title on each page. People are always reluctant to scroll, so it is important to keep as many buttons visible as possible on the initial pageload. Below is a comparison of pages situated one level deep at each of the sites; note the various subtle changes.

Different headers and buttons help distinguish the two mobile sites

I also used full-width buttons on the district site versus inset buttons on the high school site

When visitors did scroll down far enough to hide the header, I still wanted visual clues as to which site they were using. The inset buttons on the high school site were my solution, plus a different color scheme and button style for the footer. Since the footer concludes a page, I felt free to add “Bartlesville Public School District” to the district footer below its discrete buttons, but felt that adding “Bartlesville High School” to the high school footer’s button bar did not blend well with its rectangular design. So I put “BHS” on the central button itself.

UPDATE: Later I discovered how to keep the header visible at all times and opted to do that, although I kept the high school site’s button bar out of that always-visible header.

The footers of each site are also quite different

The footers of each site are also quite different


Navigational differences

Resources page links appear only on the homepage of the BHS mobile site

Resources page links appear only on the homepage of the BHS mobile site

The comparison of the two footers also points out a navigational difference between the two sites. The high school site includes in its footer a direct link to the district’s mobile site, but of course the district site doesn’t return the favor.

Instead it just has a little information button which gives me credit for the site, provides an email link for feedback, and provides brief instructions for converting the mobile site into a homepage icon on iOS and Android mobile devices. That same information is more hidden on the high school site; it appears as a “Website issue?” entry in the Frequently Asked Questions nested lists in the various Resources pages.

Those Resources pages provide specific sets of links for students, parents, staff, alumni, and visitors. They’ve been a part of the high school site since 2009 and are thus carried over to the lower part of the mobile site’s homepage. They are a good example of the space dilemma one confronts on a mobile site, which does not concern me much on a regular site with plenty of screen real estate. While on the regular site you can always see those resources links along with several other sets of links, the mobile site steadily displays only a select group of links.

More complex navigation at BHS

The high school’s regular site has three main navigation areas: key functions in a top-of-page button bar, links to specific programs in a “Life at BHS” left sidebar, and the audience-targeted Resources links below that on the left sidebar. This is considerably more complex than the navigation at the district’s regular website, where everything is sorted into six areas with a single horizontal button/menu bar below the header (plus groups of links buried way down in the footer).

The more complex navigation layout for the high school’s regular website reflects the great quantity and depth of information on it; in some cases the links nest into one another four levels deep. For example, information on facility additions made in each decade are shown under:

About BHS > Facility History > Campus Additions > 1990s, etc.

To keep people from getting lost down there, selecting “About BHS” reveals a second left sidebar for that link’s entries there. Picking one of those links then reveals a nested button list of additional choices. I like using vertical sidebars for this because it keeps the various choices visible while also providing a continual reminder of where you are at in the structure by using boldface list entries, nested bulleted lists, and > signs. This is more powerful than simply displaying a linked chain of nested choices, a la “About BHS > Facility History > Campus Additions > 1990s.”

Multiple left sidebars on the regular BHS site keep visitors oriented in the deeper levels of the structure

Multiple left sidebars on the regular BHS site keep visitors oriented in the deeper levels of the structure

All that has worked fine for the regular site, but a mobile site doesn’t have that luxury. No one wants to click on tiny text links which are always displayed; you want whatever you are looking at to be the main focus and to rely more on scrolling than anything else to stay oriented.

So on the mobile site I dropped all of the visible left-sidebar links; you have to go back to the mobile homepage to reach another “Life at BHS” area or access a different audience-targeted Resources page. But those links are always just one click away using either the Homepage button at the top left or bottom left of each page. Notice how they are both on the left side; consistency is important to website visitors.

I used thumbnail list buttons for photos

I used thumbnail list buttons for photos

And sometimes I just didn’t try to convert things into mobile format; the high school site’s extensive entries on school and facility history have no mobile equivalent. If you select them from the mobile site, it just plops you back in the regular site. The message is that if you want to read all of that text, go get a bigger screen. But for more visual items, such as the collection of facility photos, I did take the time to build out an elaborate set of pages with a link to every photo. And each of those links includes a thumbnail view of the photo it links to. That lets users select based on the photo itself as well its description. Selecting a photo link displays the photo, with a caption, in a pop-up window resized to the device display. That avoids creating another page and is visually and operationally more simple than using an accordion list, a feature discussed below.

Choosing what to include and what to omit

I also took the time to create full mobile versions of the faculty and staff listings, both the long alphabetized list and a departmentalized one, with the latter adding thumbnail photos and buttons for email and web links. Again what you include depends on your goal and the screen size: someone using the long alphabetized list is probably just searching for an email link, so don’t lengthen that list with thumbnails and big buttons. Just include a job title to help reassure them they have the right person.

Someone looking at the departmentalized groups is likely more interested in things like a photo and web links. Also note how the email buttons in the alphabetized list have labels showing the person’s email address username, reflecting the focus of that listing, while the departmentalized groups go for easy navigation with a big “Email” button. The limited screen size meant that the buttons in the alphabetized list had to be smaller so that long usernames could fit without line-wrapping an entry; for a long list you want to keep the entries a consistent size for easier navigation.

The long alphabetized list omits the thumbnails and buttons shown in the shorter departmentalized groups

The long alphabetized list omits the thumbnails and website links shown in the shorter departmentalized groups


Accordion lists

So what else does the mobile site use to tame the navigational complexity? One trick I used a lot was expanding “accordion” lists. Those are single or grouped buttons which don’t load another page when tapped, but instead open up to reveal information or another set of links. That allows the mobile site to have fewer pages while keeping a page from getting too long. You expand the page only when asked, plus when someone opens another area in the same accordion group, the previously open area closes as a new one opens. That keeps the page from expanding again and again to awkward length and speeds up navigation. The user can scroll just outside of the currently opened item to quickly select other items above or below it, and also scroll more quickly to the header or footer.

All that is well and good, but the user has to realize how it works. So you want the accordion list to be clearly different from a regular button that goes to another page. jQuery swaps out the usual > icon at the right edge of a button with two different icons on the left end of accordion buttons. A + icon appears on closed items and a – icon on open ones. That is pretty clear guidance as to what is going on.

jQuery also automatically insets accordion lists, but on the high school site I was already insetting entries and I didn’t like mixing full-width buttons with inset accordions on the district site, so the insets wouldn’t help distinguish the accordions. Thus I chose, on both mobile sites, to emphasize that accordion lists were different by changing the colors of their buttons. I made them blue so that when an item opened up, the blue buttons of the neighboring accordion items would form obvious borders to the opened content. That would help folks realize what was going on when they scrolled out of larger opened items.

Accordion lists are a great tool for mobile sites

Accordion lists are a great tool for mobile sites

The FAQ accordions use smaller buttons to fit more questions on the screen

The FAQ accordions use smaller buttons to fit more questions on the screen

The screenshots show I used accordion lists both for sets of links and textual information. On the right is an example of a nested set of accordions; a large “Sponsored Student Activities” entry is part of an initial accordion list, but when you open it you find another set of accordion entries for the various organizations. That lets you build a lot of information into a small display space without requiring endless scrolling.

A variant on the nested accordion is the FAQs on each resource page; I used the “data-mini=’true'” option there to fit more of the FAQs onto the screen. The smaller button also reduced the size of the button text, allowing me to squeeze more question text onto each button.

Form select menus

Another trick I used to squeeze more onto the screen was form select menus. Website forms include various functions such as text input bars, radio buttons, checked items, sliders, toggle switches, etc. But the select menu is what interested me. A form will then display, using the operating system’s own formatting if you like, a list of items the user is to pick from. This is best used for a list of closely-related items which is too long to comfortably fit on the screen.

I used this type of input for state report cards on the district site, since there are so many different groups of them and every group had the same list of school sites. Accordion lists were not a good choice in that case because one expanded entry would look just like another: a long list of the same sites. You could easily get confused as you scrolled back and forth.

By using a select menu, I could keep more of the different groups of reports cards visible and let the device’s software provide the most convenient method of selecting an item. For example, opening a select menu on an iPhone produces the three-dimensional illusion of a scroll wheel of items on its small screen, whereas opening the same menu on an iPad produces a text box of entries for you to pick from on its larger display. The iPhone’s styling makes it easy to scroll and select an item with your thumb as you hold the phone. The iPad is likely used two-handed or while propped on something, so tapping with a finger on an item in a smaller text box is more practical on it than on a tiny phone.

Form select menus render differently on iPhones versus iPads

Form select menus render differently on iPhones versus iPads


“Go Back” buttons and a deliberate inconsistency

The homepage swaps the go-back button for an escape hatch

The homepage swaps the go-back button for an escape hatch

Another important navigational feature of a mobile website is the “Go Back” button, which displays the previously viewed page. In an environment with limited navigational controls, users often want to return to where they just were to select a different item or re-orient themselves. Nowadays many mobile browsers, such as Safari on iOS, maximize the screen real estate for a webpage by hiding the usual address bar and forward/backward web navigation buttons. That meant I chose to include a “Go Back” button at the top right of every page of each of the mobile sites to make that an easy option for the user.

But that isn’t quite true; there is one page at each site which lacks a “Go Back” button…the homepage. Why did I create this obvious inconsistency? Because the homepage is special; it is the anchor for all of the site’s navigation. You can go back to the homepage, but then you are not allowed to easily “Go Back” to a different level in the webpage’s structure. That emphasizes that the homepage is the starting point and also prevents someone from tapping the “Go Back” button repeatedly and having page-load latency mean they start looping wildly through the site.

So on the homepage I replaced the “Go Back” button with a large labeled button that takes you to the regular website. That killed two birds with one stone: it got rid of the “Go Back” button on the homepage while replacing it with an important feature for that page: the escape hatch. I will soon begin redirecting anyone who visits the regular websites’ homepages on a small screen to the corresponding mobile homepage. Below I’ll explain why I’m being so pushy, but I also know that anytime I force someone down a different path, I had better provide an escape hatch in case they didn’t WANT to be redirected.

Sometimes people don’t want to be on the mobile site; they want the regular site even on their tiny screen. So a mobile site should always include an escape hatch on every page; I included it not only at the top of the homepage but also in the footer on every page of the mobile sites.

Will that mobile user really be happy about the redirect?

Will that mobile user really be happy about the redirect?


The controversy on mobile site redirects

Informed people argue back and forth about whether someone trying to access a regular website on a mobile device ought to be redirected to the mobile-friendly site or not. Since many people will not discover the mobile-friendly site on their own, and it improves the web experience so much on tiny browsers, I think folks should be redirected to it when they are using a small screen. But you have to include an escape hatch in case they prefer the regular site, get confused, or somehow the redirection occurs when it shouldn’t.

Once I decided I did want to redirect, the next question was when and how. Web browsers include in their page requests information about the viewing screen size, the browser make and model, and the device. Any of that information can be falsely reported, but it does let you detect when someone reports that they are using a certain browser, device, or screen size. So when do you decide to force a redirect?

Some people argue that you should only redirect specific devices. For example, redirect iPhones but not iPads; redirect iOS and Android devices, but leave alone less popular devices which may not properly display the mobile site. Others argue that you base the decision on screen size, and I agree with that view.

I cannot take the time to maintain code to test for the latest and greatest in the blizzard of devices coming onto the market. And the whole point of the mobile site is to make things easier on small screens. So I wanted the redirects to occur when the screen size was smaller than a tablet’s typical resolution, thus targeting smartphones.

As for how to accomplish the redirect, the simplest choice seems to be this bit of Javascript code in the webpage header of a regular site’s page:

<script type=”text/javascript”>
if (screen.width <= 720) {
window.location = “mobile/default.html”;
}
</script>

If someone loads the page while on a device with a display that is less than 721 pixels wide, they’ll be redirected to the mobile website. I plan to activate this code on the homepages of the respective regular websites, but I did not want to do that without warning. No one likes big surprises, especially the average joe who is not overly familiar with web interfaces.

Of course redirection really isn’t as simple as the above code snippet. If that were all I did, then problem a) would occur: someone using the link on the mobile site to see the regular homepage would just be redirected back to the mobile site again. That has to be prevented, along with problem b): someone on a mobile device selecting the regular homepage, navigating elsewhere on the site, then returning to the homepage only to be redirected again to the mobile site. Problem b) is fairly common merchant sites, even large operations, and it is very annoying.

I could alter the links to the regular homepage throughout the mobile site so that the redirection code is disabled when they are used, but that would only fix problem a). Setting a session “cookie” that requests the regular site instead of the mobile site is a better solution. (A “cookie” is a bit of information you ask the user’s browser to remember for you; session “cookies” only last during a given session with the browser, while permanent “cookies” are stored for use in future sessions.) I might also use a “landing page” approach where small-screen users hitting the regular homepage are always asked if they prefer to see the mobile or the regular site before proceeding, with a timer that eventually kicks them to the mobile site if they don’t respond. I’m not used to doing any of this, since the only redirection I’ve used previously is a simple timed or immediate redirection to a new page when someone visits a page that has been superceded by some replacement located elsewhere.

A mobile link was added to the header of every page on the regular site

A mobile link was added to the header of every page on the regular district site

All of this complexity meant that when the mobile websites launched, I did NOT include the redirect at first. Instead I mentioned in the news announcement about the sites that in a couple of weeks users on small screens would be redirected, with an immediate reassurance that a link back to the regular website would be available on every page of the mobile sites. That provides a sense of fair warning. Meanwhile, I added a mobile link to every page of the regular sites so that folks could trigger the mobile site if needed. And I made sure the various links between the regular and mobile websites matched up: the mobile button on the regular search page takes you to the mobile search page, while the regular-site button on the mobile search page takes you to the regular-site search page, and so on throughout the sites. This helps users recognize that every page has an equivalent on the other site and access it more readily..

The high school site header bar also got a new mobile link

The high school site header bar also got a new mobile link

I decided to not include a redirect on pages other than the homepage. I did not want to drop someone into the mobile site willy-nilly; a forced redirect only occurs on the homepage. That way if someone uses a link to a sub-page on the regular site, they’ll always see the same thing. I don’t want links to sub-pages to give varying results; that sows confusion. And if someone is going to save and distribute links to sub-pages, I want those to go to the regular site, not the mobile site: the mobile site is NOT suitable for a large-screen display. Someone on a small screen who follows a link to the regular site can always invoke the mobile site with the links I’ve included in every regular page’s header.

UPDATE: When I implemented redirection for both of the mobile sites on 8/14/2014, I used a script installed only on the homepage of each regular website. The script checks the screen size and if it is less than 721 pixels it displays a dialog box. The visitor chooses “OK” to be redirected to the mobile site or “Cancel” to stick with the regular site. The script is smart enough to notice if the visitor just came from the mobile site’s homepage and in that case suppresses the dialog box and displays the regular homepage. This approach avoided having to modify every link to the regular sites on the mobile sites to include a cookie and then having to check and clear a cookie to avoid redirection loops. I think visitors can tolerate the minor inconvenience of the dialog box appearing when a visitor tries to visit the regular homepage on a small screen.

Alerts

BHS Mobile alert page

BHS Mobile alert page

Another precaution for the forthcoming redirection of small screen users is that I put a “New mobile website” alert button on the mobile website homepages. That provides an explanation for when the redirects begin and for folks who stumble into the mobile site on their own. Alerts are important for these sites for notifying visitors of inclement weather closures, vital deadlines, etc. I use blue and red-bordered text boxes for alerts on the regular high school site’s homepage, and a scrolling marquee on the district site’s homepage. Those elements simply disappear if no alerts are in effect. For mobile, it was obvious to put a big yellow button for an alert right below the header area. But then what?

Should the alert button link to a pop-up box? How about a separate page, kept in its own file on the server? Neither of those options worked out, although I tried both of them. I thought a pop-up box made sense, but when I implemented it in jQuery Mobile 1.2.0, closing that pop-up box was a problem. Sometimes I fumbled with the close target on my iPhone, and I noticed that re-invoking the alert made closure even more difficult. Also, while I had used pop-ups to enlarge photographs on the site, they are problematic for text. What if the text exceeds the screen area? Do you really want to scroll a pop-up? That isn’t intuitive.

So I gave up on pop-up alert boxes and tried invoking a dialog box loaded from a separate server file. That also suffered from the hard-to-close problem and the scrolling-box issue, and also meant I’d have to edit both the main mobile HTML file and a separate alert HTML file for each alert. That was too much work, especially since some alerts need to go up ASAP.

So I finally just had the button link to another internal page in the main HTML file, but coded that page’s header with a yellow theme, eliminated the usual header button bar on the high school site, and included a dedicated button at the bottom of the alert text to return to the homepage. Each of those changes would emphasize that an alert was important, different, and fell outside the usual navigational structure of the site.

That wraps it up

That wraps up my five consecutive posts on web development:

If you are a school district patron, I hope you enjoy using the new mobile websites. A lot of thought, care, and time went into their design and development; I sure hope it pays off for you.

 
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Posted by on August 1, 2014 in technology, web design

 
 
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