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Tightly Wrapped Expertise: A Review of Books

© 1999 Lawrence I. Charters

Washington Apple Pi Journal, November/December 1999, pp. 40-45, reprint information

Hardware and software publishers used to include tons of documentation with their products. Almost 20 years ago, the Osborne-1 (the first transportable computer) included somewhere between 15 and 20 full manuals for the word processors, spreadsheets, database programs, utilities and operating system packaged with the machine. By weight, they were a large fraction of the considerable weight of the Osborne-1 itself.

But those times have changed. Extensive study of millions of computer users reveals that the users don't pay much attention to the included documentation. Over 90% of all help calls to hardware and software manufacturers concern issues that are clearly documented in the manuals provided with the product. Apple, along with most other computer manufacturers, has tried to adjust to this fact by including electronic documentation pre-installed on their computers, in the form of extensive context-sensitive help and Acrobat files, and getting rid of the paper manuals. Cost, of course, is also an issue, since manuals that people won't read cost money to write, edit, print, and ship.

But if you wander into almost any good-sized bookstore, you can't help but notice ever-growing computer book sections. Why, if people won't read computer manuals, do they buy computer books?

Peachpit Press, a leading computer publisher, made a gamble: they believed that many computer manuals took too long to get to the point, and didn't include enough examples. So several years ago they created the Visual QuickStart series, with some common characteristics to each volume: (1) the book has a finite subject (one application program or suite of programs), (2) the book has a good table of contents and cross-referenced index, and (3) the book is broken down into illustrated, step-by-step instructions aimed at accomplishing specific tasks. None of the Visual QuickStart books have lengthy narratives talking about theory or philosophy or market trends or the author's pet elephant.

The gamble paid off: the Visual QuickStart series is a hit. Almost every computer book section in every bookstore has an extensive selection of these pastel-colored volumes. All the books that follow belong to this series, so keep in mind that all have a nice table of contents, good index, extensive illustrations and tight subject matter focus, unless otherwise indicated. Also, mentally insert the phrase Visual QuickStart Guide before each book title.

AppleScript for the Internet

Ethan Wilde's volume is something of a curiosity: he isn't tackling just AppleScript, which is by itself a worthy cause, but a more specialized subset: AppleScript for the Internet. Over the past decade, Apple's scripting language has grown up, and been applied to increasingly larger tasks. There are few subjects larger than the Internet, but even in the "early days" AppleScript was used to construct CGI (Common Gateway Interface) routines, the "glue" programming between a Web server and some more specialized task, such as verifying a credit card number or displaying the time.

Wilde approaches the subject with enthusiasm, showing you how to use AppleScript for a variety of tasks. In the beginning, these almost all involve routine desktop tasks for your Mac; he doesn't get around to discussing the Internet until Chapter 5. CGIs -- the most prominent application of AppleScript on the Internet -- aren't covered until Chapter 11. By the time he gets to Chapter 24 (all the chapters are relatively short), he has managed to apply AppleScript to everything from QuarkXPress and Windows NT to Netscape and Eudora Pro.

On a personal note, I purchased this book in an airport bookshop, while waiting and waiting and waiting for a plane to take off. Without a Macintosh handy to try some of the scripting, the book was quite frustrating. Don't do this; buy a science fiction novel or a murder mystery unless you have a PowerBook or iBook handy. The book is far more interesting when you can experiment with some of Wilde's scripts.

AppleWorks 5 for Windows and Macintosh

AppleWorks is included with every iMac and iBook, but without any printed manual. True, there are various help files, but the help files are comically short of examples of how to do various things. Like most help files, they are also linear in nature: they assume the user is fairly "normal" and tends to concentrate only on "normal" tasks.

C. Ann Brown makes no such assumption: she assumes you want to do everything under the sun with AppleWorks. After covering every module of the program, and showing some clever interactions between the modules, you'll begin to believe it can do everything, too.

An important note: this book was reviewed in Washington Apple Pi Journal once before, under its former name of Visual QuickStart Guide: ClarisWorks 5 for Windows and Macintosh. Aside from an extensive search and replace edit (obliterating ClarisWorks in favor of AppleWorks), the books are identical; if you have the earlier version, this version will add nothing at all.

Claris Home Page 3 for Windows and Macintosh

Much like AppleWorks 5, Claris Home Page 3 is a program often bundled with a computer or another piece of software, usually with minimal documentation. This is a pity since some of the best features of Home Page, such as the FileMaker Connection Assistant, are none too obvious.

Sad to say, Richard Fenno doesn't spend much time on the Connection Assistant or FileMaker. He does, however, cover the rest of Home Page quite thoroughly, and virtually any user should have no difficulty using the program to create Web sites. Home Page is a strange gem in the rough; now sold by FileMaker, Inc. and in need of an update, it is slower than it should be and not as sexy as, say, CyberStudio. But it pumps out nice, clean HTML (HyperText Markup Language), with no strange compatibility problems. This also describes Fenno's book: with it as a guide, you should have no trouble pumping out nice, clean Web pages.

The index, however, is unimaginative, and it frequently takes quite a bit of searching to find what you need. While the essence of the Visual QuickStart series is nice, lean text, Fenno should have tried for a bit more gentle padding.

Eudora for Windows and Macintosh

Though it was published two years ago, Eudora for Windows and Macintosh is still a useful book as both an introduction to E-mail and a reference to a constantly-surprising program. While Eudora started life on the Macintosh and only later moved to Windows, the interface for the program isn't particularly "Mac-like" and has never been its strength, and even veteran users are forever discovering hidden talents.

Adam Engst, the author of this QuickStart guide, brings a lengthy resume to the task of explaining Eudora. Years ago, when the Internet was not exactly young but before it "went commercial," Engst and his girlfriend started TidBITS, one of the oldest electronic magazines. Each week, they sent out a newsletter to an E-mail mailing list that started with hundreds of names and eventually grew to tens of thousands of names. Drafting, polishing and mailing E-mail messages is something that Engst can honestly claim to have rare expertise.

Aside from a repetitive style (in part demanded by the coverage of both the Macintosh and the similar, but not identical, Windows versions), the book does thoroughly cover both the Lite and Pro versions of Eudora. Particularly valuable are the illustrations showing how to fill out the almost inexhaustible range of options -- for everything -- that the program offers.

In the introductory material, Engst briefly credits Steve Dorner, the University of Illinois programmer who created the first versions of Eudora, back in the days when the program was free (and before Steve joined Qualcomm, the current publisher). How quickly time flies…

Recommended if you use Eudora for E-mail.

Excel 98 for the Macintosh

Microsoft Office 98 for the Macintosh includes three applications: Word 98, Excel 98 and PowerPoint 98. Two of these -- Word and Excel -- are the de facto standards of the corporate world, but all are poorly served by the sparse Microsoft documentation which, while tastefully done, says almost nothing.

Maria Langer's volume on Excel 98 is, bar none, the best compact reference and introduction to Excel. If you know how to use Excel (or any other spreadsheet, for that matter), you can quickly find the information you need to get up to speed in Excel 98. If you've never used a spreadsheet before, she can take you from raw beginner to a confident beginner in just a few pages, and to journeyman status by the end of the book.

A great many people never really learn how to use Excel, misusing it as a database program, or as a nifty way to draw grids on the screen. A fairly large number of users have never tried to set up even simple calculations with this, one of the world's premier calculators. If you fall into this category (and over half of all Microsoft Office owners do), this book can open up an entire new world, quickly and clearly. Highly recommended.

Adobe GoLive 4 for Macintosh and Windows

When GoLive CyberStudio 3.1 disappeared from the scene, swallowed by Adobe, it took a few months for GoLive to emerge in its new Adobe colors, with a new version number: 4.0. What was the big change between 3.1 and 4.0? The version number.

Which may actually be a good thing. GoLive has a very steep learning curve, so adding a bunch of new features would probably be counter-productive. With more palettes than a veteran artist and more icons than an old Russian Orthodox church, GoLive requires at least two monitors and a couple months in solitude to master.

Sadly, reality is rarely this accommodating, so if you find yourself with a short deadline, a large Web site, and a copy of GoLive 4, grab this book. Shelly Brisbin approaches her topic with enthusiasm and common sense: while the title mentions Windows, virtually all the screen shots and examples are from a Macintosh. (GoLive works the same way, for the most part, on both platforms, but most users of the program prefer to use it on Macs.)

One great surprise: the book really is a new edition. Brisbin had written a QuickStart guide for GoLive CyberStudio 3.1, and given the fairly minor differences (beyond modifying the name and changing the publisher) between 3.1 and 4.0, I was expecting few differences in the text. Such is not the case; the book has been extensively reorganized. A fairly useless chapter on working with color was dropped, and chapters on DHTML and style sheets were added, with extensive reorganization and rewriting of virtually everything else. One further change would make the next edition even more interesting: some clear icons or other visual indicators alerting users to differences between Netscape, Internet Explorer, Windows and Macintosh dialects of HTML.

HTML 4 for the World Wide Web

Elizabeth Castro does explicitly address the browser and computer dialect problem in the latest version of her best-selling guide to HTML. While users of graphical HTML editors, such as Home Page, GoLive, Dreamweaver and others, may never need to see what is "under the hood," most advanced and professional Web designers, and all site managers, need to know far more about HTML.

HTML is actually nothing more than text: simple, unformatted text. Equally simple "tags" act as commands to your browser to load pictures, change the background color, display paragraphs and other simple tasks. A page full of such tags looks intimidating, and can take a while to dissect and see how it works but, in the end, it is just text. And all the high-end graphical HTML editors do little more than create text files.

Once you understand this, the value of Castro's book is much more apparent. She takes the HTML 4 specification (and yes, there were HTML 3.2, 2, 1.1 and 1.0 specifications before it) and explains how to use it to good effect. Forms, tables, lists, images, multimedia and other topics each have their own chapters. Icons are used to alert the reader to Netscape or Internet Explorer-specific differences. While she doesn't take sides in the browser wars, she does drop hints on things the reader should devote more than the usual amount of care and attention.

There are appendices on the usual subjects: lists of HTML editors and other tools, and lists showing how to embed color codes and special characters in pages. But one real gem is her nicely organized list of tags, with brief descriptions of their use and, most important of all, a code listing their status as being HTML 4 supported, deprecated (supported but discouraged), or Netscape or Internet Explorer specific. This appendix is extremely handy when you are struggling to find out why a page looks different, or doesn't display at all, when using different browsers.

True gurus will also want to track down and keep the previous version of this work, since it is devoted to HTML 3.2. A vast number of Internet users are using machines that lack the memory or horsepower to run an HTML 4-compliant browser, so if you want to provide universal access, you may wish to stay with HTML 3.2 for some time to come.

Illustrator 8 for Windows and Macintosh

Way back in the days when Apple introduced the original PostScript printer, the Apple LaserWriter, there were very few tools for doing things with the PostScript language. Few applications really understood PostScript, and in fact almost all books on PostScript were devoted to programming: how to write PostScript programs and send them directly to the printer for execution and printing. Adobe Illustrator changed all of this: as the first commercially successful PostScript editor with a pure graphical interface, PostScript left the world of programmers and entered the world of graphic artists and designers.

The early versions of Illustrator were, unfortunately, brutally obscure. Yes, the program had a graphical interface, but it wasn't all that easy to actually do something. People who knew how to draw found it baffling; those who didn't know how to draw found it baffling, too. When Freehand was first introduced, its major claim to fame was that it was easier to use than Illustrator.

Either through familiarity over time or genuine improvements, the current version, Illustrator 8, seems vastly improved. But it still needs a good, solid, step-by-step guide to help the non-experts absorb some aspects of the program, and Elaine Weinmann and Peter Lourekas do an excellent job of providing that guide.

This Visual QuickStart guide, however, is not a quick replacement for talent and skill. The introduction to Chapter 11 has this sobering statement: "Mastering the pen tool -- Illustrator's most difficult tool -- requires patience and practice." How discouraging. Fortunately, you can do wonders with filters, type tools and a few well-defined tricks using nothing more than Illustrator and this book; talent, skill, practice and patience are optional. The excellent index and internal cross-referencing aid in skipping over the hard parts.

Java for the World Wide Web

One of the weakest Visual QuickStart books is Dori Smith's volume on Java. Part of the weakness is due to the subject -- Java is a programming language, and doesn't lend itself to a visual guide for non-specialists -- and part of it is due to sectarian violence.

Over the past couple of years, much has been written about Microsoft's allege plot to sabotage any and all potential competitors. One serious allegation concerned Java: Microsoft signed an agreement with Sun Microsystems that allowed Microsoft to develop Java programs, for free. In return, all Microsoft had to do was make sure the programs followed the Java standard. Microsoft almost immediately violated this agreement by creating proprietary versions of Java that wouldn't work outside of their Windows operating system.

Well, it turns out: the allegations were true. Federal prosecutors supported their recent anti-monopoly case against Microsoft by introducing truckloads of evidence showing the company willingly violated their agreements with Sun. Sun, in separate legal proceedings, succeeded in having a lengthy restraining order placed on Microsoft, prohibiting the company from calling programs "Java" unless they actually met the Java standards.

Meanwhile, many companies have grown disenchanted with Java. Senior managers attended seminars touting Java's "write once, run on many platforms" promise. Then they read critical press reports saying the promise was overblown. Without really understanding the issues, they decided the naysayers were right and backed away from the Java Holy Grail.

None of this, of course, has a thing to do with Java as a programming language. It still has some outstanding advantages over other languages and, when used appropriately, is often the best possible tool for many tasks. But Smith's book is not the appropriate vehicle for teaching people how to use this tool.

While the book does have value to people who might be familiar with programming concepts, it really doesn't have enough depth to act as an introductory programming book. The examples are well written and presented well, but they tend to teach you how to write a particular Java servlet -- that servlet -- without the breadth necessary to write other, different servlets.

If you know how to program, it is worth considering. If you don't, you'll probably find it inadequate.

JavaScript for the World Wide Web, 3rd ed.

Often considered a sister of Java, or perhaps a different cousin, JavaScript has nothing to do with Java other than the first four letters of the name. Developed by Netscape as a browser scripting language, JavaScript is very useful in its own right. It just isn't Java.

Tom Negrino and Dori Smith do an excellent job covering JavaScript in this, the third edition of a best-selling book. One of the first subjects they cover is: JavaScript isn't Java. Then, towards the back of the book, they cover a related topic: not all versions of JavaScript are equal. While Netscape created JavaScript, Microsoft created their own version, which often isn't compatible with Netscape's, and called it JScript. Meanwhile Netscape submitted JavaScript to ECMA, an international standards body, and ECMA came up with a standard they call ECMA-262, better known as ECMAScript. ECMAScript is very close to Netscape's JavaScript, but not identical.

Given these constraints, Negrino and Smith do an excellent, entertaining job of showing how to develop programs (or scripts) in JavaScript, and warning the reader as necessary that some things don't work quite the same with different browsers. The result is a cross between an introductory programming book (focused on JavaScript, of course) and a gourmet cookbook.

Highly recommended for the more technically inclined Web authors, the companion Web site is also well worth a visit. Among other things, it contains source files for all the scripts in the book, which should save you many hours of typing and debugging typing errors.

Mac OS 8.6

By the time you read this, Mac OS 9 should be released, and Mary Langer may well have a new version of this book in the works. In the meantime, Langer's book on Mac OS 8.6 is an excellent reference.

Let's face it: when you bought Mac OS 8.6, you received next to no printed documentation. If you were a new user and followed Apple's on-screen instructions, you may have found the excellent electronic help stored on your hard drive. If you are a veteran Mac user, you probably ignored the help and plunged into doing whatever you wanted to do. In either case, you probably barely scratched the surface of what Mac OS 8.6 has to offer.

Langer approaches Mac OS 8.6 (and 8.5) very systematically, with chapters devoted to Finder basics, file management, using applications, using various included utilities, understanding the various things in the Apple menu, printing, networking, the Internet and troubleshooting. There is even an entire chapter -- a surprisingly interesting chapter -- on SimpleText, the ubiquitous text editor that seems to replicate itself, rabbit-like, in every folder on your Mac.

At least half, or more, of all questions posed at the Pi's monthly General Meetings could be answered by referring to this book. While it lacks the encyclopedic heft of some of the "Bible" or "Secrets" books, it also lacks the blatant padding typical of those volumes. In short: this book is highly recommended. Based on Langer's past performance, I'm even willing to recommend her Visual QuickStart Guide: Mac OS 9, even though I'm not sure she's writing one.

Microsoft Office 98 for Macintosh

For those who may detect a certain anti-Microsoft bias to this series of reviews, let it be known the reviews were written with Microsoft Word 98. The most commonly used component of Office 98, Word 98 gets first billing in Dan Henderson's guide to Office, and he covers it rather well.

Considering the dearth of written documentation supplied with Office, it is no surprise that Henderson's book is, to be brutally frank, much better. In discussing Word, he not only talks about its features, but also mentions more general topics, such as automatic text flow, automatic versus manual page breaks, and other issues of value to computer novices.

Similar coverage is given to Excel 98 and PowerPoint 98, and an additional section is devoted to using them in concert. The Excel coverage is not nearly as comprehensive as Langer's (mentioned above), nor is the Word coverage as comprehensive as a book devoted to the task. Novice users probably won't notice any lack, however, as he does cover virtually every major function.

For PowerPoint 98 users, his coverage is about as good as it gets; this sorry piece of software seems to have been boycotted by other authors. Clearly the weakest member of the Office family, Henderson avoids telling you how bad PowerPoint really is and instead tells you how to make it do useful things when it isn't busy crashing, hanging your machine, or mangling your presentation. For example, he reminded me that PowerPoint can do org charts, a capability I'd forgotten about after numerous losing battles with the application.

There are many other books on Office, but you'll actually read this one. Recommended.

Search Engines for the World Wide Web, 2nd ed.

Alfred and Emily Glossbrenner have been writing computer books for some time, and in fact wrote some of the first mass-market books on the Internet. Their first edition of this volume, however, was unsuccessful; it rarely covered anything a Web user couldn't discover on their own after a few minutes.

This second edition is a vast improvement. They cover a wide range of search engines, ranging from the general (AltaVista) to the highly specialized (such as Liszt Directory, an index of Internet mailing lists). Some of the "search engines," such as CDnow and Amazon.com, are commercial catalogs as much as search engines but, because of their usefulness, are properly included.

General search strategies and methodologies are discussed first, and then a chapter is devoted to each of the general-purpose search engines: AltaVista, Excite, HotBot, Infoseek, Lycos, and Yahoo. The chapters on the major search engines are filled with useful tips on how to use them, as well as a general overview of how that particular search engine works.

There are, however, still some major oversights. The discussion of AltaVista doesn't cover the wonderful host: and link: options, both of great value to Web site managers. There is no mention of Macintosh computers at all, and all the screen shots are from Windows. While not a sin in itself, this also means there is no mention of Sherlock, one of the best Internet search tools available, though several Windows-specific search tools (of lesser utility) are mentioned.

Despite the limitations, the book is recommended for advanced Web users and Web site managers.


Unlike most Visual QuickStart books, this volume has almost no graphics. Instead, the examples are command-line listings and text listings, in theory lacking the sex appeal of the graphical user interface. In spite of this "flaw," this is easily one of the best-written Visual QuickStart volumes, sprinkled with impish humor buried deep in its examples. Authors Deborah S. Ray and Eric J. Ray are, presumably, married to one another, and you get the impression the marriage is not boring; there are frequent, very subtle and very funny references the authors.

The topic, UNIX, is also unusual, since it is an open-ended universe rather than a compact, self-contained subject typical of other Visual QuickStart books. The authors freely admit there are multiple ways to do almost everything in UNIX, and that the book barely scratches the surface of what can be done.

What can you do with this book? You can learn enough to do common user tasks on a UNIX machine, from logging on and setting up your account preferences to copying files, directories and volumes. Particular attention is paid to some of the more useful and ubiquitous UNIX utilities; if you've ever wanted a short coarse in tar or ping or the basics of chgrp and chown, this is the book.

But why, you might ask, would a Mac maven want a book on UNIX? Aside from learning more about Mac OS X Server (which is, under the hood, UNIX), the Internet is built on UNIX: electronic mail, file transfer (FTP), the World Wide Web and many other things you commonly do with your Mac on the Internet were first done on UNIX. The largest Internet hosts, in fact, are still based on UNIX.

We all know that Macs are fun. With this book, UNIX seems like fun, too.


Ethan Wilde, Visual QuickStart Guide: AppleScript for the Internet. Peachpit Press, 1998, x, 339 pp., $17.95. ISBN 0-201-35359-8

C. Ann Brown, Visual QuickStar Guide: AppleWorks 5 for Windows and Macintosh. Peachpit Press, 1998, vii, 216 pp., $17.99. ISBN 0-201-35403-9

Richard Fenno, Visual QuickStart Guide: Claris Home Page 3 for Windows and Macintosh. Peachpit Press, 1998, xviii, 203 pp., $16.95. ISBN 0-201-69647-9

Maria Langer, Visual QuickStart Guide: Excel 98 for the Macintosh. Peachpit Press, 1998, xvi, 262 pp., $17.95. ISBN 0-201-35360-1

Shelly Brisbin, Visual QuickStart Guide: Adobe GoLive 4 for Macintosh and Windows. Peachpit, 1999. xii, 340 pp., $18.99. ISBN 0-201-35477-2

Adam C. Engst, Visual QuickStart Guide: Eudora for Windows and Macintosh. Peachpit Press, 1997. Xvi, 195 pp., $16.95. ISBN 0-201-69963-0

Elizabeth Castro, Visual QuickStart Guide: HTML 4 for the World Wide Web. Peachpit Press, 1998. 336 pp., $17.95. ISBN 0-201-69696-7

Elaine Weinmann and Peter Lourekas, Visual QuickStart Guide: Illustrator 8 for Windows and Macintosh. Peachpit Press, 1999. Xvi, 362 pp., $19.99. ISBN 0-201-35388-1

Dori Smith, Visual QuickStart Guide: Java for the World Wide Web. Peachpit Press, 1998. Xiv, 221 pp., $17.99. ISBN 0-201-35340-7

Tom Negrino and Dori Smith, Visual QuickStart Guide: JavaScript for the World Wide Web, 3rd ed. Peachpit Press, 1999. Xii, 292 pp., $17.99. ISBN 0-201-35463-2

Maria Langer, Visual QuickStart Guide: Mac OS 8.6. Peachpit Press, 1999. xviii, 330 pp., $17.99. ISBN 0-201-35472-1

Dan Henderson, Visual QuickStart Guide: Microsoft Office 98 for Macintosh. Peachpit Press, 1998. xvi, 283 pp., $18.95. ISBN 0-201-35351-2

Alfred and Emily Glossbrenner, Visual QuickStart Guide: Search Engines for the World Wide Web, 2nd ed. Peachpit Press, 1999. xiv, 274 pp., $17.99. ISBN 0-201-35385-7

Deborah S. Ray and Eric J. Ray, Visual QuickStart Guide: UNIX. Peachpit Press, 1998. xii, 354 pp., $17.99. ISBN 0-201-35395-4.

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Revised November 24, 1999 Lawrence I. Charters
Washington Apple Pi
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