Friday, September 26, 2008

Windows Vista References and Tips

Windows Vista wallpaper (by Microsoft)Image by Stijn Vogels via FlickrMicrosoft Windows Vista is no well quite well known, despite the lack of rave uproar that Windows XP was greeted with. Here are some Tips and References sites. Do be aware that some tips may be over ambitious or may be too clever in the long run - make a note of the tip before you implement it so that you remember how you got there. And as always, Backup Before You Fiddle

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Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Microsoft Access 2007 Tutorials on the Web

When I first started down this road to desktop databases in the 1980s with Knowledgeman, dBase II, Paradox 2.0, Reflex 1.0, I was figuratively on an isolated island of knowledge. The Web has changed that. Aside from the formal tutorials, transcripts and videos at the Microsoft Office Training portal, here are some direct links:
Table of Contents to various articles

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Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Things you'd prefer not to do in Access 2007

Now that the user interface has had a major makeover in Access 2007, there are ingrained habits that you should review and think of forgetting once you leave Access "classic"

  1. When you work with the Relationships Diagram, forget about working with the ouch! ancient modal dialog interface when adding tables to the Diagram Window (do we still call it a Window when it's like a Tabbed Pane?
    Just close that modal dialog and use drag and drop from the Navigation Bar.
  2. Don't open a table and hit Create > Forms > Create Form. We didn't do it that much formally in Access classic but even for teaching or demonstration, the new functionality enhancement is over the top. The Tabbed Window proposes the tablename as the Tab Name (Form.Caption), the faint of heart now have two tabs with the same name, the tablename is used as a proposed title in a textbox in the header section of the Form. Ugh!
    Just click on Create > Forms > Form Design and DIY - it will be a cleaner process.
  3. Don't tell people that Codd and Date said you can't combine aggregates and details of transactions in a query or a table. You can.
  4. Don't tell people that Codd and Date said there ain't such a thing as a multi-valued field. Dick Pick has just signalled from beyond. Yes, you might have trouble migrating that schema or table design to Oracle, but a query easily enough displays the de-Normalized View of a Table with Multi-Valued Fields.

Interesting facets of Access 2007

When I have more time, I'll write on:

And where did I see that in Office Help

Microsoft Office Help has evolved over the years. Those of you who started with Office 4.3 will have seen Win32 Help reach a pinnacle. You could bookmark it, it was not an annoying taskpane or another window that barged around the screen all over the place, it did not have enourmous icons and gadgets and it was fast - because it was designed for Intel 486 machines, pre Pentium I.

Office Help went really bad for a while, and in Office 2007, it's not so bad. 
  • You can set it to go to the Internet (slow but richer and more updated content) or go faster on local PC installed resources.
  • There is no cutesy Office Paperclip. Bob has retired. And the intelligent prediction or understanding of what you actually want help on has of course improved given the intervening years.
  • The font size is adjustable sharp and readable.
  • The library of books that Help searches is still large (unlike the old days - if you asked an Excel specific question, it gave you an Excel specific answer) but the richness now include even expert topics like Developer Help, Training Topics and so on.
But bookmarking or putting your finger on a Help Topic isn't something that the Help team perceive as very important in your life. You can do a few things other than bookmarking:
  • Print it to paper. S'right greenie, stop screaming at me. I'll take the three A4 ring binders worth of 1990s doco to the recycle bin, Ok?
  • Print it to One Note 2007. Eh? Yes, you have to buy One Note.
  • Print it to pdf. Eh? Yes, you have to buy some sort of pdf printer driver. Jeez...
  • Print it to XPS. Hmm. Yes, even on Windows XP, the Microsoft XPS printer driver can be installed. Maybe. If IE is not broken on your machine.
  • Right click in the help content and find out the web url (if you are using online content) and save it as a web browser bookmark.

Why Office 2007

An HP LaserJet 4200 dtns printerImage via Wikipedia
Office 2007 is the current edition of Office. It was designed by I guess, the younger generation in Microsoft and for us in the industry, it's an attempt to end the "oh, there's no need to buy new Office edition / train / learn / whatever" that we have been experiencing since Office 97. The user interface in substantially different and "Office Classic Menus" are not an option except for third party tack ons.

Design goals and approaches

  • Change from the classic menus - casual people and newbies repeatedly found them difficult to remember and navigate, they kept getting extend and new items were stuck on without consistency, major features were not in-your-face. Microsoft hired new generation Useability Experts like Jensen Harris and only a Useability Expert could have dreamt up the Office Button, The Ribbon, and the Quick Access Toolbar - for good or bad.
  • Encourage the next generation of document looks when printed out and displayed. We have been using Arial and Times New Roman now since Windows 3, which is pre 1995 when home laser printers were 300 dpi and cost AUD 1000. Now is 2008, we have home colour laser printers costing AUD 300, 22 inch LCD screens. And still we are using Arial and Times New Roman. For two reasons - looks as well are readability for the baby boomer generation, Microsoft hired Typographers and they have given us new fonts - Calibri, Cambria (my favourite) to take advantage of the quality and technology in display and print devices of 2008
  • Allow corporates and businesses to produce a consistent look to their documents, whether from Word, Powerpoint, Excel, Access. Except that as of right now, the corporates are selectively blind and obstinate. They have taken these years to establish their hop-skip and jump look using their in house IT experts and HOD (Heads of Department). They haven't seen any snowballing in the market to good looking documents, changing their look involves re-templating all their documents, in short, they're not keen on the expense of a better look and more readable documents. Microsoft in their existing documentation supplied with the product or online has not made it easy for these corporate IT staff and freelancers to gain traction on adopting Themes and updating Styles that are heavily featured in Word, Powerpoint, Excel. It looks like it is up to independents to explain and for enlightened to find the documentation.
  • An embracing of the next generation solution to putting your files on a LAN fileserver - yes, the next generation to Microsoft, is a Microsoft product, Sharepoint Server. Putting your files on a LAN fileserver is sooo 1995 - some people are still facing a challenge with it. The next generation document storage system - we have had a wishlist for a long time. It should have document versioning, check-in, check-out, it should speak to us to explain what the document is, what it is for, who put it there, when was the last time it was modified, tell the owner that we have just opened it so that he can tell us we opened the wrong file. Additionally, it should allow us to save to it even when we are not on the office premises, allow us to congregate over a virtual water cooler or tea room so that we can tell each other little things too brief to put in an email, allow us to read a discussion thread etc... etc... Whether Sharepoint is such a device, well, the corporates have to find out - right now, it's not snowballing except to the enlightened smaller corporates who have off site workers that stay offsite.
  • Significant enhancements to Microsoft Excel - ability to use more than one core of that dual core processor that is so common now, much larger spreadsheet limits, stop-look-go conditional formatting, enhanced Tables that reduce the risk of people sorting student names but not their marks...
  • Significant work on Microsoft Access - the Access team was in maintenance mode, no new work since 1997, this was the first time there is more than one person on the team (hearsay).
  • Significant wow looking visual text elements in Microsoft Powerpoint (actually the module is across all Office programs but Powerpoint is the program that showcases the wow.
  • Major extensions and re-architecture of Microsoft Word so that there is more control over Styles and Multi-Level Lists for Word gurus. Casual and first time users may feel that the program is indeed easier to drive if nothing else.
  • Adoption of the zipped, xml document file format. Open Source champions and archivists had long contended that Microsoft files of .doc, .xls were very proprietary and restrictive. Microsoft's response is to create new file formats, using XML and zipped them (because they would be larger) and publish them as Office Open XML. Indeed in the field, the Word .docx documents are a lot smaller to transmit by email than the older .doc formats.
  • Engineering the new Office documents to clearly either contain a macro or not contain a macro. This would be one additional defensive tool against malware masquerading as a Word document that would execute more easily under the .doc file format.
  • A revised and toughened ( read painful unless understood) macro security approach using Trusted Locations.
  • More emphasis on document preparation for distribution by corporates - Digital Signatures, Rights Management, purging of authoring metadata.

The crux is, do any or all these features work for you? Does even one feature make Office 2007 a viable purchase?

Once you commit, don't forget to check out:


Forgot to mention that quiet member of Office, Outlook 2007. It is majorly improved over earlier versions. It doesn't have an Office Button and a Ribbon on the main program, but Mail Item windows do. The major innovation is Categorisation of your items and Virtual Search Folders based on those Categorisations. I purchased third party add-ons that try to do this for Outlook 2003 and when Outlook 2007 was released, I abandoned them and just went with Outlook 2007. Third party Outlook Add-Ons and my Outlook never seem to get on well together.

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Why Access and not Excel

My creationImage by tripleascholar via Flickr People in my Intro to Access classes go through a lot of content in two days. It's always a challenge to provide the right balance of useful and useable information in balance with the existing skills, background, exposure and motivation of participants. That's what makes teaching so vital, so interesting, so alive.

Sometimes, an Excel proficient participant will ask Why is Access so complex? Why do I have to normalize tables, relate them and so on? Shouldn't the software Just Do It?

That's a valid question from their perspective and indeed, there are reasons why such and such a person or such and such a task might stay rooted in Excel rather than Access. You have to make a good choice of tool (after all, these things are just tools) for the relevant job.

Reasons to consider Access

  1. You have way too many columns in Excel. So much that you are scrolling the screen left and right until you have nausea.
  2. You have way too many rows in Excel. In Excel 2007, you can easily have more than the famous 65535 rows. But you're hitting the problem where you can't see the rows you want, you're afraid of accidentally stepping on some data whilst you are analysing and reporting and the machine is slowing down badly
  3. Your data needs more data entry validation than simply keying in and using Excel's cell validation rules allow. And Excel Forms are either not within your skill set to develop or they are not rich enough in features to do what you want.
  4. You want a no-buts simultaneous multiple operator data entry system. Excel 2007 has again upped the ante for simultaenous multiple operator data entry but there are still some buts.
  5. You have too many one to many facets in your data. One company has 1 to 50 employees. One class has 30 students. One student has four years of study, at least 3 units a year and so on.
  6. You want reports galore - you want this column here, that column there, grouped this way, aggregated that way - it's the same data but it's to be laid out differently. Yes, I know it sounds like Pivot Tables but Pivot Tables don't allow white space wherever you want it.

The big cheese

Because you have too many columns, too many facets to keep working in Excel, you can't just have Excel Plus Plus. Access has different approaches, different features, it isn't Excel Plus Plus.

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Access 2007 for newbies books

Microsoft Office Access ScreenshotImage via Wikipedia In an earlier post, I describe an Access VBA book that I just bought (reading it is another matter). Whilst teaching class, I was asked what Access 2007 books I would recommend. The Australian price for books has come down (or the price of computer books has come down) due to the currency exchange rate, so picking up a reference book, post course is an idea.

I would not recommend going to a book without going to at least a good Intro course, because a good class with participants sharing their thoughts and experience and a empathic instructor is really worth having in contrast to reading a 300 page tome.

Post course, however, a reference book is worthwhile as it is another learning approach. Which book though? A search to Amazon shows these candidates:
I'll post an update once I have thumbed through some pages. My interim advice? Pick one that does not put you to sleep or force you to wade through verbosity.

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Monday, September 1, 2008

Microsoft Access Security

Access 1.Image via Wikipedia

My advice to class participants is simple -

If you don't have a need for paranoia security with Microsoft Access, stay away from implementing Access Security.

For beginners and the faint of heart, getting the database running with the features that you want is already and achievement. Putting on a security blanket makes work that much harder.

Simple file security

  • Put the database on one PC and use normal Windows workstation or Domain security to block unauthourised access.
  • If you need to share the database, get the local IT system administrator to create a confidential folder for your team and put the database there.
  • If you have no IT resources that will allow a confidential folder, then yes, you can password the database. But this is very weak security - anyone of your colleagues could take the whole file home to crack it.

Simple User Interface Security

  1. Create a menu system, set up Access so that it does not display the Database Container and Menus, Toolbars are hidden. This is weak and cooperative security but it's ok for consenting colleagues.
  2. Toughen this simple approach by disabling the bypass key (involves a little bit of programming or use of a tool)

Workgroup Security

Workgroup Security is not hard but it requires formality, discipline, on the part of the system administrator - you.

Pre-Access 2007, .mdb files only

Access 2007 Security Aspects

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