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Listen to the teacher

Sybex’s Photoshop 6 Learning Studio and more. Reviews hed: Listen to the teacher dek: SybexÕs Photoshop 6 Learning Studio and more. by James Mathewson and Ken Henningsen.

The Photoshop 6 Learning Studio (Sybex, $99) is a course on two CDs, authored (and hosted, in audio/video clips) by Steve Romaniello. Included with the course is a thick book, “Mastering Photoshop 6,” also by Romaniello, which expands on the concepts taught in the course. The course is a standalone application; you don’t need Photoshop to run it (though I found it helpful to jump to Photoshop to play around with recently learned concepts). The program works in a Web browser interface, using Shockwave for animation and QuickTime for movie clips; if, during installation, it doesn’t find these resources it offers to install them (Netscape Communicator for the browser). I was able to copy the CDs to folders on my hard drive and run the course from there, for quicker page loading and no CD swapping.

The author opens with a history of art, photographic and printing techniques, explaining Photoshop’s development and sometimes arcane terminology. Then he starts with the basics and proceeds through advanced techniques in a series of 25 comprehensive lessons. Movie clips provide an alternative to reading some of the same text on the screen–minimally helpful. Romaniello supplements the lessons with a reference section describing tools, file formats, blending modes and keyboard shortcuts, along with a glossary, index and search utility. The final section of the course is a series of hands-on projects, using files on the second CD. Here, in addition to movie clips, Romaniello provides spoken instructions to guide you through operations; these were more useful than the earlier clips.

As a Photoshop novice, I found the course a good alternative to wading through one of the many fat books on the market. Romaniello does an excellent job of leading you through the complexities of Photoshop, and his abundance of hyperlinks to related topics make it easy to bounce around to your heart’s content. — Ken Henningsen

Hackers demystified

Douglas Thomas’s “Hacker Culture.”

Hackers are malicious thieves who break into company computers for profit. Hackers are benevolent network monitors who only want to make systems more secure. Hackers are grizzled old programmers who helped to make the computer industry what it is today. Hackers are little boys who don’t know much about computers but can wreak havoc on the Internet fairly easily.

Hackers are all these things, and more. Yet the media tends to stereotype hackers into the first or the last category and ignore the middle two. The reality is, without hackers, the computer industry would crumble under its own weight. Understanding this reality is perhaps the most important and overlooked skill for anyone whose business depends on networks.

For this reason, Douglas Thomas’s “Hacker Culture” (University of Minnesota Press, 2002) is a must read for most of ComputerUser’s audience. Thomas explains the many strains of hackers in terms of the predominantly male culture in which they live. In so doing, he gives the reader a thorough and accurate picture of who hackers are, how they interact, and what their motivations are. If everyone had this picture, Internet-connected computers would be a lot safer. But by lumping so-called black-hat hackers with white-hat hackers, tech society shuns one of its most precious resources–conscientious computer wizards.

In spite of the book’s topic strength of thoroughness, it is not without flaws. Thomas feels a need to deconstruct hacking culture with a confusing analysis in the style of Jacques Derrida. I found myself skimming those sections and thinking to myself, “Skip the post-modern blather and just describe the events as they unfolded.” On the other hand, I found myself slowing down to read the descriptions of actual hacking events and how their perpetrators were influenced by the media.

Still, if you can get past the academic style, the book makes for a strong and important read. — James Mathewson

Mouse in your pocket

Kensington’s PocketMouse pro.

The USB PocketMouse Pro ($45) is one of several recent innovative road-warrior offerings from Kensington. A small optical mouse that will easily fit into the cell phone pocket of a laptop bag, the PocketMouse Pro offers two buttons plus a scroll wheel. The latter also serves as a third button when pressed, and a fourth action can be triggered by “chording” — pressing both main buttons simultaneously. However, the PocketMouse Pro’s sexiest feature is its retractable tail. Push a button on the left side of the mouse and a little door pops open, revealing a USB connector. Pull on this and you can spool out up to 29 inches of very thin, flexible USB cable from a spring-loaded reel that can be locked at any length. Another tug, and the cable and plug retract into the storage compartment, ready for travel.

Though diminutive in size, the PocketMouse Pro is comfortable to use, and it tracks well on most surfaces. It ships with Kensington’s excellent MouseWorks software, which lets you program each of the buttons on the mouse to perform virtually any action, including clicking, double-clicking and dragging; selecting menu items on the desktop or in specific applications; entering canned text; and launching applications or accessing Web pages. MouseWorks also provides controls for fine-tuning the speed of tracking, clicking and scrolling, and it offers the option to slow the cursor way down or constrain its movement to the horizontal or vertical axis by holding down one or more modifier keys. Another handy option is “snap to default,” which automatically moves the cursor to the default selection in pop-up dialog boxes.

Though I’m well accustomed to the trackpad on my Mac PowerBook, I now invariably dig out the PocketMouse Pro when there’s serious work to be done. I wonder how long the delicate-looking retractable cord and reel will last, but it hasn’t given me any hints of failure in a couple of months of fairly heavy use. — Ken Henningsen

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