Family Cookbook 2.0

Now that all our Easter eggs have been consumed, let’s continue on with that XML theme with a little project to illustrate the joy and pain of bringing old content into the brave new world of cross-media publishing. The goal is to take the files from old print project, languishing on some dusty CD in the basement, and give them new life as spiffy Web content.

The content we’re going to work with is a cookbook. And yes, I did hear that collective groan from across cyberspace. If you’ve read anything about XML and publishing, you know that all XML demos are based on cookbooks. I think it’s a law or something. Actually, I really did want to update the cookbook and put it online, so I grabbed it for this demo.

I’ll break the demo up over a few posts since it’s too much to digest in one sitting. It hurt to write that one, but I couldn’t help myself.

The cookbook was a personal project. I made it when my son Ethan was a baby, to say thanks for all the help everyone gave my wife and I at the time. I was also inspired by the memory of a great-grandmother, Nana Mac, a legendary cook who never wrote down any of her recipes.

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Now they’re all gone with her. I wished that my kids could be connected in a some way, to the great people who came before them. So I sent out a request to all family members to submit their favorite recipes and any interesting stories that went along with them. I got a nice response, 54 recipes from 28 people.

I transferred all the recipes from hand-written index cards, or copied and pasted from e-mails into a Quark layout. Like my fellow Southeastern MA native, Emeril Lagasse, I kicked it up several notches. I probably went overboard, with not one but two indices, a forward and a dedication, and of course drop shadows on every page “burned” with ShadowCaster. I figured out the imposition and printed 30 copies of the pages on my Epson Stylus Color 740i, which matched my Bondi Blue iMac. The Epson still cranks out pages today. Never fed it an OEM ink cart either. The inkjet gods must be smiling on me. I bound the books, using a cordless drill and hand-bent staples. Ouch! Talk about old world craftsmanship! Could have used one of these sweet book staplers. Then again, maybe I should’ve just gone to Kinko’s. But the whole point was to do it all myself on the cheap. The book came out quite nicely, if you forgive the slight shingle of the pages, and the fact that I didn’t laminate the covers, so they get a bit smudgy in the kitchen.

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I undertook this project in the spring of 2000. Those were the days when the wooly mammoth known as Quark XPress 4, roamed the Earth and dominated the publishing world with a 90% market share. Yes, there was a new thing called InDesign, but I laughed at it. Version 1.0 would launch, sort of. Everything else I tried to do with it caused it to crash. I mocked it as Illustrator with multiple pages. When InDesign 2.0 came out I quickly changed my tune. But that’s a story for different day.

Thus for our current project we have the dusty old Quark 4.04 file and a couple of pieces of art. Nowadays, I pretty much bleed Adobe Red (Pantone 485). I don’t own or know the versions of Quark XPress after 4.11. This is a problem for a few reasons, not the least of which is, if I upgrade all my machines to Leopard, I’ll be without Classic support, and thus without Quark. There is a workaround: have a partition running Tiger/Classic, but that’s like having to keep a second stereo in the living room to play your 8-track tape collection. Perhaps it’s time to upgrade. I must at least check out, if not actually buy XPress 7. I’m looking forward to it, but with the same feeling when you meet up with an old friend you haven’t seen in years: a mix of curiosity and unease. What’s changed? Will we still get along? Does he still remember the secret handshake (keyboard shortcut)? For now, we’ll attempt the Extreme Cookbook Makeover with InDesign CS3, Syncro Soft’s Oxygen, and Dreamweaver.

One last a stupid question: Why is it when I type “Dreamweaver”, I hear the song from ’70s? “Ooohh, dreeeeem weavahhh, I believe we can reach the morning liiight.” Maybe it was Wayne’s World that resurrected those dying neurons. But I am suspicious there’s also a K-Tel Records commercial playing endlessly in some dark corner of my mind. That would explain a lot. Hopefully my curse will not now become yours. OK, this blog is over 3000 words old, let’s finally do stuff.

CookBook Makeover

Step 1: The Conversion Drop Ye Olde XPresse File onto InDesign CS3. On my vintage G4, 40 seconds goes by before the Open progress bar appears. Tempting to go play on the Web, but in the interest of science I will ignore my ADD instincts and wait it out. For about a minute we get the “Converting Regular Spreads” message. Hmmm. What exactly is a “Regular” spread? Does this mean there are “Irregular” spreads? “Atypical” spreads? “Highly Unusual” spreads? I’d hate to have InDesign tell me it was converting “Unprecedented” spreads. Then again, that seems a little exciting. I have seen this dialog box a hundred times, without ever really comprehending it. Do I care enough to Google? Apparently so, and here’s the answer: “Regular” spreads are document pages, the ones that actually get printed in the book, as opposed to “Master” spreads which hold master pages. Hoping for something more interesting weren’t you? So was I, but we move on.

Next up, Warnings. “Shadow attribute not supported for characters.” OK, I don’t remember ever shadowing characters, but I’ll take your word for it, InDesign. Go on. “Missing Fonts.” No surprise here. Almost all the files I ever open were created at another time in another place, so this is my default state of existence. I was born missing fonts, man. I could load the entire Adobe Font Folio, add everything from Linotype, ITC, and ImageClub and somehow I’d still be missing FranklinGothicDemiCaramelMacciato.

What I really need is a preference like this:
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Alas there’s not, so we dismiss, and we’re in. Let’s take a look around.

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All the recipes have the title and chef in inline text frames, like they did in the XPress file. To InDesign, that content is out of the flow of the story. So merging content is one hurdle to clear before we export the XML. Everything seems styled; that’s good. Thanks, Y2K self. Hmmm, the ingredients are in 2 columns. That might need to be cleaned up before I apply tags. There are a few scraps of whitespace trash lurking here and there, but I think we can make a go of it.

Since we’re starting with a converted XPress file, I am reminded of a neat InDesign feature which may be of some use to people. Normally if you choose InDesign > About InDesign… you get the lovely InDesign Purple (DIC 2618 or 40c100m) Credits window, with the version number. But if you add the Command key, you get an info-packed window called Adobe InDesign Component Information.

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All the supertechy details of your document’s existence are laid bare, including whether or not it was converted from Quark XPress or PageMaker, all the versions of InDesign (including the build number) that touched the file, whether it is crash-recovered, opened with missing plug-ins, etc. It’s like doing a DNA test on your InDesign file. This info has helped me in the past with troubleshooting, in terms of hunting down what was causing a file to crash, and where in fact a file came from.

Note that like in the screen grab, Write Log File is grayed out until you save the document. If open this window with no document open, it still works, you just get the top of the dialog filled out with info about InDesign’s state for troubleshooting application problems instead of document problems.

OK, that’s all for now. Next time we’ll do text clean-up and tagging.

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Easter Eggs and Red Pills

As a family, we can never let Easter pass without watching our DVD of the funniest of all Peanuts specials, It’s The Easter Beagle Charlie Brown. For me, it’s worth watching just for Snoopy’s escalator antics and Woodstock’s insanely funky groove. My kids always scream and squirm and crack up at Marcy’s doomed attempts to cook Easter eggs. So, in honor of the dear confused Marcy, and with a nod to eegs.com and eggheaven.com, here’s my Top Five Software Easter Eggs.

5. Adobe Space Monkey. Photshop CS2.

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Hold down cmd-option and choose About Photoshop. Who doesn’t love monkeys in space? Just one step in a tradition of tinkering with the About Photoshop screen.

It’s been replaced by Adobe Red Pill in CS3.

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4. Friendly Alien. InDesign 2-CS3.

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Define a Print Preset called “Friendly Alien”, choose Print, and with the Preset selected, click the preview window in the Print dialog box. The visual action is somewhat underwhelming, but the message was loud and clear: Adobe understood us Quark geeks. The “in” joke won us over and indulged our desire to tweak Quark for years of blowing us off.
3. Eyeballs/Mouse Clicks/Mordy’s Home Number. Adobe Illustrator 5-CS3.

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Hold down cmd-option and choose the Show menu from the pop-up in the bottom of the document window. I love the fact that this one has been around unaltered, for 10 years. Those eyeballs kept me company during some lonely freelance gigs. Later on, I would “click race” co-workers to see who clicked the most in an 8-hour shift. Never tried calling Mordy, though.

2. The Alien. Quark XPress 4.

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Draw a box, press cmd-shift-option-k. Do it 5x in a row to get the big Daniel Johnston-looking bazooka creature.

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It was the first publishing software Easter Egg I ever knew of, and showing it to unsuspecting co-workers earned me large amounts of DTP geek cred.
1. The Grandaddy of ‘em all. On it’s 30th anniversary, I give you, The Secret Room. Atari Adventure.

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Spread by word of mouth through the legions of 2600 fanatics, this one prompted the same reaction in 10 year olds across the nation, “Awesome!” We had no idea who this mysterious Warren Robinett was, but we were sure he was incredibly cool to us. The search for hidden truth was on. Red Pill, indeed.

XML is like…Cousin Oliver

Today’s topic is everyone’s favorite publishing tech du jour, XML. I am not a true XML geek by nature. I don’t know much about its uses in programming, data interchange, etc. I look somewhat dumbfounded at the XML vs. JSON flamewars. Coding is not fun for me. It’s a chore, less odious than cleaning out a cat’s litterbox, but more tedious than emptying the dishwasher. I think of it like changing the oil in the car–you can save a few bucks doing it yourself, but if you do it wrong, things will get messy in a hurry. I try not to fall in love with any software, process, or technology. They’re all just means to an end. Tool-based thinking gives me the creeps. It’s the medically-proven first step to becoming a zombie. I am just interested in XML for the solutions it offers publishers. So even though I went to the XML Conference last December and enjoyed it, I was probably the least XMLish person there.

So along with that disclaimer, if you want truly informed XML talk and tools, check out these:

If you’re barely sure what XML stands for, start with the W3 Schools’ XML tutorial

Then if you’re still interested, check out some of these:

xmlaficionado

Cafe con leche

IBM’s developerworks

XMLScoop

XMLPitstop

XML is a lot of things to a lot of people. For fun, Google the phrase, “XML is like” Here’s a sampling of the results you’ll get:

“XML is like a drug: when you think it’s solved all your problems, you’re using it too much.”

“XML is like HTML with the training wheels off.”

“XML is like sex, even when it’s bad it’s still pretty good.”

“XML is like cardboard. It is a very useful packing material…”

“XML is like lye. It is very useful, but humans shouldn’t touch it.”

“XML is like a fat tick after a good meal…bloated.”

“XML is like a set of Russian dolls where text can be nested at each level.”

“XML is like teenage sex. Everybody talks about it, and thinks everybody else is doing it, when they’re really not.”

“XML is like a carcinogen. We don’t notice it’s there, but we’re still getting exposed to it.”

And probably the most famous and oft-repeated:

“XML is like violence: if it doesn’t solve your problem, you aren’t using enough of it.”

Now, how could you NOT be fascinated with something that is simultaneously compared to sex, drugs, violence…and cardboard?

To me, it seems like XML is to the ’00s as PDF was to the ’90s: a technology that eventually all publishers will be using. Both are charmingly flawed, but will end up being adopted anyway. So XML is like Cousin Oliver in the Brady Bunch.

XML and PDF. One’s about structure, semantics, and meaning while the other’s about portability, predictability, and drop shadows. Adobe’s working on an interesting mash-up of the two, called Mars. Think of it as a digital Reese’s, with PDF as chocolate, and XML as peanut butter. I’ll do a proper post on Mars in the near future.

As was the case with PDF, I think XML’s invasion of publishing tech is inevitable. There are just too many benefits, for us not to end up tagging everything. Someday we’ll shake our heads in disbelief that we ever worked with un-tagged content. So primitive. Is XML the perfect means for tagging content? No, it can be clumsy and verbose (but so can I). It might be fair to paraphrase Churchill, and say that XML is the worst tagging system, “except for all the others that have been tried from time to time.” We just need the other pieces of our publishing systems to evolve so we can reap the benefits of all those tags, while keeping the XML mostly invisible. Or, to risk infamy and quote Churchill twice in one paragraph, “Give us the tools and we will finish the job.” Of course, he was talking about things that explode.

Since I’m in a quoting mood, I am reminded of a conversation I had last year at the InDesign Conference. I took an XML class and the instructor made a good point when I told him I was struggling to learn XSLT. He said, “You make PDFs all the time, but not by hand coding, right? So why would you want to hand code XSL?” He wasn’t trying to discourage me from learning, but rather to realize that there are and will be more powerful tools to make a publishing XML workflow really fly. Specifically, he showed me MapForce by Altova to graphically create XSLT. Hand coding is a great and essential skill for some, but the easier it is to use any technology the faster it can really take off.

With the release of Creative Suite 3, InDesign took some significant steps forward with support for XSLT, XML rules, Text Variables, and other new features. Those of us who have been exploring the use of XML in InDesign, got a nice Christmas gift last December, with the publication of A Designer’s Guide to Adobe InDesign and XML by James J. Maivald and Cathy Palmer. If you want to understand the sometimes strange relationship between XML and InDesign, get your hands on this book. Or at least head over to the authors’ site, cookingwithxml.com. Adobe’s official documentation makes a nice side dish, especially the technical reference found here. But Maivald’s book is the main course. It is by far the most comprehensive and well-written instruction on this topic I’ve seen. I love the tone of the writing, which is friendly and informal, but not too silly (something I strive for myself). The authors know that when it comes to XML in InDesign, there’s a thin line between elegant beauty, and unfixable junk. Sometimes, the difference a single keystroke.

I’ll probably also buy Simon St. Laurent’s XML, Meet InDesign from O’Reilly soon, because a) I like the title, and b) I like the author’s hat.

If you are new to InDesign and/or XML, and do decide to use the Maivald book, here’s a tip: read every word. I’m not kidding. Every word of every sentence, in order. And pay attention. Have bright lights on in the room. And that Handel concerto playing softly in the background. And it helps to be slightly caffeinenated. Seriously, if you are new to this, do not skip around. There can’t be any gaps in your understanding or execution of XML in InDesign, or it just won’t work. Believe me, I’ve been tinkering with this since InDesign 2.0. I’ve made every mistake there is. Several times.

Given all that, is fragility of an InDesign XML-based layout a deal breaker? If it’s that hard to get right, and that easy to break, what good is it? How can it work without automated workflows and/or an army of scripters? Is there really room for human hands in an XML workflow? Good question. I think it points to the fact that right now highly-designed, “hand crafted” layouts and XML are an uneasy marriage. Think Arthur Miller-Marilyn Monroe. Or maybe Stephen Hawking-Paris Hilton.

But in 10 years, whether we’re using InDesign or something else, I think all the coding will be hidden under a GUI coating and we’ll have self-healing layouts that are impervious to the whims of designers and editors. Kids will be making XSLT by dragging their creations around onscreen and molding them like digital Play-Doh. And they won’t have a clue what XSLT stands for, nor should they. For the grown-ups maybe it will be something more like TurboTax, where the software interviews you, asking what you want to do with your content, and all the calculations are handled in the background. Let’s just hope the IRS doesn’t introduce a tax on tags any time soon. Actually, maybe a tag tax would help pay for things in Iraq.

Next time, I’ll share a little project of mine, taking old content and making it new again via XML.And as promised, here are a few tidbits so you don’t go hungry:

1. For anyone interested in a behind-the-scenes look into the world of educational publishing, check out the The Muddle Machine: Confessions of a Textbook Editor by Tamim Ansary. It’s more than 3 years old, but still a fantastic read. And the accompanying graphic alone is worth the trip. It also reinforces my Six Degrees of Star Wars theory, as edutopia.org is a project of the George Lucas Educational Foundation.

2. Again with the educational angle, here’s Bill Gates proclaming textbooks are dead. He’s right, or at least he would be if we could all afford the hardware. At my kids schools, we get hit with fundraisers and teacher requests for classroom supplies from the first day. My son is using a spelling book from 1994. I don’t think a tablet PC will be coming his way any time soon. I’m sure Bill’s used to a slightly different set of circumstances.

3. Here’s one for the true prepress geeks. A challenge by the Sandee Cohen, for someone to demonstrate why in this day and age you would ever want to use a Photoshop EPS file in lieu of PSD, TIFF, etc. I love questions like this that make us prove ourselves and debunk the myths.

4. Lastly, here is a guy who really, really likes bookmaps.

Welcome to Publicious

Hello and thanks from visiting this blog. My name is Mike Rankin and I plan to write mainly about publishing technology since I like it, and I’ve used it to make a living for the last 13 years. I’m most interested in things like Adobe’s Creative Suite, especially InDesign and Photoshop, XML, Flash, and newer tech like rich internet applications. But I’ll also write about things like prepress, CMS, PDF, fonts, color management, etc, and offer up whatever good links I come across. I also hope to have contributions from some of my friends in the design, production, and editorial realms.

But first thing’s first: who am I and how did I get to the point where I would want to blog about publishing technology? I am 39 years old, married, father of 2, living and working in the Greater Boston area. As for my interest in publishing tech, the seed was planted back in 1987. I was a sophomore at Middlebury College, and I got my first computer: the Mac 512k Enhanced. Here it is back in the day.

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It cost $2000. In 1987 dollars. That’s like $3700 now. Wow, thanks Mom and Dad.

I don’t have that machine anymore, but a few years back, I rescued a pair of its cousins, 512k that someone had abandoned by the side of the road. One keeps me company at work, the other is destined to be a fish tank, if I ever get around to it.

That first Mac was a huge upgrade over my Sears 300 word processor. Incredibly, the Sears machine was recently unearthed from the darkest recesses of my parents’ closets.

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It looks like it would still work, and I even found a site that sells the ink ribbons. Stay tuned for the resurrection.

But in 1987, the Mac 512ke was awesome. My friends and I were like the ape-men in the beginning of Kubrick’s 2001, gathered around this stubby beige monolith. We laid our hands on it and evolved.

At first, I used the little machine just to write papers. Usually with Handel’s Organ Concertos as background music. Ah, soothing toots of genius.

For illustrations, I used a nifty application called FullPaint. 72 ppi bitmap graphics, lovingly crafted pixel by pixel. Here are some samples of my goofier artwork.

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Little did I know that there was a guy out there at that very moment using another MacPlus to set the foundation for a little program we now call Photoshop. His MacPlus should be in a museum somewhere.

Fast forward to 1995. In need of a career change, I took a class and learned Quark XPress 3, Illustrator 4, and Photoshop 2.5 on Windows 3.1. I’d call that a digital hazing. The instructor was equally impressed and horrified when I drew a self-portrait using only Quark text boxes. Look ma, no layers!

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The redraw was breathtaking. It would’ve caused seizures, if only it had gone faster. But what’s up with that mouth? One day I saw a job posting from an educational publisher in Boston. Money was tight, so I applied, and got the job right away. I never actually finished the class. Wonder what the diploma looked like.

Next up, learning the trade. First freelance. And I mean FREElance. As in, “here’s some pictures of internal organs, re-create them perfectly in Illustrator. When you’re done, we’ll let you know if you can come back tomorrow.” Plus no health insurance, and double social security out of your pocket. Freelance makes you learn fast and work faster. I worked on some difficult books, and some silly ones. Interesting times, but I don’t miss them.

Then came Contract. Six whole months of employment? In a row? Yahoo! My very own phone? Luxury! But still, the end is coming. You work hard so they think of you next time around.

Then at last, there was Staff. My first cubicle. 50 square feet of real estate in the publishing empire. Dilbert took on a whole new meaning. I loved what I was doing, and I was good at it. And I loved being good at it. I wanted to know every Quark command, every keyboard shortcut, every “secret.” I read the manuals. I wanted to be faster and more accurate than anyone else. I played Quark like it was a game. My boss said it was like watching someone play pinball. I collected printouts of Postscript errors like pieces of abstract artwork and decorated my cubicle walls with them. I had achieved desktop publishing geek nirvana.

I stayed in educational publishing and evolved along with it. Projects came and went with the years. I learned new key commands, forgot old ones. PDFs grew like moss everywhere. InDesign replaced Quark. I studied up and became and Adobe Certified Expert in Photoshop and InDesign. We started to make stuff for the Web. And the jobs started moving away. A lot of good people moved on. I went from making stuff, to teaching people how to make stuff, to writing reports about how someone could, in theory, make stuff. More stuff, faster stuff, customized stuff, multi-media cross-platform stuff. My language became softer than a toasted marshmallow. I went from making books, to authoring solutions. I gave up all hope of my parents ever understanding what I did for a living. My job became very Zen. Or very Seinfeld. I worked on nothing. And yet, I worked on everything.

So here I am today, with head, hard drive, and filing cabinets full of information on publishing tech, and few people to share it with. Nearly all the designers, editors, and production people I worked with have moved on. It’s like I’m in some publishing version of the Lorax. Maybe that’s too grim. Maybe I just need to summarize and organize all this stuff. I need to outsource some of my thinking and memory functions to the Web, so I can devote more mental resources to things like learning Japanese and my kids’ science fair projects. This blog is my way of freeing up brain space by giving me a new container for all this content. You see where I’m headed? Sure you do.

OK, that was probably waaay more information than anyone needed about me, but at least now you know who’s typing this stuff. Next up: The first of many XML posts, plus a sampler of tasty publishing tidbits.