Monday, October 25, 2004

Seek and Show

This article appears in slightly different form in the September/October 2004 issue of IEEE Micro © 2004 IEEE.

Data, information, knowledge, content -- whatever you call it, there is more of it than any of us can keep track of. The volume continues to increase, and the tools for managing it don't keep pace with that growth.

Most people, however, don't even use the existing tools effectively. In The Pragmatic Programmer (Micro Review Jan/Feb 2000), Andrew Hunt and David Thomas admonish you to become an expert on using your tools. Their main example of this is a programmer's text editor, but it might apply equally well to Google, Adobe PDF, or Microsoft Excel. The books I look at this time show you how to get more out of tools that you probably already use every day. 

Online Search Tools

One of the main ways to find individual nuggets in the vast sea of online information is to perform effective online searches. Search sites like Google and Yahoo receive millions of requests for information every day and provide useful results with astonishing speed. Most people with online access know how to use at least one of these sites, but few people know how to exploit their full power.

The books in this section help you to use search tools more effectively. The first focuses on Google and all of its features, many of which are unrelated to searching. The second focuses exclusively on searching, but discusses a broad range of search sites.

How to Do Everything with Google by Fritz Schneider, Nancy Blachman, and Eric Fredricksen (Osborne, Emeryville CA, 2004, 382pp, ISBN 0-07-223174-2,, $24.99)

Nancy Blachman is president and founder of Variable Symbols, a company that specializes in consulting and training on technical software. She has written books and training materials about Mathematica (Micro Review, August 1991 and February 1992). She holds a BS in mathematics from the University of Birmingham in the UK, an MS in operations research from UC Berkeley, and an MS in computer science from Stanford, where she has taught for eight years. She is the creator of the Google Guide website (

For this book, Blachman teams up with two Google software engineers to produce a comprehensive guide to using Google. Unlike Blachman's Google Guide website, this book does not go into the underlying technical details. It focuses almost completely on how to use the various features of Google. It does this with a large number of step-by-step procedures, examples, and screen shots.

Google is mainly a search tool, but it is much more besides. Everybody, including me, who looks at this book says something like "I had no idea Google could do that!" about some feature Blachman describes. I also found explanations of many features that I had noticed but never looked into. I'm much more likely to use those features now that I've read about them.

If you want to know everything about Google, read this book.

Google and Other Search Engines by Diane Poremsky (Peachpit, Berkeley CA, 2004, 376 pp, ISBN 0-321-24614-4,, $19.99)

This is another book in Peachpit's marvelous Visual Quickstart Guide series. Previous editions were written by Alfred and Emily Glossbrenner, but Diane Poremsky (, an expert on Microsoft software, has taken over. Peachpit provides no information about the reason for the change.

The cover of the book puts the word Google into much larger type than the rest of the title. This probably reflects the current huge interest in Google and its public offering of stock. It also reflects the fact that Google has indexed far more pages than any other search tool. Nonetheless, the book is not principally about Google. Its message is to use the right search tool for the job at hand, and that may not be Google. Poremsky provides detailed information about Alta Vista, MSN, Yahoo, Ask Jeeves, Excite, Lycos, and even AOL. Moreover, she explains the differences between these search tools, so you can choose the right one for the search at hand.

If you want to know how to perform online searches effectively, read this book.

PDF and Acrobat

Another widespread approach to handling information is the Adobe portable document format (PDF) and the Adobe Acrobat tools for managing documents in PDF format. All publishing applications and all Microsoft Office programs can generate PDF documents. Almost everyone who goes online encounters PDF documents and can view them within a browser.

Beyond what everyone knows, however, are enormously powerful and varied publishing, viewing, and searching capabilities. Most people who use PDF every day know very little about these capabilities. The books in this section seek to correct that situation. The first focuses on Adobe Acrobat. The second focuses on PDF.

Carl Young's Adobe Acrobat 6 -- Getting Professional Results from Your PDFs by Carl Young  (Osborne, Emeryville CA, 2004, 412pp, ISBN 0-07-223138-6,, $34.99)

Carl Young is an Adobe certified expert in Acrobat and FrameMaker, as well as a certified technical trainer. Adobe selected him to run the first public Acrobat 6 training sessions at their worldwide launch of Acrobat 6. As eminent as Carl Young is, however, I heard about this book from someone even more eminent.

Shlomo Perets has specialized in online documentation applications since 1993. He trains technical communicators to get the most out of FrameMaker and Acrobat and the combination of these tools. Perets started his company, MicroType ( in 1989 to train and consult about electronic publishing tools and techniques. Based in Israel, Perets often comes to the United States on business. In June 2004, I saw him speak at the Berkeley chapter of the Society for Technical Communication (STC), where he presented a good deal of useful information about using Adobe Acrobat. Perets served as technical editor for Young's book, so perhaps his recommendation is not entirely unbiased. Nonetheless, Perets recommends Young's book as the best book to read about Acrobat 6.

Acrobat 6 has many powerful features, but its maddening user interface and its arcane options and settings make it opaque to most users. Futhermore, it is easy to produce a PDF that has mysterious flaws. For example, you may make a beautiful PDF document, but when someone else views it, it looks bizarre, because all the fonts have changed. Or the PDF may look right on screen, but the graphics look terrible when you print the document.

These problems and many more arise because users do not understand the consequences of their choices. Young explains how to make choices that lead to PDFs that behave the way you expect them to.

Once you understand the basics, you can try adding movies or sound. You can make your documents accessible to people with disabilities. You can investigate automation, reviewing tools, forms, digital signatures, differing access permissions, and many other advanced features.

To understand everything that Acrobat can do to make publishing, reading, and reviewing PDF documents go smoothly, read this book.

PDF Hacks -- 100 Industrial Strength Tips & Tools by Sid Steward (O'Reilly, Sebastopol CA, 2004, 296pp, ISBN 0-596-00655-1,, $24.95)

The O'Reilly Hacks series focuses on enabling clever programmers to customize software applications in ways the inventors of those applications never envisioned, or at least never publicized. O'Reilly has tried to reclaim the positive connotations that the term hacker had before it came to mean computer criminal. Hacks are clever, quick-and-dirty solutions to small problems. 

According to the book's publicity, Sid Steward has analyzed, extended, secured, cracked, authored, converted, embellished and consumed PDF over the last 5 years. He maintained and created custom software. He has pushed the envelope of Acrobat API programming. He has developed a toolset that is the core of a PDF conversion service bureau. He also performs PDF finishing, which includes optimizing PDF file size and adding navigation features.

This book is not about Adobe Acrobat, though Steward does provide some tools and tricks that apply to Acrobat. PDF adheres to a published specification, so anyone can process it. The Macintosh operating system has tools to process PDF. So does Ghostscript (

I use Acrobat all the time, so my favorite hacks apply to Acrobat. For example, Steward shows how to shorten the time Acrobat takes to start, by disabling plugins that you are not likely to use. He also shows how to let Acrobat 6 use the important Acrobat 5 TAPS plugin, which Adobe does not provide with Acrobat 6. TAPS allows you to copy tables and other formatted text from PDF documents and paste them into other documents. This bit of information alone is worth the price of the book.

If you use PDF and like to tinker with your tools, this book is for you.