How to Use Bitmap Mode in Photoshop

Of all the image modes in Photoshop, perhaps the least used today is Bitmap mode. It’s the “true” black-and-white mode, unlike Grayscale, which is what a “black-and-white” photograph really is. And Bitmap actually has a couple of advantages, though making proper use of the mode does take a little understanding.

A color picture first has to be changed to Grayscale mode to drop color out, and then one can convert to Bitmap. (If the user knows the image is going to be put in Bitmap, it’s advisable to keep it fairly high-resolution; since Bitmap only has two colors—black and white—compensating with more pixels helps keep the image from looking too grainy.) There are a couple of other things one can do to make a grayscale image better, but that’s another story.

Color Picture Convert Arrow Grayscale Picture

When Bitmap mode is called up, another dialog box asks a couple of questions. One is about resolution—usually this should not be changed. If the image already has adequate detail, it should be left alone. Increasing the resolution should be done beforehand, if at all.

Bitmap Dialog Box

The other is “Method”—how should the pixels be handled? This is the real question, as it affects the final appearance the most.

The first choice, 50% Threshold, looks at all the pixels in the image and applies a straightforward rule: If the brightness of the pixel is 128 or less, it turns black. If 129 or more (the possible range is from 0 to 255), it turns white. But this makes the picture look very harsh and blotchy, as it doesn’t take shading or grays into account.

50% Threshold Picture

The next choice, Pattern Dither, sort of does this. It tries to distribute black and white pixels a little more evenly (in a pattern, hence the name), and can create a fairly “readable” image provided the resolution is not too low. Some people consider this to look artistic, and in some cases the image turns out pretty well.

Pattern Dither Picture

Diffusion Dither, though, is a better choice for a result which looks more realistic. “Diffusion” means the pixels are scattered semi-randomly, the same way perfume gradually drifts through the air. “Dither” is defined as “The use of dot patterns to approximate colors not available in the palette.” (Wiktionary)

Diffusion Dither Picture

Halftone Screen is another matter, and produces something else again. Half-toning was used for a long time in producing newspaper photographs such that they looked like “true” grayscale images. What half-toning really does is to remake the image as a regularly-spaced pattern of dots of varying size to simulate grayscale, rather than bunching them together to make darker (or lighter, by spreading them apart) grays. How often this comes up today depends on what the print medium is going to be, but it’s not as useful for onscreen or conventional computer printing these days since half-tone techniques were developed partly to allow for rapid mass printing (newspapers, magazines) with relatively low-res, high-speed (therefore less expensive) processes.

Halftone Dialog Box Halftone Picture

The advantages to Bitmap mode are, first, it brings the file size WAY down, sometimes only a couple percent as big as the color version, or even less. (Only two colors, after all.) Ditto the grayscale version. Second, though it won’t have color, the detail and simulated gray shades can look almost as good as a true grayscale image, and take a lot less time to print. And finally, it’ll look decent on any printer, color or no. Picking the method is the only thing one usually has to worry about, and often the choice simply depends on the desired final use.

The Anchor Point Tool in Illustrator

When working in Illustrator, drawing with the Pen tool (producing Bezier curves) is a mainstay of many documents. (And in a couple other graphics programs, too.) But sometimes the tools that go with the Pen take a little time to get comfortable with. And the one I’ve been told is frankly a little confusing is the Anchor Point tool (which used to be known as the Convert Anchor Point tool, describing what it does).

You may know there are three main kinds of anchor points: Curve points, that have a smooth curve going in and coming out; Corner points, which have a sharp angle between two straight line segments; “Hybrid” points, curved on one side, straight on the other. Converting between them is easy, but using the tool may take a little practice.

Let’s say you want to convert from Corner to Curve.

Start with the Anchor Point tool

Switch to the Anchor Point tool, find the anchor point, put the sharp end of the V on it, hold down the mouse button, and drag. As you drag, you “draw out” control handles, which tell the curve what to do.

Drag to create handles

Some people think they need to do this and get them pointing in the right direction at the same time. Not necessary, though you can if you want.

The opposite is even simpler. To go from Curve to Corner, use the Anchor Point tool to simply click on the curve anchor point, and the control handles disappear. Done.

It’s creating a hybrid point that sometimes causes a little trouble, but it’s not really hard. Usually it’s easiest to create a Curve point first. Then switch to the Anchor Point tool, put the point of the V on the end of the control handle you want to get rid of, and click. (Don’t drag, though.)

Remove a handle

That side now becomes the Corner side, as it were. Dragging from the anchor point brings both handles back.

You can even “break” the connection between the two handles and simply grab one with the A.P.T., give a short drag clockwise or counterclockwise, and the two handles are now independent of each other.

Break handle connection

Or hold down the Alt key, and click a “broken” handle to restore the connection so the two now stay in a straight line again.

Practicing a little with the tool usually makes all this pretty easy. Just take your time.

Feathering a Selection in Photoshop

One of the must-have skills in Photoshop is the ability to make precise selections, since we indicate which parts of the picture we want to work with this way, and there are a number of techniques to do it. But equally important is the ability to feather, or “fuzz” the edge of the selection. Very few normal photographs are going to be so supremely razor-sharp in focus that a selection needs to be also, and even those that are will often not be super-high-resolution (that is, naturally a tiny bit fuzzy) anyway. Aside from any specific effects you want to achieve….

Open File

Once you open your file, you can start by making a rough selection with any tool—say, the Magic Wand or the Lasso. Then, either hold down the Shift key or select the Add to Selection button in the tool’s Options at top, and click or drag as needed to add the bits you want. (I admit I like the Magic Wand for a good many items, as it lets me make color-based selections quickly.)

Selection Made

Then, having made and fine-tuned the selection, we go to the Select menu, slide down to Modify, and click Feather in the submenu.

Select Menu Modify Feather Dialog Box

The number of pixels of feather you want to use will depend on a few things: The resolution of the image (the higher the res, the lower the feather number), the area you selected (larger selection=lower feather, generally), and what you want to do with the selected area (you tell me 🙂 ). For things like tinting, a lower number is usually better as you don’t want it to look like smeared paint. For blending effects like softening filters or other non-color-related ideas, a higher number would be good to soften the edge (romantic-portrait-type photos, for example).

It’s a simple effect, but a powerful one. And it doesn’t take too much practice to get a nice result. Besides, you can make a copy of the layer in question and play around with it till you get a good combination, then apply to the final draft.

Clone Stamping in Photoshop

The use of the Clone Stamp tool, in itself, is not hard to understand. It allows the user to “borrow” or copy a piece of picture from one spot to “clone” or paste elsewhere. But some people use it like a paintbrush, and clone big swaths of picture from one place to another—which looks obviously like cloning, or stereotypical “Photoshopping”.

So is there a trick to using the tool and not making things look visibly cloned? Actually, there is. It’s a little bit more work, but it’s not really difficult. It does depend somewhat on the picture and your goals.

Elephant

Once you open the picture, examine it to see where you want to borrow from and copy to. (Here I use the example of making an elephant disappear—it’d be a cool stage illusion….)

Luckily, the surroundings lend themselves to the effect I’m going for. I start by setting the size of the tool, not too big, and the hardness (how sharp the edge is) to zero, so it blends nicely.

Clone Stamp Tool Settings

I do an Alt-click where I want to borrow from, then use a few clicks to “paste” from that area over the image of the elephant. Alt-click again, from a slightly different area, a few more regular clicks on the elephant, and continue on, each time starting with a different patch, till the modification is done.

Clone Stamping

The real trick—the main point of this kind of exercise—is to borrow a little from here, a little from there. Create the cloned area as a sort of patchwork, to get a somewhat random choice of bits from the “copy” area so the “paste” area actually consists of many small ones, chosen from no one particular part.

Mostly Gone

There is also some technique to clone stamping like this—some study of the image to determine which parts to borrow from and clone to, exactly how big the tool area should be based on the image and its resolution, and so on. But the main thing is to do a little at a time, and not too much from any one area. Nature is usually pretty random when she paints, so following her precept can give you a natural-looking result.

Slicers in Excel PivotTables

When Excel 2007 was introduced, the PivotTable Field List included a “Filter” area, where one could drop a field to use as a filter (for example, year, brand name, size, etc. from a block of sales data). If the user filtered for one year, or one brand, the name of the item was visible in the space above the body of the table. But if more than one item was filtered for, all it would say was “multiple items”…and not which ones. The feature worked, but couldn’t take this into account. So in Excel 2010, and all versions following, the Slicer feature was added. (No, I don’t know where they got the name. Sounded a little odd to me, too….)

Creating one or more slicers is dead simple. Make sure you’ve clicked somewhere in your PivotTable or –Chart, go to the PivotTable/Chart Tools Options tab, look in the Sort and Filter group, and click Insert Slicer.

Insert Slicer

You’ll need to choose which fields you want to filter with. Usually it’ll be at least a couple, one of which will often but not always contain values. And when you’ve selected, click OK.

Select Slicers

Done. Using the slicers is also easy. Click on the thing(s) you want to filter for (i.e. see), and they stay visible. Everything else hides.

But there is one neat extra tucked in there. Aside from the fact that the slicers print (they’re a WYSIWYG item), and you can resize them, you can change the number of columns of buttons per slicer, which means you can show more of them at once, and save some screen (and print) space.

Setting Columns

And that means you can use them to the fullest, because most of the time, any user who looks at your printout can see what you filtered for! No muss, no fuss.

Slicers are one of my more favorite features in Excel. They’re a good answer to a reasonable question (filters you can see and know what they’re filtering for), and they’re easy to use. They help content be more user-friendly, and even in a static situation (printout or PDF), they retain their usefulness.

Auto vs Manual Scheduling in Project

One small but important feature in MS Project is the Auto versus Manual Scheduling popup, in the Status Bar at bottom.

Here’s how it works:

Manual Scheduling allows the user to control start date, finish date, and therefore, duration. And the program will not change the dates of a manually scheduled task. Period. It might let you know if there are potential conflicts or problems with other tasks, but that’s up to you, as far as the program’s concerned. (If you can look at the project plan, especially in Gantt Chart view, most of those kinds of problems are fairly easy to spot, especially on adjacent or nearly adjacent tasks.)

Some people wonder, if this can become an issue so easily, why one might want to use it. The answer is, most project managers will start building the structure of a plan in Manual mode because it’s simpler, initially, not to have to worry about scheduling when the first goal is to get things written down and the basic sequence arranged. From what my students have told me, it’s often quite helpful to simply write the whole kit and caboodle down immediately, THEN worry about organizing and sequencing. (As one of my favorite literary characters said, “If you don’t write it down, it never happened.”)

Once that’s done, though, and the high-level tasks (or phases/stages) are in, switching to Auto mode is usually better. Because once you start linking tasks, and the plan starts really taking shape, you may still have some adjusting to do on dates and durations, but if the program can handle the basics, you the project manager can focus on the real trouble spots. “Which is, of course, the entire point.” (As Agent Smith said in THE MATRIX.) Auto mode, as you may gather, will allow more flex to a task and be more aware of adjustments that need making based on what’s going on around it—calendar specifics, constraints, and so on.

And since any task can be switched from Auto to Manual or vice versa at any time, you can fiddle with them whenever. You may not need to, but the program will not lock you in on this.

Adobe InDesign Text Layout Tips

Having done desktop publishing since 1985, albeit on an amateur basis, I’ve learned a few tricks which seem to help with things like layout. And the ability to control layout has come a long way since I started.

One is to understand that the appearance of the type can have an influence on the readability. Using sans-serif fonts, such as Helvetica or Arial, is better for online or screen documents, whereas serif fonts like Times New Roman or New Century Schoolbook works better for print; the serifs act as guidelines, much like those on a ruled piece of paper, to speed the eye along the text.

Serif and Sans Serif

Another is the use of leading (pronounced like the name of the element or the rock group, not the idea of “lead versus follow”); for some reason, some people seem to think that minimizing the leading, or vertical distance between lines of type, to pack more text onto a page, is a good idea. As Wolverine says in the film LOGAN, “Not okay!” It becomes almost unreadable, as the eye can’t find the beginning of the next line. Many fonts now have auto-leading ratios built in. These work reasonably well in the absence of any more specialized software or criteria.

Leading

There’s one thing we can adjust fairly easily in many DTP programs (I use InDesign here as an example): The gutter space between columns of text. It’s another of those pack-as-much-text-as-possible-on-the-page things which, again, is wrong. I’ve heard various guidelines promulgated as far as exact amounts or ratios of gutter to font size, but one broad rule of thumb I’ve found pretty viable is that regardless of font, font size, or proportion of height to width of letters, one should be able to fit a minimum of five to seven words per line in a column if possible—otherwise the writing looks rather like the visual equivalent of a song played from a scratched CD or a staticky radio broadcast…a few words, pause, words, pause, and so on. That kind of stop-and-start visual almost reminds me of trying to speak with hiccups, and can actually be irritating to someone trying to read it. (If it sounds to you like I’ve run into this sort of thing as an occasional proofreader and writer, you’re correct.) But at least InDesign makes these adjustments fairly easy.

Gutter Space

Are there actual rules or formulas for all this? Several. The specifics are easy to locate, but these bits here should provide a good start.

How to Normalize Data in Microsoft Access

The term “normalization” gets thrown about quite a bit in database circles, especially to try to explain to newer users a couple of principles of data organization, but seems rather vague to someone not acquainted with database-ese.

The idea of making data “normal” is not too far from the meaning used by database designers, when one understands what “normal” is. When we create, say, a batch of file cards with names, addresses, etc., we tend to lay out the information similarly—consistently—so as to make it easier to follow on each. If each piece of information is in its own place, a “field” or space designated for each, we’re already close to the idea of normalization. One wouldn’t want to put the first and last name in the same field, since we might want to sort by last name first. We couldn’t do it easily if the two were in the same place. Nor would we want to put street address, city, state, and zip code in the same field, for the same reason.

Bad Addresses

So one rule we try to follow regardless of what kind of database software we use, MS Access for example, is that we should put one piece of information in each field. A rough analogy would be, if one wanted to fill a glass jar’s volume completely, using something like golf balls or hard candies would not work too well, as they’re too big to really follow the shape of the jar. But using gravel, or sand, or better still, flour, would be better. The individual pieces are smaller, and can fit the space much better. The smaller the pieces, the more “flexible” they are in filling the space.

Jars

Secondly, it’s a good idea to divide the tables (or collections of data) into categories—an employee database might contain a table of personal data, a table of office data, one of health plan data, one of travel/transport data, and so on. Turns out it’s easier for most databases—and users—to work with a larger number of smaller tables than the other way round.

Finally, there is at least one exception. Some kinds of data, such as addresses, work better with a little de-normalization. (Access makes this fairly easy to see.) We don’t want to put a zip code in the same field with city and state, but putting city, state, and zip fields in an address table—even though slightly redundant—make the addresses much easier to understand and use.

Address Table

Using Effort Driven in Project

Even though Microsoft Project is fairly easy to use at the basic level–entering tasks and resources, assigning the one to the other, and fine-tuning a schedule–there are a few parts of the program that seem quirky, and can take a little practice to use comfortably.

One of these is the checkmark in the Task Information dialog box called “Effort driven”. The name is fairly self-explanatory, in that a task’s duration (the thing we normally concern ourselves with) can be affected by how much effort we want to put into the task, in the form of resources. Specifically, how *many* resources.

Effort driven checkbox

There is the quirk, though. This is how it works:

When the project manager first creates the task, it defaults to Fixed Units of work (stuffing envelopes for a wedding, or laying bricks for a wall would be good examples), and (if one chooses in the Program Options) Effort driven being on. The first time resources are assigned to the task, whether it’s one person, three, seven, or more, the duration won’t change. The program is assuming you know it takes, say, four days for six people to build a garden wall, and simply goes with the original duration. BUT…if, from then on, you change the number of resources (people, in this case), the program recalculates the number of days/weeks/etc. involved, as it assumes more people can do the task in less time, and vice versa. Not totally illogical.

Add resources and change duration

Nevertheless, there are some kinds of tasks for which the relationship doesn’t apply. If someone wants to interview a subject matter expert for three days prior to writing a manual, having one or two more people involved in the interview might help develop information, but probably won’t take substantially more time, or less.

So the trick, when one wants to add or remove resources without affecting duration in Project, is to open the Task Information box, go to the Advanced tab at top, and uncheck Effort driven FIRST. Then, go to the Resources tab, add or remove people or other resources, and OK out of the box. After which, if necessary, one can repeat the process and turn it on again.

On a more general level, depending on the task, the resources, and so on, one can remind oneself that it’s a good idea to go into the Task Information box->Advanced tab, and note the state of the checkbox before making changes.

Is there a suggested default? Hard to say. It depends on the nature of the projects and the tasks a project manager is involved in. A couple of guidelines might be:

  1. If the project will likely involve fairly frequent changes to resource assignment, leaving Effort driven off would probably cause fewer upsets to the schedule, though the manager would need to manually adjust it when needed.
  2. If the project resources are assigned and pretty much left in place, having Effort driven checked by default (again, this is an item in the Program Options which can be changed) would likely work in favor of the manager.

Program Options Effort Driven

Keeping the checkbox state in mind, then, can help avoid trouble when shifting resource assignments around.

Align Fields in Access Forms

Working with Microsoft Access can be kind of intimidating when you start, especially because there seem to be so many details to absorb and keep track of. And even fairly experienced database people have to watch out for the little things.
One which really drives some new Access users up the wall has to do with forms. Doing form layout is an art unto itself, and getting a good layout can take time. Even after you’ve got it mostly cleaned up, the program has one particular nitpick some people don’t even notice. At first.

Form Design View
When you work on a form in Design view, the most time-consuming thing is sizing and moving fields (officially known as text boxes, where data show up) and labels (to tell you what the fields contain). And making sure the Tab key gets you from field to field in a logical order is important. Luckily, we can use the Tab Order dialog box to do this.
Tab Order Box

At this point, the tab order doesn’t match the order of the fields because we rearranged them. We want to tab left to right, top to bottom. So we arrange our fields, bring up the box, and click Auto Order.

Auto Order Button
BUT!…if any of the fields are not aligned just right, by their top edges, with their buddies in the same row, whoever’s highest gets dibs in the tab order. (“D’oh!”)
So we select the fields and labels in question, go to the Arrange tab->Sizing and Ordering group, and click the Align button. In the dropdown, we click Top to get everything in a given row to line up.

Align Top Command

Problem solved.
Then, go back to the Tab Order box, click Auto Order once more, and test. That should do it.
Yes, it’s kinda nitpicky. But it’s worth it, as getting this sort of thing right can improve data entry speed in Access, and other database programs quite a bit…and win you the approval and accolades of the people who do it.

Filtering Data in Crystal Reports

When you run a report in Crystal Reports, you have a lot of latitude as to what goes in, how it’s formatted and organized, and so on. But one consideration that doesn’t always get mentioned is how to leave data out.
Turns out, it isn’t difficult. In fact, the technique is similar to one we find in several other programs which deal with data and databases.


After opening the program, the database and the report in question, the feature that does the filtering is the Select Expert–specifically, the Record part.


Among the logical operators available to us is “Is Not Like” (sometimes seen in other programs as “< >” or “Not Equal To”). This is the one that says “DON’T show me…” whatever it is you want to exclude from a given field, like City.


But the next part is also easy–just a little different. If, let’s say, we want Crystal to show all cities in a shipping list other than Albuquerque (watch your spelling on this one! 🙂 ), we put that name between asterisks, like so: *Albuquerque*.


This means that every record whose city name does NOT include Albuquerque (beginning with, ending with, or containing) will show in the report.


It may seem a little odd at first, to want to exclude information in Crystal Reports, since usually we’re trying six ways from Sunday to figure out how to include information. But don’t forget that panning for gold meant sifting out what you didn’t want, and reducing a sauce involves removing water or other fluid to make it denser and more flavorful.
As a related point, doing Web searches can involve a similar idea. We often use Google to look for things, but the Advanced search capability lets us say, in essence, “Look for this and this but NOT that.” Hardly ever gets used, but it’s always there if we need it. Ditto in Crystal.

Slide Master View in PowerPoint

One of the few parts of PowerPoint that isn’t quite intuitive is the Slide Master view. Getting to it is easy–go to the View tab–>Master Views group, and click Slide Master.

Then it gets a little more complicated.
To some people it looks as if they never left the Normal view–all that stuff over on the left side looks kinda like their slide show, but it isn’t. So what is it?

Those are the slide layouts you see in the Home tab–>Slides group–>Layout dropdown. In other words, those are the basic layouts you can use to create or give structure to any slides in your show. They’re built-in and always available.

Okay, first question answered. Then what?
Can we change them, or add to them? Sure. Usually the best thing to do is right-click and duplicate one whose setup is close to what you want, and modify the duplicate. Saves time and work. The same right-click gives you the ability to rename or delete one, so there’s your freedom of fiddling.
Wait a sec, though…what about the bigger slide at the top, the one all the others are connected to by the dotted line? Well, that’s the actual SLIDE MASTER, the Big Kahuna, le Grand Fromage (sorry, it slipped in).

And what does he do? His job is to control the appearance of the others. More specifically, the background elements (graphics, company logos, etc.) and the text appearance (fonts, sizes, colors, and so on). NOT the layout of the stuff you put on the slides.
So if you want all your slides to have a consistent appearance (highly desirable in almost all shows, business or other), do the basic visual stuff in the big boy at the top, then create or modify the smaller ones for the way you want the layout of the elements in the slides. And best to do it before inserting content, if you can. Less work on the back end. (Build the foundation before you build the house.)
What about other slide masters and layouts? Can we have more than one set in a slide show? We can. Whether it’s a good idea is another matter–usually one doesn’t want to mix too many slide masters/color schemes/etc. in one show unless they’re variations on one master theme, because it shouldn’t look like a circus came to town, but the program will allow it. So be conservative about such things. But don’t let it stop you from experimenting.

PowerPoint Tips and Tricks

…or, Some Ideas for Good Business Presentations

There are people who believe the joke that says, “We have met the enemy, and he is PowerPoint.” I don’t think so. But it is true that some people, through no fault of their own, don’t know where to start when it comes to creating a good PP presentation. And there are some things anyone can do to create a decent one.

GENERAL IDEAS

According to some sources I’ve seen, an officer in the USMC can brief a dozen subjects in under an hour. While not everyone is quite so succinct, it is a step in the right direction. Keeping the presentation simple and to the point is good. Less is more.

Not everyone in the audience may know the subject matter. Check on this if possible, and plan accordingly.

Format for readability, and for emphasis as needed. (If a company has product branding standards, they should be strongly evident.)

Keep to three or four bullet points per slide, max. More than that is like taking larger bites of food—one can choke. (Mentally, it’s similar to the Gary Larson cartoon wherein the student says, “Mr. Osborne, may I be excused? My brain is full.”) More slides with less content per is better than the opposite—a little at a time.

Make the text big enough to read easily. One of my former colleagues was a Naval aviator and had 20-20 perfect fighter pilot eyes. Not everyone does.

Use sans-serif fonts, like Arial, Helvetica, or Optima if possible—the less complicated letter shapes are easier to read on a monitor or projector screen. And stick to one or two fonts at most. Much less cluttered-looking.

Stick with as few colors as possible, too. Again, less busy-looking—and it won’t look as if the circus came to town. (That product branding thing can be helpful here.)

GRAPHICS, AUDIO, CHARTS

Graphics and audio can take up a lot of room on disk, and time to download, so use them sparingly, like seasoning on a meal.

(Audio can be a megabyte per minute if it’s good quality. DVD-level video can be four megs per second.)

Charts are useful, but they too need to be simple—if there’s a lot of information, create more charts. And make sure you label everything—simply.

This is a pretty good chart.

This isn’t. 😉

Pick the right kind of chart for the data. Pie charts for percentages, column or bar charts for sales figures, line charts for trends, etc. Trying a few different kinds is okay if you want to, but knowing what works for what most of the time gives you a foundation to work from.

Other elements in a chart can help, too. The company logo should be in any company presentation.

Photographs of people involved are also a good idea. (If you need a picture of someone outside the company, find out if you need a release form. Better to find out the easy way.)

TRANSITIONS AND ANIMATIONS

Be careful not to overdo these, either. If you go overboard here, the presentation can end up having the feeling of a Looney Toons cartoon. And that’s usually not desirable, even if the audience has a sense of humor, because it’s a distraction. One or two transitions, alternating, or a few variations on just one, and similar animations  throughout, will be more consistent, yet not boring.

And transitions should be “medium” or “fairly fast” speed—one to three seconds, so the audience can see the change but not be held in suspense (again, not really professional). This also give the presenter time to verbally segue from one to another.

There are a few more points that figure into good presentations, but these are pretty sturdy, and after hearing this sort of stuff bounced around in class for twenty-plus years, I think my students have the fundamentals solidly by now.

Track Changes in Microsoft Excel–Essentials

One of my wife’s colleagues recently asked about whether it’s possible to track changes in an Excel spreadsheet. It certainly is, though it works a little differently than in Word, say.
Turning the feature on in Excel is quite easy–simply go to the Review tab in the Ribbon, slide over to the Changes group, and click Track Changes.
Review Tab, Track Changes
Almost immediately, we see one of the differences between this and the Word version–we are told this will put the document into Shared mode, allowing others to open and edit the file at the same time. We also want to decide which specific changes to highlight.
Highlight Changes dialog box
Usually it’ll be When and Who. By not checking Where, we’re saying we want to see where *all* changes are being made, which is normally desirable. And we almost always want to track changes on screen, though it’s possible to list changes on a new sheet. (Sometimes, for business situations, it’s quite helpful to do the latter, but being able to track and accept or reject onscreen is often immediately useful.)
Once the feature is on, any changes we make will be tracked. A marker will appear at the upper left of the cell(s) in question, to let us know something’s different. Whenever we save, the markers disappear.
More names added
But the program still tracks changes. Whenever we’re ready, we can review them and decide to officially accept or reject them.
Accept-Reject dialog box
And if something changes after that..no matter how many times, the feature will still follow along.
Uncle Vlad added to list

So we can definitely track changes in Excel. The nature of the program requires that it function a little differently than in other members of the Microsoft Office, but not so much that the average user would have trouble with it.

The one downside to tracking changes in any of the Office programs is the feature is a little memory intensive. This isn’t nearly as much of a problem as it might have been a few years ago, what with the faster processors and less expensive memory we can get now.

Access vs Excel—Which should we use for what?

Most people find Microsoft Excel fairly easy to learn—it has a fairly gentle learning curve, the fundamentals only take a short time to pick up, and the program is actually fairly versatile—it’s not just a ledger book on steroids. Microsoft Access, on the other hand, can be kind of intimidating. Some folks hear the word “database” and, to quote the Joker, “they start losing their minds!” The whole idea of a database program is scary because there’s more to learn, more to set up before you can use it, and more to manage even when it’s working fine.

So let’s just ask the question: When should we use each one?

To answer this, we need to understand what each one can do. Excel is a spreadsheet program. Even though information on one sheet can talk to info on another, it’s primarily meant to do math-related things. So if all you need is the equivalent of a sheet of graph paper to visually organize, say, a personal or house inventory, Excel does pretty well. You could use Word for this same purpose, and have about the same amount of work, if you don’t want to use Excel. Formatting and other aesthetic things are only about as hard as in Word, so it’s almost as if you built a giant table in Word and jotted stuff in it. Or if you want to budget monthly, quarterly, and annually, and have all of those update each other, great.

On the other hand, if you need to track something more complicated, such as information on the employees of a small (or large) company, you may run into trouble with Excel. The problem is, you may need to have three or four kinds of information that all relate to the employees, but are not directly related to each other: Personal info (home address, birthday, family), office info (building, floor, office number, phone number, business email), health plan (HMO, policy type, policy number), and maybe transportation (car make and model, parking spot, bus route, commute time). Yet all of these need to tie together, as it were. You might have each of these connect to the others through, say, the employee ID number or Social Security number—make that ID part of each of the four categories so they have a common element. This is where the term “relational database” comes from—the different categories of information nevertheless relate to each other, like a baseball team where each player has a separate job, but all cooperate to play and win.

If this idea makes sense, that we separate the types of information but allow them to relate through one item, then you understand one of the main concepts of the relational database. Like Access.

So the basic answer to the question is, If you have just one kind of information (or several that are unrelated), you can store each chunk on a separate worksheet in Excel and probably have no trouble. But if the different subsets (or as Access would call them, data tables) are related after all, using Access to store the information and work with it would actually be worth the extra time and effort. As a bicycle is good for getting around by yourself, but a pickup truck can haul some serious cargo by comparison, so Excel and Access. (Sort of.  🙂  )

As a postscript, the reason I’m not bringing up PowerPivot here—which lets us do some database-ish things in Excel—is that it’s a different tool again from Access, though it is useful. And not everyone knows about it, or how it works. We do teach it at SkillForge, but again, it’s a somewhat specialized tool, whereas Access is a more general database application and has more multi-user features, making it more suitable for business database work.

RGB vs CMYK–Which should I use?

Having taught and worked with Adobe Photoshop for many years, I get asked many basic but good questions about it by new users. One has to do with color, and the color systems we use in a picture. There are several that Photoshop can use, but the two most common are RGB and CMYK. The question: Which is best?

The fundamental difference between the two is, RGB is meant for use on screen, and CMYK for print. The terms used to describe how they work are “additive primaries” and “subtractive primaries”, which refer to how these systems show white. For RGB, imagine standing in a dark room with a white wall. Take three flashlights, with color filters (red, green, and blue) and shine them on the wall. Where the three colors overlap, they seem to make white light (the opposite of what a prism does with white light—see Pink Floyd’s album THE DARK SIDE OF THE MOON, specifically the cover—and the back cover.) So the three additive primaries add up to white.

Additive Primaries

With CMYK, the example is even simpler—a piece of paper going through a color printer may have areas where no ink or toner has landed. And the color of the paper we usually use? White, of course. So when the colors are held back, or subtracted, from a spot on the paper, that spot stays (or is) white.

Subtractive Primaries

But we need black ink too, because the dyes or pigments only sorta make black, and a normal eye can see this. So the printing folks added it for completeness.

In doing this, though, we get a couple of problems, and it takes a little thought to get round them. First, because the RGB system normally involves a screen that illuminates itself, it can show more subtle shadings of color than a piece of printed paper (which, unless you’re using radioactive inks—shame on you!—does NOT glow in the dark). The term Photoshoppers and graphic artists use is the “gamut”, which is wider/larger for RGB than for CMYK (where the ink/toner can smear a tiny bit and mess up the shadings). And a printout can’t show all the shades that a screen can. By definition, therefore, printout will always look a little less intense (“saturated”) than onscreen images.

Color Gamuts

And second, any Photoshop image saved in the CMYK system will use 33% more space on disk, regardless, than if saved with RGB. Why? Because the number of color “channels”, how many kinds of color there are in the picture at minimum, is three for RGB, and four with CMYK.

So which should we use?

If you’re scanning in a photograph you want to clean up and reprint (say, from the early 1900s), CMYK will work better, because what you’ll see on screen is what will come out of the printer. But if you’re scanning for archival purposes, scan in CMYK if possible to get a realistic version of the image, THEN change to RGB. Since RGB’s gamut is wider than CMYK’s you won’t lose any subtleties or shadings, but you will get a smaller file on disk. And you can scan in CMYK, do all your work, then save in RGB for later. Best of both worlds. Just have to make sure we understand the tradeoff of size, gamut, and storability.

How to Use COUNTBLANK in Excel

Some of the Excel functions, such as IF, come into play all the time, even outside business. They’re versatile and can do a lot. But others seem a little abstruse, or out in left field.

One question I occasionally get from business people in Excel is something like, “How do I make sure someone has filled in all the cells where I need data to, say, calculate an average correctly?” (Think “tax form” or W-4, for example. You want to make sure certain spaces are filled in regardless.)

In some situations, you might use a function like ISERROR, and incorporate it with IF to test if there IS an ERROR when you perform a calculation:

=IF(ISERROR(AVERAGE(D2:D10))…

…so that if performing the calculation glitches, you can have the formula show a message to this effect.

=IF(ISERROR(AVERAGE(D2:D10)),”There’s a blank cell there”…

Otherwise, perform the calculation.

=IF(ISERROR(AVERAGE(D2:D10)),”There’s a blank cell there”,AVERAGE(D2:D10))

Using ISERROR with AVERAGE

 

But this doesn’t quite solve the problem, because even if just one of the cells has data in it, there won’t be an error as far as Excel is concerned.

Formula finds one cell with data and calculates average

 

So we need to call a function that looks for ANY cells being empty, and lets us know. It’s called COUNTBLANK. (Sounds like some kind of strange nobleman–Count Blank, from some tiny hamlet somewhere….)

 

=IF(COUNTBLANK(D2:D10)>0,”Missing Data in D2 thru D10″,AVERAGE(D2:D10))

COUNTBLANK finds missing data and tells user

 

What it does is pretty simple, though. It COUNTs the BLANKs in a range, and can let us know how many there are. IF (as you see in the above formula) there are any (“COUNTBLANK(D2:D10)>0”), we want to see the TRUE result from the IF (the message about missing data); if not–that is, if the test is FALSE–then we want it to calculate the average. We’ve told the program to perform the calculation only IF the COUNT of BLANK cells is NOT greater than 0, and let us know if there are any blanks so we (or the user) can correct this.

COUNTBLANK finds no missing data

 

Of course, guaranteeing that only numbers get filled in is another matter. But there are a few different ways to take care of this, such as Data Validation. The important thing is, MISSING data are a problem, as the result isn’t an accurate one. And letting the user know about this is the big thing.