Wednesday, August 25, 2010

SOFTWARE: Avast!, Ye'll Be Hearty 'N Happy!

I DO use paid-for software. Honest. But like the preceding articles in this series I'm doing about software I auto-load, this is another freebie. Providing you can outlast Avast's attempts to upgrade to pro versions of their software.

Avast! is my anti-virus software of choice. I'm not running Windows 7 (yet), just XP. If I was keeping actually current, I think I'd give Microsoft's built-in AV software a shot. But in the XP world, that's not smart. So, I've run through a LOT of AV programs over the years. I got burned by the ridiculous resource-intensive big boys, McAfee and Norton. And I hated their “update yearly or get orphaned” approach, first perfected by Intuit. My later preference became AVG, but the makers of that product did another thing I hate.

Rather than continuing to perfect their answer to a specific need, AVG became a suite. And I really, really believe in a single tool to do a single job. Now, I KNOW Anti-virus is part of a whole plethora of things required to keep you safe from the scum of the earth. But I like ZoneAlarm's firewall and I quite like Spybot Search and Destroy when it comes to detecting scumware after the fact. I want JUST an AV product and Avast! does that for me.

Frankly, it's not the best AV out there, nor should it be. Paying for pro versions SHOULD get you better stuff. And lately AVG has kicked Avast's butt in freebies comparison testing. But, here's the thing, by running ON-LINE virus sweeps at ESet's site and keeping Avast up-to-date and humming, I get as good as I'm going to get in terms of free protection.

And I like the way Avast does things. It's easy to customize the free version. I run frequent on-the-spot scans of my downloads folder and weekly system checks. Once in a while (less often than I should, I go to the ESet site and run the system scan from there). It's all really quite easy. And Avast generates waaaay fewer positives than others. The fake kind I mean. That's good, because my ALL-THE-TIME approach is to immediately delete that file, not store it away. And if that file comes from a recently downloaded sub-folder of stuff (usually stored that way from a zip or rar file decompressed), I get rid of the whole folder. THEN I clean out the recycle bin.

Outside of the need to re-register once a year and submit to the on-line attempts to pitch the pro version, there's not a lot to dislike about Avast! Anti-virus. It plays well with others, gets updated frequently enough and catches most of what might float your way. Not much more can be asked of a free product.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010


Continuing my irregular series on what software auto-loads on my computers, I will remind you that in no way, is this related to something inane uttered by the celeb without talent, Paris Hilton. This article is about SpeedFan.

SpeedFan is different on every computer and it's main job is to let me know if something has gone awry with the interior temperature of my computers. Now, my personal computers all sit on TOP of desks, have plenty of airspace around them and get overhauled more often than MOST people's computers. As a result, they have the opportunity for Patrick to clear out the dust that accumulates. And dust DOES accumulate. It's amazing. Computers are way better dust magnets than you Sunday best whites, shirt or dress. And dust tends to clog up one of the few moving parts in computers … the fan(s).

When you run SpeedFan on a computer, it will tell you a temperature. By default, it shows the system temperature. It's 47 on Popeye, 42 on Nuklon and 39 on Ollie. Not surprisingly, there's more stuff in Popeye than Nuklon. And Ollie's barely a computer terminal these days, doing naught else but surf the internet and watch videos stored on the communal hard drives here.

Now, in normal operation, I'll see those numbers go up a degree or two. Nuklon tends to be the only one that gets up three or four degrees, when burning data backup disks. But when the temp varies by five, I start investigating. In most cases, it's a fan that's quit. And it's ALWAYS a good idea to find out as soon as possible that your computer is in the process of baking.

SpeedFan is like insurance that you have the option of getting for free, but can donate through PayPal for. It's a good idea to get it and forget it.

Until it shows you why you shouldn't ignore it any longer.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

SOFTWARE: The Chicken Or The Egg

Early last week, I developed, simultaneously, three issues. Two dealt with my programming environment, Delphi. I was suddenly getting an error with menus while within Delphi. And Delphi wasn't finding my database of current choice, Nexus. AND, when I went to Xana NewsReader to head off to the news forums to ask questions as to why, Xana wouldn't run at all. And that was bad.

You see, I needed to solve the problem as to why Xana wouldn't run … to get to Xana to ask why Xana wouldn't run.

I looked at my recently installed list of programs. There were a few in the preceding week or so, so I uninstalled them. No help. I'd considerably changed around my Firefox, adding several add-ons and changing around my quick bookmarks. I disabled the add-ons, but that didn't help. I re-enabled them. More of those changes in a later blog.

Xana was upgraded, downgraded and then returned to the version I was currently (I wished!) using. Nothing but that infuriating dialog box at startup saying an Access Violation had prevented execution of the program.

Next step was to assume the absolutely bloody worst. A virus had gotten through. So, I ran a virus check, which took awhile. Like overnight-awhile. Which is normally prime programming time for me. I hit the hay early that night, obviously. And while I was fretting about it during that pre-sleep time we all have, I thought to myself, “I'd better run CrapCleaner and get rid of all temp files and then run the registry cleaner.” This was something I'd obviously remember in the morning (or early afternoon), so I didn't do what I normally do during a EUREKA! moment. Jump out of bed and go test the idea immediately.

When I DID clamor out of bed the following morning (Okay, it was something past noon, but you get the drift), I had completely forgotten my little bit of inspiration. I got the bad news that the virus check had run completely clean!?!?! Now what. I was out of ideas and panic was starting to set it. I uninstalled a Chinese tool library I use rather a lot, because I'd vaguely remembered reading somebody somewhere had an issue with it on Xana. When Xana was still working. I retrograded a couple of other upgrades to Delphi I'd done in the last two months.

Nothing worked.

It was now late Thursday night and I was getting a mite frustrated. Finally, it re-occurred to me that I should at least eliminate garbage as the cause. I'd run into that issue when INSTALLING Delphi's BDE database components over the years, and now habitually clean the computer before installing Delphi. Might garbage be the current problem? So I ran CrapCleaner (aka CCleaner) and had it thoroughly dispose my system of temp folder detritus. Then, I ran the registry checker and cleaned up 216 rogue entries. I wasn't surprised by that number, given the uninstalls I had done through the week.

I rebooted the system and tried Xana. It WORKED!!!!! And now, I have the questions out there in the news forums asking for help on my two Delphi issues. Hopefully some smarter person out there will shine a light on my mystifying issues.

What cured my Xana issue? Don't know. It might have been some file in a temp folder that Xana was choking on. Or it could be that a bad registry key was screwing things up. Whichever, Xana was now working.

The kicker, of course, is, I could have saved all of Thursday's grief had I just acted on my sleepy time thoughts immediately. The second kicker? Things would have gone back to working for Xana today … my weekly system maintenance day where I run CrapCleaner as part of my weekly routine. Xana would have started working again, and I wouldn't have been able to figure out why.

Just like the chicken and the egg conundrum.

Friday, August 20, 2010

SOFTWARE: Menu Screens and Backgrounds

I don't own a cellular telephone, let alone use one with one of those fancy launchers that let you have all sorts of obfuscating backgrounds that make it hard to find the icon you want to hit to launch something. But I've got a Sony Clie PDA (I am an old man) and a desktop computer or two.

And I continue to be boggled by people who desire some sort of picture on their desktop, whatever the device.

Now, let me also say that I don't know what kind of interface HelixLauncher presents to users of Android phone users. Might actually be MY type of launcher. But I have my doubts. Unfortunately, for users of Android phones just now getting their taste of Android 2.2 and Froyo, the combination of those and HelixLauncher is, for the time being, an unhappy one.

Which brings me to my rant which has ABSOLUTELY NOTHING to do with HelixLauncher, Android or Froyo.

It's the background mavens I fight hard against. On my desktop machines, I use Classic (read Windows 2000) style desktops. Solid dark blue background, slightly off-white windows (who needs a spotlight in your face if you're not being subjected to interrogation) and green title bars for active windows and red title bars for inactive windows. I have NO problem getting even the rawest of computer users to figure out which windows are active and which ones aren't. Even with no prior discussion. The blue and white scheme from Microsoft? Not so much.

I have no problem finding icons on my desktop. Their are grouped according to function, just as would piles of paper on my real desk. None of this Auto-Align. None of this auto-sort. I promise I will mangle the computer of the next person who sets any of the computers I control to those idiotic setups. It's REAL easy to find icons when you have the desktop set to keep moving them around behind your back. NOT!!

On the Clie, I DO run something non-standard, XLauncher. But I run XLauncher's default minimalist screen with NO picture behind my pretty little set of icons. And I NEVER have trouble finding a program or data file to run.

Personalizing your desktop is amongst the worst things you can do to your desktop. A LOT of people like running BIG pictures of them, or loved ones, or loved things. Each of these ginormous pictures takes of resources that we ALL wish we had more of. Makes it hard to find icons, now suddenly looking like lost treasures in the middle of a forest. And, here's the maddening one … the pictures disappear all the time the person actually works on the computer because they ALL run ALL of their applications FULL-SCREEN!!!! Even little ones, they reflexively hit the maximize button, leaving the actual workings of the window in the upper left-hand quarter of the screen … if that much. It's maddening watching such lunacy.

If you want your picture of the loved ones, loved things or your self-aggrandizing mug, then get a picture for your wallet or buy one of those picture panels from Pandigital. Or, heavens forbid, get an old-fashioned print made of a real picture and stick it in a 99 cent picture frame.

Leave me and my bloody desktops alone.

Monday, August 16, 2010

SOFTWARE: Making That Printscreen Button Worthwhile

In Windows, the PrintScreen button on your keyboard (oft named PrtSc) is actually paired with the SysReq button. Used either lately? I have. Thanks to Gadwin PrintScreen, I use the PrintScreen button all the time.

One of the issues with PrintScreen for the non-enhanced user is that it's an all or nothing affair. You get the complete desktop. Now, that's occasionally a good thing. A LOT of my less computer-inclined friends have Gadwin PrintScreen set to basically mimic the default Windows behaviour. Click it and get the whole screen. Me? I like total control.

So, when I click the PrintScreen button, a box cursor shows up and I can control WHAT I want included by simply drawing a box around the area I want captured, big or small. Then, I can directly paste the results into a Word document, an email, a Help compiler or even a spreadsheet (logo's).

Gadwin PrintScreen isn't the only screen capture program I have running on the computer (more of that in the weeks ahead). But it's the go-to utility in this area. It fits MOST of my needs for just clicking and pasting graphics into other programs. It's fast and you can set it up to be almost invisible in your work. But there's power to be had if you want more.

And I'm not just talking about the difference between the free-for-home version that I use and the Pro version.

For instance, you can have Gadwing PrintScreen capture, simultaneously, to the clipboard AND printer AND to a file! Heck, there's even a choice to capture and email the result automatically. The file process can be automated so you don't see a file save dialog. And the choices in file type are pretty good. Hint, stick with PNG, not BMP, which is the default. There's a few more bells and whistles, but you get the drift.

This is a utility to stick in your Startup folder and be done with it. Until you need it.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

SOFTWARE: The Little Clock That Is Just A Clock

I was a bit wrong the day before yesterday when I mentioned Everything was the first icon to the right of my system tray. While not an icon, TClockEx actually holds the right-most position in my system tray and is probably the longest-serving auto-start program in my tray.

You can find TClockEx here (as adverse the site listed in the About screen). It's by Dale Nurden and is now 10 years old. Unchanged and still working after 10 years. I wish MY software would last a tenth as long!

What is TClockEx? It is a extended clock for your system tray. It'll do a slight bit more than that (show your memory consumption as a bar graph), but I honestly just use it for the one purpose. Instead of a non-descript 1:10 PM, it shows me [Sun] 15/Aug/2010 @ 1:11:35 PM. In yellow type against a black background. Easy to see against the dark blue desktop and grey taskbar to its left. Doesn't sound very dynamic does it?

Yet it is one of the first half-dozen programs I install on any new computer.

By the way, this works in Windows 2000 and Windows XP. Frankly, it's not needed in Windows 7. What about Vista, you ask? Ahhhh, we don't say that word in polite company and if you're smart enough to be reading this blog, you don't care a whit about the Microsoft Mistake.

Anyways .... I believe in single-purpose tools as much as possible. Do one thing and do it well. And TClockEx is a superb clock. I WILL admit I like its little calendar popup when you double-click it (user configurable). But being a clock is really what I need it to do and it does that. AND it's free, although Dale accepts donations through PayPal.

It's not the most earth-shattering software ever invented. But there IS beauty in simplicity. Doesn't take much RAM and it improves on Windows XP. Give it a try.

Friday, August 13, 2010

SOFTWARE: Testing BlogJet

One of the reasons I have lagged in blogging is the sometimes inane editor that Blogger uses. There's a LOT of bouncing back and forth between the editor and the preview, because you can't edit in the preview mode. And the editor window is an itty little bitty thing that's not resizable. Sooooo, I decided to give BlogJet a try.

Interestingly enough, the first thing BlogJet does is offer to let you try the automatic posting thing. And that post is the following (Slightly edited for the presence of COOL in the blog. I'd never recover the shame of using that four-letter word, of course):

I have installed an interesting application - BlogJet. It's a Windows client for my blog tool (as well as for other tools). Get your copy here:

"Computers are incredibly fast, accurate and stupid; humans are incredibly slow, inaccurate and brilliant; together they are powerful beyond imagination." -- Albert Einstein

SOFTWARE: I Load Everything

Something new to prompt me to get back into the writing groove. I've recovered from Book Review Month (I even have some reviews left over that SHOULD see the light of LCD screens sometime in the next few weeks). But I thought I'd start detailing what I use, and therefore, recommend, when it comes to software. Some if it's freeware of one type or another. Some of it's paid-for stuff.

I'm going to start with the system tray of applications that I load automatically each time I turn on Popeye (or for that matter, Nuklon and Ollie, the other two desktops in my home network). Moving from right to left, the first icon belongs to Everything from VoidTools.

Everything is a file searcher. More specifically, it's a file NAME searcher. It doesn't search for contents and it doesn't search network drives. But it is BLAZINGLY FAST when it comes to finding files on your local drives. Almost instantaneous. And when I'm searching for files, THAT is what I want most of the time. If it's something internal in those files, I have built-in search tools in my file managers. But just to find WHERE I threw some file? Well, Everything is the answer.

It will run on Windows up to, and including Win7. Can't vouch for that OR its performance under 64-bit systems. But it runs beautifully under WindowsXP SP3. Takes a bit less than 30M of memory, but that's cheap at ten times the memory space. It runs in the background, indexing filenames as you create, edit and delete them.

Searching for files is really, really easy. You click on the system tray icon. Type in the part of the name you remember and before you finished typing, EVERYTHING that matches what you typed, in whole OR in part, is there on the list. You can do more tricks using ANDs and ORs and all kinds of stuff. But I hardly ever do that. Usually, what I need is right there for perusal. You can then operate on the file in question by dragging or double-clicking or even deleting. It's all so very easy.

I have couple of tips that made life a lot simpler. It's using the Tool|Options|Exclude screen to make sure Temp folders and certain Cache folders (Firefox) are excluded from indexing and searching. Also, increase the size of the default memory size in the Tool|Options|Volumes. The initial settings are 8192K and that's perfectly fine for anything up to about 125G or so. For each 125G more than that that the drive holds, add another 8000K to the maximum size. That's my own ROUGH estimates, but it will prevent you scratching your head when you know a file DOES exist, but Everything isn't finding it. (Also, don't forget NOT to index floppy and removable drives. Waste of time and effort. The setting can be made in the Volumes tab I just talked about).

Everything is free for personal use, although the author(s) will accept donations. Give it a try and set a price for it for yourself.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

BOOKS: and Robert A. Heinlein is having a closer look back at the life, times and literature of Robert A. Heinlein this month, spurred by the publication of the just-released biography (book 1) of the Grandmaster of Science Fiction. It's worth checking out the site, just to see the various angles writers are taking on William Patterson's book and on the great man himself.

As always, the cream of Tor's criticism is written by Jo Walton. And this entry really hit home for me.

When I think about stories that made an impact on me when I was a kid, I can finger three Heinlein stores that stuck in my mind for years after. I read them out of publication order, as Walton points out, but The Man Who Sold The Moon and Requiem I can still visualize all these decades later. In fact, the end of D.D. Harriman and the ending of the movie Space Cowboys, both bring tears to my eyes. Not that the movie ending was a rip-off of the Heinlein novel at all. It's just that the characters end up in the same place, with the same longing for the Moon many dreamers have.

Of course, the other Heinlein novel that hit me hard in the memory banks was The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress. It gave new meaning to eating dirt if survival depends on it. It exposed me to politics in a way I hadn't thought of, to that point in my life. Like the Harriman book and concluding short story, I read it every decade or so. It still holds up all these years later.

Now, having said which three of Heinlein's works are my favourites, I can tell you I enjoyed much, much more of his work. I have an extensive collection, of course. And it includes the three 'classics' John Scalzi notes as his best. Starship Troopers and Stranger in a Strange Land, as well as the aforementioned The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress. I'm a bit blase about Starship Troopers, but I have to confess to not having liked Stranger in a Strange Land at all. It was considered au courant reading when I was in high school, even though that was a dozen years or so after its publication in 1961.

It and Starship Troopers (1959) were really the end of Heinlein's 'juveniles' time period. I liked those juveniles because they weren't all that juvenile. Double Star and The Door Into Summer crystallized themes I remained interested in all my life (Assuming identities and time travel). Others, all famous, were justifiably famous for being well-written, forward-thinking and just plain fun.

When Heinlein turned to more serious, and longer-form, novels, his politics also changed. And it became more prevalent in his books. Like I said, 1966's The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress made an impact on me. And I loved that there were bridge players in Farnham's Freehold (1964). But generally speaking, it became work to get through a lot of Heinlein's stuff in the latter half of his career. I can actually remember trying to read Job during a North American Bridge Championships in Portland, Oregon. I was on page 75 by the time I got back home two weeks later.

Every kid with an imagination should be handled a bundle of Heinlein 'juveniles' and told to go forth and enjoy. Like Sunday School, it should be left up to a responsible adult to determine if they read any further.

Friday, August 06, 2010

SOFTWARE: Things I Didn't Know

Lately, I've been finding little things that make me wanna slap my forehead and exclaim, 'Dohhhh!' The kind of things that make my computing life JUST a little bit easier.

For example, I HATE that the backspace key in Firefox takes me back to the previous contents, rather than up a page in the scroll. Over at Tweaking with Vishal, I found the solution was a simple edit to the about:config menu. Changing "browser.backspace_action" to 1 solves my problem neatly. By the way, Vishal's site is a daily visit. Frequent free software (Which DOES occasionally time out, GRRRRR) and many, many helpful hints to everyday annoyances.

My file manager of choice these days is xplorer² after having given up on ever seeing a updated version of either PowerDesk or ExplorerPlus. Months after switching, Avanquest DID come out with a PowerDesk 8. But too little, too late. I've retrained my fingers for xplorer². I have the pro version on Popeye and the free, lite version on Nuklon and Ollie. But I continue to tweak Popeye's version, while worrying how I will get the settings from Popeye to Quincy (Popeye's eventual replacement). And I wanted the ones on Nuklon and Ollie to look as much like Popeye's version as possible. I wrote down settings and specialized macros and basically moved them one by one to Nuklon. Surely, there was a better way to handle it for Ollie. Yep. There's now a Actions menu option to export settings. Serves as a good backup. Read all about it at here. It's a bit quirky, but this is a program that will run as happily in Win2K as it will in Windows 7 Ultimate 64-bit. It's being regularly updated too. Hear that Avanquest?

If you have e-books, you MUST have Calibre, the e-book management system. That's not a suggestion, it's an imperative. Now, one of the things that is great about Calibre is that you can save the covers of files you get by whatever means. Many e-books come with covers, but some don't. So you have to go mining such places as the without parallel, absolutely, essential site, Fantastic Fiction. There, you can get series, pseudonyms and cover information to your heart's delight. You can download covers from other editions and replace the cover of the book you have. I've been doing that and accumulating a BookCovers folder where I download the covers. It's an unmanageable mess of files with random names, like N3423D23.jpg. So, when the file open dialog comes up in Calibre, I must click on the View Icon and check Details. Then I have to resize the dialog to show DateModified. Then I have to click IT twice, once to sort in ascending order and once more to reverse it. THEN, the mysterious file I want is now on top. Double-click to select and OK it and you're done. I'm waaaaaaaay too lazy for that. I went spelunking for a solution. And here it is.

When the file open dialog starts, go through the normal routine. View ... Details .... Resize .... DateModified .... DateModified again. BUT, this time, while holding down the CONTROL key, click on the X (for exit) button in the top right of the dialog box. It will close. Than do a file open action again. Here's the magic. It STILL won't be details view. BUT, the files WILL BE sorted in reverse DateModified order!! The file you want is right there at the top!! Five clicking actions reduced to just one. Is this not a great tip, or what?

Now, one more thing. Previously, I had a bunch of covers called _SS_MYS.jpg, _SS_SPORTS.jpg, _SS_SF.jpg, etc. I get a lot of short stories and they, by definition, don't have covers. So I designed a bunch of these generic covers to make it look better in the cover browser. In the old default alpha order, they naturally came up at the front because of the leading underscores. But the trick above sent them to the back of the pack. Once more, xplorer² to the rescue. I used the Attributes capability to change the date modified value on all the files to Feb 2/2222 (I should live so long to regret picking that date [G]). Now, they resume their position atop the book covers list and the one I want is the first one after them. Bliss.

Sunday, August 01, 2010

INTERNET: I Write Like ...

Do you know I write most like David Foster Wallace amongst big-name writers? Neither did I until I ran a writing example through the engine at I Write Like. Hmmm. Looking up Wallace at Fantastic Fiction gets me this, as the writer I am compared to:

"David Foster Wallace has been called one of America's most important young authors and is often compared to Thomas Pynchon. He is most widely known for his epic (1000+ page) novel, Infinite Jest, published in 1996 and critically acclaimed by critics and readers alike. Topics covered in Wallace's work are wide ranging, but he seems to have a special interest in American culture, addictions, and excess." (Check out his picture!!!!)

Hmmmm. Verbose, interested in American culture, an addictive personality given to excess. Well, THAT'S pretty much on the mark.

Now, the sample analyzed came from this blog, an entry on basketball. Later I grabbed a random sample from the never-ending novel and THIS time, I Write Like claimed my closest allegory was Chuck Palahniuk. Again, back to Fantastic Fiction I went.

"Chuck Palahniuk is the author of Fight Club (made into a film by director David Fincher), Survivor, Invisible Monsters, Choke and Lullaby. He lives in Portland, Oregon."

This from an example of section about a teenage girl walking home from school, revelling in the scents and sights of an early spring day. Fight Club? At least I've been to Portland.

Hey, it only takes about ten seconds to copy and paste in a sample and press the analyze button before you get back an amusing/prescient answer. Scientific it probably isn't. Entertaining for the small amount of time wasted?