Thursday, May 14, 2009

The 2009 Ars USB flash drive roundup

Shopping for a USB flash / thumb drive?  Ars Technica, one of the better online technical news sites, has completed a review of several, most in the 8 - 16 GB range.  The review is a bit apples to oranges, in that it reviews drives of different storage sizes (and storage size has an impact on performance due to its effect on what underlying electronic components are used).  It also doesn't delve far into the technical details that affect that performance.  But for most people, this review is probably quite adequate, and the reader can walk away with some simple choices.

Small wonders: the 2009 Ars USB flash drive roundup

Monday, March 23, 2009

Microsoft's internal file copying utility

Need more advanced control over file copying under Windows?  Microsoft has made available their in-house utility that was formerly restricted to internal use.  Copy files with advanced control, pause and resume copies, and copy with greater speed.

The installation process is somewhat annoying, using a custom program -- that writes to the registry -- to unpackage the downloaded file in the the installer and supporting files.  Once you've done that, read the readme.txt file to get started.

LifeHacker article

Microsoft Technet article

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Constructing PDF files for free

PDF files remain enormously useful for distributing both text and graphics in a universal and freely accessible format.  However, many people either don't know how to construct them or believe that expensive proprietary software is necessary.

More and more programs provide the ability to "export" or "save as" their content to the PDF format.  Recent versions of Microsoft Word do this.  The open source and freely available "office suite", OpenOffice, also provides the functionality -- it did so ahead of Word, perhaps providing some impetus for the latter's feature addition.  In fact, OpenOffice now offers a limited ability to import text from a PDF file so that it can be edited.

Further, there are a number of programs and utilities that allow for the construction of PDF files from disparate sources, especially via separate PDF files constructed by those sources.  One convenient and freely available program for doing this on Windows is PDFTK Builder.

PDFTK Builder can read individual pages or page ranges from multiple PDF files and combine them into a single, separate PDF file.  It can also perform some other straightforward tasks:  Splitting files, applying a background stamp to pages (e.g. a ghosted "Confidential" or copyright notice), rotating pages, and applying password protection against unwanted uses of file contents.

PDFTK Builder is a graphical front end to the command line toolkit PDFTK.  As is not infrequently the case with free and open source programs, the core functionality provides an interface that is lean in design.  The same development team or another one may separately create a graphic interface that packages that core functionality inside a prettier front end.

As an example of how all this can work, I recently needed to construct an announcement for a client's upcoming workshop.  The workshop had a flyer, and the presenter had a separate brochure describing their work.  An electronic version of that brochure was not available, making combining the elements a bit more interesting.  The client needed the announcement and the brochure to be held together, so that recipients didn't end up referring to the brochure and missing differing contact information that applied for the workshop.

I placed the flyer text into OpenOffice and then exported that to a PDF file.  For the brochure, I scanned it and tweaked the scans to reach a good compromise between image size and quality.  I then used the freely available and well regarded Irfanview graphics browser to "save as" those scans into two more PDF files.  Finally, I used to PDFTK Builder to combine the flyer and the brochure scans into a single, three page PDF file, reading each in from the separate PDF files I'd already created.

The result was a single PDF file carrying both the announcement and the brochure, and I was able to construct it in minutes while keeping my wallet in my pocket.  I don't mind paying for items that are of value to me, but I'm not going to pay several hundred dollars for a commercial program to create a single PDF file.  I had another option.  And now, so do you.

Friday, March 6, 2009

A personal limitation: Just try it

My previous post described frustration with the posting process and all the bits of knowledge one needs to accumulate to make it work.  That knowledge is often not laid out clearly and concisely nor in one location.

However, the frustration this causes also reflects what is perhaps a personal limitation.  I tend to be very cautious, and afraid of "breaking" something or exposing a security risk.  There are times when this has served me well, but at other times it does seem largely to get in the way.

In terms of blog posts, well, there is an "Add image" toolbar button here in Scribefire (once you hover over it and happen to catch its tooltip).  Instead of pissing and moaning further, I could simply try it and see what happens.  It's not as if I need reference top secret material.

Well, trying this and selecting the option to upload a file from my computer, I find that Scribefire gets a 404 response when trying to use the blog's (Blogspot) API, and hangs indefinitely when trying to use the other choice:  FTP.  In lieu of solving these problems, I'm left with one other ready option, which is to repeat the whole "Picasa Web" experience for this Google account, emailing myself the photo, and then trying the "link to image on the web" option that is also available in Scribefire.

Well, that appears to have worked. However, the Scribefire "rich text" authoring form gives no hint of the image's presence. Preview shows only a faint "broken image" icon which appears to be at the end of the post -- but, as I inserted the image at the end of the draft, this may reflect the final/actual location within the post.

It's only by viewing the HTML authoring form within Scribefire that I can confirm that the img tag is present.

Why do basic tasks like this continue to be so difficult and/or opaque?

I suppose I should try the free Microsoft post editor that has been receiving such favorable comments.  But I just can't bring myself to trust MS particularly with regard to long term availability of / accessibility to the product.  And it's yet more semi-arbitrary interface to learn.

Addendum:  Looking further, it appears that perhaps the "Link to this Photo" address provided by Picasa Web is a link to the photo's "page", rather than to the photo itself.  By looking at the URL's provided within the proferred "Embed image" HTML, I find a URL that appears to directly address the photo.  Trying that URL in the Scribefire "Add an Image" functionality yields the following:

Ah, that actually displays, including in the "rich text" authoring form.

So, "just trying it".  And keep trying, until you find something that works.

Never mind the frustration.  ;-)

(And just don't try to do it at the last minute, when you don't have time to figure things out for yourself.)

Composing blog posts; another hindrance

I've settled on Scribefire -- a Firefox extension -- as the best post editor of the lot that I've tried.  But I don't know it too well, nor much about composing blog-formatted posts.  I realized, in composing my previous entries, that this was limiting me.  In particular, a few screenshots would serve quite well, but I haven't worked out how to add them.  And to format them.

Can they go directly into the blogspot blog and storage?  That appears to be an option, in some cases.  Do I have to upload and host them somewhere, then linking to them?  If so, where, and what choice do I make to help ensure long term stability?

Picasa might seem an apt choice, since it is another Google property and is probably not going anywhere.  But Google tries very hard to make you install the full Picasa client onto your system.  I've found that most if not all locally installed Google applications -- as opposed to those used solely through the web browser -- exhibit obnoxious behavior.  They install and try to insist upon the Google Updater program, which sucks up system resources and slams through upgrades with no warning.  The programs upgrade themselves without warning nor control over the update process, and hook deeply enough into the host system that a reboot can be more or less essential.  They start scanning and indexing things without prompting; their behavior can only be altered, if at all, after the fact.

Finally, for Picasa, what does one do if one accesses multiple Google accounts including multiple Picasa accounts?

I needed to post some family photos recently, and I decided -- partly to avoid intersecting with other photo hosting that I've set up -- to give Picasa a try.  After a fair amount of Googling around for utilities and API information, I found that the one option for uploading photos to a Picasa Web (as they call it) account without installing the Picasa client software, is a recently added feature that allows Picasa Web to accept photos emailed to an account-specific, "secret" email address.

As a significant benefit, attempting to select multiple files at once for attachment, in gmail, actually worked.   I hadn't had too much expectation that it would.  I learned later that this multiple selection support is a recent addition to gmail.  I could add a reasonable number of pictures with a single email.

An added trick is not to wait for the draft email message to load all the selected files:  When you send the email, they are all uploaded again.  Instead, click "Send" right after adding the files via the file selection dialog box; any portion of the files not already uploaded before you click "Send" will only be uploaded once, instead of twice.

Actually, a "web upload" option was described, but when I accessed my Picasa Web account, the described control was not present.  Perhaps because it was a new account that did not have any albums set up.  But neither were their controls enabling the web client to create an album.  All very frustrating.  The email process deposited the first set of attached photos into a default "dropbucket" (or similarly named; I forget).  Once photos were in this default location, I could use the web interface to move them to a new album.

All very frustrating.  And that is a good part of my point, if any, behind describing this as a part of the hindrance to blogging.  You want to do photos?  It's possible, but every stage of the process seems to have poor documentation and limitations, whether intensional or merely short sighted.  It's not another account name and password to remember.  It's worse:  A whole set of ill-defined procedures that are platform-specific.

Some people seem to thrive on such random detail (the basic flow may make some sense, but the implementation details and their corresponding evocations are quasi-random -- arbitrary, at least).  For me, it's yet another set of arbitrary specifics, and my brain started subconsciously but seemingly quite specifically tuning those out somewhere in my 30's.

So, I'd like to author "better" posts.  But I'm bored to death with piddling details of the posting process.

Breaking the hiatus

This is not a particularly tech-centered post.  In fact, on a broader level, I've been debating what blogs to create and what items to post there.  I have both practical and/or technical comments to make, and philosophical ramblings (sorry) to, err, spam about?  But, I get overwhelmed by too much detail, particularly when it serves a purpose not intrinsic to myself, such as separating my angstful self from my more helpful and publicly presentable self.  Where do I draw the line?  How do I remember all the fricking accounts and passwords?  (Well, hopefully I've already answered the latter, a bit.)

The purpose of the post is to hopefully simply break up the overall blogging logjam that I've been experiencing.  It will hardly be the only such jam.  So, is a post such as this merely a part of the symptom rather than the solution?  It doesn't really matter.  It gets ink on paper, or electrons on to screens.  That is its purpose.  Sometimes, simpler is better.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Safely store your passwords (Windows; some support for Mac and Linux)

The KeePass application is one of the better options for safely storing password (and account) information on a Windows computer.  There is also some support for Mac and Linux, but I have not tried these versions.

For programs that use encryption, "open source" distribution becomes a serious consideration.  Only through examination of the source code, and with the ability to independently build the application from that source code, can the user (or expert, on behalf of the user) easily determine that the program is safe and does what it described as doing.

Here's the URL: