Random software notes

Software has been much on my mind lately because of the multiple transitions I’ve had to make in the past few weeks—to a new web hosting service, new internet store software, new weblog software, a new operating system, new software that replaces the stuff that no longer works under the new operating system. I take on these tasks more brashly than most people might, since I used to program for a living and so have some hope that if I get into technical trouble I can reason my way out of it. As a result I’ve found out some things that might be useful to other people.

  • The Yahoo Store setup is faithful and robust, especially good for people who don’t want the headaches that can come from having to maintain internet store software yourself. And although it isn’t extremely expensive, much cheaper options are available if you are able to do store maintenance yourself; I figure I’ll be saving more than $1000 per year by the switch I just made.

  • If you’re looking for open cart internet store software, Zen Cart is a good choice. I managed to move our store from Yahoo to Zen Cart with minimal trouble, the new store looking mostly like the old store except in a few ways which I think it looks better. And it is widely used, which always helps with open source software; e.g. programmers were quick to add support for the new Google Checkout system.

  • When dealing with an internet store, it helps to be at least minimally familiar with the Unix utilities for text manipulation. I had to copy 200+ product descriptions to the new store, descriptions that contained thousands of links based on the old store structure. In about ten minutes I was able to create a script that reformatted each of those links so that they worked with the new store structure (which is very different). It would have taken me days to do the same thing by hand.

  • My old weblog was done using Movable Type, which was perfectly adequate, but MT isn’t among the weblogs that new hosting service provides. I could have installed it myself, but instead I decided to try WordPress, an open source program which they do provide. I am very impressed, especially with the latest version; it fixes many of my gripes with MT, and some things (like the control panel) just look nicer.

  • Wikis are fun to work with, and I like the MediaWiki software (also open source). But it takes a lot of information to make a wiki truly useful. I have a back burner project where I’m collecting together information on a fairly broad topic; it took long enough just to create the topic and subtopic pages, and because I only work on it in fits and starts the growth of the wiki is pitifully slow. But this is an observation about information, not the software itself; it’s the reason that it took Carla Emery thirty years to put together The Encyclopedia of Country Living, page by tedious page.

  • All in all, Microsoft Vista is pretty good. It probably wasn’t worth the pain of upgrading, but the pain is over and there are some nice things about the new environment. I like the new look, and don’t mind that Macintosh users had it years ago. Many of the system utilities are more polished. One thing I gave up on, though, was the hybrid sleep mode, where the machine goes into a low-power state and wakes up quickly when you press a key. Sometimes it worked properly, but too often the machine decided to wake up for its own mysterious reasons. I’ve gone back to hibernation, which does almost the same thing but powers off the machine completely. It seems to take about thirty seconds to power back up, with all your programs running as you left them, and that’s plenty fast for me.

  • I am still using Windows Live Writer to write posts for my weblog. This is less important with the new WordPress, which auto-saves your writing every thirty seconds or so, but it is still more comfortable using a customized application running locally to write and edit posts, rather than doing it in a browser over the internet. And I’m happy to discover that Live Writer doesn’t break the comments feature of WordPress like it still does with Movable Type.

  • My CD burning software, Nero Burning Rom v6, did not survive the Vista update and I didn’t want to pay the upgrade fee just for the small part of Nero that I use. I would have used (free) Windows Media Player instead, but WMP (still!) puts a 2-second gap between CD tracks; when I burn long, continuous recordings I want to put tracks every five minutes or so, to make it easier for the listener to search it, but I don’t want 2-second silences between the tracks. Finally I discovered that (free)iTunes was capable of recording without the silences, so now I ues that. Nero was superior in two ways—it didn’t copy the MP3 files into its library like iTunes does, and I was able to tell Nero to break up a single file into tracks. Now I have to use a (free) utility to break up the recording into five-minute MP3 files, which iTunes copies before burning. But hey, it’s free.

  • My audio editing software (Adobe Audition 1.5) and robotic CD duplicator software (Primo DVD) survived the upgrade to Vista, which evoked a large sigh of relief from me, since I use them heavily.

  • My scanner software (Visioneer Paperport) did not survive the upgrade, and I use my scanner (and the OCR program that came with it) often enough that I’ll probably have to buy a new one. That’s not entirely bad, since this scanner is five years old now, but it’s a shame because the hardware still works fine.

  • Last fall Internet Explorer was giving me some trouble, so I switched to the Firefox browser and have decided that I like it better, especially for the small touches (incremental search, automatic updates, easy plugin installation). I don’t use too many plugins, but there are a couple I like a lot. One is called IE View, and it allows you to view a page using the Internet Explorer rendering engine (i.e. see what it would look like in Internet Explorer). Another is called Scrapbook, and it lets you quickly save a copy of a web page to a scrapbook that can be searched and organized.

  • I’ve never found a software application I liked for organizing information. I do like the X1 desktop search program (free) for finding files on my computer; once it has indexed the machine it is very fast, and using it I’ve found things I thought I’d never see again. The information organizer that looks best to me, based on reports from its users (including author James Fallows) is Zoot, but its interface is way behind the times, it is very complicated and under-documented, and even after hours of messing with it I couldn’t figure out how I was supposed to use it.

  • But when I upgraded to Windows Vista I also upgraded to the new Windows Office, Home and Student version, which came with an application called OneNote 2007. I’ve only used it lightly, but so far I like it a lot. The metaphor is that you have a collection of notebooks (tabs along left of window), each notebook having multiple sections (tabs along top of window), each section having multiple pages (tabs along right side of window). Three level deep is about all I can use effectively, so I l like that. It is very easy to plop down snippets of text, tables, bulleted lists, graphics, and so on anywhere on the page. Your edits are saved as you make them. And one of the best features is that it adds a new “printer” to your system, called “Send to OneNote 2007”, which allows you to save whatever you are looking at as a printed page—especially handy for saving webpages to OneN
    ote, and especially nice in that the printed version of a browser page often dispenses with useless graphics, ads, etc.


2 thoughts on “Random software notes

  1. The new blog setup looks great, Rick. Of course, I like this template myself…(take a look at what I did with it at http://lynnsbread.com –not ideal to do a business site on WordPress, but I could adapt a theme to the colors Lynn likes.)

    Just wanted to say about your scanner software.–do you know that you can buy Paperport software separately? If you did that maybe you could continue to use the old scanner. I have Paperport particularly to help me keep some of the genealogy stuff I scan more organized. It’s made by ScanSoft.

  2. Patti,

    Thanks for the tip about ScanSoft. I started by looking at their website, and yow! They wanted $100 for the software, $20 more than the scanner I had found which included the software for free.

    But as I was composing this reply, I googled on PaperPort and found this page from a site I’d never seen before called Secret Prices. Not only did they have a pointer to a page where ScanSoft was offering the package for 50% off, but they also had a coupon code for another $10 off, making the total price $40. Much better. I bought it.

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