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Sunday, January 29, 2006

Buy a book.

For the last few hours I have been fighting with the adjustments required to make a Word Document work for a client. They created a 20-odd page document to be contstructed into PDF format (my job) for their web site. Wait, that's wrong. They created 20-odd documents to represent a newletter. Although I know I could re-create the document appropriately, I really don't want to invest the time. I would rather find out that the customer invested $30 in a Word for Dummies book (not that they are stupid).

The products available to the consumer are many, too many it may seem, and very costly for the most part. Mainstream products are expensive and do not offer try-before-you-buy as Shareware does. Open source projects and Shareware allow for a cheap alternative, but rarely go far enough because the backing is not there. Basement programmers are not known for their skills in user interface development or support.

Microsoft Word (I'm using and referring to the Office 2000 version) is not a desktop publishing tool. It is a word processor, albeit very advanced in that role. It does wonderful columns and handles graphics well. It can be forced into being a desktop publishing applcation, but it's unpleasant. The Microsoft alternative is Publisher, a free alternative is OpenOffice.org (an open source alternative).

I'm still not sure what I'm going to do to create this PDF correctly, but I may simply buy a book for the creator and hope for the best.

Friday, January 27, 2006

Accessorizing the Desktop

A few years ago the popular things was puting trolls on your monitor, years before that I guess people had trendy or useful desk blotters. There's always the various desk plants, trendy calculators, funky space-wasters that people collect for their desks, screens, and walls.

These cluttering objects have made it to your computer screen. It's not like the classic Pop-Up tools like Sidekick, this has become the 'Norm' for computer usage under the Windows operating system. These new items, as in the past, can have some use to us, but there's a few of them, possibly several thousand that are completely useless. The beauty is finding those trinkets and tools that are useful, if not not to anyone else, and having them at mouse's reach on your screen, reducing or interfering with your workspace. Desktop real estate is valuable, that's why I have a 19" monitor, that's why there are bigger and bigger LCD monitors coming out. Not only do we want to see our work (or play) better, but the PC manufacturer's and Bill Gates himself have a desire for the PC to be your world.

The latest trinkets are in nice neat applications as plug-ins or widgets. The two main applications, or platforms, for these trinkets are Yahoo Widgets and Google Desktop. These platforms have different looks and similar intentions. They are very different by design and their behaviour may or may not be to your liking. The nicest thing is they're free and most of the plug-ins are too.

While the Yahoo tool, an acquisition formerly called Konfabulator, is very artistic and soft. The community that build widgets looks for new and interesting ways of giving you some part of the vast information on the Internet through their trinkets. Their trinkets are either on your screen or lurking about, you can invoke the 'Heads Up Display' and a semi-transparent haze brings all of them to the fore-front where you can work with them. They can be above your other applications, behind, or behaving like any other application, but they also have a floating mode. When a widget is floating it is best made mostly transparent so the active windows are visible below it. When it's floating it is also transparent to your interaction, you simply use your application as it it were not there.

Google's application has a different look, while it can be hidden away at the bottom, and easily transitions from sidebar to floating to deskbar (in the task bar). It is more like a typical windows application than Yahoo's graceful presence, but Desktop does reserve it's place on your screen, right or left, so it doesn't interfere aside from the reduction of real estate. It's a decent tool, but the user community is less generous both with the quantity and cost. Many of the contributor's in the Desktop community make their offerings as Shareware rather than Freeware.

I like the spirit of the Yahoo community better.

For your purposes, if you like these trinkets or simply the access to information ('Information at Your Fingertips' was a mission statement for a while at Microsoft Canada) then have a look. Many of the tools are a very helpful, useful, and practical. Sometimes you'll hate them, but there's some adjustment required when you change your habits. Personally, I have the weather, a calendar, a clock, a to do list, a timer, and quick access to the Command Prompt when I use Widgets. The Deskbar is a little more compact but features many of the same things, in a smaller space.

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

eSafety: To route or not to route...

I will recommend that anyone on a high-speed Internet connection obtain and configure a router. The router is a physical, and virtually impenatratable wall between the Internet and your PC. While there are software solutions available to protect you, the very nature software means it can be compromised by user-error or inherent flaw.

A router plugs in between your DSL/Cable Modem and your PCs or Network in your home, office, or hotel room and routes traffic between your Local Area Network (LAN) and the Internet through your ISP using what some call Internet Protocol (IP) or TCP/IP. The Internet protocol was not designed with the threat of hackers and viruses in mind, it was designed to deliver information, globally, efficiently and reliably. The primary function of the router is to facilitate this by routing only traffic that is meant for your eyes. There is quite a bit of junk that will fly by that's not important and you do not want that traffic on your LAN. The nature of a router, the firewall aspect of the typical router is the ability to disallow access. The complexity involved is dependant on the features, but even the most basic router will allow for you to communicate over the Internet while comfortably seated behind a locked door.

In reality it is several locked doors, 65535 doors actually, referred to as ports. Many ports have a commonly accepted use, such as web browsing (80 and 443), E-Mail (110 and 25), and inter-PC communication (135). This is NOT all of them, there are many more for many purposes. Most default configurations allow you to make outbound connections on all of these ports and will not interfere with your usage, some routers will allow adjustments of that but that's another discussion.

Your safety is found in the security of these closed doors. You should leave them closed unless you have a very specific need, such as a specialized software's need. This should be done only if you know exactly what you are doing and only for very specific ports. Some games require ports to be opened and directed to the PC playing the game, this is normally for hosting a game. Your router will have basic security restricting access to the configuration. suring configuration you should always change the password from the manufacturer's default. If you have purchased a wireless router, turn off the wireless if it not going to be used. Be very careful when configuring a wireless router, if you leave the wireless doors unlocked you leave access to your PC unlocked, but you also risk sharing your Internet connectivity with neighbours or passersby.

Routers are not expensive. Looking at the local Best Buy will snag you a router, a healthy safety plan, for less than $50. It is time to stop considering the value of a router and realize the necessity.

I'm here for you... technically.

I'm a technical guy who's always busy but gains real enjoyment from writing about PC usage and cool technical innovations. I've been into PCs for 20+ years and have a reasonable knowledge of the industry and opinions on everything. I'm going to try to deliver information to you that is relevant and practical and easy-to-read.

Welcome and thank you for dropping in.