Friday, January 13, 2017

Writing on computer

I'm a sucker for writing applications. Serious writing takes something like Scrivener, which I've had for years, and of course I have and use Word for businessy  type writing. I also loaded up Ability suite of office type applications, along with the Libra set. I was after something that loaded fast and was quick to use. I'd used Ability back in the days of DOS, and liked it well enough then, so worth a look, I thought.

Amazingly the little Ability Write is as slow as a wet week to load, but OK once in. LibraOffice is quick enough, but I've slipped back to Jarte, a nice quick tool based on Microsoft WordPad for my everyday quick writing.

Notes are a different thing. I use ResophNotes, linked to my Simplenote account, mostly. The great Cintanotes for more serious stuff, which could end up in Zoot or Ultra Recall, depending on what it's for, but usually Zoot. I couldn't resist Quicknote because of its cute start point. Its just for jotting.

Saturday, November 7, 2015

old computing 1

My first computer was an Amstrad 286 running DOS, of course.

It had 1Mb of RAM and a 40Mb HDD. Nothing much these days.

On it I ran Word 5, mainly, a few shareware packages and Timeline 3, I think it was.

I replaced this with an Amstrad 386 shortly afterwards and added Windows to the mix. It was necessary to run Excel, which I did.

I added a couple of other packages over time: I was fascinated with Hypercard on the Mac, and bought a Brightbill Roberts knock off named Hyper Pad. It was very buggy. I also bought Toolbook thinking it would do something similar, but it did not.

On both I relied on Norton Commander for file management, although I added XTreePro Gold for some of its nicer functionality. Commander was my mainstay.

For pure text processing I used Boxer; very handy for making batch files, which I found very neat speed ups for a lot of system level work, starting programs, etc.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Kitting up a Mac

Kitting out a Mac for a high school student:
The basic kit that comes with the Mac is fine, but to go finer, here’s what I’m adding:
Quicksilver: best for quick keyboard access to everything. If that didn’t work so well, Alfred but the productivity pack is a payer.
Finder is pretty good for everyday work, but to really lift the hood on the file system: Pathfinder.
Evernote, but with Alternote/Simplenote/ Notational Velocity as a front end…not sure which yet.
Itsycal: a calendar on the menu bar or Day-O/Fantastical
ihomework to keep track of the dredded
Kindle for Mac: for all those books you don’t want to carry
Dropbox: for files, along with a google account for
We’ll still need a quick local word job: Bean
For serious writing either Scrivener or Ulysses. I’m familiar with Scrivener, having it both on Mac and Windows machines, but Ulysses does look nice.
Skype, Adium, Chrome for communicating/web.
aText for text expansion
While we're on 'text', how about a plain 'ol text editor: Textwranger. There are others, but this is my favourite. 
Skim for PDF annotation, although watch out for the SourceForge malware/crapware.
VLC and Handbreak for media
EagleFiler for storing random stuff, DevonthinkPro Office for organized storing of stuff
Back up system: Crashplan has been well reviewed, but I’ll also look at: Backblaze, Carbonite…
The great void in the Mac world is for a cheap simple relational database system…not essential, but can be useful for collection and analysis of structured data…candidates are idatabase by Apimac, Kexi (an open source offering) or MySQL, but that’s complicated. Tap Forms? iList Data? Firebird?
GraphicConverter to convert graphics
Image editing. I’d like open source, but I can’t get past Photoshop Elements and Premier for hitting the price-performance sweet spot, but as it bloats, I may look elsewhere.
Audacity for sound processing (also Audio Hijack and Fission)
I’ve played around with a few search tools, as Spotlight is rather a blunt instrument; current favourite is Flashlight, but I used to use HoudaSpot, which was pretty good.
Hocus Focus to manage a screen full of windows.
Dictionary extension: Terminology
Stats package: Wizard standard, by Evan Miller
General maths; Mathematica (of course), student edition
Lastly, some hardware: a wireless scanner: Iriscan Book 3 Executive is just the ticket.
Ideally I’d like to have a tiny camera: lens linked by USB to the laptop. Useful for snapping the blackboard/whiteboard (if not smartboard).

Of course, some Bible software would be great too.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Lotus Agenda

Every so often I Google Lotus Agenda.

I come up with Bob Newel's helpful page, which grows a little each time I drop by.

But recently, I came across Connected Text. Not a bad wiki system; and a blog just on note taking.

While on note taking, a few favourites:




Notepad Plus


Saturday, June 1, 2013

Anti-functions in Outlook

At work my team and I are finalising a long and complex document. We are all working on it: reading, commenting, suggesting amendments, you know the deal. Ideally we'd all be working on the one copy of the file, but having different server access, this cannot work. We could use TRIM our quite useful document management system, but that only allows serial sharing: it can't handle concurrent editing of the one document.

So, the author uses Outlook, our corporate groupware product, and e-mails the document to all of us; we comment in Microsoft Word's tracked changes mode and the author compiles the changes.

I started work on the document soon after I received the e-mail, but couldn't complete. To block out the time I needed, I copied the e-mail to the Outlook calendar.

Next day, I opened the calendar entry for the document, opened the now embedded email, then opened the attached document, and got back to work.

After some time I discovered that my work of the day before was not included in the file. Of course, it was a copy, a different file, now! Oh great, an anti-feature of Outlook strikes again.

My constant irritation with Outlook is that, despite its very useful functions, it has a major anti-function. It copies, instead of allowing another instance of a single document.

I guess I've been spoilt by InfoQube and Zoot which replicates items, it doesn't copy them, unless of course you want to copy them. So one can work on any instance of an item, and every other instance of it will show the work done.

In Outlook e-mail has the same problem. I can only put an e-mail in one folder, even if it relates to a number of folders I have. What I'd really find productive would be if I could put the one e-mail in multiple folders, and see it searchably with multiple categories (in Outlook 2003, the one we use at work, you can't search on categories: anti-feature #2), reflect it in Tasks and Notes as well as the Calendar. Then we'd be talkin' computing, and not electronic card filing!

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Info Select

In a clean out I came across an old 3.5 in. floppy disk box. It still had some disks in it, including backups of my InfoSelect install disk. There were also upgrade disks for Datacad 6 (released by Cadkey in the mid 1990s), an application called 'Squiggle' which made CAD drawings look hand-drawn, and a patch for the single user version of Alpha 4 database.

I decided to see what the disks revealled.

The Alpha 4 disk was readable, so I copied its contents to the HD; neither Squiggle, nor Datacad could be read, but I think I've already got them onto CD; but the InfoSelect! I'd forgotten about this. So I loaded it up: first disk: much grinding of drive, then a 'not formatted' message. Trash that one. Second disk: I got a directory list out of it; but couldn't copy the files due to a failed 'read'. However, they did copy one at a time, so, up and running in a DOS box!

Info Select does one thing really well. It quickly enters and stores text notes, and has a fabulous search function. I used to use it as a memory resident application in DOS, and it was great at what it did.

More recent versions, from the first Windows version, went Baroque, however: too much unnecessary elaboration around the great core functionality, and it got bogged down in 'featureitis.

Friday, January 11, 2013

Task Managers

One of the software 'tools' that seems to have proliferated in the shareware world is task 'managers'. I'll not bore you with a long list of links. but a few that I've come across lately are:
Some of the features of otak seemed useful, but not useful enough, so I emailed the author (as his website invites), only to discover that the product has been inactive for some time, with the author off on other things.

The failing of  task managers, to my mind; and I refer mainly to my experience of Microsoft Outlook, is the very restricted view of what a 'task' is.
If the task is something like 'get some milk', or, 'post letters today', then they are probably fine; but for business use, its useless. Imagine a task 'take over Extrata'. Useless.
A task manager would become useful to me if it had features such as:

  • Place tasks in groups (otak does this), and see what other tasks are in the group, with their assignees
  • Sequence tasks; not as a fully fledged project scheduler, but simply to be able to relate a group of tasks, and ensure that when one goes late, the others' start or finish dates are adjusted
  • Set task durations or lead times (or both): Outlook seems to think that a due date is sufficient, but when a 5 week task pops up on the due date, one would be at a loss to do it (maybe this means I need shorter tasks, but grouped, or linked)
  • Link tasks to people (so one can see who has what tasks.
  • Identify when a task's advancement awaits work by someone else (a 'contact')
  • Attach documents to tasks by file location
  • Have a calendar view of tasks
  • Show dependencies: other tasks or people's work that is dependent on this task, and other activity upon which the task itself depends, with capability to track the 'input' tasks.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Old Computing

My first experience with computing was in my second year at uni, doing Architecture. I did a subject called 'systems analysis' wherein we learnt precious little about actual systems analysis, even though it would have been greatly useful for us, but rather learnt to program in BASIC on teletype terminals!! Ye gods, you exclaim, what are they?

This was in 1975, and the terminals hung off an ICL main frame. It was tedious work with the output coming line by line on the teletype output roll.

Some years later I worked in a government department that was experimenting with computers for tasks related to the production of architectural documents. There had been some experiments with developing CAD capability on a giant primitive cathode ray tube screen, but what did work was the semi-automated production of building specifications.

I worked with Barry Miller and John Temple-Watts (hi, if you're reading this) on the architectural side, and a bunch of programmers and systems people on the computing side; my desk (we didn't have 'work stations' in 1979) was with the computer people, next to a separate computer room, with false floor, computer smell and over-enthusiastic air-conditioning.

The machine was a Varian mini computer, the size of three or four full sized domestic refrigerators. The units included tape drives, a paper tape reader and the main processor and memory. There were a set of disk drives off to one side; I think about three, with 5mb removable disk packs with platters about 40cms in diameter.

In front of the refrigerators was the operator's console and a line printer near by. In a back room was a noisy machine called a decollator.

All input came on punched cards, punched by a team of four or five young female punch machine operators.

The way it worked was this.

An architect would fill in a long form to select the specification clauses that covered the materials and components to be used in a building. We would take the form and a set of cards would be punched then run in the Varian to produce a print out by selecting specification clauses from a clause bank, making a tape of the selected clauses and then sending to the line printer.

The architect would then edit the first run, and the punch operators would set about punching cards to make the changes.

It was noisy in the computer room with the line printer bashing out hundreds of pages of text, which then had to be run through the even more noisy decollator and sent to the architect for a second review.

Apart from having to load punched cards to get the work going, the various programs and data tapes had to be loaded too. This meant getting tape reels from the tape library and winding the tape onto the tape drive. The various programs had catchy names: CLINDU for clause list index update, SPRINT, for specification print, SPUPDA for specification update (that was my favourite).

The morning routine was to boot the Varian and off to work. Usually the paper tape boot ran successfully; but frequently it didn't and we had to punch a sort of pre-boot sequence into a unit for the purpose: a line of lights, with a line of buttons beneath, to be punched in a specific order.

One of the other staff in the unit also used the Varian, but to run a football pool! Yes, Ray Cannings, your secret is out. Malcolm Curry was a very helpful engineer in this unit.

After I'd spent 9 months here I returned to the drawing board.

My next encounter with computers was using an Alpha Micro to run a program called Vision, which was an early project scheduling package. Well, two packages. The first package assembled a list of tasks. Then one had to run another program to link the tasks into precedence order. It did print out a useable network, though. This unit also ran a program to produce project cash flows, using some of Bromilow's work that modeled cash flows by size and type of project. This was quite a useful and reasonably accurate.

Soon after I'd perfected using Vision on a large tertiary referral hospital project, for a clinical services block, we were given Apricot computers running Lotus 123. I and some others started using this for our project management; keeping track of work packages and responsibility assignments. Was really good, but my colleagues failed to see the beauty, and so an opportunity to bring some real efficiency was slightly missed.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012


I came across the manual for TurboCAD Pro 14, which, obviously, I’ve had for a few years (since 2007, from memry). Late at night I use it as a wind down before bed, so I’m leafing each page, reading some, sometimes all the text.

I bought it because I was taken with its then new features; and it fitted the bill for a cheap, relatively functional CAD package that seemed to have useful 2D and 3D capability, it could do blocks, and useful rendering; plus it had some specific architectural functions and had model space and paper space, quite usefully. I was really after a more modern quicky than my very old AutoCad Light (version 1, I think), and the less old but very quick VisualCAD.

VisualCAD is a 2D-only package, but fast and flexible. Good basic drafting tools, line styles, and hatches. The big thing I liked about it was the keyboard shortcuts for pretty much every command, so one could mouse with one hand, and command with the other; darn quick.

I first saw this two handed input in an old IBM CAD package called CADAM.

I was interested in CADAM when researching CAD packages for a firm of architects in the late 1980s; well, not that interested, it seemed pretty limited in functionality, but its input was interesting. One hand operated a selection box with physical buttons for the root commands (place line, place circle, etc), and a light pen for placement on the screen; eech! But, compared to my knowledge of CAD, it didn’t quite do it for me. I compared it to Drawbase, which was quite useful, but only 2 1/2D, so called. CADAM was only 2D, so not going far for architectural work.

The package I had experience with, and favoured was Intergraph’s IGDS; I had used it in work on a large hospital project in the early 1980s and really loved a few things: the giant dual screen workstation with huge digitiser, multiple view windows (up to four each screen) which really helped navigate the design plane or cube and the ‘tentative point’ command that made object selection deftly fast; 3D was good too and its ability to see other files from the editable design files (reference files) was a brilliant productivity aid. Its command structure was also very fast and direct. It ran on a DEC Vax, badge engineered by Intergraph.

Anyway, at a small firm I joined we had Drawbase, which was OK, but, as I said, no 3D, although some quite useful editing functions; but the boss saw Microstation (a file compatible knockoff of Intergraph’s IGDS) and snapped up a license. Happily Intergraph saw the opporunity, and rather than attempt to stiffle Bentley via a law suit, bought into them and the rest is history!

I soon joined a larger firm of architects and they started looking for CAD. I was appointed the IT manager, and was sent off to find the system.

The contenders were Eagle, an awkward but powerful and flexible package, designed, I think, for the mining industry originally, CADAM, and Microstation. Intergraph was still competing with Bentley to sell its hardware, so I dealt with both Intergraph and MITS, Bentley’s dealer.

I also looked at DataCad, a package that is now at version 14 (15 now, Oct 2012), and still going strong. I think it was about version 3 back then, with a separate renderer called Velocity. The dealer had no idea as to how to sell to architects, and didn’t really touch Datacad’s capability, particularly the ‘data’ bit, which could have been a real boon for preparation of schedules and specification outlines if linked to material types.

Microstation still took me, however. Dual screens, multiple windows and a very flexible reference file system made it far and away the most productive system I’d encountered. We bought half a dozen licenses and we were off and away! I did some presentations for the dealers, extolling the virtues of CAD in general and Microstation in particular.

Soon after, I joined another firm of architects that had a Macintosh package called Minicad. I was not that impressed by it, and they were using it on a little 9in. screen Macintosh Classic: for productivity it was one step forward, two steps back!

A few years later I joined a large design and construct organisation that used Microstation: they must have run about 100 licenses, and had a presentation studio using Intergraph modeling software on a huge screen workstation: about 35in. Bentley had a ‘home use’ program than through which I obtained a copy of Microstation 95.

I recently loaded this up on my laptop, for old times sake: loaded perfectly in Windows 7; the old guide books I found also worked perfectly: it was a real nostalgia experience.

A few years earlier I’d also bought Datacad, at about v. 7, during the CadKey fire sale. Datacad had been acquired by CadKey, a mechanical CAD package. Cadkey didn’t understand how to market it, so offloaded it at very low prices. I’ve been with Datacad ever since, and now have 14 installed (about to upgrade to 15 Nov 2012): it has reference files and multiple views, which is a real boon, and I like the two handed operating interface, which makes it quite fast.  But, harking back to CADAM, I'd really love a separate function key keyboard that I could easily use with one hand without having to move all over the keyboard, and mouse the with the other. This would be much faster and more comfortable than relying on the Function keys on the conventional keyboard, particularly with their flexibility in Datacad.

Over the years I’ve collected quite a few CAD packages, some so old they won’t load anymore, others need DOS to run (CADKEY, Design CAD), and others are just cheap or freebies (Iron CAD springs to mind).

So my current CAD packages are: Microstation 95 for old times sake, Datacad 14 for production, Visual CAD to look at old Visual CAD files, TurboCad 14 Pro for a little modelling, and some 3D packages: Sketchup, of course, Amapi, from a magazine cover disk, TrueSpace: now available free, I think; and not a bad modeller. I've loaded up a few old modellers in Windows XP in a virtual machine, and want to do so with my old DOS Cadkey package, just to see how it goes.

I'd really love to get old copies of Microstation Modeller and Masterpiece to go with ustn 95, but as this would just be to satisfy my curiosity, I won't be busting a gut to obtain them.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Review of Efficient PIM

My quest for an effective, long lasting and flexible PIM is probably going to be everlasting and a quest where I have to keep adjusting my objectives to what the market is able to offer. After all, if no one is going to use a product, except me, then no one is going to develop it.

An offering I’ve recently started to use is Efficient PIM. I’ve tested the portable version (ah, remember when all software was ‘portable’) and from opening the zip file, all went well. The package opens fast and cleanly, with an interface that is well structured, attractively designed and easily adjusted for colour scheme. It seems to be largely modelled on the screen look of Microsoft Outlook, which I’ve been using intensively for a few years at work (employer’s choice, not mine). Outlook offers a number of nice features which I find helpful, but it is, like most PIM-type packages, limited in a number of glaring ways.

I frequently drag between types of ‘folder’ in Outlook. For example, an e-mail that will require follow up by a certain day gets copied to that day in the calendar, with a reminder for action. I’d like to also copy it to tasks, to keep track of it in that interface too, but Outlook makes each copy a new instance, rather than a reflection of the single entry, so one ends up having to manage a number of items about the same thing, which gets confusing and so I don’t do this.

Efficient PIM doesn’t seem to have the capability to drag items between package elements in Outlook fashion; that is, to have an entry appear in a number of places, even as a copy, let alone an instance of the original entry.

The modules cover all the most used PIM areas: calendar, contacts, tasks, notes and some less often seen areas: passwords, with quite a good password generator, websites, which is rather basic. For instance, I’d like to be able to drag an address from the browser address bar into the website list screen and have it arrive with metadata such as time and date saved. As it is one has to cut and paste. Not a great problem, but why do I have to do the work that a computer should?

Each module appears to be thorough, robust and easy to use, which is great. But each largely stands alone, although contacts can be linked in to events, providing a handy cross linking of information.

I would like to see better cross linking between modules, so that the modules become views of the data, rather than the source of the data. So I could look enter an event, see it in tasks, if I checked that it was also a task, could link it to contacts, and see it against those contacts, as well as in the calendar.

I like to extend my PIM to projects, as well, and I’ve found that a good work around is to use the Contacts module for this. A project is entered as though it were a contact, and then I can join contacts to it, and pick it up as a ‘contact’ in events, etc. Very useful for tracking small projects.

A further refinement would be to improve the notes area to include hierarchical note organisation and enable tagging or categorisation of notes, or preferably both. But categorisation is useful not only for notes, but should extend to everything, as it does in Outlook. Although one cannot do much with Outlook categories. Hierarchical categories would be very helpful.

Notes should also be linked to every other module. So I could keep notes on contacts, events, tasks, projects (projects as a special type of contact would be good, as would be organisations to which contacts could be assigned), and view them either with the contact, event, task, etc, or in list of notes, and showing the links to other entries.

Efficient PIM is a useful and reasonably thorough package, although it has limitations, but limitations that most other packages have too.

On the plus side, it works well, is wide ranging across most PIM needs, and is implemented very smoothly and professionally.

My views of its limitations come from having been spoilt by a number of older packages that have great flexibility, linking between items and multiple view capability. A combination of the ancient Lotus Agenda (here's an article on Agenda), probably the pinnacle of PIMs, Ecco Pro, for its time, and in some ways still, a peak example of what a PIM could be, and Zoot, from Zoot Software, which has the flexible information storage capability that is essential in managing large amounts of information.