Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Free Software

Free Software: Paint Replacement, Magnifier, Text Editor, Dictionary

The image above is a graphic that I intend to use for the cover of the novel I'm currently working on, SINFUL SURVIVAL. It's an image that I bullied into existence by using two programs, one being my sometimes misbehaving copy of Microsoft's Paint program, and the other being an open source Paint replacement which goes by the name of Paint.NET.

I found the Paint.NET link on a page of open source software for Windows, the URL for this page being

http://www.listible.com/list/open-source-applications-for-windows

The link was kindly e-mailed to me some time back by Jason, who thought I might be interested in the magnifier which the page speaks of, the direct link for the magnifier download being

http://magnifier.sourceforge.net/

I didn't immediately rush off to get the magnifier because, first, I already had two magnifiers, which suit my present needs, and, second, acquiring software that you don't need tends to chew up your time as you play with it. However, I was curious enough to check out the open source Windows page, and noticed that they offered both a Paint replacement and a Notepad replacement.

Finally, when my copy of Paint started to misbehave (it started unsaving every change that I saved) I decided it was time to get the Paint replacement.

Since I was going to do that, I opted to try out the magnifier, too.

So I downloaded the magnifier, Mg3.2.1, and decided to see how far I could get with it without doing anything as boring as actually reading the instructions.

The first thing I came to was the Virtual Magnifying Glass Setup Wizard 3.2.1, which promised to take me through the installation process. So I figured this should be a no-brainer.

It installed in a flash, with no need to reboot the computer. I put a shortcut onto the desktop then clicked and a magnifying glass popped up on the screen, maybe about 250 pixels or so wide by perhaps 150 high.

This coexisted just fine with the magnifying strip I already had at the top of the screen courtesy of XP.

I found I could move the magnifier around the screen with my TrackPoint mouse, and could make it go away by simply pressing the ESCAPE key.

When the virtual magnifier is active, you can't type text into your text editor, and in this respect the XP magnifier is superior, because you can type and, at the same time, see what you are typing blown up big in the magnified strip at the top of the screen.

So I'd say the Virtual Magnifier is a good supplementary tool for snooping around the screen and pulling pesky little graphics into focus.

I put a link to the magnifier on my START menu so I could easily pop it into existence any time I wanted.

The nice thing about this magnifier is that it has a very clearly defined edge, so you can always tell exactly where the magnified section is on the screen at any one time.

Next I took a shot at getting and installing Paint.NET, which turned out to be a two-step process. First I had to make the pilgrimage to the satanic mills of Microsoft and download and install something called the .NET Framework 2.0.

This having been installed, Paint.NET consented to install itself. Once opened, it looked very pretty, with a really flashy box from which you could pick colors. That box disappeared from sight during the first day's work and I haven't seen it since. However, my copy of Microsoft Paint consented to fill areas that I needed to have filled with color, so, with both programs in play, I got the work done.

Encouraged, I took a shot at downloading and installing the open source Notepad replacement, but this was technically too complex for me, involving tweaking the registry, a part of the computer system that I never mess with.

However, I was now in software acquisition mode, one of the subsets of the dreaded computer addiction syndrome, so I went looking for another text editor, and found a bunch of them at

http://www.hsinlin.com/software/text_editors.html

I downloaded a whole bunch of these, but the only one I ended up keeping was Metapad. This is a clean and simple text editor which, by default, conforms to my system colors, giving an austere and highly workable display of white text on a black background.

It doesn't have a tabbed interface but it does have a favorites option, and you can adjust the font to whatever size you want.

I found that once I'd unpacked the zipped file I had to run it by clicking on the executable, but that was no hassle because, once again, I put a shortcut to the EXE file in START.

One freeware text editor I didn't download was NoteTab Light, the reason for not downloading it being that I already had it, and have been using it for some years now. Highly recommended.

The great point about NoteTab Light is that you can go to MODIFY and convert a text file to HTML, or vice versa. So converting a text of, say, 30,000 words into HTML can be done in less than thirty seconds. Similarly, you can rip the text content out of an HTML file very, very easily.

Since I'm always building and rebuilding web sites, this feature is enormously valuable, and NoteTab Light, which has never ever crashed on me, not once, not ever, has become the workhorse on which I rely.

You can, if you want, upgrade to NoteTab proper, which has a few more bells and whistles, but what I have already is sufficient for my personal needs.

I am now using three text editors, NoteTab Light, a bought-for-money copy of UltraEdit and the newly-acquired Metapad. Once you have three, each set up with different color schemes, you can easily bounce from one to the other with Alt-TAB, and know exactly where you are. And, since each of these three has a FAVORITES option, you can organize a lot of files in a way which allows you to swiftly find them.

Hsin Lin has links to a whole bunch of stuff on his site. Pretty much anything you might want is to be found there, including graphics programs, audio programs, office suites and so forth.

Some years ago, when I was in Deep Computer Addiction, I roamed the net looking for more and more software, and saw a bunch of get-it-for-free sites. Hsin Lin's freeware site is, for my money, the best I've ever seen, and I've seen a bunch.

I found myself cruising through the word processor section, even though I don't need a word processor, as my needs are met perfectly by OpenOffice.org Writer, part of OpenOffice 2.0. This can open Word documents and can save its own ODT files into a variety of Word formats, if you want. And I do want, because, to self-publish via Lulu.com, I have to build a Word document.

While I was cruising through the word processor section I came upon a dictionary, so I downloaded and installed that.

Although it's free, when I installed it I found there are a couple of fishhooks. First, to be able to legitimately use the freeware version, you have to limit the number of air flights you take in a year. Second, if you own an SUV then you are disqualified, as far as free use is concerned, and have to go buy the professional version.

In my SUV-less existence I, not having flown for an entire calendar year now, qualified.

Once you've installed WordWeb, which is copyright Princeton University, you can throw it into action by placing the cursor on a word then holding down the CTRL key and, while holding it down, clicking the right mouse button. (This hotkey combination can be changed.)

The boast of this piece of software is that it will work from inside any program. It works fine from inside my text editors, from inside OpenOffice Writer and from inside Mozilla, so maybe that boast is true.

I tried it with EL SALVADOR, clicking on "SALVADOR," and the dictionary popped up a definition for EL SALVADOR. Similarly, clicking on OFFICE in OVAL OFFICE produced a White-House-related definition, not a generic definition of the word "office." I was impressed.

The dictionary also includes biographical detail. Click on "Clinton" and you get 1. Bill, 2. Hillary, 3. a town in the USA and 4. a historical Clinton. Similarly, clicking on "Shakespeare" throws up the Bard of Avon, 1564-1616.

You can set up the dictionary so, if you're online, you can click through to Wikipedia for more data, which I think is pretty cool.

To use the dictionary I currently have on my hard disk, I have to click on an icon, launch it, wait for it to load, then enter the word I want. And often it doesn't know the word.

The Princeton University dictionary, by contrast, evidently loads when the computer is booted, so is ready to be thrown into action instantly.

Additionally, with the dictionary I already had on my hard disk, I had eyesight issues, as the font is only marginally adjustable. With WordWeb, you can adjust fonts to 26 point, which I am comfortable with.

Experimentally, I punched "red" into the WordWeb search box, and the options it threw up included SYNONYMS, eg "blood-red" and "Bolshevik," TYPE OF, eg "chromatic color" and "radical", TYPES, eg "alizarine red" and "carmine", PART OF, which I don't understand, because I don't see how "OK" and "Louisiana" related to "red," SEE ALSO, which gives two items, "redly" and "redness," and SIMILAR, which gives, for example, "bloody" and "colorful."

There is also a NEAREST option, which, for "red," gives you, amongst other things, "redact."

This, to my mind, is the ideal computer dictionary, an extremely fast and efficient tool, the basic presentation pared down to the essential basics, but with plenty of options to pile in if you need reinforcements.

Of all the pieces of software that I've mentioned, the dictionary is, I think, far and away the most valuable that I've found, and may prove to be one of the most useful pieces of software that I have on my computer.

My thanks to the estimable Hsin Lin for pointing me in the right direction. If you feel the itchiness of Serious Computer Addiction waking in your bones, then I recommend a visit to his site. But not if you're up against a deadline. This stuff takes time!

And thanks, too, Jason, for sending me that original magnifier / open source e-mail.

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