David Louis Edelman David Louis Edelman

Free Tech Tools Worth Blogging About

It’s phenomenal how much free software is out there on the web for the taking. I, for one, definitely take it for granted. Back in the days of taping LP records onto 90-minute cassette tapes, I used to pine for a computerized music library. Now I’ve got a computerized music library that I built for free, and my CDs are largely gathering dust in the basement. Do I marvel at the whole thing on a daily basis? Do I spontaneously jump up and click my heels throughout the day in jubilation because I live in an age of cheap technological miracles? Er, no.

Here’s a random list of some free software tools that I do feel like jumping up and down about. In no particular order:

Windows Live Writer Windows Live Writer is a desktop client for interfacing with all your blogs in one convenient place. It’s got a very clean Windows Vista-ish look to it (see screenshot to the right), and works rather like WordPad or MS Word. Of course, Microsoft wants you to compose things and publish them on their Windows Live Spaces. No thanks. But they’ve opened up the API so you can easily create, edit, and publish entries on WordPress, TypePad, and LiveJournal, among others. There’s no big mystery here or “gee whiz” factor; Windows Live Writer is just a nice, simple blog post editor that includes a lot of the basic features the WordPress interface leaves out. For example: automatic image uploading, quick image editing, headline tags, and quick table creation. (This post, in fact, was composed entirely in Windows Live Writer.)

TweakVI is a nice GUI customization tool for Windows Vista. Similar to the popular (but unsupported) Microsoft TweakUI tool that’s available for Windows XP. In addition to all the standard GUI tweaks (Start menu customization, Explorer tweaks, etc.), TweakVI will do some behind-the-scenes performance tweaking as well. I’m too lazy to actually run benchmark software to see how effective it is, but something I did in TweakVI was enough to give my wireless networking a big performance boost. (Be warned that although TweakVI is free, they do pester you to upgrade to the paid subscription service quite a bit.)

Copernic Desktop Search is the coolest desktop search program I’ve found yet. It’s just as thorough as Google, twenty times faster than Windows’ built-in search (even Vista’s), and it has a slick user interface. Copernic’s search-as-you-type feature just rawks. (Be warned that I did have stability problems with an earlier version; but Copernic seems to have fixed those bugs since then.)

irfanview Irfanview (see screenshot of Irfanview displaying a photo of my dog Sophie, left) is the best lightweight free image viewer around, period. It opens just about every image format on the market like that and lets you flip through directories of photos with ease. Once you get the keyboard shortcuts down (“f” to toggle between 100% and fit-to-screen; “l” and “r” for left and right rotation; and so on) you’ll never use the built-in Windows OS tools again. You can do a lot of simple image editing and filtering that saves you from opening Photoshop, too.

Clipperz, despite the lame name, is a tremendously useful service. It’s an online password and personal information vault that keeps your stuff encrypted both online and offline. Nothing is stored or transmitted in plain text; it’s all encrypted and decrypted on-the-fly by JavaScript. You can even download an offline copy of your password database that’s just as secure as the online version. It’s got a number of other cool features like auto-logins and a Firefox sidebar that I haven’t gotten around to playing with yet.

Taskbar Shuffle solves an issue that obsessive-compulsives like me have had with the Windows interface since the dawn of time (or at least since Windows 95): you can’t reorder windows in the taskbar. Taskbar Shuffle lets you click and drag windows back and forth on the taskbar. That’s it. Simple problem, simple solution, and it only takes up about 300K of memory. (Now when is someone going to release a freeware program that puts the date in the system tray? I mean one that doesn’t look like utter shit?)

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Some free WordPress plugins worth mentioning:

Redirection by Urban Giraffe shows how program extensions should be done. This is a full-fledged GUI for managing redirects on your WordPress blog, with an intuitive and comprehensive interface. Redirect using regular expressions, redirect to random pages, redirect based on the referrer page — all without mucking with .htaccess files. Not only that, but Redirection keeps a log of all 404 “page not found” errors on your site so you can create redirects quickly as needed.

imm-glossary Internet Marketing Manager Glossary (IMM-Glossary) is a must-have for science fiction and fantasy authors who intend to post extensive material on their websites, as I have. Just enter a list of glossary terms and definitions on the plugin screen in WordPress, and IMM-Glossary will automatically hyperlink these terms to your glossary wherever they appear on your blog. Better yet, you can have the plugin create AJAX popups instead. (See example on the right from the new Jump 225 website, still a work in progress.)

Wordbook is a handy cross-posting tool for Facebook. The instant you publish a new entry in your WordPress blog, Wordbook will post a link in your Facebook Mini-Feed. Yes, you can do real blog mirroring through Facebook Notes, but this solution is quicker, cleaner, and more intuitive. (Thanks to Paul Raven for pointing me in the direction of this plugin.)

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So what’s missing from this list?

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  1. Soni on September 13, 2007 at 11:19 pm  Chain link



    OMG I love this little app! Lets me tag every file I save onto my computer, then later search by tags rather than either trying to remember what folder I saved it in or trying to use some clunky desktop search and hoping I remember some vital clue in the doc that the search tool will actually be able to recognize the file by (you’d be surprised how often you misremember the name of that ebook or document)

    It’s dead easy to use. Whenever you download or save a file, the file shows up in tag2find’s tagging pane. You check the file you want to tag, then enter whatever tags you want (comma separated – took me a bit to catch on to this, so I’ve got a few lingering ginormous and very unique tags that I entered Delicious-style, with spaces instead of commas, that I’m cleaning up as I come across them).

    If there are files in the pane you don’t want to bother with, just delete them. When you need a file, use the tag search to enter a tag or two and it’ll pop up every file with those tags.

    Easy to use, lightweight and so far it’s been pretty much bullet-proof.

    Fewer folders, more tags, less “where on earth did I put that damn thing” hair pulling. Feels good. 😀

  2. Al on September 14, 2007 at 12:28 am  Chain link

    Hi David – I actually have three tools to add to the list:

    GIMP – In addition to IrfanView, GIMP also is useful for image editting. It’s the poor man’s version of Photoshop, particularly with the more advanced features. I use both IrfanView and GIMP… IrfanView for simple, straightforward stuff and GIMP for the heavy-duty stuff.
    VideoLAN – It’s a free video player. It’s pretty barebones though and Windows Media Player is already free, so why I am I suggesting VideoLan? Because you don’t have to buy a separate CODEC license to play a DVD movie from your DVD player! Plus, it can play Flash files as well – tre bien!
    SUPER – This software from http://www.erightsoft.com lets you convert one multimedia format to another. I use it to convert video to audio files to put on my iPod.

  3. Al on September 14, 2007 at 12:30 am  Chain link

    Sorry for the formatting error in my last comment… it’s kinda hard to read, but the three tools I listed in my previous comment were (1) GIMP, (2) VideoLAN, and (3) SUPER.

  4. John Joseph Adams on September 14, 2007 at 12:43 am  Chain link

    I just came across a PDF tool today that’s pretty handy–PDF-XCHANGE VIEWER (http://www.docu-track.com/home/prod_user/pdfx_viewer/). It lets you annotate PDFs, so if you’re say doing a copyedit on a large document, you can use that to mark up the electronic manuscript.

    Basically, it gives you a lot (if not all) of the features of the full version of Adobe Acrobat (as opposed to Acrobat Reader), but for free.

  5. David Louis Edelman on September 14, 2007 at 1:02 am  Chain link

    Soni: Tag2Find sounds pretty cool. Vista was supposed to enable you to tag your files and search for them that way natively, but it’s been a pretty big disappointment. These days if I don’t know where something is, I use Copernic and search for content.

    Al: I’ve had a love/hate relationship with GIMP. It’s ridiculously powerful, but I always seem to have stability problems with it. And I’m so used to the Photoshop GUI, I always get frustrated trying to adjust to GIMP’s. I’ll have to check out VideoLAN.

    JJA: Sounds cool. I think Adobe made a good move by opening up the PDF standard to allow third-party tools. The third-party market’s just exploded in the past few years.

  6. Soni on September 16, 2007 at 12:13 am  Chain link

    Just a note on Tag2Find – if you let it auto tag your documents when you first load it (it tags based on file name, folder, etc), you might end up with a lot of non-useful tags, especially if your file-naming habits are less than wonderful. OTOH, it saves going through and hand-tagging each and every file you already have.

    For example, I have some old archived Front Page generated html files around, a few of which are now helpfully tagged with _vti_private and so on. *rolleyes*

    Your call, but just an fyi.

  7. Yaron on September 23, 2007 at 4:29 pm  Chain link

    Clipperz seem interesting in concept, but:
    (1) The crypto/security part on their FAQ page just lights up too many warning-signs. Maybe they know their stuff and are just bad at the writing/marketing part, but it feels bad.
    (2) The javascript code than handles all the passwords can do whatever it wants with them, so even if the encryption is good it will take just a single change to the service to have it send everything open wherever it wants. You can’t even have a simple way to detect that your password manager program creates Internet connections, since the browser is expected to do that all the time. And, well, it does open the can of worms of interacting with the web services themselves and preventing the site from interacting with it if it wants to…

    I join the recommendation for VideoLAN/VLC. Lightweight. Plays pretty much everything without requiring an external codec. It can also get almost every streaming video source. And (though this can be a downside for many people) it’s extremely configurable.

    PDF-XCHANGE viewer is also really good. There are some cases (rare, and I wasn’t able to find and obvious connection) were it doesn’t properly copy text out of the viewed PDF, so I keep Foxit as a backup. It copies text out of those better, and loads a little faster, but it lacks the more advanced features that PDF-XCHANGE has.

    Irfanview is excellent. Copernic is also very good at what it does, but I had problems with it and very large text files, and it had an annoying tendency to decide that the computer is idle for indexing when I was burning discs, so I removed it.

    Tag2Find sounds interesting.

    I’d add EverNote to the list of recommended utilities. The concept (simulating a continues “tape” paper that you keep adding notes too) is a little strange at first, but it’s very comfortable to use. Fast searching over past notes. And you can add automatic rules/keywords for tagging notes.

    Another recommendation is to have a good clipboard manager/search. Personally I use Ditto, but there are some other excellent options. Time-saver.

  8. David Louis Edelman on September 23, 2007 at 5:00 pm  Chain link

    Yaron: I’d be curious if you’ve taken a look at Clipperz’ competitor PassPack to see if you find their implementation just as troubling. Or is there another service you recommend? A secure online password repository is something that I really need. My previous alternative was to keep a password-protected document up on Google Docs, which strikes me as hardly better than no security at all.

  9. Yaron on September 23, 2007 at 7:17 pm  Chain link

    Looking around some more, both Clipperz and PassSafe seem to be on the level, as far as they can. The presentation of the issue on Clipperz’ FAQ probably doesn’t indicate that they don’t know what they’re doing.
    But they both have the same things that bother me, and are inherent in the technology:
    1. Trust and attractiveness off the server data. True, the data on the server is encrypted. Which puts anyone accessing it in the same spot as getting any other encrypted password file you’d put elsewhere. But here you can’t ever move the data or change the format yourself. And everyone knows that whatever is kept there is very likely passwords, so if they get lots of users the data becomes much more… attractive, that random individual files placed on random servers.
    2. The data always gets transferred over the Internet. This will of course happen in any method you’d use that stores the information online. But if you keep a file that you sync manually, you have some ability to notice when something happens that shouldn’t. This way, if the unencrypted information does get sent somewhere, you can’t easily notice something other than normal browser behaviour has happened.
    3. The whole reason that the data isn’t placed on their servers in unencrypted form is that the javascript code encrypts it. It’s an issue of trust, but all it would take is probably 1-2 lines changed and an update of the javascript code. Very easy for them, or for someone hacking their servers, to do. Probably also easy to detect, but by the time it’s detected it will be too late for many users.
    4. Everything is done with javascript in the browser. Which, unless they’re very very careful, will basically allow the website to interfere with the process. All your passwords are decoded on the client. If you, for example, sign in to an untrusted site (or a fully trusted one, that was hacked itself, or had their ads hacked, etc. These things do happen, and happened several times this past years for otherwise trusted big sites), it’s very likely it could get all your unencrypted passwords if the hack was designed to do so. All the security problems things like GreaseMonkey had/has, but with even less ability to deal with it. If their javascript can interact with the open site, the open site can interact with their javascript.
    5. Firefox only. I like Firefox, and usually use Firefox (apart from Opera when I’m very impatient, or IE when using a badly designed site), but it’s limiting for this type of application. You wrote that you need an online-password store. Is it for syncing 2-3 computers of yours, or to access from other/public computers? In the latter cases, you may not even have Firefox installed. In the former, you still may need to interact with some IE only sites.

    And you need something you can put all your passwords into, including those that really matter (banks, main email / hosting , etc). Because if you only use this for the less-critical one, you’ll need a solution for the other cases anyway, so why use two tools instead of one?

    Personally, I’d stick to an “offline” password manager program, and storing an encrypted password file online.
    I assume your host does provide some FTP access. If not, there should still be plenty of web-apps that can allow you to upload a file to the server for updates, and to download it through simple HTTP file download.
    So just keep the password management password online as well, for quick download+installations/run on new/public computers.
    If you don’t change the passwords, you just need to download the file. Where you might change them, or add them, just save the new file, and upload to the server.
    It’s slightly less convenient than Clipperz/PassPack, but not by much, and should be much safer.

  10. David Louis Edelman on September 23, 2007 at 7:56 pm  Chain link

    Thanks for the thoughtful comments, Yaron, as always.

  11. Yaron on September 24, 2007 at 3:17 pm  Chain link

    You’re most welcome of course.
    But since I think I haven’t really commented here for many months, and it was only a few comments back then, I’m not really sure what the “as always” refers too.

  12. David Louis Edelman on September 24, 2007 at 3:24 pm  Chain link

    I seem to remember you commenting a few times, and always with long and thoughtful comments. Maybe I’m confusing you with someone else. Regardless, I always appreciate when someone takes the time to post something more substantial than “Right on, man!” or “You suck, dude!”

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