25 November 2007

#47. What Do You Call That Thingy?

Welcome again to my humble establishment, where patrons come to snack on their dedicated chef’s latest and greatest discoveries of delectable utility software and Web sites. Today, a solution to the eternal conundrum: How do you find out the name of something that you don’t know the name of?

Yeah, you know the doohickey I mean – the whatchamacallit on the thingamabob – what the heck is its name?

This is a job for the new Merriam-Webster Visual Dictionary Online. This dictionary contains pictures, categorized by subject area, and names and defines the items depicted. So if you know what an object looks like or is a part of, you can find its name.

The M-W Visual Dictionary Online is logically structured by “themes” so you can drill down to specific items. “Bread crumbs” at the top of the page show where you are (see example below).

Now I know what a muntin is!

The M-W Visual Dictionary Online it is not comprehensive, so you might not find every term you’re looking for. But it’s a fine way to find the names and definitions of everyday objects and many more.

My thanks to regular reader Barnaby Capel-Dunn for bringing this Web site to my attention.

Comodo 3: Firewall Frustration

Despite the exciting new discovery of the Visual Dictionary, it’s been a dark weekend at the Tool Bar & Grill. It started with my thrill at the arrival of the long-awaited Comodo Firewall Pro version 3 (yeah, I know, I need a life). The previous version scored very high in protection tests (particularly in blocking outgoing traffic), and is my firewall of choice. The version 3 beta had received some favorable notices, and the feature list was tantalizing. Because Comodo itself had not yet published the news, I even wrote a breathless announcement of the new release in my occasional PC World blog.

The new Comodo Firewall Pro version 3, a major rewrite, supports Windows Vista. Among its new features, it boasts HIPS (host-based intrusion prevention system), which is designed to identify malware by its behavior before it can install itself or do harm. HIPS protection usually requires a separate program.

Comodo also boasts of its new “Clean PC” functionality for new computers: It registers all the programs on the new PC as safe, and requires you to allow all future software installations. It also claims a white list of nearly 1 million safe applications, which should help prevent installation of malware and reduce the number of questions the firewall pops up at you.

I downloaded version 3 right away, and set right to the installation. Alas, my joy was short-lived.

The download page is a bit confusing. You first have to choose between versions for 32-bit or 64-bit Windows XP and Vista, and then the download link isn’t very prominent. Maybe I’m not the brightest bulb in the chandelier, but it took me a little while to find the small red “Click here to download” link. Current Comodo Firewall users don’t need to worry about this, because you will be automatically prompted to update.

A clear and informative setup wizard took me through a variety of configuration decisions step by step. Exception: The descriptions of the Defense+ protection capabilities were a bit too vague (and nowhere did it clarify that “Defense+”: is the HIPS functionality). Copying the white list database took more than several minutes.

After installation and restarting my Windows XP computer, I was surprised to discover that the Comodo firewall did not start up automatically with Windows; you have to find a check box in the settings menu and mark it. This is unexpected behavior for essential security software.

I launched the firewall from its desktop shortcut. The interface is much improved, and appears to present information clearly and explain its purpose intelligibly. I was quite impressed with the new look and feel, until...

I saw no error message when launching the Comodo Firewall, but its main window reported that the network firewall was not functioning properly. I would not have been aware of this if I had not examined the window. The diagnostics routine said it found problems, but could not fix them all. It offered to save a log file, but that only contained cryptic lists of settings and of programs, unintelligible to ordinary users (and certainly to me) and without any suggestion of what the problem was or how to fix it.

I uninstalled Comodo Firewall 3, downloaded it again, and re-installed... and found the same problem again. So out it goes, replaced for an indefinite term with ZoneAlarm Firewall and Antispyware. I will report my problems to Comodo, and hope that this once-great firewall will be great again. Meanwhile, ZoneAlarm is working great so far (though I am skeptical, because performance and compatibility problems with a previous version drove me to Comodo some time ago).

Thank you for sharing my computing agony and ecstasy this week. I hope you’ll come back for more great utility reviews every week, and bring all your friends! Please feel free to share your thoughts by clicking on “comments” below or writing to jonathanstoolbar@gmail.com.

18 November 2007

#46. What’s Eating You?

What I mean is, what’s eating up your disk space? We keep buying bigger and bigger hard disks – a terabyte is becoming affordable these days – and yet they just keeping filling up even faster. What is all that stuff on the disk? Wouldn’t you like to know!

Welcome back to my Tool Bar & Grill, where I would just love to tell you... but instead, all I can do is point you to useful free utilities that can graphically display your hard disks’ contents to you.

Sector 10 Reporting, Sir

WinDirStat is among the best known and most frequently recommended freeware disk usage reporting tools. It provides attractive chart and graphical views of the file types that occupy your disk, sized proportionately, as seen here:

WinDirStat offers various ways to customize the presentation of the disk statistics. It also enables you to delete selected folders from within the program (though I think this would rarely be useful).

Rather, I recommend JDiskReport (also free), which provides a greater variety of information and in a variety of more usable ways than does WinDirStat. This information can help you decide where to trim the fat. The screens below show just some of the ways it can visualize your disk usage.

File types:

File sizes:

Size distribution:

Top 50 by size:

Some multipurpose PC management suites (for example, Ashampoo WinOptimizer), include similar disk usage reporting among their many maintenance and optimization utilities, although less comprehensive than JDiskReport.

Our own Linux correspondent, Mark Lautman, reports: WinDirStat’s Linux brother is KDirStat for KDE. GNOME users have Baobab (which also works in any desktop environment with the essential GNOME libraries), with similar functionality, including the ability to open or delete folders and files:

Another attractive-looking option for Linux is Filelight. I hesitate to recommend it, because I haven't used it.

When Schizophrenia Isn't Enough

Everyone has their alter egos, those people or personalities that we wish we could mimic. I certainly have mine. I would just love to afford a decadent, debauched lifestyle, not just live one. [This is still Mark talking, not me! —JP]

In computing, many people who live in the Windows world would like to try Linux, but are nervous about giving up a familiar desktop environment. This is very natural. I'd think twice if someone said to me, “Hey, aren't you getting tired of breathing oxygen all day? Why don't you give argon a try?” It's very difficult giving up a basic tool, such as an operating system, particularly one with which you have been so intimate for so many years.

Well, there are several ways for Windows users to experiment with Linux without doing any damage to brain tissue. One way is with “live CDs.” Many Linux distributions, including Ubuntu, are available on live CDs. You download the boot image to your PC, and then burn the image onto a CD-ROM. There are plenty of Windows utilities for making bootable CDs; Ubuntu recommends the open-source InfraRecorder. Using this approach, you load Ubuntu from CD when you turn on your computer. When you quit Ubuntu, your machine reboots, the nightmare ends, and you're back to your standard Windows desktop.

Another approach, and arguably easier, is to establish a virtual network connection (VNC) to an existing Ubuntu machine. If you can find a friend who is willing to share their Ubuntu desktop with you (don't bother asking me), then you can connect to it using a VNC client. Perhaps the most popular VNC client is Real VNC. After downloading the client, connect to your friend's Ubuntu machine, and you'll be able to use his computer.

Another popular VNC client is Tight VNC, which is an open-source version of Real VNC. Regardless of the client you choose, using VNC is the easiest way to try out Linux.

I've been a happy Linux user for about three years, but I use a few key programs that run only on Windows, particularly Microsoft Office. One way to run those programs on a Linux machine is to VNC in the other direction, from Linux to Windows. To do this, install a VNC client such as Tight VNC or Real VNC. When you connect to a Windows machine, you'll be able to use the desktop within a separate window.

To summarize, virtual network connections are an easy way to escape your native desktop environment, and there are plenty of VNC clients available to help you do that. In a future column I’ll explore other tools you can use as escape routes, such as virtualization and emulators. —Mark Lautman

I hope you enjoyed your visit to the Tool Bar & Grill. Y’all come back and see us again real soon, you hear? And please feel free to comment below or write to jonathanstoolbar@gmail.com.

11 November 2007

#45. Send PDFs and Faxes Free – From Your Phone

Welcome once again to my Tool Bar & Grill, where every week you can find the coolest solutions to problems you might not even have known you had. Glad to be of service. And now, so is Qipit.

What the heck is a Qipit? I don’t know, but whatever it is, it’s slick.

Qipit is a Web service the enables you to send PDF files from your mobile phone. However, that’s just scratching the surface. Here’s one way to use Qipit:

1. Register for a free account at http://www.qipit.com, and tell it your cell phone number.

2. Take a picture with your cell phone camera (minimum 1 megapixel resolution). I took a shot of my computer screen:

3. Send it by MMS (multimedia message service) to Qipit’s email address. Put the intended recipient’s email address in the message body. I sent it to myself.

4. A minute or two later, the recipient gets an email with both the JPG photo you took and a PDF rendering of it (including a small Qipit logo). Here is the PDF I received (faithfully reproducing the yellow-stripe distortion that the camera phone added):

(PDF stands for Adobe’s Portable Document Format, a universally accepted way to share documents while preserving their original appearance. Normally, you need special software to create PDF files.)

I think that’s pretty neat. But wait, there’s more. You can email the picture from your cell phone or upload it to the Qipit Web site instead of MMSing it. You can use a digital camera instead of a cell phone; copy the picture to your computer and upload or email it to Qipit on the Web. You can send the document to any email address or fax number anywhere in the world. And you can designate multiple email or fax recipients.

You can use Qipit to copy and distribute presentations, white boards, billboards, paper notes, or whatever your imagination comes up with. With a good enough picture, you even could run OCR (optical character recognition) software on the PDF, converting it into a text file that you can manipulate on your computer.

As always, I encourage you to share your thoughts by clicking the “comments” link below, or by emailing me at jonathanstoolbar@gmail.com. And of course, I encourage you to visit every week for more great information, and to tell all your friends about Jonathan’s Tool Bar & Grill.

04 November 2007

#44. Fun with Photos

This week the Tool Bar & Grill hosted a meeting of the amateur photography club, and the talk was all about new advances in digital photo enhancements. Here are some of the most interesting new tools for digital camera users.

Celebrity Look-Alike Contest

Do people come up to you and say, “Hey, you look just like... you know, that actor... what’s his name?” Yeah, OK, me neither. But now MyHeritage.com claims to use face recognition to identify celebrities that resemble you, or whoever is in the picture you upload.

My experiments with MyHeritage’s face recognition suggest that the quality of the picture you upload is crucial, but also that the technology still is far from perfected. When I uploaded a photo of my lady friend Louise, the closest match (at 63% resemblance) was famous English singer/songwriter Kate Bush. That’s the lovely Louise on the left:

OK, that’s not bad, though I don't see a great resemblance. Scrolling through the slightly less well-matched other celebrities revealed Janeane Garofalo (63%), Jennifer Lopez (61%), a few of other beauties... and then Cary Grant (59%), James Doohan, and Walter Mondale. That’s certainly not how I see Louise.

I tried it with my picture, too. The closest match was Jean Baudrillard, a French sociologist and philosopher. Apparently, they don’t have pictures of George Clooney and Brad Pitt in their database. Oh well, at least Orson Welles didn’t come up either.

Then I tried another picture of Louise, and this time the closest match was Samantha Fox. Dadgummit, they do have Brad Pitt in their database – he came up second!

MyHeritage offers a number of other interesting services on its Web site, too. And whether or not you are satisfied with the results, you can have a lot of fun there.

Always Take Three Shots

One important lesson that the amateur photography club has learned is to always take at least three pictures of every scene, in rapid succession, at the same settings. This practice alone can help you get the best shot. And it also helps even more when you use a photo enhancement service like Tourist Remover from Snapmania.

When you upload a series of photos of the same scene to Tourist Remover, it compares them and removes objects that move across the scene (using the background as a reference). Here is the example shown on the Snapmania Web site:

I could not test Tourist Remover effectively because I had not yet formed the three-picture habit, so I could not find test pictures. However, it sounds like a great idea.

Group Pictures that Improve on Reality

We’ve all been through it: You think you have taken brilliant family portraits at Aunt Tillie’s garden party, the only family get-together in the last 10 years. You even followed the three-shot rule. Then when you get home, you find that little cousin Herman was making a face in one shot, Grandmother Margaret had her eyes closed in another, and the third one caught your sister making out with a waiter in the background. If only you could take the best parts of each picture!

I recently tried an experimental Microsoft Research utility that promises to enable you to take the best parts of each picture and cut and paste them into a new composite picture. Here’s how it works: You drag a series of similar photos into MSR Group Shot. Each is displayed in a separate tabbed page. When you draw a rectangle around part of a picture, Group Shot displays all the same part from all the pictures to the right, so you an select the best one. Do the same for other parts. Then Group Shot inserts the selected parts into the common background of the composite picture.

It sounds great in theory. In practice, Group Shot was too fussy for me. I chose two very similar professional photos of my beautiful children at my daughter’s wedding. But Group Shot complained that they were not sufficiently matched. I used an image editor to try to adjust the size and cropping for a better match, but Group Shot still was not satisfied. And Group Shot displayed the pictures at different angles, as if pasted crooked into an album. The resulting composite was more Picasso than Leibovitz.

I usually recommend the best software and Web sites in this blog, but this week had mixed success with the utilities I tried. So please try them out yourselves and write in to let us all know how they worked! Post your comments below, or write to jonathanstoolbar@gmail.com.

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