Thursday, December 27, 2007

Better Computing in 2008

What Web browser do you use? Internet Explorer? If you use IE, immediately go to Mozilla Firefox and download the Firefox Web browser right now. In 2006, Internet Explorer was unsafe to use -- meaning, while using it your computer was vulnerable to hacker and virus attack -- 286 days out of the year. During the same time period, Firefox was unsafe to use for 9 days.

I know, I know, you've got all your Favorites set up in IE and it would just be too much of a pain to switch to something else. No. Switch. And take your Favorites -- in IE, click File / Import and Export . . . This launches a wizard that allows you to save your Favorites to your local machine -- I always save such things to my Desktop. When you download and install Firefox, one part of the setup process asks if you want to bring over IE Favorites.

Once you have Firefox as your browser, check out its innumerable cool "add-ons." For blogging, I love ScribeFire. This tool places a small orange pad and pencil icon at the bottom of your browser window. If you're like me, blog ideas usually come while you're surfing the Web or reading the news online. I click the ScribeFire icon and its interface launches, taking up the lower half of my screen with its writing tool. You can write in HTML, styling your prose with code. Or, you can use its "Rich Formatting" tab and style your writing just like you would in a word processor. It's easy configuring ScribeFire so that it publishers right to your blog. And you can save unfinished blogs as "Notes."

Install the Foxmarks Bookmark Synchronizer so that no matter what computer you're on, you'll always have your Bookmarks (Favorites) with you. The Google toolbar has a similar feature, which is worth checking out. With so many easy-to-use Web-based applications available, there's no reason to go without just because you're not at your own desktop computer in your own home.

As the Internet expanded over the years, so has the amount of crap that clutters it. Surfing ain't what it used to be. That's why I use StumbleUpon to find new and interesting Web sites. StumbleUpon is a toolbar that installs in your browser window. Part of the sign-up process is choosing from a wide range of topics that tell StumbleUpon exactly what kind of content you want to see. Once it's installed, click the "Stumble!" button in the toolbar and a new, random Web page comes up. Some of the most interesting images, trivia and articles I've ever read have come my way with this tool.

For the best in productivity tools and tips on simply getting things done, get over to I found this site following a link to an article about commonsense weight loss tips. Didn't take long to start clicking around and finding cool interior design articles, tips on optimizing my computer and physical workspace. There is no end to the cool and useful downloads they feature. One of the best tools I found through was CCleaner (which stands for "Crap Cleaner"), for cleaning useless garbage files from my computer. And there are more excellent articles on every day.

Another way to make the most of your time on the Web is using the site "Diggers" from around the world post news stories on this site and the rest of us vote on each story by clicking the "digg it" button next to each article. If you like it, you digg it, if you don't like it, you can click the "Bury" button. Again, some of the most interesting and helpful articles I've read in recent times were found through this Web site. In fact, it's now my primary source for news.

There are a load of online tools I also use for my writing.

Have you ever had a computer meltdown, which destroyed important files? I have. It was a tough lesson to learn that we should all be backing up our stuff. You should back up your files to disc, certainly, but I also back up all of my writing to Gspace, a tool that allows you to FTP content to a Gmail account. This way, no matter what computer I'm on -- my wife's laptop, my parents' desktop -- I can always access my files. Even when I switch back and forth from Windows to Linux Ubuntu on my desktop. As long as I have access to the Internet, I can get at my files, download what I want to work on and get down to work.

If you're sick of being a prisoner to Microsoft Word, there are a number of word processing alternatives. OpenOffice Writer is free to download and is pretty much as robust as MS Word. It's part of the OpenOffice Suite that includes a spread sheet program, a presentation program; basically comparable programs for everything Microsoft offers. In OpenOffice Writer, save your work in "Rich Text Format" and you can go back and forth from MS Word to OpenOffice Writer with no trouble.

Some great online writing tools are Google's Google Docs, which makes your work accessible to you wherever you are as long as you have an Internet connection. Google Docs also allows you to share your work with others for feedback and collaboration purposes. You can give people "read only" access or full access, where they can get into your document and make edits.

Two other great online word processors are ThinkFree and Zoho. Their interfaces are still a little rough; still a little ways from Web 2.0 glossy beauty, but the applications are very usable. Once again, working in either ThinkFree or Zoho, your work is saved online so it's safe even if you suffer a computer meltdown. And your work's accessible to you no matter where you are (as long as you have that precious Internet access).

For distraction-free writing, check out Dark Room. This is an old school no frills word processor. It's virtues are that it fills your entire screen, eliminating all onscreen distractions. And it's old school interface is really handing for coding or first-draft writing. In fact, I'm writing this in Dark Room on my own computer right now. You can't boldface or italicize or underline your text, but you'll enjoy a certain freedom being away from such cosmetics and get down to simply setting words onscreen.

If you're in to writing plays or screenplays, Celtx is a great free screenwriting, playwriting program. Writing in such media involves a lot of fussy formatting. Celtx does all of that for you. Specify whether you're writing a screenplay or play, and Celtx will make sure the Action, Dialogue, Characters and Setting are formatted in the current professional standard. The program even allows you to share your work with the Celtx community for feedback.

If you're a budding Web developer, you'll be extra glad I steered you toward Firefox. There are hundreds of add-ons you can get through Firefox that make Web development a breeze. The Web Developer toolbar gives you a wide range of tools for examining code on your Web pages or the Web pages of other sites. You can look at any site's .css, Information / Div Order will chop up any Web page into its individual divs so you can see how the maestros of the Internet lay out their pages.

The Firebug add-on gives you an even more granular look at Web pages. It's icon lives at the bottom right-hand corner of your browser screen. On pages that validate, you'll see a gree circle with a white checkmark there. On pages where there are problems, the little icon becomes red. Click the icon and its interface opens like ScribeFire. There are numerous tabs: Console, HTML, CSS, Script, DOM and Net. Each shows you indepth detailed information about how a given Web page works. It's invaluable for troubleshooting Javascript and HTLM errors.

Although Internet Explorer is a universally acknowledged piece of shit, it's still with us. Developers must still code for it. IE is not standards compliant, meaning, it does not obey the Web standards created by the bodies that govern the Internet. To some, this may make IE seem like a real go-its-own-way pioneer. For people who have to code for it, it's a major pain in the ass. So, a great way to see how pages render in IE is by using Firefox's IE Tab. Once it's installed, you'll see a small orange Firefox icon at the bottom right of your browser. Click it and it'll become the IE icon, while at the same time reloading your page in the browser to render as it renders in IE. Often, the differences can be staggering and maddening. But at least you'll see them here where you can still do something about them.

Sometimes the Internet seems like one giant, vomitous pop-up window filled with bilious advertising that dogs you whever you go. If you're an active, conscious Web user, you'll find there is a ton of great stuff waiting to be discovered. Now go out an find it.

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