27 April 2008

#68. Venturing into Culture: Cinema and Iconography

A great film is just the ticket after a great dinner at the Tool Bar & Grill. So today, your movie-buff chef will help you decide what to see. Meanwhile, back in the Linux Room, Mark is hunched over his drawing tablet…

Film Review Aggregators

Now and then I manage to find time to watch a good movie. But which one? With my blog taking so much of my time, I can’t afford to waste a couple of hours on a bad film. So like many of you, I count on the critics to pick the good ones for me. But I don’t want to rely on just one critic’s opinion (and I don’t want the general public’s opinion either). So I go to Web sites that survey many professional reviews of a film, classify them as favorable or critical, and deduce an overall score.

I usually check the following film review aggregators, listed here in descending order of preference:

Rottentomatoes – The main feature of Rotten Tomatoes is the “Tomatometer,” the aggregate critics’ score (as a percentage) for a film. It is accompanied by a whole tomato icon (score above 50%) or a tomato splat icon (below 50%). Different scores are provided for “T-meter critics” (most of whom I’ve never heard of), “top critics” (from the major media), and “RT community” (the lay public). One nice feature is that you can select a few of your favorite critics and get aggregate “my critics” scores, though creating a list of your favorite critics is not a simple matter.

The film’s plot is summarized under the Tomatometer, along with basic box office, cast, and production facts. Critics’ reviews are summarized in the lower part of the page, with tomato or splat icons, and you can click through to read the full reviews.

Rottentomatoes covers a wide range of critics (28 “top critics” for the selected film, “21”), and its scores generally are a reliable guide to movie quality. However, the site was recently redesigned, and now some former features are missing, the plot synopses are shorter, and it’s harder to find my way around.

Metacritic – Metacritic works much like Rottentomatoes, offering an aggregate “Metascore” (1–100 scale) with color coding (red for bad up to green for good), alongside a “Users” (1–10) score. Like Rottentomatoes, the scores are followed by a short plot synopsis and cast and production facts (but no box office numbers).

Also similar to Rottentomatoes, Metacritic displays review summaries (but with numerical scores and color codes) and links to the full reviews.

Metacritic displayed 29 reviews for the selected film, many from well-known critics and publications. Interestingly, “21” ranked 48 in Metacritic and only 28 among Rottentomatoes “top critics”; I guess I’ll have to see it to decide for myself.

Yahoo! Movies – This site displays an aggregate critics’ score and the users’ score (both on an A–F scale), followed by a brief plot synopsis and a few salient film facts. More detail is provided on linked pages.

Yahoo ranks only 14 critics’ reviews for the selected movie, though most are major names. You can click through to read the full reviews.

Movies – This site offers its own critic’s reviews along with aggregated critics’ and fans’ grades (on an A–F scale), much like Yahoo, and the usual details about the movie.

However, as you can see below, Movies.com covers only 10 critics’ reviews, so although they are all major names, I trust its score least of all.

You can click through to read the full reviews.

The Movies.com copyright notice says “Buena Vista,” a subsidiary of Disney. I don’t know if this corporate link might influence the reviews.

IMdb – The granddaddy of film sites, Internet Movie Data Base, aggregates reviews from the movie-going public, not professional critics.

However, IMdb also is the place to go to research films. Almost every detail about films, actors, directors, and everything else is listed here.

Free Antivirus Programs Updated

Just when I was about to try out the highly regarded free Avast antivirus program, AVG and Avira both released new versions of their free (for personal use) antivirus programs, both numbered version 8.0.

Because I already was using AVG Free Antivirus, brand-new version 8.0 takes the first turn. It claims to detect spyware as well as viruses, but lacks rootkit detection. It has a slightly more usable interface. I did not see any assertions that its antivirus engine had been significantly improved, but it already is very good. AVG also comes with its LinkScanner browser tool bar that claims to identify phishing and malware Web sites. However, the most useful LinkScanner features are disabled in the free version. The tool bar takes up valuable screen real estate, so I turned it off and continue to rely on McAfee SiteAdvisor and Firefox’s built-in anti-phishing alerts.

I will try to new Avira AntiVir Personal 8.0 soon, after running AVG 8.0 through its paces. Except for its annoying nag screens (which, some have pointed out, can be eliminated) and slow-to-download update files, it enjoys an excellent reputation for protection (as does Avast).

The bottom line is that whichever of these three top-rated free antivirus programs you use, be sure to keep it up to date!

Now Linux Room master of ceremonies Mark Lautman draws us into the world of miniature art.

Icons Worth Worshipping

by Mark Lautman

Well, last week was quite a milestone in the Linux Room. Nobody called the police to break up a fight, and I finished my first program called the Command Composer. It helps users compose complex Linux commands. Here is a picture of the top-left corner.

As you can see, the icon in the corner is expressionless. It's the default Gnome icon and it will bore everyone to tears. Icons that make a statement are very powerful, mostly because people are attracted to stare at them all day. The Mozilla icons are nothing short of fabulous and a pleasure to look at.

I also want an icon like that. Who wouldn't? However, icon designers cost more than interior decorators these days, so I need to find a less expensive solution.

In post 41, Jonathan discussed an online tool that makes icons from common graphics. It turns out there are many such Web applications. I tried another one called Real World Graphics. These web-based tools offer a basic pallet and a brush to paint your icon, and then download the *.ico file to your computer.

A Web browser is limited when it comes to graphic editing, however. Image Author takes online icon drawing to the next step by using a Java applet. You have a selection of brushes, colors, fills, and text tools.

A full-blown Java application for creating icons is IconPainter. This is a fabulous program for creating icons, with all the tools required to make a statement in a small 32x32 grid. The preview is particularly helpful.

And finally, for Linux there is the Gnome Icon Editor.

Well, you can see from my images that art isn't my strong point. However, if you think icon designers are pricey, take a look at art schools! They charge for everything, including drop cloths. Well, if I'm going to learn how to draw, it will be free and online, starting with Learn to Draw. –Mark Lautman

I hope you found this post about cinema and miniature art culturally uplifting. Please visit again each week for more recommendations of great utilities and Web sites, and bring all your fellow culture vultures. Are you a critic? Got some reviews of your own? Share them by clicking on “comments” below or, if you prefer privacy, by writing to jonathanstoolbar@gmail.com. And please help keep this blog alive by visiting our advertisers.

20 April 2008

#67. Sticky Notes On Your Screen

Howdy from the Tool Bar & Grill, and welcome to the many new readers who have joined us in the past few weeks. Your chef is glad to be back behind the counter again, with some fresh new software recommendations. And assistant chef Mark Lautman continues his thesis on Perl scripting.

Stick With Me, Kid, and You’ll Go Far

I remember when the invention of Post-It® Notes revolutionized office work. Now most of you are too young to imagine a world without them. And like with the paper stick-on notes, I still have hardly begun to explore the panoply of potential uses for Stickies, a free on-screen version. So far I’m delighted just to be able to jot quick notes to myself without hunting for a pen and paper.

The beauty of Stickies is how their simplicity hides their versatility. Just double-click the system tray icon to create a new note on the screen. Your notes stay wherever you put them on the screen, even through reboots, and remain until you delete them. The notes can automatically resize themselves to fit your text. Here is a sample:

It’s easy to configure Stickies any way you want. You can change the color, font, size, and style (bold, italics, etc,); use bullets or numbered or lettered lists; change the case and justification; adjust the transparency; and more. You can view or hide your notes, or roll them up like window blinds, as needed. Right-clicking the system tray icon shows some of the possibilities:

But wait, there’s more. You can stick a note on a folder or document, and it will reappear when you reopen that object. This works for Web pages, too. And you can program Stickies as reminders to open at a certain time, and even sound an alarm.

My new computer came with a lame Microsoft screen note gadget already loaded in the Vista Sidebar, but I’m sure glad I removed it and installed Stickies instead. Stickies works with Windows versions through Vista as well as on handheld computers and Palm PDAs. It is absolutely free, but as always, I urge you to donate some money to Zhorn Software if you like and use the program.

This might not be the end of the story. A similar free utility, Hott Notes, supports graphics and drawing in notes, and has a portable version for flash drives. Likewise, TK8 EasyNote functions similarly to Stickies, though it appears to be less versatile. 3M, the inventor of Post-It® Notes, also produces Post-It® Digital Notes software, but it also seems limited compared to Stickies and costs $20 (though a previous “lite” version can be found for free). I have not yet tried these, but for now, I’ll stick with Stickies.

Welcome to the Perl Boot Camp

by Mark Lautman

In last week’s post, we did a few laps around the Linux terminal window, looking into some examples of powerful one-line commands. This week we’ll separate the men from the boys, the wheat from the chaff, the sourdough from the pumpernickel, and introduce some more complex Perl scripts.

Linklint is a Perl application that checks a Web site for broken links. It lists all the files in the site, all the anchors, live links, broken links, and how much pizza is selling for in the Barcelona suburbs. In short, the reports generated by Linklint are comprehensive and show you exactly where there is a problem. Here is the output from a help file I did a few years ago:

Do you have problems with attention span? Do you jump from one topic to another and then my car stalled on the highway last vacation. This is a problem for authors who write long Web pages, because nobody has the patience to read pages that are longer than a single window. If you have a long Web page, then give htsplit a try. This Perl script splits one long HTML page into separate HTML files. The splits occur at the heading level you specify (h1, h2, ... h6). htsplit copies all of the head content, such as titles and styles, into all the resulting smaller files. This is very useful for specifications, which are often composed in Word and exported as HTML. Here is a for-instance:

I was looking at disk drive prices recently, and you can now buy a one-terabyte drive for $200. What do people need one terabyte for? All of Asian and Western civilization from the year 5000 BC to 1800 AD fits on a one gigabyte flash card, and that’s including the Chauvet cave paintings! Clearly humanity has a problem with disk space abuse, and there is a script that can help you do something about it. Diskhogs lists all user accounts that consume more disk space than a value you specify, as in this example:

I have heard that when the Roman elite attended a feast, if they didn’t like something they ate, they would intentionally vomit and then try something else. That’s actually quite liberating; with today’s etiquette, you have to keep everything in your stomach no matter how awful it tastes. Wouldn’t it be nice if we could do the same thing with compression programs? Some compression utilities work better than others, but it is time-consuming to manually compress a file with each one, check the file sizes, and then expunge the largest ones. Bestcompress does all that work for you. You indicate where all the compression programs are on your computer, and the script determines the one that gives the smallest size.

There is one thing you need to know about scripts: they often need fixing before you use them. In preparing this post I tried at least 15 other scripts that didn’t work, and the time required to repair them would take me way past bedtime. If you start working with scripts, be prepared to learn the language they are written in so you can enhance them to get the results you want.

Congratulations on making it through this basic training on the terminal window! —Mark Lautman

Well, that’s just about all the fun I can handle in one sitting. I hope you’ll make the Tool Bar & Grill a regular part of your weekly Web surfing – and if you like it, please tell the world about it through Digg, Del.icio.us, Stumble Upon, Technorati, and other services. And feel free to comment below or write to jonathanstoolbar@gmail.com.

13 April 2008

#66. Dupe Finders and One-Liners

Welcome back, dear readers. This week your chef had to take his act out on the road again, despite his notable lack of wanderlust. Thus your chef was faced today with the choice of strolling around his hotel’s serene Japanese garden and exploring the surroundings in a new city, or spending many hours evaluating new utility software and writing his recommendations. Maybe this will give you a clue about his choice:

Eliminate Double Vision

Last week’s post led to an interesting discussion in the comments about software for detecting duplicate digital photos on your disk. Such programs try to identify duplicate pictures by examining their sizes or even the actual images. For those of you who missed it, I suggested to reader Jim that he try these programs:

DupDetector (free; compares images by content; apparently orphaned by its developer, and not certified for Vista)

VisiPics (free; compares images by content)

Image Comparer ($35; compares images by content)

Image File DeDuper (also known as JPeg DeDuper; free; compares by file size first, then by content)

Md5sums (free; command-line tool that only compares file checksums)

Reader Mike then commented that JPeg De-Duper is very fast with very few false positives, but misses some duplicates. He recommends DoubleKiller Pro ($20), which also has a free version.

I have not tried any of these programs, though I know I need to use one on my overgrown photo collection. I welcome your further comments on these or any others you know of.

Update on Free Firewalls

Lifehacker recently asked its readers to name the best free software firewall. The results generally confirm my existing conceptions: Approximately 36% chose Comodo Personal Firewall. ZoneAlarm Free garnered about 23% of the votes, closely followed by Windows’ built-in firewall with 22%. Sygate Personal Firewall took 7%, and various others got about 1% of the votes each.

The big surprise for me in the Lifehacker survey was the 9% vote for “Fire-what? Don’t use one.” I doubt that any of those 9% are Tool Bar readers too. But if you are among them, I’m telling you now: Get a firewall!

Even the simple built-in Windows firewall helps prevent hackers and malware from breaking in to your computer (and it might be working without your even being aware of it). More sophisticated firewalls, such as Comodo (which I use – see my remarks in posts #6, #47, #51, and #57), also stop malware that somehow gets into your computer from reaching out to the Internet and doing more harm. Used in conjunction with good antivirus, antispyware scanning, and host intrusion protection programs (the latter also included with the Comodo firewall), you can rest assured that your computer is reasonably well protected.

I continue to recommend Comodo for its excellent performance in testing and its generally good interface. And Comodo continues to reward me with safety, but also to punish me with some very irritating habits – particularly the way it lays its messages right on top of each other so you can’t read or click on them. And yesterday for unknown reasons, Comodo apparently forgot many of the programs I trained it to recognize and accept, resulting in a blizzard of new pop-up questions that really tried my patience. (Come on, Comodo, you don’t recognize Windows Media Player any more?) So watch this space in coming weeks for my assessments of other firewalls.

And now let’s see what insights Linux grandmaster Mark Lautman has for us today….

Did You Hear the One About.…

by Mark Lautman

A computer analyst said to a programmer, “You start coding. I'll go find out what the customer wants.”

“I haven't lost my mind; it's backed up on tape somewhere.”

This form of humor is called the “one-liner.” I got these examples from the fabulous collection at http://www.oneliners-and-proverbs.com/.

One-liners are great in Linux, too. For several posts I've been describing the “command line” and the “terminal window,” but I haven't exactly said what you can do with those things. For the next few weeks, I'll introduce some one-line commands that show what the terminal window can do for you.

If you maintain a Web site, you've probably come across the situation where you need to change one little thing in 100 HTML files. I've done my share of changes to relative directories, or even just replacing one word with another. One way of doing this is to open each cute little HTML file in a text editor, and do a find and replace. This works fine for the first 10 cute little HTML files, but after that they don't look so cute or little any more. You could write a Word macro, which cuts down the time quite a bit, but you'll need at least two lines to open and close the files.

In Linux you can change all 100 files with a single command. For example, the following command replaces all instances of “Tool” to “Bar” in all HTML files in a directory:

perl -p -e 's/Tool/Bar/ig' *.html

I took the above example from Rice University’s Edit Your HTML Files with a One-Line Perl Program. You can find variations on this theme at that site. If there were a contest for the most valuable one-line command, this is a sure winner.

My son tells me that real mammalians have hair. I tell him that real HTML files start with some type of a document declaration. Nobody does this, certainly not the big retail sites, but it’s a good practice. Below is an example of adding a document type to the first line of all HTML files in a directory. (This example is based of a collection of one-liners at Perl One Liners.

perl -i -ple 'print q{} if $. == 1; close ARGV if eof' *.html

Can you find the error in in this sentence? A posting at UNIX for Dummies Questions & Answers has a few single-line commands to find lines containing duplicate words, for example:

perl -ne 'print "$.: doubled $_\n" if /\b(\w+)\b\s+\b\1\b/'

The previous examples used Perl commands. Perl is my favorite language for abusing text files. There are other Linux utilities as well. Linux’s sed (Stream EDitor) is very popular. For example, have you ever received a file with annoying empty lines between each paragraph? If you have sed, you can eliminate all those lines with an amazingly short command (suggested by Eric Pement):

sed 'n;d' filename.txt

If you haven't received annoying empty lines, you've probably received files with annoying leading spaces and tabs. The following sed command, offered by sed one-liners, has a solution just for you:

sed 's/^[ \t]*//' filename.txt

[You’ll find a good introductory sed reference guide here. —JP]

Consultants, as we all know, get paid by the amount of work they do, not the quality. If you want to compare the number of words your consultants are giving you in text files, use the wc (word count) command:

wc -w `find . -name "*.txt"`

Below is a list of word counts from the Tool Bar's recent posts.

Next week we'll look at some Perl modules that are available for special tasks.

TOOL BAR AND GRILL FREE OFFER (for one week only): If you find yourself doing a repetitive task on text files, send me a description and I'll try to automate it using Linux commands. Contact me through the Tool Bar at jonathanstoolbar@gmail.com. —Mark Lautman

That wraps up another great Tool Bar. Do come back next week and every week for more great tips and software recommendations, and don’t forget to bring all your friends. And please help keep this blog going by visiting our advertisers.

Share your thoughts, and take advantage of Mark’s free offer, by clicking on “comments” below or writing to jonathanstoolbar@gmail.com.

06 April 2008

#65. Polish Up Your Image at the Terminal

It must be time to redecorate the tawdry old Tool Bar & Grill, because I’m in a graphical mood this week. So let’s break out the paint brushes and buckets, and find the best free image editing software.

Give Your Pictures the Royal Treatment

Image software has come a long way in recent years, keeping up with the dizzying advances in digital photography. If you are still using the Paint program that comes with Windows, it’s time to wake up to a world of sophisticated graphics editors.

My abilities as graphic artist are amply demonstrated by the masterpiece below, so I won’t be recommending programs for creating drawings today.

When you need to manipulate your photos, you don’t have to spend any money to get good programs to do it with. So here are my picks for the best free image editors.

For everyday photo editing, new version 4 of the old standby IrfanView is just the ticket. Always free (donations welcomed), IrfanView’s simple interface includes basic editing functions, and some more advanced ones, including batch file conversion and renaming. Here’s my new grandson, waiting to be sharpened:

FastStone Image Viewer offers a bit broader functionality, but its interface is a bit more complicated, but still easy to figure out. FastStone is a good viewer and picture sorter as well as image editor and batch converter, and is free for home users. Here my grandson demonstrates the thumbnail view with preview:

When your graphics editing are more complex but don’t justify buying an expensive Adobe program, try Paint.NET. It approaches PhotoShop in its functionality, but is free (donations accepted). Of course, greater sophistication means a more complicated interface, but Paint.NET puts it all together well. Here’s the little scamp in Paint.NET, though no editing could possibly make him any more adorable:

However, Paint.NET requires Microsoft .NET Framework, which can be a heavy load for older, weaker computers.

You want still more alternatives? The GIMP (GNU Image Manipulation Program) is a widely recommended open-source graphics editor, which also excels in its sophisticated capabilities. However, I found its interface to be complex and intimidating. GIMPShop modifies The GIMP to give it a more PhotoShop-like interface, but it’s built on an older version of The GIMP, so I still prefer Paint.NET.

If none of these recommended programs meets your needs, try Photofiltre or XnView, which have been recommended to me, but which I have not tried which Or upload your pictures to the Web, where a number of sites (including Adobe PhotoShop Express, Flickr, Picasa, and others) offer basic image-editing features and storage for free.

Catch the Copycats

You might have noticed the CopyScape warning at the bottom of the right-hand column in my blog posts. What’s up with that?

CopyScape is a wonderful Internet plagiarism detector. Enter your URL (Web page address) in its search box, and it finds other Web pages that have reproduced part of all of your brilliant writings.

CopyScape has helped me track down a number of legitimate sites that have quoted from the Tool Bar & Grill, as well as a couple of rogue bloggers who reproduced my columns without proper attribution.

CopyScape gives you 10 searches a month for free. If you need more, buy the unlimited Premium service or Copysentry, which automatically monitors the Web for plagiarists.

Now Mark Lautman visits the end of the line at the Linux Terminal.

Doctor, Is It Terminal?

by Mark Lautman

My wife's grandmother was one of the first Europeans to have a car. The stories she would tell us about getting her driver's license were daunting. At that time, in the late 1930s, drivers were required to be able to do simple repairs on their vehicles, including tire changes, minor electrical work, and cleaning fuel lines. Compare that situation with today's motorists, who can get a license without even knowing how to dial a tow truck number from a cell phone!

If you would like to relive those hands-on days of yesteryear, but without the oil stains on your resort attire, then all you need is a Linux terminal and a command-line prompt. Because the terminal is so important and useful in Linux, there are a variety of models from which to choose.

First, a few words about the terminal. Originally, a terminal was a combination of a video display and a keyboard used to issue commands to a device. Starting around the early 1970s, people connected a terminal to a piece of hardware, such as a mainframe computer, and typed commands. Terminal commands also were the first way to operate personal computers. People copied files from one disk to another with a command like copy a:thisfile.txt b:thatfile.txt.

Terminals were difficult to use because they required you to remember arcane commands. Apple started to eliminate the terminal by introducing the Macintosh, the first successful product to let users communicate with a computer more naturally, without using commands. Today, most users communicate with computers using a graphical operating system, such as OS X, Windows, or Gnome. While these are much easier to use than terminal commands, all those clicks and key presses are translated into commands, which are all a computer can understand.

Even though most computer users don't use terminals any more, they are still the only way of communicating with technical equipment such as powerful web servers, phone switches, or network routers. In fact, many technicians use the Windows Hyperterminal application (Start > Accessories > Communication > Hyperterminal) to work on switches and routers.

It is now almost impossible to use Windows or Macintosh by typing commands into a terminal. In some ways this is a disadvantage, because it often is faster to type commands than click in windows. In Linux, you can still operate a computer from a terminal; you can even operate someone else's computer from a terminal! In modern Linux, the “terminal” is no longer a video display and keyboard – it is a window that appears on the desktop.

Ubuntu comes with the Gnome terminal. This standard application is integrated into Gnome, meaning you can copy and paste with the terminal, change its configuration (appearance, shortcut keys), and have multiple terminals running in a tabbed window. KDE's terminal Konsole offers similar features. The default configuration is very plain, but by poking in the profiles section you can make it a tad more interesting. Here’s an example:

I've given up caffeine, given up sugar, and given up fats. One vice I'll never give up is desktop eye candy. If you have the same problem, then you have to try out aterm. Aterm gives you control over every aspect of the terminal window, starting with transparency, colors, and tinting. You can configure about 40 characteristics of a terminal window. Here are a few examples.

Beyond visual effects, there are some utilities that make life with the command window much easier. Some users have different terminals for different applications, such as blue ones for managing “boy” networks, and pink ones for managing “girl” networks. The gnome-terminal-launcher organizes all of these profiles into one collection of shortcuts. You can easily open a terminal with a particular profile with a mouse click:

If you're doing work in multiple languages, give mlterm a try. This terminal displays the most complicated UTF-8 symbols perfectly. Below is part of a file with Hebrew diacritical marks positioned perfectly, something that most word processors and web browsers can't do correctly. (However, I couldn't get mlterm to display the Arabic alphabet correctly.)

We've hinted at the usefulness of terminals and commands. For the next few posts, we’ll discuss some useful commands that can save you a lot of time. —Mark Lautman

I hope today’s post has cleared up the picture for you. Please keep coming back each week for more recommendations of great utilities and Web sites. And please help keep this blog going by visiting our advertisers.

Did I overlook your favorite utility or Web site? Tell us all about it by clicking on “comments” below or, if you prefer privacy, by writing to jonathanstoolbar@gmail.com.