Primitive Blog (Page 2)

Applications to Go! Keep your life on a USB stick...

Some people have one computer they - and they only - use all the time. It sits in the living room / study / bedroom they have all their software installed there and it never moves. That covers a lot of people and they are happy that way. Some people however are not like that. Maybe you’ve got a desktop and a laptop. Maybe you borrow your partners cool new laptop because it’s easier than digging out yours. Sometimes perhaps you have to use your parents PC which has none of the stuff you want on it. Who knows, maybe you don’t actually own a computer full time or you switch between a machine at home and work. Well for you there’s a nice little way to make things easier to work on any computer - Portable Apps.

Indeed there are often times when even if you are happy with your one computer most of the time it would be handy to have some useful tools handy wherever you go. Maybe you need to do some word processing and you want to make sure you have access to software wherever you are even if you are borrowing your pal’s PC. Again Portable Apps steps in.

If you look at your usual desktop you’ll see a few files lying around, often some folders you copied there a while ago and those four or five applications you use all the time. A web browser, a word processor, maybe email program, maybe chat. Usually they are set up the way you want them - bookmarks of pages you visit often, maybe some word processor templates etc. The point is it’s annoying to not have them and it’s annoying to have to set up someone else’s programs the way you like them. It might even be seen as bad form to bookmark all your geeky web comics on your girlfriend’s new laptop! What you need is a copy of the programs that retain their settings wherever they are run and can be handily stored on a portable device - like a little USB stick. You know the cheap little ones you get free for visiting a trade show.

Portable apps ?- portableapps.com - is a site that lets you download all sorts of programs that you can install on a USB key. They range from Web browsers to anti virus applications and guarantee not to touch the underlying system as long as you run them straight from the USB key. They also save all their settings onto the USB key meaning for example that your browsing history, bookmarks, cookies etc. are all safely stored and as soon as you’ve removed the device from the computer there’s no audit trail left behind. Now I’m not advocating this as a way of surfing dodgy sites at work - and in fact it probably won’t help as a tech savvy company will block sites at the perimeter - but it does mean you can click accept to remember passwords for web sites that possibly you don’t want other people getting access to if it’s a shared computer.

It is often handy to take round with you applications that you use but are not always installed on most PC’s. A lot of people use “Gimp” for photo editing but it is uncommon to find ready for you on someone else computer. Likewise most people don’t have a HTML editor handy.

It is not only serious applications that are covered. You’ll find a number of games and a couple of music and video players. Portable VLC is a very handy tool to have when you want to show a video file and you don’t want to install all those codecs on someone else’s computer.

The site even has a handy pre-packaged “suite” of applications covering most bases which has a nice little menu which launches when you insert your USB key into most machines.

Two caveats to bear in mind. Firstly things will run a little more slowly from a USB key than from the hard disk of a computer. Programs like Open Office are slow to start up the first time anyway so have a little patience. Secondly don’t expect any Microsoft applications to come this way - so no Internet Explorer, Outlook or MS Word. The licensing as well as technical issues make this to hard to do.

Finally if you find this all useful don’t forget to back up your USB key! In fact backing them up is nice and simple - as everything is stored in files you can simply copy over everything from the key to somewhere safe - say for instance the hard disk of your own computer. If you loose your key simply copy them all back onto a new one.

By Primitive Designs

Thinking about quitting Facebook for good?

I was going to write up some notes about how to use Facebook minimally but I found this article instead. Like it says this is really for those people who really want nothing to do with Facebook but don't want to miss parties etc. I'd recommend forwarding this to people you know who are on the verge of leaving.

How to Quit Facebook Without Actually Quitting Facebook

By Primitive Designs

Publish everything to PDF!

Recently someone asked me about a problem they were having sending annotated photographs to a potential client of theirs. The problem was they wanted to send photos of their work but also notes on each photo about what they had done. I’ve seen a lot of people resort to using Microsoft Word to do this - attaching a photo into the text. In fact one client of mine used to send me a Word document with a screenshot every time their was a problem with their computer. At first site this seems to make sense however there’s two big problems with Word documents you create from your computer. First of all how do you know the person you are sending it to has Microsoft Word? It used to be fairly ubiquitous on PC’s but people are starting to change to products like Open Office (which do 99% of what Word does but for free). If you get it installed on your PC then you’ve already paid for Word, but otherwise it can be up to half the cost of the PC again depending in the version. There was also a big change in the format of Word between the version that came out before 2007 and the version that came after. You just can’t expect everyone to have the same version just like you can expect everyone to have your favourite coffee. You can get free Word “viewer” programs but why should someone install software just for you to send one file over to see? And that’s not even considering people reading their emails on a iphone or android phone.

Secondly Microsoft Word is really not optimised for creating small files. It’s tracking your changes, letting you undo your mistakes, and all sorts of other things you probably don’t use. Files have a habit of ballooning in size as soon as you add photos too. So what we need is a nice portable document format that most people can view. Enter PDF’s (from stage left...) Admittedly a proprietary document format - i.e. Adobe inc. own the rights to change it at any  time - it has become the de-facto standard for presenting text and graphics in a form that should be pretty much the same whatever device your viewing it on. Furthermore PDF files are optimized for size - they compress up the data as small as possible for quick delivery.

Does that mean you have to buy the expensive Adobe Acrobat software to create them? No! Because many years ago people started creating a clever way to generate them from any application - they created a dummy printer. What does this mean? Well basically you install a piece of software that pretends  to be a physical printer to your computer. When you go to File -> Print it will appear in the list of available printers as if it’s a real device sitting next to you. However when you print to it, what it actually does is re-route it to a program that creates a PDF file from this.

There are many programs for Windows that do this. All of them free! Try CutePDF or PDFCreator -

If you have a Apple Mac or use Linux, your in luck as the facility is built in.

Now getting back to the original problem. What should you do? Well by all means fire up Word, attach the photo and write some notes on it. However once you’ve saved that, install the above software and “print” your document to a new PDF file. Now you can send that file to your recipient rather than the big clunky word document.

Once you’ve started using PDF’s for that you suddenly can start using it for keeping copies of lots of useful things. Have you just bought something online and the website presents you with a unique reference number? Don’t have a pen and paper handy? Print the page to PDF! That way you’ve got an exact copy handy when you have to look through your notes. Are you reading a long interesting web page but you want to come back to reading later when you haven’t got internet access? Again print to PDF and read it at your leisure later. I often Print detailed instructions on things to PDF and file them away. Often easier than trying to find that same page on Google (especially if you are using another computer at the time...)

By Primitive Designs

Remember Anti-Virus!!!

Recently been talking to people about anti virus. First of all you really need it if you use any sort of Windows.I can’t stress this highly enough. Secondly not all anti virus products are equal. Don’t just get the one your Computer Reseller recommend (i.e. the place you bought the computer). Why not? Because more likely than not they have a reseller contract with one of the big name anti virus companies meaning that they can get up to 50% of the sale price as profit for them. Often this is the reason they sell it rather than any technical benefits.

Have a look on the Internet. Forums are not a bad way to find out but often reviews are more impartial and helpful. Things you should be looking for in a decent Anti Virus package:

  • Stats for how many viruses in the wild they stop (as opposed to possible ones they've come up with in their lab!)
  • Efficiency of the program - does it hog all the resources of your computer?
  • How helpful is the customer support - both phone support and website.
  • How easy is it to use - does it nag you every five seconds?


The third one is very important as in the unlikely event you do get a virus that’s got through it’s vital that they can give you a way of getting rid of it. Also a company that provides good information to its customers is a company that actually cares about it’s software and not just the £ signs.

Anti virus software does change in quality between different versions but the software that we install is Eset’s Nod32. They fulfilled the criteria shown above and were not too expensive. We used to install AVG (who do a free version) but sadly noticed a distinct fall in quality of their products in our opinion. Your mileage may vary.

In terms of free software I’ve recommended Avira anti virus. So far it seems fairly unobtrusive and efficient. Remember that if you are running a business off your computer most free anti virus products are only aimed at home users and you are breaking their usage policy. It’s usually a false economy to do so anyway - count it as a business expense and remember what would happen if you passed a virus on to your customers by mistake. Better safe than sorry...

By Primitive Designs

Where are all your Passwords???

So the World Wide Web eh? It’s great. You’ve got a Gmail account, a Facebook account, a flicker account, a Cheap-airline account, a “sign up for this it’s free!” account. Lots of people wanting you to give them email addresses and passwords. Now as someone who knows both sides of the industry (both developer and consumer) I know why they all want you to create an account but you have to admit we’ve all got rather a lot of things to remember now...

There are two options - either use the same easy to remember details for everything or keep a note of them all. The first option is unsafe and frankly no longer very easy as a lot of sites require a password complexity that is only satisfied by “Dkojefj%lkwdko23245@”. Very safe from brute force password attempts but hardly memorable.

So the other option is having different details for different accounts. Now in another guide I’m going to discuss the use of multiple email addresses but first lets look at the best way to keep a note of all your passwords safely, and at the same time be able to generate more quickly.

Let me introduce you to Keepass. Not only that let me introduce you to Portable KeePass. I’ll also be covering the wonderfulness of Portable apps in another guide but for now I’d recommend you get the portable version (i.e. doesn’t need installed on a specific PC) of KeePass and stick it on a USB stick. You know that little mini flash drive you keep on your key ring. Or laptop case or wherever. I suggest you keep a safe copy somewhere else too. Maybe online, tucked away on someone else’s laptop, that sort of thing.

Go get it from “http://downloads.sourceforge.net/keepass/KeePass-1.20.zip”.

Now fire up the actual program. Create a new Database (File -> New Database) and pick a good password. This is the only one you’ll need to remember so make it good.

Note if you want some extra protection you can chose a “Key File”. Basically this is a file that has to exist on the computer you are using to get access to the information. What you can do is pick something like a photo off the internet (it has to be something that doesn’t change and has to be globally available!), download it to your desktop and select that as the key file. Anyone stealing you  USB flash drive has to know which file to use AS WELL as your password.

Now first things first. Save the database straight away. Save it to your USB flash drive (the same place you but the actual program hopefully!)

Lets say your sitting at your computer about to sign up for ACME web services. First create a new entry in keepass - go to the menu, select “Entries -> Add new entry”. In the title put “ACME Web Services”, put in your username you want to use - (most sites simply use email addresses as a username but not always!), the URL if you wish (e.g. www.acme.co.uk) and a password. Now to be safe you can get the program to generate a new password for you. Hit the “Gen.” button. This brings a new screen to the front which gives you options on how complicated you want it. Usually you can just use the defaults but if you want to make it a certain length you can do that too. Hit the “generate” button on that screen. You’ll see a set of stars appear next to “New Password”. Click “OK” which takes you back to the main entry screen. The password will still be hidden until you hit the little button to the right of password that has a eye on it. Clicking that will reveal a nice complicated password to use. You can copy and paste this into the web form. Maybe put something in the comments field to describe the entry. In six months time it might be handy as a memory cue! Remember to click “OK” in KeePass. Now SAVE THE DATABASE!!! Go to File and select “Save Database” that will save the new entry for posterity.

As you add more entries you can create Groups to store different passwords into - e.g. Social Sites, Work, Bank etc. You can also give them different icons. The point is that they are saved somewhere safe. Make multiple copies of the KeePass database (it’s the file ending “.kdb”) - it’s securely encrypted so unless the CIA are on your back you should be safe!

You’ll also find it useful for other secure information that is not necessarily a password but needs to be confidential. I’d recommend that if you are in the habit of keeping a note of your credit card details in a little text file (don’t scoff - lots of people do it!) then you stop that and put them in here instead. If you use a “key file” as well as a password the data is as about as safe as you can get. Other uses might be your N.I. number or security questions for telephone banking. All the data is encrypted - not just the password so you  an use the Description field for sensitive information too!

Even better you can get versions for most phones and mobile devices, meaning you can keep a copy on there instead. Check out the Android market or Apple store for KeePass, or download the java version directly from the KeePass website -

http://keepass.info/download.html

By Primitive Designs

MythTV as a home media Player

Do you want a simple media player/viewer for the home? Maybe a device that you can watch videos on, view family snaps or just listen to some music? There are a lot of custom devices out there but maybe you should try MythTV! Although it's geared up to work with TV tuner cards it will happily work without one and allow you to share files throughout the house using Samba and UPnP as well.

I'd recommend using Mythbuntu. Note the latest version of Mythbuntu includes MythTV 0.24 which bringing in a few differences to the program, not least removing DVD ripping facilities. If you are building a home media station with this in mind you may wish to go for an eariler disk. All the older versions are still available on the site by selecting the "Advanced" button when you download the CD. I'd recommend the 10.04 version as it still includes Ubuntu packages that will be officially supported under LTS.

By Primitive Designs

Website redeveloped using new CMS package

We've been doing testing using various CMS packages and have chosen Pixie as a simple but easily maintainable solution.This page will update with news and information about Primitive Designs regularly.

By Primitive Designs