Category Archives: Free Software

Cutting Cable : A Week Without TV

cutting-cableA week-long experiment without cable TV resulted in some real cost savings, and some interesting family observations.

Normally the annual rate increase from Cablevision results in a call to Optimum threatening to switch to FIOS.  This inevitably leads to them placing me on a one year-long promotion, after which the cycle starts again.

This time was different .  I had wondered whether cable TV was worth the money, particularly with all the streaming options available today, and this was just what I needed to look at it seriously.   This idea was based on the following thoughts:

  1. Cable TV costs have gone up significantly
  2. We don’t actually watch that much TV
  3. We almost never watch live TV and don’t have premium channels such as HBO
  4. Cutting cable would save at least $900 per year, ever after factoring in other services needed

I didn’t want to just blindly make the leap so I signed up for a one week free trial of Hulu Plus and hid the cable TV remote controls. At the end of the week I polled the family to see what their reaction was to being without TV and the results were quite startling.

  • My Daughter (the big TV watcher) hands-down prefers Hulu.  There are shows on Hulu that she likes that are not on Cable and she can choose which episode to watch.
  • My two boys literally said “We didn’t have TV this week?”  With YouTube and the Xbox available the TV is something they just don’t use.
  • Joanne and I found most of our favorite shows, plus a whole bunch of things that couldn’t be found on cable

Aside from confirming how little TV we watch as a family there were a few other items of note.

Streaming TV is an active instead of passive activity. Instead of channel surfing until you find something that you can accept you actively have to choose.  This meant less time idly watching whatever crap happened to come along and more time watching things we cared about.

Streaming changes how you think about content providers.  Hulu Plus is a good option that fills most needs but there are many more options.  Shows that Hulu doesn’t have can often be found through other channels.  e.g.

  • Big Bang Theory is not on Hulu but is on CBS.com and with the Chromecast I can send it from a PC or laptop to any of the TVs.
  • I found lots of my childhood Sci-Fi shows on YouTube and, after nearly 40 years, managed to catch up on some of the shows that I missed!  Yes…I finally found how Blake’s 7 crew was formed!  🙂

Streaming changes where you watch TV.  I spend two hours per day commuting by bus. Now I can watch sci-fi without the commentary from Joanne about why something really doesn’t seem very likely.

It’s not all roses though.

  • There’s a lot of mature content on Hulu and yet they have no parental controls.  Since the kids can now watch anywhere in the house this is something we need to keep an eye on
  • Everyone watching different things in different rooms can cause ‘fracturing’.  I need to turn the wi-fi off every so often
  • If you are a big sports fan this might not be for you.  The only sport I watch with any regularity is Formula One and I haven’t found a suitable option for this yet
  • This could considerably cut my nap time on the bus

Despite the few negatives I called Optimum yesterday, cancelled the TV and returned the two cable boxes without giving it a second thought.

Note:  Hulu Plus will give me a bonus if other people sign up, so if you think that might be something you want to try can you please use this button to sign up.  Thanks!!

 

 

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Filed under Free Software, Life - or something like it, Technology

Meetings are not free!

Reading Russell Ackoff‘s excellent book Management F-laws recently I came across the following

“The amount of time a committee wastes is directly propotional to its size.”

Ackoff then goes on to remind us just how ineffective meetings, and particularly large meetings, are at actually getting things done.

He ends with

“Those who convene committee meetings (or any meetings) should be required to pay for the time of those who attend.”

megaphone-manI am a big believer in communication and I prefer, when possible, to do this face to face.  But with a few rare exceptions large meetings are a vast waste of people’s time and the companies money.  If a broadcast is needed there are usually more effective ways to do this with today’s technology.

The next time you are in a large meeting take a look around.  How many people are checking email on their phone or laptop, how many actually look engaged and, if it’s in the late in the afternoon, how many are struggling just to keep their eyes open?  These people probably either don’t need to be there or, if they do, don’t need to be there for the whole time.

The meeting clock

It’s easy to forget that people are being paid to be bored.  But there is something you can do about it – use a meeting clock.

This is a simple app into which you enter the number of people and an average hourly rate and then click start.  As the meeting progresses you will see a number counting up showing how much it has cost to run the meeting in real-time.

You don’t have to do this too many times before you start to realize just how much money is being wasted when people could actually be doing something productive.  I guarantee that before you know it you will be keeping meetings to a minimum, doing more one on one meetings (where real things happen) and trying to make better use of the collaborative social platforms available.

 

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Filed under Business, Career, Free Software

Free Audiobooks – LibriVox

LibriVox-poster-a2For those of you looking for audio books there is a free option that few people seem to be aware of – and by now you must all know how much I like free stuff!

LibriVox provides free audio-books from the public domain, and many of them are top quality recordings despite being read by volunteers.  

In fact…if you hunt around on the site you will find not just my dulcet tones on there but also those of my middle child.  In 2009 Gregory read a fantastic children’s book called My Father’s Dragon by Ruth Stiles Gannett.

I may be just a little biased but hearing a children s book read by a 9-year-old really adds something IMHO.  I guess I am not alone because his recording has already been downloaded over 32,000 times!

Regardless of your audio book needs LibriVox has something for everyone and I would heartily recommend checking it out.  It could be just the thing to keep you sane on long drives down to the shore this summer.

 

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Filed under Children, Education, Free Software

Foreign travel this year? You need Google Translate

If you are planning on traveling outside the US this year then Google Translate is just the thing to slip into your pocket before you head for the airport.

Offering translations in over 50 languages there’s a good chance that it’s got your back wherever  you land.

Translation is performed by selecting the languages to translate between, entering the text and pressing the Go button.  The text in your target language will then appear below in large text and can even be expanded to full screen.  Touch the small speaker icon and it will speak the phrase with an accent that, while I’m sure funny to natives, is far better than I could muster.

If you’re using an iPhone or Android phone then speech entry is also possible, which might help you with the response you receive from the locals.

The one downside is that for this to work it needs an internet connection.  That’s fine if you can find a wi-fi hotspot, but if you turn on your internet connection while overseas you’re likely to run up a huge data charge by the time you get home.  Then again, if you’re trying to explain to the police why you couldn’t possibly be “The butcher of Paris” it might be worth the cost.

As a travel companion this is one app that you definitely not be without.  It’s free, easy to use, and could avoid this sort of unpleasant interaction with the natives.  

Download the app from here.

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Filed under Education, Free Software, Travel

Join Me – Should WebEx be worried?

Anyone who knows me will be aware of my passion for high-quality free software – and today I have a real cracker!

This week I was training a friend who lives on the other side of the country on how to use his new software.  I’m too cheap to pay for a WebEx account and so the search was on for a suitable alternative.  Fortunately I quickly stumbled across Join Mea screen sharing tool that promised “ridiculously simple” screen sharing and, for once, they were not kidding!

Installation was a snap.  Download a tiny 4mb file, click install and that’s it!

Sharing the screen was simple too.  Start the software, send an email with the link provided and wait for the software to tell you that people have joined.  No complicated setup, no ads, and nothing for the viewer to install as everything runs in their browser.  During sharing you can see how many people are watching, chat with people, start an internet conference call, share control of your desktop with someone and even pause things if you need to get offline for a minute.  If your viewers are on an iPad that’s no problem either!  They have an app and it works beautifully.

During my session I had some problems with my wireless network and it even handled that with aplomb, providing a nice helpful message on the screen to let me know that no-one could see what I was doing.

So what’s the down side?  Honestly…not much.

The “Basic” (read free) version has a few limitations.  You can only share your entire screen so you had better shut down your email, instant messenger and any browsers connected to ‘interesting‘ websites before you start sharing.  The Pro version provides the option to limit screen areas,  schedule sessions instead of sending out the invitation just before the session and present to more than 250 people.  None of that was a problem for me.

For me the system worked flawlessly with almost no lag and, compared to the complicated and confusing LiveMeeting and WebEx sessions I have used before this was beautifully simple.  It has therefore earned a well deserved spot on my famous Free Software page.

If I were the WebEx CEO I would buy this company out before companies start deserting them on a large-scale.  But if you are looking for a screen sharing tool that is free and “ridiculously easy” then your search is over.

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Filed under Education, Free Software, Linux, Technology, Windows

A faster PC in two easy steps.

I received a call the other night from a friend who was complaining that her PC was running horribly slow and taking forever to boot.  Naturally this  only became a real problem when her online games were so slow that she couldn’t keep up.

As is typical in these situation there were two questions running around in her head:

  1. Do I have a virus?
  2. Is my PC so old that I have to get a new one?

The answer to the first one is…possibly.  But if you have an updated anti-virus installed (and see my earlier post here if you don’t!) then you are probably safe.

The answer to the second one is…it depends on what you are doing with it.  If all you do is check in with your friends on Facebook then the chances are that there is plenty of life in the old dog yet.

So, if the PC is OK and we don’t have a virus then what could be causing such bad behavior?  The most likely answer is the dreaded Bloatware!  <cue organ music and loud scream>.  Once installed bloatware sits there sucking the life out of your poor PC forever.

Let’s start by looking at that slow boot time.

When Windows starts it loads a number of programs during the startup.  When you install software companies often add their own items to the list of programs that start every time you turn on your machine.

These can be helpful, such as a program to start iTunes when you plug in your phone, but others do nothing more than run regular checks on their software to make sure that you are running their latest version – but do you really need that running all the time?  Finally others are much nastier and can do things such as monitor your internet traffic and pass information back to the mother ship.

One clue that you have too many of these things is to look in the bottom right hand corner of your screen.  If you have a ton of little icons sitting in the tray near the clock then there is a good chance that you have too much junk in your computers startup.  Just because they are there doesn’t mean they are bad, but you should know exactly what every one of those does and make a conscious decision to keep them.

Let’s start by getting rid of any startup programs that are not adding value.  After all, once these things load they typically stick around in your computer’s memory and just get in the way.  But which ones should you keep and which should you get rid of?  A little detective work is necessary here, but don’t worry, it’s not that hard.  In most cases simply typing in the name of the program (including the .exe) into Google will pull up search results that will tell you what it is, whether it is dangerous, and whether it should be there.

Once you figure out what to keep and what to get rid of, here’s a nice little article that covers how to remove things using the built-in msconfig.exe utility or, my favorite, ccleaner.  http://www.howtogeek.com/74523/how-to-disable-startup-programs-in-windows/

Next, let’s take a look at that browser.  In the case of my friends PC she had 5 browser toolbars running.  I’m surprised she had any room to see any web pages at all!

So if your browser looks like this 

then it might be time to consider getting rid of a few things.  One way to do it is to go into your browser settings and disable them.  That works fine if you think you might want it back one day, but if you aren’t using the darn things anyway then why is it even allowed on your machine?   In those cases the better option is to to remove it completely.

Here’s a simple post that shows how to get rid of those pesky things entirely.  So here’s another post that will help you take care of that:

http://www.pcworld.com/article/241720/how_to_remove_browser_toolbars_in_internet_explorer.html

In the case of my friend about 30 minutes work (plus about 15 minutes waiting for reboots) had her PC  booting quickly and surfing like a Hawaiian native and I (naturally)  was once again the hero.

If you can follow a recipe then you can clean up your PC and have it running like new, so why put up with a slow PC ?

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Filed under Free Software, PC Problems?, Technology, Windows

My Favorite Free Software!

I love the Open Source/Free software movement.  It has provided me with some incredibly powerful tools to solve problems, not to mention hours of fun tracking down and playing with this stuff.

The following is a list of some of my favorite open source or free software tools.  It’s a mixed bag of things that can help improve productivity, solve PC problems, aid with development or just have fun.  

I’m always looking for more so please post your own favorites as comments and, assuming it makes my Geek-o-meter twitch, I will update the list as time goes on.

toondoo

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Filed under Free Software, Linux, PC Problems?, Technology

Oh $*@! – Recovering Deleted Files from your PC

Summary Difficulty Rating Time to complete
Restoring files that have accidentally been deleted, even after the recycle bin has been emptied.   5 minutes.

Oh-no-Second: Def:  The span of time it takes to realize you did something dumb.

Sooner or later you are going to hit the delete button on a file and immediately realize that you shouldn’t have done that.

When that happens the first thing you should do is DON’T PANIC!

Recycle Bin to the rescue!

Lucky for you enough people have done this that Microsoft introduced the Recycle Bin back in the days of Windows 95.  If you delete a file you can recover it quickly and easily by doing the following:

  • Open the Recycle Bin by double-clicking on the Recycle Bin icon on your desktop.
  • Find the file you want to recover and click to highlight it.
  • From the top menu choose File and then Restore.
  • The file is now back on your computer in its original place.

However there are times when the recycle bin is not used.  These include certain types of removable storage, files that were too large for the recycle bin, files deleted by programs or if you have set up the recycle bin to be bypassed. You can also empty the recycle bin (I usually do that before running a large virus scan) and then realize that there was a file you wanted to keep in there.

What if it’s not in the recycle bin?

Fortunately PCs store files as a data and pointers – think of it as a a filing cabinet with index cards that tell you where to find things.  Normally when a file is deleted all that really happened is that the index card was removed – but the data is still there.  Eventually that area of the disk will get reused but, if we are quick, we can put the index card back and all is well.

There are many programs available to recover files but the one that I like to use is  Recuva by Piriform (the same folks that created CCleaner).  I like this because it is both free and simple to use.

When you start Recuva you are presented with a “wizard” that asks two simple questions.

  1. What type of file are you trying to get back?
  2. Where was the file?

Recuva will then scan the disk for files that match your description, check which ones can be recovered and present you with a list of files ready for restore.

Voila!

To show how it works I deleted some photo, emptied the recycle bin and then ran Recuva.  Here are the results.

What:

Where:

Restore:

Good luck!

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Filed under Free Software, PC Problems?, Windows

Microsoft Office for FREE!

Summary Difficulty Rating Time to complete
Install LibreOffice as a fully functional office suite that is Microsoft Office compatible.   5 – 20 minutes.
OK…that headline isn’t 100% true.  But I hate seeing people spend money on software they don’t need.
– 
Lately I have run into several people with Macs (or older versions of Office) who find themselves unable to open files from the School / PTO / Local Charity, etc.  because the files were created in Word or Excel.
Like it or not MS-Office is a standard today that cannot be ignored even if you do “think different“.
But before you blow over a hundred bucks on the latest version of  MS-Office I’m going to ask that you give LibreOffice a shot.

LibreOffice is a complete Office suite that is fully compatible with all versions of Microsoft Office.  And since it is open source it is also 100% free.

It’s available for Windows, Mac and Linux PCs, updated often, and is the only office suite that works almost identically regardless of machine.

To be fair LibreOffice can’t do everything that MS Office 2010 does.  But it does a lot more than offerings such as Google Docs, and has more power than most users need. It is an obvious choice for any user, company, or organization that wants to stop paying for Office.

It comes with a:

  • Word processor (Writer)
  • Spreadsheet (Calc)
  • Presentation system (Impress)
  • Drawing package (Draw)
  • Database (Base)
  • Math equation editor (Math).
More details on the features are found here.

One very cool  feature is the ability to create PDF files right out of the box.  No need to mess around with additional software or creating fake printers.

Installation couldn’t be simpler – just download, run and…that’s it!  Depending on your Internet speed you could literally be up and running with it in a few minutes.  And if MS Office is your mainstay then I’d suggest taking a few moments to set the default file save format to Word/PowerPoint/Excel before you start.

The one thing it doesn’t come with is an alternative to Microsoft Outlook.  However, if you really need an email client, then Mozilla’s Thunderbird comes highly recommended.

But if you are looking for an office suite that is Microsoft Office compatible then you have nothing to lose – so  give it a shot!   Unless you actually enjoy spending money on software you don’t need.

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Filed under Free Software, Linux, PC Problems?, Windows

Free Anti-Virus – The Best Way to Protect Your PC

Summary Difficulty Rating Time to complete
Replacing your existing Anti-virus with a free alternative.   20-30 minutes

As I mentioned in my last post, the first question I ask is whether people have a backup.   The second question ask is whether they have up-to-date anti-virus software installed.

A shocking number of people fall into the group of having anti-virus software that hasn’t been updated since their trial period ended, and yet still believe they are protected.

Let me make this clear – if your subscription has expired then you are NOT protected.

But who can blame them?  Anti-virus software is expensive, isn’t it?

If you go with what arrived on your PC then, yes, it is expensive.  PC manufacturers make extra money by including software (known collectively as Bloatware) because vendors pay them.  Norton and McAfee fully expect you to sign up when the trial period runs out because you don’t know that you have a choice.

But there are companies that offer great anti-virus solutions for free!  Why?  Well, some do it for philanthropic reasons while others (e.g. Microsoft) do it because they need Windows to appear secure if they want people to buy it.

Replacing your existing anti-virus with a free alternative is a relatively painless procedure involving 3 easy steps.

  1. Remove your existing anti-virus
  2. Install the new anti-virus
  3. Configure your anti-virus to automatically update and scan your machine

Here we will cover installing Microsoft Security Essentials.  Why MSE?  Well, as I see it, Microsoft know more about their products than anyone else and have a vested interest in presenting Windows as virus free.  Unlike the big boys in the virus world, it is not in Microsoft’s interest to have you worrying about viruses.  I have also found MSE to take less CPU than some of the other offerings.

Let’s get started.

1. Removing your existing Anti-virus

Since most PCs come with Norton or McAfee installed the first thing we need to do is remove that, because running multiple copies of AV software is really bad news.  Normally this is a simple affair, however do not take this step until you are ready to complete step number 2, otherwise you will be left completely naked – and for some of you that isn’t going to be anything we want to see!

To remove your existing software click the Start button and select “Control Panel”.  Depending on which version of windows you are running you will then take one of several options:

  • Windows XP:
    Select the option “Add or Remove Programs”  
  • Windows 7 or Windows Vista:
    Select the option “Uninstall a program” 

Wait for the list of programs to populate and then then locate your current AV software.  Click on that program name to highlight it and then click Remove (Windows XP) or Uninstall (Vista/Windows 7).  Follow the prompts to uninstall the software.  Make sure that you reboot your machine after uninstalling to be sure it completes this process.

During this step you will most likely receive warnings that your PC is unprotected.  Don’t worry – we will fix that in step 2.

Note: If you already have a paid subscription then uninstalling the program will not stop future payments - many companies default to charging your credit card each year "for your protection" and you will need to contact them to stop future payments. 

2. Installing Microsoft Security Essentials

Now we are ready to install the Microsoft anti-virus software on your machine.  To do this open a browser and visit this link – Microsoft Security Essentials.  Select the Free Download link and select the version for your Operating system.

If you are given the option to Run the software – take that.  If not, download the program to somewhere you can find it later, open that folder and (once the download is complete) and double-click to start the install.

Follow the instructions on the screen (which involves clicking Next a couple of times, plus agreeing to the software license).

3. Configure your anti-virus to automatically update and scan your machine

Once the install is finished take the option to scan your machine for threats.  Doing this will automatically download the latest virus definitions are part of the scanning process.  Your PC will continue to show an “at risk” status until this first scan is complete.   This first scan can take a while, depending on how large your machine is, however you can continue to use your machine while this is working.

Finally, you are going to want to set up your anti-virus to automatically scan your PC on a periodic basis.  This allows the scanning (which can slow your machine) to occur while you are not using the machine, and because it will download new definitions before each scan.

To set this up run the software (it will already be running if you are following on from above) by clicking on the little castle in the toolbar.  Select the Settings tab and set up a time when your PC will be on but not in use.  Make sure that the option to check for the latest virus and spyware definitions box is checked.

That’s it!  Now you can continue to enjoy the use of your PC free from viruses and without fear that your subscription will run out.  Better yet, you have just saved yourself  $50 per year, all for 20 minutes work.

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Filed under Free Software, PC Problems?, Viruses, Windows