Friday, October 08, 2004

You are what you run

Lest anyone think that this is a political blog (it isn't), I thought I'd quickly leaven my musings with some more typical content. A computer geek at heart, let me spend some of your time writing about a selection of the software I find most useful and/or interesting these days. Please note that this is not intended to be an exhaustive list of what I use, just some representative programs that are at the forefront of my mind right now.
Mac OS X
I've used and programmed many different computers, from those without a real OS (AIM-65, KYM-1), to TOPS-10, DOS, Mac OS, and various flavors of Unix. Sometime in the '80s, my preferred work environment shifted to being mainly a Unix-based one (at first, Sun OS, later Linux), with a Macintosh as a secondary machine. At that time, a good chunk of my programming was still on DOS machines, because they were easier to interface with external devices (though I did write some device drivers for IBM's AIX). I even wrote a graphical windowing system for DOS, before Windows came out, to support GUI development for some of the applications I needed to write. My work environment changed radically when Mac OS X came out. Or maybe it didn't. I still use Unix and Mac OS, except now they're one and the same thing. Don't get me wrong, Linux is great, but it has been only 90% of the way to working for most of the desktop machines I've used. These days, I've got better things to do with my time than chase down problems with graphics or audio card drivers.
LATEX
Up until about the middle of my dissertation writing, I primarily used Microsoft Word for my text editing needs. Keep in mind, this was Word 3 on a Mac, not the horrible bloatware that passes for a text editor these days (the one that knows better than you what you meant to write and how it should look). For those of you who aren't familiar with dissertations, they're basically books with large numbers of citations into a long bibliography. And they're frequently rewritten and reformatted. So, there I was, using Word to write the thing, along with a shareware program (I forget the name) that I ran on the Word file to format the citations and bibliography, as well as renumber the figures, tables, chapters, sections, etc. It just became untenable. I'd used LATEX before, and thought I'd give it a spin. I've never gone back. LATEX separates the definition of document structure from document appearance, allowing the writer to concentrate on writing and not on pondering why changing a list from enumerated to bulleted in one part of the document induces Word to change another list elsewhere to being enumerated with lower case Roman numerals starting at 15. On top of that, it uses a plain text file format and runs on just about any computer ever made (well, except for that AIM-65), so I'll never be in a situation where I have document files that I can't read or print. On Mac OS X, I recommend using i-Installer to install the teTeX distribution.
XEmacs
LATEX is a system for formatting documents; it's not an editor. I use XEmacs, an editor that also runs on just about any machine under the sun, has a basic GUI, but most importantly has specialized modes for editing LATEX, C, C++, MATLAB, HTML, plain text, etc., etc. If you've used Microsoft Visual Studio and liked the syntax highlighting, imagine an editor that does this for pretty much any document type that involves syntax.
Desktop Manager
One of the things I like about Unix is the virtual desktop managers available under X (since about tvtwm). This is something that was missing from Mac OS X. Recently, however, I've been using Desktop Manager. This is really impressive alpha software that's pretty solid and feature complete.
jBidWatcher
This is a Java-based (and, therefore, OS-independent) eBay bid manager. I'm not a very active eBay'er, so I use this to quickly come up to speed on the going rate for whatever I'm interested in buying or selling and, when I'm buying, to let it auto-bid up to my limit near auction closing time.
CatDV
Mac OS X has iPhoto to help organize digital photos and iMovie and iDVD to help create videos. But, it has no counterpart to iPhoto for organizing video. When you use a video camera, you end up with a large number of clips, each corresponding to a press of the "record" button. Some are good, and some are shots of the ground that happened when you forgot to stop recording or hit the "record" button by accident. CatDV is really overkill for what I need, but it allows me to catalog and sort through my video clips, selecting those for importing into iMovie. I mean, I'd be the first one to say that video of my daughter when she was two trying to kiss the camera is incredibly cute, but there's really no need for two dozen different shots of this on a single DVD.
JavaHMO
I recently got TiVo. It's kind of weird to turn on the TV and have a selection of things I'd like to watch --- more than I have time for. It's also nice to be able to start watching a "live" 9PM show at 9:15PM, when my kids finally got to sleep. TiVo has a neat feature called the "Home Media Option" (which is no longer an extra cost option) that allows one to access music and photos on a computer over a home network. JavaHMO goes far beyond the TiVo software, providing access to weather reports, movie listings, streaming web radio, and, with the new version, email, Usenet news, RSS feeds, stock quotes, and arbitrary web pages. It's written in Java so it's cross-platform; I run it on my Pug Server, which is basically a Linux box with a pair of RAID 1 mirrored hard drives. No need to buy a special network music device.
mt-daapd
Since my Pug Server is running all the time, it seems logical to place my iTunes library on it so I can access it from any Mac in the house (not to mention my TiVo; see above). mt-daapd is an iTunes server that runs under Linux.
ChangeNotes.com
A web site that will inform you when the contents of any web site changes. You get an email listing the changes at most once a day.

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