A Toolbox Full of Wonders
Software Resources For The Modern Writer
The Future Is Here And Wants You To Download It
Your computer kicks ass. Even if you're reading this on a machine so old that your friends' jaws drop when you tell them it's on-line, your computer can do things that, fifty years ago, were the stuff of science fiction. And we're not necessarily talking plausible science fiction, either. Pie in the sky kinda stuff. (Footnote -- Pie) Things that would have elicited a "Yeah, whatever" from anybody reading it.
On some level, you know this. You have piles of electronic manuscripts that you can edit easily and put to hardcopy on a whim. Your word processor makes sure that only the sneakiest spelling errors have any chance of getting past you, preventing the ugliest typos from even getting a sniff of freedom. You can submit stories to some markets without spending a dime on paper or postage, after perusing their archives to see if your story might fit in.
Your computer is the single most versatile writing tool you will ever own. (Footnote -- Versatile) In fact, it's more like a toolbox unto itself; what it can provide is more a reflection on its owner than itself.
So that brings us to the point of this article: are there any tools you're missing? Are there any nifty little (or big) programs you've overlooked that you'd find extremely useful?
I'm going to try point you towards some of the wonderful things out there that have, until now, escaped your notice. I'm also going to point out some ways to protect your precious toolbox from the less-than-wonderful realities of life on the internet. Will any of this make you a better writer? Probably not, no more than a good drill will make you a carpenter. But even so, what carpenter wouldn't want to be using the best tools they could lay hands on?
I'm following these principles:
- (Hide) I'll assume you know the basics and can install new programs on your machine and such. But I'm also assuming that you're not a "power user;" (Footnote -- Am So!) you don't make your living knowing the nuts and bolts of computing, and might have some gaps in your knowledge outside of day-to-day usage.
- (Hide) I can go on at great length about why open-source software is such a lovely thing. If you actually want me to, click here. Otherwise, just take my word for it; open-source rules, and I'll be encouraging you to use it whenever I can.
Why Pete Adores Open-Source
What is open-source software? Start by thinking of your car; imagine that the hood is locked shut, and that the only people legally allowed to unlock and open it are the legally-designated (Footnote -- Who's Designated?) repair folks. You can drive around to your heart's content, but if you want to take a look under the hood -- maybe you want to repair something, maybe you're curious to see what's going on, maybe you have an idea for a mechanical tweak that would make it run even better -- you're not allowed.
That's standard commercial software. Use it all you like, but the inner workings are off-limits. For most folks, this is fine; if something breaks in my car, I'm definitely not qualified to fix it! But for more advanced users, this can feel like a straitjacket. Some people want to know how it works; furthermore, they think they could make it work better.
This is the mindset behind open-source software. The hood is unlocked; you're free to take a look at the guts and poke around as much as you like.
A lot of open-source software is produced by people who just want to make a better gadget for themselves. (Footnote -- What Geeks Want) They're not looking to sell something; they want to have a piece of software that does what they want without any potentially unpleasant "surprises."
"That's very nice," you might say, "but why do I care? I'm quite content with my hood locked, thanks." Well, open-source software often has some significant advantages. Namely:
Open-source software is frequently more secure.Sometimes, programs have bugs that allow some jackass to break into your computer and cause problems. It happens. But security flaws tend to beless of a problem in open-source software. The sheer number of eyeballs on the project means bugs of any sort are less likely to survive. Also, if a commercial company spots a security flaw, they'll often do the wrong thing and try and hide it and hope nobody notices until they can devote some resources to fixing it. If a security bug shows up in an open-source project, however, you can expect a hue and cry to go up amongst the developers. (Footnote -- Charge!) That bug is going to get squashed in a hurry.
Open-source software is usually more reliable.Again, remember who the developers are; who would want to use a program that's crash-happy? Who would want their name attached with one?
Open-source software often cares more about standards.Remember the early days of the web? Remember how some web pages only worked with some browsers, and didn't work well (or at all!) with others? (Footnote -- Incompatibility Sucks) Remember how friggin' annoying that nonsense was? Networked computing -- which includes the Internet -- depends on standards. For email or the web or any other number of nifty applications to work, your computer needs to trust that my computer will behave in a certain way when talking to it -- and vice-versa. However, sometimes some jackass (Footnote -- Who Could That Be?) gets the idea that the best way to increase market share is by creating a version of the "standard" that only works with their software, thereby screwing everybody who's playing by the rules. You will almost never see open-source software playing those hateful games; the designers aren't gunning for a multi-million-dollar monopoly, they just want something that works.
Open-source software is usually free.And not "my boss will never notice if these MS Office CDs come home with me for a day" free, either. Really free. Download and install on as many computers as you like. No activation keys to fudge, no restrictive license agreements to fight. Free.
I'm an open-source advocate; I like the philosophy, I like how it works in practice. Wherever it's practical, that's where I'm going to be steering you.
But, it isn't always possible. Sometimes, the open-source solution is so geek-intensive and user-unfriendly I can't recommend it it for a general audience. Or, maybe the open-source version needs more work and isn't ready for prime time yet.
In those conditions, I'll steer you towards free solutions first; I assume that you don't want to burn any more money on your computer than you absolutely have to. And if there isn't a free solution available, I'll shoot for something that doesn't have an obnoxious price tag.
- (Hide) I advocate keeping a "clean" computer. I will not be handing out any secret handshakes for scoring copies of software that fell off the back of the truck. I will not give any tips for fooling an application into spending five years thinking it's still within the thirty-day free trial. I advocate legally-obtained software, used in accordance with the license. With companies like Microsoft barking about "getting tough" on software piracy, give them as little reason to screw with you as humanly possible.
This article is based on my own experience. Most of my experience is based on Windows. You do the math.(Hide) You will notice a strong pro-Windows bias (Footnote -- No, Really!) in this article. But even if you're not a Windows person, I still hope you'll be able to use some of it. A lot of the programs I recommend here are available in Linux, too. And they might even be available for the Mac; after all, Mac OS X and Linux are kissin' cousins these days. If you're not a Windows user, I'd be curious to know if you found anything in this article helpful; please drop me a line (Footnote -- Pete's Email) and let me know.
Enough high-tech navel-gazing. Let's get on with it.
Getting Started: Protecting Yourself
This part doesn't pertain to "writers" so much as "ever single person who owns a computer and uses it on the internet."
However, it seems that you're one of those people. Which means you need to take security very seriously; your computer is under attack.
The internet is a pretty lively place these days, and by "lively" I mean "dangerous." While most of your fellow users are peaceful, law-abiding citizens, there are enough vandals and thieves -- in other words, crackers (Footnote -- No, Not Hackers) -- out there to cause some real problems. According to a recent article, a Windows computer hooked to the internet should expect an attack within minutes of being turned-on.
And if that computer isn't secured adequately, the attack will be successful. Meaning somebody else has hijacked your computer and will be able to do whatever they like with it; swipe any information you enter (like, say, your credit card number), use it to attack other computers, whatever they damn well please.
Be paranoid; they really are out to get you.
However, you don't have to just sit there and take it. There are five fundamental steps for keeping your computer secure; skip any of them at your peril.
First, use a hardware firewall, if you can, rather than just plug your computer directly into the internet.
This is the first line of defense for your home computer network -- even if that "network" consists of only one computer. If you're using a broadband connection (DSL, Cable Modem, etc.), you definitely need one of these. If you're just using a dial-up connection, however, you can probably get by without one.
A hardware firewall will help conceal your presence on the internet (Footnote -- Can't Find Me!) and will provide one more hoop for intruders to jump through before getting at your computer; if you're lucky, they won't be able to jump through it. It's not complete protection, but it's a good place to start.
As you'd expect, a hardware firewall is a box that you'll plug your computer into -- and, unfortunately, I don't know where you can get one for free. Sorry. However, you can get good ones (Footnote -- Pete Digs Linksys) cheap. A Linksys EtherFast Cable/DSL router, for instance, makes a perfectly good hardware firewall, can be bought new for $40, and can be had for even less than that used. Plus, as an added bonus, you can plug multiple computers into the same broadband connection. (Footnote -- Multiple Computers) Wire your computer(s) to the router, plug the router into the DSL/Cable modem, and voila, (Footnote -- Voila!) rudimentary protection.
Second, always use a software firewall on any machine with access to the internet, even if it's going through a hardware firewall. And if you're using Windows XP, don't trust the firewall that came with it; it's better than nothing, but you want to upgrade.
A hardware firewall is a box you plug your computer into; this is a program you run on your computer. A hardware firewall is the first line of defense for your entire home network; a software firewall is the first line of defense for your individual machine.
I failed to turn up any open-source firewalls for Windows that looked user-friendly enough to recommend, but you still don't have to shell-out any money. I use the Sygate Personal Firewall (requirements). (Footnote -- Sygate Requirements) It's gotten good reviews and my experience with it has been positive. While Sygate doesn't advertise this loudly, it's free for personal use. Check it out.
ZoneAlarm used to have a good reputation, but it's one I do not recommend. It seems to have gone downhill in recent years, and my wife had a very negative experience with it. (Footnote -- ZoneAlarm Whining) Pass.
Finally, as for Windows XP's built-in firewall . . . well, I said it above. It's an improvement over running nothing at all, but not by much. Use it until you install a real firewall, then turn the bloody thing off; it's notorious for having large, exploitable holes.
Third, install a good anti-virus program and keep it up to date; if you have an anti-virus program but let your update subscription lapse a few years ago . . . well, it's better than nothing. Barely.
You know what a computer virus is, and your computer probably came with some sort of anti-virus software pre-installed. So you don't need to worry about it, right?
Wrong. Anti-virus software is effective only as long as you keep it updated. If your anti-viral software isn't up-to-date, it's not going to do anything to protect you from that virus your mother-in-law just sent you the warning e-mail about. (Or just sent you.)
And for most products, keeping your software up-to-date means springing for a subscription. (That software that came with your computer probably included a subscription for the first month or two. The First Hit is Always Free.)
I don't spend much money on software, but for anti-virus, I'll make an exception. I'm using Norton (requirements), (Footnote -- Norton Requirements) and it's done the job just fine. For this option, expect to pay about $50 for the initial cost of the software and the $20/year afterwards keeping it up-to-date.
However, for writers on a budget, AVG Anti-Virus (requirements) (Footnote -- AVG Requirements) is free for the individual home user. I can't speak from experience, but it seems to be fairly well-regarded, and it's definitely better than nothing. Ditto for AntiVir (requirements). (Footnote -- AntiVir Requirements)
Whatever you use, sure you schedule a complete system scan at regular intervals, like once every week or so. Also, set it to inspect email (both incoming and outgoing).
If you do pick up a new anti-virus program, you may as well uninstall whatever old anti-virus software you have hanging around. Whatever meager protection it once offered is provided by the up-to-date program you're now using.
Fourth, install one or more anti-spyware programs and let them nail the stuff that sneaks by your anti-virus software.
Spyware lives in a grey region between viruses and legitimate software; it isn't specifically designed to trash your computer, and you kinda sorta intentionally installed it. Just the same, you don't want it. If you'd like a detailed description of why it sucks, I've written one. Otherwise, trust me: it can steal your credit card number, bring your computer to a grinding halt, and screw-up your day in general. You want software that will both detect it and dispose of it.
Why Spyware Sucks
As the name implies, most spyware is designed to 1) watch you and 2) report what it sees to somebody else. This isn't necessarily as bad as it sounds; under the broadest criteria, certain cookies your browser picks up can be classified as spyware. All they're doing is keeping track of the web-browsing habits of a random web user. (Footnote -- I'm not random!) As privacy violations go, small potatoes.
More worrisome are spyware programs running on your machine. Some are relatively benign; keeping tabs on what web sites you visit (Footnote -- You Just Said That!) and using that information to figure out which ads to send you way. (Footnote -- Ads?)
It gets worse.
What, precisely, is the spyware program watching? If it's something running on your machine, not merely a cookie, it will monitor whatever the programmer told it to monitor. Your personal email? If it was told to, yup. Your fiction manuscripts? If it wants, sure. Your credit card number? If it sees it and it wants it, it has it.
Some will even actively interfere with other programs; you might find your browser getting hijacked and sent to the pages the spyware program wants you to see. There are even a few infamous programs designed to screw dial-up users; instead of dialing your ISP, they'd force your modem to dial some nice expensive toll number.
It's possible -- very easily possible -- to wind up with so many of the bloody things that your computer becomes unstable. When you have 100 pieces of spyware competing for processor time from the moment you boot, you can expect bad performance and lots of crashes.
How do you get these lovelies? Some offer some handy "service" to get you download and install them of your own free will; classic examples are Comet Cursor or Bonzi Buddy or Gator, all of them despised by IT departments across the world. Others are less forthcoming; sometimes, they'll be bundled with some other piece (Footnote -- Like Kazaa) of software Trojan-horse style. (Footnote -- Greeks With EULAs) Still others will display distinctly virus-like behavior, exploiting security holes in programs like Internet Explorer to interpret you clicking on an ad as permission to install themselves and do whatever the hell they feel like doing.
But wait, I hear you saying; I installed an up-to-date anti-virus program, just like you said! Aren't I protected from this stuff, too?
Remember, you kinda sorta gave your permission to install these things. No matter how destructive or scammy they ultimately turn out to be. The anti-virus companies are reluctant (Footnote -- Less Reluctance) to remove programs you intentionally installed on your machine, even if you were probably duped into it. Like I said, it's a grey area.
Anti-virus programs aren't good enough. You need these programs.
If your computer runs Windows (any flavor), it needs Ad-Aware by Lavasoft (requirements). (Footnote -- Ad-Aware Requirements) If it doesn't have it, consider this a problem you need to correct. Go download it. I'll still be here when you get back.
Ad-Aware (free for personal use) carries a sterling reputation for both reliability and user-friendliness. It's not as pro-active as most anti-virus software; it's not going to catch potentially malicious programs the moment they try to install themselves. You'll need to remember (Footnote -- Remember To Run) to run it every now and then for it to have any effect. Just the same, have it do a complete system scan as soon as you're done downloading it. Chances are it'll just come back with a few cookies, but you never know what's under the rock until you lift it.
Spybot Search & Destroy:
Ad-Aware isn't perfect; it will occasionally miss some things you'd prefer it to delete. This is where Spybot Search & Destroy (requirements) (Footnote -- Spybot Requirements) comes in; if you have any faith at all in your computer geek chops, this is one worth adding to your collection of security tools. Not only will it do the same hunter-killer thing Ad-Aware does, it has an "immunize" feature worth using to keep some of the nasties from getting on your machine in the first place.
However, you need to read the tutorial. While Ad-Aware will occasionally miss something, you can generally take its word that the stuff it wants to get rid of is stuff you're better off without. Not so with Spybot S&D; it's been known to get a little over-aggressive, and might want to fry something you need. When it comes back with a list of stuff it's itching to nuke, you need to give that list a good looking-over before unleashing this dog upon it. If you prefer your computing experience to be as low-thought as possible, you're probably better off without this utility.
But, if a little computer-related decision making doesn't scare you, Spybot S&D makes an excellent companion for Ad-Aware. Grab 'em both, and let them play Batman & Robin together.
Update Your Operating System
If you're using a version of Windows older than XP, (Footnote -- As Opposed To Newer?) you'll need to check to see if you need any updates. Luckily, Microsoft makes it easy to keep your version of Windows up-to-date. Fire up Internet Explorer, (Footnote -- Yes, That IE) go to the Microsoft Windows Update Site, and start following instructions. Install anything labeled "critical". The rest you can probably ignore -- unless, of course, you have to have the Turkish menus and dialogs for Internet Explorer.
If you're using XP, click on that little globe thingy when it appears in the collection of hieroglyphs next to the clock (probably in the lower-right corner of your screen). If you've turned off the Automatic Updates, select "Automatic Updates" from the Control Panel and turn them back on. Look, I'm as suspicious of Microsoft as anybody, but some of the holes they patch in XP are downright nasty. You need these updates. Really, you do.
Right, you're all protected from the Forces of Darkness. Enough fear and loathing; let's get to the cool stuff.
If you're happy with your current word processor, then love the one you're with, baby. However, if you're dissatisfied or looking to make a switch, then OpenOffice.org is a fabulous free, open-source option.
Chances are, the best word processor for you is the one you're already using. Your files are in that format, you know how to use it, you know what quirks you need to work around, etc. Your time is valuable, and you probably have better things to spend it on than downloading, installing, and learning a brand new word processor. However, if you're already contemplating a change or aren't really locked-in to one program yet, the open-source community has a treat waiting for you.
OpenOffice.org (requirements) (Footnote -- OpenOffice Requirements) has matured into a stable, user-friendly alternative to any word processor you'd care to pay for. It's not perfect; as with any piece of software this large, complex, and created by fallible mortals, it has the occasional bug -- but no worse than you'd expect from other word processors. And as with any word processor, conversions from other formats are a hit-and-miss affair; it boasts that it can handle Word documents very well, but the more complex the file it's translating, the more likely it will encounter something it doesn't understand and be forced to get "creative."
Then again, it's not like standard manuscript format pushes your word processor to its limits.
The learning curve is gentle; the OpenOffice.org interface feel like most any other major word processor out there, and it has all the features like spellchecker or thesaurus that you'd expect. It has a PDF converter built in. And it's free.
OpenOffice.org is ready for prime time. If you'd like to try something new, it's well worth a look.
Of course, there are some handy word-processor tricks that you might not be aware of. Version management, for example.
Sometimes, it's handy to have multiple versions of your stories. Perhaps you have a "main" draft, and then a few more that were tweaked for particular markets. Or, you have a gut feeling that your 15,000-word novella really only wants to be half that size, but you're still puzzled over just which half to cut.
The brute force way is to simply have multiple copies of the story sitting around. But all those files can cause a lot of clutter, not to mention a bit of confusion; which version was the "main" one again?
If you've got a relatively new word processor -- like, say, OpenOffice.org -- there's a better way.
Modern word processors allow you to take one or more "snapshots" of your story; this allows you to have a working history of the piece. You can go back and recover old versions (or just bits of old versions) as you see fit.
For instance, let's say you're trimming that 15,000 hellbeast. Take a snapshot of the story in all its massive, unwieldy glory. Now, break out the editorial chainsaw and cut with impunity. If you hack out too much, go back to the snapshot of the original version and recover the chunks you want to put back in.
Precisely how you can use this feature depends on the peculiarities of your word processor; (Footnote -- OpenOffice, For Instance . . .) the "Help" documentation should give you a good idea of how best to proceed. Search for "Versions" or "Version Control" to get started. Also, it's also a good idea to toy around making and recovering versions of a sample file before you use this trick on your precious work.
Note that you can keep information you might have thought too much trouble to bother with. For instance, try saving a new version of the story every time you submit it; now, you have a perfect record of precisely what you sent where. Can't remember if you corrected that embarrassing typo before you sent the story to Strange Horizons? Not sure if you added the talking Dachshund before or after you sent the story to Realms of Fantasy? Now you can find out, and you don't have a ton of files cluttering your fiction directory.
If you have a word processor, you have a spreadsheet. And if you have a spreadsheet, you have a great submission tracking tool. Are you using it?
How do you keep track of what you submitted where? What stories are still "pending?" Where did you send them? When did you send them?
Different writers develop different strategies for tracking submissions; some write it down in a notebook, others use index cards. Might I recommend a nice spreadsheet? (Footnote -- OpenOffice Spreadsheet)
Setting-up a spreadsheet to keep track of your submissions is pretty simple; for the most part, it's just a matter of deciding what information you want to collect and how you want to organize it. On my spreadsheet, the columns (left to right) are Story Name, Market Name, Date Sent, Date Responded, and Result. I arrange the spreadsheet so that all the information for a single story is grouped together. I also use color in the market cells to let me know at a glance where a story stands; red means it was rejected, yellow means pending, and green means it was actually accepted.
Microsoft's overwhelmingly popular Internet Explorer is a piece of junk, obsolete and dangerous. Sometimes it's a necessary evil, but it's a wretched primary browser.
You've probably noticed that I don't have very many nice things to say about Microsoft. Maybe you find this amusing, maybe you're getting annoyed with it by now. But, I'm willing to give the devil his due; I'm not going to advocate you ditch a Microsoft product just because I dislike the company.
So when I tell you "If you're using Internet Explorer, you need to get a better browser now!", I want you to take me seriously. Even if there isn't a single other thing in this article that's useful to you, kicking your IE habit will make this time well-spent.
For the moment, let's pretend (Footnote -- Modern? IE?) that IE is a top-of-the-line browser, with all the modern bells and whistles you could ask for. I would still be just as adamant that you quit using the thing just because of security concerns. Every browser has security holes; but Internet Explorer's are numerous, severe, and utterly bloody inexcusable. A recent exploit allowed the Bad Guys to use IE to install a keyboard sniffer on your machine, meaning that everything you typed got sent back to them. So if you entered a password to anything, they had it. If you entered your credit card number, they had it.
And even if you were practicing safe computing in every other respect, even if you were using anti-virus software, software firewall, etc., if you visited the wrong site (Footnote -- Dangerous Neighborhoods) with Internet Explorer, you were still screwed.
Now, this particular bug has been corrected, (Footnote -- It's Patched) but that's not the point. The point is, this bug never should have existed in the first place. And the point is, (Footnote -- Another Point!) this is the kind of crap you can just expect from Microsoft. This problem got corrected; expect another one just as bad to come along.
And when you consider that IE is not a top-of-the-line browser -- when you consider that other browsers are just plain better even when you ignore IE's crippling security problems -- there's no reason to use the damn thing unless a critical website absolutely forces you.
In the first draft of this article, I didn't recommend Opera (requirements); (Footnote -- Opera Requirements) I went with Mozilla, the browser I actually use. This was because Mozilla is open-source, and Opera (even though it's free, with advertising) is a closed-source commercial product.
Even though Opera can do everything Mozilla can. Even though Opera has several features that are either kinda-sorta hacked into Mozilla if you look in the right place, or aren't there at all. Even though Opera is smaller than Mozilla. Even though Opera runs faster than Mozilla, and is a much better choice for an older machine. Even though . . .
At some point I realized I was being stubborn and doctrinaire, and that if I really wanted to recommend the objectively best browser, I only had one choice.
This is one bad-ass browser. Right out of the gate, you'll notice and come to love the tabbed windows -- the way it allows you to have multiple pages open at once without cluttering up your desktop. You'll dig the Google search bar built right into the browser. After you've used it once, you'll adore how when you re-start it will give you the option of either starting anew or picking up where you left off and giving you all the pages that were open when you last shut down.
As time goes on, you'll notice stuff you don't see -- namely, pop-up windows. If a pop-up free web is your idea of on-line utopia, then this is downloading Shangri-La. You can turn the pop-ups back on if you really want to, but the browser does an excellent job of figuring out which ones you want (and giving them to you) and which ones are just annoying ads (and turning them away).
And then you might take some time to learn "mouse gestures," which allow you to navigate through web pages faster than you'd believe. Or . . . heck, if I'm going to go on like this, I may as well just link to their own marketing. If you want to read the Opera folks themselves telling you why they kick IE's ass, click here.
The only downside is that this is a commercial product. If you want it, you have the choice of either the freebie that displays ads at the top of the browser window, or the ad-free version that costs $40. But the ads aren't that obtrusive, and this would not be the worst $40 you've ever spent.
This is a sweet browser. Give it a look.
Mozilla (requirements) (Footnote -- Mozilla Requirements) is my browser of choice. It's an open-source project, founded on the ashes of Netscape. (Footnote -- Dead But Got Better) Totally free; download and use to your heart's content.
Mozilla can do a lot of things Opera can -- the tabbed browsing and pop-up blocking make it a huge improvement over IE right off the bat. Unfortunately, it's still playing catch-up in a lot of ways, and will run noticeably slower on older machines.
Still, if you're an open-source aficionado, or Opera chokes on your favorite web sites, or you find both ads on your browser and the concept of paying $40 for a browser to be offensive, try Mozilla instead.
Mozilla isn't just a web browser; it also comes with an email client, an IRC client, and a few other nifties. Firefox (requirements) (Footnote -- Firefox Requirements) is, essentially, just the Mozilla browser. So if Mozilla intrigues you but you only need the browser, give this a look.
There are a few differences between them, but for most practical purposes, Firefox and Mozilla are the same browser.
Included for the sake of completeness . . . yes, Netscape is still out there, technically. But they've come full circle; the Netscape browser is now based on Mozilla rather than vice-versa. And frankly, there isn't much reason to support Netscape-The-Company; they originated a lot of the dirty browser tricks that Microsoft later perfected. Let them rest in peace.
Regardless of which browser you choose, there are a few things you can do to make switching to it easier.
Not every web page looks exactly the same on every web browser. Sometimes this is intentional, sometime it's just a genuine mishap; regardless, it's important to make sure you can still use your favorite web pages with a new browser.
So before you switch, make a list (on a piece of scratch paper, or in a small file, or in your head, wherever) of your favorite pages, the ones you really don't want to do without.
Got it? Okay, now download and install the new browser that sounds interesting to you. Fire it up, and visit each and every one of your "Must Have" pages and play around a bit. For each site, rate the new browser on this scale:
- 5: Improved! The page looks or works even better than before.
- 4: The same. No noticeable difference in how the page looks or works.
- 3: Different, but that's not a bad thing. Some noticeable differences in how the page looks or how you use it, but you can still use it.
- 2: Different, and that is a bad thing. The page looks much worse, or is very difficult to use.
- 1: Ack! The page looks like hell, or is virtually impossible to use.
So, how did it score? If everything got a three or higher, then you're all set; you and your new browser should get along very well. But if your list is littered with ones and twos, well, this browser might not be a good fit for you. Download one of the other browsers I recommended and see if that one works any better.
If you're switching from IE and worst comes to worst, then use whatever browser handles most of your pages well and use IE as-needed. But whatever you do, do not keep using IE as your primary browser; you're asking for trouble. Seriously, it's just that bad.
Regardless, you'll be glad to know that most browsers can import or export
their bookmarks very gracefully. If you're leaving IE behind, then you can get
to all your old bookmarks into Opera by using Opera's
-> Import -> Internet Explorer favorites"
(Footnote -- Say What?)
feature. Mozilla takes the more
direct approach and features a list of "Imported IE Favorites" under its
"Bookmarks" menu. Or, if your old browser is some oddball that the new ones don't
know how to import, look in its "help" files for some way to export all your
Whatever browser you choose, keep it up to date! By their very nature, browsers are a security vulnerability; IE just happens to be the absolute worst example of the breed. Make sure you check back in with your browser's homepage every month or so to download the latest released version and keep yourself safe.
If you use your web browser to handle all your emailing needs, then you really don't need one of these; carry on.
If you're using an email client to compose messages and that downloads and stores all your messages on your machine's hard drive, then you have some choices. Microsoft flagbearers Outlook and Outlook Express are notoriously insecure, but seem to have cleaned up their act in recent years.
If your browser comes with an email client, I recommend trying that first. However, if it doesn't have one or you hate the one it comes with, give Firefox's cousin Thunderbird a look, or maybe try the free version of Eudora.
It used to be that if you used a Microsoft email client like Outlook or Outlook Express, you weren't so much asking for Trouble as you were sending Trouble a singing telegram daring it to stop by and kick your ass, assuming Trouble had the guts. Virus writers figured out how to take advantage of some "handy" features to create emails that screwed you as soon as you opened them -- you didn't have to intentionally run the attached program or anything. (Footnote -- You Know Better, Right?)
I hear tell things have changed a bit in the past few years; that MS's email clients are no longer quite the glaring security problem they used to be. That's good, I suppose, but it still doesn't mean you should trust the little buggers.
Personally, I use the email client that comes with Mozilla (requirements) (Footnote -- Mozilla Requirements) and I don't regret it. It's secure, usable, and has lots of cool little features (Footnote -- Features Like . . . ?) that make my life easier.
However, if the previous section has sold you on the merits of Opera-the-Browser, you might want to give Opera-the-Email-Client a try. I honestly don't know how good it is; I've never used it. On the plus side, these folks do seem to know what they're doing; the browser is a fine piece of software, so it stands to reason that the email client would be pretty good, too. However, when you're visiting their site, the email client comes across as a bit of an afterthought, so you could worry that they haven't spent as much time getting that up to the browser's standard.
If you want a standalone email client, take a look at Thunderbird (requirements). (Footnote -- Thunderbird Requirements) Just like Firefox is the standalone Mozilla browser, Thunderbird is the standalone Mozilla email client. As with Mozilla/Firefox, there's not much difference between this and Mozilla's email; it's just a matter of how big a program you want to download.
Finally, if all the clients listed here leave you cold, I can recommend Eudora (requirements). (Footnote -- Eudora Requirements) These days, it has a lightweight free version, an ad-supported version with a few more features, and a paid version that represents the best of what they have to offer. Before Mozilla, I used the ad-supported version of Eudora; it was a pretty decent piece of software. However, unlike Opera, which I consider to be a step ahead of Mozilla, the only thing I miss in Eudora is the in-line spell checker. (Footnote -- "In-Line"? Huh?) Otherwise, I don't consider it superior to Mozilla in any meaningful way.
Even so, hey, good email client.
However, it's always worth remembering that while switching browsers is easy, switching email clients kinda freakin' hurts. Still, it can be done, and hopefully done without too much trouble.
Switching Email Clients
Most any good email client will have an "import" feature that will let you bring in all the messages and addresses you collected using a competitor's product. And the more popular (Footnote -- Who's Popular?) the old email client, the more likely the new one will be able to salvage all you old data.
If your new client can't grab the old one's data, fire up the old one and see if you can't find some sort of "export" feature in it that will allow you to send everything to some kind of "happy medium" the new client can handle.
Regardless, if you find you just can't get the new email client to handle the old one's data, you can always either try a different client or go back to using the old one; the data shouldn't be harmed.
This is big; the operating system is the foundation, the glue holding everything together, the uber-program that tells your computer how to be a computer.
Stand pat, unless you're a Mac user with something older than OS X. If your computer can handle an upgrade to OS X, I hear it's a really good idea; and if it can't, it may be time to get a new computer.
Windows users of any stripe who are feeling saucy might consider switching over to Linux, but it's not something to be done lightly; you'd definitely want to read the "Details" first.
Microsoft wants you to jump all over the latest and greatest operating system as soon as it comes out, to go from Windows 95 to 98 to ME to XP, plunking down your hard-earned cash every step of the way.
But to be honest, that's rarely necessary. Windows 95 has aged poorly, but anything from Windows 98 on up is a perfectly viable operating system. Unless you've got some critical piece of hardware or software that must have XP in order to function, may as well just stay with what you have.
Unless . . . you'd like to get a little crazy.
Maybe. Maybe not.
You do not changing your operating system lightly. It will alter every aspect of your computing experience. It is a lengthy and difficult process, one you can't back out of easily. If you download Mozilla and decide you hate it, well, Internet Explorer is still waiting for you with open arms. To install Linux, you will just about have to rebuild your computer; and if you can't get it to work or decide you hate it, you'll have to spend just as much time getting Windows back. Take every reason I gave for sticking with your current word processor, even if you can do better -- the devil you know, the hassle of moving everything and learning a new system -- and multiply it by about ten or so.
So, does this mean you definitely shouldn't move from Windows to Linux? No. It just means you probably shouldn't.
There are reasons to make the change. It's more secure; Linux systems are both less numerous and more difficult for crackers to break into. If you're on a Linux box, you're you're both a more difficult and less appealing target. They're more stable; once you get everything set up properly, a Linux machine is much less likely than one running Windows to spontaneously crash. They're cheaper; you may not notice the price of Windows if you're using the same OS that was installed on your computer when you bought it, but if you try and upgrade, you'll notice. And most of the stuff you'll wind up running under Linux (Footnote -- Also Note . . .) won't force you to either agree to extortionist license terms or go looking for -- ahem -- alternate versions of dubious legality.
So, if all this "open-source" stuff intrigues you, and you're interested in taking the plunge and becoming a Linux user, you have some questions you should ask yourself. Otherwise, just keep going to the next section.
Do I have a Linux Evangelist friend willing to help me install?The single most useful resource you can have is a knowledgeable computer geek who would be honored to indoctrinate you into the ranks of Linux. In fact, this resource might be bribed into helping you with a home-cooked meal. And if you don't know of such people personally, you might want to check to see if there are any Linux Users' Groups in your area -- such folks like to sometimes host "install-fests."
Am I running an up-to-date, tower-style computer?That's two questions in one, and if the answer to either one is "No," seriously reconsider attempting a Linux install.
First, "up-to-date;" while Linux advocates proudly (and rightly) claim that it can run on some really old, crappy machines, it doesn't necessarily run that well on them. Particularly if you need the user-friendly desktop environment and other such graphical toys. If your system of choice is an old 233-MHz Pentium II, Linux might not be such a good idea.
Second, "tower." Can Linux run on a laptop? Sure can. But not easily. (Footnote -- I Mean It) Laptops have a lot of customized components; getting a modem, sound card, graphics card, memory, hard drive, CPU, etc. all wedged into such a small space is quite a feat. Sometimes, the engineers have to pull some tricks with the hardware -- tricks that might screw with Linux. By contrast, tower components are a lot more standardized, and much less likely to throw any unexpected curve balls Linux's way.
Are there any important programs I won't be able to use if I switch to Linux?The open-source community is a wonderful resource, but it's not all-encompassing. You could well have some critical piece of software for which there is no equivalent that will run under Linux, open-source or not.
If you think you've got such a program, don't despair; not all hope is lost. There's a Linux program called Wine that is a Windows emulator for Linux. Basically, it tries to trick programs into thinking they're running under Windows so you can use them from Linux. It's not 100% perfect; there are some Windows programs that it just won't be able to convince. But, there are some it can; if you've got a few critical Windows-only programs you can't live without, see if you can get them to run under Wine.
Do I have the hard drive space to dual-boot?If you'd like to "test the waters" and you have a good-sized hard drive, you can set up your system so that it "dual-boots." This means that you have both Windows and Linux on it; you choose which one you want when you turn the power on. They won't be able to interact with each other much, if at all; you can't switch back and forth between them without a restart. At most, you might be able to get them to share some files with each other. But, if you want to try but you're not certain you can pull it off, dual-booting is an excellent solution. I recommend at least a twenty-gig hard drive, leaving each OS with ten.
You're intrigued. You wanna make it happen. You know somebody who's willing and able to help, and you think your computer is a good candidate. So the next question is, which version of Linux should you use?
I personally recommend Mandrake; it has a reputation for user-friendliness. Red Hat Linux is a good choice as well, as is SUSE. All three are considered major releases; that's probably where you're going to get the best support if something goes wrong and you need to look for help.
The one major release I absolutely do not recommend for the casual user is Slackware. This version retains all of Linux's old "Geeks Only!" mojo; if whoever you get to help you with the install insists on sticking you with Slackware, grab your computer and flee. Slackware has its place; that place isn't on your computer.
Okay, strictly speaking, this isn't necessarily a tool for writers. There's nothing about creating and submitting a manuscript that requires you to play around with JPEG images. But you do have a creative streak, and you might do some desktop publishing or website design on the side. Being able to make and manipulate images might come in handy. And hey, you never know when self-promotion will require you to print out some fliers with your smilin' face on them.
The big kid on the block is, of course, Adobe Photoshop. And there's nothing offered (Footnote -- Well . . .) by the open-source community that can compete with it head-to-head; it's the 800-pound Gorilla, and nobody's getting it to vacate the living room any time soon.
Trouble is, they know they're the big kid on the block. Adobe Photoshop is priced as though your career depends on you getting a copy of it; a big-ol' $600 as of this writing. If your career doesn't depend on it, there's there's gotta be something else you can use, (Footnote -- Other Than . . .) right?
Meet the GNU (Footnote -- What's GNU?) Image Manipulation Program, aka "The GIMP" (requirements). (Footnote -- GIMP Requirements) This is a full-featured graphics program with lots of bells and whistles, good for retouching photos, editing other peoples' images, or creating your own. It has a bit of a learning curve; the interface takes some getting used to. However, it's open-source, it's free, and it can do lots of things. If you need a graphics program, try this one.
Celestia (requirements) (Footnote -- Celestia Requirements) is a real-time space simulation that lets you cruise the solar system -- hell, the universe -- to your heart's content. Are you a hard SF writer curious to know how far 14 Herculis is from 18 Scorpii? Need to know the positions of the planets on August 18, 2259? Curious to see the extraordinary profusion of moons (Footnote -- "Moons.") orbiting Jupiter?
Download this program. Play. Explore. Find out.
What's more, the data that defines the universe as represented by Celestia is quite hackable. Meaning that, if you're so inspired, you can create a working model of your own universe, (Footnote -- Do It Yourself) to play with at your leisure. Meaning that folks have already created stuff for other peoples' universes. Meaning that if you want to travel around a universe that contains Bajor and Vulcan, or one with Tatooine and Coruscant, they're just a download away.
It's open-source, completely free, and great fun.
NASA's World Wind
Explore your world. World Wind (requirements) (Footnote -- World Wind Requirements) gives you satellite images (Footnote -- Spying?) of the entire world, USGS images of the United States, and a whole bunch of other little nifties that you'll have lots of fun exploring.
It doesn't work perfectly; the satellite imagery in particular has some problems. Since the complete dataset is 20 Terabytes, (Footnote -- What's That?) the program is set up to download what you're trying to see on an as-needed basis. Well, it had a big spike in popularity after Slashdot linked to it, and guess what? The server is having a hard time coping with the demand. So, it may well be that the cool Landsat 7 images won't be available to you.
But everything else will work. Especially the USGS images; I can find every house I've ever lived in.
And guess what? It's open-source! If your computer and internet connection are both advanced enough to tame this beast, download and enjoy.
I've encountered a few other programs that look like they might have something to offer, but that I haven't taken the time to truly learn. Users with more to say about them are invited to drop me a line.
A group of programs built for gaming, but the applications for a world-building specfic author fairly beat you over the head. They're not free, but the prices look reasonable, especially if you get some of the bundle packs. Of all the entries here in the HM section, this is the one I most want to see closer. (Read More)
So just what the heck is ProFantasy offering? Well, there's Cosmographer Pro, an aid for drawing out deck plans of spaceships, or spaceports, or maps of planets, or star systems. There's AstroSynthesis v1.0, for drawing-up 3D starmaps and for organizing all the info on those assorted star systems. There's Fractal Terrains Pro, for some more high-detail world-building. There's . . .
Honestly? There's a bunch of toys. See for yourself.
Yeah, not all of it is applicable; you can (and probably should) live without the ability to draw detailed 3D dungeons for your fantasy world. But some of this stuff . . . hoo, baby. I know what I'm asking Santa for this year.
This looks interesting; if only I could figure out what it actually does. Without spending $28 on documentation, I mean. (Read More)
An intriguing program in a "Yeah, but what the hell is it?!" kind of way. It seems to be word-processor-ish. It claims to be an "idea generator," and claims that it will stimulate creativity and help you organize your ideas. It claims to be for "anyone who writes, anyone who must think critically and creatively, anyone who composes and produces documents, anyone who sorts and analyzes information."
But what does it actually do? No idea.
There's a free version, and a "Pro" version that costs $47. (Footnote -- And You Get . . .) But the documentation costs extra -- even for the "free" version. Want the user's guide? $20. Want a nice tutorial? $8.
For me, that's the biggest obstacle standing between me and figuring this program out. The time I'd have to spend learning this thing before I could have an informed opinion is enough of a deterrent, but having to shell out money just to get the docs is what gives me the ol' paraplegic camel. But hey, if you're more adventurous than I am and want to give this thing a try, I'd love to hear what you have to say.
World-building in the most literal sense possible -- create and explore your very own planets. A pity you have to devote so much time and money, though. (Read More)
The appeal and potential of this program will be obvious to anybody who's ever created other worlds in their head. MojoWorld allows you to take those worlds and put them into your PC, to explore and take screenshots of at your leisure.
In practice, well, this is not freeware. This is as commercial as commercial software gets. As of this writing, the full-featured MojoWorld Pro costs $479, while the (apparently) simpler MojoWorld Standard is available for the bargain-basement cost of $199. Yipe.
There's a free demo available, but playing with it revealed the other real stumbling block to MojoWorld; it ain't easy to use. Granted, given what it's trying to accomplish, that's hardly surprising. But just the same, be warned; sharp learning curve ahead.
That's why it's hidden down here on the "Honorable Mentions" list. For as outlandishly cool as it looks, using it will require a big expenditure of money and time, two resources that are in short supply for most writers I know.
But even so . . . damn does this thing look cool. I mean, check out that stills gallery. Wow.
It seems similar to some of ProFantasy's offerings, but offering vastly greater detail. I'm sure that if Fractal Terrains Pro allowed you this kind of access to the worlds it builds, ProFantasy would be quick to brag.
I'm sure I've missed something.
In this article, I tried to cover what I felt were the essentials for any computer user (operating system, security), the essentials for a writer (word processor, spreadsheet, web browser, email client) and a couple of not-so-essentials that I thought writers might find handy.
But I'm sure there are literally dozens of other programs that would be either very useful or lots of fun -- or both -- for the average writer.
I just don't know what they are. So, you tell me.
Do you have something on your computer you think I should know about, be it a nifty toy, critical resource, or anything in between? Then drop me a line at "pete at blairhippo dot com". I'm certainly willing to turn this article into a living document, to be changed as more cool stuff finds its way in front of my eyes.
After all, whose toolbox couldn't use a few more wonders in it?