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The Computer is Dead! Long Live the Computer! December 20, 2007

Posted by ficial in brain dump.
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My old work desktop is dying a slow and halting death, so about a week ago I got our friendly desktop services folks to order a new machine for me. This time it’s a laptop (though I have to admit that with a background in the world of startup companies I still feel a little sheepish requesting something as “extravagant” as a laptop). So, for the past couple of days a large part of my work has been setting up the new machine and making the slow transition from the old one to the new one. With the solstice nigh upon us it’s an appropriate time for cleaning house and making new beginnings, and despite the work it’s nice to be able to start with a clean slate. I thought it might be useful to share a bit of the setup process and the tools and such I put on a new machine.

First off, it’s a Windows machine. Powerbooks are more appealing than they used to be since Linux underpins the OS now, but I have some serious issues with the machine and UI design (all of which boil down to sacrificing usability for style). Putting some flavor of Linux on the machine is occasionally tempting, but a) this is a work machine and so it needs to be compatible with what the institution typically uses and supports, and b) though I can hack my way through sysadmin-y tasks I dislike that kind of work. So, despite its many faults, Windows it is. On to the configuration…

Uninstall Outlook Express, through Add/Remove Programs – the system considers it a Windows component rather than an application. Whatever mail client I use, it won’t be Outlook Express.

Install all the windows updates – various important pieces (like the browser) didn’t even work until I’d run Windows Update and installed everything it wanted.

Now that IE works, the top priority is installing some kind of anti-virus protection (Williams uses Sophos, and I’ve found it works quite well). I’ll be downloading a bunch of stuff from the net, so some kind of protection is essential.

Get and install Firefox; IE 7 is better than IE 6, but I still find it a bit obnoxious. No doubt that’s partly out of habit. However, even if they were equally effective I’d still prefer the open source one. That Firefox installs easily, is standards compliant, is safer, and gives me more and better control over its behavior makes the choice easy. I also like a lot of the extensions available for Firefox (IE may have decent ones as well, but I’m not familiar with them).

NOTE: If you do any web development you’ll probably want to activate the DOM Inspector. It’s a part of the Mozilla framework and lets you see structure and properties of a window and its contents. However, you need to activate it during the installation – it can’t be added later as an extension.
The extensions I use (and recommend) are:
* Adblock Plus : hide ads
* Adblock Filterset.G Updater : Synchronizes Adblock with Filterset.G
* ColorfulTabs : colors every tab in a different color
CustomizeGoogle : Enhance Google results and remove ads and spam.
Extension List Dumper : list all installed extensions.
Greasemonkey : A User Script Manager for Firefox
* PDF Download : choose what you want to do with a PDF file
Tab Scope : Preview and navigate tab contents through popups.
Tabs Menu : Adds a drop-down list of tabs to the main menu bar.
Text Link : double click text URLs to load them
For web development I also install (and also recommend) these:
InspectorWidget : handy interface to the DOM inspector (requires that you have that component installed)
JavaScript Debugger : JavaScript debugger and profiler
JSView 1.5 : easily see external stylesheets and javascripts.
Total Validator : validates web pages in numerous ways
* View Source Chart : Draws A Color-Coded Chart of a Web Page’s Source Code.
Web Developer : a menu and a toolbar with various web developer tools.
A few of all those extensions need some individual configuration, but the defaults are generally acceptable. Also, set the homepage, bookmark Google, and bookmark about:config (the interface to the nitty-gritty of Firefox configuration – I primarily use it for altering browser-tab behavior, but occasionally want it for other things as well).

Next there a a bunch of free programs I get from the internet. Many of them are specific to my work, but others are of more general use. I’m putting them in order here from most generally appealing/useful to most specific.
JDK & JRE : everyone will need the JRE (java runtime environment), programmers will also want the JDK. And, if you’re programming, might as well grab
NetBeans IDE : a decent, free, open source IDE for a java, ruby, C/C++. You can get it bundled with the JDK from Sun, but I prefer the separate install, so I can choose which IDE version I like.
TextPad : a good plain text editor, with decent syntax highlighting
Notepad++ : another good plain text editor, slightly more programming oriented, with many useful plugins (as well as syntax highlighting)
7-zip : a great utility for handling archives / compressed files of all sorts.
TweakUI : a great tool to adjust the windows user interface
Virtual Desktop Manager : manage up to four desktops from the Windows taskbar
WinGrep : a much better search tool than the one built in to Windows
Acrobat Reader : I tend to dislike PDF docs, but they’re everywhere.
TortoiseSVN : THE windows client for Subversion source control (everyone should use source control for any significant project (e.g. writing), not just programmers. You can designate a local folder as a repository even if you don’t have a separate Subversion server set up)
Gimp, and the help files (separate download): an open source image tool analogous to Photoshop
Google SketchUp : great tool for lightweight 3D modeling
Putty et al : ssh, scp, ftp, etc.; a suite of network communication tools
Google Earth : great light-to-middle weight GIS tool, and fun too
DOSBox : run old DOS programs (largely useful for games, but some ‘legitimate’ uses too)
Activestate Perl : Perl for Windows
xampp : a complete local PHP development system
InstantRails : a complete local Ruby on Rails development system
+ RMagick : image manipulation package for Ruby on Rails
– TOAD : a good general SQL / Database Management client
DJ Java Decompiler : turn compiled Java back into source code
Also, some kind of backup software. We use a number of things at Williams, but one recent one I’ve been very happy with is LiveBackup by Atempo.

Then some suite of office tools. Open Office is generally fine, but I installed Microsoft Office since part of my job is being able to help / teach others and I need to use what they use. I’m annoyed that the interface to Office2007 is so different than the previous version, but I expect I’ll get used to it eventually.

For email I’ve been using Thunderbird and been reasonably happy with it. However, I’m trying switching to Outlook on the new machine because it has much better integration to the calendar/scheduling tools that Williams uses. I’ve found it a bit frustrating so far (WAY too many places that configuration stuff is hiding) and may eventually switch back to Thunderbird.

One of the big things that bothered me about Outlook was that it only displayed emails in HTML format. However, there’s a registry hack to get it to display everything as plain text.

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