The online home for Greg Leedberg, since 1995.

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Leedberg's List: PDFCreator

Leedberg's List is my opportunity to tell the world about a piece of software that I think is great, and makes computing easier or more useful. The program of choice today is PDFCreator.

Basically, PDFCreator allows you to produce PDFs (portable document format), which are then readable by the free Adobe Acrobate Reader, or the numerous open source PDF readers, such as GSView/GhostScript.

First, let me address for a moment the PDF format itself. I frequently hear people decry PDF, saying that's better to use standard HTML. This complaint mostly seems to stem from the general hatred people have towards web browser plug-ins (mostly motivated by Macromedia Flash, which, I should mention, will never make Leedberg's List -- at least not in its current form). However, it's important to remember that PDFs were never necessarily intended to be viewed through a web browser plug-in. Rather, I prefer to think of PDFs as files that one can download and then view on their local computer, much like MP3 or EXE files. It just so happens that the default installation options for Acrobat install it as a plug-in for easy access.

But, regardless of how you view them, PDFs are quite useful. With a PDF, the author of the document can control exactly how the document will look when viewed on screen or printed. This is certainly not the same for HTML (which can be rendered differently by different browsers, and you never quite know how it's going to print) or Word/.doc files (which can look drastically different when opened with different versions of Microsoft Word. A PDF file will look the same whether opened with Adobe 7, Adobe 5, GSView, XPDF, and on and on. It's a great, great format when it's important to you to have formatting and design in tact on the viewer's end. On the other hand, HTML can be good when you need to use hypertext, want easy copy-and-paste, and want to be sure that whoever opens the document probably already has the necessary viewer software. On the other other hand, Word/.doc files are almost never a good format to use, in any situation -- but that's another blog entry for another day.

Back to PDFCreator. One of the strengths of PDFCreator is that it allows you to create PDFs from pretty much any program. It installs itself as a printer on your system. So, when you have a document open that you want a PDF of, you merely print it, choose the PDFCreator printer, and a PDF will be created that looks exactly as the printed output of that file would have looked like. It's really easy, and really useful.

Obviously, this has uses when you have a document that you want to distribute to a broad group of people. For instance, if you've typed up a paper in Microsoft Word, and want to give it to people and you're not sure if they all have Word, you can print it from within Word using the PDFCreator printer, create a PDF, and then distribute that PDF file to everyone. Any program from which you can print, can be used to produce PDFs.

Any program. Which is what gives it a lot of flexbility. Here's another example of how you could use it. I have a credit card, and each month I pay my bill online. Whenever I do so, the website presents me with a webpage that represents a receipt for my payment, and instructs me to print out that page for my records. Now, if I actually did this every month for each credit card, I'd be needlessly wasting paper and killing trees -- not to mention taking up space. And the problem is, I rarely ever actually need this receipt, but I still want to have it in case I do need it at some point. With PDFCreator, I can "print" the receipt to the PDFCreator printer, which produces a PDF file which is exactly the same as the printed output would have been. I can then electronically file away this PDF file, and if I need a hardcopy of the receipt for some reason, I can just print out the PDF using Acrobat or something similar. I actually do this a lot with online receipts -- it saves a lot of paper, and I find it easier to organize electronic files than lots and lots of hard copies. You might say, "Greg, you can just save the webpage they gave you from within your web browser." Yes, that's true. But, in order to have it print and look exactly the same, you'd also have to save all of the graphics and so forth. You end up with a directory full of files -- and even then sometimes the page won't look the same later on if it depended on certain types of scripts. With a PDF, you get the printed output, all within one file.

PDFCreator basically acts the same as Adobe's commercial program, Acrobat (sans "Reader"). Acrobat installs a "Distiller" printer which you can then use to do the same thing as PDFCreator's printer. However, Acrobat is commercial and currently costs ~$260 retail, whereas PDFCreator is free and open source. I've used both, and don't find the output of PDFCreator to be of any lower quality than Acrobat. Additionally, Acrobat, like many commercial programs, feels it has a right to take over your computer. In addition to installing the requisite printer, it also attempts to install plugins into various applications, including Microsoft Word and Internet Explorer, even though the printer is easy enough that nothing else is needed.

In the end, PDFCreator is a simple, flexbile, powerful little program. It lets you easily create PDFs, which even initially has a lot of good uses. However, once you get used to it, you'll start to find lots of times when making a PDF is really beneficial (especially opposed to printing). And of course, it compares very favorably with its competition, especially the expensive Adobe Acrobat -- even if you ignore the price! Great program.

Friday, December 16, 2005

TV Show Pick 2005 - How I Met Your Mother

Now here's something for a non-technology post!

Every year I like to try and pick my favorite new TV show, based on a variety of factors. What matters to me most is the intelligence and quality of the writing, the acting ability of the cast, how well matched the cast is with their roles, and lastly, whether or not the show has a sense of why it exists. For example, a show that predominately aspires to be a family comedy will likey have a vastly different style than a show that aspires to be "edgy" -- but frequently shows lack this sense of purpose.

I think I generally make good picks. Which is not to say every show I pick goes on to last 10 seasons. I think it's generally accepted the good shows are not always necessarily successful shows -- which is unfortuate. But I don't care as much about success, I care about quality.

I generally stick to picking comedy-style shows. Some shows I've picked in the past have been Family Guy, Grounded For Life (in its pre-WB life), and Freaks and Geeks. If you give any of those shows a chance, you'd probably see that they're all pretty good based on the virtues I mentioned above.

So what's my pick this year? I was surprised by this pick as I didn't expect much from this show, but I've picked How I Met Your Mother on CBS.

One strong point with this show is that it has an amazing cast, mostly drawn from shows that 20-somethings will remember. Neil Patrick Harris (from Doogie Howser), Alyson Hannigan (from American Pie and Buffy the Vampire Slayer) and Jason Segel (from the aforementioned Freaks and Geeks) all have starring roles, along with newcomers (to me, at least) Josh Radnor and Cobie Smulders, and Bob Saget (of Full House fame) as the narrator. The cast is great, and has had several recognizable cameos, including several from Freaks and Geeks, as well as Winnie from the Wonder Years.

But a good cast doesn't make a good show. The premise of the show is that Bob Saget's character (who, much like in The Wonder Years, we hear but never see) is telling his children the story of how he met their mother, and this story is given to us in the form of extended flashbacks to his post-college but pre-marriage days. The fact that this is a story being told gives the show an interesting air to it, and frequently this plot device is used in quircky and interesting ways.

The stories frame these 5 young people, searching for purpose in their lives and making memories along the way. Three of the characters (played by Harris, Radnor, and Smulders) are single, and searching for their perfect mate. Segel and Hannigan play a very convincing engaged couple, who provide a great contrast to the other characters.

They all fill their roles perfectly. Neil Patrick Harris plays a guy who is just looking for fun and girls and has no desire to settle down. Josh Radnor plays the main character who, like many people in their 20's, is conflicted between wanting a young, wild life and wanting a mature relationship as an adult. Cobie Smulders plays, more or less, the female version of Radnor -- and frequently is aluded to potentially being his ultimate love interest. As mentioned, Segel and Hannigan are engaged, and are just barely over the line in life that their friends are on the verge of crossing. Everyone plays their role great, and the interplay of characters is realistic and engaging.

And they are supported by surprisingly sharp writing this early in the life of the show. The jokes are clever, and stories are interesting and believable, and most of the episodes wrap up in a reflective, yet tongue-in-cheek, ending.

In the end, How I Met Your Mother is an endearing show with lots of potential. It is by no means a perfect show in its current form, but it far outshines most shows in their first season. If it is given the chance to continue and refine, it could be one of the best sitcoms since Friends.

Friday, December 09, 2005

Spam Has Ruined Everything

Yes, spam has ruined everything, for everybody, in more ways than you realize.

Spam annoys me daily, since I've had a relatively public email address over the years. My email used to be all over my website and in the WHOIS information for my domain. I've done a good job of removing it and instead using a feedback form, but the damage has been done. I routinely get ~60 spam messages a day, which is actually down from the peak of ~200 just about a year ago. Apparently Microsoft's lawsuits have helped a bit.

Inbox spam annoys most people, but that's not actually the point of this post. The fact that people get spam actually has hurt me in other ways that probably don't occur to most people.

You're probably (maybe?) familiar with my Billy and Daisy projects. I started those project way back in late 1999, and they met with some pretty surprising success right from the start. Lots of people seemed interested in them, so as a courtesy to those interested, I started a 100% opt-in mailing list, where I would send messages whenever I released a new version of either program. It was pretty successful. Hundreds of people signed up, and whenever I would send a message out about a new release, there would be a surge of traffic to my website, and I would get several emails from people about the new release.

However, spam has ruined this innocent service. When I released Billy 4.1 in January of 2004, I observed the activity I summarized above -- surge of traffic, lots of emails. However, just the other day I open sourced the Daisy program, and sent out a message. Not that much time has passed since January 2004, but I was shocked at what I observed. There was absolutely no unusual spike in traffic, and I received just a single email. There's still a lot of traffic to my site and the programs are still popular, but this mailing list announcement had almost no impact -- a complete turn-around from just a couple years ago.

It seems that with the huge increase in spam people have been suffering from, more and more people are forced to use spam filters, with increasingly loose rules about what is spam and what isn't. Of course, a mailing list annoucement looks quite similar to spam. It seems that my good-intentioned annoucement largely got eaten up by pro-active spam filters.

I've also noticed that over the past year or so, the number of new subscribers to this mailing list has significantly dropped off. The odd thing is, traffic to my site and downloads of Billy and Daisy have actually increased significantly over the same period of time. Not only are the list messages getting eaten by spam filters, but people are so afraid of spam that they are no longer opting in to mailing lists which they might have signed up for a few years ago.

It really is quite a sad situation. My mailing list, which was very much appreciated by users in its hey-day, has been rendered near-useless. And all because of scum spammers who don't seem to realize that bombarding people with unwanted advertisements doesn't help move their product, and only ruins everything for everybody.