Using a Scanner to Reduce Paper Clutter

March 17, 2010

Ok, this might not be the most exciting subject, but I normally find it easiest to blog about things that are going on in my life. Two weeks ago I completed my 2009 tax return online using H&R Block. To be perfectly honest I had very mixed feelings about doing my taxes completely online, but that is the subject of another blog post. Anyway, ever since I got out into “the real world” I have found myself with an ever increasing amount of paper work and documents that I either “need for tax purposes” or “need to keep for my records”. I absolutely despise clutter because I feel as though it slows me down. I dislike trying to find some cryptic piece of paper in a pile of junk. This large increase in paper work led me to purchase a scanner to store my documents electronically.

The idea is quite simple (and hardly original). You get a document, you scan it in, and you save as a pdf. Then, once it’s on your computer, you can setup whatever directory structure makes sense (I store by year and organization). Further, if you use consistent file naming you might be able to search your files for a document that you need. If you have been reading this blog for any length of time it should not be a surprise to learn that I am a Linux user. Presently I run Kubuntu 9.10 so it was important to me that my scanner work in Linux and that I be able to make said PDF files in Linux. The other consideration is that I wanted a cheap scanner since I am scanning mostly black and while documents. I do most of my shopping on Newegg and using the wonderful comments I was able to locate a Linux compatible scanner (more on the setup of that in a future post, but it was not trivial).

In any case once I had the scanner working, I could scan my documents into GIMP. Once they were in GIMP I saved them as PNG files and used everyone’s favorite “convert” to make them PDF files.

convert sample-png.png sample-pdf.pdf

If the documents were more than one page I used pdftk to make one giant document.

pdftk *.pdf cat output final-document.pdf

The trick to getting the *.pdf to concatenate in the correct document order means prefixing the documents with numbers such as: 00-ImportantTaxThing.pdf, 01-ImportantTaxThing.pdf, 02-ImportantTaxThing.pdf, etc.

The method can be a bit round about, but I’m sure a bit of bash magic could speed things up a little. Perhaps if I’m feeling motivated I’ll write a little python graphical front end to all this.

In any case, I have found this to be quite nice and it’s really easy to find these documents on the rare occasions I need them. Now, I should mention there is one flaw in my plan which my dad brought up. I don’t know what the laws are for needing physical copies of documents if you were, for example, audited by the IRS. So, for any extra special documents I just store them away in a folder that is unsorted on the off chance I might need them. Still, this allows me to keep a very clean desk, and still have access to all my documents.

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Quick Thoughts on Windows 7

June 5, 2009

Early this afternoon I decided, fairly randomly, that I wanted to try out the Windows 7 release candidate. I suppose this wasn’t totally random as I was hoping to check it out at some point. However, up until recently it would have been impossible for me to do so without formatting my XP partition, which I didn’t really feel like doing. I had wanted to run it using VirtualBox, but sadly my ext3 partition did not have enough free space and my 320GB external hard drive was formatted as Fat32 (max file size of 4GB). However, that external hard drive recently died and I purchased a new one which was formatted NTFS. Since I finally trust the ntfs-3g driver I was able to install a few more virtual machines for myself. So, keep that in mind, this is me running Windows 7 under a VirtualBox installation and not installed directly to the system. Alright… disclaimer out of the way πŸ™‚ .

First, a bit about the installation. I was glad to see that, unlike the Windows XP installer, which stops you half way through so you can set the time… , that the Windows 7 installer has you go through some simple options and then does its thing. I must say that it installed surprisingly fast considering that it had the overhead of the virtual machine, but also the overhead of the ntfs-3g driver which seems to be a CPU hog. I don’t really know how the partition manager is because I had fresh space to play with so I was able to simply choose all the defaults.

After the installation one has the fairly standard setup options of choosing a username/password combination and this is also where one sets the time and date. The default account type is administrator, which is a shame, because I doubt many people will know to make themselves a “standard” account for security reasons. Personally, I think the solution to this is obvious. Have the user make their standard account first, then, instruct them to make the administrative account with plenty of warning to only use it when software needs to be installed/settings changed/etc. I can picture Microsoft being apprehensive about this, though, because most people are already used to the “I’m always admin” mentality (even if it’s only on a subconscious level).

I had a bit of trouble getting myself network support mostly due to the fact that VirtualBox doesn’t technically support Windows 7. I eventually found a guide which told me to install the guest additions in compatibility mode for Windows Vista. So, naturally, the first thing I did was open up Internet Explorer. I mean, how else would I be able to download a good browser, like Firefox. As a bit of a side note here, I have used IE8, and it doesn’t do much for me.

So far so good, nothing really that out of the ordinary. One of the first things I noticed after logging in was the new task bar. No text on this bad boy, just little icons, very similar to how Apple does it, actually. Is this a coincidence… I doubt it. I do wonder how the average user, who is used to Windows XP, will like it, but I guess we will have to wait and see. I will say that it does feel rather clean and I like the simplicity of it. However, I do have one complaint with it. By default Windows 7 adds a button for common files like My Documents, My Pictures, and so on as well as a button for Windows Media Player. To me, this blurs the distinction between ‘running tasks’ and ‘icon to launch a program’ andΒ  with all my running programs minimized I sometimes had trouble telling which program was the one I wanted to pull up again. After playing a little more I realized that the running programs pop out a little bit, but it was not immediately obvious to me. A case of user stupidity? Well, maybe, but it still irked me for a bit until I got used to it.

Beyond that I poked around in the control panel, which is often a hobby of mine since I spend a fair amount of time helping other people with their Windows boxes even though I am a Linux user myself. The layout was similar enough to how it was in Windows XP that I felt pretty comfortable going around and changing various settings and looking at how things were configured. This is handy for me because explaining to people how to access different settings over the phone is sort of difficult if you don’t know it very well yourself.

My final note is that I thought it was very funny to see Windows Defender installed. It touts itself as a anti-spyware and malware system. To some degree I find the tool … misplaced? How come Microsoft doesn’t simply lock down Internet Explorer so that people can’t acquire all of this junk in the first place? It’s not exactly a closely guarded secret that most spyware and malware comes from people using Internet Explorer.

Overall I was much happier with Windows 7 than I was with Windows Vista, but it certainly didn’t wow me enough that I will be leaving Linux any time soon. It’s probably to Microsoft’s advantage to get Windows 7 out there as soon as possible, because Vista is just utter rubbish.

Oh yeah… sorry about not having screenshots, but I figure the net is flooded with enough Windows 7 screenshots that me taking some is just a waste of time πŸ™‚ .


Sorting My Thoughts with Freemind

May 17, 2009

Recently I was introduced to a nifty little Java program called Freemind. The purpose of Freemind is to help you map out your thoughts into a form which then allows you to manipulate them freely. Sometimes I have too many ideas in my head to put them all together in a coherent way and a program like Freemind helps me to sort through them all. Basically, I use it as an extension of my memory, and I have been looking for software that does this for quite a while now. Before Freemind all I had was a pencil and paper. This solution is not terrible, but I do almost all of my work on the computer so having a digitized solution is always prefered. Here is a screen shot of Freemind:

Screenshot of the main application

Screenshot of the main application

One of the main things I like about Freemind is that once you get the hang of the keyboard shortcuts you can control everything about the program from the keyboard. This is really handy for me since I can just type away and keep adding ideas without having to give too much thought in to the use of the computer itself.

In Freemind a file is called a “Mind Map” and it is basically a single unifiying topic for what you will be organizing your thoughts on. Off of that one supplies “nodes” which have snippets of text in them describing whatever you please. Nodes can, of course, be placed off other nodes and this is how one builds a mind map. The nice thing about Freemind is that these nodes can be moved around quite easily with keyboard shortcuts. This allows one to quickly rearrange ideas.

Finally, Freemind lets you place little graphics next to the nodes which one can use to indicate various things about nodes. For example, I was using Freemind to keep track of bugs in this small program I was writing, and I would use the check mark graphic to indicate when I had solved one and written unit tests for it.

All in all I really like Freemind and it is a great way to put my thoughts together in a coherent way. I hope to find new and interesting uses for it in the future.


My Impressions of KDE 4.2

February 25, 2009

I have actually been meaning to write this post for a while now, but as usual school takes away most of my ambition to do things such as write to this blog or write fun code.

I have been using KDE 4.2 on both my Gentoo systems (laptop and desktop) since about a week after it was released. I still run it now and plan on running it until the next big release of KDE.

KDE 4.2 really took my breath away on many fronts. First of all the Phonon sound system works properly. This also means that I can use Amarok 2.0 which is a HUGE plus for me. In 4.1 I had all sorts of annoying problems getting Phonon to even play sound, and when it did it would block any other applications from using the sound card. Not so any more!

Also, the Plasma widgets are running much cleaner and faster. In KDE 4.1 they seemed to resize slowly and imprecisely. Now, not only do they resize correctly, but if you stick them off the screen in a strange way or place them in some funny manner they try to arrange themselves in a neat fashion. For someone as OCD as myself this feature is wonderful!

The fact that you can now use a Desktop View widget as a desktop is probably good news for some because it means easier access to icons. Personally, I don’t really care about that because I hate desktop icons to begin with. I launch all of my programs through the Run Command interface anyway.

I started using Kopete recently as well, and that has seen huge improvements since the last time I used it. I’m not sure when they changed the interface around and added all the animations, but Kopete has now replaced Pidgin as my default messaging client.

In terms of looks… well KDE 4.2 looks very much like KDE 4.1 or even 4.0. They updated the default theme a little bit, but it is still the same fundamental idea. This is fine with me. I love the new Oxygen theme and it gives a fresh look to my desktop.

As far as running KDE on my laptop is concerned I like 4.2 much better for basically one reason alone… The battery meter widget shows the time remaining now and is also aware of different processor throttling states. This is a great improvement over what I experienced in 4.1 and it makes KDE completely useable on my laptop. Also, since KDE is now more aware of dual screens and screen settings it made it nice to use while I was giving presentations with Okular (the new KDE pdf viewer) on my laptop. I’ve yet to play around with the GUI for changing the display settings (I use xrandr from the terminal) , but I hope to give that a try some time in the near future.

Dual screen support in terms of my desktop setup seems to be about the same as it had been, but I think that is because I am using the proprietary ATI driver and not the open source one. It works well enough that I don’t have any issues. I really like the feature where if you have a maximized window on one screen you can just drag it over the other screen and it stays maximized. Maybe other versions of KDE had this… but either way it is real handy.

I can hardly say enough good things about KDE 4.2 and I am really looking forward to the 4.3 release and some additional bug fixes.

Now that I have gone on and on about the positives I will list a few bugs and whatnot that I have found, but am confident they will be fixed in later releases. The first is that the “Run Command” feature seems to crash if I have KDE running for too long. I typically leave my system running for days at a time so I don’t like it when stuff like that breaks. Also, when I first installed KDE 4.2 I had to clear out all my KDE 4.1 settings before it would run correctly. This is only a minor annoyance, but if you have a bunch of settings that took forever to set up it would be a bit of a bummer to reload them all.

Overall I am extremely happy with KDE 4.2 and would reccomend it to those who have been holding off on account of stability issues. I use it everyday for doing school work and I have not run in to any problems that have caused me to need to downgrade to 4.1 or to switch away from it entirely. Great work KDE team!


fglrx Drivers — Getting TV Out to Work

January 11, 2009

About six months ago my friend sent me a link to Hulu.com and one day I simply stumbled across the service Joost.com. Since then I have been hooked on internet television. I rarely use the normal form of watching TV, and why should I? I can watch the shows I want to watch WHEN I want to watch them. Additionally, both Joost and Hulu offer subtitled and dubbed anime, which is far more than I can get on TV. Anyway, that’s not the point of my post, but rather the reason I became interested in getting the TV Out on my ATI Radeon 9800Pro to work. As a final note I am using the ati-drivers (fglrx) version 8.561 . For you Gentoo users it is currently masked in portage so you are going to want to add “=x11-drivers/ati-drivers-8.561” to your /etc/portage/package.keywords if you plan to use them. I don’t know what version they started supporting the features I am talking about so it might work with your current setup just fine.

Sadly I must use the closed source driver, for now anyway, because Spheriosity will not run properly for me on the open source driver. I used to switch between the two drivers, but that became terribly inconvenient because I needed to maintain two Xorg.conf files since each driver has its own little nuisances. I kept reading that the closed source driver (fglrx) supported TV-Out, but I was failing to setup the Xorg.conf file correctly and I noticed that xrandr didn’t seem to work. Eventually I noticed here (scroll down a bit) that fglrx does not support the randr extension. At that point I was ready to give up, but I noticed the aticonfig tool. This has a few options that can be changed on the fly, which is exactly what I wanted. Normally I run a dual monitor configuration with big desktop and only on occasion do I want TV output. With the aticonfig tool it was quite simple:

aticonfig --query-monitor

This shows what monitors are seen by the drivers. Here is what mine looks like:

jinto@lightflame ~ $ aticonfig --query-monitor
  Connected monitors: crt1, tv, crt2
  Enabled monitors: crt1, crt2

To enable the TV you simple issue the following command:

aticonfig --enable-monitor=tv
             OR
aticonfig --enable-monitor=tv,crt1 (if you want tv and a monitor)

You may have to replace crt1 with whatever output you get from --query-monitor, but hopefully you get the idea. KDE 4.1 did seem to have some minor annoyances while switching between configurations so when I watch TV I simply use a failsafe login to avoid my plasmids from getting all messed up. Also, there are ways to adjust the size of the image being output to the TV using the --tv-geometry flag. aticonfig will complain about not being able to edit the xorg.conf file, but it seemed to change it for me on the fly so I’m not sure what the story is behind that. If you want to understand how to use --tv-geometry just issue aticonfig --help | less and it is near the top. If you are interested the tv geometry I use it is:

aticonfig --tv-geometry=43x55-1+1

What you need to use probably varies from TV to TV so unless you have a 27″ Sony Trinitron you will probably have to tweak that command πŸ˜‰ .

Oh yeah… and if you want to go back to your original configuration just issue:

aticonfig --enable-monitor=crt1,crt2

Or whatever monitors you wish to active. If you only have a single monitor then all you need to do is issue the previous command without the “,crt2” part πŸ™‚ . Good luck!


Yakuake — Impossible to say, but impossible to give up

December 28, 2008

I just wanted to take a minute to discuss my new favorite terminal emulator for KDE, Yakuake. I have no idea how to pronounce that which is only a problem when I want to tell people about it in person. Normally a conversation starts out as follows: “Oh man, you’ve got to try this awesome terminal emulator for KDE. I’d give you the name, but I can’t possibly pronounce it correctly”.

Screenshot of Yakuake

Screenshot of Yakuake

Yakuake, is very much like Konsole except that it drops down from the top of the screen (actually it could come from a number of places) . The beauty of Yakuake is that it’s always open, which is great for me because I always need a terminal. You simply assign it a key binding and off you go! The thing I find so fabulous about it is that it lets me start commands and check on them periodicically, regardless of what virtual desktop I am on. Also, Yakuake supports tabs and has keyboard shortcuts for just about everything. Before Yakuake if I needed a terminal I would use Katapult to open it and when I was done I’d simply press ctrl-D. Since Yakuake is always open it saves me the time of needing to open Konsole and follows me wherever I go. Yakuake has completely replaced all my other terminals emulators and I will never look back πŸ™‚ .


Quick Thoughts on Amarok 2.0

December 27, 2008

I’d like to more thoroughly review Amarok 2.0 later, but I have a few initial impressions as well as an explanation of why I can’t give the full review now. I was very pleased to hear that Amarok 2.0 had finally been released and I have been awaiting it for some time now. I had heard stories of people not liking the new interface, but I didn’t have much of an opinion on it because I hadn’t used it.

Amarok 2.0 installed just fine out of Portage, the Gentoo package manager, though it is currently masked so you will need to unmask it if you wish to install it.

The first thing I noticed was that the interface did look a bit cluttered. The three columns simply take up too much space and maximizing Amarok is not really my thing. However, you can simply collapse the column which shows you collection information and whatnot when you aren’t using it. It seems they have also done away with the mini-player, which is a real shame because I liked that a lot. I am hoping they just haven’t implemented it yet. After collapsing that column I had absolutely zero problems with the interface and I like it just as much as the old one.

Now, when Amarok scanned my collection it was going along great until it seemed to basically freeze for several minutes. I suspect it was getting hung up on my folder which has roughly 1600 songs in it. This was only a problem because it locked up the rest of the player, and had the same annoying bug when it would check my collection for updates. I’m sure they will fix this in a future release so I don’t consider that a big deal.

Also, I like the feature which lets you drag an entire album onto the playlist, which I don’t think was present in Amarok 1.x. Searching for music, adding it to the playlist, and playing it is just as easy and speedy as with previous releases of Amarok so there’s not much more to say about that.

Finally, here is the main problem I had with Amarok 2.0 and truthfully the problem is more with KDE 4.1 than Amarok. As some of you may know Amarok now uses KDE’s audio backend (Phonon). Apparently doing so renders my Linux audio usage back to the old days where only one application could use the sound card at a time. This is particularly problematic because I use applications such as Pidgin, which play a noise when I receive a new message, or simply having Amarok open seems to prevent Firefox from playing the audio in a YouTube video. I find this to be intolerable to the point that I had to switch back to Amarok 1.x until this issue is resolved. I have had numerous other issues with Phonon as well… such as it trying to use EsounD even though I don’t even have it configured. I know that sound in Linux is a mess and that is a real shame because I loves me some good audio.

Overall I am really looking foward to Amarok 2.0 more than ever, and I hope that the bugs inΒ  both Amarok and KDE are worked out shortly πŸ™‚ .