Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Read, computer, read!

You could say I’m lazy. I could tell you that I like to work smart, not hard. We could debate the viewpoint while my computer does my work for me. Like recently, when the need arose to create a 16 page legal agreement, and there was only a printed hard copy to work from. I searched for a sneaky way out of having to type up all 16 pages again and discovered that my computer can read! I was pleasantly surprised and set it straight to work. Using an ordinary scanner, I scanned all pages into my computer using the black and white 300dpi or higher setting. Then I told the computer to go forth and recognise. I now know that the term scientists use is OCR which stands for optical character recognition and it is “the mechanical or electronic translation of images of handwritten, typewritten or printed text (usually captured by a scanner) into machine-editable text.” (sic Wikipedia).

Using the easy OCR wizard that came as part of the OmniPage software, which in turn shipped free with my Canon scanner, I was walked through the four steps of text recognition. These steps are: Start Processing (open program), Get Pages (scan document), Perform OCR (read, computer, read) and Export Results (dump text into MS Word). My printed template was recognised reasonably well; I would say it had 96% recognition and turned a scanned page of photocopied text into a page of text that I was then able to bring into my word processor and manipulate. The text layout was a bit all over the show, as bullet points and indents were wonky in places, but unless you’re a formatting fanatic, you could get by. As George and Fred Weasley would say: “Mischief Managed!”

Ever inquisitive, that made me wonder how well the OCR software would read my handwriting. Bad move, or shall we say: bad handwriting. Normally totally illegible, I put on my Sunday best and tested if the PC could make head or tail of it. My attempts failed miserably. When I wrote “Witness Geek”, the computer insisted I had said Wkne.’s Gee. My husbands attempts at “THE CAT IS BLACK” came back slightly better with the computer quoting “THE CAT IS LAC-K”. And that was written in bold painstakingly clear lettering that took both of us longer than it would have taken us to type a paragraph. So as for using this as solution to dump your lecturing notes, X-Nay, I’m afraid.

I got playful and took a photograph of my computer screen with this article open. I turned the photograph into a tiff file using my favourite photo manipulation program, FastStone, and told the computer to read, boy! I was pleasantly surprised that it came back with a very good rendition, the parts that were clear the OCR recognised 100%. So if there are any James Bond type spies out there, take note.

Doing a bit more reading on the internet to see what other people have discovered, I read that Microsoft Office ships with it’s own OCR facility inside Microsoft Office Document Imaging. Check to see if you have the program, too by clicking on Start, All Programs, Microsoft Office, Microsoft Office Tools, Microsoft Office Document Imaging. This program can view, manage, read and recognise text in image documents and faxes as well as reading documents straight off the scanner. I found it to actually work better than OmniPage.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Treasure hunt on the Internet

Online File Sharing / Storage and Collaboration

Being secretary to a local woman’s’ association, I found that administration of, and tending to a huge database needed a plan B. I wanted a virtual place where I could squirrel away files so that they could be reached from any interface, in case our house burnt down (heaven forbid). That way the data files would still be retrievable even if the furniture wasn’t. Yes, backup CD’s or flash drives are good, but a burning house is no place for backup CD’s either. I wanted a Swiss bank account, of sorts, an offshore investment.

I trawled the net and thought that Google could help, but for once, they were not the front runners. I found a local survey which recently put it out to the users to vote for their favourite online file sharing services. There are various offers out there, amongst them Windows Live SkyDrive, FolderShare and FileFront. I investigated what came back as their favourite: Box Net. has a rather apt byline of “Store here, access anywhere”; you immediately get the general picture.

I’ve also watched too many action thrillers where the hero sends important files via email to a safe and secret place, or retrieves it likewise. I signed up with Box Net and chose the “Lite” option which allows me 1Gb of online storage space for free. If you sign up, too, beware that Box Net will try and urge you into the paying version, but if 1Gb is plenty space for you, don’t be fooled and stick to Lite.

Once the account is set up, click on the My Files tag and create a new folder or several folders or even subfolders. Via an easy-to-use interface, you’re able to upload any type of file to that folder, be it zipped files, photos, spreadsheets, documents or presentations.

The most important concept I had to wrap my mind around was that of “Collaborating”. Box Net has evolved according to users needs since 2005, and beyond the immediate virtual safety deposit box functionality, the website offers different users the ability to update files, too.

For example, a think tank document can be edited online by anyone with collaboration rights. These collaboration rights are assigned by the owner of the folder and hold true for all information within that specific folder. Of course you do not hand out your username and password to people who you want to view your files, you don’t need to. Let them set up their own username and password (for free) and you just rope them in as collaborators via an email invitation. Updating one document online eliminates the annoying “out-of-synch” upshot that a document would be reduced to that has been emailed backwards and forwards between a number of people. As soon as an update occurs, an email is sent out informing all collaborators. Comments and tags can be added and the online document edit feature is called Zoho, which allows you to open and edit the documents even if the computer you are working from hasn’t got MS Word or Excel loaded.

In this way you can share one folder with your work colleagues and another with your fellow stamp collectors and a third folder that you create can be for important family documents or address books.

Further uses of Box Net can include photo sharing or a place to plonk files that are too big to email. Also, if you have dabbled on eBay or bid or buy, you will know that you are expected to upload a photo of your goods, and Box Net is a perfect suppository for these photos. Box Net has an easy button which generates the URL, that you place as the link in Bid or Buy.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Brabys has gone Digital, let’s catch up

The printed Brabys Directory has been a household item for over 30 years and I’m sure you’ve got a copy floating around your house as much as I have.

A C Braby (Pty) Ltd went digital in 2005, going into cahoots with Always Active Technologies(Pty) and Business Connextion (Pty) Ltd to launch Brabys Maps at . This is a most handy website for anyone needing to find their way around South Africa’s metros.

On the homepage you are welcomed by a map of South Africa and expected to click on a province. Brabys then loads a zoomed in version of the province and now you can specify a city or county. Only red-rimmed areas have Brabys maps loaded, so outlying areas such as Wartburg are unfortunately not yet uploaded, but Pietermaritzburg, Lions River, Umngeni, Howick, Midmar Nature Reserve, Merrivale, KwaMavana and Edendale are mapped. Now you are guided into ever closer maps, until you are at street level. Street names, suburbs and highways are clearly marked and you are able to immediately print or email the map for your own (non-commercial) use. This is a brilliant budget GPS tools for those of us whose pocket doesn’t stretch as far as an on board Garmin.

You can check a larger view of the map area which is 500 x 350 pixels, with a zoomed effect adjusting to 758 x 758 pixels. Zooming in or out can be done with the slider on the left.

If you want more than a quick map, here are some extra features BrabysMaps offers: you can switch any map to an Aerial View, or you can click on a particular location in the map and read the GPS coordinates off at the top. So you can even pass on the GPS coordinates to a Garmin owning advancing visitor and ease their way to you.

But wait, it gets better. Switching to the Directions tag at the top of the window allows you to put in two locations (A and B) and BrabysMaps will find you a route from the one to the other, with each turn and distance clearly marked. You can even choose different routes. Again, the result can be emailed or printed. Yep, free of charge.

In the top right corner is a blue windows which lists businesses by category. Choosing a category, for example Accommodation, and a subcategory such as Hotels & Other Accommodation, you will see red dots at certain places on the map where businesses in these categories are located. Hovering over the dots shows the business’ name and if you click on this, BrabysMaps will fetch all loaded details for this business.

But why stop there? If you ever wanted to know how far a crow flies as opposed to the extra miles streets add to our mode of transport, click on the How Far tag and again put in two locations before you hit the Calculate button. You will see the “As the crow flies” distance versus “Travel distance” as well as an estimated travel time.

If you find yourself using this website lots, you can register and bookmark your favourite places and routes for frequent and quick retrieval.

I was even able to embed a map into another website, giving ululations to BrabysMaps. This was made easy by a tool that allowed me to copy the javascript (aka doubledutch) which magically displayed the map on the other website. I did have to tell BrabysMaps my name and the website I pasted their map into. That’s a fair exchange, if you ask me.

Brabys disclaimer notes that its contents is proprietary to Brabys and only for general information and use, not for commercial use.