Archive for the ‘Productivity’ Category

How to create a shared clipboard and copy and paste text between computers with ease

Computers, Productivity, Software | Posted by AB
Apr 30 2008

(It’s been a very busy time here lately: the taxes, a new product that’s almost done, but just can’t quite get finished, and as a result, no spare time for this blog of mine. Dear Subscribers (both of you), I’m very sorry, please don’t give up on me, I’ll try to post more often here in the future. OK, I want to finish my new product first, and then I’ll try to post more often. I promise :-) ).

Anyway, today I’ll write about a neat way of creating a “shared” clipboard on your LAN, to be able to quickly send pieces of text between computers just as easily as pressing Ctrl+C and Ctrl+V.

Not sure what I mean? Suppose you have several computers connected into a LAN, and you need to copy some text on one computer and paste into another, how would you do it? For instance, most of the time I browse the Internet with my laptop. If I encounter a download link to an interesting program, I want to try it, but I don’t want to install it on the laptop itself (I’m very selective about what gets installed where), I want to download it to my test computer and try it out there first. So I need to copy the web address from the web browser running on the laptop, and paste that address into the web browser running on the test computer. If it were the same computer, the procedure would be extremely easy: Ctrl+C, then Ctrl+V, and that’s all. But if I do Ctrl+C on one computer and then Ctrl+V on another one, it does not work the way I want, because the second computer has its own clipboard, independent of the clipboard the first computer has.

To solve this problem, I need to create a “shared” clipboard. In the past I used a little utility called Netclip, that did that for me: it used a shared folder as the storage for the shared clipboard, and whenever I wanted to copy something across the network, I would press Ctrl+Alt+C, to copy, and then moved to the second computer, pressed Ctrl+Alt+V there, and that would paste the result there. It worked well for years, but then Vista came along, and Netclip stopped working with it (and it did not seem like the Netclip developers were around anymore to release a new Vista-compatible version). So I started searching for a replacement, and tried a few other similar utilities, claiming the ability to share the clipboard between several computers. Unfortunately, none of them worked well.

Finally, some time ago I encountered a free tool called AutoHotkey (it’s a pity I did not discover it earlier, it would have saved me quite a lot of keystokes). In a nutshell, Aut0Hotkey enables you to create scripts to be executed when certain keys are pressed. There are plenty of examples at their web site of the scripts doing a lot of different things, check it out!

One of the first things I tried with AutoHotkey was to write a script that would emulate the functionality of the Netclip utility.The idea was as follows: I would set up a shared folder on one my computers that is turned on most of the time. Then I would set up two hot keys, one (Win+C) to copy whatever was currently selected to a file located in the shared folder, and the second key (Win+V) to read information from that file, and paste it into the clipboard.

After looking into the sample AutoHotkey scripts, I came up with the following script to emulate Netclip:

--- begin netclip.ahk ----

path := "\\your_computer\your_shared_folder\netclip.txt"
#C:: ; Win+C

AutoTrim Off  ; Retain any leading and trailing whitespace on the clipboard.

FileDelete, %path%
if (ErrorLevel > 0 ) ; could not delete the file
{
 MsgBox FileDelete failed for %path%
 return
}

Send ^c	; copy whatever it is to the clipboard
FileAppend, %ClipboardAll%, %path%

if (ErrorLevel > 0 ) ; could not write the file
{
 MsgBox FileAppend failed for %path%
 return
}
return

#V::	; Win+V

FileRead, Clipboard, *c %path%

if (ErrorLevel > 0 ) ; could not read the file
{
 MsgBox FileRead failed for %path%
 return
}

Send ^v	; paste whatever it is from the clipboard
return

--- end netclip.ahk ----

To use this script, copy the code between the dashed lines and save it to a text file named netclip.ahk (or whatever you want to name it, but keep its extension .ahk). The only thing that you need to modify in the script is the variable path that contains the location of the shared file to be used for the storage, at the very top of the script. Make sure the shared folder you use for storage is writable from other computers on your LAN.

If you have not done it yet, install AutoHotkey on each computer, and copy the script to each computer, too  (or put it into the shared folder itself). Create a shortcut to the script, and use it whenever you want to activate the shared clipboard. If you want it to be always active, add the shortcut to your Programs – Startup folder.
Now, whenever you want to copy some text to the shared clipboard, select it just as you would for the regular copy, but instead of Ctrl+C press Win+C. To paste it into another computer, go to that computer and instead of the usual Ctrt+V press Win+V. Yes, it’s that easy :-)

It works well for me, I hope it will work just as well for you, too. Happy copy-pasting, bye till next time. I’m off to finish my new product (stay tuned!).

Giving Mint.com a try

Productivity | Posted by AB
Mar 16 2008

One thing that is always scarce when running a small business is time. I’ve been constantly looking for tools and services that can automate some of the routine tasks I do, hoping that they would save me some extra time to spend on the more interesting activities. A few months ago I learned about one such service: Mint.com. The idea sounded quite interesting: you give it the login details to your online credit card and bank accounts, and it would keep track of them, giving you the high-level overviews, notifications of various events (such as when new bills become available), etc. Although it seemed somewhat risky to give a third party online service the login details to my financial accounts, the promise of the potential savings in time seemed significant enough, so I decided to give it a try.

The service was (and still is as of this writing) in a beta phase, so I expected a few hiccups now and then. To my surprise,the setup went rather smooth: after providing my login details to various bank and credit card accounts, Mint.com downloaded the transaction history for those accounts, and I could see my financial picture in one place. I liked it! When a new credit card bill became available, Mint.com would display a notification both on the online dashboard, and it would also send me an email message. That was the most useful feature of Mint.com for me, that would allow me to free myself from the regular routine of going through the bills every few days and checking their due dates. With Mint.com, I could just wait for an email notification to arrive, and when it did, I would open that online account directly, paid the bill, and forget about it till the next notification.

Well, a few minor hiccups did happen during the few months I was trying it. For example, it was supposed to automatically download the new transactions from my accounts at least once a day, but sometimes it would not update the history for 3 or 4 days. That was easy to fix by pressing the Update button on the Mint.com dashboard and force it to download the latest transactions. Sometimes it would characterize the transactions inaccurately (for example, it described payments for the web hosting service as travel expense). However, those were the minor things, and the primary function of Mint.com that I liked the most (keeping track of the credit card bills) seemed to work well.

Until last week.

Two new credit card bills arrived a few days ago and I was unpleasantly surprised to see the LATE FEE lines on each of them. Turns out Mint.com did not send me any notifications about them, even though I checked its dashboard almost daily. Now I’m stuck with two missed credit payments. Sigh…

I guess, the moral of this story is, I should not had trusted such an important procedure as keeping track of the credit card bills to a service in beta. For now, I’m going to close my Mint.com account, and set up the email notifications with each credit card company directly. Maybe I’ll give Mint.com another try when they end the beta period and start doing business “for real”.

I hope this story will help someone be more careful when trusting credit card bill payments to the third-party services.

A handy macro for Visual C++ developers: BuildStartupProject

Productivity, Programming | Posted by AB
Jan 26 2008

I can’t believe I did not know this before: it’s possible to set up Visual Studio to use F7 to build the startup project rather than the selected one!

As a matter of fact, that was the default behavior of the F7 key in Visual Studio 6.0, but then in Visual Studio .NET 2003 (or maybe even in 2002?) Microsoft decided to change it to build the selected project rather than the startup one. This change made the build process somewhat inconvenient: if I happened to work with a file that belonged to a DLL and pressed F7, that would build that particular DLL only, while I wanted to build the whole thing – the executable that links to the DLL. In order to do that, I would need to select the EXE project first, then press the F7 key. I don’t know how many microseconds I’ve wasted doing that.

I could have changed the behavior of the F7 key by binding it to the Build.BuildStartupProject command, but the problem was, Visual Studio did not have such a command! The only choices available were: BuildSelection, BuildSolution, and similar, but there was no command to build the startup project. That’s one more thing I cannot believe, that Microsoft has not added such a command for such a long time: it’s still not present in Visual Studio 2008, the latest version as of this writing.

Today, for some reason I got very annoyed by my inability to use the F7 key the way I wanted, so I decided to search for a solution on the Internet, and (miracle!) I’ve found it. I’ll kick myself for a long time for not trying to find it before.

Anyway, the solution is a simple three-line macro I found in the BorisJ’s blog:

Sub BuildStartupProject()

    Dim sb As SolutionBuild = DTE.Solution.SolutionBuild

    Dim projName As String = sb.StartupProjects(0)

    sb.BuildProject(sb.ActiveConfiguration.Name, projName, False)

End Sub

As soon as I added it to my custom macros list in Visual Studio, and assigned F7 to run that macro, I could build the current startup project no matter what file I was working with.

One problem I had with the macro was that it did not bring the output window to the foreground when starting the build process, so I added a line that does that.

Another problem was that when I wanted to build for a different platform (such as x64), the macro still compiled for Win32. So I fixed it a bit to make it compile for the correct platform.

Here is the resultant macro :

Sub BuildStartupProject()

    DTE.ExecuteCommand("View.Output")

    Dim sb As SolutionBuild = DTE.Solution.SolutionBuild

    Dim projName As String = sb.StartupProjects(0)

    sb.BuildProject(sb.ActiveConfiguration.Name + "|" + _
                    sb.ActiveConfiguration.PlatformName, projName, False)

End Sub

Hope this helps someone. Did I mention I can’t believe I have not found this solution long ago? :-)

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Virtually everything

Productivity, Programming | Posted by AB
Jan 15 2008

Being in the software business, I have to upgrade my main development machine rather often. When switching to a new computer, the most frustrating part of the process is setting it up just the way I like it. That means not only moving the source code and other files over, but also installing the applications I need, configuring their settings, fine-tuning their options to make they work just right. I used to spend at least a couple of days doing such tedious tasks, before I could start to actually work with the new computer.

A couple of years ago, when preparing to move to a yet another new computer, and remembering how depressing it was the previous time, I decided to try something new: instead of reinstalling all my development tools directly, I created a virtual machine in the new computer first, and then installed the applications and utilities inside of that virtual computer. From that time on, I work from within the virtual machine, using the real computer just as the host of the virtual one.

Now, a couple of years later, I can say that that was one of the best moves I’ve done that reduced my stress level and increased my productivity. I had to move to a new computer a couple of times after that, and when I did that, all I needed to do to recreate my familiar development environment was to install the virtual machine software, copy the virtual machine to the new computer, and presto – I was back in the game in no time at all. Another convenience was that whenever I went on a trip, all I needed to do to take my development shop with me was copy the virtual machine to the laptop, and I could keep working on my software projects while on the go!

Of course, going virtual for software development requires the host computer to have a fast processor and plenty of RAM (a fast hard drive does not hurt, too). My current host computer has 2 GB of RAM and uses a Core 2 Duo processor that provides hardware support for virtualization. That makes my software development application (Microsoft Visual Studio) to work within the virtual machine just as fast as within the real one. (At least that’s how it feels, I did not do any special timings).

I liked having an independent virtual machine for the software development so much that a bit later I’ve created a few more dedicated virtual machines to run other parts of my software business as well: one such machine contains all my web site development tools and applications, including a local web server running the local copy of my web sites. Another virtual machine is dedicated to keeping the database of the customers, bookkeeping software, and other related tools.

In case you’ve spent the last few years on the moon and are not familiar with the virtual machine software, you can get started by taking a look at Microsoft Virtual PC and/or VMWare Server: both are easy to set up and use, both are free, both have good performance. VMWare Server offers more flexibility in the virtual machine configuration, and it provides support for the USB devices, while Virtual PC is easier to setup and use. I use both Virtual PC and VMWare Server, but I could not get them both to work on the same computer at the same time: if one of them was running, then an attempt to start the other one caused the host computer to crash. However, using them one at a time or on different host computers caused no problems.

One drawback of setting up the virtual machines is that many software vendors treat them like separate physical computers, and if you have purchased a one-computer license, you may not be allowed to install separate copies of the software in several virtual machines, even if they operate on the same physical host computer. I find such restrictions quite annoying. (They are the relicts from the old pre-virtual computing days). If you have a software tool that you must install in more than one virtual machine, check its license agreement, and if you find that you are not allowed to use the software in several virtual machines, contact the vendor and ask them to reconsider their license terms. If enough of us start demanding it, they may actually do that.