Ponderances of Steve

August 5, 2012

12 Most Must-Have Free Utilities for Wrangling Text Files

Filed under: gtd,Reviews,Writing — Steve LeBlanc @ 3:14 pm

I love text files. Unlike an MS Word document, text files contain no formatting, which makes them smaller, easier to search and faster to open. They commonly have a file extension of .txt or .log. (Click here to show file extensions on your system.) I use text files all the time. For writing, for lists, links and reminders, for activity logs, and on rare occasions, for programming. I create them, search for them, manipulate them and play with them. While Windows does allow for text files, it sort of treats them like neglected step children, used mostly for batch files (small programs), log files and ReadMe files. Windows prefers to think about proprietary files, like Word and Excel documents. File search in Windows 7 will only look in approved directories. Well, I enter all my articles in a text editor (not a Word Processor). I save files in funny places and I search for them often. I needed better tools than Windows offered and I found them. Most are small, brilliant and portable, (no-install, just unzip and use, with no menu items or registry changes). Any one of these could lighten your workload. So jump right in and give one a try. You’ll find help pages on most of them. At the very least, install Win32pad and Everything file finder, both suitable for newbies. The following are listed in order of increasing geekiness.

1. Win32pad http://www.gena01.com/win32pad/download.shtml

Win32pad is a must-have replacement for the crippled Windows text editor, Notepad. Killer features include: a) full compatibility with Notepad; b) Exit on Esc; c) Auto-indent; d) highlighted, clickable links on well-formed URLs, like http:// and file:// ; and e) File Change alert (when another program modifies an open file, aka Dirty File notification).

2. Everything http://www.voidtools.com/

Everything is a file finder. Search Google for “everything” and you will find the coolest file finder in the world. Everything, by VoidTools, offers AJAX-like find capacity. (Search results populate down as you type.) But unlike the Find box in the Windows Start menu, Everything can find every single occurrence of files on your computer. There are options to include or exclude certain files, file types or whole folders. Search Results include: Name, Path, Size, Date Modified. No one who uses it can ever go back to plain old Windows Search.

3.  BareGrep http://www.baremetalsoft.com/

Baregrep lets you search inside all your files for a word or phrase found inside any of them. It then returns not only the filenames, but also shows you the word in context of each line in which it was found. Thus you see how many times that word showed up in each document. While this works best for text files, it works adequately for Word documents if you just disregard the formatting characters found at the beginning of each search result line. This makes it easy to find stuff when you don’t remember what a file is called. You can think of BareGrep as the Everything tool for looking inside of files for words and phrases.

While Windows offers something similar in its Search box, you have to open every file it offers to see how the phrase shows up in the context of the file. With BareGrep, it’s right there in the Results panel. But what makes it amazing is that it allows you to search on powerful text patterns called Regular Expressions (RegEx). With them, you can search for all lines in all files that contain, for example, a date in any format (12/02/99, 99.12.02, 2 December 1999, or 2 Dec 1999). From the Search results, you can double click on any line to open the source file. While visiting their site, be sure to click on Regex Reference, or learn about Regular Expressions online. Unbelievably useful! (For geeks, this is a GUI version of the grep command.)

BareGrep TIP: While the configuration settings are not sticky (remembered in next session), you can set some command line options in a Windows shortcut to the program, things like default directory. For you geeks, here’s the Target field of my BareGrep shortcut: “D:\Program Files\Util\baregrep.exe” -i -d D:\ ” a ” *.txt This says to launch BareGrep with Ignore Case, Default Folder of D:\, Files type of *.txt and default Text search of ” a “. As I type in new text, it automatically begins to search.

4.  xPlorer2 http://zabkat.com/x2lite.htm

xPlorer2 is a dual-pane, multi-tab file manager to replace the more confusing Windows Explorer. It’s a joy to use and feature-rich. I normally keep two panes open, with 3-5 tabs each. While the Lite version uses the Windows Search command by default, you can change that in Advanced Options or use the better Find utility that comes in the Pro version. There is extensive Help, including great screencasts. A file manager is used to view and play with your files. You can run program installers that you have downloaded or copy files from one folder to another. Or you can rename and move the file attachments from an email that were stored in your Download folder.

xPlorer2 TIP: Check the option in Help / How do I? to see tutorials, but be sure to uncheck it when done. When you click on Help / Contents, you get prompted to download the PDF Help file, xplorer² PDF manual. Unzip it and place it in the program directory of xPlorer2. Unfortunately, the download page for the xplorer2 Help file is confusing. Be sure to click on the top right Download link. Configuration TIP: Be sure to check the following: Tools / Options / Window / Tree / Keep Synchronized with folder in active view pane. For a simpler file manager, more like Windows Explorer in XP, you might prefer CubicExplorer, a nice single-pane file manager with tabs. I found some of the configurations to be confusing. But it’s real easy to use. And the tabs are great.

5.  PNotes http://pnotes.sourceforge.net/index.php

Ever need to write down a quick note while working on other things? PNotes is a sticky note utility, allowing you to create lots of notes on your screen, which can later be dismissed or saved at TXT or RTF files. You can even launch timed reminder notes. I use this program to pop up at regular intervals (15 min) to ask me, “What are you working on? Is there a higher priority?”. My answer goes into my ActivityLog.txt file. I open the file directly from the note by double clicking on the space that follows this line file://D:\dat\ActivityLog.txt. You can set this file to anything you want, as long as there are no spaces in the filepath. Clickable http:// and file:// links (like those in Win32pad) are great in timed reminder notes. Alternatively you could use Stickies which is much like Pnotes.

6.  TyperTask http://www.vtaskstudio.com/support.php

TyperTask is a portable*, tiny (53k) “text expander” utility, to replace repetitive cut and pastes. It works like AutoCorrect or AutoText in MS Word. But it works in every browser, text editor and text box in Windows. The replacement text is triggered by assignment to either configurable keywords or hotkeys. So, you would set a keyword to autoexpand into some block of plain text, such as a signature line in an email. It comes with an adequate Help file. Configuring it is a snap. Alternatively, you might like HotkeyP  HotkeyP is a tiny, portable hotkey manager. Assign a keyboard shortcut or mouse shortcut to any executable file, block of text, document, folder or web page. Harder to configure with poor help file, but worth it. I set my Right-Left mouse clicks (rocker action) to go Back in any browser. And Left-Right to go Forward.

TyperTask TIP: make sure you choose unique keywords, ones you don’t normally use while typing. TyperTask compares to much larger progams, like PhraseExpress (4 mb) and ActiveWords (22 mb) which have the added feature of saving formatting. *TyperTask TIP: As a “portable application,” you will need to unzip this file folder into some trusted place, like a newly created folder called Utils. Create Utils under the Programs folder and unzip this file into there, resulting in this: C:\program files\Utils\TyperTask

Note: A regular (non-portable) program comes with its own installer, which when run, puts the files in the correct folder and places entries into the Start menu and registry. A portable program can be installed onto a USB or external drive, which can then be used on any machine. Or it can be put into any folder of your computer. It makes no changes to the system registry.

7.  Keynote NF http://code.google.com/p/keynote-nf/

Keynote NF is the evolution of Tranglos Keynote (by Marek Jedlinski), with New Features. It’s a hierarchical note taking utility with RTF formatting, much like an editor. It’s amazing for those who think in hierarchies. Killer features include: a) Tie any note to an external txt file. b) Clipboard Capture feature that, when enabled, auto appends to the active note every single time you copy something to the clipboard with Ctrl-C, without ever having to change apps and hit Paste. It’s great for copying lots of text clips or quotes from web pages. For a bit simpler interface, try TreePad Lite  Or you might prefer a webapp for this, like EverNote.com  but it’s slower.

8.  Notepad2 http://code.google.com/p/notepad2-mod/

Notepad2 is another Notepad replacement, available in several different flavors, but geared more towards programmers. This version includes these options: Exit on Esc, File Change Notification and Bookmarks (for jumping back and forth to different locations in the file). For programmers it includes: Syntax Highlighting (color coded keywords in program files), Code-Folding, Highlight Current Line, View Line numbers and Regular Expression search. Plus it will highlight all occurrences of any selected phrase. I love that. Unfortunately, it does not support clickable URLs. That would be a deal breaker, unless I happen to need the bookmarks, which are fun. Choose the first download (.exe) for a regular Windows installer, or use the .zip file for a portable, hand install. (Drop it in your Utils directory and create a shortcut to it.) Then spend some time configuring the Settings and View menus.

9.  Notepad++ http://notepad-plus-plus.org/

Notepad++ is a great programmers editor, but you don’t need to be a programmer to benefit from it. While it does make writing computer code a joy (compared to Notepad), writers will appreciate its many features: a) MDI tabbed editor for multiple documents and session management; b) Regular Expression (RegEx) Search & Replace; c) Select any word and all occurrences of that word are highlighted; and d) Column Mode Select allows for Block Cut & Paste. Say you want to cut all the http:// off the front of each line in the file. Or paste a preface to each line, all at once. Hard to explain without seeing it. There are countless text manipulation commands, like Convert Case and Join Lines, and lots of Plugins. And the program is in constant development. Alternatively you might like PSPad, another great programmers editor.

10.  Programmer’s Notepad http://www.pnotepad.org/

Programmer’s Notepad is an adequate editor for programming. But it is great for those who want to write notes and articles in a text editor, rather than a word processor like MS Word. Features: a) MDI tabbed editor; b) grep-like feature of showing all the lines in the active file that contain a text string; and c) remembers all files that were loaded in last session.

11.  TextView http://www.flos-freeware.ch/archive.html

TextView is a great text file viewer. Nice when you just need to quickly peek inside lots of text files. You can page through a number of files with a single click at a time, one after the other. With another click, you can launch the default editor for the active file (in my case, Win32pad). It is a two-pane viewer. In the left pane is a list of files in the current directory. In the right pane, is the contents of the file you clicked on, looking much like it would in an editor. The benefit is you don’t have to open and close all those files when you are just looking for something. And there is no risk of making any changes to the file. It also allows for Exit on Esc key, one of my favorite features. Plus it’s small and portable.

12.  WinMerge 2.12.4 http://winmerge.org/

WinMerge is “Text Diff engine.” When you need to know if two files are identical, you could use the COMP command-line utility that comes with Windows. But when you actually need to see what has changed, say between two versions, you need a strong file compare utility for Text Differences. WinMerge is a two-pane file viewer, with one file in each pane. This utility allows you to compare two versions of a document, in order to see the differences. It will show line by line comparisons, with different color fonts showing the differences. Includes option Browse the file directory for each file, or Drag & Drop the filename and path from Windows Explorer. And allows for Esc to Exit the program. Alternatively you might like the Text Diff feature in PSPad, another excellent programmer’s editor.

Bonus Section: Not exactly text utilities but very useful.

*   Greenshot screen capture http://sourceforge.net/projects/greenshot/

Greenshot is a fabulous screen capture utility, allowing you to select the area of the screen you want, and add text, arrows, highlighter, obfuscater, all before you even save the file. Even the Help file is excellent. Give it a quick read. Or hit PrntScreen and Drag to select and play. The download also comes as an Installer or a portable zip version. I suspect that even the zip file install modifies the registry some, as it adds a hook to PrntScreen. Small at 1mb and well designed. All my favorite things. If I were to create a screen capture program from scratch, this is how I’d do it. Perfect for those who write tutorials. But for faster auto-save of lots of screenshots, you might prefer MWSnap.exe

*   KeePass http://keepass.info/download.html

Some folks keep their passwords in text files, some on scraps of paper, neither of which is very secure. KeePass is a popular password database that sits on your PC. Save all your passwords in a single password protected, encrypted database file. Also allows for some automated logins and auto insert of key text, like Username and Password on web forms. Easy to use (except for the automation) and allows you to “Export to text file.” Or you might prefer the webapp LastPass.com for saving your passwords “in the cloud,” meaning online.

Text files, they aren’t just for geeks anymore. Or maybe you’re geekier than you think. Every one of these makes far more sense when you see a screenshot of the utility. So feel free to visit each site. Best of all, every one is FREE. What are some of your favorite text utilities?

November 25, 2011

How I Quit and Unquit NaNoWriMo

Filed under: Writing — Steve LeBlanc @ 3:19 pm


I’d had a few days of abject depression and defeat, having given up on my #NaNoWriMo novel. Why? Because I was getting too upset about the theme on which the novel was built, namely that there is some benevolent reason for all the really bad crap in history. All that bad stuff I was looking at to create the backstory was getting me really worked up. On a good day, any one of those issue will put some stress on me. But these were not good days. I was not able to add enough words to my chapter to make my word count for two days in a row. And I was doing all sorts of research to find good sources. The effect was to trigger lots of upsetting issues on a bad week, pushing me into overwhelm.

So just stop, I thought. Just give up the #NaNoWriMo contest. I won it last year, so it’s not like I don’t know if I can do it. And besides, I don’t have that many people rooting for me this year. Less than a handful would even notice if I never finished. I was even disappointed at the lack of support from my twitter followers when I’d post my word count. So go ahead. Quit. Much as I hated to quit this one, it was best for my mental health. It was the right thing to do. When my chiropractor (one of the five people who knew) asked why I quit, I replied simply that I didn’t like the ending. It was concise and accurate. I could not think of an ending to the story I was building that I actually liked. I knew it had to be a big ending, but I couldn’t make it work. For me, that lead to running out of words.

So I put it away. I worked on the forgiveness of self. I tried to explore the peace of having nothing urgent in my life that needed doing. It was challenging and required some effort not to fill the space with busy work and distractive stuff. Just rest. Just relax. Just forgive.

But I kept returning to the the story in my mind, looking for some ending that would be more palatable, more believable, one I actually liked. It was not done with the intention of finishing the novel. It was more the automatic workings of my brain to solve the puzzle. And if perchance I could find a decent ending, then maybe I would return to writing it. Someday. I’d love to finish the competition, and the novel, which are two very different things. I only needed 8,000 more words to win the 50,000 words required in the competition. But the novel needed another 30-40,000 words. And if it turned out to be a good novel, worthy of getting published, that would be fabulous.

So after a dreary day, with an early bedtime, interrupted by neighbor’s TV she’d fallen asleep on, I woke on the fourth day of not writing with something of a clear head. I started to get some idea kicking around that might work, but nothing concrete. I dashed off to do some errands and the ideas began to crystallize. I was not sure I could fix it, but at least I had a place to start. I had words to write.

It was turning out to be a smart day. And it was not likely to last long. I needed to use it wisely. After 4 days, I had unquit NaNoWriMo.

It is worth noting that I had violated the primary purpose of #NaNoWriMo, which is to write with abandon, without concern for how the story works. When we removed the pressure of perfectionism and seriousness, we are free to write more. And writing more teaches us to write with abandon. As usual, I took it far too seriously. Last year, I was wise enough to agree to try to write 50,000 words of a bad novel. Sure it was flawed, but I learned a lot last year that made this novel better. Still, I need to learn to write with abandon.

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