CCH and Browser Requirements

Had an interesting back and forth with CCH on the browser requirements with their new tax research software. Their system requirements page lists as required Windows 98/2000/XP/Vista and Internet Explorer 6/7. If those were truly the requirements I would have to cancel out my CCH subscription.

Why? I have a policy in my office of not allowing users generally to run Internet Explorer due to the huge security problem that has been (and to some extent continues to be) ActiveX. The concept is so fundamentally flawed that it simply, in my view, rules out the use of IE by anyone not highly technically skilled.

That is, my users can’t reliably make the call on whehter or not it’s OK to allow an ActiveX control to be installed. As well, the fact that virtually any DLL will be loaded up by IE as an ActiveX control is a big security hole–hackers discover problems in programs that were never meant to be run as an ActiveX control and then use IE to run those programs and exploit their weaknesses.

As well, I do tax research on my portable devices (iPod Touch and Blackberry)–and those don’t run Internet Explorer, but they are rather dominant business portable devices. Losing that access would frankly be totally unacceptable.

I wrote CCH about this requirement and discovered, as I suspected, this was just a “suggestion” and that, in fact, Firefox runs it just fine. That’s not suprising, since the current CCH research system requirements exclude Vista. But it is disquieting, since it means CCH has reserved the right to simply foist blame on Firefox for any of their glitches, rather than recognizing that a significant and growing component of the market uses Firefox.

Of course, given the history they can (and likely would) do the same thing with Windows 7 and Internet Explorer 8, even though those will likley be the standard Microsoft shipping setup shortly after they’ve rolled out the new software.

Producing a Weekly Church Podcast

I’ve been involved impossible assembling up the weekly podcast at Prince of Peace Lutheran Church in Phoenix for the last couple of years and I thought it might be useful for others thinking of doing this to see what we do.

We look to publish only the sermon since that avoids all the issues involved with rights for music. As well, it’s a lot tougher to properly record music as opposed to spoken words.

The sermon is recorded off the church’s standard audio output. We now have a dedicated digital audio recorder but until recently we were just taking a plain audio out line to a laptop computer with Audacity handling the recording itself. The old method actually worked surprisingly well though the unshielded output does pick up buzzes from time to time. But that problem is relatively easily fixed in final production.

The first step in final production is to clean up the audio. I use a combination of the open source Audacity editor, the Conversations Network’s Levelator and the commercial program SoundSoap 2 for noise removal. Audacity actually can handle noise removal on its own and while I have a slight preference for Sound Soap’s quality, if I didn’t need it for other nonchurch work I’d likely stick with Audacity alone.

The raw recording is first cut to include only the sermon using Audacity. I then export to a WAV file and give it to the Levelator. That program helps assure we get a more consistent volume throughout the sermon, even if the speaker doesn’t keep a constant distance from the mike.

Once the levels are set, I think run the file through SoundSource to eliminate relatively constant background noise. It gives a bit of “cleaner” sound to the resulting audio.

We have a standard intro and closing that we have already recorded for each podcast, and those exist as an Audacity “project” file we use as the starting point for each Sunday’s podcast. We have the intro and closings as separate tracks in Audacity and they can be moved independently–useful since no two sermons are exactly the same length.

I then use the import function in Audacity to bring the sermon into the week’s project file. At that point it’s simply a matter of moving the segments into proper position. Once that is done we are ready to export to MP3.

One additional piece of software has to be obtained to export to MP3 from Audacity–but it’s free. You need to get the Lame MP3 encoder and then tell Audacity in its preferences where the file is located (it’s a licensing issue, which is why Audacity can’t ship with it). We export our MP3 at 64Kbps mono, which will give the same sound quality as 128K stereo (what became the defacto standard for music until recently).

The completed file is brought into iTunes to add a graphic that appears on iPods, and you can insert the other information (name of the week’s podcast, name of the podcast, the speaker’s name, etc.) in iTunes as well. You do that by simply starting to play the file in iTunes, stop the play and then hit either Control-i (Windows) or Command-i (OSX). You can then add the appropriate “extra” information.

We use Liberated Syndication to host our podcast. They offer relatively low cost plans that don’t have a bandwidth cap (a key advantage if one podcast episode suddenly get linked to by a popular site). Their $5 per month plan is more than sufficient for a weekly sermon. The cap they do impose is on data stored for the current month–outside one month, even the storage is unlimited.


A Computer Inventory

Decided it was time to inventory the PCs around me–and noticed we’ve accumulated a number of Macs these days.

My office actually has more Macs than anything else, which is a bit unusual for a CPA firm. We run Windows in virtual machines on them, but it allows us to use OSX for browsing and the like, while using Windows for the tax applications.

My partners and our full time staff have iMacs. I have a MacBook Pro and we have a MacBook that we use as a road machine. In addition we have some more “traditional” CPA firm computers–we have three Dells desktops around for various purposes.

At home and on the road I most often have the MacBook Pro with me. In addition we have a bit of a collection–one iMac, two Mac Minis (one Intel based and one PowerPC), an aluminum MacBook and two iBooks. As well, I have the Asus eeePC netbook running Linux.

The mix of computers means I run a bunch of operating systems, bouncing constantly between OSX (Leopard and Tiger), Windows XP, Windows Vista, Windows 7 and, on the eeePC, Xandros Linux. Each one has things it excels at, and items for which it is less than optimal.

The one real constant across the OSs I run is Firefox–it is my browser of choice in each of them.


Traveling with a Netbook

One of the most useful little technology tools I’ve picked up this past year is the Asus Eee PC, an early netbook. I have the Eee PC 4G Surf, which runs a variant of Linux (Xandros modified by Asus) which comes with a whopping 4 gigabyte flash “hard” drive, a 7″ screen and a similarly small keyboard.

I actually can live with the keyboard, and the screen has proven to work for me as well. I have used OpenOffice.org before (the office suite on the system) and so didn’t have a learing curve there–and I always use Firefox (I do not run Internet Explorer on my systems for anything except things like Windows Update–ActiveX is simply too dangerous for me to work with it–and there’s nothing like NoScript for IE) so the browser wasn’t a problem.

The size is a huge advantage on an airplane where I can easily edit a document or spreadsheet and still have lots of room on the tray in front of me.  It also got along well with my Verizon 3G USB cellular modem after a little digging using Google–it actually took less time to set up than the same modem did under OSX and Windows.

Amazon has it right now for around $285, which makes it relatively cheap. It also has been quite the conversation starter.  While the limited space means it won’t work as a primary PC, it’s more than powerful enough for the type of office work most of us need to do–and especially what I need to do on a plane.

It fills a niche between the iPod Touch (great web browser) and Blackberry (great email tool) and the full laptop–when I need more power or flexibility than the small devices provide but don’t want to deal with the overhead of the larger devices–especially since the Eee PC boots in seconds, while OSX and, especially, Windows take a lot longer to be ready to go.