Saturday, May 27, 2006

Don’t force it, get a bigger hammer

I have to confess that many years of using Macs, combined with a monkey curiousity that led to deep familiarity with the platform, has spoiled me: when my computer should be able to do something, I expect it to Just Work because it almost always does. And I get annoyed if it doesn’t.

The latest example began last weekend. Exploring the 43folders site, I found a clever little kit called the Hipster PDA. Like most geeks, I like low-tech when it works, and this is as low-tech as it gets: a build-your-own personal data assistant consisting of a stack of index cards and a binder clip. Sitting in the living room with the iBook, I thought to myself, “I’d like to try that. I wonder if I could find some index cards around here.” Then I glanced over at the lamp table, and lo! a stack of index cards, left there by someone and never put away, awaited. Figuring this was a Sign From Above, I put down the laptop and located a binder clip.

With a place to keep ideas, project tasks, and miscellaneous to-dos, my brain started suddenly remembering things I wanted to do around FAR Manor (and work) at odd moments. I could just whip out a pen and my stack, jot it down, and move on. I wound up with a rather intimidating shipping list for Home Depot, and a longer list of stuff to do around the house than I really wanted to recognize. I soon needed expansion memory (i.e. more index cards), and found the supply cabinet at work has both color and regular cards. Having found a useful way to capture and remember all those little things that could be done later, I started looking at it a little deeper, thinking about accessories (this is how male geeks keep in touch with our inner female: we accessorize our gadgets, not our wardrobe). Oh cool, how about some templates to print on the index cards?

So I downloaded the PDF, grabbed a handful of blank index cards, fired up Preview, and tried printing a few pages. The laser printer dutifully sucked in the cards, and spit them out — still blank. Suddenly realizing I needed to create a 3x5 page size, I did so and tried again... with the same results as before.

I went into full-blown troubleshooting mode at this point, trying all sorts of different things including installing new printer drivers and trying a different printer. Nothing worked, although at one point I managed to get the first two inches of a page to print at the bottom two inches of the card. It got late, and I gave up for a night that turned into a week.

Some time during the week, a thought hit me: if I could get the image to print at the top-center of the page, it should print on the card. I knew of two ways to make that happen — import each image into a page layout program by hand, one at a time, or use good old groff to do it all for me at once.
For those of you who aren’t familiar with *roff or other batch-style formatters, that’s the way most of us produced complex documents before 1990 or so. For books, or collections of books, not even the best GUI programs can yet match the capabilities of groff, and don’t even come close to matching their speed or efficiency. I’ve actually turned back to using groff at work because even FrameMaker is too slow and clunky to do what I need nowadays.

Once I hit on that idea, I had my printed cards in a few minutes. I opened a Terminal window and began the incantations:

$ pdf2ps diyp3h_core_1up.pdf
$ for (( i=1; i<=84; ++i )); do
> psselect -p${i} pg${i}.ps
> eps2eps pg${i}.ps pg${i}.eps
> rm pg${i}.ps
> done

Now I had 84 EPS files, one for each page in the PDF file. To do anything with them, I had to create a file of groff commands to put each index card at the top of an otherwise blank page:

$ ls *.eps | awk '{print ".bp"; print ".PSPIC $0";}' >cards.t

I opened the PDF, identified cards I didn’t want to print (and those I wanted multiple copies of), and edited cards.t accordingly. Finally, I stuck the cards in the printer and typed:

$ groff cards.t | lpr

The first couple of cards came out crooked, until I squeezed the paper guides together a little more tightly. My Hipster upgrade was quickly ready; now I just need some time to copy the data over....


  1. LOL ... I've got a HPDA too ... via 43Folders.

    Actually, I just picked up a moleskine accordion file, index card sized two nights ago. I'm going to experiment w/ that instead of the ring.

    And I was never able to print the DIY cards and gave up. I'm impressed w/ your know how ... :)

    Have you spent any time at the D*I*Y Planner? I love looking at the pix of all the different HPDAs.

  2. Hi Olivia!
    I looked for a moleskine when we were in Office Max over the weekend, but didn't see them (if they even have any). I'm already hitting the capacity of the small binder clip, so I need to either do enough of the backed-up projects to where I can toss a few cards, or use a medium clip before too long.

    Hey, if you want any of the forms as EPS format, let me know & I'll zip them up and email them to you. You probably noticed that one of the forms is a photographic release. ;-)

    I've looked over the other Hipsters, but only briefly. I need to check them out more thoroughly.

  3. Umm ... what's EPS and no, I didn't notice that photographic release ... LOL. I don't even know what that means. So, I think I'd like to have a copy but I'm not sure what form it would be in or if it would solve my printing problems LOL! :)

  4. Heh. EPS is Encapsulated PostScript, a pretty standard "draw" type format. You can pull it into most word processing and page-layout programs (Word kind of supports it, although it has its problems, like anything else to do with Word).

    In this case, you need to center one card horizontally on a letter-sized page and drag it all the way to the top of the page. Your printer will probably start printing about 1/8 inch from the top of the page (index card), which will put it in the right place vertically.

    Like I said, if you want to give it a try let me know.


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