Time for bits and pieces, items of information that don't fall into any particular category but are still nice to know about.
Neat printer tricks: I'm a sucker for software that lets you do cool things with your printer. This one came along just a few weeks before the PTA asked me to design an eight-page program for my son Ben's graduation exercises.
Projects like these aren't as easy as you might think if you're using standard word processing software, because a graduation program, like any booklet, requires that you figure out which page is going where when everything gets folded over.
For example, to produce an eight-page booklet, you have to set up your program to print in landscape mode, then juggle things so that Pages 1 and 8 are on one sheet, Pages 2 and 7 are on the other, and so on. This makes it particularly difficult to start something on one page and continue it on another.
Enter Make-a-Booklet from Paper Direct, available in Microsoft Windows and Macintosh versions. It turns virtually any document created with your normal word processor or desktop publishing program into a neatly-arranged booklet -- no fuss, no muss, no sticky mess.
The software (a specially packaged version of T/Maker's ClickBook) sets itself up as a printer driver. Use your normal word processing software, with a normal page size and orientation. When you're ready for output, choose the ClickBook printer from your Windows setup menu or Macintosh Chooser, then hit the Print button.
Up pops a window giving you a choice of 20 popular booklet formats in a variety of sizes. You can set things up to print on one side of the page or both and preview your booklet before you commit it to paper.
Make-a-Booklet automatically repaginates your document and scales your fonts and graphics down to match the size of the printed page, which is a nifty piece of programming magic. For more complicated formats, the software also prints out folding and cutting instructions.
Getting things to look right does take a little tweaking. For example, you may want to set your word processor's margins a little smaller than normal and make your typefaces a little larger to make them readable when they're reduced on printout.
But it does work, and with remarkably little hassle. If you're ever called on to do booklets, the $49.95 price tag is a bargain. The package includes 10 fonts, word processing templates for six of Paper Direct's colorful preprinted papers and samples. For information, contact Paper Direct, 205 Chubb Ave., Lyndhurst, N.J., or call 1-800-A-PAPERS.
Cash for Cache: My techie friends have taken me to task for failing to mention the importance of memory cache in a column on buying a heavy-duty computer system.
They're right -- cache is important, and well worth the extra money for a system that has it. But beware, because some ads and brochures that talk about cache are deliberately misleading.
An external memory cache is a small bank (128K or 256K) of super-high speed memory chips connected directly to your system's microprocessor. When your processor needs to fetch a piece of data from relatively slow regular memory, it actually grabs a much bigger chunk than it needs and stores the whole thing in the high speed cache.
Since memory accesses are typically close to one another, there's a good chance the processor can find the next piece of data it needs in the cache, instead of wandering all the way back to the computer's main memory bank. It's like filling an ice bucket and putting it on the dinner table so you don't have to walk to the refrigerator every time you need an ice cube.
An well-designed external cache can speed up your computer significantly. But be careful. The 80486DX microprocessors in many computers have their own 8K cache on the chip. That's one of the design features that makes the 486 faster than older processors, but it's no substitute for an external cache. If you see a computer advertised with an 8K cache, the seller is probably trying to cash in on the chip itself, instead of supplying a real (and more expensive) cache.
Still alive: A while back I waxed nostalgic about my first foray into computing, more than a decade ago, with a Radio Shack Color Computer. Equipped with an advanced Motorola 6809 processor, the old CoCo was a wonderful machine -- quite powerful for its day. But thanks to the Shack's marketing ineptitude, it was never as popular as its contemporaries, the Commodore 64 and Apple II.
Nonetheless, the CoCo attracted a loyal following (I collected three of them over the years), and many mourned in 1989 when Radio Shack succumbed to the inevitable and gave up on the machine five in favor of IBM compatibility.
Like most CoCo users, I had already turned my attention to the more powerful PC by the time the CoCo was discontinued, and I was under the impression that most of the old machines, like mine, were gathering dust in basements.
So I was surprised and delighted this week when I got a call from Rick Cooper, a school principal from Kentucky who publishes a monthly disk-based magazine for die-hard Color Computer fans. Apparently, there's still a community of enthusiasts. If you're one of them and you're looking for information and software, contact Rick's Computer Enterprise, P.O. Box 276, Liberty, Ky. 42539.
Title of the Month: To Strategic Simulations Inc. for its latest offering, a simulation of European feudalism. The name of the program: Serf City (or, Life is Feudal).
OK, I'm a sucker for bad puns, too. But the silly name and cute little serf (maybe we should call him a Smerf) on the box are part of an interesting, absorbing and graphically pleasing simulation that puts you in charge of a feudal village.
You rule a community of farmers, miners, blacksmiths, bakers, construction workers and other (allegedly) happly workers, and your job is to build houses and shops, expand agriculture and compete with neighboring serfdoms.
My older son, Ike, a simulation maven, gives this one his coveted "pretty cool" rating. The program runs on IBM-compatible computers. For information, contact Strategic Simulations, 675 Almanor Ave., Sunnyvale, Calif. 94086.
Michael J. Himowitz is a staff writer for The Baltimore Sun.