Bob and Joy
     By Bob and Joy Schwabach

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December 2002, Week 3 -- What About Sam?





   After we reviewed and praised the new Alpha 5 database for Windows, a reader wrote and asked: "what about "askSam?" So we took a new look at a database we reviewed 15 years ago.

   Curiously enough, askSam has been around as long as Alpha and like that one, is among the very few office programs to survive from the early days of desktop computers. They share some of the same characteristics, the most important being ease of use. For reasons that have always bothered me, many programs became harder to use as computers became more powerful and their use more widespread. The main reason is that increased computing speed and memory allowed software makers to stuff programs with a bewildering array of features, most of which are seldom used or wanted by anybody. (They do it to have something new to sell. This seems to work. Many times I have recommended to someone that they get an older version of a program because it was "bullet-proof," as the expression goes, but they nearly always shrugged off my suggestion and said they wanted only the latest thing. Oh, well.)


   AskSam has always been easy to navigate and a star at speedy sorting. You can bring email messages and email attachments into askSam and the program will treat them as database files, which you can then search by keyword. You can do wild-card searches -- things like "find *.ltr," which will bring up all the letters saved with that ending; you don't have to try and remember who they were for or who wrote them.


   The program strips the formatting from incoming data, so email attachments in Adobe PDF format, for example, will appear as just text. The original document, however, will be embedded or linked, so anyone who needs to see the document exactly as it first appeared -- a lawyer, for instance -- can click on that link and get it.


   AskSam searches use "fuzzy logic" and can find the right material even if you misspelled the search terms. You can also ask for searches of a key word that probably appears near another word you name. This is hugely useful is you can only recall that a document you need to find has something about "clothing" and "Hong Kong" but can't remember anything else about it.


   This is a very nice program, but not the same as a full-featured database like Alpha, Access or FileMaker Pro. There are no field rules, for example, which would prevent data entry errors. A simple example would be entering number value or date information: field rules can prohibit entering anything that wasn't a date in the "date" field, or entering just letters in a number or price field. Field rules can also be used to simplify and speed data entry. If I enter a zip code in my Alpha database, for example, the program automatically fills in the town, state and country. Data entry of names, titles and companies can be done without once hitting shift key to create capitals, because Alpha 5 will automatically capitalize the first letters of each word. (It also capitalizes the "a" in askSam, though technically it shouldn't.)


   In the racetrack world they call it "horses for courses," meaning that some horses seem to run best at certain tracks. So different databases tend to work best for certain situations. This one works best for people who want it simple and fast. The regular version of askSam lists for $149, the pro version for $395, at the company web site There is a free trial version.


Organizing email

   Nelson Email Organizer -- "neo," as the maker calls it, is a nice tool for Microsoft Outlook users who want to save some time by organizing their email. Incoming mail is sorted by sender, subject or date.

   Thus you can have "today's mail" or "this week's mail" or just the mail from a particular sender or relating to your business. Junk mail is sorted into a file that can be browsed or dumped. You can do all this yourself but this little utility does it lightning fast. It's $30 from and works only with Microsoft Outlook, not Outlook Express. The risk in all filtering programs is that they sometimes strain out useful mail because it came from an unidentified source.

  Earth & Beyond

Games people play, or not

    "Earth and Beyond" has been the most heavily promoted game of the year. It's what sci-fi fans call a "space opera" and it's by subscription. Game makers hope this is a trend. The marketing theory is simple enough: you pay $40 or $50 for the game initially, and then pay $10 a month for as long as you're hooked. Play for a year and you're going to spend more than $150 for that game; some people will play for several years.


   The trouble with the theory is the implementation. Earth and Beyond has beautiful graphics but is ultimately boring. A much better game was begun three years ago under the creative direction of science fiction author Alan Dean Foster, but was ultimately discontinued because the demand didn't live up to the cost of production. Subscription games are expensive.

  Windows XP Annoyances



   "Windows XP Annoyances," by David Karp; $30, O'Reilly O'Reilly's has published several books on "Annoyances" for most versions of Windows. Every operating system has annoying features and you can go to their web site to see if they have a book covering yours.

   NOTE: Readers can search nearly four years of columns at the "On Computers" web site: You can e-mail Bob Schwabach at or