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Overseer

by Ron C. Golden

Copyright © 1994-96 Ron C. Golden

Windows is the future!

That talk constricts my sphincter. Especially when it comes from "experts" who ought to know better. As I recall, these perceptive band wagon jumpers were unanimously hailing CPM as "the disk operating system of the future" when it suddenly dried up and blew away.

Maybe if I felt flushing money down a toilet was chic, I might like Windows better. Just maybe. God's gift to IBM PCs and compatibles reminds me too much of another classic status symbol, the pink 1959 Cadillac El Dorado convertible. Both are flashy, practical as platinum running shoes and gobble up money faster than an ogre with a tapeworm. The only big difference is Windows keeps getting worse with each new version in these same old ways.

Windows may be an okay graphics interface for running a few applications and has become indispensable on Internet, but ain't no almighty wonder at doing every job. Nor does it measure up to the rampant baloney about being easier to master than DOS. It sits atop DOS like a seriously overweight and badly spoiled brat, demanding greater system resources to do nothing but make the screen pretty — hardly my idea of true or lasting beauty. And after it finally swallows up DOS to be reborn as an independent operating system, the pigging out on system resources is sure to escalate.

Tricks of the Trade

Computer professionals* rarely mention DOS these days. Even at Microsoft, DOS has become the family's black sheep because it's too efficient to ever be a super generator of costly hardware and software sales like Windows.

*Computer professionals: The glib folks who make, sell and explain personal computers, software and peripherals. Like all pros, they are intent on making money, not saving you any.

Batch files, a standard MS-DOS feature noticeably absent from Windows, enable users to do more, faster and easier. But there is a hitch. In theory, it's possible perform any task with standard Dos batch functions. This doesn't always hold true because when a standard batch file grows beyond several complex tasks, which often require Byzantine techniques and copious redundancy, it slows to an irritating crawl. So, in exchange for speed, most personal computer users eventually end up with a hundred small batch files cluttering up their hard disk and the impossible task of remembering what each does.

But there is another way—enhanced batch files.

Experts won't tell how to work this magic, even if they know. Can't really blame them though. Finding the few necessary DOS utilities among the hundreds of thousands available, putting them together, debugging the mess into a working system and then documenting it all for free takes a nutty fruitcake idealist. An amateur tired of being conned into constant high-priced upgrading and compatibility hassles. A tireless tinker who hates useless extravagance. Someone like me.

Pure Alchemy

Yes, I know. There are hundreds of menu programs around, including some that use standard batch files. The dozens I tried all had limitations that eventually made them more of a hassle than a convenience. These limits could not be worked around because no flexibility or expandability was built in. I could do only what was fixed in the program and had to do it exactly as the program dictated.

I wanted complete configuration freedom, expandability and small low-tech, low-cost answers. Also, one little enhanced batch file that could control my growing system, keep me from getting lost and provide direct access to everything all at once. Not simply one or two pieces at a time in roundabout ways. And without the huge RAM overhead and hard disk space requirements of Windows and other commercial interfaces.

Surprise! I found the unsung utilities needed to turn my pipe dream into reality on local BBSs by downloading and testing every program that looked even remotely usable. While crafting these odds and ends into a working model, I stumbled onto a bunch of other nifty features and put them into Overseer, too.

Big Differences

Heart of Overseer is O.Bat, a batch file engine that takes up around 20Kb of disk space. It requires no expanded memory and leaves all available low memory for use by programs without swapping or other time-wasting operations. Even on my old 386 25MHz machine, start response is instant.

O.Bat provides centralized control of my entire system. Well, not exactly all of it. There are some things I never use. So, although they exist, I haven't gotten around to adding them to the appropriate menu.

Among the more notable O.Bat functions are:

  • Instant access to all programs, even those in Windows (although it still takes just as long for Windows to load itself), along with brief reminders on what hundreds of seldom used utility programs do and their command syntax.

  • A speedy and versatile HD-to-floppy backup/restore system using multi-volume Arj compression. This system is practical on quite large hard disk drives and makes finding and restoring data easier than with tape backups. The trick is to place all files that change often in the same directory, or directories. Then, once you have a backup of the entire hard disk (each directory in a separate multi-volume Arj), only the directories with often changing files need to be backed up on a regular basis.

  • A file deletion/restore system using an Arj compression trashcan. I like this better than any of the undelete programs. Speed is the same (as long as the trashcan Arj doesn't get too big), file compression saves hard disk space, and excepting DOS glitches or hardware crashes, file recovery is 100% certain. Naturally, the trashcan Arj can be located in a directory that is backed up regularly for extra safety.

  • An Arj compression help system that includes on-disk manuals and consolidates all help files so needed information can be found and put on the screen quickly.

  • Dozens of smart DOS text screen fonts and minimal color menus, which have a less piercing impact on the eyes than graphic screen modes.

  • Program launch with point-and-shoot file selection.

  • Desktop calculator, calendar, memo database, notepad and just about anything else you care to add.

  • An engine written entirely in plain ASCII text, like ordinary batch files. No complex code to decipher or compiler to run. No new programming language to master.

  • Pressing Enter at a menu prompt returns you to the previous menu. Pressing Enter at the main menu exits to Dos.

In short, Overseer makes Windows and other heavyweight interfaces look as swift and graceful as Santa Claus running the 100-meter dash in deep snow.

Unlike standard batch files, Overseer is transparent. Programs can be run directly from any menu by entry of full command lines, one or two key menu selections, or mouse. Function keys remapped using Ansi.Sys and Doskey-like command line editing also operate from the main menu the same as at the DOS prompt. It's not necessary to keep manually entering and exiting Overseer to do special things, or to work your way through a long line of sub-menus.

Unlike Windows, multi-taskers and commercial menuing software, which confine you to working through fancy peepholes, key Overseer menus are full-screen. They use an easy-to-read public domain 28-line font, but programs and boxed color sub-menus use another PD 25-line font. You see more at a glance. If your eyeballs can stand the strain, the menus can be expanded to 43 or 50 lines.

Caveats

I haven't any idea about whether Overseer will run well in Windows, or what conflicts might occur. The thought of trying this never crossed my mind. Now that it has, I find the idea more revolting than eating sushi topped with big globs of mayonnaise.

Overseer takes time to set up because you have to hand-tailor it. This initial job is unavoidable in setting up any custom system, but time well spent and a real education in mining the hidden power of DOS. Once configured, Overseer saves time with fewer keystrokes, direct DOS efficiency and centralized menuing. You're free to think creatively and out from under having to remember obscure details necessary to run rarely used programs and perform seldom required operations.

You can't outgrow Overseer. It can be configured any way you like and handle any number of programs simply by changing the menus. Although Overseer requires you to configure it by hand, the standard techniques are easily learned and stay the same. But if change becomes necessary, you can modify everything - right down to its basic functions — by tinkering with current utility settings or adding new utilities. However, hunting down utilities to add extra special functions may not be easy.

For example, I like DosKey, but it and several similar command line editors tried won't operate from the Overseer main menu. This led me to discover Uncle, an obscure 1988 freeware utility that does work and surpasses DosKey in other ways as well. Uncle has one quirk—it prevents use of filenames that begin with an exclamation point at the DOS prompt.

Using the complete Overseer system is not necessary. you may use as much or little of it as you like. Virtually all routines in O.Bat are self-contained modules and each can operate as a stand-alone batch file.

Overseer incorporates a handy cut and paste menu selection mouse program. But, alas, pressing one or two keys is ten times faster and less stressful than mousing around with that one-balled rodent on a menu with 100 little targets to double-click.

Overseer batch files are freeware. You may do what ever you like with these enhanced batch files and don't have to pay me a cent. They're provided on an "as is" basis and without any warranty whatsoever. You use them entirely at your own risk. I won't be responsible for any problem, loss or damage resulting from the use of O.Bat, its routines, documentation, other batch files or program archives included in Overseer.Zip under any circumstances. Amen.

Although I don't want any money, I would welcome donations of unwanted English-language software you no longer need and haven't the heart to just throw away. Any and all types are welcome. Duplicates and items I have little use for will be recycled to other PC users.

Please send your software donations to:

Ron Golden
48-9 Kamijo, Nagasaka-cho
Kitakoma-gun, Yamanashi-ken
408 Japan

Getting Started

Basic system requirements are: MS-DOS Ver. 6.2, Ansi.Sys installed and a VGA color screen. Overseer should work with older DOS versions, but batch syntax and function differences may cause problems.

  1. First, set up a new empty sub-directory on your hard disk named Overseer (MkDir \Overseer). Another name can't be used unless you go through O.Bat and change all sub-directory-specific file calls (mainly to menus). Add the Overseer sub-directory to the DOS PATH statement in your Autoexec.Bat (see Autoexec.Doc for help) and reboot. Change to the new sub-directory (CD \Overseer). Extract all the files from Overseer.Zip (using Pkunzip) to this sub-directory. Make a backup copy of Overseer.Zip and store it in a safe place.

  2. Run Extract.Bat. This will extract the necessary files for Overseer from the Zips and Arjs, then rename three of them for you. See Filelist.Doc for details on these files.

  3. If you'd like to make a quick trial run of Overseer, be sure: Ansi.Sys or Nansi.Sys, Mouse (or your regular MS mouse driver), PCMouse and Uncle are loaded in memory (See Autoexec.doc for help). Then press O. Although few programs will be operational, you'll get a good look at and feel of what Overseer can do (baring conflicts with your other TSR programs). Be sure to try running DOS commands and your regular programs using full command lines from the main menu. They should run normally and the empty menu selections will return you to the main menu.

  4. Next, you have to set up the menus. I placed all my programs used regularly in alphabetical order on the main menu and the others into their appropriate sub-menu category. It's simpler to map this out first, leaving blank lines for inserting new programs later. Otherwise you'll have to change every menu line whenever a new program gets added.

  5. The full-screen menus fill the screen exactly, so be careful not to change the size by adding extra characters to lines or extra lines. This will make a mess of the screen.

  6. Once you have the basic menu layouts mapped out on paper, the next step is to modify O.Bat. This is time consuming, but a relatively straight-forward job of filling in the blanks with information DOS needs to find and run your programs.

  7. Print out a copy of Manual.Doc before you start and refer to it along with your rough menu maps as you work. Open O.Bat (any editor that produces ASCII text files is fine). Get the main menu selection number of the first program and find it in O.Bat (the line begins with a colon followed by that number). If the program can be run directly from anywhere on your system, simply add the program name to the next line. Go back to your main menu and get the selection number of the second program and repeat the same procedure. Do this for every program you've placed on the main menu.

  8. Some programs require extra steps. For example, you may have to change to the sub-directory the program is in for it to run, or remapped function keys must be returned to DOS defaults. Consult Manual.Doc and look for a program that has similar requirements and copy the routine (changing the program name, directory name, etc., to those of your system).

  9. Next move to the sub-menus. The procedure is the same. Sub-menu selection is alphabetical rather than numerical. Calls to sub-menu routines are coded letter-number-letter.

  10. You will notice these batch file routines are refined to squeeze maximum operations into a minimum number of lines. This is the key to batch file speed. So, rather than bore you with a useless discourse on general batch writing theory and techniques, I've heavily commented O.Bat, explaining what each unique line does and why. This is a quicker way to learn and implement the routines in the custom system you will build.

                OVERSEER OUTLINE

            AUTOEXEC.BAT & CONFIG.SYS
           ----------------------------
           | These load PCmouse, Ansi,|
           | Uncle and make           |
           | environmental space for  |
           | key remapping and batch  |
           | operations.              |
           ----------------------------
                         |
                         |
                        \|/
                       O.BAT
              -----------------------
              | The main batch file |
END.BAT<--    | engine and heart of |
(Exits to     | Overseer.           |
     Dos)     -----------------------
                 /|\    /|\    /|\
                  |      |      |
                  |     \|/    \|/
                  |  Main Menu—--->Programs,
                  |                Bats, System,
                  |     /|\    /|\ Windows, etc.
                  |      |      |
                 \|/    \|/     |
                  Various Sub-Menus<---

This is as far as I can go. Ready or not, you're on your own. Everything I can explain is covered in Readme.Doc, Manual.Doc, Autoexec.Doc and Filelist.Doc. Study them carefully, take your time and add your programs to O.Bat one at a time. This will help you to resolve problems faster and keep the job manageable.

Note: If you'd like to try Ron's batch system, it's available on the TPC BBS as "OVERSEER.ZIP".


© Algorithmica Japonica Copyright Notice: Copyright of material rests with the individual author. Articles may be reprinted by other user groups if the author and original publication are credited. Any other reproduction or use of material herein is prohibited without prior written permission from TPC. The mention of names of products without indication of Trademark or Registered Trademark status in no way implies that these products are not so protected by law.

Algorithmica Japonica

January, 1997

The Newsletter of the Tokyo PC Users Group

Submissions : Editor


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