category archive

Category: Software

Tip: Use Google to Display a Break Timer

Teaching a class and need a countdown timer to display remaining break time? In the past, I’ve used Microsoft’s (formerly SysInternals’) free ZoomIt utility, whose primary function is to enlarge portions of the screen, but which can also display a break timer. But maybe you don’t need the zoom functionality, or you’re using a PC on which you can’t install additional software. In that case, just visit Google and search for “timer 10 minutes” (replacing 10 with the length of your break). Voilà!

The Great Linux Experiment is Over

In October, a friend asked me for help with an Acer Aspire One netbook that wouldn’t boot. It turned out to be a bad hard drive; I picked up a new one at Fry’s and popped it in. Then I thought, “I wonder if Linux would perform better than Windows on this anemic processor and 1 GB RAM?” So I downloaded Ubuntu 10.04 and installed it. I was impressed: it installed effortlessly, ran speedily and required less than 200 MB RAM. And the Netbook Edition launcher looks slick!

Ubuntu Netbook EditionWhen I returned my friend’s computer, I explained that I had installed Linux instead of Windows and walked her through some basic tasks: connecting to a wireless network, importing photos from her digital camera, etc. She seemed pleased with the snappy performance and cool appearance; she said she only used the computer for basic tasks, so Linux should be fine.

As I was leaving, she asked, “Will this work with my Zune?” Uh oh. Current versions of Ubuntu can sync with Apple devices, but apparently Microsoft’s player uses a non-standard protocol that hasn’t been ported to Linux. So, um, no. “No problem,” she said, “all my music is on my mom’s computer anyway, I’ll just sync the Zune there.”

A few weeks later she called me about another problem: she had recently purchased a Palm Pre phone, and had downloaded a program to install third-party apps onto the phone. The program is written in Java, but apparently it requires the Sun (now Oracle) Java runtime, which is not included with Ubuntu. She had made a valiant attempt to download and install the correct runtime, copying and pasting commands into the Linux terminal, but she couldn’t get it to work (turns out she had downloaded the 64-bit version).

I borrowed the computer again and installed the correct Java runtime. I also installed VirtualBox, Windows XP and Microsoft’s Zune software, so she’d be able to sync her Zune without going to her mother’s house.

A few weeks ago she sent me a frustrated email with the subject, “I give up.” She was trying to apply for a job, and the application included an online test; for some reason the test didn’t work on her computer. She asked if I would please put Windows back on her machine: VirtualBox was giving her an error and she didn’t want to keep bothering me. So I did.

So, the Great Linux Experiment lasted about two months. Maybe if I had installed the Sun Java runtime and VirtualBox at the outset, my friend wouldn’t have gotten frustrated so quickly. Or maybe you need to be a geek (or live with one) to make it work.

Farewell, IE7

I upgraded my home and office PCs to IE7 in late October. It’s a fine browser; I intend to keep it on my office PC. At about the same time, my wife and I bought a Dream’eo Enza Portable Media Center for our anniversary. My desktop at home runs Windows Media Center Edition, which communicates with a Linksys Media Center Extender in our living room. Unfortunately, that particular combination of devices does not play well with IE7.

You see, Windows Media Player won’t sync album art to the portable device unless the images are embedded in the individual files (or possibly if you let Windows Media Player automatically update all the album info, but I don’t trust it enough to try that). So I dutifully went through my music collection and embedded album art in all the tracks (using MediaMonkey, which I recommend highly). The portable device now displays the album art beautifully.

But now Windows MCE displays a black square where the currently-playing album’s cover should appear! This is apparently a well-known issue: MCE + IE7 displays album art just fine, unless it’s embedded in the music file.

So my choices were:

  • Keep IE7 and embed the album art, so that it appears on the portable device but not in MCE;
  • Keep IE7 and delete the embedded art, so that it appears in MCE but not on the portable device; or,
  • Uninstall IE7, so that album art works correctly everywhere.

Sorry, IE7, you’re not that good. Farewell from my home PC until you work correctly with MCE and embedded album art.

UPDATE: Windows Media Player’s refusal to sync non-embedded album art to the Dream’eo Enza may be a problem with the device. If so, I apologize for impugning WMP. Nevertheless, my options remain the same.

Also, this comment claims that one can get IE7 to play well with Windows Media Player simply by allowing WMP as an add-on on IE7’s Manage Add-ons menu. Anyone with IE7 and MCE 2005 care to try this and let us know?

My Calendar Wish List

Between the recent demise of Kiko and Scoble’s rants about Google Calendar, online calendars are a hot topic. I don’t use an online calendar because I have yet to find one that does what I want. Here’s my scenario:

  • I use Outlook with Exchange with work
  • I use Outlook without Exchange at home
  • I carry a Palm PDA on which I want to see both work and personal items

I don’t know of any way to sync my Palm with Outlook on two different PCs, so I must currently enter appointments and tasks in Outlook and on my Palm.

I’d love an application that lets me enter all my appointments and tasks in one place, then syncs my work-related items with Outlook at work, my personal items with Outlook at home, and a combination of items with my Palm. Attention Web 2.0 companies: I would happily pay a monthly fee for such a service!

I had high hopes for AirSet, and it’s close. But I don’t see any way to sync personal items with Outlook and both personal and work items with my Palm.

Am I the only one who wants this? Do you know of an app that supports this scenario?


There’s nothing like traveling with a bunch of skinny Asians to make one feel fat (take a look at this photo while singing, “One of These Things (Is Not Like the Others)”). Looking at our photos from China, I decided it’s time to do something about my expanding girth.

Diet Diary

I’m rather a picky eater, so the thought of changing my diet to lose weight does not appeal to me at all. In an ideal world, I would eat whatever I feel like and simply exercise enough to burn all the calories, but that’s not going to happen, either. I needed to figure out how many calories I actually use, then consume slightly less than that in order to lose this excess baggage.

Enter Diet Diary from Tell it your age, sex, height, weight and activity level, and it will tell you roughly how many calories you should consume to maintain your weight, or in my case, to lose one to two pounds a week. Then use its extensive foods database to record what you eat and track your progress.

I’ve been using the software since December 5 (nearly four weeks) and so far I’ve lost about 4½ pounds, so it seems to be working. Now I just need to exercise more than once a week, and my waist will be smaller than my chest in no time. Watch out, skinny Asians!

Cool Utility

Scott Hanselman swears by MaxiVista (they even have his face on their home page!), a utility that allows you to use a networked PC (typically a laptop) as a second monitor. But what if you want to actually work on both PCs? I suppose you could Remote Desktop from your primary PC to the second, then use MaxiVista to drag the RD session over to the second PC’s monitor (think about that for a second!) Here’s a better solution...

By way of Ofer Achler, I have discovered Synergy, an open-source utility that lets you share your keyboard and mouse with a networked machine. Simply move your mouse pointer off the edge of one screen, and it instantly appears on the other; keyboard and mouse events are sent to that device. It even merges the clipboards of all connected PCs (or Macs; Synergy is cross-platform), so you may copy and paste among them.

Very cool free utility; highly recommended. Now, if they’d just put my face on their home page...

LazyWeb Request: XP Themes Wonky

Take a look at the dialog to the right: See how the tabs across the top and the command buttons on the bottom are not rendered with the selected theme? Have you ever seen this before?

This past weekend, I uninstalled several unused applications from my desktop PC (an HP Pavilion running Windows Media Center Edition 2005 SP2), including HP ImageZone, HP Tunes, and several utilities included with my HP LaserJet 1320 printer. Shortly thereafter, I noticed that dropdown lists in IE6 were not themed; they looked like they had been transplanted from Windows 2000. I ran System File Checker and it seems to have fixed the dropdowns, but all system dialogs exhibit the behavior shown above, regardless of which theme I select. (Oddly, Task Manager’s tabbed dialog is correctly themed. It’s almost like a manifest file for explorer.exe has been deleted?)

I have since Googled extensively and even attempted a System Restore to a point before I uninstalled the software, but nothing will bring back my dialog themes. If you know how to fix this, please share!

Update: It seemed to me that IE, Explorer, etc. were not using the correct version of the Windows Common Controls library (ComCtl32.dll), so I Googled for "explorer.exe.manifest", which eventually led me to this article, which includes examples of manifests to tell an application to use version 6.0 of ComCtl32.dll. And sure enough, when I created manifests for IE, Explorer, and RunDll32.exe, my themed dialogs were back! I'm not sure what happened to cause these applications to stop using version 6, but I can live with this solution.

Spam Filters

I'll never forget my first e-mail address. Back in 1986, I signed up for a CompuServe account; my address was 72451,3401. Several years later, I opened an account with a "real" ISP and started using my new e-mail address in newsgroups and on my Web site. It was then that I was introduced to the scourge of spam.

Three years ago, when I registered the and domains, I thought, "Here's my chance to retire an address that's on every spammer's list and get a fresh start!" I informed my friends and family of the new address and scrupulously avoided using it anywhere it might be seen by spammers. Or so I thought.

Then the spam starting trickling in. How had they found me? Turns out I had used my new address to register my domains! D'oh!

Rather than change addresses again, I began using spam-filtering tools, starting with Qurb, a PC Magazine Editor's Choice. Qurb works well enough, but it integrates with your e-mail client; if you check your mail on the Web or with a mobile device, you're out of luck.

To address this limitation, I've been using a server-side spam-filtering service, MailSift. I simply set my POP3 server to forward all messages to MailSift, then point my e-mail software at MailSift's server to retrieve my messages. (MailSift can also poll your mailbox if your ISP doesn't support forwarding.) The service works great, and at $2/month it's quite affordable. (My current stats reveal that since I signed up two months ago, I've received 767 spam messages, but only 247 legitimate e-mails.)

Another annoyance with which I've been dealing recently is comment spam. If you host a blog on Movable Type 2.x, I recommend MT Blacklist, a donationware plugin that blocks comment spam by comparing the commenter's URL against a list of regular expressions. It can also despam your comments if one of those parasites slips through your defenses.

Longhorn Killer App

Since the PDC last Fall, Microsoft has produced a series of concept apps to demonstrate how Longhorn's key technologies will enable the creation of groundbreaking new applications. The sample apps certainly look cool, with lots of 3D graphics and animation, but so far none of them have made me want to install Longhorn as soon as possible. Until now.

Check out this video of an app from Microsoft Research called Photo Triage. It (apparently) employs Avalon and WinFS to visually categorize collections of digital images. Some have questioned how Windows will obtain all the cool metadata WinFS needs in order to sort and search our data; this app nicely demonstrates one way it could work. I want it!

via John Lam

Tabbed Browsing in IE

Here's a handy tip from Microsoft's Douglas Purdy: Use Visual Studio .NET to enable tabbed browsing with Internet Explorer! [screenshot] If it's not already visible, right-click on VS.NET's toolbar to display the Web toolbar. To open a new tab, right-click on a Web page and select "New Window." Thanks, Doug!

I've Looked at Life from Both Sides Now

Often, while doing my daily reading on the Web, I'll end up with half a dozen browser windows open, containing articles I want to read after scanning my RSS feeds. (Or, I'll have a single browser instance whose history list contains the articles I want to read. Upon completing each article, I hit the Back button to proceed to the next one.)

Recently, I've read several favorable reviews of Mozilla, whose tabbed browsing feature sounded like the ideal solution to my browser proliferation issue. So, this past weekend I installed Mozilla 1.3 and gave it a try. Nice! It's every bit as usable as IE6, and has several features that I wish IE would "embrace and extend": In addition to tabbed browsing, I like Mozilla's popup blocking and cookie management. The forward and back buttons on my IntelliMouse Just Worked. And most important, with a single exception (my Radio Userland desktop page), every site I visited rendered just fine! The only feature I missed was the ability to drag a hyperlink from, say, an e-mail message into Mozilla and have the browser go there.

Mozilla hasn't replaced IE as my default browser just yet, but if you haven't tried it, I recommend that you do so.

Life with nntp//rss

I've been using nntp//rss for over a month now, and overall, I'm pretty happy with it. I like it for the same reason people who live in Outlook love NewsGator. (I live in Outlook Express, because it lets me handle e-mail and NNTP newsgroups from a single app, and without a VPN connection to the company network. With nntp//rss, I can leverage that same app to monitor my favorite Web sites.)

I do have a handful of wishes (the program's author, Jason Brome, posted a comment the last time I wrote about nntp//rss, so perhaps he'll see these suggestions):

  • xhtml:body support. I don't keep up with Don Box's and Rebecca Dias' blogs because I have to follow a link to each article in order to read them.
  • dc:creator support. For aggregated feeds, such as that of dotnetweblogs, it would be nice to see the author of each post in my newsreader's From column, rather than the title of the feed. (Ditto for dc:date and the other Dublin Core elements)
  • More robust. After my system has crashed (don't ask), nntp//rss often fails to restart, due to garbage at the end of the nntprssdb.script file. I've been able to correct the problem by deleting the junk from the end of the file, but I'm never sure if that will cause data loss (not to mention that it's inconvenient).

Those are the biggies. Threading and "virtual newsgroups" would be cool, but they're not a big deal to me. It's unfortunate that adding a feed requires multiple steps (add the feed via nntp//rss' browser interface, then "subscribe" to the feed in your newsreader), but I like the fact that nntp//rss addresses most of the issues people have with other popular aggregators, such as SharpReader and RSS Bandit. If you're happy with your NNTP newsreader, you'll like nntp//rss.

Newsreader as Aggregator

Like seemingly everyone else in the .NET Weblog universe, I downloaded Luke Hutteman's SharpReader yesterday, and have been using it all day. It's a fine piece of software -- excellent work, Luke! -- but, like everyone else, I have feature requests:

  • Ability to select and act on multiple items (delete, mark as read, etc.)
  • Ability to "flag" or bookmark items
  • Ability to post from within SharpReader (G. Andrew Duthie came up
    with a hack that allows this)
  • Deleted Items folder (undelete)
  • Open links in user's default browser
  • ...etc.

The more I thought about the various feature requests, the more it seemed that people want SharpReader to behave like a newsreader: Outlook Express, Forte Agent, Mozilla, etc. Rather than create Yet Another News Aggregator, why not simply serve RSS feeds via NNTP? Users could then read/manage them in the newsreader of their choice.

A quick Google for "RSS NNTP" uncovered two tools which do precisely that: nntp//rss and Genecast.

Genecast is a hosted, subscription-based service ($18 for 6 months), which might appeal to those who want to access their news from any computer, and who don't have access to a server of their own. nntp//rss, on the other hand, is an open source (GPL) Java-based tool that creates an NNTP server on your local machine, rather like Radio Userland. Simply use its Web-based admin pages to subscribe to your favorite RSS feeds (it can import your existing subscriptions via OPML) and point your newsreader at localhost:119. If you install it on a Web-accessible machine, you can read your news from anywhere.

How does nntp//rss compare to SharpReader? Well, it doesn't allow you to categorize your feeds (you can use a hierarchical naming convention to simulate categories, but you don't get that nice aggregation of all items within a category); it doesn't thread items, nor does it generate automatic comments links. On the other hand, it does allow you to post from your newsreader, and it allows you to use all of your newsreader's selection, marking and filtering capabilities. And since it's open source, we (and by "we," I mean "you") could probably add threading and categorization. Check it out!

Lost Weekend

Actually, that's a slight exaggeration; this annoying problem only cost me Friday night and Saturday afternoon. Yesterday, without apparent provocation, Windows Explorer's file context menus began to appear extremely slowly. I'd right-click on a file, and Explorer would take a trip to Hourglass Land; sometimes it would take up to 5 minutes to emerge from its coma.

A Web search revealed that I had lots of company, but no definitive solutions. I ran Windows Update. I defragged my hard drive. I optimized my registry. I installed FileMon and RegMon to see if they could uncover any obvious problems: Nope.

I did notice that if I logged on as a different user, the problem didn't manifest itself, so it was apparently something in my user-specific registry settings. Finally, I stumbled upon this post from Kent W. England. I looked in HKEY_CLASSES_ROOT\\*\\shellex\\ContextMenuHandlers, and there it was: A reference to a seldom-used shell extension which had apparently been uninstalled or otherwise corrupted. I deleted the offending registry key, and voila: Problem solved!

This, right after I'd had to repair the Windows installation on my laptop, because the Workstation service refused to start. See? That Friday-the-13th superstition is bogus: It's Friday the 20th we need to watch out for!

How Many Web Servers Do I Really Need?

I now have three separate Web servers running on my desktop: IIS 5.1, which I use for ASP.NET development; Radio Userland, which I use to maintain this site; and ZoneAlarm Pro, a personal firewall. I can't help but wonder if all these servers adversely affect my system's performance. Can anyone refer me to information on this subject?

I do know that the latest release of ZoneAlarm has a problem with a few of the sites I visit regularly. Here's one:, my credit union's Web site. The home page starts to load -- I can see the title and a customized vertical scrollbar -- but then it just sits there, unless I deactivate ZoneAlarm. What's up with that?

Life Balance

I discovered a revolutionary piece of software last week: Life Balance, from Llamagraphics, Inc. Most To-Do List apps encourage you to prioritize items by urgency: their due date. If you're like me, your life is full of things you consider important, but which aren't really urgent. Some of mine are: Be a better husband; learn to speak Chinese; improve as a musician; get in better shape; cultivate personal relationships, etc. Life Balance is revolutionary because it helps you prioritize by what's important, not merely what's urgent. (Not only that, but it's the first widely-available Windows app I've seen that's written in .NET.) I urge you to check it out.