Feb 23

Real Alternative

RealPlayer has made a lot of enemies. It’s a free media player, which is nice. But RealPlayer likes to display pop-up advertisements, and it has a history of collecting information about the media files you play with it, leading some critics to classify it as both adware and spyware. When PC World compiled a list of “The 25 Worst Tech Products of All Time” last year, RealPlayer was number 2. (The top offender was AOL.)
But occasionally, you may need to play a file that uses one of the proprietary RealMedia formats, such as .rm or .ra. In that situation, are you forced to use RealPlayer? Not necessarily. On a Windows system, you can use Real Alternative instead. Real Alternative is a codec pack that enables you to play RealMedia formats with Media Player Classic. You can download both Real Alternative and Media Player Classic from the Real Alternative page of freecodecs.com.

Dec 06

Fun with Windows

A couple of months ago, the hard disk on our primary home computer became corrupted, and I had to reformat and reinstall Windows. I was able to do this without losing any data by installing a second hard disk, putting Windows on that, and then using a recovery tool (Active@ UNDELETE) to retrieve our data files from the corrupted drive. After I was sure that I had recovered everything of value from the corrupted drive, I reformatted it and started using it as a backup medium (with Norton Ghost as the backup tool).
That should have been the end of our Windows problems, at least for a while. Formatting the new C: drive and installing Windows from scratch ought to have resulted in a clean, stable system. But something went wrong, because we started seeing odd behavior over the last several weeks. The first warning sign was a folder on my desktop that I could not get rid of — I could drag it to the Recycle Bin and empty the bin, but the folder would reappear on my desktop later. That was annoying, but not really problematic. Then Windows started refusing to shut down, restart, or log out. You could select those actions from the Start menu, but nothing would happen; the only way out was to use the button on the front of the computer. It was clear that our system was unstable, so after making sure that everything was backed up to the other hard drive, I reinstalled Windows again.
If you’ve ever gone through this process (and if you’ve had your computer more than a year or two, you’ve probably had to), you know that the time-consuming part is not installing Windows from the CD, but installing four years’ worth of updates and patches. It takes several hours to get it all done. This time around, it occurred to me that I wasn’t actually doing anything except clicking buttons to tell Windows Update to proceed to the next step. The problem is that after installing each set of updates, Windows needs to restart, but it won’t do so without confirmation from you. And after Windows restarts, you have to manually run Windows Update again to start downloading and installing the next set of updates. In other words, what’s so burdensome is that Windows Update keeps stopping and waiting for manual intervention.
Why can’t the whole process be automated? What’s needed is a Windows Cumulative Update option, which would do the following:

  1. Check for high-priority updates and begin installing them.
  2. When it becomes necessary to reboot, do so automatically.
  3. After each reboot, run Windows Update again and check for more high-priority updates.
  4. Repeat these steps until no more high-priority updates remain, then exit.

Wouldn’t that be simpler? After installing Windows, you could start Windows Cumulative Update and walk away. A few hours later, your Windows installation would be fully up to date without any further action on your part. I hope Microsoft includes something like this with Windows Vista.

Aug 02

Interstate Wi-Fi

To win a contest at DefCon 13, a team of geeks established an unamplified Wi-Fi connection over a distance of 125 miles, beating their previous record of 55 miles. Team PAD did it by connecting their 300mw Wi-Fi cards to satellite dishes: one computer (outside Las Vegas) used a 12-foot dish, and the other (on a mountaintop in Utah) used a 10-foot dish. (I first heard of this amazing feat on the This Week in Tech podcast.)
It is probably not a coincidence that all four members of Team PAD are ham radio operators.

Aug 02

No iPod, no service

If you have iTunes installed on your Windows machine, you are running the Windows iPod service. But if you don’t use an iPod, you don’t need this service. Here’s how to turn it off and save 4MB of memory:

  1. Click the Start button and select Run… from the Start menu.
  2. Type services.msc and press Enter. The Services management console is displayed.
  3. Right-click iPod Service and select Properties.
  4. Click Stop to halt the service.
  5. Change Startup type to Disabled. Click OK and close the console.

If you acquire an iPod, you will have to re-enable the service in order to use the iPod with iTunes. (Thanks to Neil Turner, who described this tweak in his blog.)

May 23


A Japanese research team has developed a fuel cell that can be powered by human blood. This is good news in the short term, because it means that pacemakers and other implants can be designed without batteries that have to be replaced periodically. But in the long term, it means that we’ll have to watch out for vampire robots. Will future Slayers have to carry a lightsaber as well as a stake?

Mar 24

Dave Barry’s gadget bag

Gizmodo is a blog devoted to interesting gadgets like contact lenses that monitor your blood glucose level, or a bottle opener that counts the beverages you consume. A recurring feature on Gizmodo is “What’s In Your Gadget Bag?”, which asks a (presumably geeky) celebrity what bits of technology he or she carries around all the time. Recently, they asked humor writer Dave Barry this question. I was aware that he had used a Palm PDA (because he mentioned it in his column a few years ago), but it seems that he has upgraded to a Treo. “In accordance with federal law, I also have an iPod,” he writes.

Mar 22

Triangle Waffle

In Internat Use of Pancakes, Greg describes how his brain tried to interpret an IHOP sign with burned-out letters. I’ve experienced that kind of thing myself. When we see abbreviations (and a sign with burned-out letters is an abbreviation, albeit an accidental one), we fill in the missing information according to what we expect. And if we’re Internet geeks, that dictates the kind of information we fill in.

When I was working on Wake Forest Road, my daily commute took me past a sign that indicated the direction of Raleigh Community Hospital. But the sign didn’t have room for the entire name, so it said RALEIGH COM HOSPITAL. Inevitably, my brain parsed this as “Raleigh.com Hospital”, which makes no sense — but that’s how my brain insisted on interpreting it. I guess a lot of people had this problem, because the hospital eventually gave up and changed its name.

I can’t say that an IHOP sign has ever made me think of the Internet, but there was a time when I reacted that way to every Waffle House sign I saw. This was a decade and a half ago, when even dial-up Internet service was not widely available, and the World Wide Web didn’t exist. But things like e-mail and Usenet newsgroups did, and if you knew what you were doing, you could access them from your home computer. I learned how to accomplish this using a shareware application that was designed for running a BBS, but could also be used as a single-user newsreader and e-mail client. For reasons known only to him, the creator of this application named it Waffle.

Waffle included a UUCP program, which enabled computers running Waffle to exchange data with each other over dial-up connections. This meant several Waffle users could share the cost of a single dial-up connection, with one computer serving as a local hub that downloaded the e-mail and Usenet traffic for all of them. The other computers would then call the hub machine to download their data (and upload any outgoing traffic). It was slow, but it worked and didn’t cost very much.

For several years, I was part of a small community (about half a dozen) of Waffle users in the Triangle area of North Carolina that used this system to access the Net. I was using Waffle every day to check my e-mail, so you can imagine what kind of conclusion my brain would draw every time I saw a Waffle House sign. And that’s not the worst of it. There is a restaurant in Dunn called Triangle Waffle that made me do a double-take every time I drove by. (My local UUCP network of Waffle users didn’t hold meetings, but that would have been a good place to do it.)

All of this came to an end when the first ISPs began appearing in the Triangle. I dismantled my Waffle setup almost a decade ago. But when I saw that Greg was writing about Internet use of batter cakes cooked on a griddle, those memories came flooding back . . .

Feb 22

Clean and dry

My family is still using the original clothes washer that we bought in 1986, but we’re on our third clothes dryer. So I was delighted to stumble across this simple tip for extending (and perhaps doubling) the life of a dryer. Excerpt:

Just removing the lint from the filter isn’t always enough — the fine mesh of most dryer filters can be clogged in ways that aren’t obvious at a casual glance. As suggested by the piece quoted above, softener sheets can cause waxy build-ups on lint screens that require a little extra effort — usually no more than a quick scrub and rinse in warm, soapy water — to remove.

Thanks to Gerard Van Der Leun for pointing this one out.