29 April, 2007

More alternate search engines

You know that Google is popular, right? SearchEngineWatch.com reported a nearly 44% share for July 2006, while Yahoo! and MSN continue to lose market share. (HitWise reported a 64% U.S. share for March 2007) In January I wrote about a few alternate search engines (Ms. Dewey, ChaCha, Snap, and Rollyo), in case you were interested in whether their was a competitor or two on the horizon. If that didn't move you away from Google (it didn't make me change), there are 100 more search engines you might want to try at Read / WriteWeb. Let me know if you find any promising alternatives; right now I'm staying with Google.

Open Source Software -- Free and Legal

I recently ran across a blog posting at The Simple Dollar titled 30 Essential Pieces of Free (and Open) Software for Windows. They are not quite all essential; perhaps 10 are. Many I have heard of, but a few are new to me. Of course it lists popular open source software such as Firefox, Thunderbird, and Audacity, but there are some other good ones including Filezilla (FTP client), Handbrake (watch DVDs locally without the DVD), and FreeMind (mind mapping). Check this blog post and see what you might be paying for that you could get for free and legal.

28 April, 2007

Firefox and Google together make a powerful search utility

If you have ever explored Google's advanced search capabilities, you would know that it can be very powerful in finding specific content. For example, you can use it to find web directories with music from your favorite artist. Take this code for example, which you can enter into the Google search box:
-inurl:(htm|html|php) intitle:”index of” +”last modified” +”parent directory” +description +size +(wma|mp3) “Stevie Ray Vaughn”
Your results would be something like this:
You can even add different file formats and wildcards for the search string:
-inurl:(htm|html|php) intitle:"index of" +"last modified" +"parent directory" +description +size +(wma|mp3|ogg) "stevie ray vaughn%"
How does this apply to Firefox? Well I'm glad you asked!

You may recall that by entering a keyword into the field of a bookmark, you can retrieve the bookmark in the Address Box by just entering the keyword. Firefox also supports wildcard parameters, so you can enter a keyword followed by a word, and it will add it to the bookmark. I wrote about this in October 2006. So if we create a bookmark in Firefox, modify our Google string for the Location (URL), and add a keyword, we can then execute the same search directly from the Firefox Address Box.

Here are the steps:
  1. Create a bookmark
  2. Change the URL as follows: http://www.google.com/search?q=-inurl%3A(htm%7Chtml%7Cphp) +intitle%3A%22index+of%22+%2B%22last+modified%22+%2B%22 parent+directory%22+%2Bdescription+%2Bsize+%2B (wma%7Cmp3%7Cogg)+"%s%"
    Note that I added spaces for wrapping -- if you right-click and Copy Link Location (Firefox), you can get the string without the spaces.
  3. Add your keyword, such as: music
  4. Click OK
  5. Enter music Stevie Ray Vaughn into the Address Box and press [Enter]
Notice these changes to the URL:
  • All characters are escaped (For example, %3A is a colon [:])
  • I replaced Stevie Ray Vaughn with a %s so that Firefox will recognize this as where to insert the value of my parameter (I left the wildcard [%] at the end)
One final note: if you wanted to search for videos, you can try changing the extensions wma|mp3|ogg to wmv |mov |mpeg.
Happy searching!

24 April, 2007

Hacking Skype

I recently published a blog post on my experience in moving to Skype as my phone service. Since that time, I found an article from VOIP News that has 25 hacks for Skype. This article includes a wealth of information on how you can extend the capabilities of Skype.

For example, using a program called AudioID, it will announce the Skype user name on incoming calls. This is a great feature if you're away from your PC. Other hacks include:
  • A DIY security system
  • Recording calls
  • Enhanced voice mail
  • Integrating with last.fm
  • Lip syncing Avatar
If you have Skype, this is a must read; if you don't ahve Skype, check out what you're missing.

23 April, 2007

Use Excel to solve Soduko puzzles

I found a clever Excel template on the Microsoft site. With this template, it can help you solve Soduko puzzles. You enter the numbers you have, and have it calculate possible answers for the remaining open spots. If it cannot completely solve it, try 1 of the possible numbers and recalculate. Eventually, you will solve the puzzle.
Microsoft has other game templates as well.

22 April, 2007

Music just gets better and better on the Internet

I have talked about some of my favorite music services in the past, including Pandora and of course the iTunes/iPod combination. I have also used YouTube, Live365, and other streaming services. Now I have a new favorite, last.fm.

With last.fm, I enter my favorite artist, band, or song, and it streams music related to that category. At the surface it sounds just like Pandora, but I believe the music matching algorithm is better, as well as last.fm offers many more features. For example, the module above will play my music recommendations, or you can play it on the last.fm site. These are the songs that match what I have selected. I can also play my recommended songs through a downloadable client.

last.fm uses scrobbing to assist in recommending music.

Scrobbling a song means that when you listen to it, the name of the song is sent to Last.fm and added to your music profile.

Once you've signed up and downloaded Last.fm, you can scrobble songs you listen to on your computer or iPod automatically. Start scrobbling yourself, and see what artists you really listen to the most. Songs you listen to will also appear on your Last.fm profile page for others to see.

In addition, last.fm provides several ways to interact with their music, such as through top charts and tagging. Using the Love feature, you can go back and play songs just from your Love list. Likewise, using the Ban feature, you can ban songs from being recommended again.

This is just a peak at the fun you can have with last.fm. If you haven't already, give it a try.

Cool Firefox Trick

I ran across a cool trick with Firefox, which allows you to open Firefox within Firefox. There's no real purpose behind it, it's just a fun thing to do. Just enter this into the URL line of Firefox:

21 April, 2007

How much do you pay for phone service?

Where I live, basic service is about $25 a month; long distance is extra. That's a guaranteed minimum $300 a year if I don't make any long distance calls. I decided to do something about that -- I got setup with Skype. If you're in the US or Canada, all long-distance is free after a one-time $30 fee (SkypeOut: Skype Unlimited). In addition, to get an incoming number (SkypeIn), I only paid $38 for a year of service, which includes voice mail. You can get your incoming number to have any area code -- so if you have friends or family that have to pay long distance charges to call you, you can get a phone number in their area code. My final expense was an inexpensive Skype phone, $35. So for $103, I have local and long distance for a year. In addition, with just the basic free Skype service, you can talk Skype-to-Skype for no cost.
Many Podcasters, such as Leo Laporte, use this service to record guests on their shows; which is cheaper and yields better quality than if you tried to recorded off a standard phone.

Skype also offers other services such as Skype SMS and SkypeCasts. SkypeCasts are public live conversations -- a good way to meet people with similar interests. For example you can speak to people who like NBC's HEROES.
So if you're looking to reduce your monthly phone expense, I suggest you give Skype a try.

15 April, 2007

Determining Quarter from a date in Excel

Excel is a great program to manipulate your data, perform what-ifs, and graphically display results. But it's not straight forward when you want to know the which Quarter certain activity took place. Fortunately, with a simple formula you can determine the Quarter.

Roundup can be a useful function in other applications as well. The last parameter (0 in this example) is used to change the rounding level. A positive number will add decimal places, while a negative number will round left of the decimal (i.e. -1 rounds to 10s and -2 rounds to 100s).

03 April, 2007

Find and Replace special characters in Word

I recently had a list of items that I wanted to grab from a web page drop-down list. Of course you can't copy a drop-down list, but... you can view the source and get the list. The problem though is, "how do you remove the option tags and the value?" As you may have guessed by the title, you can do it with Word.

Here's a sample taken from News.com:

  1. Copy the list and paste it into Word.
  2. Open the Find and Replace dialog (Edit | Replace... or Ctrl + H).
  3. Click the More button and check Use wildcards.
  4. Here's the trick, as you need to use special characters. First, paste the string you want to remove in the Find what: field.
  5. For each greater than and less than character, place a backslash before it, i.e. < becomes \< .
  6. Replace the contents of the value field with an asterisk.
  7. Validate Word will be able to find the code by clicking the Find Next button -- the code should now be highlighted.
  8. Go to the Replace with: field and enter ^p. This will replace your code with a carriage return.
  9. Press the Replace button once to validate that it works as expected.
    If not, close the Find and Replace dialog and then enter ctrl+z to undo, then return to the Find and Replace dialog to correct the error.
  10. Now press Replace All button to replace all the code with a carriage return.
  11. Likely the beginning code and ending code will still exist, as they are different than the rest. Delete those two entries and you are done.
Now you should have a list from a web site's drop-down list. Obviously with this short list, you could have easily retyped the list, but for me, I just used this technique for a list that was over 600 entries long.

Active window loses focus

Do you ever have the experience where your typing away, say in Word, and another program pops-up and takes focus, forcing you to click back on the program you were working in? This happens the most to me when a new IM conversation begins in Trillian. It's not a problem once the conversation is going, just for new ones.

Where there are a couple of work-arounds to prevent this from happening. Perhaps the easiest is to get Microsoft's Tweak UI to disable it. Look for Focus in the General section of Tweak UI.

You can also do this through a registry setting:
  • Start the Registry Editor: Go to Start | Run and enter regedit [Enter]
  • Find HKEY_CURRENT_USER | Control Panel | Desktop
  • Go to the Edit menu and select New > DWORD value
  • Name the DWORD value "ForegroundLockTimeout"
  • Assign a value of 30d40
  • Close the Registry Editor

While your in the Registry Editor, you can also set how many times the Window seeking your attention flashes in your taskbar. This is another setting within HKEY_CURRENT_USER | Control Panel | Desktop:
  • Add another new DWORD
  • Name it "ForegroundFlashCount"
  • Set it to the value equal to the number of flashes you want, e.g. 3

I have heard (though not experienced) that some times newly installed applications will change your setting back (allowing focus to be taken again). One work around is to execute a registry update each time you reboot (the other is to get a different program that wont make this change). Here is how you would create the file to execute each time you rebooted:
  • Open a text editor such as Notepad
  • Type the following (or copy and paste):
    Windows Registry Editor Version 5.00

    [HKEY_CURRENT_USER\Control Panel\Desktop]

  • Save the file focus.reg. If your using Notepad, be sure to quote it ("focus.reg"), otherwise it will add a .txt extension (focus.reg.txt).
  • To get this file to execute with each new start, go to Start menu | All Programs
  • Right-click on Startup and choose Explore
  • Right-click in the right pane of your new Explorer window and choose New > Shortcut
  • In the Shortcut Wizard, locate your registry file, Focus.reg
  • The entry will contain the entire path, and will be quoted. To avoid being prompted each time to allow the Registry to be updated, enter regedit /s before the first quote. i.e. regedit /s "C:\Documents and Settings\Chris\Desktop\focus.reg"
  • Name your shortcut, e.g. Focus
The same Registry updates can be used for many other settings. For example, you may need to change a setting to run a particular application. Make two Registry (.reg) files, run the first to change your setting before running your application. Run the second when you close your application to return back to your default or preferred setting.