30 March, 2008

Encrypt sensitive files

Do you have files that you do not want others to see? Perhaps you keep your tax returns archived on your hard drive. Or your employee's files at work. Using a very simple, free program you can protect those files from others accessing them using TrueCrypt. Version 5.1a was released March 17, 2008, so you know this isn't some beta software you're running.

From the TrueCrypt website, here are its main features:
  • Creates a virtual encrypted disk within a file and mounts it as a real disk.
  • Encrypts an entire partition or storage device such as USB flash drive or hard drive.
  • Encrypts a partition or drive where Windows is installed (pre-boot authentication).
  • Encryption is automatic, real-time (on-the-fly) and transparent.
  • Provides two levels of plausible deniability, in case an adversary forces you to reveal the password:
    • 1) Hidden volume.
    • 2) No TrueCrypt volume can be identified (volumes cannot be distinguished from random data).
  • Encryption algorithms: AES-256, Serpent, and Twofish. Mode of operation: XTS.
TrueCrypt is easy to use too. After installation, follow the Wizard; there is even a beginner's tutorial on the TrueCrypt website that walks you through the Wizard. Once you have created your TrueCrypt repository, you can treat it like any other drive to read and write files. And then TrueCrypt has various settings to help protect yourself so you never leave an encrypted repository open for other users of your system. You can even assign hot-keys to mount or unmount your encrypted drive(s).
Being tax season, if you share your computer with others or share files on your computer, it's time to get a little more serious about protecting your critical files -- whether you're using Windows, Mac or Linux, give TrueCrypt a try.

28 March, 2008

Technorati Firefox Add-on / Technorati Claim

To claim a blog with Technorati, you need to create a post with some custom code -- Technorati Profile. Since I have moved off of Blogspot and onto my own domain (http://www.CHRISdotTODD.com), I need to reclaim my blog.

For those unfamiliar with Technorati, it's a site that tracks blogs.
Currently tracking 112.8 million blogs and over 250 million pieces of tagged social media... Technorati tracks these links, and thus the relative relevance of blogs, photos, videos etc. We rapidly index tens of thousands of updates every hour, and so we monitor these live communities and the conversations they foster.
While I'm at it I thought, "Why not see if there are any Technorati Add-ons for Firefox." Here's what I found:

27 March, 2008

Keep your iTunes library synchronized

If you're like me, you have multiple sources of audio, and getting them all into one iTunes is a problem. Sure if you're ripping a new CD, iTunes makes it easy; but if you're merging existing digital collections, it can be very time consuming and error prone. No longer is this a problem with the iTunes Library Updater (iTLU).

You can run iTLU through a GUI or from a console (which allows scripting). The following features are supported with iTLU:
  • Adding new music or video clips to the iTunes library
  • Removing entries from the iTunes library that point to non-existing files
  • Synchronizing the iTunes library with one or multiple directories
  • Updating iTunes track information with meta information out of the media files (for example ID3 tags in case of MP3 files)
  • Updating your iPod (initiates a synchronization)

iTLU appears to be only available for Windows, but is completely free and comes with a short manual in English and German. If you want to clean up your iTunes, this is a utility that worked great for me.

Comcast and BitTorrent working together

Seems the investigation by the FCC on how Comcast handles its network traffic management is having an effect on who Comcast does business with. As reported in today's Wall Street Journal, Comcast is now working with BitTorrent to find an acceptable solution for network traffic management. Currently Comcast has just discontinued any P2P traffic during busy times by sending requests to discontinue communication to each party.

It appears Comcast now has a better approach in the works -- manage total bandwidth by user. Because cable Internet puts entire neighborhoods onto one network, busy times can cause slow downs. Comcast's plan of eliminating certain types of traffic (P2P, which they assumed was mostly illegal file transfers), though maybe successful in many cases, did not meet normal terms of service. Take for example the popular World of Warcraft -- users get updates via legal P2P traffic -- there is no law breaking going on there. What made one protocol more okay on the network than another? Assuming this new approach works, which could be ready by the end of the year, all users will get treated equal (imagine that?).

26 March, 2008

Eliminate the annoying Firefox Download dialog with an add-on

Download Statusbar offers several ways to view the status of your downloads using Firefox without the annoyance of a separate dialog box. I've chosen to use the mode where it's just another icon on the status bar. You can opt to have an additional bar added above the status bar when downloading.

After your file has downloaded, through a simple hover, you can see all the specifics about the downloaded file(s). For example, you can see the site you downloaded it from, the file size, and the time it took to download. Additional options include a notification when complete and even an auto-virus scan.

I like it just because it reduces the clutter.

25 March, 2008

New domain coming soon

Over the next few days my new domain name will start propagating across the Internet. the-cream.blogspot.com will become www.CHRISdotTODD.com.

It's still not too late to get Windows XP

Time is running out, but it's still not too late to get Windows XP. Computer World recently published Microsoft's current schedule, among other related information. I bought a new Dell laptop for my daughter in November with XP installed. I bought it from Dell because it was an easy choice on their website; other sites that I heard has XP available made it difficult to get XP. You should be able to get XP on new PC purchases until June 30, 2008 (from Microsoft, Sept 27, 2007).

The Computer World article links to a recent blog post from Dell. Here's part of that post:
The plan is to continue offering Windows XP on select Dimension and Inspiron systems until later this summer.
InfoWorld is sponsoring a petition to encourage Microsoft to continue selling XP beyond the current deadline. Before you sign the petition, you may want to review InfoWorld's privacy statement.

Postal addresses, and other personally identifying information and data will be used to promote InfoWorld and other IDG companies' products and services, and may be rented and/or licensed to selected outside firms for promotional purposes...

Residential telephone numbers of InfoWorld print subscribers registered users are used by InfoWorld to collect re-qualification data and may be used by InfoWorld, IDG and other IDG companies, affiliates and it's advertisers for promotional purposes. InfoWorld may rent and/or license for use phone numbers to selected outside firms for promotional purposes...
Also related to Windows XP. Microsoft is scheduled to release the last XP service pack in April. Remember as with any significant software update, wait and watch to validate that there are no significant issues.

Finally, again I would buy now if you're thinking of a new PC, and then wait as long as possible before your next purchase computer purchase. It's very possible by the time you are in the market again that for even the most non-technical folks, you will be able to use Linux or Apple OS within your dominated Windows office and/or friends. If nothing else, while you wait, there is so much help for XP available on the Internet, you should not have any issues getting the required support as required.

19 March, 2008

You're not a geek if you don't drink Starbucks and Mt. Dew

Starbucks has a new site for ideas and voting ala Digg -- My Starbucks Ideas. I'm not sure where this will go with Starbucks in the long-run, but its a great attempt at gathering direct customer feedback.
I also like that Starbucks outsourced this through Salesforce.com instead of building themselves. I think it is still much too common for organizations to think that they can develop something better and cheaper than what they can buy or borrow. Starbucks needs to continue making good coffee and having great marketing; IT and web development does not need to be a core competency.

Of course Mt. Dew has had a website for as long as I can remember, though I haven't spent much time checking it out. [I do recall many years ago as part of a going-away party for a colleague, I searched for Mt. Dew sites on the Internet, and found many, many of them.] Mt. Dew is in the middle of it's own contest to encourage customer interaction.

hosts this current contest, which has progressed to have come up with three new Dew flavors. [The first step included playing games, which are still available.] The next task is for the Dew customers to use Dew promo tools to determine the final flavor winner. Will it be SuperNova (Strawberry Melon Lime with a Ginseng tremor), Voltage (Raspberry Citrus with a closing burst of Ginseng), or Revolution (Wild Berry fruit flavor with a Ginseng boost) Dew?
So whether you're into coffee or soda, the geek brands are inviting their customers to connect with new Internet tools.

Mt. Dew Glow-Stick

Mountain Dew Glows!!!! Mountain Dew Light Hack!!!

18 March, 2008

Use a more powerful Alt-Tab switcher

Most Windows users know that we can hit Alt-Tab to switch from one active Window to another (or Alt-Shift-Tab to go backward). Windows XP displays icons for each of your open applications and puts the title of the document or page underneath. This can be quite difficult to find the application you are looking for with just an icon and text.

There are three replacement programs for Alt-Tab that I found, which give you a preview of the application as you use Alt-Tab. First, there's the PowerToy from Microsoft, Alt-Tab Replacement. If there was no other choice, this would be better than the default functionality in Windows XP.

A better option would be Alt-Tab Thingy from Nymithium Technologies. Not my favorite replacement, but Alt-Tab Thingy is definitely better than Microsoft's Alt-Tab Replacement. Here's just a few of the features available in Alt-Tab Thingy:

  • Allows minimizing of windows to the system tray
  • Monitors windows for change of caption/z-order/deadtray icons etc...
  • Display resolution selector
  • Icon/List view
  • Variable preview size
  • Mouse wheel support
  • Automatically minimizes or closes Explorer windows
  • Blacklist feature removes apps from the task preview (right-click on them to enable)

My own preferred Alt-Tab replacement program is TaskSwitcher XP from NTWind Software. The first, and most important difference to the other choices, is that the UI of TaskSwitcher XP is better -- and to me, that's most important for this basic function replacement. Here are a few of the features of TaskSwitcher XP:
  • Small and Fast; less than 1 MB
  • Task management capabilities such as ending a process
  • Very configurable
  • Mouse and keyboard controls
  • Supports multilingual
  • Source code is available at SourceForge.net

It may seem like a small thing, but if you run more than 2 to 4 applications at once, you owe it to yourself to get a more powerful Alt-Tab switcher.

14 March, 2008

RSS Reader on your Blackberry (or Windows Mobile)

I recently found a new RSS Reader, viigo, which works on my Blackberry. It's easy to install, and it just works. It comes pre-installed with some existing channels, which you can remove. You can also add more through browsing a list provided or by entering your own feed URL. You can also go to the viigo website and add feeds through their interface, including importing an OPML file. viigo also supports three aggregators: bloglines, Google Reader, and My Yahoo!.

I find this a great way to keep up on news while waiting around, whether for a meeting to start or an appointment. No longer do I sit and be bored reading last years issue of Time or National Geographic; I now have easy access to content I am interested.

12 March, 2008

See Internet pictures with an innovative browser plug-in

Posting and viewing pictures on the Internet has become a popular activity with sites such as Flickr and Picasa, as well as social networking sites Facebook and MySpace. I have always thought that the quality of the photos are not what they should be; now my opinion has changed. With the PicLens plug-in for Firefox, Internet Explorer, and Safari, there is a new way to browse pictures that really helps bring out the quality of high-resolution photos.
PicLens instantly transforms your browser into a full-screen, 3D experience for viewing images on the web. Photos will come to life via a cinematic presentation that goes well beyond the confines of the traditional browser window. With PicLens, browsing and viewing images on the web will never be the same again.
At first glance, this just looks like an alternative to browsing photos -- which works quite well, by the way. But what really sold me was how good my photos look using PicLens. It is simple to use, click the arrow that is superimposed on supporting websites and it launches the PicLens viewer.
Here are some of the many websites that work with PicLens:
Don't just take my word for it though, you have to give it a try for yourself. Once you have installed the PicLens plug-in, try one of these specific photo sites:

11 March, 2008

Goodbye Comcast, Hello Verizon FIOS

In a blog on February 26, 2008, I told you about Comcast being investigated by the FCC for their network management -- specifically P2P apps. I also suggest that you should quit using Comcast as a vendor. Well today I canceled my Comcast services as I now am using Verizon FIOS. So far, no problems with Verizon's service. Now, only time will tell.

So you think your a good Engineer?

A 2007 Independent Games Festival finalist, Armadillo Run is a fun, unique game that tests your creativity, knowledge of physics, and engineering skills to win. Armadillo Run presents you with a series of more and more complex puzzles to solve -- using a selection of building materials with various characteristics, build a way for the Armadillo to escape.

Building materials? Armadillo? It's not as crazy as it may sound. First, the Armadillo is just a round ball. And, your materials include the following:
  • Metal bars
  • Rope
  • Cloth
  • Sheet metal
  • Elastic
  • Rubber
  • Rockets

Oh, and you are given a budget too; you don't get those materials for free. Finally, you have the ability to set tension and a timer that will break a connection free. Combine this with increasingly difficult, 50 levels of play, plus 10 bonus rounds, and we're talking many hours of brain struggling fun.

Think this might be for you? You can try the demo for free, and buy for only $19 USD. Oh, and it's less than 2mb in size -- no worries about eating up a huge chunk of your hard drive. And the recommended PC specs are minimal too:
  • Windows 95 - XP
  • 1GHz CPU
  • 128MB RAM
  • OpenGL-compatible graphics card
You think you're up for the challenge? See how much you can complete before running to the Internet for hints.

10 March, 2008

Macro language for Windows -- AutoHotKey

Some colleagues at work have been touting AutoHotKey as a good way to write macros for Windows. I thought, "what do I need to write any macros for?" Well today I finally had a need, and AutoHotKey came through with flying colors. AutoHotKey is an open source macro program for Windows. You can use it to replace keyboard, joystick, and mouse operations; you can even save it as an .exe so you can run your macros on machines that do not have AutoHotKey installed.
I had to update about 50 entries in a database with the same text, but my only interface was through my web browser. I had a list of records in Excel, so using AutoHotKey, I was able to perform my updates in 1/10th of the time. All I did was select the next record and press my keyboard shortcut -- AutoHotKey did the rest. Here's what AutoHotKey did:
  1. Copy the record number from Excel
  2. Go to my web browser and paste the record number in to find the record
  3. Click modify record
  4. Click to another tab
  5. Go to the 5th line and paste in the update text
  6. Save the record
I used the Auto Script Writer with AutoHotKey to create my macros -- I didn't need to know how to program at all to make it work -- it recorded my actions for me. If you have AutoIt Script scripts, it can run those too. AutoHotKey comes with a rich help system, tutorials, and many examples on its website.

If you really want to explore AutoHotKeys potential, it comes pre-installed with many extras including an API and a script to help you write scripts.

This script watches while you edit an AutoHotkey script. When it sees you type a command followed by a comma or space, it displays that command's parameter list to guide you.
Next time you need a windows macro or just want some simple shortcuts, give AutoHotKey a look. I think you will find it powerful, yet easy to use.

Switched to Vista yet? Not me.

The New York Times just released an article that indicates the problems within Microsoft with Vista.
“It would be a lot less costly to do the right thing for the customer now,” said Robin Leonard, a Microsoft sales manager, in an e-mail message sent to her superiors, “than to spend dollars on the back end trying to fix the problem.”
This is just one of the many quotes found in this article. How about the 3 strikes of Vista Capable branding? It's there too. If you bought one of these products, you should know that "Last month, Judge Marsha A. Pechman granted class-action status to the suit, which is scheduled to go to trial in October."

And they wonder why so many folks are thinking Mac...