Thursday, November 27, 2008

Diagnose a Faulty Hard Disk From the Sounds Made by it

Amit has collected some excellent resources relating to sounds emitted by a failing hard disk. If your hard disk is making strange sounds it’s possible that it nearing it’s end, because noises are often symptoms of a hard disk that is about to go kaput.

A typical healthy hard disk should be almost soundless. However, not all sounds coming out of your computer cabinet may be signs of trouble. Often the culprit is a noisy fan or loose screws. If you have eliminated all external sound sources and still hear clicking or whining noises from the hard drive, then visit Datacent’s resource of failing hard drive sounds.

hard_disk2 Datacent has an amazing collection of sounds recorded from actual hard disks with specific problems. A wide range of hard disks from different manufacturers are present. From the sounds it’s possible to determine whether the hard disk has a head problem or a platter or bearings problems etc. Some of the sounds are very feeble and has to be listened intently.

Another site, EcoDataRecovery has a few resources of sound emitted by bad hard disks. Just hover the mouse over the type of sound to know the possible causes of it.

Make sure you don’t hear any of these sounds in your hard disk because it can spell disaster. If you are unfortunate enough to hear it, then check out these data backup and recovery tools.

Related articles: Monitor the health of your hard disks, Learn to keep your PC cool to extend life of devices and components

Automatically lock your computer when you walk away from it

When you are using a computer in office or any public place where others can access it, you can quickly lock your computer by pressing Win+L when you need to move away from it temporarily. In case you keep forgetting to lock your PC, you can use BtProx.

BtProx is a small Windows application that takes advantage of Bluetooth’s basic ability to detect Bluetooth devices to automatically lock your Windows computer whenever you walk away from it.

 Btprox1

To use it, you need a Bluetooth enabled cell phone or any suitable device and pair it to your computer. BtProx runs on the system tray and continually checks to make sure your phone is within range. If you walk away from your computer and outside the range of the Bluetooth device, BtProx will activate your screensaver to lock your screen or even run the program of your choice.

 btprox2

One disadvantage of this application is that Bluetooth needs to be kept turned on at all times which can significantly drain your cell phone battery. BtProx is a freeware and open source and it works with both Windows XP and Vista.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Automatically convert almost any file format with OmniFormat

OmniFormat is an ad supported file conversion software that allows you to convert almost any file format into another, and it does that automatically. That’s what particularly interested me in this application. OmniFormat has some features that I couldn’t find in any free file converter.

The two biggest plus points of OmniFormat are

1. It supports up to 75 different file formats including the most popular formats like PDF, HTML, DOC, XLS, PPT, JPG, GIF, TIF, PNG, PCX, XML, PS, TXT, Photo CD, FAX and MPEG.

2. The file conversion process is automatic. OmniFormat can watch certain folders on your hard drive for files. Whenever you place any file in that folder, OmniFormat will automatically convert it to the desired format.

omniformat

OmniFormat can however convert files to only one format at a time. For instance, if you set the output format as PDF, any files you copy to the watched folder will be converted to PDF. If you need another format, you will have to change the output format in the program and all further file conversion will happen to the new format. The quality of the output format, brightness and contrast, paper size, memory usage etc can all be customized. OmniFormat can be run as a Windows service too.

I tested the application with a couple of different file types. I was able to convert almost any documents into PDF with good quality. I even managed to convert documents to image files. The program can create individual image files for each pages of the documents or convert the whole document into a single image file. Next I set the output format to MPG and added some image files. To my surprise, the image files were turned into single frame videos that can actually be played on a media player! The reverse didn’t work though – video files cannot be converted into documents.

OmniFormat reduces the task of file conversions to a simple copy and paste job. If you can stand the 10 seconds or so delay, while it displayed some banners every time the application started, you will love using this tool.

Before you can install and use OmniFormat you need to install two additional applications - Pdf995 Printer Driver (direct download, 2.1 MB) and Free Converter (direct download, 5 MB), both of which are free.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Create temporary and disposable chat rooms with Stinto

You have heard of (and also used) disposable email addresses, which helps you to avoid spam or be anonymous when signing up for services. Now two guys from Germany has applied the same idea to chat rooms, but with a different purpose. Their new web application Stinto, allows you to create chat rooms on demand, any time you need to chat with a friend or friends. Stinto is ideal when different users using different instant messaging applications need to quickly get down together to discuss an important idea without having to spend three hours arguing which IM client to use. With Stinto you don’t need to download any IM application or follow long registration procedures. All you need is the browser.

stinto-logo

Creating temporary chat rooms with Stinto is as easy as it can get – just visit the homepage and click on New Chat to generate a unique URL which will take you to the chat room. Now send this link to all your friends you want to chat with. When your friends visit this link they will be taken to a login page where they will enter their name or any name since there is no user verification. Upon login, they can enter the chat room and freely chat with anybody who has been invited to join.

stinto

The creator of the chat room can remove any user who may have logged in without an invitation, though it’s unlikely to happen as all URLs have a unique and random ID which cannot be guessed. The chat room creator can also lock the room so that no further login is possible. He can also unlock it if required. Stinto’s chat rooms are simple and provides some basic tools like ignoring users, downloading chat messages and sound alerts.

The chat rooms get deleted after a certain period of inactivity, which is 6 hours by default but can be extended up to 24 hours. All chat messages and user lists are deleted too. However, even after the end of a chat session, the room creator cannot delete the room himself - the room has to time-out the inactivity period. But by locking the room you can prevent anybody from snooping into it.

Stinto is a wonderful application and it’s so easy to use that now even your grandma can chat!

Saturday, November 22, 2008

PicPick Tools – The ultimate toolbox for bloggers and designers

As a blogger, I have to use a number of design tools to help me with my work. A screen capture and an image editor is a must when writing reviews of software and services. Some additional design tools are needed when editing templates. Recently I discovered a gem of a software - PicPick Tools. This software is a free all-in-one solution for graphic designers, software developers, bloggers and anyone who need to work with images. Usually, programs that does a lot of things suffer from lack of usability because either they are too complex or have a bad design or tries to do too many things yet none of them works right. PicPick Tools is different.

picpick-menuPicPick’s intuitive interface makes it ideal for beginners and the plethora of tools make it excellent for a pro user. Every single tool on PicPick is accessible from the system tray through a menu – no need to dig through window after window to get to them. Everything is clear as daylight.

PicPick’s image editor provides you with all the basic image editing tools you require like cropping, changing orientation, changing hues, creating shapes, applying filters, blurring, adding text and other image effects. The image editor is a good replacement for Paint.NET program that I have been using.

pickpick-main 

PicPick’s screen capture tools are the best I’ve seen so far. You can capture the full screen, the active window or a selected portion of the screen which can be either rectangular or free-hand drawn. There are keyboard hotkeys for each type. The captured screen can be opened directly in the image editor for editing, copied to the clipboard or automatically saved to the hard disk without bothering you. Unlike most screen capture tools, PicPick has the ability to capture the mouse as well.

The color picker tool allows you to pick colors from anywhere on the screen. Again, this tool provides more flexibility than other color picking tools by allowing users to copy the picked color as HTML, RGB, C++ (0x000000 type) or Delphi ($00000000) format. The most impressive feature of the color picker is the color history. How many times have you picked the same color again and again because there is no option to save it? Now forget about repeated color pickings.

pickpick-color-history

The next set of tools helps you take measurements of screen objects. This comprises of a Ruler using which you can take horizontal and vertical measurements, a Crosshair to get the position of any pixel on the screen, and a Protractor to measure angles between two lines. Now this is something new. I haven’t seen any software implementing a protractor before. I don’t know where I will use it, but someday it will come handy.

The last tool in PicPick is the Whiteboard. The Whiteboard allows you to write on the screen with the mouse and then capture it as a screenshot. Suppose you wish to take a screenshot of a program and then add some markings on it like an arrow, you would have to take a screenshot and then edit it. But by doing it directly on Whiteboard, you eliminate one extra step. The pen width and color can be adjusted, however, you can only scribble as the pen is the only tool available on the Whiteboard – no text or shapes.

PicPick Tools is simply brilliant. This single application has replaced 4 of my most used programs. I have to give credit to the developers for bringing out such a fine program. Despite all the tools crammed into this little software, it’s memory footprint is surprisingly low at around 18 MB. PicPick is portable too. I seriously recommend this program to all blogger and designers.

Friday, November 21, 2008

eTextReader makes reading Project Gutenberg books easier

Project Gutenberg is one of my favorite sites on the Internet. Those who have heard this name for the first time (go stand in the corner!), Project Gutenberg is a voluntary organization that digitizes, archives and distributes books which are mostly in the public domain. Founded in 1971, it is the oldest digital library with a collection of over 25,000 free books and a grand total of 100,000 books at Project Gutenberg Partners, Affiliates and Resources.

My biggest gripe with Project Gutenberg, apart from the fact that I have to read it off a monitor, is the format with which Gutenberg distributes the books. These books are available in a single ridiculously long text file with  a horrible font that makes reading an extremely painful activity. Then I discovered a wonderful program called eTextReader.

eTextReader is a program that automatically splits the plain text Project Gutenberg files into pages and displays it in a 2-page book layout. The program can open Text files, HTML, RTF, Palm DOC, OpenOffice/StarOffice SXW, simple XML, MS Word DOC files, also directly from within zip archives. Multiple files/books can be opened and joined.

etext reader

The look and format of the page is customizable - you can change the fonts, sizes, color, page margin etc. You can bookmark up to three pages to return back later, create a table of contents, add annotations etc. You can customize each book separately; the customizations are stored in individual .INI files.

There are a handful of keyboard shortcuts for easy navigation like, the arrow keys to move forward and backward by a single page, PageUp and PageDown to move forward or backward by 10 pages. The spacebar moves forward 2 pages at a time and gives the impression of a page turn.

eTextReader prevents accidental editing of the file because the viewer is read only. However, if you need to edit a file, there is a File Editor.

This application is highly recommend to those who frequently read Project Gutenberg books.

eTextReader latest version 1.91 is a beta release but has better features than the previous stable release 1.82. In order to use version 1.91 you have to first install version 1.82.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Make Linux look like Windows XP (Part 2)

One clever Linux user has put together a number of custom icons, themes, backgrounds and other tweaks to create a script which he calls XpGnome. XpGnome will give a GNOME based Linux desktop a strikingly similar Windows XP look. Those who are having trouble installing LXP, the other “make Linux look like Windows XP” theme, can give this one a try. Just download the zip file and extract it’s contents. Then run the "InstallXpGnome.sh" by double-clicking it and choosing "Run".

XpGnome will make the following changes.

Icons, GTK, Metacity, Splash, GDM Theme, Panel Background, Desktop Background, Visible Desktop Icons, Nautilus Tree View, Toolbar to Icons only. Deletes all GNOME Panels and adds a new one at bottom with Start Menu, Show Desktop, Window Switcher, Notification Area, Volume Control and Clock.

xpgnome1

xpgnome3

XpGnome is just a batch script that makes a load of changes to the system. It doesn’t come with any uninstaller. So if you want to revert the changes, you have to do it manually. Alternatively, you can create a dummy user account to test it.

How to find and remove dead and duplicate browser bookmarks

If you are in the habit of bookmarking every interesting page you find on the Internet, your browser bookmarks might be a mess by now, just like mine. And often I bookmark the same page multiple times without knowing it already exist in my collection. That’s why I use a wonderful application called AM-DeadLink.

AM-DeadLink is a free tool that checks your browser (IE, Firefox or Opera) bookmarks for dead and duplicate links. Once the scan is completed it will display the full results of each and every bookmarked link and their status – alive or error 404. Click the button "Sort bookmarks with errors to top of list” to quickly view all dead links. Then select all the dead links and delete them all at one go.

aim-deadlink

Finding duplicates and removing them is even easier. Click on “Find duplicates” and it will show you all duplicate entries. Now click on “Select all duplicates but one” to highlight all duplicated entries except one. For instance, if you have bookmarked the same page thrice, AM-DeadLink will select two while keeping one enabling you to quickly remove extra bookmarks.

AM-DeadLink also has an inbuilt browser allowing you to quickly open and view pages. Additionally you can download FavIcons for all your bookmarks and save them on your hard disk.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Google’s Life magazine photo archive

Life Magazine, the first all-photo news magazine from the U.S., has just released it’s photo archive via Google. The archive comprising of over 2 million photos is available on a special page launched by Google where you can browse the entire collection by topic or date. The image archive is also searchable through Google Image search by adding the parameter “source:life” in the search query. This is great news for all who love vintage photos.

life_archive

Google says that many of the images available in the collection were never actually published by Life.

Only a very small percentage of these images have ever been published. The rest have been sitting in dusty archives in the form of negatives, slides, glass plates, etchings, and prints. We're digitizing them so that everyone can easily experience these fascinating moments in time. Today about 20 percent of the collection is online; during the next few months, we will be adding the entire LIFE archive — about 10 million photos.

Inside the archive you can access the full sized image, and since most of these photos are very old (some dating back to the 1750s!) they fall under the public domain. So you can publish, edit and share the photos at will.

[via Official Google Blog]

Find places to pee anywhere in the world!

So you are out on the streets walking down a city block or driving on a highway and suddenly you have a strong urge to use the bathroom. Unless you are still in the age of nappies, which you are probably not, you have to find a toilet because when you got to go, you got to go! What do you do? Whip out your web equipped cell phone or your laptop and go to Sit Or Squat. Type the name of the place where you are and it will show you a map, a Google Map, with toilets marked every where. Locate the one which is nearest to you and relieve yourself.

sitorsquat

The website currently works best only on a large screen like those on a laptop, but work for developing a mobile compatible version is in progress, according to their website. The toilets on Sit Or Squat can be submitted by anyone. The site can even be personalized for each member based on their needs and preferences. The funny part is, the site even allows you to “socialize” based on your loo habits. A member is able to create a list of their “favorite toilets” and then share them with their friends (holy shit!). “As time goes by and more data is recorded, the site will continue to get more accurate in ratings as well as more options in places to go”, they say.

And in case you are wondering who came up with weird idea, Sit Or Squat has this info on their team in their about page:

Danika Landers is an artsy fartsy girl who happens to find bathrooms fascinating and fun to talk about. Yes, she has a big weird side to her, how else do you make a site devoted to bathrooms?

Saturday, November 15, 2008

CheatBook Database - The encyclopedia of game cheats

A die hard gamer would get pissed if they saw someone using cheats and walkthroughs in games, but you have to agree, sometimes little hint or the "God Mode" becomes necessary to beat a particularly hard part of the game. If you're an avid gamer and want a few extra weapons and tools the survive the game, CheatBook DataBase is exactly the resource you would want.

CheatBook DataBase 2008 is a freeware cheat-code tracker that has a massive collection of hints, cheats, easter eggs and walkthroughs of more than 14,200 games. This database covers all kinds of games - games for PC, Playstation, Sega, Nintendo, Gameboy, N-Gage, Xbox, Gamecube, Dreamcast, Wii and Sony PSP, all accessible from one central location. Additionally, CheatBook DataBase releases updates, often monthly, comprising of cheats and hints of latest releases. The newest released update of November 2008 enlarges the collection with an additional 674 PC Games, 62 Walkthroughs for PC and 75 Console Cheats. This is huge!

cheatbook-database_2008

Games are listed alphabetically in the left-hand window. When you click on a game name, the relevant cheat is displayed in a editor window, with convenient buttons that let you view cheats or walkthroughs and print the selection or save any changes you've made. You can search for a game or filter the game list by platform like PC and Consoles.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

PagePlus SE - The free alternative to Adobe Pagemaker

Even though the main players in the field of desktop publishing are Adobe Pagemaker and Microsoft Office Publisher, there are a few decent competitors like Corel Ventura and Serif PagePlus. All of them are commercial tools and comes with a heavy price tag, particularly because DTP softwares are targeted towards professional desktop printing jobs. But of course, there are free DTP softwares like the open source Scribus which I wrote about earlier. Another freeware is Serif PagePlus SE which is the free edition of the commercial application Serif PagePlus.

PagePlusSE

Serif PagePlus SE is based on the older version of Serif PagePlus, actually several versions older, but still powerful enough for most users. Serif PagePlus is a notable desktop publishing software with features rivaling that of Adobe's and Microsoft's. The free edition of PagePlus is slightly crippled, being an older version, but works for any entry level DTP work. Some features that you will miss are - the inability to output files in the PDF format, lack of a Web Publishing mode and the lack of support for a few graphic filters like PCX.

Read the full list of key features of Serif PagePlus SE.

VideoSurf script shows frame previews of web videos

The video search engine VideoSurf has released a Greasemonkey script for Firefox that insert a unique "visual summary" strip consisting a frame previews of the video, into the search result page of Google, Yahoo, YouTube and CBS. VideoSurf's advanced algorithms intelligently identify the "most interesting" scenes in each video and creates a nice visual summary that shows you what a video is all about with just a glance. In other words, you never have to be rick rolled again!

video-surf-utube

I tried to make the script work for other search sites, since Lifehacker reported that it will "most likely" work for any streaming Flash videos. Unfortunately, it doesn't. I couldn't get it to work for other video sites like Metacafe, Liveleak etc. But then, it supports Youtube and Google - that's enough for most of us.

View ancient Rome in 3D with Google Earth

Yesterday Google announced the release of Ancient Rome 3D, a layer for the popular Google Earth application which allows users to explore the historic city as it stood on 320 AD.

Through this layer, a user will be able to view a virtual representation of the city in 320 AD at the height of its development as the capital of the Roman Empire, fly around the city to view more than 6700 historic buildings and zoom into eleven ancient structures, such as the Colosseum, to view the detailed interiors. Using this layer, a user can also learn about Ancient Rome through information bubbles written by historians.

google-earth-rome1 google-earth-rome2

Google's press release offers a tempting description.

Within the Ancient Rome 3D layer users can visit the Roman Forum, stand in the center of the Colosseum, trace the footsteps of the gladiators in the Ludus Magnus, stand on the Rostra, swoop over the Basilica Julia, fly under The Arch of Constantine or even examine the detail on the facade of the Basilica of Maxentius.

Google is also sponsoring a curriculum contest for K-12 educators in the United States, encouraging teachers to submit creative, innovative lesson plans that incorporate the Ancient Rome 3D layer and offering them a chance to win Apple MacBook laptops, Digital classroom projector, Digital camera and a lot more.

Time travel anyone?

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Add annotations to a PDF file with PDF-XChange Viewer

The PDF file format is often used to create documents that are read-only, for instance, ebooks, an announcement etc. The purpose is to prevent the user from editing the document, either intentionally or accidentally. Usually, a PDF viewer does not have any editing tools, which makes the PDF file format the "safest" document format ever.

PDF-XChange Viewer is one such PDF viewer with one useful addition. It allows you to add comments and annotations in the form of sticky notes to the pages of a PDF file. Suppose you want to add some comments or notes to certain pages of a PDF file for future reference, you can do so with PDF-XChange Viewer. The comments can be added at any position on the page and they appear as a small talk-bubble with a sticky note. The sticky note can be closed or opened as required, and the position of the sticky note on the page is shown by the talk bubble. The actual position where the sticky note will pop-up when the page is opened can be anywhere on the page and can be adjusted by dragging the note to a suitable location, for instance, the side of the page so that it doesn't obstruct the text.

pdf-xchanger

The annotated PDF file can then be saved in the PDF format, and can be viewed with the sticky notes intact in any PDF viewer. This is another beauty of the program. So if you send a PDF file with comments attached to your friend, he or she can view it like a normal PDF file in any PDF viewer.

Apart from this handy annotating feature, PDF-XChange Viewer is actually a very good PDF viewer. It's opens fast and loads very large PDF files very quickly. Even pages with high image content scroll very smoothly. An amazing good PDF viewer with a handy utility.

PDF-XChange Viewer is available both as an installable application and a portable application. The portable version is significantly smaller and lighter than the "normal" version. I recommend you use the portable one.

Also read: How to bookmark a page in PDF

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

How to know when an offline website becomes available again?

When surfing the web you must have come across websites that are temporarily unavailable due to server downtime. It happens quite often. Not every time a website is unavailable due to server errors. Some time a website may be undergoing maintenance or up-gradation work due to which it might go offline for a couple of hours. You might stumble upon such an offline website either by following a link from another website or via a search result page. In any case, the web page shows an error message and you are unable to view it. And if your luck is as bad as mine, the unavailable website will most certainly hold the most promising content.

page-cannot-display

There are two ways to tackle this. If you happen to come to the unavailable website from a search result page, then you can still view the page from the search engines' cache. Just below the link to the web page on the search results page, you will find another link "Cached", which will take you to the copy of the page saved at the search engines' database.

google-cached

The cached copy might be a mirror of the page saved just a couple of minutes ago, or it might be several days or even months old, depending upon the page content and the website. This is the easiest method to access an unavailable page if you happen to visit it from a search engine.

The second way is to bookmark the page and visit it later. But how much later? If you happen to use Firefox, you can take advantage of a very useful addon called Mr Uptime. When you come across a web page that is temporarily offline, add the web page to Mr Uptime's watchlist. Mr Uptime will silently keep accessing the website in the background, and as soon as it becomes available it will notify you either by opening the page or showing an alert box.

Mr Uptime

Now sometimes, the server status code might be OK but still the page might be not working due to say, a database error. In such a case, Mr Uptime will be unable to differentiate between an OK page and a page with a working database, on it's own. You can then specify a keyword that shouldn't be there on the page, i.e. the error message. Mr Uptime will then tell when that keyword isn't on the page any more. Very smart.

Update: Mr Uptime now works with Firefox 3, so the following hack is not required

Mr Uptime is not compatible with Firefox 3 and so you will have to force it to make it work. For this, follow these steps before installing the addon.

  • Type about:config into Firefox's address bar and click the "I'll be careful, I promise!" button.
  • Right-click anywhere. Choose New>Boolean. Make the name of your new config value extensions.checkCompatibility and set it to false.
  • Make another new boolean pair called extensions.checkUpdateSecurity and set the value to false.
  • Restart Firefox.

Now install Mr Uptime.

Related: Get notified when your favorite website is up again

Temporarily lock optical drives with the CD/DVD Drive Locker

If you have kids at your home, then you are probably aware of this situation - it's nearly impossible to keep them away from fiddling with stuff. And the most attractive toy in the house, is of course, the computer. The computer cabinet, which usually resides below the desk, is the item that is within their reach. Plenty of blinking red and green LEDs and numerous buttons to play with keeps them entertained. Their favorite activity is opening and closing the CD/DVD drive tray repeatedly, and it can drive you mad. Those who have experienced this can understand what I'm talking about.

cd-dvd-locker

The CD/DVD Drive Locker was made precisely for this purpose. Just launch the application and select the optical drive(s) you want to lock and they will stop responding to the open/close button. When you need to use the drives, just unlock them from the application's interface or simply close the application.

Update: Link added.

Enhance Windows open and save dialogue boxes with Flashfolder

Flashfolder is a Windows open source tool that gives access to additional buttons and a wider range of options whenever you open the Open and Save dialogue boxes in any Windows application.

Flashfolder runs in the background as a service and appears as a floating toolbar that docks itself at the top of any Open/Save dialogue box. This toolbar provides menus and buttons to quickly access your favorite or custom folders without having to browse all over your drives to get to it. Since, the default Windows Open/Save dialogue box provides shortcuts to only a few locations like My documents, Recent folders etc, FlashFolder comes as a handy and time saving tool.

FlashFolder

Flashfolder's settings is accessible from the docked toolbar on any Open/Save dialogue box. Using the customize option on "Favorite folders", you can add any folders that you frequently use to the Favorites menu.

Further, FlashFolder brings several enhancement to the Open/Save windows.

  • It enlarges the common file dialogs to a configurable size (even non-resizable file dialogs of many programs)
  • It enlarges the directory and file type drop-down fields so less scrolling is needed for them. I find this feature really useful.
  • Persistent view mode for open/save dialog - e.g. if you select details view, it will be activated again the next time you open an open/save dialog
  • Shows the full path of the folder who’s content is currently displayed
  • Quickly view “all files”

Monday, November 10, 2008

Send voice mails with any email client using Speak-A-Message

Tired of typing long mails? Then try Speak-A-Message. Speak-A-Message is a free tool that enables you to send voice emails, using your default email client. The program provides a simple recording interface and using a microphone, the user records his message. Once the recording is completed, the program automatically launches the default email client with the recorded audio file attached to the message and ready to send. If you use Microsoft Outlook, it's even easier, because Speak-A-Message can integrate into the toolbar of MS Outlook.

speak-a-message

The recipient does not need to have Speak-A-Message installed since you are only sending a WMA file which can be played by any audio/video player. Before you send the audio file, Speak-A-Message enables you to replay it and listen your recorded message. With this program you can also add various sound effects to your message to spice it up. Plenty of these sound effects clips are available on their sound effects page.

The program uses fairly good voice compression - a 4 minute voice message requires only about 500kB.

Use ScrapBook+ to archive web pages for later

ScrapBook+ is a Firefox addon that allows you to archive a web page to your hard disk so that you can browse it offline, just the same way you do it online. ScrapBook+ is different from the usual "Save Page" option you find in Firefox or any browser. This addon gives you far more control on what you want to save. You can choose to save or not save the images, the stylesheet and JavaScripts on the page. You can even save external contents that the page links to such as multimedia files like movies, music and images, archives, documents and any custom file format that you specify.

The best thing about ScrapBook+ is that it can follow hyperlinks and capture those web pages as well. Rarely, you come across a web page that doesn't have any hyperlinks. In fact, that's the beauty of the world wide web. Every web site or page links to other websites which links further to more websites, thereby enabling a user to browse through these interconnected pages and discover more and more new sites. There is no dead end. However, when you save a page and later open it to read, it's a dead end. Often you realize that you need to open these hyperlinks and therefore have to go online again, which defeats the very purpose of saving a page.

scrapbook

But with ScrapBook+ you can save a page and all the linked pages and even all pages linked by the linked pages. In fact, you can go on and on. But for all practical purposes, a link depth of 1 is sufficient, which means it will only save the pages that the original page links to. So when you capture a page with link-depth 1, all the hyperlinks on the page works even when offline.

Now sometimes, you might want to do the opposite. Say, you want to save only a part of the page. Then instead of saving the whole page you can select only the part you want to save and click "Capture selection". Again, instead of saving you can bookmark a part of the page, so that when you open that bookmark you will be presented with only the part of the page you captured. Cool isn't it?

ScrapBook+ is an experimental addon and requires you to login to install. Alternatively, you can use the direct install link.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Photology - The unique photo cataloguing software goes free

Photology is a photo cataloguing and searching application for windows which is unlike any photo managing software you have seen before. It allows you to view, tag, manage, search and edit your photo collection, just like any other myriad of such tools available for Windows. This software however, has a different way of doing it.

Photology's unique user interface is the first thing that will strike you the moment you launch the application. Forget about folders. Photology uses a different approach for cataloguing your images. It features a number of different filters to sort your images - time and date, color, content (beaches, faces, water etc), inside or outside, orientation, black & white, focused or blurred and a number of other filters. The best part is, Photology's intelligent algorithm automatically identifies the images and sorts them according to the filter applied. So you don't have to sit through hours manually tagging you photo collection, and if your collection is large, you can understand how time saving can this be. Of course, you can manually tag your photos too.

photology1

Photology is not exactly an image viewer, but an image searching tool. Hence, browsing by folders is done away with and instead filters are brought into place. For instance, if you want to find the photo of your friend in a brown shirt but don't remember where you saved it, you can use the color filter to search photos having the color brown.

The "content" filter allows you to search photos by plants, flowers, faces, beach, water, snow, sky and sunset. Photology doesn't always get it right, so you have to careful while using filters that rely on the artificial intelligence of the software.

Photology2

There is another filter called location with two options - inside and outside. The inside and the outside filter differentiates photos that were taken inside and outside respectively. Photos that are well lit are generally assumed to be taken outside. This is another place where the software tends to make errors. So you have to be judicious when you use certain filters.

Photology also comes with some basic photo editing tools like cropping, rotating, red eye removing etc.

Photology has another feature called groups. Groups are like folders, but better, because a photo can be a part of more than one group without having multiple copies of the same photo.

The software is a bit heavy on resources, particularly when it's indexing your images. Overall, it's an impressive application and makes searching for photos definitively a lot easier. When Photology was released about a year ago, it had a commercial license with a price of $39 per license. Now, they have decide to go free. I think that's one good reason why you should try it.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Use CSS Text Wrapper to wrap text in any shape

If you are a blogger or a webmaster, you must be familiar with the trick of adding floating DIVs to the left or right of the text to wrap it around images. While a single DIV element is rectangular in shape, by making use of a number of small DIV elements and stacking them together vertically, we can make the text wrap around any shape. Although, it's achievable but implementing it will be a big pain since we have to adjust each DIV element after taking careful measurements. But by using CC Text Wrapper, we can do this in a flash.

CSS Text Wrapper allows you to easily generate the codes necessary to wrap text in any shapes other than just a rectangle. This is helpful when you want to wrap text around circular images. See this example. Here is another example right on this post (without images)

Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetuer adipiscing elit. Nullam pede. Donec iaculis, purus at porta tristique, pede nisi rhoncus pede, non nonummy augue nunc in tortor. Nunc gravida, nisl ac tempor rutrum, risus odio pharetra eros, eu feugiat diam nisi sit amet sem. Pellentesque habitant morbi tristique senectus et netus et malesuada fames ac turpis egestas. Nam quis neque at odio laoreet convallis.

On CSS Text Wrapper generator, there is a rectangular area on the middle of the page which will be your the working area. On this working area you will find two vertical lines on either side of the text. Grab the lines at any place, to create points and drag them on the working area to create any shape. You can also load an image on the background and use it as a guide to trace a shape around it. Before you start making shapes, adjust the size of the working area according to the size of your web page and specify the line height, which will be the height of the DIVs.

CSS-text-wrap

The CSS code is generated on the fly and you can make any number of changes to the shape and have the code instantly. CSS Text Wrapper provides you with three different methods to implement the code.

  1. A simple HTML/CSS code which you can copy and paste on any page or blog post. The code is bulky but suitable when you want to make a shape on only one page or blog. The text wrap on this post is made using this method.
  2. A HTML code with classes that you have to add to the web page and some additional codes that you have to add to your stylesheet. This code is cleaner but requires you to edit the stylesheet. Use this method if you are going to implement the text wrap feature in a number of pages on your site.
  3. The third method involves the use of JavaScript and hence will work only when JavaScript is enabled on the visitor's browser.

Use the one that suits you and create beautiful wrapping designs.

Turn your RSS feeds into podcasts with Dixero

If you like to listen to someone reading a news to you rather than read yourself, you should give Dixero a try. Dixero is a service that takes any number of RSS feeds and converts them into podcasts which you can listen to on your computer, phones or other portable devices. The podcast player can also be embedded into a blog for website.

dixero

You can create a podcast channel with either a single RSS feed or multiple feeds combined. You can keep the channel private or make it public enabling others to subscribe to it. There are three types of voices to choose from; however, once you create a channel with a particular voice there is no way of swapping voices.

Another cool feature of Dixero is Smart Channels. With smart channel, you can specify keywords to look for in the feeds, say for example - music. The player will then play only those feeds where the specified keywords occur.

Also checkout a similar service Odiogo.

View hidden files with a keyboard shortcut

HowToGeek has come up with an absolutely marvelous solution to quickly toggle the display of hidden files on your Windows computer. Often you have to view hidden files when making changes to system files or configuration files of softwares. Enabling the "show hidden files" option in Windows is a long process. The author of HowToGeek has coded a simple application in AutoHotkey script that runs in the background and toggles the status of the "show hidden files" option with a shortcut key combination - Win+H. There is no user interface to keep memory usage at a minimum, but you can customize with by editing the script which is provided on the site.

Once the application is running, all you have to do is hit the Win+H shortcut key.

togglehidden1

And immediately any hidden files will become visible. Hit the same shortcut key and the folders become hidden again.

togglehidden2

To make this application auto start, copy it to your startup folder C:\Documents and Settings\%username\Start Menu\Programs\Startup. Since there is no GUI, the only way to close the application is by killing the process through the task manager.

This application is going to make my life a lot easier. I wish it was available earlier. Download ToggleHiddenFiles.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Can an infinite number of monkeys with typewriters produce Shakespeare?

Sometimes people come up with awful analogies in an effort to describe a concept which is too difficult for a regular person to understand. One such bizarre analogy deals with monkeys, typewriters and Shakespeare. This analogy states:

An infinite number of monkeys hitting at an infinite number of typewriters for an infinite amount of time will eventually produce all works of Shakespeare.

monkey_130_roll This ridiculous Infinite Monkeys Theorem (yeah, it's given the status of a theorem since it has been repeated so many times by so many people for so many years) is actually releated to the theories of probability. What it's trying to say that if an evenly distributed random number generator generates random numbers for an infinite amount of time, the probability of generating a particular finite sequence of number becomes unusually high.

Wikipedia offers a nice explanation of this theory.

Suppose the typewriter has 50 keys, and the word to be typed is "banana". Typing at random, the chance that the first letter typed is b is 1/50, and the chance that the second letter typed is a is also 1/50, and so on, because events are independent. So the chance of the first six letters matching banana is

(1/50) × (1/50) × (1/50) × (1/50) × (1/50) × (1/50) = (1/50)6.

For the same reason, the chance that the next 6 letters match banana is also (1/50)6, and so on.

From the above, the chance of not typing banana in a given block of 6 letters is 1 − (1/50)6. Because each block is typed independently, the chance of not typing banana in any of the first n blocks of 6 letters is

monkey

As n grows, Xn gets smaller. For an n of a million, Xn is roughly 0.9999 (i.e. the chance of not typing banana is roughly 99.99%), but for an n of 10 billion Xn is roughly 0.53 (i.e. the chance of not typing banana is roughly 53%) and for an n of 100 billion it is roughly 0.0017 (i.e. the chance of not typing banana is roughly 0.17%). As n approaches infinity, the probability Xn approaches zero.

So if we bring an infinite number of typewriters for this purpose, the probability of the typewriters producing the word banana becomes close to 100%.

By the same argument, an infinite number of monkeys typing at an infinite number of typewriters will most surely produce even complex works like Hamlet or Othello.

Those who have been following my blog, and particularly those who had the patience to follow this article till now, must be wondering why I suddenly began to talk about monkeys and Shakespeare. Well, it started when I stumbled across this program called Infinite Monkeys.

The Infinite Monkeys program tries to create the 'infinite monkeys with typewriters' scenario by simulating a large number of monkeys typing random characters on the keyboard and outputting the data to files. The program creates one monkey per thread and has the capacity of creating any number of threads, and hence monkeys, depending on the capacity of the computer. I ran 5 monkeys, which is the default and which I guess my machine can handle, and in about 5 seconds they produced 50 Mb of text files. Now all I need is some volunteers to help me find Hamlet in these files! :)

infinite-monkeys

Doing some more research into this monkey business, I discovered a website called One Million Monkeys Typing. OMMT tries to "harness the literary power of one million "monkeys" typing" to churn out adventures and stories. You begin by reading a snippet of a story and then add your own segment thus advancing the story. The site hopes that when a large number of people (or monkeys) contribute it will eventually produce a literray work worthy of the Booker Prize! It says:

With a total of 1248 registered monkeys, we are 0.1248% complete to our goal.

But perhaps the funniest episode involving the Infinite Monkeys theory is, some lecturers and students from the University of Plymouth in England actually put this to test. A single computer was placed inside an enclosure with six primates. At the end of six months all they succeeded in producing was five pages of text which consisted mainly of the letter "s" and a partially destroyed computer. More on the story.

Take a mock interview of yourself on InterviewTrue

Have you realized how self conscious you become when you are interviewed? The fact that everyone is watching you, critically scrutinizing you can unnerve you and you often stumble for words and make mistakes. Practicing is the best way to improve your communication skills. If you can't find somebody to ask you questions and give feedback, then try InterviewTrue.

InterviewTrue is a website that allows you to take a mock interview of yourself with a virtual interviewer. You set up a webcam, connect to the website and start a mock interview. A virtual interviewer will ask you typical interview questions based on the type of interview you wish to take. The entire interview session is recorded via your webcam.

InterviewTrue

When the interview is over, you can replay the interview and analyze your communication skills, body language etc. InterviewTrue will also send you a transcript of the interview and you can analyze how many times you have said "umm", "uh", "I mean", "you know" and such filler words. InterviewTrue also offers you helpful advices to improve your interview skills.

Watch some of the webcam recordings of people who took the interview.

P.S: Barack Obama reportedly mumbled "uh" 73 times during a 5 min interview on “Larry King” on CNN.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Make your own spectrometer with a CD

Have a spare CD or two? I'm sure you have it. Then let's make a spectrometer out of it. A spectrometer is device that is used to determine the chemical composition of a material by measuring the electromagnetic spectrum of the light emitted by that material when incandescent. By identifying the spectral lines produced by the light, it's possible to determine the composition of the material. Spectrometers are often used in astronomy to determine the composition of stars and distant galaxies.

To make a simple spectrometer you will need a CD or DVD, a cardboard box like a cereal box and some tapes. Cut a narrow slit (about a millimeter or less) at one end of the box and place the CD at the opposite end at an angle of about 45 to 60 degree.

spectrobox3

When viewed through the eye hole, you will see a spectrum of the light entering through the slit. Adjust the angle at which you place the CD so that it gives the best view of the spectrum. Use a pressed compact disc, rather than a blank disc, for best results.

spectrobox cerealboxspectrometruse300

How does this happen?

A compact disc, CD or DVD, stores information in bits of zeros and ones in circular tracks. These tracks are so close together that they act as a diffraction grating for light. That's why you see colorful rainbows when you hold a CD to light.

Now test your CD Spectrometer to various light sources. Some light sources to try out with are:

Incandescent light

An incandescent light has continuous spectrum with all visible colors present. There are no bright lines and no dark lines in the spectrum - a typical blackbody spectrum.

incandescent2  incandescent_spectrum

Fluorescent light

The spectrum of a fluorescent light has bright lines and a continuous spectrum. The bright lines come from mercury gas inside the tube while the continuous spectrum comes from the phosphor coating lining the interior of the tube.

fluorescent fluorescent_spectrum

Sunlight

The solar spectrum is a continuous spectrum of an incandescent gas with some fine dark lines. These fine lines are fraunhofer lines produced by the gases above the surface of the sun which absorbs some of the incandescent light from the sun below.

sun1 sun_spectrum1

Neon light

The spectrum of the neon light has several bright red lines. However, not all neon lights contain necessarily contain neon gas, even though they are called neon lights. Some contain argon or other gasses that produce different spectra.

bluesign bluesign_spectrum

Blue neon sign

neon neon_spectrum

Red neon sign

Computer Display

Spectrum of cathode ray tube on the left and LCD monitor on right.

crt_spectrum laptop_spectrum

Check out some more pictures. Thanks Jerry. Also try this Java based virtual spectrometer.