Saturday, 27 August 2005

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Identify and zap rogue background processes

If you open up your Windows task manager and take a peek at the list of programs running in the background you might be surprised to see how much memory they're sucking up. Are they all absolutely necessary? Are they malevolent or benign? Often it's difficult to tell because Task Manager only displays their truncated file names. Rarely do malware authors label their wares, 'enormous memory-hogging computer destroying virus.exe', which if you ask me is rather cheeky of them.

One way to find out for sure what these processes are up to is to search for them in the Process Library database. The results will either put your mind at rest, or inform you of the level of threat the parasitic code poses if left to lurk on your system.

Anti-spyware tools should eliminate such gremlins, but since no single scanner is capable of detecting them all, I'd strongly advise you to run any remaining suspect processes through the above search engine to keep your system healthy.

Friday, 26 August 2005


Dyslexic eBayers bag the best bargains

Pudgy digited sellers are rife on eBay. They hammer out their listings' titles and descriptions faster than the speed of light and submit the resulting gibberish without proof reading it first. Unless you're as stupid as the sellers * you aren't going to find these auctions, and they will predictably end with no bids.

Fat Fingers has the solution; type in a smattering of keywords and the site will scour eBay for any auctions containing their mistyped variants. Because so few people will think of searching for 'praystayshon' (unless they're Chinese that is - oops, there I go again) when they're seeking a Sony Playstation, you may find you're the only bidder and win the auction for a rock-bottom price.
It really works. Only last week I managed to pick up a 'jundred lound bote' for a fiver!

* not that I want to equate stupidity with dyslexia you understand - some of the most brilliant thinkers throughout history were dyslexic. Phew, that ought to keep the baying PC mob from clawing at my throat.

Thursday, 25 August 2005

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Google fills in the blanks

I couldn't tell you if this search refining feature is new, or just new to me, but it's one well worth adding to your info mining arsenal.

If you want Google to forage for a particular phrase, though can't bring it to mind in its entirety, you can replace the tip-of-the-tongue, missing words with stars and let Google fill in the blanks. This might be a useful way to look up song lyrics, amongst other things. Note that you aren't required to enclose the words in speech marks to instruct Google to search for them in the order they were entered.

Stars are useful for finding quick answers to concise questions too: try entering the text the capital of paraguay is * and you'll be told in no uncertain terms - two million times no less - that the answer you seek is 'Asuncion'. Great for pub quizzes then... if you happen to have a laptop with you, and your local boozer is equipped with WAP, and the other participants are too drunk to notice you furiously bashing away at your keyboard, coincidentally right after each question has been posed.

You could also use stars to quickly assess the general consensus of opinion on any given topic. For instance, if you submitted the text george bush is an * you might be given the impression that Darth Bush isn't exactly dynamite in the popularity stakes - in fact you'd have to click through to page five before you struck upon a positive adjective... and even these ones look conspicuously sarcastic/ironic.

Other Google search modifiers to have escaped my notice until now include:-

filetype: (or ext:) - extremely useful for tracking down PDF journal articles or technical manuals e.g. ipod user manual filetype:pdf

allintitle: - limits search results to those containing your specified keywords in the title of the pages e.g. allintitle:charlie and the chocolate factory

allinurl: - limits search results to those containing your specified keywords in the web address e.g. allinurl:extras ricky gervais

Still thirsty for more? Try Google Guide's advanced operators reference page.

Wednesday, 24 August 2005

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Gmail gets even more bettererer

With every newspaper and mainstream media outlet covering the story, you can't have failed to notice that today Google unveiled their shiny new instant messenger software. While this is great news, there's not a lot more I can say on the subject which you haven't already heard, so instead I will focus on a lesser known improvement to have sneaked in Gmail's backdoor minus the fanfare.
'Send mail as' allows you to send email from any of your assorted accounts (Gmail, Yahoo, Hotmail or whatever) via a single Gmail web interface.

Picture the scene: you're logged into your '' account, pumping out lewd messages to complete strangers based on the other side of the globe. Out of the blue it dawns on you that you need to submit an important, and probably overdue, report to your boss. Traditionally you would have to end your current session and log back into Gmail using your '' username before sending your attachment, and groveling apology.
Not with the 'send mail as' gizmo! You would simply compose a new message in the usual way, and using the drop-down 'from' menu, select your business/formal correspondence username from the list. Your real name and formal address is appended to the message as though you'd sent it directly from that account.

To enable the feature, log into your account and click on the 'settings' link followed by the 'accounts' tab. Make the 'add another email address' page your next port of call and enter one of your alternative email addresses and the name you would like to be associated with it. To verify that you are the genuine owner of the address entered, an activation email will be sent to it. Click on the link contained in this message and you're ready to rumble.

I have two Gmail accounts; one for my blog, message boards and other online subscriptions, and another one I use when I want people to think I'm a real, reasonably normal human being. The 'send mail as' feature was ready and waiting for action under my 'please take me seriously' account, but absent from my ever-so-slightly older nickname account, so if you can't find the 'accounts' tab in your settings menu you're (probably) not blind, stupid or both; your account may be one of the ones awaiting an upgrade.

Saturday, 6 August 2005

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When full blast isn't loud enough

My Creative Rhomba MP3 player came loaded with European firmware (so I'm led to believe). Because some EU directive or other dictates that the volume of portable audio devices has to be restricted (presumably because some people are too feeble-minded to turn it down when their ears start to bleed) I'm unable to listen to certain audiobooks without editing them first.

The problem is that music files are encoded using various 'gain' (i.e. decibel) levels. Some have the maximum volume set very low, while others are set high enough to hollow out your cranium faster than a mutant, flesh-eating virus. If you've ramped up the volume to the maximum and still can't hear your track over the environmental background noise don't trash it just yet - keep reading to discover several potential solutions.

Some manufacturers release multiple, regional firmware updates - US and EU varieties at least. If you are able to flash your EU player with the US firmware you can often eliminate the volume restrictions. Unfortunately this didn't help in my case. I'm told this could be because the US and EU firmware is identical, or that there were no restrictions on the player to begin with - the power output could simply be very mediocre. This coupled with a subdued MP3 track is enough to leave you straining to hear what sounds like a game of Chinese whispers.

The next thing to try if that didn't help is to edit the tracks, turn up the gain (or 'normalise' them) and then re-encode the MP3s. This can be accomplished using the cross-platform audio editor, Audacity.

Here's how:-

- Run the application and open the track you wish to amplify.

- In the left hand panel next to the waveform display there's a slider with a minus symbol at one end, and a plus symbol at the other. Drag the marker which intersects the line towards the right to increase the decibel level. Go overboard and you will create nothing but painful distortion. I chose to boost the gain by 12db. This turned out to offer an ideal balance between sound quality and audibility, but your mileage will vary depending on the track used.

- Select 'File' then 'Export as MP3' to re-encode the corrected track. A new file will be created, leaving the original one intact, so don't worry about corrupting it. You can always try again with different settings if something goes wrong.

Windows users may like to give MP3Gain a shot instead. A Mac port exists known as MacMP3Gain, though it wouldn't behave itself when I tried it - probably because it's not been updated for nearly two years and so doesn't take into account the many OS X changes which have occurred in the mean time.

Another problem I had is that I couldn't get my MP3 player to play the ridiculous number of bitty files my audiobooks were split into in the correct order. They should automatically be organised in alpha-numeric order - should. Hmmf! In reality they play in the order in which they were transferred to the memory, so unless you want your book to read like the disjointed, though head-spinningly superb movie, Memento, you will have to drag each file over individually in sequence. Try doing that with an unabridged, epic novel like Lord of the Rings, split into 1mb chunks!

Luckily help is close at hand in the form of the Mac-only, labour-saving gizmo, ReJoiner. Select the folder containing your serialised audiobook, hit the 'ReJoin' button and the program will launch iTunes and use it to merge them together into a single MP3 file. Note that it can struggle to combine hundreds of files at once (most likely due to memory limitations) so you might like to separate your audiobooks into folders on a per chapter basis and combine them one at a time. Most flash-based MP3 players don't have the capacity to store such huge files in any case so this isn't really much of a drawback.

For Windows users there's Oliver Frietsch's ReOrganize which, if you have a compatible MP3 player, will allow you to re-arrange the playback order of your tracks once they have been transferred to your portable audio device.

Before researching these infuriating design flaws, the other option I seriously considered was hurling my MP3 player at the wall, kicking the furniture and cursing quite a bit. My ickle, oblivious Rhomba doesn't know how close it came to meeting its maker. Who knows? Maybe it could have asked Creative why it was born with half a brain and return from the other side to pass on this newfound, otherworldly knowledge. For now it has been granted a (temporary?) reprieve.