Archive for category Fun Stuff

The Imagine Cup Competition

After a couple of decades of working in IT in a wide variety of different capacities, I still fondly recall my first computer: The Commodore 64.  Apart from playing tons of games, interacting on BBS’s, reading computer magazines, and writing basic (technically, BASIC) programs, I had a lot of fun just learning about how computers worked.  That was still in the early days of home computing.  Even back then, though, I had so many different ideas for great applications and games.  Now, of course, technology that is many millions of times more powerful is available globally and to a huge portion of the world. 

To me, one of the most important goals of being involved with IT is to inspire others to do the same.  There are so many different aspects of application design and development, data management, systems administration, game design, and related fields that it’s a great field with which to excite people.  Backgrounds in science, technology, and math are well complemented by skills in art, literature, entertainment, geography, sociology, and dozens of other fields. 

imageTo In order to help foster that spirit, Microsoft has created Imagine Cup.  This program is as an annual competition that allows groups from around the world to design software and receive feedback from industry judges.  The overall challenge:

Imagine a world where technology helps solve the toughest problems

Competition categories include user experience design, mobile application ideas, and a wide variety of other technologies.  More details and statistics on the Imagine Cup Competition are available from the Imagine Cup Wikipedia Page.  You can also see a summary and a list of winners in that article.

If you’re interested in participating in the competition, see the All Competitions page to get started with a list of different categories and areas of focus.  You can create an account, form a team, and submit your materials using the site.  This year, winning contestants even have the chance to Meet Bill Gates!

I’m currently volunteering as a judge for the User Experience competition, and so far I have been really impressed with the thought, effort, and creativity that the contestants have shown.  Be sure to use the links in this post to find more information!

Windows 7 Dynamic Themes (Bing)

imageWhile I can’t say that I’m overly partial to any one search engine, I tend to use Bing more often than I use Google.  I like the overall format of the results more, and I especially like seeing the daily images on the home page.  I wasn’t aware that I could get something similar for my desktop, as well (and without installing Bing Desktop or anything else that tends to want to take over your browser and OS). 

As part of it’s Windows 7 Themes page, Microsoft provides a section called “RSS dynamic themes” (it’s cleverly hidden in the list on the left).  Unlike other (non-dynamic) themes, the actual download is just a small file that allows Windows 7 machines to download images using RSS.  It may take a few minutes for your first images to appear, but after that everything seems to work properly.  For example, I can right-click on the desktop and choose “Next desktop background” if I want to move on to something else.  Overall, it’s free and seems to work well (even in the Windows 8 Consumer Preview’s Desktop mode). 

Of course, there’s also a huge list of collections of other desktop wallpaper options if the dynamic ones don’t work well for you.  Perhaps when it comes to “interior decorating” for desktop machines, it’s the little things that matter.

Microsoft Office Labs’ Ribbon Hero

Perhaps one of the most challenging issues with complex applications is in teaching users to take advantage of their many features.  Modern software like the Microsoft Office suite provide an overwhelming number of options and features that can be used to make work easier.  However, the most requested “new” features that are received by the Microsoft Office development team are already in the product.  Yes, they’ve likely been there for a long time, but users just haven’t found them.

In many of the apps I’ve written, users are often unaware of keyboard shortcuts, simpler ways to move between fields in web/Windows forms, and efficient methods for entering data.  I often cringe when I see people spend hours trying to manually perform tasks that are easily automated using application features.  Still, many application users will go to great lengths to avoid having to learn anything new (even if it will pay off in the long run).  But what about those who actually want to learn how to best use specific pieces of software?

Enter The Microsoft Office Labs Ribbon Hero.  Here’s a brief description of how it works:

Ribbon Hero is a game for Word, PowerPoint, and Excel 2007 and 2010, designed to help you boost your Office skills and knowledge. Play games (aka "challenges"), score points, and compete with your friends while improving your productivity with Office.  As a concept test, this add-in is not supported, but is an opportunity for you to try out an idea we are working on and let us know what you think.  For additional challenges and the opportunity to earn more points, download Office 2010 Beta.

The idea is somewhat unconventional, but this demo video provides a great example of how you can use it to make yourself a better Microsoft Office user.

While learning is often its own reward, the game also allows you to automatically share and compare your score with others using Facebook.  Here’s a screenshot from within Microsoft Word.

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Of course it’s unsupported code.  So, don’t plan to open up a Severity 1 case with Microsoft Product Support Services if you think you didn’t get all the points you deserve. 🙂

Overall, I think the Ribbon Hero project is a fun and useful way to stretch users’ abilities with one of the world’s most popular productivity suites.  I’m planning to rack up a pretty high score.  Who’s up the challenge?

Home Theater Power Consumption

I’ve always been curious about power consumption ever since the days before it was fashionable to think about this stuff.  The poor, lonely, unemployed, set of servers in the data center used to bother me.  Sure, they kept to themselves and rarely bothered anyone.  But, no one had the guts to fire them, and they continued to generate heat, suck down power, and take up space (who hasn’t felt that way at some point?). 

Of course, power frugality should start in the home.  When looking into getting a new TV, I noticed that actual power consumption statistics were really hard to come by.  Wattage ratings sometimes give a partial picture, but they’re far from real-world usage stats.  So, taking the problem into my own hands (literally), I used a handy power consumption meter to measure how much juice each of these devices used.  Below are details of my “test environment”.  The information is just for one configuration of devices and is completely anecdotal.  Still, I hope the information will be useful in some way and will inspire others to do the same types of tests.

The Test Environment

My current home theater setup is somewhat outdated (would-be thieves, please take note).  It includes the following:

  • A Microsoft Xbox 360: This is one of second generation units with a 120GB hard drive upgrade, obtained after a warranty replacement.  It has been running without problems for several years now.
  • Samsung LN52A630 TV: It’s a 52” LCD display; 120Hz refresh rate.
  • ReplayTV 5500 Series DVR: A standard-definition hard driver-based DVR.
  • Onkyo TX-SR507 Receiver: It’s in a standard 5.1 configuration.
  • Yamaha NS-A1738 Speakers: These are single-amped and hooked up to the received.  I also have a Polk center channel speaker and some small Polk Audio rear channels (yes, it’s a Frankenstein setup).

Power Consumption:The Results

The below tables provide details on instantaneous power consumption (in Watts) of each component in the setup.  I have tried to show the various modes, settings, and operations of the different devices.

LCD TV Power Consumption

Below are the results for various modes of my Samsung LCD TV.  The X360 uses component video cables, and the TV’s speakers are powered off (unless otherwise noted).

Mode / Configuration

Power (Watts)

Off

0

TV (Snow)

176

TV (Snow w/Menu)

226

Channel Search (Black Screen)

126

Digital TV

235

X360 (Dim)

112

X360 (On)

236

1080P Movie

236

Entertainment Mode: Sports

307

Entertainment Mode: Cinema

190

Entertainment Mode: Game

223

Dynamic Mode

303

Movie Mode

186

Energy Saving (Off)

228

Energy Saving (Low)

177

Energy Saving (Medium)

143

Energy Saving (High)

116

Energy Saving (Auto)

233

AutoMotion (Off)

227

AutoMotion (Low)

227

AutoMotion (Medium)

227

AutoMotion (High)

227

 

Xbox 360

Below is X360 power usage, based on various operations.

Mode / Configuration

Power (Watts)

Xbox360 (Dashboard)

248

Xbox360 (1080p movie)

243

Xbox360 (Halo Wars)

240

Xbox360 (Halo 3 – Disc)

265

 

Replay TV Power Consumption

As a note, the device never spins down the hard drive – it’s always running as long as the unit is plugged in.

Mode / Configuration

Power (Watts)

ReplayTV

47

ReplayTV + Receiver

97

ReplayTV + Receiver (No Audio)

50

 

Do It Yourself

Power usage meters such as the Kill-a-Watt are readily available and fairly inexpensive ($20 at NewEgg, at the time of this writing).  The general process is to simply place the meter between a plug and a wall socket.  Most of these meters will allow you to enter your cost-per-kWh rates to get estimates on daily, weekly, and annual costs. 

Summary

Hopefully this information is somewhat interesting to readers of this blog.  The fact remains that, at least in the United States, electricity costs are still far lower than they should be (based on the global impact of our consumption).  That makes this information academic, for the most part – it’s unlikely to result in significant costs savings.  Still, I somehow feel better with knowing how much power I’m burning when I’m being thoroughly destroyed in Halo online matches.

I’m also interested in seeing some other results, so please post them if you’ve got them!

Windows 7 UI Enhancements for Power Users

While there are benefits to being a highly technical “power user”, it can also come as a drawback in certain situations.  No, I’m not talking about being the de facto “Tech Support Provider” for friends and family…  It seems that many O/S’s are designed for the “lowest common denominator” user, and we techies are left with having to install hacks, reconfigure default settings, and to search for third-party utilities that fill in the gaps.  Products such as Mac OS X (with it’s one default mouse button and many missing keyboard conveniences) might work well for basic tasks, it leaves a lot to be desired.  I was disappointed that Windows Vista’s “new” desktop didn’t provide much in the way of productivity-enhancing features. 

Well, Windows 7 is about to hit the stage, and it looks like a winner from a usability standpoint.  A simple web search will return dozens of articles that look at many of the UI changes and improvements and blogs like Engineering Windows 7 go into some of the decision decisions in significant depth.  Rather than repeat the content of those articles, I’ll briefly highlight the features I’ve enjoyed most during my past few months with Windows 7:

  • The new taskbar: There are also some features that might not be readily evident.  For example:
    • You can see icons for all of your most-used programs, whether they’re running or not.  They’re always right where you expect them, which really saves time when you have a bunch of different programs open at the same time.
    • Applications can support jump lists, recent documents, and other special features that are available by hovering over an application icon or right-clicking on it.  Apps such as IE already support this quite well.
    • You can easily dock the Taskbar to the left, right, top, or bottom of the window.  In fact, this even works properly with multiple monitors.  So far, I have stuck with the standard bottom-of-screen layout, but I have tried docking it to the left, and it works well.
    • Windows7Taskbar

  • Improved multi-monitor support:  Windows 7 makes it much easier to work with multiple monitors but allowing you to quickly drag windows (even when they’re maximized) to other monitors.  In fact, my eVGA USB-to-DVI adapter is working great on Windows 7 (though I did need to download and and install the beta drivers manually).
  • Keyboard Shortcuts for Window Management: Using intuitive keyboard shortcuts is far more effective and efficient than using the mouse to arrange windows.  For example, think of all the work it typically takes to view two windows side-by-side (I never bothered to try it manually and relied on third-party utilities like DisplayFusion to help).  Using the Windows Key in conjunction with the arrow keys allow you to maximize, minimize, and move windows to any part of any monitor.  This alone saves a lot of time and really takes advantage of my three-monitor setup.  Finally, you can use Windows Key – # to open the appropriate program or folder on your computer based on its located on the taskbar. 
  • Overall Stability:  As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, I had been quite disappointed with Windows Vista’s performance and reliability (even after applying both service packs).  On the whole, Windows 7 responds much more quickly and the desktop, UI, and applications are completely reliable.  In fact, I typically reboot my computer (which runs a ton of development stuff) once a week or so.
  • New wallpapers and desktop themes: Sometimes, it’s the little(r) things that count the most.  Windows 7 ships with a great collection of default themes and backgrounds.  And, you can also download many more from the Windows 7 Personalize Your PC site.  The download process is seamless and I hope Microsoft will continue to add content frequently (as opposed to the rather missed opportunity with Windows Vista Ultimate Extras).  Furthermore, the UI improvements for switching between desktop settings has been streamlined, making it simple to make changes without third-party utilities.
  • Sidebar Gadgets: They can now be placed anywhere on the desktop and seem to use fewer system resources (just a subjective observation – I haven’t done any testing).  Unfortunately, there’s still a relative dearth of useful gadgets, but hopefully that will finally change.
  • Expanded right-click menu:  Hold SHIFT and right-click on a file or folder to see some useful new options, such as “Open Command Window Here”.  You could enable this feature in XP/Vista, but it required a Registry change and would always appear in an already long list of options.
  • ClearType and Color Tuner: Matching colors on multiple monitors has always been a pain.  While drivers from Nvidia and ATI allow you to change RGB values, these settings never seemed to “stick” for me.  Windows 7 includes built-in functionality for handling this, and it seems to work.  Better yet, it efficiently supports a multi-monitor setup.

ColorTuner

Overall, I think Microsoft has done a great  job of balancing usability for less-technical users with the features that those of the geekier persuasions can appreciate.  I have (against some practical warnings and advice) switched to using the Windows 7 Release Candidate as my primary O/S.  I’ve run into very few problems so far.  So… which useful features have I missed?

The [Solid] State of Hard Disks

A Brief History of [Wasted] Time

Over the last couple of decades, practical PC bottlenecks have moved.  I remember a time when upgrading CPUs could provide a near-linear speed increase with respect to clock speed (does anyone remember the thrill of going from a 33MHz 486 processor to a a 486/66?).  Later, keeping the processor fed became more important.  Improved memory bus speeds, lower cache latency, larger cache sizes, and more RAM often provided the best performance increase.  And of course, we had network issues – starting with dial-up performance.  Thankfully, most of those resources are no longer the slowest components in modern PCs.  In fact, CPUs have increased in performance to the point that clock speed increases give little practical benefits for most users (on the client side, at least).

Wringing some[Bottle]necks…

Over the last several years, the primary bottleneck on most of my machines (notebooks, development desktops, and music production machines) has been hard disk performance.  If I was waiting for something, it was more than likely that hard drive.  The high number and frequency of random I/Os often resulted in significant delays.  Even with large amounts of RAM, launching programs, loading web pages, and performing builds in Visual Studio could take a lot of time.  High-speed, low-latency hard disks helped a little.  And, if you can stomach the risk of data loss, RAID-0 configurations could alleviate some of the pain.  But, disk access remained the slow step in many processes.

One of my clients, Arrow Value Recovery (formerly,  TechTurn, Inc.), was kind enough to lend me a Samsung 128GB Solid State Disk (SSD) to test.  At first, I imaged my notebook Windows 7 Release Candidate installation and placed it on the SSD.  I was expecting an incremental increase in performance (at least for random, small reads).  The overall results, however, were amazing!  Applications launched in a just a few seconds, and some basic benchmarks provided all the evidence I needed to place the new disk in my primary development machine (a Dell Dimension XPS 420 with two 500GB, 7200RPM drives).  Now, after just a couple of weeks, I can’t imagine going back to “old school” physical drives.

SSD’s are new to the marketplace and they’re not without significant potential drawbacks.  In the coming weeks, I’ll provide some more details on the experience.  For now, here are a couple of basic benchmarks created using HDTune.  The basic comparison is between a Samsung 500GB, 7200 RPM hard disk (16MB cache) and the 128GB Samsung SSD.  I did absolutely nothing to optimize the performance of the SSD, so consider this just a baseline.

Benchmarks

HDTune – Disk Benchmarks

image

Figure 1a: HDD Performance (Dell XPS 420)

image

Figure 1b:  SSD Performance (Dell XPS 420)

HDTune – Random Access Performance

image

Figure 2a: HDD Performance (Dell XPS 420)

image

Figure 2b: SSD Performance (Dell XPS 420)

I realize that this data is completely anecdotal and unscientific, but it’s a promising start.  So far, the general performance improvement from using an SSD has been the single most noticeable upgrade in several years.

More to come…

Again, I hope to post some more detailed data (with a focus on benefits for development workstations) in the coming weeks.  Now if only my own sequential writing speed could match that of the SSD drive… 🙂

Update: The Engineering Windows 7 blog has a post that covers Support and Q & A for Solid-State Drives.  It helps provide some technical background related to the different between random vs. sequential I/O’s and issues related to random writing.

My Favorite Mozilla Firefox Add-Ons

Several months ago, I took the plunge and switched from my primary browser (Avant Browser – which basically automates IE with a bunch of new features) to Firefox.  I was on the fence for a while.  I generally liked Firefox’s user interface and performance, but missed some of the navigation features that were available in IE.  What finally pushed me to switch to Firefox were some really useful (but not always well-known) add-ons.  I now find them to be almost indispensible to my web browsing habits.  So, without further delay, here’s a list of my favorites (with minimal comments as the Firefox Add-Ons site provides the best explanations with screenshots):

  • AutoPager: The page-based nature of the Web can make it really difficult to navigate through large documents.  Often, you’ll have to click through pages one-by-one.  What if the Google Search result you want didn’t make the first page?  You generally would have to manually navigate to the next page of results (or change the default view to include more results).  And don’t get me started on sites that force you to click through a dozen pages to read an entire article.  AutoPager can automatically load content from additional pages without losing context.  It supports hundreds of sites out of the box and provides an easy way to add support for new sites.  I highly recommend it, at least until the Web (and advertising) start supporting better ways to view large amounts of information.
  • FoxTab: A great multi-tab browser that allows you to choose from a wide FoxTabvariety of different “gallery” views that show thumbnails of open tabs.  It seems to scale and perform well, even with dozens of open tabs.

 

  • SpeedDial:  Most of us frequent the same sites many times per day.  The default user behavior – typing URLs or choosing them from the Bookmarks list – can be quite cumbersome.  As its name suggests, SpeedDial provides users with thumbnails of their most common web sites whenever they open a new tab.  ~80% of the time, I use the keyboard shortcuts (Alt-# or CTRL-#) to open the sites I use the most.
  • Read It Later:  It might seem a little strange, but I’ve all but abandoned the use of bookmarks in my browsers.  I am usually very organized, but I found that it takes too much effort to store and organize separate links (many of which tend to quickly become outdated).  Read It Later provides a great way to keep track of specific articles and content that you plan to read later without requiring you to create bookmarks.  When you’re bored, you can just click on its icon, and you’ll be presented with on of the pages from its list.  You can easily mark something as “read” without having to deal with deleting bookmarks.
  • IE Tab: Despite a strong push to work on standards-based sites and browsers, the need to launch IE is sometimes inevitable.  An example that comes to mind is the SQL Server Reporting Services web site which doesn’t seem to render properly in Firefox.  IE Tab allows you to simply click an icon on the status bar to switch to using the IE rendering engine for that tab.  You get to stay in the comfort of Firefox while using IE behind the scenes.

Those are the highlights of my favorite extensions.   You can easily download and install all of these extensions using the Firefox Add-Ons page.  Installation couldn’t be much simpler, and it’s really easy to try out new extensions.

But, wait – there’s more:  So far, my favorite theme is Chromifox Basic.  As its name implies, it’s hardly the flashiest of themes.  But, I really like its simple look and customizations.

There’s certainly no lack of web pages and blog entries that highlight “must-have Firefox.  (There are so many, in fact, that I’m not going to bother to link to any of them.)  Now, I can add myself to that list. 🙂

Google Timeline

Will the developers at Google never stop publishing new applications (even if the are in perpetual “beta” status)?  You can find dozens of online-based projects on the Google Labs page.  One of the newer and more interesting additions is Google News Timeline

For me, one of the most frustrating aspects of searching the Web is the difficulty of searching for relative information by date.  For example, if I’m searching for information on Windows 7 or something relatively new, I generally don’t want to see information that’s over a year old.  Often, the results can get confusing.  Sometimes, you’ll want to search for a .NET command or T-SQL syntax, and you’ll find outdated results.  Sure, you can perform an Advanced Search to filter by date ranges, but it’s a cumbersome way to find the information you need.

The Timeline still appears to be in a fairly early state, and the search results aren’t quite up to par.  However, the idea is a good one, and I hope it’s significantly improved in the near future.

Microsoft Server Quest Episode II

For many of us IT pros, laughter is a way of survival (indeed, if we weren’t laughing, we’d probably be crying).  A while back, I wrote a post about Microsoft Server Quest.  The original version of the game was written in Flash and was fun (at least for marketing efforts).  I just got word from Microsoft that there’s a sequel, called Microsoft Server Quest Episode II that’s now available online.  Here’s the official blurb:

The company’s  resident IT professional extraordinaire has just returned from a much-deserved vacation but, in a temporary spell of relaxed judgment, has jeopardized their reputation with a poorly placed email and forwarded personal holiday snaps to the entire staff. Now they have to excavate through the email chain to find the offending photos – all while keeping the office online.

In Server Quest II, the sequel to last year’s pixellated adventure, players must hone their technical prowess in order to prove once and for all why the tech pros take the cake.  From software support to sidequests, players will get behind the curtain and live the life of a server genius fighting for respect.”

The game includes several simple mini-adventures that can easily be played online.  The pixilated art style will do little to show off features of Silverlight (such as the powerful zoom capabilities), but players will be rewarded with eight-bit analog sounds and an easy to play game.  And the sense of nostalgia is unbeatable (especially for those of us old enough to remember such vintage machines at the Commodore 64).

IT Consulting Podcast on Struggling Entrepreneur

I was recently interview by Fred Castaneda of The Struggling Entrepreneur, a web site that provides advice and content to individuals that are interested in starting or improving their own businesses.  This podcast is titled 72- Success secrets- Entrepreneur as an IT consultant and author.  From the introduction to the web site:

In this episode of The Struggling Entrepreneur, we take a closer look into the transition from being a technical specialist in the IT (Information Technology) industry to becoming a successful Entrepreneur from the background and point of view of Anil Desai.

Even if you are not an IT Specialist, but perhaps you are in a field that requires technical skills or in an area of complex products or problem-solving, this interview will be of value to you for its related scenarios.

Anil shares with us the obstacles he encountered, as well as how he himself tackles the administrative responsibilities of running his own business–including income taxes and other back-office tasks that many structured IT specialists dread.

Anil also discusses how his skills in communication–especially in technical writing–have added to the success of creating himself as a known Brand. In addition, Anil is also an author of several books and a speaker, as well as a consultant that delivers the right solutions to the customers to solve business problems. He will tell you in this episode about his multiple certifications and the technical skills that he keeps current–but at very little or no cost!

The recording is far from perfect (there’s a lot of background noise), but I hope you find the information to be useful.

Start Simply with Small Basic

Many of us IT pros tend to forget our humble beginnings in working with computers.  For me, it was with the Commodore 64 computer (a product about which I have written several times in the past).  I did a lot of learning and playing with that deceptively powerful machine.  From writing my own rudimentary BASIC programs to typing in code listings for games from magazines of the day, it was an amazing learning opportunity.  But with all of the technology that has been developed in the past two decades, what should aspiring future programmers use today?

Microsoft Dev Labs has released Small Basic, a free, simplified development environment that has a humble goal:

Microsoft Small Basic aims to make computer programming accessible to beginners.

The product provides an approachable development environment and a simple but powerful language based on the ever-popular Basic syntax.  It includes support for variables, different types of output, conditional logic, branching and looping and even subroutines.  These are all extremely valuable concepts for beginners and IT pros to understand.  All programs are saved in single files and there’s no need for a complex development environment, manual compilation, or any other project setup tasks.

Among the features that are supported:

  • Command Completion and Reference:  Code completion features such as Microsoft’s IntelliSense are both helpful and fun to work with.  The following screenshot shows an example that provides annotated help as you type.

SmallBasic-Main

  • Syntax checking: When you attempt to run a program, the development environment identifies bugs and tries to provide some hints on how to find and fix them.  It’s not the most powerful system, but it helps reduce the pain of trial and error.
  • A Getting Started Guide: While it’s not context-sensitive, this beginners guide does a great job of introducing readers to basic programming concepts.  The guide is still incomplete in some places, but it provides some excellent examples that can be copied and pasted into the code editor window.
  • Text output to a console window via the TextWindow object.
  • Graphical output, which allows the use of standard draw commands.  Beginners can easily create lines, boxes, circles, and other common objects with just a few lines of code.
  • Turtle graphics:  For those that don’t remember (or never experienced) the fun and simple Turtle language, the code is made up of commands that tell the obedient reptile how to move.  Simple commands involving turning and moving a certain distance.  You can use looping to create some interesting effects.  The following figure shows our obedient turtle running in non-overlapping circles (the source code is in the Getting Started Guide).
  • SmallBasic-Turtle

Overall, I think the biggest and most beneficial impact of applications such as Small Basic is in its ability to stimulate beginners to learn and experiment.  It helps then think both analytically and creatively.  These are all things that seem to be lacking in "modern" education.  Perhaps some simplified tools are the right "toys" to job the mind and imagination. 

From the Trenches: The Great Office War

In the eternal struggle for workplace dominance, two factions – formerly coworkers – must struggle to keep their departments alive. Welcome to: The Great Office War.  Trouble had been brewing between IT and Sales for years.  Key issues centered around disputed territory located near the West side of the Water Cooler region.  Computer usage rights were also an issue.  Seeing no other options, the sides resort to war.  This is their story…

Microsoft Server Quest

While it seems that the powers of marketing are often used for evil rather than good, every once in a while, we see an entertaining site or application.  Microsoft has given us its share of humorous clips and commercials.  This time around, it’s Microsoft Server Quest – a Flash-based, animated game that allows you to try to save the entire office with your superior intellect.  You’ll also get some valuable discount codes (which are not-so-cleverly disguised in the standard dialog).  It’s not exactly World of Warcraft, but you can earn up to 4,800 GeekPoints.  You can use those… well, nowhere.  But it’s still fun.

SysInternals ZoomIt

You never know what you’re going to pick up from conference presentations…  While I’m certainly not the first to pick up on this great utility the Windows SysInternals group has released a handy utility called ZoomIt v1.8.  This utility allows you to use a keyboard shortcut (Ctrl-1, by default) to automatically zoom in on the screen.  You can then use the mouse to pan around and the left mouse button to annotate the screen.  Best of all, it runs as a simple executable (which is 44KB in size) – no need for startup programs, installers, and other annoying software stuff.

Obviously, this can be useful for presenters.  When showing code samples or UI elements on a projector (even at relatively low resolutions), it can be helpful to expand upon a section of the screen.  I have also found it useful on my own computer.  I run two monitors: One is running at 1680 x 1050 (horizontal), and the other is running in a vertical 1280 x 1024.  It can be useful to zoom in on sections of web pages with small fonts.  I’m sure it will be more useful as I get older, as well.  Along with DisplayFusion (which I wrote about in a previous post titled Managing Multiple Monitors on Windows Vista) , it really provides some useful capabilities.  Good luck, and feel free to post your reviews/hints here!

Commodore 64: Love Always

C64_startup_animiertOK, so perhaps "love" is too strong a word.  A friend just sent me a link to an article that really jogged my memory.  I got my start in computers with the Commodore 64 computer, and I have never really forgotten it.  This think had an embedded BASIC compiler.  For those that don’t know, many of the "old school" people used a cassette drive to store programs.  It would take quite a while to load even 100KB.  The CPU ran at a smoking 1.0MHz, which always seemed to be plenty.

You would generally connect this thing to a television set and then proceed to geek out.  In the later days, floppy disk drives became commonplace.  Specialized monitors were also made, so you didn’t have to sit in front of a 25" Magnavox tube TV.  The C64 "scene" was also hopping, with the most popular bulletin board systems (BBS’s) boasting a whopping 40 megabytes of storage space (yes, that’s megabytes).

But, the graphics and sound capabilities of this machine were amazing for the time.  That’s especially true if you compare it to the IBM CGA machines that could only bleep like sheep and display four rather nasty colors (black, white, cyan, and magenta).  And, the IBM boxes cost thousands of dollars whereas you could get a C64 for quite a bit less.  Playing games and typing in code listings from magazines were a great pastime.

The article from CNN is entitled Commodore 64 still loved after all these years.  It certainly was a popular machine:

Often overshadowed by the Apple II and Atari 800, the Commodore 64 rose to great heights in the 1980s. From 1982-1993, 17 million C64s were sold. The Guinness Book of World Records lists the Commodore 64 as the best-selling single computer model.

And I definitely can relate to the quotes at the end of the article:

"Computer nostalgia is something that runs pretty deep these days. The memories that people have of this machine are incredible," McCracken said.

Twenty-five years ago computers were an individual experience; today they are just a commodity, he said.

"I don’t think there are many computers today that we use that people will be talking about fondly 25 years from now.

If you’re interested in emulators and more nostalgia-inducing material, see the C64.com web site.  Wikipedia also has some interesting information on the Commodore 64 (also be sure to check out the External Links section).  Just looking at all that now-ancient plastic and a screenshot of the startup screen really takes me back.  I’m wondering: Am I the only one that remembers what the following commands do (and, yes, this is from my personal memory)?

POKE 53280,16

POKE 53281,4

SYS 64738

In short (OK, I admit it’s too late for that), I think this is the best computer ever created.  I’ll try to post some more about the C64 in the future.