Six Weird iPhone Apps

Apple Mac
As some of you know, I recently got an iPhone 3G. I really like it… such an improvement over my other phone. What really blows me away is the vast array of applications for this device. Seriously. Who the hell is writing these things? Here is my list of strange iPhone apps, in random order.

1. Hello Cow — It’s an app that moos at you. Ok. It’s an improvement on the programmer’s perfunctory “Hello World.”

2. Useless $1000 App — Well… they pulled this one, but some guy made an app that did nothing and he charged $1000 for it. Some rich fools patronized him. Why didn’t I think of that?

3. Call Checker — This “handy” app calculates whether it’s a decent time for you to call someone… it handles times zones and such. It sounds remotely useful until you realize that the built-in clock on the iPhone can easily display times in any city and in any time zone. An improvement would be if the app could sense the mood of the person you were trying to call, e.g. if they were out on a date, asleep, with their OTHER boyfriend, or whatever… THAT would be a cool app. This app, unfortunately, isn’t.

4. iQuit — a program to help you quit smoking. Contains graphic images and in-your-face videos depicting the shocking truths behind nicotine addition. Wow. I hope this helps some people. I’m kinda upset that herds of chemists are out there working to make cigarettes as addictive as possible while some party-people just puff away without realizing how badly they might be damaging their bodies. Then again, a meteor might become crashed into us at any moment, and that would make my pompous commentary rather insignificant.

5. Wide Mail Keyboard — This one is overdue… the keypad for texting and emailing is amazing in theory, but in practice you tend to fat-finger things on an iPhone. Most apps will rotate if you put your phone into landscape position, but not the Text and Mail apps. Yar. This app promises to remedy that omission.

6. How Many Shopping Days Until Christmas? — Finally! An app for consumer whores! Seriously? Please. As a developer, I love that the platform is open, but if you want to open up development, then why not open up the other parts of development? Like product specs and quality control? This is one app that would never see the light of day if there were some sort of reality check in the process.

Well, I could go on, but I won’t. The point is that there is an app out there for just about anything. My favorites? Well, they’re kinda specific to me. I use an ear-training app…. other than that, I mostly stick to the defaults, but I will mention that the technology behind the Midomi app is amazing… you hum a part of a song, and it will tell you what song it is (and it’s pretty accurate, too!). The other app I use a lot (as a composer) is the Recorder… you can simply record stuff. Memos, song ideas, whatever. It’s really useful. You can then email the sound files around.

Stop SPAM with Disposable E-mail Addresses

I think we can all agree that spam is evil. It’s awful. Deplorable. We all hate it, unless you are a spammer. And if you’re a spammer, you deserve swift, repetitive, merciless kicks in the junk.

Though we may never win the war against spam, we can still fight to reduce it. One effective way is to use a disposable e-mail address. Here’s how it works.

Let’s say you need to provide a functional e-mail address for a temporary purpose – a web form, online shopping at a random store, posting in forums – but don’t want your e-mail address harvested and spammed to death. All you have to do is use a disposable e-mail address from one of the many services listed below, use it temporarily, and then forget about it! The possibilities, and the number of disposable addresses are endless.

Here are 10 services that you can use, all for FREE.

10 Minute Mail
10 Minute Mail

1. 10 Minute Mail

As the name suggests, 10 Minute Mail gives you a disposable address that’s valid for ten minutes. With a single click, you can automatically generate a temporary e-mail address that allows you to read incoming e-mails, click on links, and even reply!

If you need a few more minutes, you can easily reset the timer back to 10 minutes.

For sheer simplicity and functionality, 10 Minute Mail is one of my favorites.

2. BugMeNot – Email

If you’re a fan of BugMeNot, you’ll be pleased to know that they also offer a disposable e-mail service. The idea is simple: create your own disposable address (does not expire), give it to the potential spammers, and check it anytime by entering it at BugMeNot’s site.

Here’s an example: let’s say you register with a site that needs to send you a verification link. Simply give them any address that ends with bugmenot.com (something_really_random@bugmenot.com). To check it, go to BugMeNot and enter that same address.

Of course, if anyone else enters that same address, they can read your e-mail (see for yourself – look at junk@bugmenot.com), so I recommend creating a unique address with lots of numbers and random characters.

The account is currently limited to reading/clicking links only. Replies and attachments are not supported. Mail is deleted every 24 hours.

3. dodgit

dodgit is similar to BugMeNot in functionality. Pick your own e-mail address (@dodgit.com), give it out freely, and enter that same address at dodgit.com to check it.

Once again, choose a unique address unless you want other people ogling at your junk mail. Mail is deleted every 7 days.

dodgit does not support replying, but does include RSS support for incoming e-mails. Nice.

Make Me The King
Make Me The King

4. Make Me The King

The curiously named “Make Me The King” works the same way as BugMeNot and dodgit – make up your own @makemetheking e-mail address, and check it by entering that same address back on their site.

Unlike the aforementioned sites, Make Me The King supports deleting files manually. RSS support is also included, and while Make Me The King supposedly supports replying, it’s disabled as of this writing.

As always, choose a unique e-mail address.

5. YopMail

YopMail is another service with which you can create your own @yopmail address on the fly and check it by logging in to YopMail. One advantage of YopMail is that they offer many different alternate domains in case someone blocks the main domain.

The YopMail client looks like traditional e-mail software, including the abilities to forward and print e-mail, but sending new e-mail is limited to other YopMail addresses. Replies are not supported.

There’s even a YopMain plugin available for Firefox and Opera, plus an automatic address generator.

6. Mint Email

Mint Email brings elegance to the idea of disposable e-mail addresses. When you visit the site, it automatically generates an e-mail address for you AND copies it to the clipboard. All you have to do is paste it into whatever spam-hole you like. Mint Email will automatically check for new e-mail.

Temporary addresses are valid for four hours. If you like, you can set Mint Email to automatically use your own desired e-mail address every time you visit. Just take a look at the Preferences (relies on cookies).

Replies are not supported.

7. lite drop

With lite drop, you can choose to set your own disposable address or generate one automatically. Addresses are valid for one hour, though you can easily reset the timer if you need more time.

lite drop checks for incoming e-mail automatically, and includes RSS support. Replying and attachments are not supported.

8. Spam.la

For sheer simplicity and starkness, it doesn’t get much easier than Spam.la. ANY e-mail that is sent to ANY @spam.la address is publicly readable on the main page. That’s right, it’s all dumped right into public view.

That said, you can still choose to filter content based on the address that you created. Just be aware that someone else is probably reading it, too.

9. Mailinator

Mailinator is another service that lets you create your own on-the-fly @mailinator disposable address and check it by entering the same name on their site. However, Mailinator allows you to solve a unique problem: by giving someone a disposable address from sites like Mailinator, YopMail, BugMeNot, etc, you are also telling them HOW to check your e-mail, since anyone can go to the corresponding service and enter that address.

Mailinator solves that problem by giving you an alternate e-mail address for every mailbox that you create. Mail sent to the alternate address will be routed to the original. Neat! Read more about alternate inbox names.

10. SneakEmail

SneakEmail is one of the oldest providers of disposable e-mail addresses. Of all the services listed here, SneakEmail is the only one that requires registration. However, the service functions differently from the others. Here’s how it works:

Create an account that links to your regular e-mail address. Once you’re logged in, you can create new SneakEmail addresses to hand out to potential spammers. Mail sent to these disposable address will be routed to your regular e-mail.

The nice thing about SneakEmail is that no one ever sees your true e-mail address. If you reply, it is routed back through the disposable address. Nice! You can also filter, disable, or delete the disposable addresses that you create.

One benefit of SneakEmail is that by creating multiple addresses, you know from what site a spammer got your address.

—-

Of course, there are more available services than the 10 listed here. Do you have another service that you recommend? Tell me in the comments.

Oh, and just for the record, my favorite services listed here are 10 Minute Mail, Mailinator, and SneakEmail. How about you?

Ghost Windows for Free with Macrium Reflect (A Visual Guide)

Macrium icon
Macrium icon

A few years ago I wrote an article on Ghosting Windows XP for Free with DriveImage XML. It’s proven to be one of the most popular articles on TipsFor.us. Back in 2007 I also wrote a complementary article on Ghosting Windows for Free using Open-Source Tools. I suppose you could say that finding free ways to “ghost” Windows is an obsession of mine.

One bit of criticism levied at these aforementioned methods is that they both require a fair amount of upfront work. A restoration using DriveImage XML requires the creation of a boot disc such as BartPE. Using open-source tools like ntfsclone requires mucking around with the command line – an intimidating process for a newbie. Yes, I said “mucking.”

Isn’t there an easier way? One that requires far less prep time with an easy learning curve? The answer is a resounding YES!

Enter Macrium Reflect FREE Edition. While the free version is the little brother to the commercial version, it still packs a mighty punch. Feast your eyes on a feature comparison as of 17 October 2008.

Macrium - Feature List

Requirements

To successfully image and restore your system using Macrium Reflect, you will need the following:

  • Windows XP or Vista (32 or 64-bit) – required to install the free version of Macrium Reflect, of course.
  • CD or DVD burner – You need a place to store your backup image. Macrium allows you to burn it directly to CDs or DVDs.
  • Spare Hard Disk or Partition (Optional) – Instead of storing the backup image on optical media, you may choose to simply store it on a spare partition or hard disk.

Before we begin, allow me to remind you to BACK UP YOUR DATA! Working with disk imaging is a volatile process, and you should always have backups of your critical files. Burn everything to CDs or DVDs. Buy a spare hard disk, or maybe take a look at available online storage. Do whatever it takes to keep your data safe.

Ready? Let’s get started!

The Process

Here’s an outline of the entire process:

  1. Install Macrium Reflect FREE Edition
  2. Configure Your System
  3. Create the Disk Image
  4. Verify the Disk Image
  5. Create the Rescue CD
  6. Restore the Disk Image
  7. Final Thoughts

1. Install Macrium Reflect FREE Edition

This is the easiest step. Download and install the executable (Download.com link). The installer will automatically detect whether you are running a 32-bit or a 64-bit operating system. Curiously, the installation process requires Internet access to validate the automatically generated serial number. After the installation is complete, launch Macrium Reflect.

2. Configure Your System

At this point you should configure your operating system to the way you like it. Here are a few suggestions:

  • Make sure Windows has the latest security patches and drivers.
  • Scan for viruses and other malware.
  • Run a Defrag.
  • Remove any unnecessary applications.

Ideally, I like to create a couple different disk images. I prefer to have one image of a freshly installed state, and another image that includes all my main applications.

3. Create the Disk Image

Now we’re getting to the fun part. One quick note here: I used VMware for the purpose of convenient screenshots, but the process is no different than if it were a real machine. I also tested the process on a spare computer, and it worked flawlessly for me.

To get started, launch Macrium Reflect, select the disk that you wish to image, and from the Backup menu, choose Create Image.

Macrium - Choose your partition

(Alternative – you could also open My Computer, right-click on the chosen disk, and select Create an Image of this partition…)

Right-click the drive

The Create Backup Wizard will spawn:

Macrium - Create Backup Wizard

At this point you need to choose where you would like to store the disk image. Options include:

  • On a spare partition or hard disk
  • On a network share – Note: make sure your network share is using WORKGROUP as the Workgroup name.
  • On blank CDs or DVDs
Macrium - Choose where to store image

I suggest you also take a look at the Advanced Settings. Here you can choose the amount of compression and also set a maximum file size (for splitting purposes).

Macrium - Advanced Compression

When you are done with the Backup Wizard, take a last glance over your settings….

Macrium - End of Backup Wizard

Enter a name for the backup definition, and away we go!

Macrium - Backup started

It took me only 3 minutes to image my tiny VMware disk, so your mileage will vary. Go make a cup of coffee.

Macrium - Backup finished

Now that your backup is complete, let’s talk about how to restore it. Please continue to the next page.

Suspicious Download? Scan for Viruses Before You Download with Dr.Web

If you ever find yourself downloading potentially harmful files, or if you just want an extra layer of protection against suspicious downloads, you owe it to yourself to check out Link Checker, a FREE browser add-on by Dr.Web.

What is it? Link Checker is a browser extension that allows you to scan files before you download by integrating itself into the right-click menu. Let’s see it in action.

Usage

Here I am about to download the 7-Zip file archiving utility. I’m pretty sure it’s clean, but let’s make sure.

Right-click the file to download
Right-click the file to download

Notice the Scan with Dr.Web option in the right-click contextual menu. When I choose that option, the file in question will be scanned on Dr.Web’s servers with the latest definition files.

And here is the verdict. It’s clean! No surprise.

Dr.Web says - Clean!
Dr.Web says - Clean!

Just for kicks, let’s try it on a known infected file – the EICAR anti-virus test file. No, this isn’t a real virus, but it should show up as one for testing purposes. Here we go.

Dr.Web says - Infected!

Boom! If this were a file I really wanted to download, Dr.Web would give me second thoughts.

While Dr.Web Link Checker is handy, just remember that it’s not a substitute for proper anti-virus software. As an added layer of security, it’s worthwhile.

One quick caveat – Link Checker will only scan files smaller than 12 MB. Anything larger will cause an error.

Firefox

Link Checker for Firefox and Mozilla

Internet Explorer

Link Checker for MS Internet Explorer

Opera

Link Check for Opera (requires manual configuration)

Get Windows Server 2008 for FREE through DreamSpark (Students Only)

Windows Server 2008 Box
Windows Server 2008 Box

Want a free download of Windows Server 2008? It’s yours, if you qualify! Microsoft recently updated their DreamSpark offerings to include Server 2008, among other products. All you have to do is verify that you’re a student, and start downloading.

Download link – https://www.dreamspark.com/default.aspx

What is DreamSpark? Straight from the horse’s mouth:

Microsoft DreamSpark enables students to download Microsoft developer and design tools at no charge.

Now, for the first time, Microsoft is giving its valuable software developer and design tools directly to students worldwide at no charge! This site enables students like you to download professional-level Microsoft developer and design tools to unlock your creative potential and set you on the path to academic and career success, by supporting and advancing your learning and skills through technical design, technology, math, science and engineering activities.

What products are offered? A lot! In addition to Windows Server 2008, you can freely download:

  • Visual Studio 2008 Professional Edition (and 2005 Professional)
  • SQL Server 2008 Developer
  • MS Expression Studio 2
  • XNA Game Studio 2.0
  • XNA Creators Club Online (12 months access)
  • IT Academy Student Pass (up to 22 hours of FREE e-learning courses)

You will need:

  • A Windows Live ID
  • Valid Student Status

My university was not on the main list, but they were able to quickly verify me online via JourneyEd. Within minutes, I started downloading Windows Server 2008, which can actually function very well as a desktop or workstation. With a few clicks, you can essentially transform it into Windows Vista, but without most of the bloat. Look for some articles relating to Server 2008 soon.

Best of luck. Despite my affinity for Linux, it’s hard to turn down free, legal software!

UPDATE: Be sure to see my article on how to turn Server 2008 into an excellent workstation OS.

A Digital Audio Primer

(What the common person should know about their MP3 players)

(simplified of all technical junk you don’t need to know, techies: keep walking.)

File Formats, and what’s the difference?

Why use file formats? The answer to that is simple: space. The CDs you buy have the audio recorded at the highest quality they can fit on a single disc. Imagine if you were to direct transfer a full CD to your hard drive. We’d be talking 500-700 megabytes. That means roughly 30 CDs could fit on your 20 gigabyte iPod. That would be pretty disappointing. So we had to find a way to make the files smaller.

The answer: The MP3 format (Yes there were many compression formats before that, but this is just the high points)

How does an MP3 file work, conceptually? The “compression” takes the form of removing data to shrink the file size. This trimming, and the amount removed is what we mean when we say Bitrate. The higher the bitrate, the less data lost; the lower the bitrate, the more data trimmed away. Consider bitrate being the amount of the good stuff left.

128 bits = not much left

320 bits= Barely trimmed, about as good as it gets.

So why not always use 320? Every file is more than twice the size on your hard drive.

So what is lost when the file is trimmed? Take this sound wave (A graphical representation of what the sound looks like):

A Basic Music Soundwave

The blue section in the middle is the easiest for us to hear. As you get closer to the top and bottom of the wave, it becomes harder for our ears to discern (Think about the light spectrum, ultraviolet on one end and infrared on the other).

We have trouble hearing the furthest parts of the spectrum.

So naturally, this is the best part to cut. A good way to visualize it (it’s considerably more complex algorithms) is like this:

As you trim it down, the sound becomes less full, more tinny/metallic/shallow/etc. Now lets talk about VBR, or Variable Bit Rate MP3’s. It is exactly what it sounds like: The bitrate changes to preserve as much sound as possible, but cut the most data possible. More cutting, with less loss. Here’s a way to envision VBR (Of course the algorithm is even more complex, but let’s just think about it conceptually):

See, if there is a moment in the song with only a single speaking voice, a wider range can be cut without much damage (maybe down to 128). Now if you have a drum set and a guitar (maybe down to 256). A violin, a flute, an oboe, and a bass would probably stay at 320). As the MP3 plays, the bit rate changes, hence: Variable.

Transcoding: This is a process of horrible badness.  Lets examine this cycle of musical destruction.  We start with a CD, the data on this CD is in the purest state possible (Technically).

-We decide to rip them to MP3 (See, now you know why we call it ripping, we are forcibly removing data and only keeping what we need.)  256 bitrate sounds good enough. Let’s say that we lost approximately 20 percent of the total data. That’s fine, we can still listen to the remaining 80% without problem in our headphones (But I wouldn’t recommend playing it through a massive club system, you’ll hear the difference.).

-Now, we want to burn these MP3s for our friend as an audio cd that he can listen to in his car.  The CD we burn for him will be the same 80% of the original data that we found perfectly satisfactory.  It will be just fine.

-Now this friend of ours, he has no idea that we just burned the MP3s instead of a copy of the original CD for him (I recommend writing on the CD you burn what the bitrate was, but that only helps if your friend already knows, or has read this article.)

-Here’s where the trouble starts.  Your friend decides he wants to listen to this CD on his MP3 player.  So he rips the CD into MP3s.  So what’s the big deal?  His computer has no idea that these were 256 bit MP3s, and not pure CD audio.  So our friend re-rips (transcodes) the music back into MP3s, cutting the already cut data again. He’s now ripped another 20% of the information from our already-reduced-by-20% files.  He’s left with maybe 60% of the data, masquerading as a full 80% (The files will proudly proclaim themselves to be 256 bitrate, when they no longer are).  The cycle continues.

Transcoding

Other Formats:

Lossy – Like MP3 encoding, these format’s compress data using the “trim what isn’t necessary” method.

Apple’s version – AAC – these files can support Digital Rights Management (Which means that if you don’t follow the rules, they can take your music away.)  Slightly more efficient than MP3s at compressing data, but not by a massive amount.  It’s not the container that is fancy on these, it’s the locks.

Microsoft’s version – WMA – without getting too deep in the details, these are MP3s that make Microsoft money.  The sound quality is a smidge better for the same file size as MP3s, but not enough that you would want to convert your entire collection to it.

Lossless – Unlike MP3, these formats compress the data without losing any of it (It will always sound exactly like the CD did).  Think of it like installing a closet organizer that allows you to fit twice as much stuff in the same closet.  These codecs just reorganize the data into a smaller package.  On average, the files are half the size.  (Half is not amazing if you are short on drive space.  You are still looking at 150-200 megs per CD)  The beauty of this type of compression: Transcoding can not happen.  You can rip and burn all day.

Apple’s version – M4A – Mac claims files will be 40-60% smaller than the original (CD) data.  This statement is pretty much true.

Microsoft’s version – WMA – Microsoft claims a startling 20-40% smaller, but in most testing, it turns out that is actually in the same 40-60% category as Apple. Imagine that.

Open Source Version – FLAC – The same results as both formats above.  So why use FLAC?  Well, any software you use that is capable of playing WMA files, probably paid to use that codec.  Even MP3 money goes to patent holders.

Audio File Type Summary:

It doesn’t really matter which lossy codec you use, as long as you acknowledge that it is lossy.  If you choose to use Lossless (for the true audiophile for whom storage is not a problem, or for archival purposes) know the limitations of each file type.  If you use Linux, FLAC is your best bet since getting Windows and Mac proprietary codecs work can be a headache.

If you find audio interesting, a good place to start is wikipedia.  You can get a more in-depth explanation, but stop reading once they get to the math or patent rights sections.  There is an infinite supply of technical information online on this subject, but a lot of it is impenetrable if you don’t already know about it.

Like Blue? Free Embedded Theme for Windows XP

I previously wrote about the free Zune theme for Windows XP. Today I’d like to bring another free theme to your attention – “Embedded.”

Download link (free): Download now

Installation is a breeze, and does not require any hacking of the uxtheme file (like with most 3rd-party themes). Here’s how it looks:

Full Screen:

With Start Menu:

My Computer:

While I admit that I’m attracted to darker themes, the color blue doesn’t do much for me. Still, it’s a welcome change from the default XP themes, and I appreciate not having to mess with the uxtheme file.

Have fun.