Archive for Down the Tubes

Down the Tubes 5: Pandora

I was going to take today to talk about fabulous applications for Macs, but I’m recovering from the last-minute thesis crunch and I haven’t done my research for that article. Have patience, it will surface next time! Meanwhile, I’d like to take a moment to make you aware of Pandora, if you’re not already using it.

Pandora redefines internet radio. Instead of basing a “station” off of different music genres, popular artists, or what the general public listens to, Pandora runs off of the Music Genome Project. Begun in 2000, the Music Genome Project identified 400 traits of music based on melody, harmony, rhythm, lyrics, composition, and form. It then analyzes songs and mixes them into playlists based on those traits.

I love making playlists, but they take time, which is something that I have very little of these days. Pandora makes my playlists for me, and it’s very easy for me to pick out one song or artist whom I feel like hearing, and then have Pandora do the rest. I can also keep my stations handy by signing up for an account, so that my music follows me anywhere I go. It’s a totally internet-based player, so there’s nothing to download.

Pandora has a few difficulties, mostly centering around its musical limitations. The scope covers only the past hundred years of music. The Project only has a little more than 400,000 songs in it currently because each song is analyzed by a person on the Music Genome Project team. Therefore, very new or obscure musical pieces may not be in the system yet. It also doesn’t cover classical or Latin music yet, although a Pandora for these genres is supposedly forthcoming.

Another issue is that I can’t, as a user, enter in a song and expect to hear that song exactly. I also can’t rewind or go back and hear a song again. Because of copyright restrictions, Pandora stays free by being a random play radio, rather than an on-demand radio. It’s basically a difference in licensing, and end users would have to pay upwards of ten dollars a month in order to have the music be “on demand.” Frankly, I’d rather Pandora stay free.

While Pandora is mainly on the internet right now, there is talk of making it more mobile. Sprint and AT&T offer Pandora on select phones, including the iPhone. There is also a design out for a Pandora home system, which works like Apple’s AirTunes in that it connects to a network and beams Pandora’s music to any player in range.

You can access Pandora at Sign up and start listening! Pandora offers plugins for Facebook, Myspace, and your web site, as well, so that others can see what you’re listening to.


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Down the Tubes 4: Desktop Customization

We’re a society that is built on customization. We love to customize our cars, personalize our stuff, and write our names all over everything. Your computer can be an extension of your style, as well, beyond putting stickers on your laptop or changing your desktop to a really awesome wallpaper. This is where desktop customization comes in, allowing you to add features to your computer to make it truly yours. Hard-core desktop customizers use programs that change every bit of their GUI, or graphical user interface (your desktop), down to the exact font of toolbar menus, but for beginning desktop customizers, it’s a good idea to stay simple. These programs will give a little extra kick to your PC without weighing you down.

RocketDock (
PC owners, ever wanted a really neat dock like Macs have? Rocket Dock gives you that functionality for PC, so you can say goodbye to the cumbersome Start menu. The dock functions exactly like the Mac version (it even has skins that look exactly like a Mac dock). You can add programs or executable files to the dock, and they’ll be right at your pointer when you need them. I’m a desktop minimalist, and I hate having a bunch of stupid icons cluttering up my desktop, so Rocket Dock has been a great problem solver for me! Rocket Dock is fully customizable, and it has so many possibilities for features that it might replace the task bar altogether!

Stickies (
If you’re a compulsive list-maker like I am, you’ll really appreciate Stickies for PC. The program, made by Zhorn Software in the UK, allows the user to make virtual “Sticky Notes” that live on the desktop of the computer. I use them as punchlists for papers I’m working on (especially thesis!), to-do lists for the week, or as pop-up reminders.
Stickies stay on top of your other windows, as if they are real sticky notes. You can also choose to have them stay “stuck” on the desktop as well. A really neat feature of Stickies is that they can be transferred to other people over a network. I don’t know any friends who use this program, but it would be neat to send notes to others. The notes themselves are totally customizable, with changing fonts and background colors.

Serious Samurize (
Serious Samurize is a really neat tool for PC that allows you to see all sorts of information about your computer. It can act as a clock, a memory counter, a battery signal, a fan speed sensor, and has so many other uses for keeping your computer’s functionality in check. In the edit function, you add modules that will tell you all of the information you need to know, down to how many kilobytes you have free on your hard drive. It has a lot of other functions that I haven’t figured out yet, but it has been a very useful tool for me. It is also fully personalized, since you make it from scratch, so it will look however you want it to.

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Down the Tubes 3: The Death of Kumar

Last week was quite possibly the worst week of my thesis-writing life. On Monday, midway through a ten page update, Kumar, my five year old hard drive, departed from this world. Panicked, I called my networking and computer guru friend Jake, and brought my seriously limping computer to his place, where he confirmed the tell-tale thumping that signaled a broken hard drive reader arm.

Like most of my thesis-writing peers, I find my computer to be an essential part of my life. It has all of my research and all of my progress on it, all of my pictures, Firefox bookmarks, and my music. Fortunately, I’m not (much) of an idiot, and had been backing up my work periodically on an external hard drive (aptly named “Harold”). However, there were those ten precious pages that I’d written, and I was not about to give those up.

When a computer hard drive dies, not all is lost. You can take it to a store like Computers, Etc. off of North Peters Road in Knoxville, and have them run data retrieval on it. Basically, they’ll hook your dead drive up to a new one and try to image, or copy, all of your data onto that new drive. Think of it as taking down your hard drive’s last words before it passes on to the vast Valhalla of computer hardware. Mine struggled in its death throes for a day and a half before it croaked, but I did get my ten pages of thesis back, plus a brand new hard drive (called Kumar II) installed and ready to go. I did have to pay about two hundred fifty dollars for it, but it was worth that peace of mind, if not the parental loan.
Because computers aren’t meant for the long haul, after four or five years they can begin to break down. There are some actions you can take to minimize the massive headache that comes when your computer inevitably dies (usually in the middle of a very important paper).

1.  Back up constantly. Get an external hard drive and back up all of your data to it once a week, or if you’re totally obsessed like I am, once a day. For particularly important documents (like thesis) get a USB/flash drive and save to it often. If I’d been saving like I should have been, I wouldn’t have paid the extra for data retrieval to get my ten pages back.

2.  Keep your computer as healthy as possible. Run virus checks, get a good spyware checker, and defragment periodically. If the finer bits of computer health are confounding, buy your favorite computer guru a massive coffee and see if they’ll help you out. Keeping your computer well-managed will prolong its life.

3.  Shut your computer down correctly. I know, this shouldn’t be this obvious, but it’s so tempting to just hit the big fat power button to turn it off. Not only can you corrupt files you’d been working on, but it can mess with a very important computer component called your .dll library, and even delete important bits from it. Believe me, you don’t want that to happen. So go through the extra five seconds to shut your computer down the right way.

With any luck, you won’t have to go through the ordeal I did. Take care of your computer, and take care of your work, and it’ll make the agonizing death of your hard drive a bit easier to deal with.

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Down the Tubes: Skype me

“Down the Tubes” is a column I do for our school’s student-run newspaper, the Highland Echo. I also manage their web site, at

When I first heard about Skype about a million years ago, I thought it sounded like a silly idea. Why should I call people using my computer when I have a cell phone? Isn’t Skype more like a glorified chat program for the gamers? I have no real desire to talk to people that I don’t know. Anyhow, I reasoned, my phone can get a signal far more often than my computer can get wireless (however, with Verizon being what it is, that’s not saying much.) I dismissed it as an AIM-caliber fad and went on my merry way.

Over the summer I got the chance to go to China for three weeks with Professor Scott Henson. While we were there, we met a lot of people that I’m really interested in keeping in touch with. One of them had Skype, and suggested that I get it as well. So I caved and installed it on my Pocket PC, which I’d brought. Suddenly, I realized I could call anyone without worrying about massive international rates. I’m sure my trip-mates thought me an incredible nerd, what with me scoping out Wi-Fi spots, but I was thrilled! I don’t use Skype quite as much now that I’m back in the US, but I do use it to keep in verbal touch with the friends I made in China. It’s also useful for prank-calling (I didn’t spring for a callback number) and spending forever on hold with outsourced customer service lines.

Skype allows the user to call other computers for free, using a microphone and the computer’s sound system. Skype also offers a pay-as-you-go plan for calling landlines and mobile phones, SkypeOut. For ten dollars, I’ve got enough Skype Credit for almost eight hours of international calling to landlines and mobiles. It doesn’t expire, either, as long as I make one call every 180 days. There are also monthly calling plans available. You can also pay for a service called SkypeIn, which allows people on landlines or cell phones to call your computer using a callback number. SkypeIn gives you the option of having a voicemail box to go with your number. With just SkypeOut, your number shows up on caller ID as “Unknown.”

There are a couple of downsides to Skype, the first and foremost being that you have to have an internet connection to make or receive calls. Thus, Skype on a Pocket PC or PDA really can’t replace a cell phone. If the internet connection you use isn’t so great, the calls can be choppy and will often not go through. This is frustrating, but it’s part of using the internet. Because I didn’t go for a SkypeIn number, I can’t have people call me from normal phones, but this is also an upside if I don’t want somebody to have my number, like large companies.

The only other problem I have with Skype is the fact that my ancient main computer doesn’t have a built-in microphone. People can call me and talk all they’d like, but I’m restricted to the chat function while on that computer. I guess I’ll have to go get myself one of those desktop microphones, because as it is, my one-sided conversations are very frustrating, and kind of funny.

So try Skype out for yourself and see how it works for you. I may have just identified myself as a massive geek by proclaiming my use of the program, but I really like it! Skype’s web site is, and you can download the program for free.

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