The Hard Edge

Summary:A Whimsical Look at Today's Web; Bill Does FireWire; and the Game Boy Sewing Machine?

COMMENTARY--Don't look now, but it's almost July. Bill is planting ground cover over the Basement of Doom and Pepsi-Cola, Alice is taking some sun on the veranda by the pool at stately Hill Manor, and we're hearing absolutely nothing of importance from the computer industry—except the thud of tech stocks (or is that tech executives?) falling from the trees. So, welcome to the "Hard Edge" of whimsy.

Why whimsy? When people began taking the Web seriously, they forgot the Web was really a disturbing collection of oddities and incredibly strange interests. Where else could you hear the demented phone messages of a jilted girlfriend (www. psychoexgirlfriend.com) or view Lego porn? (Don't even ask; you're on your own finding that one, but it exists.) This was the real Web, and it had little to do with the Microsofts, Intels, and AOL Time Warners of the world.

Alice decided to revisit the original spirit of the Web, taking a technical tour through the underground caverns and freak shows in search of hidden technical "treasures." Here are some notable sites that do strange stuff with a technical twist. Now maybe we'll understand once and for all why Cisco's stock is in the toilet.

* The Web-Enabled Coffee Sleeve
Never mind that it costs 75 cents apiece to feature your logo on a Starbucks coffee sleeve: From the land of excess comes the Web-enabled coffee sleeve. It's marked with a special ink from BriteVision Media that, when read by a scanner or specially configured Webcam, whisks you to the advertiser's Web page.

Let's see; the average click-through on a banner ad is somewhere between 0.2 and 0.4 percent. What could the "click-through" be on waving a cup of scalding liquid at your Webcam? See for yourself at www.britevision.com/corporate/ news/0011.htm.

* The Game Boy-Operated Sewing Machine
Ahhh, nothing goes together better than a gaming machine and a sewing machine. They're both machines, see? Sure enough, someone has figured out how to customize a Game Boy to run a cool-looking new Singer sewing machine called the Izek (www.meetizek.com).

Alice isn't much of a marketing expert, but she couldn't see the need for an iMac-looking sewing machine with a Game Boy interface. Was Singer hoping 12-year-olds would suddenly see sewing as the ultimate in hand-eye coordination? True, women in their 30s now make up a big portion of Game Boy sales, but when asked why they buy the machines, most of them say they spend so much time running errands and waiting to pick up kids from various activities that the Game Boy is a quick way to have a little fun and blow off some steam. Not exactly what Alice would call the sewing crowd, but if there's anyone out there dying to make a custom shirt, Alice will lend you her Game Boy so you can whip her up something special.

* The Cement-Mixer Entertainment Pod
Complete with state-of-the-art surround sound, 12 monitors, cable-TV and satellite feeds, DVD player, and Sony PlayStation2, this is the finest cement-mixer pod we've ever seen. Sound funny? Not when you realize Neiman Marcus actually sells them for $70,000. Mix it up at www.joysticknation. com/mixer/mixer_info2.htm.

* The Stainless-Steel Business Card
The decade of excess meant blasting past conventional costs and spending big on even the smallest things. Not exactly high-tech, but a perfect example: the stainless-steel business card. Wonder how many dot-commers flashed these pricey numbers before going under? For a look at the business card that lasts longer than you, check out www.metalcards.com/ stainless-steel-business-cards.html.

* The Stun-Brella Defense System
Who said e-commerce was dead? Not when sites that cater to the paranoid are thriving. Case in point: the Stun-Brella (www.spyproducts.com/Stunguns1.html). "Tough enough to instantly put down even wild thugs for 3 to 5 minutes—without permanent damage. Why not enjoy high-power security without looking like a riot cop?" Why indeed.

Beyond FireWire
There was Bill, sitting around the Basement of Doom and Pepsi-Cola, wondering why none of his computers had IEEE 1394 (FireWire) ports. Sure, they all had USB ports, but those little devils are so slow compared to their FireWire cousins it's not even a contest. Confounding the issue was the fact that while the Mac world had popularized USB and the PC contingent fanned FireWire into favor, things had gone all backwards, with the Macs holding onto the faster interface and PCs getting the slug. It just didn't make any sense.

What shows up in Bill's e-mail box but a press release from a company called AVerMedia (www.avermedia.com) announcing the release of its new three-port IEEE 1394 card for PCs. That's just too coincidental for someone like Bill to pass up. After turning the St. Anthony statue right side up, he got in touch with the company.

Surprise. AVerMedia (AV as in "audio/ video") doesn't do just IEEE 1394 cards. It has a whole pile of neat stuff most of us probably have no use for, but almost all of us will at least mildly lust after.

For starters, how about AVerTV USB? It's a little device with a TV tuner and video decoder that plugs into and is powered by your PC's USB port. No cards, no IRQ conflicts, no slot hunting—just a 181-channel cable-ready tuner with coaxial TV-antenna input, S-Video input, and composite-video output. It even offers parental lockout. (No, kids. That doesn't mean you can lock your parents out.)

You can find other gadgets and widgets (such as a document camera), but the piece of least resistance is the AVerEPack. If you take PowerPoint slides on the road, you no longer need to lug your heavy 4-pound portable with you. At three-quarters of a pound with its remote control, this nifty device accepts a CompactFlash card filled with your PowerPoint slides and other images, and connects to a projector, television, or even VGA monitor. It supports slide-sequence editing, cut, copy, paste, delete, hide, and several other features. If you need resolutions higher than 640 by 480, the upscale AVerEPack300 supports 1,024 by 768. (But don't try that on a television. Most don't do well with computer images above 640 by 480.)

Bill spent about two hours browsing the Web site, looking at stuff he absolutely didn't need but would love to have. (The AVerDV IEEE 1394 card with Ulead Video Studio worked fine, by the way.) Imagine how much time he would have spent there if he actually needed some of the products.

Why Ask Why? (Part 2)
We've all seen the news footage. The FBI, DEA, local police, or whatever, catch some international tech-no-goodnik and come stumbling out of the person's house carrying every piece of computer equipment they could find.

Aside from imagining what might survive a ride in the backseat of a police cruiser, Bill started to wonder. The authorities confiscate the equipment to learn what information the person they've arrested knew. So they need the hard drive and any removable media they find on the scene.

Because extracting just the hard drive would be time-consuming, Bill can understand why they'd take the computer, keyboard, and mouse. But why glom the monitor and printer? Do they suspect they'll power up the monitor and see a residual image of a critical message that was passed to a foreign baddie? And how about the printer? In these days of toner and ink cartridges, it's doubtful even Perry Mason could produce evidence of past printed materials. It worked in the days of film ribbon cartridges, but no words are written backwards, letter by letter, in toner dust or ink splats.

What do they do with that computer equipment when they're done? Is it returned? No, not usually, not if the person is convicted and sometimes even otherwise. It's often put up for auction. Therein lies the rationale. Anyone who's browsed eBay knows you can get more for a complete system than for just the CPU in a box.

Smooth Move
Alice isn't a tip writer, but she stumbled across an unused feature in Windows 98 that reminded her of the old graphics-card wars of the early '90s. Back when graphics cards were pricey and the market was hotly competitive, companies worked to get a leg up in every way possible. One tactic was to improve the way fonts appeared on the screen. Eliminating "jaggies" by blending in a gray color helped rid screen fonts of the stair-stepped look.

While fooling around with her system one day, Alice discovered Windows 98 offers font smoothing as a built-in feature, but as is typical of Microsoft, the feature was left turned off as a default. To enable font smoothing on your system, here's all you need to do. Double-click the My Computer icon on your desktop. Choose View > Folder Options, and select the View tab. Scroll down the list of checkboxes to "Smooth edges of screen fonts." Check the box, then click Apply. Your fonts should now be smoother.

Of course, Alice claims her fonts look blurrier at certain type sizes (typical Microsoft), and Bill is aghast that she's dug up the font-smoothing crusade after it died off so many years ago. Still, "Hard Edge" newcomers may like a taste of the past and the new look of their fonts. Besides, that was what all the fun was about.

And in Conclusion
Bill has managed to remain virtually unscathed by the financial death of the technology market. That's because he was stupid (or so he was told at the time) and didn't buy any technology stocks when things were going great. (If you ask Bill, he'd probably tell you it was less a matter of far-thinking insight and more a fear of the IRS, which has a controlling interest in his disposable income.)

Alice, despite being afflicted with rolling blackouts, has written a brilliant piece in the June issue of Shopper ("Boom to Bust," p. 178) on why the tech economy died. (Of course, if you're reading the online version of "The Hard Edge," the linking person may have already slam-dunked a link for you somewhere around here.) It's based on the premise of the seven deadly sins, a grouping of social and moral no-nos we're told (by Bill) are based on the "Hard Edge" Greed & Stupidity Principle.

Why such shameless self-promotion? Well, it hasn't been done in a while, and it's important for all the new readers to realize Alice and Bill are more than just two-dimensional characters who write a column. There are sides to them many of you, even some long-time readers, haven't seen. For example, apart from the column and reviews, did you know Bill does Linux stuff for CNET Linux Center? (Bill? Linux? Hey, can you please help that guy next to you back to his feet?)

Anyway, what they really meant to say here was, "Happy 225th Birthday, America." When you take that break to drop Alice and Bill a line, send a birthday card to America. You have no idea how much an older country appreciates that sort of thing.

Write Alice and Bill today:

"The Hard Edge"
Computer Shopper
28 E. 28th St., 10th Fl.
New York, NY 10016-7922
hardedge@zdnet.com COMMENTARY--Don't look now, but it's almost July. Bill is planting ground cover over the Basement of Doom and Pepsi-Cola, Alice is taking some sun on the veranda by the pool at stately Hill Manor, and we're hearing absolutely nothing of importance from the computer industry—except the thud of tech stocks (or is that tech executives?) falling from the trees. So, welcome to the "Hard Edge" of whimsy.

Why whimsy? When people began taking the Web seriously, they forgot the Web was really a disturbing collection of oddities and incredibly strange interests. Where else could you hear the demented phone messages of a jilted girlfriend (www. psychoexgirlfriend.com) or view Lego porn? (Don't even ask; you're on your own finding that one, but it exists.) This was the real Web, and it had little to do with the Microsofts, Intels, and AOL Time Warners of the world.

Alice decided to revisit the original spirit of the Web, taking a technical tour through the underground caverns and freak shows in search of hidden technical "treasures." Here are some notable sites that do strange stuff with a technical twist. Now maybe we'll understand once and for all why Cisco's stock is in the toilet.

* The Web-Enabled Coffee Sleeve
Never mind that it costs 75 cents apiece to feature your logo on a Starbucks coffee sleeve: From the land of excess comes the Web-enabled coffee sleeve. It's marked with a special ink from BriteVision Media that, when read by a scanner or specially configured Webcam, whisks you to the advertiser's Web page.

Let's see; the average click-through on a banner ad is somewhere between 0.2 and 0.4 percent. What could the "click-through" be on waving a cup of scalding liquid at your Webcam? See for yourself at www.britevision.com/corporate/ news/0011.htm.

* The Game Boy-Operated Sewing Machine
Ahhh, nothing goes together better than a gaming machine and a sewing machine. They're both machines, see? Sure enough, someone has figured out how to customize a Game Boy to run a cool-looking new Singer sewing machine called the Izek (www.meetizek.com).

Alice isn't much of a marketing expert, but she couldn't see the need for an iMac-looking sewing machine with a Game Boy interface. Was Singer hoping 12-year-olds would suddenly see sewing as the ultimate in hand-eye coordination? True, women in their 30s now make up a big portion of Game Boy sales, but when asked why they buy the machines, most of them say they spend so much time running errands and waiting to pick up kids from various activities that the Game Boy is a quick way to have a little fun and blow off some steam. Not exactly what Alice would call the sewing crowd, but if there's anyone out there dying to make a custom shirt, Alice will lend you her Game Boy so you can whip her up something special.

* The Cement-Mixer Entertainment Pod
Complete with state-of-the-art surround sound, 12 monitors, cable-TV and satellite feeds, DVD player, and Sony PlayStation2, this is the finest cement-mixer pod we've ever seen. Sound funny? Not when you realize Neiman Marcus actually sells them for $70,000. Mix it up at www.joysticknation. com/mixer/mixer_info2.htm.

* The Stainless-Steel Business Card
The decade of excess meant blasting past conventional costs and spending big on even the smallest things. Not exactly high-tech, but a perfect example: the stainless-steel business card. Wonder how many dot-commers flashed these pricey numbers before going under? For a look at the business card that lasts longer than you, check out www.metalcards.com/ stainless-steel-business-cards.html.

* The Stun-Brella Defense System
Who said e-commerce was dead? Not when sites that cater to the paranoid are thriving. Case in point: the Stun-Brella (www.spyproducts.com/Stunguns1.html). "Tough enough to instantly put down even wild thugs for 3 to 5 minutes—without permanent damage. Why not enjoy high-power security without looking like a riot cop?" Why indeed.

Beyond FireWire
There was Bill, sitting around the Basement of Doom and Pepsi-Cola, wondering why none of his computers had IEEE 1394 (FireWire) ports. Sure, they all had USB ports, but those little devils are so slow compared to their FireWire cousins it's not even a contest. Confounding the issue was the fact that while the Mac world had popularized USB and the PC contingent fanned FireWire into favor, things had gone all backwards, with the Macs holding onto the faster interface and PCs getting the slug. It just didn't make any sense.

What shows up in Bill's e-mail box but a press release from a company called AVerMedia (www.avermedia.com) announcing the release of its new three-port IEEE 1394 card for PCs. That's just too coincidental for someone like Bill to pass up. After turning the St. Anthony statue right side up, he got in touch with the company.

Surprise. AVerMedia (AV as in "audio/ video") doesn't do just IEEE 1394 cards. It has a whole pile of neat stuff most of us probably have no use for, but almost all of us will at least mildly lust after.

For starters, how about AVerTV USB? It's a little device with a TV tuner and video decoder that plugs into and is powered by your PC's USB port. No cards, no IRQ conflicts, no slot hunting—just a 181-channel cable-ready tuner with coaxial TV-antenna input, S-Video input, and composite-video output. It even offers parental lockout. (No, kids. That doesn't mean you can lock your parents out.)

You can find other gadgets and widgets (such as a document camera), but the piece of least resistance is the AVerEPack. If you take PowerPoint slides on the road, you no longer need to lug your heavy 4-pound portable with you. At three-quarters of a pound with its remote control, this nifty device accepts a CompactFlash card filled with your PowerPoint slides and other images, and connects to a projector, television, or even VGA monitor. It supports slide-sequence editing, cut, copy, paste, delete, hide, and several other features. If you need resolutions higher than 640 by 480, the upscale AVerEPack300 supports 1,024 by 768. (But don't try that on a television. Most don't do well with computer images above 640 by 480.)

Bill spent about two hours browsing the Web site, looking at stuff he absolutely didn't need but would love to have. (The AVerDV IEEE 1394 card with Ulead Video Studio worked fine, by the way.) Imagine how much time he would have spent there if he actually needed some of the products.

Why Ask Why? (Part 2)
We've all seen the news footage. The FBI, DEA, local police, or whatever, catch some international tech-no-goodnik and come stumbling out of the person's house carrying every piece of computer equipment they could find.

Aside from imagining what might survive a ride in the backseat of a police cruiser, Bill started to wonder. The authorities confiscate the equipment to learn what information the person they've arrested knew. So they need the hard drive and any removable media they find on the scene.

Because extracting just the hard drive would be time-consuming, Bill can understand why they'd take the computer, keyboard, and mouse. But why glom the monitor and printer? Do they suspect they'll power up the monitor and see a residual image of a critical message that was passed to a foreign baddie? And how about the printer? In these days of toner and ink cartridges, it's doubtful even Perry Mason could produce evidence of past printed materials. It worked in the days of film ribbon cartridges, but no words are written backwards, letter by letter, in toner dust or ink splats.

What do they do with that computer equipment when they're done? Is it returned? No, not usually, not if the person is convicted and sometimes even otherwise. It's often put up for auction. Therein lies the rationale. Anyone who's browsed eBay knows you can get more for a complete system than for just the CPU in a box.

Smooth Move
Alice isn't a tip writer, but she stumbled across an unused feature in Windows 98 that reminded her of the old graphics-card wars of the early '90s. Back when graphics cards were pricey and the market was hotly competitive, companies worked to get a leg up in every way possible. One tactic was to improve the way fonts appeared on the screen. Eliminating "jaggies" by blending in a gray color helped rid screen fonts of the stair-stepped look.

While fooling around with her system one day, Alice discovered Windows 98 offers font smoothing as a built-in feature, but as is typical of Microsoft, the feature was left turned off as a default. To enable font smoothing on your system, here's all you need to do. Double-click the My Computer icon on your desktop. Choose View > Folder Options, and select the View tab. Scroll down the list of checkboxes to "Smooth edges of screen fonts." Check the box, then click Apply. Your fonts should now be smoother.

Of course, Alice claims her fonts look blurrier at certain type sizes (typical Microsoft), and Bill is aghast that she's dug up the font-smoothing crusade after it died off so many years ago. Still, "Hard Edge" newcomers may like a taste of the past and the new look of their fonts. Besides, that was what all the fun was about.

And in Conclusion
Bill has managed to remain virtually unscathed by the financial death of the technology market. That's because he was stupid (or so he was told at the time) and didn't buy any technology stocks when things were going great. (If you ask Bill, he'd probably tell you it was less a matter of far-thinking insight and more a fear of the IRS, which has a controlling interest in his disposable income.)

Alice, despite being afflicted with rolling blackouts, has written a brilliant piece in the June issue of Shopper ("Boom to Bust," p. 178) on why the tech economy died. (Of course, if you're reading the online version of "The Hard Edge," the linking person may have already slam-dunked a link for you somewhere around here.) It's based on the premise of the seven deadly sins, a grouping of social and moral no-nos we're told (by Bill) are based on the "Hard Edge" Greed & Stupidity Principle.

Why such shameless self-promotion? Well, it hasn't been done in a while, and it's important for all the new readers to realize Alice and Bill are more than just two-dimensional characters who write a column. There are sides to them many of you, even some long-time readers, haven't seen. For example, apart from the column and reviews, did you know Bill does Linux stuff for CNET Linux Center? (Bill? Linux? Hey, can you please help that guy next to you back to his feet?)

Anyway, what they really meant to say here was, "Happy 225th Birthday, America." When you take that break to drop Alice and Bill a line, send a birthday card to America. You have no idea how much an older country appreciates that sort of thing.

Write Alice and Bill today:

"The Hard Edge"
Computer Shopper
28 E. 28th St., 10th Fl.
New York, NY 10016-7922
hardedge@zdnet.com

Topics: PCs, Hardware, Microsoft, Operating Systems, Windows

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