Column: A Lexicon for the rest of us

Loose Wire — At Last, a Geek’s Lexicon: Finally, there’s a word for the act of caressing one’s gadgets in public and for the gooey stuff that gathers in your keyboard

By Jeremy Wagstaff
from the 1 May 2003 edition of the Far Eastern Economic Review, (c) 2003, Dow Jones & Company, Inc.
It’s unsurprising, given the kind of people who design and play with computers, but I’ve always felt there to be a chronic shortage of terms to describe what we actually do with our technology. So I’ve come up with some of my own. And, in case I’m accused of merely adding words to the English language, I’ve used existing words, in this case from the villages of the United Kingdom (I make no claim for originality here; the late author of A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams, did it first with a marvellous book called The Meaning of Liff. I also offer a nod in the direction of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter). Here’s my contribution (these are all real place names, so my apologies in advance to offended residents):
appledore (n) Someone who touts the superior benefits of Macintosh computers at parties, even after the dancing has started.

aynho (n) Someone who forwards inane jokes, hoax virus alerts and cutesy e-mails to everyone in their address book, however much they’re asked not to. Usage: Who is the aynho that keeps sending Saddam jokes?

biggleswade (v) The process of scouring through tonnes of Word files, spreadsheets, and e-mails to find a crucial document. As in: I’ve been biggleswading all afternoon and I still can’t find the dang thing.

branksome (adj) A temperamental Internet connection. The Net’s been really branksome today.

chettle (collective n) The debris, such as crumbs, dead insects and lint, that gets stuck inside your computer keyboard.

chew magna (v) When your floppy or ZIP drive, instead of reading a disk, grindingly destroys it.

chipping norton (n) The point a PC reaches when it requires the use of an error-fixing program such as Norton Utilities. As in: I’m sorry, guv, but your computer’s chipping norton.

crackington haven (n) A Web site that is home to ne’er-do-well hackers, crackers and credit-card fraudsters.

cridling stubbs (n) The stunted, misshapen fingers and thumbs of teenagers who have spent too long sending text messages on their cellphones.

devizes (n) Gadgets you bought, used once and then, realizing they took up more time than they saved, threw in a drawer.

fiddleford (n) A person who jabs away on a personal digital assistant in public places.

fladdabister (n) A sore or bruise that appears shortly before the onset of cridling stubbs (qv).

foindle (v) The (usually) unconscious act of stroking a much loved gadget in public.

fugglestone (v) Frustration experienced after failing to master an item of hardware or software. I’ve spent three hours on this dumb program and I’m completely fugglestoned. (Not in polite usage.)

gnosall (n) A person who frequents newsgroups and appears to know the answer to everything, while having no apparent qualifications or job.

hanslope (n) The slouch adopted when text messaging in public.

hayling (n) The gesture made by someone answering his hand-phone during a meeting or meal, signifying it’s important and they’ll be with you in a minute.

hordle (v) The noise a modem makes when it is trying to connect to the Internet. As in: My modem isn’t working. I can’t hear it hordle. (Also see millom)

inchgrundle (v) To assist, reluctantly and grudgingly, a customer with their recently purchased computer.

keevil (n) A small icon residing in your Windows system tray, the purpose of which remains a mystery.

lostwithiel (n) The remote area not covered by your cellphone operator. As in: I would have called you, boss, but I was in lostwithiel.

melbury bubb (n) The noise of people talking on their handphone on public transport, unaware they are driving fellow commuters to distraction. How was your day, dear? Fine, but the melbury bubb on the train home was awful. What’s for dinner?

melplash (n) An annoying window that pops up on your screen when you’re trying to do something important.

millom (n) The period of blissful silence when, after hours of fiddling with settings and wall sockets, your modem no longer hordles (qv) and connects to the Internet.

much wenlock (n) The belated realization that you’ve been typing with the cAPS lOCK oN.

odstock (n) Gadgets and peripherals you can no longer use because you’ve lost the cables, software or power adaptor for them.

padstow (n) The place where all your mousepads mysteriously head for when they go missing from your desk.

puncknowle (n) A geeky teenager who knows the answer to all your computer problems but never seems to actually get around to fixing them.

scrooby (adj) When a computer screen starts behaving oddly for no apparent reason. Common usage: Jeremy can you come round and take a look at my computer? It’s gone all scrooby again.

swaffham bulbeck (n) The pseudo-authoritative spiel delivered by computer-store staff in the hope of browbeating a sale. As in: I tried to find out which was the best computer to buy but the guy just gave me a load of swaffham bulbeck. I’m not going back to that store again.

tibshelf (n) The area near your computer where you keep software and hardware manuals you never refer to.

ufton nervet (n) The suspense experienced upon rebooting a crashed computer, fearing that valuable data has been lost.

upper tooting (n) An insister error beep, the source of which cannot be identified. As in: I have no idea what the problem is, the thing just keeps upper tooting.

wantage (n) The shortfall between your present computer’s capacity and that required to run the program you just bought.

whitnash (n) The pain in your shoulder at the end of a long laptop-carrying trip. As in: The trip went fine, but I’ve got serious whitnash and need a bubble bath. What’s for dinner?

Column: A Fix It Guide

Loose Wire — The Glitch-Fixer’s Guide: PC stuck again? Before you bother your computer guru, here’s a checklist that could help you to fix the problem yourself
 
By Jeremy Wagstaff 

17 April 2003 edition of the Far Eastern Economic Review, (Copyright (c) 2003, Dow Jones & Company, Inc.)

 
I was halfway out of the door, and very pleased to have fixed a computer, when the owner called me back. “Hang on,” she said. “These squarey bits are much too small. They weren’t like that before.” I sighed, put down my backpack and reached for the mouse. This must be what it’s like fixing a broken-down car on a windswept highway, rescuing the family inside from frostbite and certain death, only to be told by the occupants that while the engine now worked, the radio didn’t.

Welcome to the thankless world of Helping Friends With Their Computer Problems. It’s a fool’s errand, take it from me. In the past few weeks I’ve attempted to fix four computers, with a success rate of 25%. Of course none of this is the user’s fault. No one really prepares us for when things go wrong, and while on that one occasion I was able to fix the main problem and those squarey bits, my friend is none the wiser about what to do if it goes wrong again. So here, for one time only, is my Idiot’s Checklist Of Things To Do When Something Goes Wrong With Your Computer. Of course I claim no responsibility for any advice you may follow, and do not lure me over to your place to fix it (unless it’s with an offer of some Battenburg Window Cake, to which I’m rather partial).

1) Try turning the computer off and turning it on again. I know it sounds obvious, but six times out of 10 this fixes it. (If necessary, unplug the power cable, remove the battery if it’s a laptop, and then leave the computer for five minutes first. This drains the memory, as well as allowing you to get yourself a cup of tea.)

2) Assuming your computer now does load as normal, you have either fixed the problem, or you’re having a problem with a specific program or a specific device you’ve plugged into your computer. The trick now is to isolate the problem. In most cases, you’ll get an error message alerting you to the problem — usually a separate window (“this program has performed an illegal operation and will now go to jail” or somesuch). Take note of which program is causing the problem. It’s not always obvious.

3) In my friend’s case, it was Eudora, an e-mail program. Every time she tried to check her mail, it crashed with a message, that while cryptic (“an unhandled error has occurred”) at least informed me who the culprit was. The next trick, then, is to see whether someone else has had the same problem. Assuming you have an Internet connection (if you don’t, call up a friend who does), check the manufacturer’s Web site and go to their Support page. Search for something relevant like “crash” and “check mail.” No point in reinventing the wheel: If someone else has had the same problem as you, chances are it’s recorded somewhere on the Net.

4) In Eudora’s case, they do a great job of listing possible options for fixing your problem, and after trying about eight of them, everything worked. But if this doesn’t happen, you can still try stuff out yourself. For example, try closing all other programs you don’t need, including, if you’re in Windows, all the ones in the system tray (usually by right-clicking the icon and selecting Exit).

5) Still no joy? Run an updated virus check on your whole computer, and sit tight until it’s done. Don’t have a virus checker installed? Shame on you, but try this free on-line one: www.trendmicro.com/en/products/desktop/housecall/. If you have a virus aboard, that may be your problem.

6) No virus? Try reinstalling the program or device in question (make sure you have the original program file or CD-ROM first). To do this, open the Control Panel in the Settings menu, and Add/Remove Programs. Once the program’s uninstalled, reboot your computer and reinstall the program. If it’s a piece of hardware, open the System icon instead of Add/Remove Programs, find the Device Manager tab and right-click on the device that doesn’t work. Select uninstall. Once you’re done, reboot. You may have to now reinstall the drivers that make the device work.

7) Still not working? Try cleaning up the Registry — the place where Windows stores all the settings that make your programs run (or crash, depending on your point of view). Here’s a free program, EasyCleaner, that does a good job of it: www.toniarts.com/ecleane.htm. Once the program has run its course, reboot and try the program again.

8) If it’s still not working, try checking the hard disk for errors (Accessories/System Tools/Scan in Windows; Windows XP won’t have this option). If that’s still not helping, try removing some of the components of the program in question. Eudora, for example, has extras called plug-ins that may be causing the problem. Microsoft Outlook and Word have similar add-ons that are often the culprit. Remove those and you may be okay.

9) Still no luck? I hate to say it, but you may have bigger problems. You could try reinstalling Windows, but before you take that kind of step you may want to try consulting a professional, since you’re entering Scary Territory.

More on reinstalling operating systems in a future column. In the meantime, print this checklist out, stick it above your computer and stock up on Battenburg Cake, in case I’m dumb enough to come round. 

Column: Project5 and computer music

Loose Wire — So You Wanna Be a Rock Star?: If you still harbour teen dreams of fronting your own band, this new software’s for you – it brings an entire sound system to your PC

 
By Jeremy Wagstaff
from the 24 April 2003 edition of the Far Eastern Economic Review, (c) 2003, Dow Jones & Company, Inc.
Making music used to involve chunks of metal, miles of cable and roadies called Phil. Not any more.

Take my closet, for example. Taking up most of the space are half a dozen boxes that once formed my music studio (what I’d call my rig when trying to impress people). Among them: a drum, three synthesizers, an effects rack, a compressor box and a mixer. All of this must have cost me at least $2,500 in the early 1990s. Linking them all was a maze of cables producing enough hum to scare away bears. Now it’s all been replaced by a CD-ROM from a guy called Greg.

The CD-ROM in question is called Project5, launched this month by a United States-based company called Twelve Tone Systems, and Greg is Greg Hendershott, the unassuming genius who runs it. I don’t use the term “genius” lightly, but Hendershott is up there in my pantheon of heroes for once producing a program called Cakewalk, which allowed me to hook up all my musical equipment to my computer and do something called “sequencing” — playing them all at once. So, instead of laboriously recording a drum part onto tape before adding a keyboard part, Cakewalk used a standard called MIDI to store the raw data of what was played — which notes, how long you hold them for, how hard you hit them — onto a computer, and then allowed you to tweak it. Cakewalk revolutionized song-writing for people like me, who couldn’t afford to rent a studio or hire musicians, and, most importantly, tended to hit a lot of wrong notes.

Now Hendershott’s done it again. Project5 (about $400 from www.cakewalk.com) is a program that not only stores the raw data, it also provides the sounds, mimicking all your synthesizers and drum machines via an on-screen display that looks like a console on the Starship Enterprise. All you need is a MIDI keyboard to play, and the computer will create the sounds, as well as store, or sequence, them. Suddenly you can tweak the belchings of Shrek, or the timbre of a Javanese gamelan, or record your grand piano and play the whole thing from your PC (no Mac version is available).

Hendershott is not first to the table with Project5: Programs like Propellerhead Software’s Reason ($400 from www.propellerheads.se) are collections of “software synthesizers” that can be played using a MIDI keyboard, or a sequencing program like Cakewalk’s successor, Sonar.

Still, Project5 is definitely the future. It capitalizes on all the standards that have evolved within the computer sequencing world, so that you can easily plug any competing “softsynth” into it and start using it immediately. What’s great about all this is that whereas all my old synthesizers were mostly just banks of sounds — piano, string, thrush warble — that took a rocket-science degree and a weekend to tweak, all the parameters in new softsynths can be tweaked easily and extensively. That all this appears on your screen just like a bank of synthesizers on a rig, along with knobs, sliders, flashing lights, bits of discarded chewing gum, etc., makes me feel as if I’ve died and gone to a sort of synth heaven.

Of course, the computer/music revolution has already begun, and left me way behind. Amateur musicians all over the world have produced a catalogue of electronic dance music that dwarfs the musical output of the past few centuries combined. It is this crowd that Hendershott is aiming at — indeed, his work helped create much of the phenomenon. However, if the computer revolution is to fully realize its potential for musical creativity we need to see programs like Project5 developed for folk who couldn’t tell the difference between a synthesizer and a microwave. Then I think we’ll be hearing some seriously interesting music coming out. Just don’t expect me to create it: I’m too busy selling a cupboard full of cables.

Column: the all in one gadget

Loose Wire — All-in-One Gadgets: Compact But No Cure-All: The Sony Ericsson P800 is an Internet-enabled PC, hand-phone, digital organizer and camera rolled into one; But some things are better kept separate

 
By Jeremy Wagstaff
 
from the 10 April 2003 edition of the Far Eastern Economic Review, (c) 2003, Dow Jones & Company, Inc.
If you’re anything like me, you hope the next gadget you buy will solve all the problems with your existing one — phone, palm-held device, lawnmower — only to find that in most cases, you’re forced to settle for something that may be better, but not necessarily in the way you imagined, or hoped. Call it Feature Disconnect.

Take my new hand-phone, for example. I needed something that didn’t keep switching off mid-call, where the keys didn’t stick, and which had some extra features such as a decent calendar, contacts list and whatnot. After much deliberation I settled for the Nokia 7650, a beast that combines camera, digital assistant and phone.

The Nokia 7650

Two weeks on, I like half the features and am somewhat disappointed over the other half, but in most cases the things I like about it are not the reasons I bought it. I’ve had to abandon synchronizing my data with Microsoft Outlook because the Nokia slows to a crawl with all my contacts aboard, while the short messaging (or SMS) feature, while comprehensive in terms of storing and displaying messages, is actually more fiddly than its predecessor. On the other hand, I’m addicted to taking pictures of people and linking the picture to their contact details, so on the rare occasions they call, their visage appears on the screen. Completely pointless, I know, and certainly not why I bought the thing, but it makes me happy.

I suspect similar problems with Sony Ericsson’s P800 (about $650). As I’m sure you know, Sony Ericsson is a trial marriage of Japanese electronics-giant Sony and Ericsson, the Swedish hand-phone manufacturer. They’ve been dabbling for a while in handsets and with their most recent model appear to have hit something near the jackpot. It looks a lot like a normal phone, but flip open the keypad and you get a screen the size of Hungary, an interface to die for and an almost fully fledged digital organizer. It’s a marvel of engineering, delightful to hold and look at, but sadly it’s still vulnerable to Feature Disconnect.

The Sony Ericsson P800

It’s like this. The P800 is out to replace your hand-phone and your personal digital assistant. It has handwriting recognition and will synchronize with Outlook and Lotus Notes; you can write and read e-mail and surf the Internet on it. Flip the keypad back into place and you have a normal phone that’s no larger than most existing hand-phones. Oh, and it takes pictures. For many folk it’s what they’ve been waiting for: a convergent device that means they can leave their Palm or PocketPC at home, as well as the digital camera. Lighter pockets all round. Out of the 100-or-so user reviews I read, only a handful said bad things about the P800.

My experience was different: While the handwriting recognition (scrawling letters on the screen which are then interpreted by the phone into digital text) is no better or worse than its peers, it’s one thing to tap away in your spare time and another to try to enter notes or phone numbers while you’re on the road taking a call from the boss. Errors creep in and frustration mounts. The software aboard the P800 is a departure — it’s neither Palm- nor Microsoft-related, instead drawing on the Symbian platform — and is nicely designed, but has its quirks. There are some treats — tap on a phone number and a menu appears, allowing you to phone, SMS or add the number to your contacts directly.

But there are also some oddities — I could not find, using a keyword search, any of the folk I had added to the contacts directory, and was horrified to discover that the phone does not support the “predictive text” SMS function used by everyone and his dog (predictive text anticipates what word you’re trying to tap on the keypad, allowing you to press keypads once to form words instead of several times). To not include this is, in my view, like selling a car without a steering wheel. My verdict: The P800 is a very impressive device but it’s too limited to replace my Palm — making it just a very expensive phone, albeit a full-featured one.

The problem as I see it is this: As all these gadgets get better, we demand more out of them. Then we want all those features in one device. Seeing the P800 — the closest anyone’s come to an all-in-one gadget — I can’t help wondering whether we’d be better off keeping some things separate. With a keyboard and Bluetooth, today’s Palm or PocketPC can, under certain conditions, do a very good job of mimicking a laptop, something that wasn’t really intended when they first appeared in the mid 1990s. Hand-phones now are messaging devices — transmitting not just voice, but messages, pictures and whatnot, storing music and taking photos — something that certainly wasn’t envisaged with the launch of their brick-sized ancestors in the early 1980s. All these features, in my view, make it less likely — and indeed, less preferable — to have an all-in-one device. So long as they communicate well with one another, I think manufacturers should focus on combinations of devices, allowing us users to mix and match according to our whim, however quirky. That way we might get what we want and not lose the features we like every time we upgrade.

Now keep still while I take a picture of you in case you call.