Awesometoast.com

Fixing stuff and maybe other things.

Recording what you hear in Windows 7

At first glance, it may look like Microsoft disabled recording of internal—or “what you hear”—sounds in Windows 7. Well, they didn’t. It’s a little trickier, granted, but this is (often) a quick fix.

To enable it:
1. Right click on the speaker icon in the system tray (bottom right).
2. Choose Recording Devices
3. In the empty white space, right-click and choose Show Disabled Devices. You should see Stereo Mix appear in the list.
4. Right click on Stereo Mix and choose Enable.
5. Right click on Stereo Mix again, and choose Set as Default Device.

Now you can record anything you hear through your speakers. If you don’t have a program that can record audio, you can get a nice one called Audacity over here. (It’s free!)

Update 1:

I have a SoundBlaster card and this isn’t working!

As near as I can tell, this is a driver issue. In XP/Vista, the driver supported a “What U Hear” mode, which they seem to have axed since, or at least jacked with.

Since there are a variety of Sound Blaster cards and a slew of different driver sets, the best I can do is give you a list of things to try. Each of these options has worked for at least one person I know.

Option 1: Manually uninstall your drivers, then reinstall.

  1. Mash your Start Ball (start menu) and type in Device Manager
  2. Click the arrow next to Sound, video, and game controllers
  3. Find your SB card, then right click on it and choose Uninstall

Now there are two ways to proceed. First, try simply restarting your computer and let Windows 7 try to install the driver for you. There’s a chance you’re done at this point. If not, run Windows Update and let Windows 7 find and install the latest driver.

Option 2: Manually reinstall your drivers from your CD.
Apparently, the automatic installer on many of these driver CDs is doing it wrong. To manually install the driver…

  1. Insert your driver disc—but don’t let it do anything for you! Close any installers it opens.
  2. Mash your Start Ball (start menu) and type in Device Manager
  3. Click the arrow next to Sound, video, and game controllers
  4. Find your SB card, then right click on it and choose Update Driver Software…
  5. Click on Browse my computer for driver software
  6. Browse to your CD. Look for a “drivers” folder, and then find a sub-folder that fits your computer (64-bit or 32-bit). Install using those drivers and restart. If it still doesn’t work, you might have picked the wrong one (especially if your card stops working altogether). You might want to try a different driver from your disc.

Option 3: is to specifically locate SB24_VTDRV_LB_1_04_0065A.exe (if you have an Audigy, SE/LS/Live!24-bit). This version is outdated, but is known to have the “What U Hear” function.

Update 2:

Possibly Major Caveat

Since originally posting this, I’ve learned that some RealTek chipsets simply don’t support Stereo Mix, meaning you will likely never get this to work without another card, or some serious kludgery. More info as it becomes available.

Posted under: Fixing Stuff | 111 Comments »

313-Word Springpad Review

If you’re like me, your Internet connection is your life — meaning it’s central to your work, education, and entertainment. The only problem with this situation is that it can be easy to get overwhelmed and not be able to keep track of anything anymore! In an effort to improve my online organization, I decided to give Springpad a try.

Springpad is billed as a personal assistant on the go that will help you become more organized and remember things. It has a Chrome browser extention, a web app, and an iPhone app. Also, it’s free (aways one of my favorite price points).

So, how does it work? Let’s say, like me, you find about a dozen interesting bits of stuff on the Internet that you don’t have time to get to right then. You can make bookmarks, but you probably won’t ever get to them. Or, you could use Springpad to save it. Then it’s not only automatically organized into a notebook or category (or you can organize it manually if you wish), it’s accessible from any browser, anywhere or on your phone. Nice.

I found it was pretty smart about organizing stuff for me. For example, for stores it gave me directions, price comparisons, and online links to alternatives without me even asking.

I’ve been using the iPhone app in moments of boredom to look up all the things I’ve saved and finally get around to reading/purchasing/reading/scheduling/and reading things I otherwise would have completely forgotten.

When signing up, you of course have to create a new account — but the good news is that you can link it up to your Google, Yahoo, Twitter, or Facebook accounts. Meaning you won’t have yet another username/password combination to forget. Over and over again.

Overall, I found the service pretty well polished. Smooth experiences all around. I’ll probably keep using it.

Posted under: Reviews | 1 Comment »

German Warm Potato Salad

You’ve probably noticed it’s German/Austrian cooking week here at AwesomeToast. It’s my favorite cuisine, and definetly my favorite to cook. Another favorite recipe of mine is German potato salad. It’s very different from American potato salad, with a sweet vinegar type glaze and is typically served warm. Here’s my recipe:

The Stuff:

  • 3 cups peeled potatoes, sliced. I prefer Yukon Gold or Red potatoes.
  • 4 tbsp of butter OR 4 strips of bacon (see below)
  • 1 small onion, diced
  • 2 cloves of garlic, minced
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 cup white vinegar (just a little less than that, actually)
  • 2 tablespoons water
  • 2 tablespoons white sugar
  • 1/8 teaspoon ground black pepper
  • 1 tablespoon chopped parsley

Making it Happen:

Place your sliced potatoes into a pot, and fill it with enough water to cover them. Bring to a boil, and cook for about 10 minutes, or until easily pierced with a fork.

While that’s going, melt the butter in a deep skillet over medium-high heat. (For the less healthy but even tastier version, fry your bacon, then remove it and use the remaining bacon grease. Chop the bacon up and add it in later.)

Add your onion and garlic to the butter or grease, and cook over medium heat until browned. Then add the water, vinegar, sugar, salt and pepper. Bring the mixture to a boil, then add the potatoes and parsley. If you used bacon, add that now. Reduce heat and stir occasionally for about 1-2 minutes. The starch from the potatoes will cause the sauce to thicken into a glaze. Serve warm and enjoy!

Photo by Oxfordian Kissuth.

Posted under: General Stuff | No Comments »

Griessnockerlsuppe

Another favorite Austrian recipe of mine is Griessnockerlsuppe, which means semolina dumpling soup. I’ve tried this recipe several times now and tweaked it to being just right. It only takes about 15 minutes to make and serves 4. Enjoy:

Dumplings (12):

  • 1 cup + 2 tbsp semolina flour (Coarse is better, but anything works, really.)
  • 1 whole egg
  • 1 egg white
  • 6 tbsp. soft butter
  • 1/4 tsp salt
  • 1/8 tsp nutmeg

Broth:

  • 2 cans or 16 oz. beef broth (chicken works great, too!)
  • 1 small/medium carrot
  • 4 green onions
  • 1 tsp parsley

Making it happen:

Chop carrot into thin slices, and to the same to the green onions. Add vegetables and parsley to broth and start cooking on high.

While that works up to a boil, grab a bowl and whisk the butter until soft and creamy. Add the salt and nutmeg, then add the eggs one at a time. Whip it up so the mix is nice and airy.

Slowly add the semolina flour until all semolina is mixed with egg mixture. (Note: The dumplings are even better when the mix is allowed to chill for 30 minutes in the refrigerator, but if you’re going for a quick meal you can skip that.)

Scoop out small dumplings with a soup spoon and form 12 egg-shaped dumplings. When they’re formed, use a spoon to drop them into your broth. Reduce heat and let simmer for 3-5 minutes (10 if you refrigerated them). Dumplings are done when they float to the top.

Serve the broth with 2 or 3 dumplings per person. Garnish with a pinch of parsley or chopped chives.

Posted under: General Stuff | 2 Comments »

Käsespätzle Recipe

Käsespätzle (or homemade egg noodles with cheese) is one of my all-time favorite Austrian/German recipes, and one of my favorites to make. Here’s my recipe!

You’ll want to start the caramelized onion topping first, as it takes the longest.

Caramelized Onions

  • 1 tbsp butter (not margarine)
  • 2 Onions (preferably sweet like Walla Walla, but others work fine too)
  • 1/4 tsp salt

Melt butter in skillet over med-high heat. Stir in sliced onions until they’re covered, then cook for 10 minutes. Stir every 3 mins or so.

Then sprinkle the salt over them (and a tsp of brown sugar if you have tangier onions) and reduce heat to med-low. Cook for 30-40 minutes until they are golden brown and a little crispy looking.

Spaetzle

While the onions are going, grab a large bowl and this stuff:

  • 4 large eggs
  • 2 cups all purpose flour
  • 1 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1/4 tsp pepper
  • 1/4 cup milk
  • At least 2 cups of your favorite cheese(s), grated

Start a pot of water boiling. I use an average-sized sauce pot filled just over 3/4 full, and with a little salt. Add a little butter or oil to the water (to keep the noodles from sticking together)

Beat the eggs soundly, then add the milk, then add all the remaining ingredients except the cheese. Mix the batter well. It will be thick. Set your spätzle hobel or a colander on top of the pot, and scrape about 1/4 of the batter in. Spread the batter across the hobel or colander with a spatula so it falls out the bottom in little bits. When the bits rise to the top, they’re done. It won’t take long. Scoop them out into a bowl or casserole dish with a slotted spoon and repeat until your batter is gone.

Once your spätzle are done, dial your oven to 350°, then layer the spätzle in a casserole dish with your cheese. I usually do 2-4 layers, ending with cheese on top. My favorite spätzle cheeses are Gouda, Appenzeller, and Gruyère, but you can get excellent results with Cheddar and Colby Jack as well.

Bake the spätzle for about 15 minutes. The point is simply to get the cheese and noddles melted together and make the top a little toasty. You can bake it longer for a crispier top if you’d like. When it’s done, serve with the caramelized onions on top.

Bon Appétit! Or as the Austrians say: Mahlzeit!

Image from Foolforfood.de

Posted under: General Stuff | 2 Comments »

What is Instructional Design?

If you’ve ever finished a course or class that was really hard to follow, didn’t seem to deliver, was either too easy or too hard — it’s possible that poor instructional design (ID) is to blame. The opposite is of course, also true.

Basically, ID is a set of rules or a process for making training/classes do what they’re supposed to do. With it, we:

  • Determine our goals with the instruction. (You do have them, don’t you?)
  • Focusing on meeting those goals efficiently, meaning we try not to waste time, but don’t try to go too fast.
  • Measure to see if our goals have even been reached, both at the end and along the way.
  • Recognize that “Teach students X” or “Help students understand Y” or “Put students through a grueling, 14-week course of Z” are not appropriate goals.
  • Keep SWABAT in mind. (Students Will Be Able To)

ID has some advantages over simply dubbing someone a teacher and setting them loose to spew forth their alleged knowledge. Some of them are:

  • Analysis of whether to teach at all. (Believe it or not, education isn’t always the answer to a given problem.)
  • Cost effectiveness. In the long run, ID can make for more, better-educated, happier, less-bored, and more-capable students in the same amount of time.
  • It’s time effective. ID helps meet the right need of the right people at the right time.
  • This can lead to a competitive advantage. In fast-moving industries, good training is a valuable asset. For schools and universities, it’s plays a huge role in your credibility, respectability, and therefore, funding.
  • Consistency. Standardized, proven methodologies produce consistent quality results.

“Wow. So, there really aren’t any downsides,” you say. Well… not exactly true. In the short term, ID can take more resources, require more/different people than what you have, and involves more steps. But if you’re willing to pay the price, you’ll get results. Even a marginal application of ID principles can yield big differences in student wishing-they-would-enter-a-coma-rather-than-be-in-your-class-for-just-five-more-minutes-ness.

Posted under: Educational Psychology | No Comments »

Google Website Optimizer

We discussed user testing in Intro to Instructional Design last week, and how testing your product or instruction with just one user can dramatically improve your product’s usability and effectiveness.

I found it interesting that around the same time, Google announced the Google Website Optimizer. At first, it sounds like this is made to make your site load faster or somesuch, but it’s actually much more than that. GWO is a free tool for conducting experiments and testing conversion rate — which essentially is the percentage of the time your visitors actually do what you want them to when they come.

The cool thing is that it lets you move things around on your page, for example, and it randomly serves up different versions of your site to people who visit. You can then look very closely at the data and see which variations of your page are proving most effective. The other great thing is that it tests both your target audience and people outside it.

I can think of a few ways this could prove very useful on our school’s websites. If you want to know more about it, check out A Beginner’s Guide to Google Website Optimizer on Kissmetrics.

Posted under: Educational Psychology | No Comments »

Splash pages and Flash intros—just don’t.

Not that many people are even doing this these days, but I just ran into a couple of them and suddenly feel it’s worth mentioning again. Splash pages are pure evil.

(Okay, maybe not pure evil. But some kind of evil, for sure, even if it’s just the annoying kind.)

What is a splash page, you ask? You’ve probably seen them. It’s a sort of front door to a website, and they are often made with Flash. Here’s an example:

www.takeshape.it

The splash page on www.takeshape.it, a good example of a not-quite-so-good idea. (Sorry, guys.)

Pretty, right? Well, yes. But why is it there?

The lure of a splash page is that it gives us a chance to show off. It’s like saying, “Look, we’ve made some really cool stuff in Photoshop,” or, “Check out this excellent Flash animation!” What better place to show the world what we can do than right off the bat at the front of our site, right?

Wrong. Think about other sites you’ve visited. Why did you go to that site? Probably because you wanted something—because you had a question you wanted answered, or you wanted to see someone’s artwork or photos, read some articles, or contribute to a forum or community. Maybe we’ve visited Take Shape to look at some of their fine abstract patterns.

Does a splash page help us do any of that? We want patterns, or whatever, not another reminder of where we already know we are. Splash pages usually offer no other options than to “skip intro” or “enter the site”. Isn’t that what we were already trying to do when we entered the URL or clicked on a link?

It’s the same with our visitors. They didn’t come to be wowed by a fancy introduction. They came for a reason, and they want to get to it without any unnecessary interruptions. (Especially on the 2nd, 4th, and 8th visits, if you can get them to come back at all.)
Famed web usability expert Jakob Nielsen had this to say about splash pages:

Splash pages are useless and annoying. In general, every time you see a splash page, the reaction is ‘oh no, here comes a site that will be slow and difficult to use and that doesn’t respect my time.’
Source: Readers’ Comments on the new Top-10 Design Mistakes.

Furthermore, when splash pages are made with Flash, the opportunity for frustration (and people immediately leaving your site) increases even more. There’s nothing like browsing the web late at night in the dark, or in a quiet study hall or library, and then suddenly have some designer’s favorite rap song blast through your speakers at full volume. And the potential issues go well beyond the inappropriate use of sound. Jeff Noble of the usability blog User Interface Trends makes a good point about animation:

Animation just because you can do animation, like it’s possible or whatever, is very very bad. Please stop. Visitors come to a website for information, not to learn how awesome you are in vague generalities and exploding 3d text. Kaboom!

If you know Flash, create something useful or appropriately entertaining, not a fancy splash page that will only drive users away. We make websites because we want visitors. Don’t give them reasons to avoid your site.

Oh, but there’s always a catch.

That said, there are very rare and specific cases in which a splash page can be useful. If you think you might be dealing with such a case, I’d recommend checking out these two posts by Smashing Magazine, Splash Pages: Do We Really Need Them? and Exploring Design: Outstanding Start Pages. Also, there’s Jakob Nielsen’s dated but still fairly relevant, Flash: 99% Bad.

Posted under: Web Design | 1 Comment »

Web interfaces: how not to confuse your visitors away

Though it can be easy to think otherwise, web design is much more than just putting content on a site and calling it a day. And, because people interact differently with the web than with printed materials such as newspapers and magazines, we can’t treat it the same when we design for it. There are many facets to good web design, and this article is about one of the most important we need to think about when we design.

The Interface

Because the Web is so vast, it would do us well to remember Jakob’s Law. Coined by Jakob Nielsen of Web Usability fame, it states: “Users spend most of their time on other sites.” What this means is that users expect your website to work and behave in a similar way to the ones they already know.

Let me illustrate this point with a corporeal example: Imagine you borrow your friend’s car. You climb in, try to put in the key, and find that the ignition is not where you expect it to be. Instead of going in to the right of the steering wheel, you eventually discover that the key goes on the left side. You get the key in, and it doesn’t turn. After a minute of fiddling with it, you find out that it doesn’t turn clockwise, but counterclockwise—and you have to push on it first.

Well this is all pretty irritating, now isn’t it? And we’re only getting started! It turns out that the turn signal isn’t a lever on the left of the wheel, but a button on the wheel itself. The radio volume is controlled with a button on the floor by the pedals, and the windshield wipers are turned on an off from where the radio volume is supposed to be.

This is one aggravating car, isn’t it? Who designed this thing, anyway?

Someone who hasn’t driven many cars, apparently. You see, car designers might think the key would work better in a different place, but they never move it because no one would buy their annoying, hard-to-use cars if they did.

Don’t Confuse Your Visitors Away

You can probably see where I’m going with this. Though not quite to the same extent, websites are similar to our car. Think about some of the sites you’ve visited recently. I’d be willing to bet that the site’s logo was in the top left corner, and if there was a search box, that it was somewhere near the top, or around the upper-right corner. And I’ll bet colored words were almost exclusively links. I don’t even have to know what sites you go to to guess that because websites, like cars, have developed certain trends. Like it or hate it, if your search box is on the left side of the page at the bottom of the screen, a lot of people won’t even know you have one, and they’ll wonder why you don’t. After all, as Vitaly Friedman of Smashing Magazine says in this post, “if users can’t use a feature, it might as well not exist.”

Now imagine that your friend’s weird car is just one of millions you could be driving instead. (You’re famous, because everyone in the state wants to lend you their car.) Do you think you’d spend more than a few seconds in our problematic example one, or would you be in another, more familiar one in seconds? Like you and your millions of cars, web users have millions of websites they could be at instead of yours, and they won’t stand much in the way of confusing or frustrating layouts.

Try to avoid being the cause of this situation. And don’t try this at home.

One way to avoid this making your site awkward or hard to use is to take some time to look at other sites with similar messages to yours. Because you’ll likely share your audience with those sites, you can get an idea of how your specific user base might expect your site to work. Additionally, you can do a search for web usability statistics and get some cold, hard numbers, like those from the W3Counter and Internet Usage World Stats. For instance, you would not want to design your site to be wider than 1440 pixels, because only a small percentage of web users have screens that wide according to global web statistics:

Global screen resolution statisticsSource: www.w3counter.com/globalstats.php. Accessed Nov 17, 2009

But, you’re saying I can’t be creative!

No I’m not. Really, you can. You have a lot more flexibility than our awkward car above—the Internet isn’t nearly that fixed in its ways. And remember, we’re talking about how your site works, not how it looks. Cars all pretty much work the same, but they come in all kinds of different shapes, sizes, styles, and colors. And so should websites. The Internet would be a pretty boring place otherwise.

For more info on what makes for a usable layout, and some excellent dos and don’ts, check out 10 Principles of Effective Web Design, and Research-Based Web Design & Usability Guidelines.

Posted under: Educational Psychology, Web Design | 1 Comment »

Organizing Information

Last week’s discussion about visuals and interfaces really got me thinking about user interfaces. One of the biggest and most important challenges of user interface design is to organize your information in the best possible way—you can’t just put it on the screen and assume your visitors will know what to do with it.

Reading on the Web is Different
For instance, studies show that the majority of web users don’t stop to read every word on the screen. (See this sample chapter from Don’t Make Me Think by Steve Krug.) They read hard and fast, skimming more than anything. Therefore, if you want people to actually digest your information, you need to make it as easy to read and as well organized as possible. As the Web becomes more prevalent in all our lives — and those of your learners — I imagine this habit of skimming might easily apply to all forms of on-screen text, be it a web site, educational software, or Internet-based instruction.

Images Should Make Sense
Images should also be chosen carefully. Images do not typically, by themselves, convey meaning — at least, not the meaning you’re trying to get across. I once dealt with a client who insisted that the website I was creating for his event be dominated by two pictures: a handful of bullets on a book, and a globe painted on someone’s hand. I had to explain to him, that although these pictures were nice to look at—they didn’t say a single thing about what the event was, or why people should care about it enough to bother attending. It was the words that communicated our message, and the images were the garnish. You don’t go to a restaurant to enjoy the parsley with a small side of entree.

For a good article about using images on the web, check out this post by Nasir Mehmood.

Posted under: Educational Psychology, Web Design | No Comments »
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