Anyone old enough to have played with an original Nintendo NES knows the problem: You plug in the cartridge, turn on the system, and get a blank screen and the power light blinks at you. The schoolyard fix is to take out the cartridge, blow into it, then put it back into the system. Then, with a little luck, you can play your game. The trouble is, that’s just a short-term fix. In the long run, it makes the problem worse and eventually the system can’t play games at all. The solution is to clean them. Here’s a process for cleaning NES games.
What is the purpose of a screen saver? Screen savers served both a technical and a marketing purpose. From a technical perspective, the purpose of a screen saver was to keep an image from permanently being engraved in a CRT-based monitor’s phosphors. But it wasn’t long before screen savers started serving a vanity or entertainment purpose.
A mailing list I subscribe to reminded me of some good advice I haven’t repeated in a very long time. Someone recommended a favorite screen saver, and then someone else chimed in, warning that nothing stops a screen saver, or any other free program, from being infested with spyware and other undesirable things.
The only screen saver I’ve been using for the past 12 years has been Blank Screen (or its equivalent–12 years ago I wasn’t running Windows). Why? Because every other screen saver does more harm than good, that’s why.
The idea behind screen savers is to keep an image that’s been displayed a long time from becoming permanently etched into your monitor’s phosphors. English, please? We have a monitor at work that permanently says “It is now safe to shut down your computer” because the person who used to use that monitor wouldn’t turn it off at the end of the day when she left. This was the result of displaying that screen repeatedly for 16 hours a day during the week and for 60+ hours every weekend.
Modern monitors make screen burn much more rare than it used to be, but they are still vulnerable to extreme abuse like I just mentioned. Monitors used to burn much more quickly, but these days I’ve inadvertently left a monitor on overnight displaying the same thing with no ill effects.
The idea behind a screensaver is to display some moving object to keep your e-mail screen from getting burned in. Nice idea, but unnecessary in an age when you can leave the same image on the screen unchanged for 8 hours without harm. The other problem is that many screensavers are poorly written, either intentionally or inadvertently causing harm to the system. I can’t tell you how many times I solved an intermittent computer problem just by changing the screen saver to blank screen. Some screensavers do crash the system.
Plus, what your monitor really needs to be doing during its idle periods is resting. Some screensavers can cause your monitor’s phosphors to age prematurely, causing interesting (and annoying) visual effects if they wear it unevenly, or, if they wear it evenly, they cause you to have to crank the brightness on your monitor up all the way in order to see the picture.
Displaying bright, fast-moving graphics is harder on the monitor than just displaying a static screen.
Set your screen saver to blank screen, with a timeout interval of 30 minutes, and you’ll actually do your monitor some good. And who doesn’t want increased monitor life expectancy? A good monitor can outlive three computers. As an added bonus, displaying just a blank screen cuts the monitor’s power consumption as well.
Some might say a computer set up this way lacks personality. Maybe it does. So spend the money you didn’t have to spend on a new monitor on some pretty pictures and other doodads to spice up the space around your monitor. A cool toy always gets more attention than even the best screen saver.
Tiny utilities. While I was debating whether to go buy a copy of Extreme Power Tools, I thought I remembered seeing a couple of programs similar to what they offer. So I went hunting and found other stuff, of course.
People tend to get annoyed if you just link to their files, so I linked to the pages that contain links to the files. Some of these pages get pretty heavy, so use your browser’s search function if you have trouble locating the file. Also, there are a few files on one of these pages that can be misused, such as buffer exploits and a program to reveal hidden passwords in dialog boxes. Whether they were intended to be misused, or to demonstrate insecurity, I’m not sure. That said, there are some other utilities on these pages that didn’t seem too useful to me, but they may be useful to you. I don’t want to throw out the baby with the bathwater, so here are a couple of dozen free utilities, linked using proper netiquette.
The listed file sizes are the size of the executable, not the download. The downloads are larger because they include additional files, usually source code.
Files from http://titiasm.cjb.net :
Memory Info. Want to know how much memory your system is using? Here ya go. This is faster than running Norton SysInfo or Microsoft System Monitor. 5.5K.
EdPad. Assembly language Notepad clone. Unfortunately it lacks search/replace. See TheGun for a closer NotePad replacement. 16K.
Resolver. A tiny utility to match Website URLs to IP addresses, and vice-versa. 4.5K.
Files from http://spiff.tripnet.se/~iczelion/source.html :
MP3play. A minimalist MP3 player. Also capable of playing WAV. MID, RMI, AIF, AU, and SND files. Supports playlists. Hint: Right-click in the program window to access its features. 10K.
Also includes miniMP3, a 3.5K player that just plays a single file you specify.
WordEdit. An RTF word processor/help file editor in assembler. Aside from being able to read Word 6 documents, it would make a fabulous WordPad replacement. Includes multiple-level undo and redo, font and color support. Major features missing from a full-blown word processor: spelling/grammar and print preview. Delete the included file splash.dll to eliminate the splash screen and long boot delay. 112K.
FileMan. A graphical two-pane file manager, like Norton Commander. 87K.
Clipboard. Intended mostly as a demo program, but it’s useful beyond its original design. Intended use: Put it in your Sendto folder and you can send file paths to the clipboard from a right-click on the file. Nice. But additionally, having a large object on the clipboard can slow down your system. Some programs ask when you exit if you want to clear it. Others don’t. This program pastes the command-line parameter you feed it to the clipboard, so a shortcut to this program that passes a single-character argument effectively clears your clipboard. Neat, huh? 2.5K.
EWCalc. A scientific calculator. Additionally, it’ll do decimal/hex/octal/binary conversion. 30.5K.
PlayCD. A simple CD player. 7.5K.
QuickBar. A lean replacement for the MS Office toolbar. 20K.
HTTP Downloader. Feed it an url, and it downloads a file through HTTP, like Unix wget. 20.5K.
TheGun. A slightly enhanced replacement for Notepad. Edits large files, includes Ctrl-A hotkey for select all, and includes search/replace. Source not included. 6K.
QuickEdit. A more full-featured editor, includes HTML-to-text conversion and strips carriage returns. Download includes TheGun and a quick-and-dirty textfile viewer. Source not included. 27K.
Files from http://www.rbthomas.freeserve.co.uk/:
Screen savers. I hate screen savers, as everyone knows. Normally I use blank screen. This package includes a 6.5K 32-bit assembly language replacement for blank screen. (Microsoft’s blanker is 16-bit!) The others in the package prove that even when written in assembly, graphics-heavy screen savers eat up far too much CPU time.
RWave. Records and plays back WAV files. A suitable replacement for Sound Recorder. 5.5K.
Timer. This program isn’t a substitute for a common utility, but it’s useful for me. I’ve never gotten around to getting a timer for my kitchen. Now I can let my computer do the job. If your apartment’s as small as mine, or if you have a computer in your kitchen (why? Never mind. I don’t want to know.) yours can too. 31.5K.
More for less, but who wants it? And David Huff reports the P4 prices will plummet today. I thought I mentioned that, but maybe not. The 1.7 GHz model will launch at the insane price of $350 (Intel had planned to launch it at $700 or so). Margins? We don’t need no stinkin’ margins! Intel’s definitely running scared.
Enough of that. Time to take a hint from Frank. What else is there in life? I realized one night last week that I hadn’t gone record shopping in a long time, so I hit the local used shop. The pickings were a bit more sparse than usual, but I’d written down a couple of longshots to look for and I found them, along with a couple of surprises. First I found Starfish, by The Church, which features the track “Under the Milky Way,” a mainstay of ’80s radio and compilations. That’s probably the standout track, but for a band usually considered a one-hit wonder, it’s a really good album.
The other big surprise was Look Sharp!, which was Joe Jackson’s 1979 debut. I was surprised to find it’s mostly a guitar-bass-drum album. Jackson’s a piano player–and a darn good one. Jackson’s piano appears, but he’s rarely playing the lead instrument. The tracks that everyone remembers (“Is She Really Going Out With Him?” and the title track) are definitely the best parts of this album, but it was a strong effort. I can see where his following came from. But it was weird hearing him do what amounts to punk rock with a dose of literacy.
The first longshot was an album I’ve been looking for used for years: Doolittle by The Pixies. The Pixies are very much an acquired taste, but I acquired it. How to describe them? Dark, usually. Weird, always. This was generally regarded as their best album.
And the last longshot was Oyster by Heather Nova. Who? Yeah, I know. I once saw her mentioned in the same context as Aimee Mann and Dot Allison, so I kept an eye out. I think the comparison to those two is a bit shallow. Yes, the three of them are all blonde, female, and write their own songs, and both Nova and Allison play guitar (so does Mann, but she’s mostly a bass player). I recognized “Walk This World” as a song that got a fair bit of airtime on alternative radio about five years ago. Like Allison, her lyrics can get a bit suggestive sometimes, though there are plenty of people who get more so. Compared to Madonna, they’re both tame. But comparing them to an MTV-manufactured pop star is heresy, so I’ll stop now. The variety of styles Nova dabbles in on the album surprised me. Some tracks are dreamy and atmospheric reminiscent of Allison’s band One Dove, but right in the middle of the album is some pure hard rock in the form of a song called “Maybe an Angel.” Somehow that song avoids being over the top like a lot of hard rock does, and it’s far and away the best song on the album. And I’ve thought about those Allison-Mann-Nova comparisons. She’s dreamy and atmospheric like Allison, and often introspective like Mann, so maybe that’s the basis. At any rate, I’ll be keeping an eye on her, and not just because she has a really cool name.
The Asus A7V motherboard and Unix. I’ve been seeing a lot of search engine hits with phrases containing “Asus A7V” and various Unix bretheren (NetBSD and Linux, most recently). I know exactly what posting is turning up under that query–the dream system of a few weeks back.
Is there something weird about the A7V and the BSDs and Linux that people should know about? Installation difficulties? Or are people just trying to confirm compatibility?
Any of you intrepid searchers care to comment? I have to admit, you’ve got me curious.
When replying to reader mail, remember that we spam-filter the addresses. I insert the word “nospam” into the address somewhere, in order to prevent this site from being a bonanza of e-mail addresses for spammers. You can reply by clicking their link, but remove the “nospam.” in their e-mail address before hitting your Send button.
I like reader mail because it builds community, but I hate spam and don’t want that penalty for readers who participate.
I used to keep a trap for spambots on the page, but this is more effective. Though maybe I should set a trap again. Depends on how vindictive I feel, I guess.
Disable your screen saver before playing DOS games inside Windows. I forgot to mention this little tidbit in Optimizing Windows, and I also forgot to mention it in my upcoming Computer Shopper UK article, which is about getting cantankerous DOS games running, even under the reputedly DOS-unfriendly Windows Me.
The games will run, but if you’re sitting there thinking for a long time and your screen saver kicks in at the wrong moment, your system may freeze. Doesn’t seem to happen all that often, but it happened to me yesterday when I was playing The Secret of Monkey Island (I’d forgotten how much I love that game).
That game also makes me feel old. I first played it on a CGA system. Needless to say, it looks a lot better in VGA.
My standard screen saver advice. Screen savers are generally a bad idea anyway, because most screen savers do more harm than good these days. In the days of low refresh rates, images could burn into the screen’s phosphers if the screen sat idle for too long. The high-refresh monitors made since 1994 or so are largely immune to this. But people continue to use screen savers out of the mistaken belief that they’re good for your computer, or because of tradition, or because they look cool.
The more colors a monitor has to display in rapid succession, the more likely it is to deterriorate quickly. The easiest color for your monitor to display is black, because all the guns are off. Keep a rapidly changing image up on the screen, and your monitor actually ends up working harder. As does your CPU–the 3D screen savers make your CPU work harder than Word and Excel and Outlook do. Combined. This increases heat and electrical usage, two things that businesses tend to worry about a lot. They buy green PCs, then keep their energy-saving features from ever truly kicking in (other than spinning down the disk, the savings of which is negligible) by not banning screen savers. Yet they think they’re being all eco-friendly.
Case point: one of the PCs I use at work was first used by a contractor we let go back in March after he’d been there about a year. He had every gimmicky blinky obnoxious screen saver out there, and he used them, leaving the monitor on all the time. The monitor still works, but the color is all messed up. The color quality on my ancient NEC MultiSync 3FGe at home is much, much, much better than on this two-year-old Micron-branded monitor.
If you want to treat your monitor right, use the Blank Screen screen saver or another blanker. And don’t fret if you have to disable it from time to time.