December 20, 1999

By Karen Kenworthy


Good news! My old van's fixed, thanks to the terrific work of my favorite mechanic. It took a few days to sort everything out, but now it runs like a top, and keeps me warm as toast. You know, I didn't really appreciate reliable transportation, until I'd lost it.

I also want to thank reader Kyle Bernard for the great information about heater cores. He was able to tell me how a car's heater works, how it should be repaired, and even how long the repair should take. If there's something Kyle doesn't know about cars, I'll be surprised. There's probably an e-mail newsletter in Kyle's future. :)

Karen's First "Power Toy"

Even without a set of wheels, I was able to do most of my Christmas shopping last week. That's because this is my first "Web" Christmas. No crowded malls, no traffic jams, no overflowing parking lots. Everything I buy arrives on my front porch, delivered by a good-looking (if harried) young man. I'm loving it!

All this web shopping put me in an electronic holiday mood. So I decided to turn the Power Tools workshop into a branch of Santa's workshop. This week marks the arrival of my first "Power Toy".

It uses the Microsoft Agent technology, first introduced in the Countdown Timer II. But this program is just for kids, and those of us who never grew up. It gives you complete control over several animated characters, telling them what to do, and what to say.

When it starts, the program display up to six large buttons, each sporting the name of an animated character. The characters you can download from my Web site are Peedy the talking parrot, Genie the genie, Merlin the magician, and Robby the Robot. But the program will work with Microsoft Agent characters that come with other software too. Just copy their .acs files to your \Windows\Agent\Characters directory (if they're not already there).

Once you make your selection, a character appears, along with a list of tricks he's learned. Characters from third-parties will vary. But those on my Web site know more than two dozen. On command, they'll wave, take a bow, perform a magic trick, read a book, take a nap, and more. Just click the activity's name in the "Tell me what to Do" list box.

The program also has a "Tell me what to Say" text box. Type anything into this space, and your character will do his best to pronounce it. He recognizes most words, and understands many punctuation marks, such as commas and exclamation points. And, like all of us, he does the best he can with the rest.

To make it easier for little ones, the program's buttons and list boxes are extra big. Most children don't need the extra size in order to see the items on the screen. I only wish I had their eyesight. But small hands holding big mice can be a bit shaky. Large on-screen controls make it easier for them to find their targets.

Don't Lose These Instructions!

This little program might be a nice surprise for some little one, come Christmas morning. Even though it lacks the most popular feature of most toys -- a cardboard box.

Everything you need is free, and available on my Power Toy page at But, as they say, some assembly is required. To make sure your child's Christmas surprise is a pleasant one, be sure to follow these instructions carefully.

First, download all the necessary installation program. Then run each installation program in the proper order. Here's a list of what you need, and the correct order of installation:

vbrun60-setup.exe (Visual Basic Runtime 6.0 Runtime)
pttoy-setup.exe ( PowerToy)
MSAgent.exe (Microsoft Agent software)
Peedy.exe (Peedy the talking parrot)
Robby.exe (Robby the robot)
Genie.exe (Genie the, err, um ... genie)
Merlin.exe (Merlin the magician)
tv_enua.exe (the Lemout & Hauspie TruVoice Text-to-Speech Engine)

More Email News

Some of you received last week's newsletter a bit later than usual. That's because my poor, little, overworked server almost died when I asked it to send out several thousand email messages. Who knew? I'd never sent more than a half-dozen at a time, before.

Soon, a professional email service will take over this job, and do it right. But in the meantime I'm emailing this week's letter too, while contract details are worked out. The good news is I won't be late for Christmas. This week I'm using a little program I wrote that spoon feeds email messages to my server, a few at a time. That should be much easier on my server's digestion.

Speaking of big meals, I hope you'll enjoy one with your family and friends later this week. We shouldn't need a reason to get together, but often we do. And this weekend is one of the best. Whatever you do, whoever you're with, I'll be thinking of you. And don't forget -- if you see me on the 'net, be sure to wave and say "Merry Christmas!"

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