September 12, 2002

By Karen Kenworthy


I've got time on my mind.

Maybe, it’s the speed with which this old earth completed its most recent circuit of the sun. Can 365 days really have expired, since that moment madness ungloved its hideous hand?

Or perhaps, it’s only the season of the year. Here at the secluded Power Tools workshop, the once endless days of summer are relentlessly being overtaken by ever-lengthening nights. Soon the thoughts of me and the elves will inevitably turn to warm woolen clothes, hot soup, and evenings by a crackling fire.

Or, just possibly, it's the time I've spent recently, giving an old Power Tool, the Alarm Clock, an overhaul. :)

It's About Time

Many of you remember the Alarm Clock. When it first appeared, four years ago, I touted it as the way to "turn your $3,000 computer into a $30 alarm clock." No longer sleep past that office meeting. No need to pack a flimsy clock on your business trip. Never work overtime again!

Well, the prices of computers, and alarm clocks, have declined a bit since then. But the principle remains the same. The Alarm Clock program turns your laptop or PC into that well-known bedside appliance.

The first things you'll notice, when running the Alarm Clock, are the large green digits displaying the current time. Older versions of the program sported digits about one inch tall. But the new version adjusts the size of its time display. Now the digits shrink and grow, as you resize the Alarm Clock's main window, always displaying the largest digits possible.

As always, on-screen buttons allow you to select between a 12-hour (with a.m. and p.m. indicator) and a 24-hour (or "military") time format. And a "slider" lets you control the display's brightness. The program also remembers up to four different alarm times. And unlike the clock by my bed, changing those alarm times is easy. Use your mouse to click anywhere on a current alarm time, and it will suddenly change into an editable text box. Type the new alarm time, press <Enter>, and you're done!

When the time came for the old Clock to sound an alarm, it gave you three choices. It could play a track from your favorite CD. Or it could play your favorite .WAV (digitized sound) or .MID (digital music) file. Or, it could just beep.

What can I say? At the time, these choices seemed state-of-the-art. Up-to- date, hip, what's happening. But now, well, they're so 20th century. :(

Clearly, the old Alarm Clock needed to learn some new tricks. For example, why couldn't it play an .AVI (Audio/Video) file when an alarm's time arrives? Or an .MP3 (digitized music) file? Why stop there? Why shouldn't the Alarm Clock be able to play any multimedia file supported by Windows' Media Player, RealNetwork's RealPlayer, or other program?

Well, as you've probably guessed, now it can. As long as you can play, view or hear a file by double-clicking its icon, the new Alarm Clock can play it too. When it comes time for the program to sound an alarm, it simply launches whatever program you've associated with the selected file, and that program does the rest.

For example, suppose Windows Media Player is associated with .AVI files on your computer. If you ask the Alarm Clock to play an .AVI file at noon, it will launch Media Player at the appointed time. Media player will open the file, and display it on-screen.

[Warning: Although you'll probably want to use the Alarm Clock to launch media files, it can actually launch any data file associated with a program. For example, you could order the Alarm Clock to load and display a spreadsheet when its time has come. But be warned. Some of these types of files are more likely to induce sleep -- just the opposite of the alarm effect normally desired.]

Time Cop

With time on my mind, and time on my hands, I decided not to stop after revising the Alarm Clock. So now there's a brand new Power Tool, the Time Cop.

Inspired by reader suggestions, this new program compliments the Alarm Clock and Countdown Timer II. Originally intended to time a teacher's exams, it can also be used to limit the length of office meetings, time your favorite recipe, and more.

When you run the Time Cop, it first displays a special window where you can give it instructions. For example, you can specify the number of days, hours, minutes and seconds it should run. You can also tell the program whether it should "count up", showing elapsed time, or "count down", showing the amount of time remaining. Another on-screen option allows you to enter a message the Time Cop will display when time has run out.

This window also lets you specify a file that will be played when the allotted time has expired. Here, you have the same choices offered by the Alarm Clock -- most popular media files, plus any other data file associate with a program.

Click Time Cop's Start button, and the program flies into action! It will immediately hide its settings, and begin displaying the time remaining, or time elapsed, in a new window. Whether counting down, or up, it always displays the current count using the largest digits available. If you run the program "full-screen", the count will fill your computer monitor. Use a monitor projector, and the count can be cover a wall.

When time runs out, your selected message will be displayed on-screen. Your selected file will be opened and played too. The program then waits patiently for you to tell it its work is done.

Simple? Yes, and a lot of fun too. And for the programmers among us, it's interesting. Scaling digits to fill a window, and playing any media file, are tasks that can really make your beanie's propeller spin. :)

Mail Server Update

The last time we got together, I mentioned a strange problem that has crippled my old e-mail server. For years this program has steadily, and reliably, received e-mail messages sent to me, or one of the resident elves. It's also sent our messages out, into the big world outside the secluded Power Tools workshop.

Then, one day not long ago, the e-mail server began to show its age. Now, e-mail messages sometimes get stuck, wedged deep inside the server, never be seen again. Over time, this message clog grew, resisting all my best doctoring efforts.

Eventually the future became clear. The old server software was ready to retire -- another tragic victim of bit rot. A new server would have to take its place.

But which one? Several companies make e-mail server software, and some companies make more that one edition or model. How to choose?

It didn't take long before you came to my rescue. Several readers offered dozens of suggestions and recommendations. I'm still sorting through the options, and actively testing a couple of servers to see which best suits my particular needs.

I'll have more to say about the subject later, but it looks like the secluded Power Tools workshop will soon have a young, healthy e-mail server. And thanks to your help, my old server can soon begin the retirement it so richly deserves. :)

Well, that's almost all the time we have together, for today. Until we meet again, if you'd like to give the new Alarm Clock v2.6 a try, visit its home page at:

And feel free to drop by the home page of Time Cop v1.2 at:

There you can download your free copies of both programs. And as always, the programmer types among us can download their Visual Basic source code too!

Karen's CD users have another option. You can run the Web Update program, included with your CD, to update your copy of the Alarm Clock. You can also follow the CD Update link on your CD's Table of Contents to get your own copy of the Time Cop, if you have an older CD made before Time Cop was released.

Don't have a copy of Karen's CD? Want to support Karen's Power Tools? The cure is simple. Visit my CD home page at:

There you can order your own copy of Karen's CD, complete with the latest Alarm Clock, Time Cop, and every other Power Tool. You'll also receive three bonus Power Tools programs not available anywhere else. Each CD even includes all back issue of my newsletters, and a special license that lets you use your Power Tools at work!

Until next time, I hope all your times are good times. And if you see me on the 'net, be sure to wave and say "Hi!"

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