Friday, December 18, 2009

Removing DRM from your audiobooks

Like many, I was dismayed to find, after signing up for a year at, that their audiobooks are still in a proprietary DRM format. Ten and twenty years from now, after iTunes and audible are both gone, I still want to be able to listen to these audiobooks for which I've paid good money, so I set out to find a way to free the data.

Note that these instructions will not work unless you have a valid playback license for the original audiobooks. I'm talking about protecting your own media from planned obsolecence here, not filesharing.

There are probably completely free ways to do this, but the straightforward way is just to buy DRM Converter. No, I'm not getting a referral fee for mentioning them here (I wish). Yes, it's not a free solution. But it works without a lot of rigmarole. Twenty-five bucks gets you un-DRMed audiobooks — for someone like me who has a lot of them, that's worth it. The only other downside is that, for Audible files, at least, DRM Converter removes the encryption in real time. That is, it takes the program eight hours to un-DRM an eight hour audiobook. The good thing is that it can do more than one at a time.

Because I'm kooky, I like to create both MP3 and unprotected iTunes Audiobook (.m4b) versions of my audiobooks. I'll show you how to do both here.

Method One: Converting AA to MP3

This is the easy one. Just set DRM converter to use the MP3 format.

When it has finished, there are a couple more steps to take to get the file into the proper place in iTunes. Add the file to your library (using File menu, → Add File to Library), and it will show up in your Music section, not in your audiobooks. Right click the file in iTunes, select Get Info and go to the Options tab.

Select the Audiobook and Remember Playback Position options as shown above. Voila! The file will now appear in the Audiobooks section of iTunes.

You may also want to copy and paste the album artwork from the original Audible file (again, using the right-click menu → Get Info.

If you want to add chapter breaks, you'll need to create a .m4b file instead. Here's how:

Method Two: Converting AA to M4B with chapter breaks

This method involves the use of an additional program, Chapter and Verse, which is free. Download and install it before continuing!

The first step is to use convert the AA file to an M4A file using DRM Converter. Use the following settings:

Most of my audiobooks are encoded at 32kbps anyways so there's not much point in going higher.

After you have your .m4a file, open Chapter and Verse, and add that file to your project. (If you get an error at this point, see below)

If you're picky about having chapter breaks in the actual spots between chapters in the audiobook, you'll have the chance to poke through the audio and insert chapter breaks in the right spots. Myself, I just have it automatically insert chapter breaks at 30-minute intervals (most of mine are fiction so there's not much call to go skipping back and forth between chapters):

Once ready (don't forget title/artist metadata and cover art!), click Build Audiobook as shown above, and the program will produce an M4B audiobook and offer to add it to your iTunes library for you. Once there, it will immediately be in the Audiobooks section of your library, no additional tweaking required.

“Not recognized as a valid audiofile” — If Chapter and Verse gives you this error when attempting to open your m4a file, it is probably because the sample rate is too high given the length of the audio.

This is explained by the program's author in detail here, but in our scenario, the problem comes because DRM Converter saves its m4a files at 44.1khz (not configurable). When the file reaches a certain length in minutes, it becomes too big for Chapter and Verse to handle at that sample rate.

To solve this problem, you can use iTunes to downsample the m4a file. in iTunes, go to Edit menu → Preferences and on the General tab, click Import Settings….

Set the import settings as follows: AAC encoder, 22.050kHz sample rate, 32kbps bit rate.

Click OK to close all the dialog boxes. Now go to the .m4a file in iTunes (or the .mp3 file you may have created earlier for that matter, it's up to you), right-click it and click "Create AAC version." iTunes will re-encode the file using your new settings and you should be able to open that new .m4a file in Chapter and Verse.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

How to protect yourself from viruses without installing anti-virus software.

You don’t really need antivirus software on your Windows computer. Over the past several years, antivirus scanning has become much more centralized. Most of what you download over email or at work has already been scanned for viruses and malware anyway — why pay Norton or McAffee to have it scanned again once it reaches your hard drive? And why have another program running on your computer, slowing it down and wasting resources?

Running antivirus software on Windows these days is almost like getting a smallpox vaccine. Your individual situation may vary (see below), but very likely you can be both free and safe without antivirus software by taking a few basic precautions and being generally security-aware. You may already be aware of these precautions, but you may not have known that following them may effectively eliminate the need for stand-alone antivirus software on your computer.

  1. Use Gmail (or your corporate account) to send and receive file attachments via email. Many free email providers, such as Gmail, Yahoo and Hotmail, scan attachments for viruses and malware for you, so you know the file is clean when it gets to your hard drive. Many businesses, both small and large, do this as well on their own internal mail servers. (If there is a good way of testing and verifying email providers’ attachment scanning claims and abilities, though, I would like to know about it.)
  2. Use the Internet from behind a router. Don’t plug directly into your Cable or DSL modem. Plug a router into that thing (a wireless router if that’s how you like to roll) and then use that. Most off-the-shelf routers have built-in firewalls that prevent the most common attacks.
  3. Limit the amount of software you download. Get the programs you like installed and then keep your computer the way you like it for a good long while. Don’t be constantly looking for and downloading new utilities.
    • Especially don’t download anything in response to a popup window, ever. If you ever get a popup warning you about viruses on your computer, for example, it’s a lie. Just close it.
  4. Don’t use LimeWire or BitTorrent (unless you really know what you're doing out there). As Dylan Boom said in this comment at Lifehacker, “I work at Best Buy for Geek Squad, and the computers that come in with the most viruses, etc. normally have two things on them: AVG as their virus protection software, and Limewire.” It is impossible to verify the authenticity or origin of anything that passes through a torrent service (not counting md5 signatures on Linux distributions etc). Consequently people love to insert malware on stuff and send it on to unsuspecting downloaders as the real deal.
  5. Use open-source whenever possible and download directly from the software’s main website.
  6. Stick to mainstream, trusted websites and access them through your bookmarks or browser shortcuts whenever possible – don’t get in the habit of visiting the same website repeatedly by typing its name into Google (or any search engine) and clicking on the top result. Stay away from porn sites and any place offering something for nothing. Don’t click on ads.
  7. Keep your computer updated. Windows has a provision for automatically downloading and installing security updates and fixes – make sure it’s turned on and that it’s working.
  8. Use a more secure web browser such as Chrome or Firefox. Make sure it is fully up to date (instructions for how to do that on Chrome and Fireox).
    • Don’t use Internet Explorer. Even the US DoHS has advised against it. While that security advisory is a few years old by now, the fact remains that IE’s security model is too broken to trust.

Note that if you don't follow most of these practices already, no antivirus program is going to be able to keep you safe indefinitely anyway!

The main principal here is to clean and verify all the ways that you exchange information into and out of your computer: that mainly means email, web browsing, your physical internet connection, and being cautious about installing new software. Note that you may still need antivirus software installed if:

  • You need to share files through shared network drives or email accounts at work that you know are not scanned by antivirus software. (this would include things like shared folders on Dropbox accounts, which, as far as I can tell are not scanned for viruses.)
  • You regularly exchange files using thumb drives or external hard drives owned by other people.

Comments and proposed changes & additions welcome!

Update, Nov 11 2009 — After I submitted this post a couple of times at Lifehacker, they came up with their own variant: Stop Paying for Windows Security; Microsoft’s Security Tools Are Good Enough [sic]. (Not suggesting there's a relationship there. Well OK maybe I am.) I still believe Microsoft’s security tools are unnecessary, however supremely adequate they may be for the job they're supposed to do, but there are a lot of good points in the article, and I highly recommend it.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Ready for the Desktop

I've been having issues on my Sony VGN TZ190 ever since I installed a certain operating system on it, shortly after I bought it in 2007(Yes, even I have computer problems I can't seem to solve):
  • About every seventh time I open a file window, the file browser crashes and complains that it was because of my Bluetooth driver, for which no update is available from Sony. Now it is stupid that Sony has not provided an update, but there is no good reason whatsoever why a Bluetooth driver should be crashing my file browser.
  • When I start my computer, and at least once a day, I get a message that says "Sony Vaio Services (sub-module) has stopped working." I have no idea what this is, really, or how it's affecting me.
  • The Fn keys for screen brightness do not work at all. The Fn keys for volume control work but do not provide any visual feedback.
  • After working for two years both the programs that play DVDs now crash when I try to play a DVD.
  • Printing to a network printer is essentially broken. If you try, the program from which you are printing will hang for a good 5-10 minutes before sending the job, and then it will only print half the time.
  • Wifi connnects easily to wireless routers, but every once in awhile will not allow connections all the way out to the internet. I have to run a command-line program to get it working again.

Looking at this list, you'd think I was running a Linux distribution from 2005. No, these are all problems I'm having with Vista, SP2 no less.

By contrast, I recently downloaded Ubuntu Netbook Remix (version 9.04) and gave it a shot, and guess what? Everything worked flawlessly with no configuration necessary, including all the Fn keys on my Sony Laptop's keyboard, which I would have thought would depend on some vendor-specific drivers. And it's speedy, even running off of a Sandisk USB flash drive.

I don't know how long it will take for Linux to be truly ready for the corporate world. But for private persons, Windows and Linux seem to have changed places while I was asleep. It's now Vista that's the haggle-draggle OS requiring command-line fixes and plagued with buggy drivers.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Using LightBox with Image Maps

I ran across this while assembling the website for my brothers' new film The Little Red Plane. Don't ask why I needed to do use image maps in this day and age. But I did.

I decided to use the fairly awesome LightBox script (version 2.04) for certain aspects of the site, but the links that would trigger it were in an image map, which uses <area> tags instead of <a> tags. When I clicked on the links, the page would go dark but no image overlay was displayed.

The solution was found here. Apparently 2.03 worked fine with image maps but 2.04 has this regression.

To fix, open lightbox.js in a text editor, scroll down to the start() function and insert the line highlighted below:

//  start()
//  Display overlay and lightbox. If image is part of a set, add siblings to imageArray.
start: function(imageLink) {    
   $$('select', 'object', 'embed').each(function(node){ = 'hidden' });

   // stretch overlay to fill page and fade in
   var arrayPageSize = this.getPageSize();
   $('overlay').setStyle({ width: arrayPageSize[0] + 'px', height: arrayPageSize[1] + 'px' });

   new Effect.Appear(this.overlay, { duration: this.overlayDuration, from: 0.0, to: LightboxOptions.overlayOpacity });

   this.imageArray = [];
   var imageNum = 0;       
   imageLink.rel = imageLink.getAttribute('rel');
   if ((imageLink.rel == 'lightbox')){
      // if image is NOT part of a set, add single image to imageArray
      this.imageArray.push([imageLink.href, imageLink.title]);         
   } else {
      // if image is part of a set..
      this.imageArray = 
         $$(imageLink.tagName + '[href][rel="' + imageLink.rel + '"]').
         collect(function(anchor){ return [anchor.href, anchor.title]; }).
      while (this.imageArray[imageNum][0] != imageLink.href) { imageNum++; }

Save the file. Now all you have to do is add rel="lightbox" to your <area> tags, just as you would with normal links.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Fixing AutoCAD error: ARX_ERROR:eNotThatKindOfClass

Some of our users have the old AutoCAD 2005 version, while a lucky few have the newer 2009 version (licenses are danged expensive, you know). We had a case where a drawing was being opened in AutoCAD 2009 and "saved-as" back to the 2004 format so the other users could open it. When attempting to perform commands on the drawing in in the old 2005 version, however, the following error messages would come up:

ARX_ERROR:eNotThatKindOfClass Command not allowed because drawing contains objects from a newer version of Architectural Desktop

The solution, pointed to by various forum threads (such as this one), is to download and install the Object Enabler hotfix from the AutoDesk support site. Doing this immediately resolved the issue in our case.

Another possible approach, in case that does not work for you, is to use the exporttoautocad command instead of Save As - see this thread on the AutoDesk forums.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Converting MOV files to AVI for use with video editing software

If your camera records in MOV format, you may find it difficult to use with Windows Movie Maker or other Windows-platform movie editors. Fortunately there is a way to convert these files to AVI format.
First, download and install Quick Media Converter. There are a lot of free/shareware programs for this purpose out there, but this one was recommended by the venerable Lifehacker, works well, and is free. The instructions in this post were written for the 3.6.5 version of the software but should work with later versions.
Here is a pic of Quick Media Converter's main screen, with some annotation:
  1. Click the DivX button (1) and select the "Win Media Player Compatible" option.
  2. Drag and drop your MOV movie clip file into the file list area (2)
  3. Click the (i) button (3) to display information about the clip in the pane at right (5)
  4. Click the folder button (4) and select a place to save the converted file (e.g., My Documents)
  5. In the file information area (5) scroll down until you see Width and Height information, as shown. Ideally this should be 640x480 but if not it's not a dealbreaker :)
  6. If necessary, change the output width and height numbers (6) to match the numbers in the info area (5)
  7. Click the convert button (7).
The program will then convert and drop an AVI file into your selected folder, for use in the editing software of your choice!
Note that you now have two (likely rather large) copies of the same video clip. Later when you are done publishing your finished video to YouTube or Vimeo, if you feel you want to keep a copy of the original clip for archiving purposes, I recommend you keep only the original one (the MOV or "QuickTime" file) and delete the other. It is easy to convert from MOV to AVI, but hard to go the other direction.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Creating and sharing a video on Vimeo using Windows Movie Maker

These are just the bare basics. Windows Movie Maker comes free with Windows and is simple to use for creating a basic video.

Most Canon cameras record in AVI format. Although you could just upload this file directly from your camera to Vimeo, AVI files are very large, so it's better to convert them to WMV format first, using Windows Movie Maker. This creates a much smaller file that looks and sounds just as good, and also uploads much faster. Plus if you want to edit anything out, or string multiple clips together in your movie, or add music, you can do so easily in this program.

  1. Copy the .AVI file off your camera's SD card to somewhere on your hard drive
  2. Open Windows Movie Maker and click the Import Media button on the toolbar and import your .AVI movie clip that you just copied.
  3. An icon for the imported movie clip will appear in the upper middle area of Movie Maker. Drag the clip down into the Video area of the Timeline at the bottom of the screen.
  4. You can play around with adding music, editing and effects to your movie, or combining multiple clips (by simply repeating the three steps above for each movie clip). However, if your whole movie is in this one clip and you don't need to edit anything out, then you are essentially ready to save your movie!
    1. Click the Publish Movie button in the toolbar.
    2. In the next screen choose This Computer and click Next
    3. Type a unique and super-creative name and location for the saved movie file and click Next
    4. On the Choose settings for your movie screen, select the Compress to option. You will need to find the right file size for this option, which is easy. Start with a low size (in MB) and go up, keeping an eye on the "Bit Rate" option at the bottom left of the screen. When it reads 1.8 or 1.9 Mbps, you've found the optimum file size 1.
    5. Click Publish!
  5. Go to the Vimeo group and upload your newly created movie.
  6. Note: If this is a private movie, make sure you click the "Privacy" settings on the left while the movie is uploading, and set the appropriate privacy options! ("Who can see this video: Nobody else" is the simplest; it will still be visible to private group members.)

Vimeo may take some time before the video is ready. Mornings are the best times to upload. Sundays and Mondays are the busiest days, and uploaded videos could take much longer to finish converting on these days.

1 — the 1.8 Mbps number comes from Vimeo’s compression guidelines for standard definition video.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Word 2003 crashing when trying to format lists

One of our users was having Word crash on her every time she accessed the Bullets and Numbering… function in Word. The problem seemed intermittent at first but eventually became 100% consistent. We checked Office Update but the site reported that we were all up to date on that front, so there was no possibility of downloading an update that might fix the problem. An internet search uncovered a solution to the problem, the problem being a corrupt "List Gallery". When you access the Bullets and Numbering… function, Word shows you a gallery of list styles so you can preview them all and pick the one you want. Over time, Word tries to adapt this gallery so that the defaults match the styles you most frequently use. However, this adaptive behaviour is kind of flaky and poorly implemented, so if you are working on a lot of documents from a bunch of different people and spend a lot of time fixing broken and mis-formatted lists (as this user often does), the gallery itself eventually fills up with the broken and mis-formatted list styles you happen to be working on. In this case it got so bad that Word itself couldn't even handle the garbage and it crashed every time it had to display the list gallery. To fix the problem (source):
  1. Open Registry Editor (go to Start, click Run, and type regedit)
  2. Navigate down to the HKEY_CURRENT_USER\Software\Microsoft\Office\11.0\Word\List Gallery Presets key (What look like folders in the Registry are actually called keys)
  3. Right click on the List Gallery Presets key and Delete it
When you next start word, click the Format menu and choose Bullets and Numbering — the List Gallery will now display with all the simple, clean defaults it had when you first installed Word.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Automatically sort social networking notifications in your Gmail

If you're like a lot of people nowadays, notification emails from Twitter and Facebook and their ilk have rapidly overtaken your "real" personal correspondence in terms of sheer bulk. It's not spam, but if you want to still get these emails then you could probably use a way to deal with it more efficiently. What I do in GMail is use a filter. Any email from social networking sites is given the "social" label and archived, but left unread. This means the email never lands in my inbox with the rest of my mail, but I can still quickly see if there are any new messages and read them separately if I like. In GMail, go to Settings, then Filters, then click Create a new filter at the bottom. Use the following text in the "Has Words" field:
from:{ }
Set it to "Skip inbox" and "Apply label: social" (or whatever label you choose to create for the purpose). Make sure you add in any domains of social networking sites you use that aren't already incuded above! I'm not the first one to figure this out and everyone has their own method, but I thought I'd leave it here for anyone who might find it handy.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

A look at project management platforms

I had a question from Stephen, and thought I'd post my response here for public benefit and/or comment. The core of the question:
I am very interested in what happened in your quest for a good project management system. I started comparing Basecamp and SharePoint today, and I found some of your comments on a Joyent forum at In that forum, you mentioned looking for a SharePoint alternative in Basecamp, then being totally turned off by Basecamp's lack of functionality (too much eye candy!). Well, I am very interested in learning what happened next in your search.
I think Basecamp or activeCollab could work well depending on your needs — I have experimented with activeCollab, which is a canned solution (but no longer open source) you can host yourself, and might be just what you are looking for. It looks like it has come a long way since its beta testing days. As far as what actually happened in my quest, we ended up sticking with SharePoint because we were sort of invested in it and there was no other self-hosted solution that worked well for sharing large amounts of files with the permissions control we needed. It all comes down to, what do you need more? A communications and scheduling tool? Or a document management and sharing tool? Basecamp and activeCollab do the former — Basecamp is cute and works well for small projects, activeCollab looks like it would scale better for larger projects. Sharepoint could be both (though it does neither thing well) if everyone using it is an employee of the same company (because Sharepoint user accounts are linked directly to domain or local user accounts, which people would already be likely using to access other internal services like Exchange or network file shares), but administering it for “outside” users is problematic at best for that very reason: you have to make every user of Sharepoint also a user somewhere on your internal corporate network. Where most solutions break down for me is the perfect storm of requirements that any engineering firm runs into: the need to share large groups of large files with a large number of people from different companies, with a fine-grained level of control. That last requirement is a particularly hard one — take it out and a simple FTP site will do. (In fact, a lot of contractors do just that.) One tool that does just file sharing that I was interested to see was BigFileBox. One of the founders told me it had been designed with A/E firms in mind (see my comments, and the founder's response, on the forum here). The only thing that precluded me from pursuing it was our requirement for hosting in-house. Also, engineering reproduction firms like ERS Digital/PlanWell have their own hosted platforms that can be tailored to anything requiring this kind of high-volume file sharing with versioning, fine-grained permissions, access tracking, etc. At the extreme end of this group is AutoDesk's BuzzSaw, which (last I checked) is prohibitively expensive for small- to mid-size firms. Other than that, there is this list of project management software, but I of course have not experimented with any of those in depth. I don't get the impression that industrial-quality file management is a big component of any of them, however. Finally, the biggest part of any solution is getting people to use it. If you can discern what your users really want (e.g., mainly want to shuffle files around, or track schedules), then it is probably better to find a tool that scratches just that one itch really well. Whereas more "comprehensive" products often require an overhaul of everyone's workflow — if you are in a position to "sell" that and get everyone to buy in on it and actually open up their browsers and use it every day, so much the better.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Drive mapping using "NET USE" Fails.

I had a user today who couldn't access our file server over our VPN. Like most Windows-based companies we have a batch file that users run after the VPN connection is made, which quickly maps all the network drives using the net use command. VPN problems are annoying too since, by definition, these problems only occur when users are working remotely, and all diagnosis & solving has to be done over the phone. Anyways... The VPN client showed that it was, in fact connected, so no problem there. A quick use-check of other services (email, intranet) confirmed that the problem was on his client and not on the server. I then scrutinized the execution of the batch file itself by adding a pause command at the end so we could see what was going on before it finished executing and closed. It seemed that each net use command failed with this error:
'NET' is not recognized as an internal or external command, operable program or batch file
So evidently, it simply couldn't find the net program, which is weird, because it is a standard Windows command. The file net.exe was located right where it should be (in C:\Windows\system32). This is where a knowledge of the old DOS days still comes in handy even in the 21st century. DOS had a system setting called the PATH, which told it which folders to look in when the user typed in a command. The PATH environment variable persists in Windows' use of command-line programs to this day, and when the command prompt tells you it can't recognize a file you know is there, you can be sure the PATH has become messed up somehow. To view and change your PATH setting:
  1. Right-click My Computer and hit properties
  2. Click the Advanced tab
  3. Click the Environment Variables button at the bottom
  4. In the list at the bottom, click on the Path entry
The first thing in that string should be C:\WINDOWS\system32;C:\WINDOWS; and — wouldn't you know it — in this case it wasn't. It turns out the user had had to run a "repair installation" tool for AutoCAD the day before, and apparently this tool had replaced the Path setting with it's own value instead of simply adding its value on to the end as it should have done. The result was that the Windows and system32 folders, where all the standard commands reside, was no longer on Windows' own list of places to check for commands & programs to run. To fix: select Path (still in the window shown above), click the Edit button, and paste the following string into the beginning of the "Variable Value" field (do not replace the entire string):
Then click OK to close out of all the dialog boxes, no need to restart. After doing this, the net use command worked properly and the drives all mapped without a hitch. Final note: this problem was caused by the installation repair tool in Autodesk Architectural Desktop 2005. Newer versions of this software may have fixed the problem, but it is the kind of thing that any program could easily get wrong, causing the same issue and possibly breaking other aspects of your usage as well.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

"No Audio Output Device Is Installed" - Vista Error

So, just tonight, my laptop suddenly decided it had no sound. The speaker icon in the tray had a red X over it and hovering over it produced a little error message: "No Audio Output Device Is Installed". This is of course surprising since I'd had audio before, and no service packs or new drivers had been installed anytime recently (they were all up to date already). A look inside Device Manager confirmed that I did in fact have drivers installed and they were working properly. A little searching confirmed that this issue was not uncommon. I finally tried the first likely fix I found, buried in this CNET post, and it worked. Essentially, the problem is the result of some kind of conflict between the modem and sound card drivers. I uninstalled both drivers in the Device Manager (do not select the option to"remove from system" or anything like that if given the choice) and restarted the machine. After the restart, Windows found the both devices and automatically reinstalled the drivers for them, and everything was working perfectly. Yay!

Getting GMail themes for your domain email

It's been, what, almost half a year now, and Google Apps accounts still don't have the Themes feature available. I want GMail to host my domain's email but, silly me, I want themes too. Well, I think I found a way. I'll have two email accounts. First, a normal, free GMail account which will be the main one I use for accessing email, since it has themes. And secondly, I'll have another account in Google Apps, hosting the email for my domain. This account will be set to just forward everything to the first account. The first account will be set to simply use the domain email address as the default "From" address when sending email. So all the mail I send will still appear to come from my domain. Now, if you already have a Google Apps account you've been using as your primary account, this is not an ideal solution unless you are ready to migrate all your prior email over to the new, free GMail account. But for someone like me who is migrating to GMail for the first time, it might be just what the doctor ordered.