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April 14, 2003
[ Column: A Fix It Guide ]

Loose Wire -- The Glitch-Fixer's Guide: PC stuck again? Before you bother your computer guru, here's a checklist that could help you to fix the problem yourself
By Jeremy Wagstaff 

17 April 2003 edition of the Far Eastern Economic Review, (Copyright (c) 2003, Dow Jones & Company, Inc.)
I was halfway out of the door, and very pleased to have fixed a computer, when the owner called me back. "Hang on," she said. "These squarey bits are much too small. They weren't like that before." I sighed, put down my backpack and reached for the mouse. This must be what it's like fixing a broken-down car on a windswept highway, rescuing the family inside from frostbite and certain death, only to be told by the occupants that while the engine now worked, the radio didn't.

Welcome to the thankless world of Helping Friends With Their Computer Problems. It's a fool's errand, take it from me. In the past few weeks I've attempted to fix four computers, with a success rate of 25%. Of course none of this is the user's fault. No one really prepares us for when things go wrong, and while on that one occasion I was able to fix the main problem and those squarey bits, my friend is none the wiser about what to do if it goes wrong again. So here, for one time only, is my Idiot's Checklist Of Things To Do When Something Goes Wrong With Your Computer. Of course I claim no responsibility for any advice you may follow, and do not lure me over to your place to fix it (unless it's with an offer of some Battenburg Window Cake, to which I'm rather partial).

1) Try turning the computer off and turning it on again. I know it sounds obvious, but six times out of 10 this fixes it. (If necessary, unplug the power cable, remove the battery if it's a laptop, and then leave the computer for five minutes first. This drains the memory, as well as allowing you to get yourself a cup of tea.)

2) Assuming your computer now does load as normal, you have either fixed the problem, or you're having a problem with a specific program or a specific device you've plugged into your computer. The trick now is to isolate the problem. In most cases, you'll get an error message alerting you to the problem -- usually a separate window ("this program has performed an illegal operation and will now go to jail" or somesuch). Take note of which program is causing the problem. It's not always obvious.

3) In my friend's case, it was Eudora, an e-mail program. Every time she tried to check her mail, it crashed with a message, that while cryptic ("an unhandled error has occurred") at least informed me who the culprit was. The next trick, then, is to see whether someone else has had the same problem. Assuming you have an Internet connection (if you don't, call up a friend who does), check the manufacturer's Web site and go to their Support page. Search for something relevant like "crash" and "check mail." No point in reinventing the wheel: If someone else has had the same problem as you, chances are it's recorded somewhere on the Net.

4) In Eudora's case, they do a great job of listing possible options for fixing your problem, and after trying about eight of them, everything worked. But if this doesn't happen, you can still try stuff out yourself. For example, try closing all other programs you don't need, including, if you're in Windows, all the ones in the system tray (usually by right-clicking the icon and selecting Exit).

5) Still no joy? Run an updated virus check on your whole computer, and sit tight until it's done. Don't have a virus checker installed? Shame on you, but try this free on-line one: www.trendmicro.com/en/products/desktop/housecall/. If you have a virus aboard, that may be your problem.

6) No virus? Try reinstalling the program or device in question (make sure you have the original program file or CD-ROM first). To do this, open the Control Panel in the Settings menu, and Add/Remove Programs. Once the program's uninstalled, reboot your computer and reinstall the program. If it's a piece of hardware, open the System icon instead of Add/Remove Programs, find the Device Manager tab and right-click on the device that doesn't work. Select uninstall. Once you're done, reboot. You may have to now reinstall the drivers that make the device work.

7) Still not working? Try cleaning up the Registry -- the place where Windows stores all the settings that make your programs run (or crash, depending on your point of view). Here's a free program, EasyCleaner, that does a good job of it: www.toniarts.com/ecleane.htm. Once the program has run its course, reboot and try the program again.

8) If it's still not working, try checking the hard disk for errors (Accessories/System Tools/Scan in Windows; Windows XP won't have this option). If that's still not helping, try removing some of the components of the program in question. Eudora, for example, has extras called plug-ins that may be causing the problem. Microsoft Outlook and Word have similar add-ons that are often the culprit. Remove those and you may be okay.

9) Still no luck? I hate to say it, but you may have bigger problems. You could try reinstalling Windows, but before you take that kind of step you may want to try consulting a professional, since you're entering Scary Territory.

More on reinstalling operating systems in a future column. In the meantime, print this checklist out, stick it above your computer and stock up on Battenburg Cake, in case I'm dumb enough to come round. 

[ Column: Project5 and computer music ]

Loose Wire -- So You Wanna Be a Rock Star?: If you still harbour teen dreams of fronting your own band, this new software's for you - it brings an entire sound system to your PC

By Jeremy Wagstaff
from the 24 April 2003 edition of the Far Eastern Economic Review, (c) 2003, Dow Jones & Company, Inc.

Making music used to involve chunks of metal, miles of cable and roadies called Phil. Not any more.

Take my closet, for example. Taking up most of the space are half a dozen boxes that once formed my music studio (what I'd call my rig when trying to impress people). Among them: a drum, three synthesizers, an effects rack, a compressor box and a mixer. All of this must have cost me at least $2,500 in the early 1990s. Linking them all was a maze of cables producing enough hum to scare away bears. Now it's all been replaced by a CD-ROM from a guy called Greg.

The CD-ROM in question is called Project5, launched this month by a United States-based company called Twelve Tone Systems, and Greg is Greg Hendershott, the unassuming genius who runs it. I don't use the term "genius" lightly, but Hendershott is up there in my pantheon of heroes for once producing a program called Cakewalk, which allowed me to hook up all my musical equipment to my computer and do something called "sequencing" -- playing them all at once. So, instead of laboriously recording a drum part onto tape before adding a keyboard part, Cakewalk used a standard called MIDI to store the raw data of what was played -- which notes, how long you hold them for, how hard you hit them -- onto a computer, and then allowed you to tweak it. Cakewalk revolutionized song-writing for people like me, who couldn't afford to rent a studio or hire musicians, and, most importantly, tended to hit a lot of wrong notes.

Now Hendershott's done it again. Project5 (about $400 from www.cakewalk.com) is a program that not only stores the raw data, it also provides the sounds, mimicking all your synthesizers and drum machines via an on-screen display that looks like a console on the Starship Enterprise. All you need is a MIDI keyboard to play, and the computer will create the sounds, as well as store, or sequence, them. Suddenly you can tweak the belchings of Shrek, or the timbre of a Javanese gamelan, or record your grand piano and play the whole thing from your PC (no Mac version is available).

Hendershott is not first to the table with Project5: Programs like Propellerhead Software's Reason ($400 from www.propellerheads.se) are collections of "software synthesizers" that can be played using a MIDI keyboard, or a sequencing program like Cakewalk's successor, Sonar.

Still, Project5 is definitely the future. It capitalizes on all the standards that have evolved within the computer sequencing world, so that you can easily plug any competing "softsynth" into it and start using it immediately. What's great about all this is that whereas all my old synthesizers were mostly just banks of sounds -- piano, string, thrush warble -- that took a rocket-science degree and a weekend to tweak, all the parameters in new softsynths can be tweaked easily and extensively. That all this appears on your screen just like a bank of synthesizers on a rig, along with knobs, sliders, flashing lights, bits of discarded chewing gum, etc., makes me feel as if I've died and gone to a sort of synth heaven.

Of course, the computer/music revolution has already begun, and left me way behind. Amateur musicians all over the world have produced a catalogue of electronic dance music that dwarfs the musical output of the past few centuries combined. It is this crowd that Hendershott is aiming at -- indeed, his work helped create much of the phenomenon. However, if the computer revolution is to fully realize its potential for musical creativity we need to see programs like Project5 developed for folk who couldn't tell the difference between a synthesizer and a microwave. Then I think we'll be hearing some seriously interesting music coming out. Just don't expect me to create it: I'm too busy selling a cupboard full of cables.

about loose wire
musings, snippets, grievances and links on personal technology by dow jones columnist jeremy wagstaff. I want to hear from users -- technology-related stories, complaints, thoughts, ideas, brickbats -- so please email me

my columns appear in
The Far Eastern Economic Review and
The Wall Street Journal Online.
both are owned by Dow Jones.

see below for subscription links -- sorry, but the columns are only available to subscribers.

companies, PR agencies etc, please send relevant news, pitches, product review requests here. happy to hear from you, but I stress the word 'relevant'.

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