Four Android Apps to Get You in the Halloween Spirit

Halloween is sneaking up quickly, and you need to get mentally prepared for the occasion — and I don’t mean going to Target to admire the vast array of candy. Start honing your Halloween spirit with these four Android apps that are sure to leave you entertained, if not ready for some ghost-busting on the 31st.

Zombie Booth

Curious how you’d look as a flesh-craving member of the walking dead? Zombie Booth will turn you into a mindless, blood-covered automaton with the option to show your friends on Facebook, Twitter, or email. While it’s not exactly terrifying stuff to us adults, the kids get a kick out of it and actually get pretty spooked by the 3D animation feature. Zombify your family cat for a 100% guaranteed-to-be-upset mom.

Contract Killer: Zombies

No better way to get in the spirit of Halloween than to surround yourself with a swarm of living dead. Contract Killer: Zombies is one of the most visually impressive games available for Android, and better yet, it’s free. Intuitive controls and engaging missions will keep you busy fighting this scourge of the Earth for hours…and I bet you’ll check your closets before you go to sleep.

Haunted Sights

Do you have an interest in history and a flair for self-inflicted pain? Haunted Sights is an app that tracks your GPS location and shows you real sites that are supposedly haunted. Tour through an old hotel or visit the scene of a century old murder as you read descriptions of each site and other user experiences. Plan to make a night of it? Haunted Sights lets you map your night’s route so you can hit the best rated attractions and avoid the dull ones. If you happen to live where I do (Bismarck, ND) head to the river and plan for a terrifying evening.

EVP Analyzer

The EVP Analyzer is a tool that would make Egon Spengler proud — it isn’t free, it is a $1.60 well spent. The EVP Analyzer records silence in everyday (or haunted) locations and searches the recording for Electronic Voice Phenomena. I picked this app on a whim, but I was surprised by how fun and eerie it is to use. Just check the user reviews — many will swear they are picking up signals from the undead. If nothing else, a fantastic way to freak out your nieces and nephews or your more gullible friends.

Don’t be one of those cynical buzzkills this Halloween that scoffs at the paranormal; suspend your disbelief, and have a bit of fun. You’re never too old to have an awesome Halloween, and these apps for your Android phone or tablet will have you in the right state of mind.

From all of us at Techerator, Happy Halloween!

Diggnation Ends In December–What Can Fill The Void?

Love it or hate it, Diggnation is a popular podcast that has helped put web-based television on the map. The premise is simple: two dudes (Alex Albrecht and Kevin Rose) sit on a couch, drink beer, and discuss some of the top news from the social news bookmarking website Digg.com. Unfortunately, the days of Diggnation are numbered, as Kevin and Alex recently announced they will end their 6+ year run at the end of 2011.

I’m a long-time fan of the show and have been watching it from its early days in 2006. Albrecht and Rose have a chemistry that isn’t common in podcasting, and you can’t help but laugh as the two former TechTV friends joke around with their producer (Preggar) and cameraman (Hippie Glenn). Perhaps the best part of the show is getting a candid look at Silicon Valley shaker Kevin Rose and hearing about his many connections in companies such as Facebook and Apple.

But now it’s coming to an end and I need something to fill my Wednesday nights. Is there anything out there that can fill the shoes of Diggnation? Here are a few possibilities.

Foundation (Revision3)

The brainchild of Kevin Rose, Foundation is a series of in-depth interviews with the founders of important start-ups in the Bay area. As an angel investor himself, Rose is able to get to the heart of the start-up process during these casual conversations. Foundation is an inspiring look at the movers and shakers in the tech industry. Definitely worth a look.

Totally Rad Show (Revision3)

While Kevin Rose is developing Foundation, Alex Albrecht has been crafting the Totally Rad Show (TRS) into a prolific video game and entertainment podcast with a big following. I gave it a chance and to be honest, it wasn’t my cup of tea. Still, Albrecht and co-hosts Dan Trachtenberg and Jeff Cannata know their stuff. They keep it fresh by constantly changing locations and format; I can appreciate the effort. It’s a must-see if you’re into video games.

This Week In Tech (TWiT)

I’m a big fan of This Week in Tech because  it’s so reminiscent of The Screen Savers. Leo Laporte brings in regular guests like Patrick Norton and John C. Dvorak to discuss the latest in technology news which often goes off the rails in a funny and informal style. A few episodes made me a fan of Dvorak, who is famous for his crotchety rants and his own regular podcasts No Agenda and the now-retired Cranky Geeks.

Circuits of David Pogue (New York Times)

David Pogue is a riot and posts short tech-related videos in a unique way. His videos are generally funny and intended to show the good and bad aspects of a product or service without explicitly stating them. For example, his recent post about Google Wallet shows the convenience and impracticability of Google’s newest game-changer. Pogue’s videos will keep you busy and informed.

Personal Technology (All Things Digital)

Walt Mossberg is a technology columnist for the Wall Street Journal and has a lot of useful tips for picking out products, from digital cameras to tablet PCs. Mossberg is also a prolific blogger and event host for All Things Digital and has rubbed elbows with the likes of Steve Jobs and Bill Gates. Mossberg’s perspectives are informative, relatable, and dog-gone-it useful.

Conclusion

In truth, I don’t think anything will be able to take the place of Diggnation if you’ve been watching for as long as I have. Revision3 and TWiT have a slew of great tech shows like TekZilla, Giz Wiz, and the Giga Om Show,  but nothing I’ve found can match the comedy and attitude of Diggnation.

All good things come to an end, and we’ll miss Diggnation, but hopefully these other great podcasts will keep you from being left in the lurch.

How To Fix the Google Nexus S ‘Search Button Auto-Fire’ Bug

I’ve had my Nexus S for a little over two months now, and my general opinion is that while it is very pretty, some of the software issues (Android 2.3.4) make it almost impossible to use without some considerable donations to the swear jar. Perhaps the most gut-wrenchingly annoying problem is the well-documented ‘Search Button Auto-Fire’ bug.

Jerry enjoying his Nexus S

At seemingly random moments, the Search capacitance button will begin to auto-fire and continue to do so until you’ve chucked your phone through a window. Putting the phone in standby temporarily fixes the issue, until the phone decides to do it again. Window sales are probably at an all-time high in my hometown.

So, how do we fix this issue and regain control of our unruly Nexus S? Simply stated, Android 2.3.6.

Enough complaints flooded into Google that they implemented some fixes to the Android OS a mere FIVE MONTHS after the first reports came rolling in. For some, the over-the-air update is already implemented. Poor sap AT&T customers like me, however, continue to wait.

Screw that. Here’s how you can manually update from Android 2.3.4 to 2.3.6 and get rid of that stupid bug once and for all.

Step 1: Download Android 2.3.6

Download the Android Gingerbread (2.3.6) update (~18 MB) onto your computer. Connect your Nexus S by USB and transfer this update ZIP file to the root of your phone’s file system. If the update is put into a folder, the installation process will fail. Take note of the file name and power off you Nexus.

Step 2: Boot your phone in Recovery Mode

To get your phone into boot/rescue mode, hold the Power and Volume Up buttons at the same time until the bootloader screen is displayed. Using the Volume control, cursor down to Rescue Mode and select with the Standby button.

Step 3: Installation

Once you’ve gotten to Recovery mode, use the Volume control again to cursor down to apply sdcard name-of-update.zip and select with the Standby button. Your update should now begin installing, and once complete, you can reboot to apply the change.

Some users have reported ongoing problems with this bug even after updating. This did the trick for me, and hopefully it will work for you. The Google help forums are full of tips from other users, but don’t expect much help from Google directly, as they are famously bad at customer support.

The Nexus S is a great phone, and with this fix, there shouldn’t be any serious bugs standing in your way. Enjoy!

New Features Added to Google Presentations — Can I Finally Ditch PowerPoint?

Google recently announced some improvements to their Docs platform, particularly to the Presentation app, a free alternative to Microsoft PowerPoint. New drawing tools, slide transitions, collaboration features… and suddenly I’m left wondering “Can I finally ditch Office for good?”

Google Docs has been making steady gains over the years and I’ve finally gotten to the point where I use Documents and Spreadsheets instead of Microsoft Word and Excel, but the major hangup in my quest to abandon the Office suite has been Google Presentation. Oversimplified, slow, lacking features… it just hasn’t been a good replacement. But with these new improvements, maybe that has changed.

Perhaps the best addition to Presentation is the new set of drawing tools that allow you to sketch anywhere on your slide while giving tight vector control of shapes, line thickness, color, and size. This is a very nice feature that is missing from PowerPoint and makes it easy to highlight content on your Presentation slide. While PowerPoint has an advantage with SmartArt, these drawing tools (which I would use often) help to even the scales.

Scribbles, curve, and polygon tools are convenient additions

A sorely missing feature from Presentation was slide transitions. Thankfully, Google has added a few simple and attractive slide transitions from which you can choose. Are transitions absolutely necessary to a presentation? Of course not — but sometimes transitions add a bit of polish, and it’s nice to have the option. Good work, Google, especially on the rotating ‘Cube’ effect.

Google has finally brought collaborative tools to Presentation so that multiple users can alter a slide simultaneously and communicate in a conveniently integrated chat pane. Does Microsoft Office have something like this? I’ve looked and looked and found nothing. At any rate, it’s certainly not a feature available to the average user. These collaborative features are hugely useful for team presentations…and now that I’ve had a taste, I don’t know if I can go back!

Collaborative chat

But here’s the real test, prefaced by a story. I’ve only given a single presentation using Google Presentation in my life. In most ways it was unremarkable, except that I had to deliver it from a computer that wasn’t my own. I started flipping through my slides and I was impressed…but about halfway through my talk I was interrupted by a distressing error: “Network connection lost.” OH CRAP. I was unable to re-connect and was forced to reschedule my presentation. Needless to say, I haven’t used Presentation when it has mattered since then. So, what happens when I start a presentation and then flip off my wi-fi?

Error! Error!

Drat! Google, come on!! Fix this!!! You have no idea how scarred I was when this happened in a room of 40 people.

So, what’s the verdict? Obviously Google Presentation is not ready for the big show, but I think it’s tantalizingly close.  The tool set has developed to the point where I don’t miss PowerPoint at all, and in fact, it is very easy to pick up and use without any training. It’s a simple tool that I plan to use a lot in the future… but I won’t trust it in front of a crowd quite yet. Don’t keep me waiting, Google!

Google Looking to Finance Yahoo! Acquisition — Yahoogle on the Way?

Yahoogle? Well, not exactly. The years haven’t been kind to the once mighty Yahoo! but after the ungracious firing of ex-CEO Carol Bartz, the fourth most visited website in the U.S. is getting downright desperate. Unable to keep pace with Google in search and advertising, Yahoo! has been looking for help from investors to inject some cash and fuel innovation and a badly needed redirection. Is Google coming to the rescue?

Sort of. It’s no secret that Google has been facing international anti-trust pressure, and with the slow and meandering death of Yahoo!, Google is losing it’s best claim for competition within the search and advertising markets. Google has decided to open its war chest to facilitate bidders looking to acquire Yahoo! in an effort to spur competition from the internet company.

Look guys, we're totally competing!

It’s not a totally original idea, and in fact, there is evidence that this could stimulate the kind of competition that Google claims to want. In 1997, Microsoft invested $150 million into the once struggling Apple to stave off anti-trust litigation. At the time Microsoft probably thought it was a safe bet, not expecting Apple to become the behemoth it is today. Can we expect the same kind of resurgence from Yahoo! if they are acquired by private holding companies or even Microsoft (a possibility that is regaining traction)? Doubtful, but we can probably expect a serious effort.

Yahoo! will soon be changing hands, and as a result will probably make some drastic changes with the new influx of cash. Perhaps they will be able to lure a new rock star CEO to truly turn this beast around. With the correct leadership, Yahoo! may have the resources and talent to bring a game-changer to the table and give Google a run for its money. What could it be? Social? Enterprise?

Who knows, maybe we’ll see Yahoogle yet — and maybe it will be after Yahoo! acquires the big G.

…Haha, right…

Diaspora Seeks Donations, PayPal Freezes Account

 

UPDATE: After some prodding and community outcry, PayPal released Diaspora’s account.

Remember Diaspora? The group of NYU students that asked for $15,000 on Kickstarter.com to create a decentralized alternative to Facebook, and made headlines when they garnered a shocking $200,000 instead? Yeah, they’re still around, and to my surprise, they have some pretty cool stuff to show for their time and your donations. But now the funding has dried up and Diaspora is passing the hat again.

Recently the Diaspora team sent out an email to reinforce that they are neither vaporware nor a Nigerian prince, and reminded us that we can use their current implementation by downloading the source code or joining a pod to give Diaspora a feel. They also wrote to say that they need money — after all, Diaspora is a non-commercial organization with plenty of overhead to cover including hosting, coding, and $4 burritos. No problem, I’d be happy to contribute to an open-source alternative to Facebook, so I’ll just make a donation to their PayPal account — oh, wait…

PayPal is at it again. Just a few days after Diaspora’s request for donations, the money started rolling in, and just as suddenly, PayPal pulled the plug without saying why. Is this a fatal blow to Diaspora? No, probably not, but certainly a pain for a group of kids that would rather not call mom and dad to help with rent. I think the better question is “should groups ever use PayPal for donations?” With PayPal’s history of arbitrary and unexplained account freezes, even in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, it may not be a safe bet to trust PayPal with your charity funds.

PayPal situation aside, I’m interested in where Diaspora is going. There’s something interesting about the group of young people working on this project…a sort of benevolent energy that you just don’t see in a lot of  tech organizations. Heck, they even went so far as to show the public how they spent their initial funding. I’m split — I like the fresh-looking app they’ve created, but I’m not sure it will ever take off. Maybe it would work for intra-company communication or project coordination… but is it a realistic contender for the likes of Facebook, Twitter, and Google+?

Minimalistic design of Diaspora.

Keep a sharp eye on these guys, I think they’re going to turn Diaspora into something neat, even if it isn’t the Facebook killer everyone hoped. If you’d like to contribute to their cause, leave your loose change here.

Real-Time Search and Improved Hashtags Now Supported in Google+

Vic Gundotra, the mind behind much of Google+, made a rare video appearance recently to show off two new features that will keep Facebook on its toes and probably elicit a disgusted groan from Twitter. Real-time search and improved support for hashtags will help Google+ contend with the established utility of Twitter by allowing users to see trending topics, as well one-up Facebook by supporting hashtags (a very popular requested feature).

Gundotra has donned a pretty snazzy purple v-neck for this informative video. Yeah, emphasis should be on these new features, but it really is a nice sweater.

I think the impact this will have on people’s use of Google+ is being understated here. Currently, I spend a lot of time on Twitter, but a majority of my time isn’t spent looking through my stream, it’s checking out the trending topics or searching news tidbits referenced in my friends’ tweets. Twitter’s search feature is arguably it’s strongest feature as it gives you truly up-to-the-second news as it breaks. Suddenly, search king Google has a feature that performs the same task better, and I can only imagine that it will cause people to spend more time on the site.

Google+ has been making steady strides in user base with 50+ million profiles at the time of this writing. While a long way off from Facebook’s nearly 1 billion users, Google+ is giving Facebook a reason to worry by integrating its keen search prowess with an already decent social network. If Google+ can find a way to conveniently display trending topics, I may have found a solid replacement for Digg, Twitter, and even Google’s own Google News. The beauty is that the search grows more powerful as more users join.

I’m pretty excited by the possibilities here — Facebook has already shamelessly taken features (subscriptions?) from Google+ to maintain its advantage, so it can only be a matter of time before they introduce something similar…and in the case of Facebook, a real-time search tool would be incredibly powerful. Sooner or later Facebook will figure out search, and man, Google better watch its back when that happens.

Real-time search hasn’t been integrated into the Google+ apps (Android or iOS), but it can’t be too far away. Great stuff, Google, keep it coming.

Facebook, the ball’s in your court. Twitter, I’m not sure you’re in the same game anymore.

Use a Gamepad for Any PC Game with Xpadder

I play a lot of video games on my Xbox 360, but occasionally I’ll switch things up and buy something to enjoy on my PC. Recently I picked up both Fallout 3 and New Vegas on sale, but I was disappointed to find they didn’t support my Logitech F310 USB gamepad. This isn’t a big issue for people who prefer keyboard and mouse for first-person shooters, but I’ve spent so much time on my XBOX that I prefer to have a controller in my hands.

A bit of searching led me to XPadder, a free piece of software that allows you to simulate your keyboard and mouse with a gamepad. Essentially, XPadder allows you to pair keyboard or mouse actions with the button presses and joystick movement of your gamepad.

XPadder button profile

The ability to make and save profiles for specific games makes XPadder a handy tool for hardcore gamers that have very particular button arrangements that work for them. In fact, the XPadder forums allow gamers to share their custom button profiles with others, which is very convenient for those that don’t feel like messing with button configurations and would rather get to the game. The customization of the profiles can go deep, even allowing you to adjust mouse sensitivity and multi-button pushes, so choose your pre-made profiles wisely. I was impressed to find that one pre-made Fallout profile had been setup to work with rumble force feedback. Righteous.

XPadder is a nifty tool for making your gamepad work with any game, but it’s also fun (though impractical) to use it as a keyboard/mouse replacement. Try setting it up to work with your Internet browser, and you may be on to something if you can get around the “no keyboard input” problem. Give XPadder a try with NES/SNES emulators for an authentic feel to old school gaming.

The uses for this software are extensive, so give it a whirl; I bet you won’t regret it.

How to Create an Audio Podcast with Professional-Quality Sound

Podcasting is a fun and increasingly popular form of online entertainment that has seen steady gains in the number of viewers in recent years. Companies like TWiT and Revision 3, homes of Leo LaPorte and Kevin Rose of Tech TV fame, have shown that fully web-hosted television is a viable business model. Interestingly, many of the most popular podcasts are nothing more than a few people at a desk, a microphone, and an engaging topic of conversation. The simplicity and low start-up costs are intriguing, aren’t they?

After a few beers, a lot of people think to themselves “I have things to say! I should start a podcast!” OK, so maybe that isn’t the typical point of entry for most podcasters, but that’s exactly how it went for me as my friend Devon and I decided to start a beer-centric audio podcast a couple months ago. We wanted to start something long-lasting and of sufficient quality that we’d be able to keep the poor listeners that became ensnared in our drunken diatribes.

We decided that quality sound requires quality equipment — we were right! Fortunately, quality equipment for an audio podcast won’t knock you back more than a few hundred bucks if you’re smart about it. Here’s what you’ll need:

1. Computer

It doesn’t need to be special, but the better your soundcard, the better off you’ll be. I use an old, beat up Lenovo Thinkpad that I’ve used for years. I am assuming that you already have a desktop or notebook PC, so I’m not including this in our equipment costs. No need for something special, but if you need to replace that haggard and terrible soundcard in your e-Machine, no worries. Even a high-end audio card (SoundBlaster for instance) won’t run more than $30 or so.

2. Microphone(s)

This is probably your most important decision and deserves careful consideration. If your podcast is audio-only, you can use a high-quality USB gaming headset (~$100) though I wouldn’t recommend it. If you’re serious about your audio, invest in a real microphone, either USB or analog.

If your podcast includes multiple hosts, it’s wise to have a microphone for each person. Here’s where it gets a little tricky. Computers typically can only support a single USB microphone at a time. I say typically, but I’ve never heard evidence to the contrary. If the podcast is just you speaking, no problem, pick up a Blue Yeti USB condensor microphone (~$100 used). The Blue Yeti USB is rugged, picks up great sound, and easily plugs into any USB port.

If your podcast will have multiple hosts, your best bet is to get an analog microphone like the Rode Procaster (~$150 used). These microphones are often used by professional podcasters and have a 10-year warranty. I own two, and the sound is impressive, especially with the built-in pop filter. Definitely a good investment. Now, you may be wondering how two or more analog mics can interface with your computer — read on.

3. USB Mixer (optional)

Mixers are a good idea if you want to keep a close eye on your sound levels or if you want to use multiple microphones in your podcast. A good mixer will allow you to plug-in 2-4 (or more) microphones and adjust the gain for each, as well as accommodate an array of post effects (such as a delay) if you decide to go that route. You can do a lot with a good USB mixer, which will compile your microphone inputs to a single stream for delivery to your computer, so hold onto that manual! A good used USB mixer, such as the PV6 USB, will run about $80 used.

4. Software

You can do raw, unedited recordings of your podcast, but I reeeeally hope you consider some mild post-recording edits. Basic audio editors will let you clean up noise, add transitions to your show, and even a bit of cut/paste if necessary. There are a lot of options out there, but you probably won’t need anything more sophisticated than Audacity, a free and open-source editor that is pleasantly easy to use. Don’t worry, no PhD in audio manipulation required.

Bear in mind that most good audio equipment is durable, so don’t be afraid to head to Ebay and get something used. In fact, buy it all used if you can, because you won’t notice a difference. Just make sure the equipment is still covered by the warranty and you’ll be golden. For less than $300 you should be ready to record with the same quality as the big shot professionals.

Remember that good equipment will only take you so far — you still need to have an interesting show. But hey, solid audio is the cherry on top of a good production. Good luck, future podcaster.

Creator of C Programming Language, Dennis Ritchie, Dies at 70

If I were a revolutionary in the tech industry, I’d be a little worried. Just a few days after the death of Steve Jobs, the tech community has lost another game-changing leader on October 12 — Dennis Ritchie.

While considerably less famous than Jobs, Ritchie was the father of the C programming language, which he created in 1973 at the Bell Telephone Laboratories. Ritchie was also well-known for being a key developer of the Unix operating system (along with Ken Thompson), which made extensive use of C.  Over the course of his career, Ritchie was able to witness the incredible impact that his C language had on the industry. As more advanced languages began to appear, some were extensions of Ritchie’s C (such as C++) while others borrowed generously from C’s straightforward conventions in both syntax and compiling. Ritchie was such a fan of simplicity that he made every effort to make it a hallmark of UNIX…with arguable success.

UNIX is very simple, it just needs a genius to understand its simplicity.

– Dennis Ritchie

Ritchie was the recipient of some very impressive awards in the Computer Science field for his contributions to the UNIX OS, including the Turing Award (1983), the National Medal of Technology (1999), and most recently the Japan Prize (2011). All fellow computer scientists were humbled in his presence by his brilliance and understated character.

The loss of Ritchie rings a surprisingly personal note with me; after all, the closest I’ve ever been to speaking with the man was when I used his textbook (K&R C) for a class in college. Still, I grew to appreciate the dry humor he inserted into his writing and it’s impossible to forget that every professor I had revered him as a true genius.

Mr. Ritchie, you will be missed and thank you for your contributions to Computer Science. Some people say that Programming is 10% science, 20% ingenuity, and 70% getting the ingenuity to work with the science, and Ritchie’s tools have helped make that combination bearable .