Vista external monitor flash and flicker problem solved

Auctioneer and item display

auctioneer with display

One of the first pieces of auction technology adopted by an auctioneer augmenting his business processes is a projection system. I was at an auction in Denton, Texas, where there were more than 30 large plasma and LCD TVs – most to be sold that day – showing the same display of the item currently selling. The ability to make the crowd comfortable and more informed by providing chairs and a completely pre-lotted inventory is generating much greater returns for auctioneers who have it.

Whatever the display method, be it projection or TV or monitor, there is a computer driving it, usually with a cable connected from the VGA, or monitor, output to a VGA splitter. That splitter then amplifies the signal and offers two, four or more VGA outputs to run cables to all the display units.

One of the problems we’ve faced is an issue with Vista notebooks. We’ve noticed it with both ATI and NVidia graphics sets, so it doesn’t seem to be manufacturer specific. All of a sudden, seemingly without warning, the display will flicker or flash, almost as if the computer is re-detecting the external display. Most times, the flash is accompanied by the sound that Windows plays when it detects new hardware, confirming that this process is indeed what is occuring. This detection, refresh and re-detection can go on, sometimes in a continuous loop, until you unplug the external display’s cable from your notebook.

We’ve historically simply made sure that the computers we’ve used for digital projection were running Windows XP, but as this practice becomes an increasing security risk and as it becomes harder to find new laptops with XP, it’s simply both unwise and unpractical.

My recent purchase of an ATI-based notebook which exhibited the problem frequently both confirmed that the problem wasn’t specific to NVidia and made me determined to find the solution. I came across this thread in the vistax64 forums and the fix has been working great for me for the last 24 hours.

As it turns out, the problem in notebooks seems to be caused by a process called the Microsoft Transient Multi-Monitor Manager that is supposed to detect when you plug-in or unplug an external display. As it turns out, it is a little too sensitive, causing the system to think you’ve done this action when sometimes you haven’t. This errant re-detection causes the system to refresh its display settings which causes the flicker and flash. Here’s how to shut down the TMM.

  1. Run task scheduler by clicking start button and then typing “task scheduler”
  2. Browse to Task Scheduler Library > Microsoft > Windows > MobilePC
  3. Click TMM in the list at the top-center
  4. On the right pane click disable

After you reboot you should notice no more unexpected flashing. The solution, however, does have the side effect of requiring you to tell windows any time you connect an external monitor, but that’s easy and a small price to pay for the comfort of knowing that your auction display won’t start flickering on and off when you’re in the middle of an auction.

Posted in hardware | Tagged , , , , , |

MozBackup and Belarc Advisor

My HP Pavilion tablet PC is slowly dying. Sent to and returned from the shop twice already since I bought it 14 months ago, both times for a motherboard replacement, its hard drive started flaking on me last month. I was able to repair the hard drive with a disk utility and it’s been working fine since then, but yesterday the USB ports and Bluetooth adapter quit working.

As I spent today moving data to and installing software on a new Toshiba Satellite, I was faced with a couple of challenges. First, how could I easily transfer my seven Mozilla Thunderbird email accounts from my old notebook to my new. Second, how could I easily and quickly get a printout of all the software I had installed on my old machine so I could be sure I installed all of my programs on my new one so as to not be left without needed, though infrequently used, software when I needed it. I found two free and painless utilities that met my needs perfectly.

MozBackup logo by Miro PavelkaMozBackup
The first problem was solved quickly and easily with MozBackup. Here’s the description from the MozBackup website.

MozBackup is a simple utility for creating backups of Mozilla Firefox, Mozilla Thunderbird, Mozilla Sunbird, Flock, SeaMonkey, Mozilla Suite, Spicebird and Netscape profiles.

It allows you to backup and restore bookmarks, mail, contacts, history, extensions, cache etc.

Its use couldn’t have been simpler. After a quick download and install on my HP, I selected the product and profile I wanted to backup, in this case Thunderbird and default, select a backup destination, and 20 seconds later, I had a single file in my temp directory with all of the IMAP email settings from Thunderbird. I copied the file, which was about 600k, to my Satellite, installed the program on it, and reversed the process. I opened Thunderbird and found all my email accounts looking back at me. It took me probably 3 minutes all told and saved me 20 minutes of adding all the accounts and remembering all the server and port settings for my Lunarpages, AppRiver and Gmail accounts.

It’s important to note a couple of points. First, all my accounts were IMAP accounts, which means that the mail is stored on the server and not on my computer. That’s the reason why the backup file was under 1 MB. Had I used POP accounts, where the mail is downloaded to my computer and removed from the server, the size of the backup would have been much, much bigger. Second, the program claims to perform the same kind of backup and restore for Firefox and many other Mozilla products, but I only tried it with Thunderbird. For Firefox, I would use Mozilla Weave or Foxmarks.

Belarc Advisor
If the act of re-entering all the information for six or seven email accounts is annoying, the act of reinstalling 20 or 30 software applications and utilities is a royal pain in the ass. It’s pretty simple, though, as I have all my open source applications saved on the 2GB SD card I carry around in my Treo, but I wanted to make it easier. I wanted a simple list of all the programs I had installed on my HP so I could check off the programs as I installed them on my Satellite. A quick Google yielded Belarc Advisor. Here’s the description from their website.

The Belarc Advisor builds a detailed profile of your installed software and hardware, missing Microsoft hotfixes, anti-virus status, CIS (Center for Internet Security) benchmarks, and displays the results in your Web browser. All of your PC profile information is kept private on your PC and is not sent to any web server.

While there is a small software installation involved, it not only listed the programs I had installed, it listed many other valuable pieces of information such as IP address and network configuration, domain information and the service packs I had installed. All these results were returned in a fairly well-organized page within my browser so it was easy to print. It makes a great way to take a snapshot of the condition of a computer, and I see great value in printing the report to PDF using the previously-mentioned PDFCreator and saving it for reference.

Posted in hardware, software | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , |

Auction Podcast Episode 5 – PDF

You’re listening to the AuctioneerTech Auction Podcast for the week of 29 September 2008.
AuctioneerTech – Technology, auctions and auctioneers – auction tech for the auction industry

Hello and welcome to the fifth episode of the AuctioneerTech Auction Podcast, my name is Aaron Traffas. In this episode, we’re going to cover the PDF. I’m going to try to explain how to properly use PDFs on the Internet as well as give a couple of faster, easier alternatives to Adobe’s bloated Reader product and discuss some tools to create PDFs without having to use Adobe’s obscenely expensive Acrobat product.

The Portable Document Format or PDF is a file format created by Adobe in 1993. As of July 1, 2008, it’s a certified standard by the International Standards Organization, or ISO, which means that the format is open and published so that anyone can create it or use it.

The advantage that PDF has over other file formats is that it’s a good way to represent printed material exactly as the designer intended it. This advantage makes it good to use for contracts and brochures where the user doesn’t need to change the content and is willing to jump through some extra hoops to view the content in a layout that approximates the printed page. It’s a great format for designers to send to printers because it ensures that the content is displayed exactly as the designer intended.

The disadvantage that PDF has is on the Internet. The Internet isn’t a format that is supposed to resemble the printed page. Because the PDF format – for good reason – isn’t supported directly by any browser, the user must use a browser plug-in to view the content, souring the browsing experience. For this reason, the use of PDFs on websites should be limited to an optional content delivery mechanism.

An example of a very bad use of PDF is for a website selling real estate. The designer used PDF to send the property information document to the printer. The PDF is uploaded to the website and a link is placed on a sparse page that says “download property information document” for information about this property. This practice breaks the first rule of accessible website design, which is don’t force the user to use a plug-in or add-on to view content. Most browsers with the plug-in installed open the page in a new tab, breaking another first rule of web design which is don’t open new tabs or windows. Search engines index PDFs, but if you click on a search result that is a PDF you’ll be taken straight to the PDF which lacks a navigational system for the user to get to your main website.

An example of a proper use of PDF is for the same website to have every piece of information within the property document delivered as valid XHTML and CSS, which is the current best practice for building web pages. That site would then have an optional download for users who want to physically print the information about the property. In this case, the user can browse the property information at browser speeds rather than having to wait for and be confused by the loading of a plug-in. Even the example property contracts should be first delivered as a web page and then made available as PDF for users who want that method as an option.

The very best use of PDF is to not use it at all, instead delivering the content by XHTML and the layout by two different style sheets, one CSS for the screen and one for print, so that the website looks one way on the screen but when the website is printed it looks like the property information document. This is a more advanced website design technique that I’ll try to cover later.

To summarize, PDF has its uses. Just remember that as a content delivery system on the Internet it does fall.

Now that we’ve admitted that there are legitimate uses for PDF on the web, if, after analyzing the situation, PDF seems like the right tool for the job, here are some ways to make its use more painless and less expensive.

Adobe has two products related to PDF use and creation. Adobe Acrobat Reader is the free product that it makes available to everyone on all platforms to view PDF documents. Adobe Acrobat is the program that creates PDF files. As of the time of this recording, Adobe Acrobat Professional 9 for Windows is $419.99 on Newegg.com.

Now, why would I advocate the use of one free program over another? The answer is bloat. Adobe’s Acrobat Reader takes eons to load, making you wait to view the content that you realized wasn’t available any other way causing you to begrudgingly click the PDF link, or, worse, making you cuss the designer who surprised you by not telling you that the link on which you just clicked wasn’t to a web page but was actually to a PDF file. Adobe Reader’s install size is also nearly 20 MB. There are two free programs that are much smaller and much faster.

Foxit Reader is the best Acrobat Reader alternative I’ve seen. I’ve been using it for a couple of years and haven’t found an issues with it. It’s only 2.55 MB to download, which makes you wonder what Adobe is doing with their 20 MB. Occasionally, I’ve found that there are some PDFs that require an add-on to Foxit in order to view them properly, so each time I install it I take care to install the extra image decoders from the built-in update system. Here’s how to do it.

From within Foxit Reader, click Help then click Check for updates now. Select the “JPEG2000 and JBIG2 Image Decoders” option, then click add, then click install. The update checker will also allow you to install newer versions of the software when they are released.

For enthusiasts who are willing to sacrifice a few features for blazing fast speed of launch and viewing, Sumatra PDF is the answer. The installation file is just under 1 MB and the program itself has only a single executable file with no dependencies, so you can run it from a USB key if you’re traveling. If all you’re doing is viewing PDFs, you can save a few seconds by using Sumatra for normal viewing and falling back to Foxit if you come a cross a file that Sumatra can’t render or you need to complete the evil PDF forms.

Now let’s turn to alternatives to Adobe Acrobat. $419 is a lot of money. It’s really a lot for software, and when it’s for software that simply creates a document based on an open specification and there are free alternatives that do the same thing, it begs the question why anyone would actually purchase that software.

I started using PDFCreator back in the days of Windows XP. It served me well. It installs as a printer and whenever you want to create a PDF from any application, simply tell that application to print and select PDFCreator as your printer. A dialog box will then open, asking you where you want the file to be saved. It’s as simple as that. The latest version was just released last Friday, and boasts full Vista support.

When Windows Vista was first released, PDFCreator didn’t support it. I needed a free, Vista-capable PDF creation program and found it in CutePDF. I’ve been using CutePDF for Vista since Vista came out and have been quite satisfied with it. It functions nearly identically to PDFCreator. While I haven’t had any problems with it, it’s free but not open source like PDFCreator, so I’m probably going to migrate back to PDFCreator now that it fully supports Vista.

There are other PDF tools that fall outside the functionality of simple creation or viewing. Sometimes it’s necessary to make changes to a PDF when the source files aren’t available. Some people believe that PDF is a good choice when you don’t want the user to be able to edit the file. The truth is that because it’s an open standard, there really isn’t a way to effectively lock it down to prevent users from editing PDFs.

PDF Split and Merge, or pdfsam, is a program that will allow you to work with PDFs on the page level, allowing you to insert a page from one PDF between two pages on another, or join two smaller PDFs into one large PDF.

Lifehacker has a recent article about various PDF programs, and while their attitude towards PDFs is a little more positive than mine, the article does a good job listing programs and services that let you do neat things to PDF files.

I’ve covered some of the free and open source PDF tools here, and while there are several others I’ve probably missed, there are many, many commercial tools that are quite inexpensive compared to Acrobat. There are also web-based services that can do the same.

Many of these podcasts are based on similar articles I’ve posted to auctioneertech.com. Since I posted the similar articles on PDFs last week, my friend Stuart posted a comment both seconding my recommendation of PDFCreator, as well as reminding us that OpenOffice has a feature built-in to it that allows native saving of documents as PDF. That means that if you take the advice from a previous episode and use OpenOffice, you can simply save as a PDF without having to use a separate program to create one. Thanks, Stuart, for the comment.

That’s it for episode four. With each new podcast I record I find I’m having more topics from which to choose. Also, I’m hoping October will bring the first live auctioneer interview, so I’m looking forward to what next month will bring.

You’ve been listening to the Auction Podcast from AuctioneerTech. If you have suggestions, questions or comments, or are interested in being a guest, please let me know by going to http://www.auctioneertech.com/feedback and leaving a message. You can also post public comments about this or any other episode, as well as find show transcripts, on the auction podcast page of auctioneertech.com.

Thank you for listening. Now go sell something.

Posted in Podcasts | Tagged , , , , , , , , , |

eBay eliminates checks and money orders, promotes PayPal

Image representing eBay as depicted in CrunchBase

Image via CrunchBase

eBay recently announced that in late October it will be eliminating checks and money orders as valid payment options for eBay sales. Remaining valid payment methods are as follows.

  • PayPal, owned by eBay
  • ProPay, partnered with eBay
  • Credit or debit card payments direct to seller
  • Payment upon pickup

There are several categories that are exempt from the payment restrictions, including vehicles, real estate, some machinery and the mature audiences category.

Two of the line-item questions on the FAQ are answered in a way that directly answers yes that eBay is trying to eliminate third-party checkout and no to the availability of checkout services offered by Google and Amazon. They say that they’ll work closely to integrate eBay Certified Solution Providers into their eBay checkout in 2009. I guess that Google and Amazon are not allowed into the club.

This change in the payment polices of the Internet’s biggest online auctioneer, a term eBay both needs and can’t accept, follows a fee-change-based depreciation of what used to be its core auction business in favor of more retail sales methods found in its Buy It Now and eBay Stores listings.

eBay can’t be called an auctioneer if it wants to maintain a lack of responsibility for the items sold and remain exempt from auction legislation. It’s biggest legal defense has been we’re not an auctioneer. Every news story, however, adds the tag to eBay like it would define an acronym. Even though it’s becoming more and more difficult to find auctions on eBay, and even though it’s becoming more and more expensive to sell items in a true auction method, the media still refers to eBay as an auctioneer rather than a storefront.

eBay has greatly affected the auction industry. There are auctioneers who were devastated by it and auctioneers who were built by it. Many people falsely believed that because they sold items on eBay they were auctioneers.

eBay has brought the term auction into the forefront of people’s consciousness. This rebirth is good and bad. While the auction method of marketing is now more widely known and understood, it’s also more frequently assumed that when you say auction you mean an eBay auction. The frequency of this assumption is diminishing, but auctioneers have a long way to go to teach the public that there are many other types and methods of auctions than what can be found at ebay.com.

eBay has leveled the playing field. Where once some auctioneers had a solid market for certain antiques and collectibles, eBay stole their buyers away with the lure of sexier, cheaper, like-kind assets. Why wait for 30 minutes at an auction when you can log in and get the item for half what you would pay locally? The other side of the coin finds auctioneers who used to sell rarities for pennies to a small local crowd. The use of eBay’s massive buyer base – by either the auctioneer or the local crowd – skyrocketed their items from $10 lots to $1000 lots.

I’ve always hated eBay’s auctions. I hated the waiting. I used eBay on a regular basis a few years ago, and I would always select to filter for Buy It Now events because I wanted to enact a transaction and get the item. I didn’t want to have to worry about having to worry about it again later. In the same way customers can no longer afford to spend a day at a live auction, eBay is recognizing that for commodity assets, customers are no longer willing to wait to know if they’ve made a purchase or if they have to continue to shop.

As eBay swings more and more away from an auction marketplace and towards an ecommerce storefront model, the aspects that differentiate it from services like Amazon and Google Product Search disappear. eBay has already begun to lose both its dominance and its extraordinary income. As it does, it will look for ways to capture more of the transaction costs. What is the first and most logical way to capture non-commission-based revenue? Take a percentage of the payment. Forcing users to use PayPal means they get to dip from the payment as well as the sale.

Now I’m going to go to eBay and look for my Halloween costume among their Buy It Now listings.

Posted in community, services | Tagged , , , |

Auction Podcast Episode 4 – phpList

You’re listening to the AuctioneerTech Auction Podcast for the week of 22 September 2008.
AuctioneerTech – Technology, auctions and auctioneers – auction tech for the auction industry

Hello and welcome to the fourth episode of the AuctioneerTech Auction Podcast. In this episode, we’re going to discuss a way to effectively and appropriately handle mass email lists using a product called phpList.

One of the best marketing techniques for auctioneers and everyone else who is running a business is proper management of an email list. Keeping a list of emails in Excel and copying that list into the BCC field of Outlook does NOT count.

There are rules put in place due to the proliferation of spam. The CAN-SPAM Act has a couple of take-aways.
1. You can’t spoof the from address
2. You can’t use misleading subject lines
3. You must identify your email as a solicitation
4. You have to provide a means of opt-out

Every opportunity should be taken to capture customers’ or prospective customers’ email addresses at every point of contact.

Every time you register someone at an auction, you should have a form on the part of the bid card that you keep that asks him/her for an email address with a check box to opt in to your email list. Every contract you sign with a seller should have a line for email address. You never know when the person who signs up to sell coins will be the person who sees the email about the real estate you’re selling. Always send your emails to everyone on your list. Segmenting your list into coins, real estate, or antiques only means that you’re not exposing your merchandise to as many prospective buyers as possible.

Every web page should have either a subscription form or a link to a page where the customer can subscribe. I’m an advocate of placing the subscription form directly on the front page of your site. It’s not more important than your auction list – which is why people come to your site – but there’s usually a way to put a small form on the sidebar or in the header.

What happens when the user clicks submit? The easiest system to build is simply a form that emails you the contents of the user’s input. This system requires manual storage of the addresses. Remember the four take-aways from the CAN-SPAM Act? Providing an opt-out means allowing the user to remove himself/herself from your email list. If you store your email list in a spreadsheet and someone requests an opt-out, you go and remove that entry. Should that person’s name be added again by accident, you could get into some trouble by sending that person email after the opt-out has been requested.

A far better solution is for that email subscription form submission to store the email address, name and whatever other fields you require in a database. That way, everything is automated and when someone requests to opt-out, the entry is flagged as unsubscribed but not deleted. This feature prevents the user from being resubscribed by accident in the future. This system is much more difficult, and would require several hours to build the storage system, to say nothing of the time required to build a system to automate the sending of the emails.

This is where the open source and free phpList comes to the rescue. It’s a web script that runs on your server once it’s installed and manages all of the above issues for you. It’s as easy to use as any desktop application, but it’s web-based so you don’t have any software to install on your computer. The contributers to the phpList project will even install it for you if you don’t have a geek who can take the three minutes to install it or if you don’t have a hosting provider that automates the process. You can also send a bulk message from anywhere and from any device. Driving to the auction and forgot to send the bulk email? No worries. Send it from your cell phone.

Once the software is installed, you simply login with your user name and password like you’d login to your webmail. You can manage lists, upload email addresses, export your list – anything you can think of they’ve included. You can view a live demo to see what it looks like and explore all the features it offers at www.phplist.com.

Other products frequently used by auctioneers include AuctionServices’s IBEAM as well as ConstantContact. Neither service is free and neither runs on your own server. If you’re hosted by AuctionServices or if you don’t have the ability to let someone install a program on your server, one of these options may be a better choice for your situation than phpList.

phpList is the most robust and feature rich email package I’ve seen. It offers complete subscription and unsubscription page customization, unlimited lists, unlimited sizes, HTML or text emails – all for the cost of having someone spend a few minutes to install the script.

That’s it for episode four. Do you use something other than the products mentioned above? Have you had problems with phpList? Have you figured out how to scale Outlook or another email client so that it’s effective above 100 emails? Let me know in the comments for this episode on auctioneertech.com. Next episode, we’ll cover PDFs – what they are, when they’re appropriate, and how to make and use them faster, easier and cheaper than by using Adobe products.

You’ve been listening to the Auction Podcast from AuctioneerTech. If you have suggestions, questions or comments, or are interested in being a guest, please let me know by going to http://www.auctioneertech.com/feedback and leaving a message. You can also post public comments about this or any other episode, as well as find show transcrip s, on the auction podcast page of auctioneertech.com.

Thank you for listening. Now go sell something.

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