Hassle-Free PC: Stop Instant Messaging Interruptions

This month, learn how to conceal yourself while instant-messaging, play uncooperative videos, and slip huge files past corporate servers.

Cloak of Invisibility

Illustration: John Hersey
The Hassle: I love instant messaging, but I hate it when strangers interrupt me. Plus, my boss can tell when I'm away from the PC. Even the alerts when buddies come and go are getting annoying.

The Fix: Become invisible. In AOL's full version of AIM, click Setup at the bottom of the window, choose Preferences, Privacy, and select Allow only users in my Buddy List. Don't want anyone to know you're goofing off? Uncheck how long I've been idle. To squelch the alerts, choose Notifications in the Category list, uncheck Show pop-up notifications, and click OK.

In MSN Messenger, choose Tools, Options, Privacy, highlight All others in the 'Allow list' pane, and click Block. Next, return to the options list, pick Personal, and under My Status, uncheck Show me as "Away". Then go back to options; and for Alerts and Sounds, uncheck all the boxes.

In Yahoo Messenger, choose Messenger, Privacy Options, Ignore List and then select Ignore anyone who is not on my Messenger List. Next, select Privacy and check Do not show anyone how long I've been idle. Finally, choose Alerts & Sounds, uncheck Enable alert sounds, and click OK. To cloak yourself from specific buddies: Right-click one of them, choose Stealth settings, and then select Permanently Offline.

Sneak Files Past IT-Types

The Hassle: I sent a funny video to a friend, but the e-mail came flying back with the admonition: "Our mail system does not accept video files." I tried reducing the size by zipping the file before attaching it to a message. It still didn't go through. Now what?

The Fix: Try renaming the file extension to .zi (with a letter space at the end)--or .duh, for that matter. I've fooled corporate servers because they often ignore the file contents and look strictly at file names. Use the same trick with other files that IT-types like to block, such as .jpg and .gif files. If it doesn't work, upload your large file to YouSendIt for your pal to pick up. The maximum file size there is a whopping 1GB. The IT folks won't be any the wiser.

Codec Conundrum

The Hassle: Coworkers and friends send me critical "business" (ha!) videos, many of which won't play. I've upgraded Windows Media Player, tried using WinAmp, and even downloaded a few codecs [file decoders needed to play videos], without success.

The Fix: You need K-Lite Codec Pack. This set of codecs includes Media Player Classic, a small player that plays all types of videos. On the installation routine's Select Components dialog box, uncheck Player in the first dialog box if you want to continue using your current video player. You need to be aware of one potential hassle, however: K-Lite may change some of your existing video file associations. If that happens, fix them from Windows Explorer by selecting Tools, Folder Options, File Types and changing the file association to the app it was originally assigned to.

Tool of the Month: Shipshape Start Menu

I don't know about the one in yours, but the stack of programs in my Start menu sometimes gets out of control. A nifty program and a quick tweak can help organize the clutter. Use the freeware version of Tidy Start Menu. The tool lets you move programs and folders into one of nine new folders, such as 'Office' or 'Utilities'; you can back up the Start menu beforehand in case you don't like the results. The tweak? Change your Start menu from cascading to scrolling: Right-click the Start button, select Properties, Customize, Advanced, scroll down the 'Start menu items' list, and select Scroll Programs.

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