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2006 - a (readable) year in review

posted in Media, personal stuff on December 27th, 2006

Based on a series I started back in 2004 and didn’t continue in 2005, I’d like to post some thoughts on media in 2006.

Let’s start out with readable media - printed books, eBooks, magazines, anything non-digital really. I managed to continue my stream of eBooks this year, even though I didn’t succeed in reading as much as I did in 2005. Nearly two years after I bought my first eBooks, I still believe that this is the future, at least for me and a few more people who are openminded enough to accept a new form of content delivery.

I read about 30 books this year (which is 40% less than last year) and the three that made my charts are, in no specific order:

Steven Levitt & Stephen J. Dubner - Freakonomics:
Freakonomics talks about the hidden side just about everyone has and gives plenty of examples to elaborate on the special view of the world the authors craft. While at first you might think that it’s just rambling, the authors are actually on to something…

James Surowiecki - The Wisdom of Crowds:
Surowiecki uses “The Wisdom of Crowds” to explain how great masses of people can be and actually are smarter than a small flock of higly intelligent, business driven people. With easy to understand examples, the author explains the various types of wisdom found in a crowd and then analyzes the elements that are “required” for a crowd to be considered smart. The book also contains a good explanation why sometimes “crowd wisdom” fails and how we can prevent it from failing. Funnily enough, Surowiecki recommends people to keep their ties loose and expose oneself to as many different sources of information as possible - his statements link up nicely with a recent blog post

Brad Thor - Takedown:
Thor once again delivers a kick-ass (excuse my excitement) thriller. I-clean-up-and-get-things-done-agent Scott Harvath once again is tapped to solve the problems that arise when a group of terrorists decide to cut off Manhattan from the outside world in any way possible. It’s a great read and other than a handful of references to previous adventures, you won’t miss anything if you haven’t read the other books. Certainly worth buying if you’re looking for a good action movie for your mind (yes, Thor is capable of writing THAT vividly).

Other than great reads, I also picked up my new favorite magazine, BRIGHT - a mix of technology, lifestyle, gadgets and high quality journalism. No it’s not FHM, it’s better and less sexist. Worth checking out if you live in the Netherlands or Belgium and speak Dutch and feel like staying on top of the information flow.

Read part 2 of this series here and part 3 right here.

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techy Shirts, catchy slogans and pirates!

posted in Projects on August 26th, 2006

A few weeks ago I submitted a few design ideas to GottaBeMobile for a t-shirt design for a contest they ran (which didn’t create enough buzz in the first place) and I managed to convince the judges with my catchy slogan.

You can watch their post about their GearShop here, or just head over to CafePress and check out the stuff that’s available.

Making the t-shirt for them was a blast. Rob is a very kind guy and he rewarded my input with a FictionWise.com gift certificate (which translates into many hours of reading).

Now that this t-shirt is done, I’m thinking of creating one for “Talk like a pirate day“. Yup, that’s right. Tuesday, 19th of September marks the 11th birthday of this parodic holiday.

We’ll see how it turns out…

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new toy - customized

posted in Guides on April 28th, 2005

I recently acquired a Qtek 9090 - this device is a so called Pocket PC Phone Edition and it’s pretty darn sweet. Apart from the usual stuff like WiFi, Bluetooth and an up to date OS, you also get GPRS connectivity, intelligent connection switching and a thumbkeyboard. All in all - a great package and certainly worth the money.

But there’s more to it… Since the Qtek 9090 is really just a rebranded HTC Blue Angel (just like iMate PDA2k, Orange M200, O2 XDA III, T-Mobile MDA III), you can flash the device to your liking…

Basically, what HTC does is create 3 different “setups”. Those “setups” make the device what it is, including brand-customization (T-Mobile, O2, Orange, VodaFone etc.) and custom tools.

Part 1 is the operating system. HTC is using state of the art Windows Mobile 2003 Second Edition.
Part 2 is the radio stack - this is what actually makes a device a phone edition. Without this, it’s just a normal Pocket PC. This stack gets updated more or less frequently by your manufacturer and is best left alone unless you really know what you are doing.

Part 3 is the extended ROM. This let’s the manufacturer / OEM customize the device to their liking (not yours). These applications will be installed after each hard-reset. Most of the software included makes sense for someone, but most doesn’t make sense to me…

Since Qtek doesn’t really know about my specific needs, they include such great tools as a PPT Viewer, a PDF Viewer, FAXing utility, a Gallery application, a MIDlet utiliy and a Backup Utility. What I’d really need though is SPB Pocket Plus, a GPS application, a real backup utility and a few other applications. After deciding that it was more fun to have a customized device, rather than seeing all those unneeded applications, I set out to create a custom “extended ROM”.

Prior to starting, I did a good deal of reading in order to understand the whole concept of the phone, the website xda-developers.com does a great job in explaining what actually is possible and how it has to be done. Creating your own “extended ROM” is easy, that is, if you know how. Here’s a listing that includes all the steps I did in order to get my own ROM:

- Preparation: Backups
Since I already trashed my old iPAQ H3660 back in the day, I knew I had to create a few backups at first. PDAmobiz has a good tutorial on how to create a backup of just about everything for your device. They walk you through the whole process and explain how you can retrieve the files. Since I wasn’t able to retrieve them, I’ve got a 256mb SD Card sitting around, waiting for the moment I pop it into the Qtek to reflash the extended ROM. Hopefully it will never get to that and I’ll only have to use my other SD Card, I’m using to create my custom extended ROM.

- Preparation: getting to know the subject
Once again, xda-developers.com has a good deal of information in their Wiki. Those pages outline what you need to know. Most questions will either be answered in the Wiki or you’ll find answers in the very active forums.

- Preparation: Finding, testing the tools you need
Prior to putting something into the “extended ROM”, it’s necessary to test the install routine on the device and see what kind of routine it is.

Testing is done by locating the .cab File in your ActiveSync Folder and copying it onto the device, rather than using ActiveSync’s installation utility. It’s important to note here if an application needs user interaction (entering a key, accepting an EULA etc.) or not. This will influence how “config.txt” will be created later on.

My list of applications consists of the following right now:
SPB Pocket Plus by SPB Software House - application requires user interaction (question about ZIP support)
eWallet, by Iliumsoft - application requires user interaction (accepting EULA).
Microsoft Reader by Microsoft - application requires user interaction (notice about new fonts)
Route 66 and SP2 by Route 66 GIS b.v. - application requires user interaction (warning about functionality)
Apart from installing those applications, I also want my “extended ROM” to include my registration for Microsoft Reader, since I already know which files are important. In later steps it may be interesting to edit the dump of an registry file so that after installing all the software, the dump would import my registration keys and save me the hassle of entering them myself.

- Preparation: extracting the original ROM
Before you can actually extract the original ROM, you will have to unlock and unhide it. This is done by using the XDA Unlock Tool, however this version will only work on devices with an English interface. Since my device is based on the German version, I had to copy a few files to different places, but all in all it’s easy to start. After executing the application, you will have to do a soft-reset (the small hole, left bottom corner) and a directory called “Extended_ROM” will appear at the root level when you open Explorer on your device. In this folder you will find all the applications that are installed to customize your device.

- Preparation: creating a custom config.txt
The most important files in the “Extended_ROM” directory are “config.txt” and “AutoRun.exe”. The latter takes the text file as a guideline on what to do. The format of the text file is rather simple:

“EXEC:\Extended_ROM\application.exe” - executes a file. Most notably is that “TPDisable.exe” is executed at the beginning. This keeps the user from doing anything with the touch screen. “TPEnable.exe” will restore touch screen functionality after the customization.

“CAB:\Extended_ROM\application.cab” - executes a CAB installer. It’s probably logical, but I should still mention that the CAB file has to be written for your device (e.g.: StrongARM) or else the customization will most probably fail.
There’s also a built-in facility to copy files from the “extended ROM” to anywhere I please. This will later be discussed regarding the activation of MS Reader.

Since all my applications require some kind of interaction, I don’t really need to disable the touch screen, therefor I start out by editing the factory version of the config.txt to not execute “TPDisable.exe” anymore, naturally “TPEnable.exe” will then not be needed either.

Thanks to this thread on xda-developers.com, I know which files I can safely remove and which should better remain in the “extended ROM”. Like I noted earlier, I don’t see any reason why I should install a PPT or PDF viewer, since I never read such files anyways, so all I have to do is remove “ClearVue2.4.381_GER_withoutBP_OzUp.sa.CAB” from the “config.txt” and the application wont be installed next time I do a hard-reset. To save space (since the “extended ROM” is limited to 16mb), I also removed the file itself. It should be noted that the “GER” is the language code and could also be “ENG” or “ITA” or anything else.
I also have little need for the following applications:
“BA_Album_GER.CAB” (the Gallery application),

“Java_v10.1.2.49_DE_0901_unremovable.CAB” (the MIDlet manager) and
“Fax_v2.09_BA_GER_0720_unremovable.CAB” (the FAX application), so I also removed those.

- Testing: Will my config.txt work?
All I have to do now is upload my “config.txt” to the “Extended_ROM” folder and do a hard-reset. After a hard-reset, I should have a device with less useless tools installed, and while it actually appears that I’m writing this after doing the customization, it is in fact being written as I try out the different steps.

I just did a hard-reset (with some hesitation) and it worked. So far so good.

Experimenting: stripping more unneeded tools
Since I don’t really use MIDI ringtones, I also decided to remove the MIDI Tools “MIDI561.CAB” and the registration file for it, called “MIDI_GER_reg.CAB”. The updated config.txt goes into the “extended ROM” folder once again and another hard-reset shows the results. To conclude this part, I also ended up removing “MMS_v2.0.0.16_BA_DE_20041115.CAB” - the MMS Client, since I never send MMS and “Qtek_Button9_GER.sa.CAB” - an utility that maps a button to the Sprint PCS website. This saved me another 2.25mb.

Experimenting: adding much needed tools
Since the “extended ROM” is limited to 16mb, I had to find a solution for making some room. The factory default takes up 14mb, but I removed 7.71mb and thus have 9.71mb free. This might be a problem for others, since they might want to install more applications. In that case, I suggest storing the CAB files in “\Storage” since those 43mb located to this non-volatile storage might otherwise go unused.

When adding applications, it might be smart to create folders like I did, one called “ms_reader_activation” where all the files reside that make up the activation and another folder called “custom_apps” that holds the CAB files for the installer.
To copy the MS Reader files automatically, you’ll have to use the “CPY1″ and “CPY2″ commands as outlined above.
I also edited some of the CAB files to make them even smaller: I removed the GuideBook.lit from the MS Reader Setup and I deleted the standard images / icons / sounds that come with eWallet. I also edited the eWallet CAB in a way that it automatically registers itself with my credentials. Apart from that, I changed the location where eWallet looks for images to a folder in “\Storage”.

After the customization, the device will soft-reset itself and everything will be installed, copied and set up.
Conclusion: creating your own “customization tool” is really not that difficult, as long as you read about it first and follow all steps as outlined. For me, I ‘ve got my very own and higly customized Qtek 9090 now.

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eBooks Goodness - the verdict

posted in Media, Tech Talk on February 26th, 2005

As discussed earlier, I ordered quite a few eBooks recently. Here’s the verdict:

eBooks are awesome. I love the way you can carry them with you all the time (on your Pocket PC) and read when it suits you best - in the train, while you’re waiting for a teacher …

But that’s not the only thing, after all - you could carry your average paperback with you as well, what you can’t do though is carry 15 paperbacks with you, not if you care about your back at least. You can however carry 15 eBooks with you. Since the books are just files on a storage card, you don’t add any weight to your package.

You’ll also experience trouble when trying to read a paperback in the dark, you will however be able to read any eBook in the darkest cave, since eBook reading devices have a back lit display.

Not enough to convince you? Let’s focus on some other aspects then:
eBooks are cheaper than paperbacks most of them time and you don’t need half a tree to print 100 books. Ever lost your bookmark and cursed about not being able to find the right page? You won’t experience that with eBooks - digital bookmarks don’t get lost.

Naturally, like everything, there are two sides to it:
eBooks don’t stack up nicely in your shelf, so you can’t show off your library and reading an eBook depends on a battery needed to power your reading device, you don’t have those problems with paperbacks.

All in all, reading eBooks is awesome. I’m certain that I’ll be reading a lot more in the future.

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eBook Goodness from FictionWise.com

posted in Media, Tech Talk on January 6th, 2005

The idea of eBooks has been around for some time now, I’m guessing 10 years at least, if not longer, but “the thing” never really gained any momentum, at least - that’s what I thought. Luckily though, I turned out to be wrong …

In the beginning, eBooks were plain text files - no formatting, no links to a dictionary, no enhancements like sounds / images. Fast-forward to 2001: Microsoft introduces the “Microsoft Reader”, a tool that enables users to read eBooks in the .lit format. Adobe joins the market not long after, trying to sell PDF as the perfect eBook format and naturally there are other companies, like eReader (James loves them) and a few less known alternatives.

Long story short: eBooks are anything except a dying market. There are quite a few shops out there that sell works in the different formats and since I had a bit of money on my PayPal account and didn’t want to bother with all the fees they charge you to have the money transferred to your bank account I went out on a shopping frenzy and bought eBooks worth $100 at my new favorite store, Fictionwise.

It’s been some time since I read an eBook - to be honest - the first eBook I read was also the last one I read. It was a short story, written in German by Marcel Sommerick. The author’s story was awesome, but since it was no real .lit file, the “read” was not as pleasant as it could have been: no chapter marks, no images - no nothing…

Well, I felt it was in order to give eBooks a second chance and hence bought a few interesting works from well known authors such as Dan Browns (I only read Angels & Demons and The Da Vinci Code), but also some books from rather less known authors.

The thing I like about Fictionwise is their cyberguide, basically a tab that shows you what other buyers of the same book read. Yes, amazon.com has the same feature, but it just happens that amazon’s suggestions never do it for me. Fictionwise’ suggestions on the other hand are spot on 1 out of 2 times. Sure, the feature is there to turn first time-buyers into returning customers and to keep returning customers, but I like it.

I’ll certainly make sure to post something about the eBooks in the future. I’m interested to see how it will turn out - positive or negative?!

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