Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Stop forwarding me those stupid e-mails

Forwarding Emails
This post addresses the age-old question of "what you have to lose" when you forward one of those e-mails that asks that question, as in "Maybe Bill Gates will share his fortune. What do you have to lose?" My brother really really is an attorney too, but even he knows better than to forward these emails. As a matter of fact, this post will describe why you shouldn't forward ANY e-mails "to all of your friends", even at the threat of instant death for breaking the curse or instant millions for doing Bill Gates some unspecified favor.

Old news
First, let me say that this should be old news to anyone who has been on the internet for more than a week. It surprises me that people still don't know to go to snopes and check whether the story they are spreading is even true. Generally, the answer is no. Nevertheless, we all still have that one aunt or cousin who just now got the internet, and they will forward these things until they are given a compelling reason not to. Here is that compelling reason.

All spam is spam
So, the risk of forwarding any compelling e-mail is that you are essentially participating willingly as a human part of a very effective spam operation. As you may know, sometimes spammers create viruses which download to your machine and secretly take it over to attack other machines or send commercial e-mails on behalf of the spammer. This allows the spammer to get around certain restrictions that might be imposed by their ISP against sending bulk e-mails. Instead the e-mails are from everyone, to everyone.

Exponential growth
One reason not to forward any e-mail, no matter how compelling, is that we've all already seen it. This is a mathematical certainty when you think about it. Let's take a compelling factor, call it x. If you are compelled to x degree to forward an e-mail, then you will forward it to x people, let's say. However, those x people will presumably find it just as compelling, and each x people will forward it to x people. That's x*x people so far. Now if that goes to a third generation, it is x to the third, and even if x is just 4, the message has been forwarded to a million people in ten generations. So, we've all seen it by the time you are sending it. The problem is even worse with more compelling e-mails. There is an easy test to see if an e-mail is subject to this problem. If you are thinking of forwarding it to more than two people, it is too compelling, and we have already seen it. This applies to virus warnings, gold speculation, "secret" recipes, free money, etc.

But I didn't forward any commercial e-mail
You may think that you can filter out commercial messages yourself, and just pare your forward list to those who do not complain about it, and those who have already seen it will just ignore it. You may be able to do that, though I question whether your e-mail was just a covert advertisement for MicroSoft and AOL, because after all, these are good impressions of those companies if they are being all charitable to you, the customer. None of this matters. The real, valuable content of those e-mails is not the "compelling" message. It is the forwarding lists of validated e-mail addresses. These lists are gold to a spammer. After a number of generations of sending one of these e-mails, it will have hundreds of e-mail addresses in it. At some point, someone will forward it to one of their active online friends, who is really a spammer. Now that spammer has MY e-mail address, and I didn't even want the mail in the first place, never mind forward it. I'm just on it because you sent it to me at some point. So stop it. Thanks for your time.

Friday, November 30, 2007

Driving on the wrong side - settled at last

Driving on the Right side
As an American, I have long been of the opinion that we drive on the correct (right-hand) side of the road and that the Brits and their influences have it wrong. Up to now, my opinion has mainly been based on obscure tenets of maritime law, but I have discovered a far better and more important reason, which I will detail below. But first some history, etc. You would expect no less from a geek.

U.S. "Wrongies"
My personal history with this phenomenon comes from having visited England and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Because the virgin islands were once mainly British territory, they drive on the incorrect side of the road, even on the islands of St. Croix, St. Thomas, and St. John, which are now U.S. territories. The most befuddling aspect of this is that the most plentiful cars by far are those made in the U.S.A., because they are cheaper to ship to the islands, and many people who live there are poor and so end up with the lowest-cost option. So, on a recent trip to the U.S. Virgin Islands, I found myself hurtling down the single-lane roads keeping to the left, but sitting in the left-hand driver seat as far as possible from the parts of the cars which are nearest each other. This might sound safe, but it really isn't because it's really hard to see the line in the middle of the road.

World Driving History
The phenomenon of standard driving sides far predates cars. Originally, it was the swordsmen gentlemen of England who decided to ride horses on the left, so that their scabbards wouldn't clank together and so that their strong right arm could pull the sword out and oppose enemies riding at them on the same road. Why they thought their enemies would be so orderly is partly explained by the way they fought wars back then. Anyway, Europe under Napoleon decided they wanted to ride on the left side of wagons so they could whip the team with their right hand, and for similar reasons described above, wanted to pass on the right. Britain whipped Napoleon, so his driving habits never spread there, and neither did Hitler's.

Maritime Law
This is all well and good, but long before Napoleon and long before other driving habits were established stateside, England herself had already decided the question in the 1100's. Admiralty law, also known as Maritime Law, has always called for seagoing vessels to pass one another on the right. And no one had more stake in creating Admiralty Law than the British. Now, the British can claim one side or the other all they like, but as long as they are not consistent, I don't see any point in following them at all. Of course, to most people, this is a kind of esoteric argument and doesn't hold much water, so to speak. Why should we listen to the British at all, maritime or otherwise? This is America, damn it, and we won our independence from the crown hundreds of years ago (in fact that is around the time that it was settled once and for all that Americans would pass on the right). It is only by a stroke of luck that we and Napoleon got it right. We were also on more or less the same side in the war, so what the heck, we're also on the same side of the road. Besides, we invented the car, so we get to choose. Or at least we invented the assembly line to make enough of them that it mattered which side you drove on.

But... But... I don't drive
The real reason you should drive on the right is far more practical, and affects you every day, even if you don't drive at all. Namely, when a people drive on a certain side of the road, they tend to pass one another on walkways on that same side. This makes sense, because it is useful to have a side to pass on, after all. In England, they would take this back to the "orderly enemies" argument above, and say that in walking we should keep our weapon hands on the side of the "enemy" on the other side of the road. Well, if your a warmonger that is all well and good, but most of us just walk up a couple of flights of stairs every day and go to work, not to war. And that is where we need our right hand, to hold onto the railing, whether we are ascending or descending, and thus the practical reason to drive on the right.

For the record, I'm left-handed.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Perfect mix of art and science

September 19, 2007
Singer/Songwriter Jonathon Coulton came through Dallas last night as part of his nationwide tour. He's built his audience as an independent, largely through the internet, and thus tends to play to geeks like me, with geek-friendly songs such as "Code Monkey", "The Future Soon", and "Mandelbrot Set". Just about all his songs have a wry, intelligent sense of humor, but as we experienced at the live show, there is a sort of hidden thread of emotion to the songs that resonates even deeper. After you get past the unusual lyrics, universal themes of love and loneliness are revealed.

Opening Set
Thinking that a) a geek might actually start a show on time, and b) it was a weeknight after all, we arrived promptly at 8:00 so as not to miss a single morsel. Paul and Storm, the openers, took the stage around 9:15, to a packed house at Club Dada. I was previously unfamiliar with this act, but apparently they have had some success on the Bob and Tom show, which doesn't play in Dallas except perhaps over the internet. Though I'm sure they have been at this much longer than Coulton, they were the perfect warm-up for him, as they got us all in the laughing mood starting with their opening meta-song, "Opening Band." They played several other humorous songs, and didn't fail to celebrate the holiday with audience participation.

Main Act
After a brief recess, Johnathon Coulton took the stage solo. Early on, he played "IKEA" (yes, a song about a furniture store). He went on to play "I crush everything," about a giant sea creature and his search for love with his all-too-powerful tentacles. He soon satisfied the ├╝ber-geeks with "The Future Now," a song about how he is going to be enhanced in the future, and woo the girl to whom he sings with all his imperfections removed. He followed up with "SkullCrusher Mountain," a song about an evil genius showing his new girlfriend around the lair.
Somewhere in there was "I Feel Fantastic," a song about the perfection of pharmaceuticals in the future, with some really funny lines, and "Tom Cruise Crazy" and "Code Monkey". He also played "You Ruined Everything," about having a new baby, "Creepy Doll," and "Mr. Fancy Pants," for which he had purchased a key-tar beat box to play live. He closed with "Mandelbrot Set" about fractals, and "Re: Your Brains" about your local office-mate turned zombie, though again the metaphorical undertones were apparent, and resonant to cube-dwellers everywhere.

Encore
Though it was a weekday, and though it had all started way later than I expected, and though it was nearing midnight and I was tired, it ended all too soon. Encores were "First of May" (nsfw), and "Sweet Caroline". Jonathon stayed around afterward to sign albums and such, though I prefer to buy online the songs I like.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Security Exploit for your Car

Car security
I have talked a bit about cars and technology here before, particularly security. I think this is an issue which deserves some attention, but nonetheless I will post about it here rather than forward an e-mail to everyone I know telling them to forward it in turn. That has its own security risks, which I will explain in a later post. This article explains how I discovered a security hole for the automatic remote for some cars, and how to avoid it. This is on a slightly older car, but this exploit can be gleaned from a simple reading of the car owner's manual without any special technical knowledge or equipment, just a sneaky mind like mine, and one's own keyless entry. Your mileage may vary, as they say. You should read your own owner's manual with a mind toward something similar. More on that later.

Security attempts
Over time, car manufacturers have taken on the issue of keyless entry security. Early transmitters simply sent a digital sequence to the receiver in the car, matched to that receiver. The problem with this was that criminals could simply sit in a parking lot and record the sequences on their own receiver, and play them back to open the doors. This particular exploit required special equipment, and so was a specialized type of threat, but a real one nonetheless. To correct for this, manufacturers began coding the transmitters to the receivers but with special encryption algorithms built into both, with two-way communication, so that a different code was sent each time.

The exploit
In the particular case of my car, a Chrysler Sebring, this fix for a relatively rare problem created a much more common and exploitable problem. The transmitter is matched to the car at the factory, but it has some kind of internal limitation on how many new unique codes can be generated without communication. According to the owner's manual, if the keyless entry is keyed "more than 250 times" when not within range of the car, this pairing is lost. I suspect they really mean more than 255 times, but that's a nit. Anyway, since there is a way the customer can lose the pairing, there has to be a way to resync. The way to resync, on my car, is simply this: Lock the doors (using the door-lock switch on the door, of course, because your remote doesn't work), then press the buttons on the remote in a particular way (which I will skip here to maintain a little security through obscurity). The remote resyncs and then can be used to unlock the door again.

Oops
If you haven't figured out the exploit by now, it is simply that if the owner of the car has locked his doors with the door-lock switch, any schmoe with the same remote can then press the appropriate sequence on his remote and get into the car. The key will still not fit, so they can't steal your car, but at least they can steal all your CD's and sunglasses. Up until I realized this, I locked my door this way all the time, because it's easier to flip the lever on the door than to fiddle around with the remote. Luckily, I discovered this exploit not by being victimized but because I had a remote that didn't work even after replacing the batteries, and it said on the remote "consult the owner's manual." I tried it on my dad's car, which is the same but a newer year, and sure enough it works.

Keeping out interlopers
The solution is simple, of course. Just lock your doors with the keyless remote always. This will also ensure that you don't lock your keys in the car, which is good.

Other cars
Your car may differ in the way that it resets the keyless entry. For example, some require that the key is in the ignition to initiate the sequence. In this case you are safe from this exploit, but there may be other ones depending on your car. Read your owner's manual, and if you find another exploit for your car, post it below.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Why doesn't my guitar rock?

Distortion
When you finally upgrade your acoustic to a brand new electric guitar, and you plug it into the practice amp that came with it, the first thing you expect is to sound like Jimi Hendrix on acid. Oh, wait, Jimi Hendrix was on acid. Anyway, what you may be wondering is, why does this guitar sound more or less like my acoustic guitar, only louder. The answer, my friend, is distortion. The one guitar effect that is emblematic of Rock and/or Roll is quite simply distortion, also known as overdrive. If you are fortunate, your amp comes with an overdrive button, like the Fender 15G Frontman does. Distortion is just an effect which makes the signal sound like it has been overdriven through a tube amp. This gives it that edgy rock sound.

Compression
However, even if the amp supports some form of distortion, what you really lack, especially with a whammy bar, is sustain. That gives you the ability to really rock out while you shake your guitar around and wave it in front of the amp, and slam the whammy bar down for that signature Jimi Hendrix growl. I know, by now you've cursed yourself for buying a cheap guitar with no sustain, or perhaps cursed the dealer who sold you this expensive guitar with no sustain. But none of that matters. All you need to get the long rockin' sustain is a little bit of compression. Compression works by cutting down the dynamic range of your signal, making the soft sounds louder and the loud sounds (relatively) softer. This makes your notes seem to last longer, because the louder sound right after the attack is dampened a bit, and as the vibrations fade, the volume is raised to compensate. Of course, all of this is subject to parameters controlling the compressor.

Pedals
To accomplish these effects, especially if they are not built into your amp, you need some kind of guitar pedal. This could be a chain of pedals, or it could be a single multi-effect pedal. Purists will say you need the chain of pedals going into your tube amp, but that can get, you know, expensive. And heavy. In this era of digital simulation, maybe close enough is good enough for you. I know it is for me; and it has the added advantage of being more portable. A small practice amp can go just about anywhere, and if you're just practicing for yourself, a multi-effects pedal with a headphone plug-in is all you need.

Ready to play
With just these two effects, you can go a long way by adjusting various parameters, such as how much gain to apply for distortion, or various envelope factors for compression. However, if you do pick up a multi-effects pedal, you can go way beyond this to add all kinds of effects like wah, ya-ya, crunch, etc., which are all just ways of writing in English that which can really only be experienced aurally.

Friday, August 10, 2007

FIRE HAZARD: Do not read!

I wanted everyone to know that I received this IMPORTANT and ALARMING e-mail from my brother in San Antonio:

FIRE HAZARD: Don't open conspiracy or panic e-mails! Forward to everyone you know
This isn't one of those panic e mails like you've seen floating around the internet; this is REAL! A friend of mine who works for the San Antonio fire marshal in the arson investigation squad warned me about this, after having investigated several fires caused by this DANGEROUS NEW TREND!
We've all seen them: the panic or conspiracy theory e mails: Boy's corneas burned out by Mr. Clean Magic Eraser, warn your friends! Glade Plug-Ins cause house fires, forward to everyone you know! God isn't on the new dollar coin, refuse to accept them! I've always wondered who has time to sit around and come up with these crazy e mails, and now I finally know.
My friend told me that these panic headlines are nothing more than a way to get you to open the e mail, so that it can implant a (literally) deadly virus in your computer. Then it preys on your good nature and your natural desire to protect your friends and loved ones, by getting you to unknowingly forward this virus on to them. I wasn't sure if my friend had his facts straight, so I called Dr. David P. Snopes, the director of the Snopes Computer Virus Protection Project at MIT, and he confirmed that it was true! The evil plot then unfolds as follows: One night while you are sleeping, your computer will turn itself on. Dr. Snopes said that some of the viruses are rigged like a time bomb, to go off at a certain time, while others key off of your word processor, so that the first time you use a certain word or combination of words in a letter or document (like "Sincerely yours," or "Dear Sirs" or some other combination that the hacker knows you will eventually use) the virus is activated at 3:35 a.m. the next morning. The virus then causes your computer to generate an algorithm that tries to solve the infamous Zeno's Paradox. For those of you unfamiliar with this PRE-CHRISTIAN (!!!) conundrum, it says that moving from one place to another is impossible, because to travel any distance, you have to travel half that distance first. And in order to travel half the distance, you have to travel half THAT distance, and so on ad infinitum.
Your computer's CPU usually only works a fraction of the time. You can verify this right now by hitting the CTRL + ALT + DELETE keys all at once. This will bring up your Windows Task Manager. At the bottom of that dialog box is a little message reading "CPU Usage: xx%", where the xx fluctuates anywhere from 5% to 50%, sometimes a little higher. Dr. Snopes assures me that this is crucial, because your computer needs the "rest time" to allow the built-in fan to cool down the CPU. The problem with this Zeno algorithm is that it is impossible to solve, but your computer doesn't know that, so it keeps dividing and dividing by half ALL THE TIME! Within seconds, the CPU usage is up to 100%, sometimes even higher! The resulting heat causes the computer's internal fan to break down, and then the virus reaches what scientists call the tipping point. Because the fan no longer works, and the CPU is still working overtime, the heat levels inside your computer get higher and higher, faster and faster. Before you know it, the thing catches fire, and can KILL YOUR FAMILY, not to mention your PETS, or burn down your whole office building while you sleep!
This virus is so insidious that Dr. Snopes brought it to the attention of his congressman, who immediately started congressional hearings to determine how dangerous the virus is, how many fires have already been caused by it, and whether Congress should pass a law outlawing a computer program FOR THE FIRST TIME IN HISTORY. You can check out the transcripts of the congressional hearings here:
Dr. Snopes says there are three things you can do to protect yourself, your family, and your friends: 1. Don't open ANY conspiracy theory or alarmist e mails. It doesn't matter if you download anything from the e mail or follow any links; simply opening it will cause the virus to infect your computer.
2. Call or write your Congressman to encourage them to pass a bill banning this DANGEROUS virus. Let those slackers in Washington know that we're tired of them sitting around bickering about things like the war in Iraq or whether the Attorney General of the United States perjured himself, WHILE OUR HOUSES ARE BURNING DOWN and our FAMILIES ARE IN DANGER! You can find your congressman's e-mail here:
3. Most importantly, forward this to everyone you know! Especially if you have ever sent on a panic or conspiracy theory e mail. I know, it will take a few minutes of your precious time, but imagine how you'll feel if you don't do it, and then you get the call at 4:00 one morning telling you that a friend or loved one's house just burned down, killing all their family and PETS, and knowing that YOU MAY HAVE BEEN RESPONSIBLE FOR SENDING THEM THE VIRUS IN THE FIRST PLACE! I'll be keeping tabs on Dr. Snopes website to see how many hits this thing gets, but remember, folks, you heard it here first.
I don't know who these evil people are sitting around concocting conspiracy theories and alarmist e mails just so that they can burn down our houses, but I for one am MAD AS HELL AND I'M NOT GOING TO TAKE IT ANYMORE!

I wanted to know if it was true, so I called my local post office in Dallas. They verified that not only is it TRUE, but that it has now spread to Blog posts. Do not, whatever you do, read any ALARMING blog posts on the internet, particularly if they have to do with FIRE or 9/11!!!!11!OnEONE! Please, for your own safety. Tell all your friends, and please tell them to post a copy of this to their blogs, for the love of God (who is not on the new dollar)!

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

After Guitar Hero II

In June of 2002, the Motley Fool wrote an article about Guitar Center warning investors of potential problems with its $18-per share price being too high for that stock at the time. They were concerned about P/E ratios and whatnot. By June of 2007, they were singing a different tune, claiming that $63 per share was too cheap for them to sell out. What is responsible for the turnaround? In my mind, and as mentioned in the latter article, it has a lot to do with Guitar Hero (which Guitar Center sponsored). This game has reignited interest in real guitar playing, and at the same time, for me at least, it expanded my tastes in rock music to a whole set of metal bands to which I had never given much of a listen.

Like many others, I dusted off my old acoustic and resumed strumming away. However, this time around, mere rhythm-guitar open-string chords and basic strum patterns were not enough. Having finished hard mode in GHII, I felt confident, or at least compelled, to try to play lead lines, shred some frets, bend some strings, and slide up and down the fretboard with full distortion. I need to rock, and to do that, a trip to the aforementioned Guitar Center where I plunked down $250 for the Strat Pack. p.s., if you just splurged your life savings into GTRC stock based on the last paragraph, don't worry, Musician's Friend is a wholly owned subsidiary. As a disclosure, I don't own any GTRC or Activision stock.

So now that you have your shiny new electric, the trick is, how do you play it? Many people recommend guitar lessons, and I certainly agree. I intend to take some myself any time now. But if you and ornery, intelligent, adventurous, introverted, independent person like me, you will want to do some self-teaching on your own. In any event, it is useful to have more than one source of information about guitar learning, so even if you do take lessons, the instructor should encourage you to learn on your own. If they do not, find a different instructor.

Here, then, are my recommendations for free online learning. Firstly, fire up iTunes or otherwise tune in to 1.fm and listen to some blues. If you live in the D/FW area, you are in luck, because the new station called Lonestar 92.5 is a commercial-free radio station that plays a lot of blues, country, rock, and other music with great instrumental solos, mainly guitar. It might as well be called the guitar hero station. Incidentally, Lonestar are also sponsored by Guitar Center. While you are soaking up some good blues, go learn the easy blues scale. This scale can be played anywhere on the fret, and then you can play just about any notes up and down this scale in a swing beat, and it will sound great. For rank beginners, I suggest first checking out these excellent absolute beginner guitar articles. Be sure to look around on that site and this one even if you are a little more advanced. For geeks like me, the information is offered in a very digestible format. If you get really serious about this stuff, you can go to this solo guitar site which has information about practice schedules, etc.

However, whenever you get to the point of learning about modes, go to this modes theory page. It is all laid out very logically and clearly, with no mystical mumbo-jumbo. Did you know, for example, that minor A is just a mode of major C? I didn't. Including that one, there are seven modes in all, but the CAGED method only teaches you five, and treats minor keys as a separate topic. Granted, two of the modes overlap so much that they use the same exact fingerings, but still, the theory is incomplete without knowing about all seven modes, and it seems kind of random.

So, did you dust off your old guitar/buy a new one after you picked up GHII? Did you start listening to different music, and/or gain an appreciation for guitar solos?

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Car buried in vault in Tulsa, OK in 1957, opened in 2007 - rusted junk(pic)

There was a contest in 1957 to guess what the population of Tulsa would be by 2007, its centennial. The winner gets an unused 1957 Belvedere plus the contents of the car, which included a ladies purse with typical items, including Valium and bobby pins. However, when they finally dug up the mess last week, it turned out the vault was full of water.



read more | digg story

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Squier Fender Strat switches and knobs

I just got a new Fender Strat made by Squier, from Guitar Center. It was part of the Strat Pack. This is a standard Fender Stratocaster design, but it is made in Indonesia to encourage fair labor standards. Just kidding, it's for the low cost. A decent American-made Fender will set you back over $1000, but a Hecho en Mexico model is somewhat less, and then these are an entry-level option for essentially the same design, but made in Indonesia. I am just getting started in electric guitar, so I opted for the low-priced model. The Strat Pack, for $250, included the guitar, 15-watt practice amp, strap, bag, picks, whammy, tuner, and an extra set of strings, along with an ultra-beginner "fender method" guitar-playing book. What it did not include, however, was instructions on how to use the dang thing. I don't mean play it, because coming from an acoustic guitar I was familiar with the concept of frets, chords, and strumming. What I mean is, what do all those damn knobs and buttons do? There was no instruction along those lines in the Strat Pack. So, after literally hours of searching the internet, I was able to find the answer, and have reproduced it here. The Squier Strat mimics the Standard Stratocaster found here, which site also has wiring diagrams and whatnot in case you need those.

Pickups
Starting with the basics, the standard strat design has three single-coil pickups. These are labeled number 6 in the diagram. The topmost one is the neck pickup, the middle one is just called the middle one, and the bottom one is the bridge pickup. The switch, labeled 5 in the diagram, has five positions available. By switching it to the top position (closest to the neck), this activates the neck pickup only, so that any sound picked up by the other two pickups is not sent to the amp. The next click on the switch turns on both the neck pickup and the middle pickup. The third position activates just the middle pickup. The fourth position activates the middle and bridge pickups, and finally the fifth position activates just the bridge pickup.

Hum
Since they are single-coil pickups, there is a natural 60hz hum that will occur whenever any single pickup is selected. Special humbucker coils are available which are wound in two different directions and cancel out each others' hum. Short of that, most Stratocasters have the middle pickup wired in the reverse direction from the other two, and whenever you select position two or four, the hum is cancelled out.

Tone
Meanwhile, the tone knobs also work in conjunction with the pickups, and consequently are affected by the pickup selector switch. The tone knob labeled 3 in the diagram works with the neck pickup only, so it is only active when the switch is in the first or second position. The other tone knob labeled 2 in the diagram will adjust the tone for the middle and bridge pickups. Having the tone turned up to 10 will bring out all the rich, clean tones from the pickups, but turning them down will mute the sounds somewhat. Experiment with these knobs to get the sound you are looking for. Naturally when the pickup selector switch is not selecting the appropriate pickup, the corresponding tone knob does nothing.

Volume
The knob labeled 4 in the diagram is for volume. Set this in the middle and adjust the amp accordingly, so that you can turn volume up or down directly from the Strat body.

Whammy
Screw the whammy bar into the hole in the bridge, labeled 11 in the diagram, made for that purpose. Don't screw it in too tight or it will damage the bridge. Leave it one turn from tight, so it will fall by itself when you let go of it. To use the whammy, press down or pull up on it. This will bend all notes that are currently ringing out either down or up, respectively.

Amp
The FrontMan 15 amp which comes with the upgraded strat pack is suitable for a practice amp, which means it's plenty loud for old fogies like me. The cord connects from the output jack, labeled 1 in the diagram, to the input jack on the amp. The amp has two main modes, selectable by a pushbutton on the front. It has treble and bass adjustments, too, but the dirty/clean sound is the most radical difference. Out, you get a clean sound; in you get something like the effect of a distortion pedal, great for that "Iron Man" powerchord sound. When out, the volume control works, when in, the gain and dirty volume work together for varying levels of distortion/loudness. The highest gain is the dirtiest sound, and of course the regular volume does not work in this mode, but the other volume controls that.

Rounding out the diagram
The remaining parts of the diagram are: 7, frets, 8, neck, 9, keys, and 10, headstock. Number 1 is where you connect the amp to the guitar, by plugging in the included cord. To adjust the tuning of each string, turn the keys in one direction or the other to get a higher or lower pitch until it is in tune. The included tuner helps with this for standard tuning. To play a note, strum the string(s) you want to sound, with your fingers in between the appropriate fret bars. Rarely, you will actually want to put your finger on the fret bar. Now go take some lessons.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Evesham NAV-CAM


On woot.com, I took advantage of the low low price of $159.99 for the Evesham NAV-Cam 7700 GPS system. I wouldn't count on getting this price again any time soon (I wish I'd bought a dozen at this price), but even for 200 bucks it's a bargain. This particular GPS is one of those that gives you street-by-street verbal guidance as you drive. On the main screen, which is a touch-screen, it lets you choose from an "easy" mode, which in my mind is worthless, or a more feature-rich mode. The easy mode just gives you a few features, but the full navigation lets you browse the map, pick points of interest such as restaurants or gas stations, or find specific streets within a zip-code. You can also have it display gas stations live on the map.

You can choose a 3D or 2D map depending on which you are more comfortable with, and it will highlight the major streets but it will also track all the neighborhood streets as you drive. When you approach your turning spot, it will say something like "in 100 yards, turn right," up until "arriving at destination." If you take a wrong turn, it will quickly re-calculate your route to let you know where to turn next. If you want, you can look at the route it has chosen and tell it to avoid specific roads, or, for example, all highways. You can optimize for speed or distance. All of this is done through a simple touch-screen interface. A few times, it has told me "turn left, then turn left again" when it can't quite figure out where I am (such as if I'm in a parking lot), but once I get on the road it figures it out and calculates a proper route.

If you're someone like me, who gets lost a lot, I highly recommend this device, or one like it. It has a few other features that might be useful for travellers, such as picture storage/viewing and mp3 player, and it is overall very small, but I find the built-in US maps/GPS to be the main use. The experience of driving with this thing is almost like having a sense of direction.

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Call 811! Call 811! (before you Dig)

There's a new number in town (811 to call before you dig), and it's reachable starting today. If you go to the www.call811.com website, you can see how many times it has already been called. This new nationwide (US) number can be used to have the appropriate utilities and other agencies come out and mark the area where you are going to dig. The need for this should be obvious to most people, but every year some 10000 still insist on digging their way through gas lines, electric lines, and other underground lines which will flat kill you. This included people who are simply trying to install posts for a fence.

The release of this number rounds out the N-11 numbers in the U.S. So if you were planning to lobby your local government to provide a dog-watering emergency service, you'll just have to use a longer number.

The Common Ground Alliance is a non-profit organization which attempts to educate the public about these risks. In addition to public safety, they also protect the infrastructure and the environment. There are many advantages to having all those unsightly cables and pipes underground, so please, people, call before you dig.

If you need 811 logo items for you business, you can find them here.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Amtrak Trains - a cruise on land beats flying

Planning
Over Christmas, we went from Dallas, Texas (Union Station) to Austin, Texas, via train. We have grown tired of the hassle of flight security, and since we were just going overnight, we felt that if we drove, most of our time would be spent driving in stop and go traffic, which is annoying for at least one person in the car. So, I went to the Amtrak website and looked at the schedule. Unfortunately, because the run from Chicago to San Antonio is not well-travelled, there is only one train going each direction per day, so you don't get a lot of choice on schedule. I hear that other parts of the country are better.

Cost
The price of the trip was only $90 for the four of us each way, which seemed like a great value. In fact, it was so good that I looked for other options that I could now afford to make it a more pleasant trip. Each train consists of about six cars. There is a dining car with full service, a snack car with booth tables, an engine, a crew car, a couple of coach-seating cars, and a sleeper car, along with a lounge car.

Dining car
Dining is easy on a train; there are no seat-belt lights so you can just make an appointment for the dining car or go into the snack bar anytime. In the dining car, you are seated by a hostess and your order is taken and brought to your table. It is a fairly limited menu, but the food is decent. If you're staying in a sleeper room, the meals are included, so that makes it a no-brainer to do the sleeper if you're going to be on the train for any length of time.

Lounge car
Most cars on the train are two stories. The Lounge car is one big room with individual seats and huge picture windows. The seats face diagonally toward the windows, so you can sight-see with your friends and still chat with them. The route taken by the train from Dallas to Austin is not the same old route you've seen from I-35. Travelling by train takes you out into the boondocks for some interesting terrain.

Sleeper cars
The sleeper cars have a variety of rooms, depending on what train you are on. We had two two-person roomettes, which consist of two seats that can be folded into two beds, one bed above the other. There was a slightly bigger room available too, but it wouldn't accomodate two adults and two teens, only smaller children would have worked out. Each sleeper was a $40 upgrade, but well worth it since meals are included. Coach seating isn't bad, though; it's like a first-class seat on an airplane.

Cell Service
Since I write about cell phones a bit, I feel I should report on the usability on the train. Amtrak claims that you can get service along most lines, which makes sense because they kind of parallel major highways, at least close enough to get service. I never had trouble getting service anywhere along the line, and unlike planes you are not made to turn off your phone ever. Secondly, if you get games for your phone, you can play those on your phone too, as you will probably have some time on your hands.

Time
A lot of people don't take the train because they are concerned how long it takes to get there. This is definitely one of those journey-not-the-destination situations. Even though it was 6-7 hours each direction, we all felt that it wasn't long enough and want to do it again. It's not just 6 hours chained to a seat, you can walk around the cabin, eat, play board games, and so on, and no one has to drive. They'll even rent you a media device if you want. If you've never done it before, I highly recommend it.

Security
Overall, a train is fairly secure just by itself. It is rare anymore that someone will ride down a train on horseback and loot the vault. It would be hard to hijack a train to make it go somewhere else, too. We purchased tickets online, then showed our ID at the train station and got tickets. The conductor showed us to our rooms without eve looking at our tickets; he already knew which rooms were booked. We stowed our luggage downstairs from the room on a luggage rack, and had the run of the place after that. We could still get to our luggage during the trip. I think it will be obvious to frequent fliers how much less of a hassle all this was.

Friday, March 30, 2007

How to find your gas cap without getting out of the car


When you pull in to a gas station, especially in an unfamiliar car, you are often stuck with making a decision about which side of the car needs to be adjacent to the pump, before you get out of the car. It's a fifty-fifty shot, but if you get it wrong, you have to start the car back up and make an awkward maneuver to get to the other side of the pump, disturbing all the other people who are trying to get gas for their cars. If it's especially busy, you might miss it altogether.

Since I like to blog about how-to things, this is going to be in that category, I suppose. My boss just got a new Lexus LS 460 with all the bells and whistles such as bluetooth to link to your cell phone, built-in navigation and calendar which presumably syncs with your phone calendar, and more (it can literally parallel-park itself), but she was wondering which side the gas fill was on, so I pointed out something that I've know for a while, but not everyone knows. I think they should teach it in driver's ed. Anyway, on your fuel gague inside the car, there is an icon of a gas pump. That icon serves a dual purpose. First, it tells you that the meter you are looking at is indeed the fuel indicator, but it also tells you which side of the car the fuel filler is. There will usually be an arrow, such as this:


but also it might just be on a certain side of the gague, which is still an indication:

In both of these cases, obviously, you want the gas pump on the left side as you pull in, because the cap is on the left side of the car. This has been a part of most cars since at least the early nineties, so you can guess that it is probably true of your car too. I haven't looked back at older cars to see if it is true for them too, so tell me in the comments what is the oldest car for which this works, and the newest car for which it does not work.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Google really is working on a cellphone

According to this article on Noticas.com (I provide the translation below):


Isabel Aguilera, Director General of Google in Spain and Portugal, has confirmed to Noticias.com that the company is working, “among other things”, on the development of a mobile telephone. “Part of the time of our engineers has been dedicated to the investigation of a mobile telephone which can access information”, Aguilera said to this portal.

The speculations on the possible entrance of Google into the area of design and sale of mobile telephones arose after the company recently published an ad in which it looked for engineers and analysts specializing in telecommunications. In that same ad, Google specified that it is in the experimentatal phase with diverse systems of wireless communications.

At a conference on the integration of Internet into business strategy, organized by the Association for the Progress of the Direction of the Mediterranean Zone, Isabel Aguilera has explained to Noticias.com that although 70% of the engineers' time is dedicated “to develop our nucleus of business, that is to say, search and advertising”, and 20% to develop “products that they have something to do with this nucleus”, is clear that 10% of that time is centered on product development “that at some time could have to do with our business”.

Within this last scope, Aigulera has indicated that “it has been investigating” a mobile telephone which can “access information”, in “a manner which extends the information society to devloping countries”. In this sense, the Director General of Google in Spain and Portugal has said that while “the products can seem strange, all comprise of our process of innovation”.

At the moment, the search engine has 36 products and “18 others that are in laboratory” and, therefore, in the experimental phase, including the above mentioned mobile telephone.


This confirms weeks of speculation. I apologize for any errors in translation; they are my own. Please post a comment if you see any such errors. Thanks.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Phone features I thought I'd never use

Data plan
When I was in Orlando last week, I had occasion to use a few phone features that I had never used on my w300i, and as it turned out, I used almost all of them. I went out of my way to use the few remaining features that I had not tried yet, and now I can give a full accounting of most of the features of this phone. I was pulled away from my own work on a software release to attend a family function, and as such I was afforded the opportunity to be as obnoxious as necessary in order to stay in contact with work during the trip. I had recently added a text/data bundle from Cingular, and as a result they gave me a free trial of unlimited text/data for one month.

Messenger
The phone comes with an instant-messenger application which can be logged in to AIM, MSN, Yahoo, or ICQ. My co-workers use MSN, so I entered my information and was able to see that they were online, and to send and recieve instant messages, just by knowing my e-mail address and password. The phone let me save the password on it, so that I wouldn't have to keep entering it through the awkward phonepad password interface. The instant messages were not quite as instant as they are through the computer, but it would altert me that I had a message even if the phone was closed, as long as I was signed in.

E-mail
There is a simple e-mail client included under messaging, which requires only knowing the pop3 server name and the user name/password. Again this information was saved on the phone for my convenience. If I lose this phone I will have to change passwords. The client would only receive 20 messages at a time, but on that small screen that was about all I could handle anyway. There is a simple interface for marking e-mails for deletion, and I downloaded headers only to make sure I could quickly eliminate spam and find the pertinent e-mails particularly from FogBugz. I didn't set up the client for sending e-mails, because I figured it would be easier just to call someone if I had to respond rather than to use the phonepad to type.

Google Maps
Because I have semi-debranded my phone, I was able to use Google Maps quite efficiently without the headaches of java security overkill. This is a cool applet that runs on your phone to give you map information and directions on the fly. Since we would be in a strange town, it came in handy to know where we were and how to get to other places, but also what was nearby, such as restaurants and attractions. There are tons of things to do in Orlando, so this was very useful. On the way to the airport, it was a simple matter of bringing up the menu and pressing # to see what the traffic was like. This is very cool; it was up to the minute accurate.

Music ID
An interesting feature that I noticed on the phone came in handy while driving in the rental car. It did not have a digital readout on the radio to identify the songs, and an old song came on that I liked. So I opened up the phone and chose Music ID, and held the phone up to the speakers. It recorded a snippet, then sent it off for analysis. In a few seconds, I got back the information that it was a song by 4 Non Blondes called "What's Up". It saved this information in a list of ID's. I'm not sure how much this service actually costs, but it was really cool that it worked.

AA.com
There is a mobile site for mini-browsers on WAP phones at www.aa2go.com. This has quick access to flight information and schedules, without the overhead of pictures and flash on the regular American Airlines site. I found this quite easy to navigate and use on the go. You can even get flight notifications sent to your voicemail or text messaging if you set it up on their site.

Radio
I have previously talked about the great FM radio and Walkman features of this phone, but it is also equipped with a feature called MobiRadio. Since I have unlimited data usage, I figured I would give this a try. The idea is that it streams continuously from some genre of music that you select, similar to XM or Sirius radio. It gives you a free trial, but in the end it is a paid subscription service on top of whatever data charges you incur. However, in my limited trial of this service, I found it to be utterly worthless. The music crapped out after just a few minutes, and continued to lose signal without me even moving. They seem to bring data across the regular built-in internet service, and without 3g or something, which this phone does not support, it is entirely worthlesss.

Modem
Our flight was overbooked on the way there, but we were given the opportunity to surrender our seats for a flight voucher of $300 apiece. We were told that we would be booked onto the flight at 2:20 rather than our scheduled 10:30 flight. Given this long a wait, I naturally wanted to get on the Internet. I pulled out my laptop and connected the USB cable made for this phone, and ran through the Mobile Networking Wizard that is attached to the Sony Ericsson PC Suite software available from SE. This set up a connection through the phone's internet connection so that the laptop could browse the Internet. I noticed on the AA site that there was another flight available at 12:00, and asked if we could get on this one. They agreed, and in fact said that it, too, might be oversold and give us another opportunity to get a voucher. This didn't happen, but at least we got in to Orlando sooner. While I was on the internet, I booked our trip to Discovery Cove for the next day.

Weather
Yesterday, I ducked in to my local watering hole to avoid the rain. I wasn't sure how long the rain would last, but the local yokel next to me pulled out his Blackberry, and showed me a display of live weather radar of the storm we were in. I think this is only available on Blackberry for now, but I can't wait until we get that kind of feature too. On the other hand, if it is through WeatherBug, and WeatherBug is the same spam-magnet spyware it ever was, no thanks. Still, I think there is a brave new world of mobile information that we are just beginning to tap in to. This market is beginning to penetrate into the joe-sixpack arena as we speak, and I think that speaks volumes for the near future.

Monday, March 05, 2007

Orlando

Tourism
This week I am in Orlando. One thing I want to say right off the bat is that there is more to Orlando than Disney. As a matter of fact, one of the best tourist experiences I have ever had is now Discovery Cove. This park is part of the same group as Busch Gardens, which has a park in Tampa Bay, about an hour and a half from Orlando. This group also owns Sea World, which has a resort just down the street from Discovery Cove. The thing that sets Discovery Cove apart from Sea World or any other mere theme park is that it is a very hands-on experience. They limit admission to the park, and when you check in, you will barely have spoken your name before they have all of your reservation information pulled up. You are issued a photo tag that gets you access to all parts of the park, along with all food and drink for the day. This being owned by Anheuser Busch, that includes beer and assorted other alcoholic beverages. Get there early, and take advantage of the included breakfast and coffee.

Discovery Cove
The park is relatively small, but with the small number of tourists allowed in, you will feel like the place is deserted most of the time. They keep it to 1000 guests a day, but on the day we went it seemed more like 300. Like Sea World, this park offers a variety of sea life to explore, as well as a decent-sized aviary with many hungry tropical birds to interact with. The bird food is included, so you never feel like you are being nickel and dimed to death. Visit the aviary first, so you don't have to get in the cold water yet, and the birds are still hungry. They will swoop down and eat while perched on your arm. There are toucans, parrots, kookaburras, and all sorts of birds I'd never heard of.

Snorkelling/swimming is the main attraction at this park, including a dolphin swim. Essentially, you spend the day killing time waiting for your dolphin swim to come up, but there is plenty to do while you are there. When you first arrive (no pressure, after breakfast) you are issued a diving mask and a snorkel, which you get to keep. It is a technically excellent snorkel; it has a one-way valve on the bottom to release trapped water from the pipe. You are also issued a wetsuit for the day, which can be long, short, or just a vest. During your free time, you can snorkel in two main areas, apart from the dolphin pools. One is the tropical river, the other is the sealife snorkel area called the coral reef. Even with all the swimming, this is still a perfectly good destination in the winter. Most of the water is heated, and the Dolphin and coral reef water is not that cold, especially in a wetsuit. This is not the arctic water of beluga whales or killer whales.

The tropical river is a sort of artifical freshwater river that loops throughout the park, made to look natural with a rocky riverbed and sunken artifacts throughout. However, it is at least eighty degrees and probably lightly chlorinated, so it is a fine place to spend most of your time if it is a little chilly out. The river isn't totally devoid of life, though. It loops through the aviary, and the birds are kept in by way of two waterfalls at each end. On another part of the river is a wider area with a white-sand beach and lounge chairs. Of course snack bars are nearby to keep up the flow of free food and beer.

Once you get tired of swimming in circles, there is a coral reef with some more cool ideas. First, it is salt water lagoon kept at normal tropical temperatures, and stocked with all kinds of tropical life, including gigantic stingrays. Swimming next to a herd of those, after the Steve Irwin incident, was quite the added adventure. Several of these rays had no less than a six foot wingspan, and it is really cool to watch them swim right beside you. There are all sorts of tropical fish, including barracudas and sharks. At first, it seems like they are all in the same pool you are swimming in, for an even greater thrill. There is a kind of permanent sunken ship with holes in it, and that is where you view the more ferocious sealife. But when you reach your hand through the hole, it appears that the glass wall you thought must be there keeping back the sharks is missing. It's an interesting, pool-clearing kind of effect.

Dolphin Swim
Soon the time arrives to swim with the dolphins. You get in the water with a small group, and your group is assigned a trainer and a dolphin. At first, this seems a little weird, because you don't have the one-on-one experience, but the groups are kept below ten, and the overall experience is not bad with that many people. At the end, you each get to individually be towed in by the dolphin, and that was a really weird, different, unique experience. Believe it or not, you can pretty much spend the entire day at this resort, and you will be entertained the whole time. A lot of the time is self-directed and really low key, so you should bring a book to read by the beach and expect to spend more time relaxing than you ever would at some place like Disney.

Amenities
Included in the price of admission is a seven-day pass to either Sea World or Busch Gardens. For an extra $30, you can go to both places. This would be a trip all in itself normally, but even if your are coming to Orlando to do the Disney thing, I would still recommend Discovery Cove as a relaxing day in the middle of your week to not spend the whole day walking around and stressing about fast pass ride times.

Saturday, February 24, 2007

Motorcycling

Wild Hogs
Next week, a movie called Wild Hogs is coming out. This, I think, will be akin to the time that Malcom Forbes started riding Harleys, in terms of what it will do to the motorcycle industry. Already bursting at the seams with beneficial factors such as high gas prices (and motorcycles' obvious fuel economy), this movie is bound to continue a long time trend of increasing popularity for motorcycles, and especially Harleys among Americans. I think it will replace Poker as the next big thing. In any event, us long-time riders are well into this sport, and we who ride to work every day have noticed that it is the little things, like retaining all your limbs, fingers, hearing, eyes, and so on that really matter to a rider. To tie this back to cell phones, which I have been talking about a lot lately, I want to point out just how great the Sony Ericsson walkman phones are for a motorcycle rider like me. I was just out riding today enjoying the luxury of a radio on two wheels, usually only avaiable to those with high-end fairings on high-end bikes. Oh, and before I start, I want to bring you full disclosure: I am not afilliated with SE in any way, and I'm not paid to talk about these phones; this is just a hobby of mine for now. If they want to send me a w810i or something to review, though, I won't complain.

Fairing speakers
If you drive a car every day, you may take something like radio for granted. You get to listen to the radio pretty much any time you want, and you can actually hear it most of the time. On a bike, things aren't quite so simple. If you do go the fairing route, you have a couple of speakers built into your fairing, and usually some controls on the handlebars to adjust volume and whatnot. To be able to hear those speakers over the substantial wind noise, it is important to crank them up far beyond what you would ever do in a car. This means a lot of wattage output, and it just adds to the ongoing hearing damage I spoke about earlier, not to mention creating a kind of noise pollution beyond just the loud pipes on most Harleys. Other than that, they're ok. Oh, and they cost about a hundred bucks.

iPod
I also have an iPod mini (since supplanted by the iPod nano) which I love, because it holds 6 gigs of songs, rather than the measley 1 gig of a Sony memory stick micro (m2) on the Sony Ericsson phones. If they just went with SD memory or something, we could get a lot more on it. On the other hand, having only 1 gig of space made me choose the songs I liked more carefully, instead of having my entire collection on the phone. If iTunes would selelct the songs instead, my problems would be over. Just yesterday, I found this tool to let you use iTunes to do just that, with your Walkman phone, or several other types of portable devices, including the Playstation Portable.

Walkman
In any event, I tried the iPod on my motorcycle, and apart from having to listen to the same 1000 songs over and over, rather than fresh radio content, the default iPod earphones are not nearly as good as the ones that come with the Walkman phones, especially when it comes to external noise. For one thing, the iPod earbuds are much larger and more rigid than the Walkman earbuds, so I can't even wear them inside my full face helmet. Being a big-brained geek, I have to wear an XXL helmet, and even then my face is squished inside the thing like a chipmunk. There's just no extra room, even for little things like iPod earbuds. The Walkman earbuds fit almost completely inside the ear, and the rigid part of them is so tiny as to be unnoticeable. Further, the loose rubber parabolic lining around the earbud forms a seal with the inside of your ear to block out a huge amount of external noise. This means you don't have to turn up the volume so much on your phone, and you also don't hear the wind and motor noise as much. Even if you turn the phone off completely, these earbuds are the best earplugs I've ever used on a bike. Don't accept any imitation knockoffs, get the real thing from Sony Ericsson when you buy your Walkman phone.

Phone calls
Oh, and as an added bonus, if you're using the earbuds as earplugs or to listen to prerecorded music or the radio (all of which these phones support), you just have to push a button to answer the phone when someone calls you. Again, car drivers will not appreciate this at all. It is beyond inconvenient to try to reach into your pocket and open a phone while you are riding a motorcycle. It is simply impossible. You have to keep your right hand on the gas or brake, and your left is generally used to clutch in, so your hands are full when you ride. Alternately, you could use bluetooth handsfree headsets with this phone, but I don't recommend it for bikers, because of the noise factor. Finally, one more feature that is supported is voice dialing, which lets you call hands-free with a magic word. Making phone calls might still be a little dubious when you're going down the highway at 100mph with no windshield, but for around town, it's not bad.

Ride on
So, if all this (and the movie) makes you want to join us on the road, have fun, be safe, and if Harley wants to send me a Road King to review, I'll be happy to do it.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Debranding w300i walkthrough


Why debrand?
First I want to talk about the pros/cons of debranding. If you have already decided to do it, skip this section; however if you don't know the cons I recommend you read this. I debranded from Cingular; your pros/cons may vary somewhat. I have a Sony Ericsson w300i phone that I got new for Christmas. I immediately began developing software for it. By debranding it, I was able to overcome a major weakness in development, namely I can now test my Bluetooth applications on my phone without getting them signed by Cingular. So, the biggest pro is that you can set permissions on even unsigned Java apps to fairly reasonable defaults if you debrand. Second pro is that some carrier-added limitations are removed. You have to research this to find out what they are. For my phone, Cingular disabled Flash themes. To me, this is not a big deal, because I don't care much about ringtones/themes/etc. Some carriers disable mp3 ringtones; a much bigger deal as far as I'm concerned. On the con side, debranding caused my phone to lose mobiTV, mobiRadio, and mobile e-mail applications that Cingular had installed. It is not currently possible to put these things back on, because they are signed by a Cingular certificate that is stored in the Cingular-branded phones only. Generic debranded phone will not have this certificate. Menus and such moved around, and a few buttons that used to do one thing now do another, but these are minor points. More problematic is that you will void your warranty on the phone, and you might break the phone to the point that you need a service cable to fix it. Finally, as a con, the debranding process will destroy anything you had in your phone, including ringtones and Java games you have purchased, themes, contacts, music, etc. Even if you move your Java games to the memory stick, they will not be there after you debrand. Finally, if you do anything that ruins your phone, I am not responsible. Don't use this as your only source of information. Read up on things first if you don't know what you are doing.

Debranding services
Some cell phone service centers will debrand your phone for you. You can find them with a simple Google search. They charge about $60 for this service, and you generally have to get the phone to them physically, perhaps waiting overnight. If you are not highly technically inclined, go this route. If you might make a typo or you might not understand all of the following instructions, have someone else do it, by all means. Better yet don't do it at all, because you have no real reason to.

Quick and easy debrand
For this phone, it is my belief that if you do a Master Reset from the General Settings menu, you will debrand your phone. The default configuration is to go back to a generic Sony Ericsson file system with only Sony Certificates, etc. This will have the same effect as debranding. You lose the ability to back anything up this way, however, and you also lose all your carrier-provided features, such as ringtones, e-mail programs, etc.

Debranding Servers
There are two companies that I know of that will sell you some software and credits to debrand your phone. These are Wotanserver and Davinci Team. I started to use Wotan Server, which is fairly straightforward, but in the end I opted to do it myself, as described in the rest of this post. To debrand through Wotan Server, you just sign up on the server, pay a little money for a credit, download their client, and you're ready to go. To actually do the debranding, you start the software and follow the instructions. What you have to do is remove the battery from your phone, take out the SIM card and memory card, put the battery back in, and you are ready to connect. To connect, you start the software and wait for it to ask you, then you hold down the "c" button on your phone as you plug the USB cable into it with your other hand. The software will then proceed to flash your phone. As noted earlier, this wipes the phone clean as if you had just bought it. No contacts, etc. You have to go through the setup wizard all over again. If you don't like some of the new settings, you can't really change them unless they are already configurable on the phone. This disadvantage is somewhat mitigated by doing it yourself, because you can go back and hack back into the phone to fix things.

Do-it-yourself
I only recommend this method to programmers and such. With this procedure, you can get into the guts of the phone and look around, and make changes. You can also do all kinds of things that may not even be legal, so be careful. In this instance you are breaking in to the phone. The best-case scenario of doing this, right now, is that you downgrade your main firmware to a more generic version that is not quite compatible with Cingular's file system. Fully charge your phone before you begin.

Requirements
You will need the following software to get started:
Phone XS++V1.2 or later. At this link are links to the program; it is a free community-created tool for do-it-yourselfers. It comes in a RAR file, so you will need WinRar. You can also get Far manager 1.70 from the same place. Finally, you will need some drivers that some with the Sony Ericsson Update Service. The drivers that come with this will work for your purposes. XS++ installs to the folder you unrar it to; FAR manager and the rest install like normal windows programs and are run from the start menu. Each of these programs may have its own requirements, like Macromedia Flash player, .NET framework, Windows XP, and so on.

Once you have all these programs installed, you will need to add a plug-in to FAR manager. First get SEFP v010044 and unzip it to your computer. This will unzip to a folder called SEFP010044, which contains another folder called SEFP. Click on the SEFP folder can copy it. Then go to C:\Program Files\Far\Plugins, and paste SEFP at that level. Next get SEFP v010051 and unrar it and do the same copy/paste trick with SEFP. You do need both SEFP's because the second is an update to the first. This time Windows will warn you that you will
overwrite files, etc., just click yes. Finally, get the final file for your CID49 phone, and unrar it. This is called .zip, but it is actually rar'ed. This, too, has an SEFP folder under it, which again gets pasted into C:\Program Files\Far\Plugins, and again overwrites several files in that folder. Once you are done, go to the folder called C:\Program Files\Far\Plugins\SEFP, and you will see a program called sefp0.10.0.51patch.exe. Click on this program to run it, and it will ask you to apply a patch. Click do it. Nothing much seems to happen, but it is done. Close the window. If you miss any of these steps, you will get various error messages. Note that you are also required to have a regular COM port set up on your computer, even though you won't use it.

The final requirement is to get the firmwares that you are intending to use on your phone. These can be obtained, for example, from TopSony.com. Note that this is primarily a Spanish site, which can present some challenges to registration, etc., which is required. You may also have to pay a couple of Euros to get access to the download area. On there, you can get R9A036 main and R9A036 file system, which are the ones you want for the w300i phone only. If you have some other phone, you are responsible for gettting the right firmware files. These won't work, and will kill your phone. You also want the customization files. Unzip/unrar all these and put them in the same folder with PhoneXS++V1.2, which is called that. Then go to your db2010cid49_4_alpha folder, and also get w300_p3k_dcu.49R.ssw and put it in the same folder with the rest. Note that there should be a couple of subfolders called files_to_upload and own_custpack which came from the customization files. Leave this folder structure intact.

Getting started
The first step is to remove your battery so you can take out your SIM card and memory card. Put the battery back in. Then run XS++ by double-clicking on its executable. This will bring up a small screen on which you can press the Start button. Once you do that, you will need to connect the phone, which you do by leaving it off, but holding down the "c" button while you attach it to the USB cable. If it recognizes your phone it will tell you so in the status window and switch to a view where you can put a MAIN file, an FS file, and customize. You may have to unplug the phone, take out the battery, and try again the first time, after it finds the device and so on. You don't ever want to customize with XS++1.2, because it doesn't work right on the w300i. Also, unless you are debranding your phone you don't want to update your file system. Even if you are debranding, you don't want to flash the file system just yet, because you want to back up your old one. It may some day be possible to restore branding when the R4EA031 firmware is found.

Flashing the phone
Now we reach the point of no return. Once you flash the first break-in file, you will be forced to at least update your main firmware (which will probably actually downgrade it to R9A036, unless you can get the right firmware). Click on the ... button on the right of the Main Firmware box in XS++. Then browse to whereever PhoneXS++V1.2 is located, which is where your w300_p3k_dcu.49R.ssw file should be. Choose that file for Main firmware, and make sure you have only checked Flash Main firmware. Click on the Flash button at the bottom, and it will begin. It will only flash 5 blocks this time, and it will probably hang at the end. This should only take about 20 seconds. Once it says 5/5, finishing flash, it will hang, and you can click Stop button, and ignore the warnings. It will say error and it failed, but it didn't. At this point your phone will not turn on, so don't turn it on. Unplug it from the USB cable, and pop the battery out and back in.

Far manager
Now run FAR manager from the start menu. Once it comes up, hit F11, which isn't even onscreen. This will give you access to the Plugins menu. From here, choose SEFP. This can be done by hitting the S key, which in the future you will want to do to not upset your settings. Here are some troubleshooting tips from se-nse.net:

  1. If you get the error: "Unknown exception", Exception address: 0x7C812A5B...... The plugin will be Unloaded!
    This is a bug. It's because you don't have any COM-ports, so create a fake COM-port connection. I did it with my BT Dongle.
  2. if you get the error: " can be used with Service Cable ONLY".... browse to the SEFP folder and patch sefp.dll with sefp0.10.0.51patch.exe.
Choose DCU-60 cable, 115200, and w300_w810_z550_ in the three menus. Note that you make your choices simply by browsing over these choices without even clicking. This is easy to mess up. When you have your choices solid, approach the Enter The Matrix button from the bottom so you don't browse over your choices.
  1. If you get the error: "Script error code 0"
    This is because you didn't put in the SEFPv010044 before you put in the SEFPv010051. You have to do both, because the second one is just an update to the first. Then after that you have to do the sefp0.10.0.51patch.exe as described above.
This will ask you to connect your phone, which you do by holding down the C button and plugging it in. Soon a menu will come up on the left side with the words FLASH and FS. The flash feature doesn't work for FAR manager, so choose FS by double-clicking. This will then download some more things to your phone, and eventually after a nervous pause, your phone's file system will appear on the left side of the screen. Since you didn't yet flash your file system, you can make a backup of the one on the phone. That is accopmlished by choosing each of ifs, tpa, etc., and choosing the copy option from the bottom of the screen. This will coply the folder and all its contents to the location on the right side of the screen (C:\Program Files\Far by deafult). Once you have backed up your file system, click the .. on the left side. It will ask you if you want to close the CSFS loader, just say yes.

Flashing and customizing
Note that this section is unnecessary if you just wanted to hack in to your phone and not debrand it. You can still do all kinds of things with FAR manager without debranding, but you will need to do the next section steps to get your phone to run again. For now you will pop the battery out and put it back in, and start XS++ back up. Choose the start button, connect the phone as usual with "c" button held down, and select Flash File System. Now go choose the W300i_R9A036_FS_AMERICA_1_RED49.fbn file that you downloaded earlier, and start the flash. This will erase everything in your phone and start fresh. This task should complete normally without hanging. When it is finished, you are still not done. Disconnect, pop the battery out and in, and go back to FAR manager. Choose F11, S, keep the settings and Enter The Matrix, then FS. This time, you will want to find the folder where you put your customization files, called own_custpack. Open that folder on the right panel, and you should see the tpa folder on the right. There will also be a tpa folder on the left. Select the lone tpa folder on the right, and choose copy. This puts the folder from the disk onto the phone to customize it. Now the phone is debranded. Click the .. again on the left, until it asks you to exit CSFS loader, say yes. Finally you are done and ready to restore the main firmware. Remove and replace the battery.

Restoring the main firmware
This is the step that is necessary whether you debrand your phone or not. Start XS++ again. Check the Flash Main firmware checkbox only. Select the W300i_R9A036_MAIN_NAM_1_RED49.mbn file, and then choose the Flash button. This will start the process of copying about 336 blocks to the phone. When this completes, which should finish normally, your phone is ready. Disconnect it, take the battery out and put the SIM card and memory card back in, and turn it on. This should be the first time you actually turn on your phone since you started. It won't work anywhere in between. It will go through the original setup if you debranded it, otherwise it will just start as your normal phone; however some things will no longer work because of the step backward in firmware. In particular, a Cingular branded phone will have the Cingular Music menu item show up as Missing, but it will still work. Other things may not work so well.

Friday, February 16, 2007

Cingular cripples Google Maps on Cingular-branded phones

Draconian policies
Cingular's highly-restrictive Java security policies make using even popular applications like the Google Maps Java plug-in very tedious on Cingular branded phones. The policies are far more restrictive than the defaults for manufacturers of the phones. What this policy means is that we developers of applications must have a special relationship with Cingular, and get our applications signed by Cingular (who don't even trust us to get our own certificate; we must send our application to them), in order to even test our applications on our own phones.

Google Maps
Even Google's own Google Maps application is rendered more or less useless because the user is prompted over and over to make a connection to the web during casual use of the Google Maps Java plug-in. Granted Google could probably get their applications signed, but note that signing an application with a Cingular Preferred certificate will make it not install on non-Cingular phones. I assume this practice is similar amongst the other carriers, and so you would have to make numerous versions of your application to make it work, creating a different kind of problem for both users and developers.

Contrast with (better) more open policies
The manufacturers default firmware makes the phones far less restrictive. For example, Sony Ericsson will allow you to connect through bluetooth even from an unsigned application, but it will require prompting the user when the applictaion trys to connect. It will allow you to choose permissions on an app-by-app basis, and if you are silly enough to trust someone like Google, you can set a blanket permission on the app or at least an ask-once-per-session permission. Not the case if the phone is branded by Cingular; it is impossible to make such a connection without a Cingular Preferred certificate. The process for obtaining such a certificate is quite opaque; their website simply states that they are only handing out certificates to those with whom they already have a buisness relationship.

Legal trouble?
See these threads on their developer forums for several discussions between developers and Cingular representatives (free registration may be required). As outlined in this post from ArsTechnica a couple of days ago, this could result in legal trouble for the monopoly carriers once attention is paid to the problem. Perhaps we can stir up some attention by digging this post.

Solutions?
Currently, the only option open to an end-user (since we can't control what Google or Cingular do) is to go to sites such as Davinci Team or Wotan Server and get your phone debranded. This process is different from (and more risky than) unlocking the phone. It involves putting a new firmware on the phone, which causes you to lose all manufaturer-placed applications and features, along with any information you have stored on the phone. Aternately, you can get an unbranded, unlocked phone like this one.

Monday, February 12, 2007

Free Java games for your SonyEricsson phone

This post is to walk everyday owners of Sony Ericsson phones, such as the w300i or w800 series through the process of obtaining free (legal) games that can be downloaded directly to your phone and installed, without a data plan and without data charges, as long as you have the regular USB cable (and a computer with Internet and USB). This cable comes with the phone if you order it online from Cingular. If you don't have one, you can get it here. Yours might not look exactly like this one, but if it came with your phone it should work. You will also need a memory card to do the install. This phone is kind of worthless as a Walkman without the memory card, so you might want to go ahead and get the full 1 gig Memory Stick Micro (m2) card here. These are the only items you will have to purchase for this process, and they are useful for other things, such as playing music and synchronizing your phone calendar with Outlook too, so you will continue to use them.

If you don't have the cable, I believe (though I haven't tested it) you can use bluetooth instead. This involves having bluetooth hardware on your computer, and turning it on on the phone as well, and making the connection, all of which is beyond the scope of this article. If you have success with this, please post below in the comments. The remainder of this article assumes cable use only.

Once you have the cable, and you have installed the memory card (just slide the back off the battery compartment, and there is a small hole labelled M2; with the phone face down, the card should be face up and the arrow should point toward the phone), you need some free software from SonyEricsson. Their site is a little difficult to navigate, so I will walk you through it as of today. If you're in the US, go to this link and choose your phone from the list on the bottom. To get to this link from the main site, simply go to http://www.sonyericsson.com and choose your country, and then choose product support from the start page under "I have a Sony Ericsson phone." Once you have chosen your phone from the drop-down list, the list will appear blank again, and move to the left, which is weird. However, above that blank list should be a picture of your phone, indicating that you have properly chosen the phone already. Under Software and Setup, you'll see a link for Software downloads. This is the one you want. When you click that link, you should see a link to Sony Ericsson PC Suite. The direct link is here for my phone, but I recommend going through the steps to make sure you get the one that is compatible with your phone. Don't worry if the picture suddenly changes from, say, a W300i to a W800i, like I said the site is goofy. While you are there, you may want to get disc2phone, which will allow you to put music on your phone; a subject for another day.

Once on that page, you'll see a tiny link at the bottom saying "download setup xxx". Do this, and install the program. It will appear in your task menu as a picture of a candybar cell phone, and it will be installed as Sony Ericsson/Sony Ericsson PC Suite from the start menu. Now you are ready to plug in the USB cable and then plug the cable into your phone. As soon as you plug the phone in, it will want you to select "file transfer" or "phone mode" from the phone itself. Choose "phone mode"; you almost never need file transfer except when you are running disc2phone. Windows may go through some of its gyrations to install USB drivers and such; reboot when it asks and so on. At some point the PC Suite software will be connected to your phone, and the icon will lose it's red "X" and will just look like a phone.

At this point, you are ready to get some free games and send them to the phone. You can find some at midlet.org (be sure to click through to midlet.org, not midlet.com). You can get games, utilities, and so on. They're free, so they might not all work with your particular phone. If you get stuck in a game that you can't seem to leave, just hold down the back button for a menu. Let's say you choose games, board, and you want Dots 1.0.0. There will be two downloads, a jar and a jad. Generally you only need the jar file. Save it to your desktop (you might need to right-click and choose Save target as...). Then right-click on the cellphone icon in your task tray, and choose File Manager. This will bring up an explorer-like interface with your phone listed in it. Double-click on the phone, and you will see Memory Stick and Phone Memory. Use the + sign tree on the left side to explore the folders below this. Under Memory Stick is MSSEMC, under that is Media files, and under that is other. Click on other in the tree, and the area to the right should appear blank (unless you've done this before). Now open up a regular windows explorer (Start/My Computer and hit Up icon to get to the desktop). From there, drag your .jar file (such as Dots.jar) from the desktop into the SE explorer "other" folder. The phone may prompt you at this point to accept the file. Say yes.

Now that the .jar file is on the phone, you are ready to install it. Go to the file manager on your phone (you can leave it connected for the time being). The file manager is under the regular phone menu, and it has an icon that looks like a folder. Select the file menu, and scroll down to the "other" folder and open it. In there should be your jar file. Choose install, and it will ask if you want it in games or applications. Games is most likely. When it is done, you can start it right away, or you can get to it later from the entertainment icon (looks like a ps3 controller), under games. If you have trouble getting out of a game, hold down the back button for a menu.

In addition to midlet.org, you can also go to Sony Ericsson itself for a number of free games (this link will get you to the wap server to choose your phone; your phone will have a set of applications and downloads). If you try to navigate to this link you can't get there, so just click on that link and select your phone-name. Anywhere else you can find J2me .jar files (known as midlets) might also work for your phone. Good luck! I will try to answer any questions posted below.

Cell Phone development - w300i



History

In November, the two-year contract on my cell phone ran out. This allowed me to upgrade my phone to a new phone. I really only needed to get a new battery, because the one I had was down to about a four-hour recharge cycle. However, it was cheaper to get a new and better phone than to get a new battery, because of the contract extension. I initially looked at the Motorola RAZR, and while researching it, found some hacking information. As a professional developer, this got me thinking about programming the phone in more official ways than hacking, and this led me to the Java 2 Micro Edition (J2ME). I also wanted a phone that had good mp3 playback, so I wouldn't have to carry a separate iPod. What I really wanted was the iPhone, of course, but it hadn't been announced yet. In the end, I selected the Sony Ericsson w300i, a nice Walkman phone packed with features for the price (it was $9.99 with the Cingular contract extension, since reduced to $0.00). As a consolation, a few days after the iPhone announcement, Sony Ericsson announced eight new phones, which have similar development environments to the w300i.

w300i features
The w300i has J2ME support, including the JSR184 3D gaming API as well as a Mascot Capsule micro 3D. It also supports bluetooth for headset use, computer USB connection, FM radio, mobile TV and e-mail, and multiplayer gaming. As you will see, this last bit was something of a sticking point with me, but as of today it has a happy ending! More on that later; first I want to walk you through getting started with development for this device.

Developer signup
Having received the phone just in time for Christmas, I immediately began looking around for software development kits (SDK's). The best place to start, if you are a Cingular customer, is here, at developer.cingular.com. You will have to create an account, but it is free. Within that site is a lot of good information about phones, including Sony Ericsson. If you want to jump right in and get started with an SDK for the SE phones, it is here. The sites seem to follow the pattern of developer.x.com, including Motorola and others. Before you install the SE SDK, though, you will have to click on the release notes link to get your prerequisites set up. This includes the Sun J2SE SDK if you don't already have it. You will also need DirectX 8.1 or later, to run the emulators. With these installed, you are ready for the SE SDK mentioned above.

Sample projects
Once you have installed the SDK, you will have a new set of menu items under Sony Ericsson/Java ME SDK for CLDC. CLDC and MIDP are abstractions/subsets of Java that work for mobile phones. The w300i and most modern mobile phones use CLDC 1.0 and MIDP 2.0, which means your phone emulator will appear under the WTK2 menu under Sony Ericsson/Java ME SDK for CLDC/WTK2. You can also integrate all of this into an IDE, but you don't need to; it runs fairly smoothly as it is. The first program to run is Default Device Selection, which you only need to run once. Choose SonyEricsson_w300_Emu from the dropdown and hit ok. Done. Now you will want to run ktoolbar under the same menu (WTK2). There should be a number of sample projects prepopulated into this program, so you can just pick Open Project and choose one to run.

Bluegammon
There is one sample that is a fairly complete application, called Bluegammon. It plays backgammon as single or multi player, through bluetooth. Or at least it would, if Cingular's security on this phone weren't so draconian. At any rate, without even connecting the phone you can run this program in the emulator, simply by opening the project, selecting the phone you want to emulate, and choosing run. A phone interface will come up, and the important thing to note is that the only way to interact with the application is through the buttons of the phone. You will try clicking on the phone screen itself, just out of habit, but when it doesn't work, you will remember that the buttons of the phone are what you need to click on. When you are ready to build the .jar and .jad files, which are the actual distributable executables, you just go to the ktoolbar Project menu and choose Package/Create Package. Don't worry about obfusacting or signing for now. If you have a Cingular-branded phone, the signing won't do much anyway unless you are already a Cingular Preferred vendor. I'll cover debranding your phone in a later post.

Installing programs
This post will walk you through installing .jar files onto the phone, through the data cable, without even using the SDK. Anyone can do this, without signing up as a developer. Here, I will cover on-device debug, and installing the projects that you have built from sample code or on your own.

Connecting to phone
From ktoolbar, you can open and build a project, run it, and create the .jar files, as I have discussed. Once you have done that, what you really want to do is run the program on the phone. The documentation is not very clear on this, but I will clue you in to the simple steps you need to do. From the "All Programs/Sony Ericsson/Java ME SDK for CLDC" menu on your computer, there is a program called "Connection Proxy Settings". This opens a file in notepad. The only thing you need to do in that file is change the comm: setting to comm: COM4. This should work for most computers, but you may have to go higher. Save that file and exit notepad. With your phone plugged in, and in Phone mode (not File Transfer), then choose the DeviceExplorer from the same CLDC computer menu. (It's OK if you have PC Suite installed and it connects to that too). The DeviceExplorer will automatically start the Connection Proxy. If the Connection Proxy fails to connect to your device, you might have to choose the settings icon (looks like a little green gear) from its menu. This will let you choose a port and baud rate. Again you want COM4.

Connection troubleshooting
In order to get connected, I had to open the PC Suite program (the little cell-phone icon in your system tray) and from its menu choose Tools/Phone Monitor Options... which brings up a dialog box. In that dialog box, there is a tab called COM ports. Here you want to make sure that any real com ports you have on your computer are disabled. That's a little anti-intuitive, but the device proxy drivers set up a fake com port above the ones on your computer. Reserved can be left at No. IMPORTANT NOTE: never shut down your computer with the phone connected. This messes up PC Suite and causes a program called generic.exe to crash when you reboot. It also makes your computer really slow. If this happens, just connect and unconnect the phone again, and restart the computer (this may take a while).

On-device debugging
Contrary to what I thought at first, you don't have to install anything special onto your phone to do on-device debugging. Once DeviceExplorer is connected and running, you should see a menu of stuff on your phone on the left, and a WTK applications folder on the right. If you open up this folder, you will see all of your projects from ktoolbar under it. If you open one of these, such as Bluegammon/bin, you will see your .jad and .jar files. To install to the phone, just right-click the .jad or .jar and choose Install. Note that this lets you skip all the stuff outlined in my other post. This puts the program on your phone, on the left. Then you can select the item on the left, and click the "play" icon in the menu above it. This starts the program on your phone. Now you can see the output from that program running in the window below. This includes System.out.println output, as well as exceptions. If you have Cingular, just go to the menu on the phone and try to play via bluetooth and set up a server. This will cause a security exception unless you sign the program with a Cingular Preferred certificate, and turn on bluetooth manually on the phone. Alternately, you can debrand the phone to overcome this limitation, through something like wotanserver.com or davinciteam.com. This is different from and independent from unlocking. I will walk through this process in a future post.

Final important note:
Once you have DeviceExplorer running, the order of shutdown is important, or it will cause their programs to hang. Start by shutting down the device explorer. This will leave the device proxy running and connected. Disconnect before shutting this down, or it will hang. You can disconnect the phone without exiting the PC Suite program; that is, leave it minimized in the system tray. It will show up with a red X again when you exit it. You can shut down ktoolbar whenever you want; I haven't had issues with it.