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Banging my head against the digital wall…

…or, Why do I bother with Internet “projects?”

I consider myself a ‘maker’ and a ‘hacker.’  There’s just something about taking a device and enhancing its capabilities, or making it do something its original designers never intended that excites me.  To that end I’ve hacked Amiga computers and written about my discoveries in the old Amazing Computing for the Commodore Amiga magazine (adding 1 MB of Chip RAM, installing high-density floppies, building keyboard adapters) in the 1990’s, then moved on to IBM computers.  I’ve upgraded an old Compaq 286 portable to a 386sx CPU, and taken an IBM A20m laptop from a stock Pentium III 600 MHz CPU to a 900 MHz CPU, adding internal antennas for Wi-Fi while I was at it.  My home router runs DD-WRT instead of the stock firmware.  I’m working on changing the built-in, normally unchangeable sounds on my Sony-Ericsson w300i cellphone so it sounds like a classic Star Trek communicator.  I added mod chips to my videogame consoles long ago, and recently softmodded an original Xbox from a thrift store junket to allow me to run XBMC on it.  You get the idea. If I can hack it I’m into it.  However, some recent experiences with Internet ‘projects’ have frustrated my inner maker/hacker and I have to vent about it.

About five years ago I purchased a Dell Axim X50v PDA.  I wanted something small that would provide internet access while travelling.  I’d read about this touchscreen-equipped wonder that ran Windows Mobile 2003 and decided to spend some of my tax refund dollars on it.  I also purchased an infrared keyboard to allow easier typing.  My experience was fairly unpleasant.  The integrated version of Internet Explorer was slow, and the other browser I’d installed (the name of which I’ve long since forgotten) wasn’t much better.  When I returned home I tried using the thing as a PDA but found that my needs weren’t well served by such a device.  I plopped it in a drawer and forgot about it.

Fast forward to Fall 2008.  I read online that some enterprising tinkerers (calling themselves “ROM cookers”) had found out how to load Windows Mobile 6 on these devices.  The upgrade process was something of a pain, but the results were supposedly astounding.  Greater speed, ease of use, ability to use newer programs, and so on were the mentioned advantages.  One “cooker” even created software that would turn this little PDA into a VoIP phone!  I dug out the X50v and began reading up on the topic.

I found out that loading this software probably violated some Micro$oft license agreements.  (I didn’t care about that.)  I also found out that the “cookers” were butterflies.  They’d create a version of the software and then try it on a number of different phones and devices.  I thought this was pretty cool at first, as they were spreading their hacking knowledge across multiple platforms.  However, what I quickly discovered was that they were so busy proliferating their software amongst platforms that they weren’t finishing what they’d begun.  For example, one cooker by the handle of LennySh began a version of Windows Mobile 6.1 for the X50v and released it as Alpha software (first preliminary testing version).  Rather than finishing it he began working on a version 6.5 build.  That would have been okay except that he’d created two different unfinished versions, both of which had serious flaws in that some integral features (think Bluetooth or networking) didn’t work correctly.  He then went off to pollinate other platforms. 

I posted a challenge in one of the online forums at HTCGeeks.  I did some obligatory @ss-kissing (usually necessary in order to avoid getting flamed but that didn’t work), then told the cookers that they should finish what they start before moving along to other platforms.  I did all this nicely.  I was promptly lambasted for being an ungrateful douchebag and told that one cooker might be prompted to finish up if I donated an offering to his Paypal account.  I then got the usual comments—they do this free and on their own time, what were you expecting for nothing, you should be grateful for what you get, et cetera.  I posted several well-thought-out replies but left the challenge standing–to quote Van Halen: “C’mon baby, finish what you started.”  A good while went by before LennySh tuned in to the thread and answered.  It seems he no longer owns an X50v, but he mentioned he’d have to get another one and promised to release an update soon.  I’ve put the Axim away for now.  I was planning on turning it into a touchscreen remote controller for my home theater, but ran across several iPaq Pocket PCs that I spent way less money on.  I’ll use those instead.

Another project I learned about several years ago allowed you to take an MSNTV2  ‘WebTV’ set-top box and use it as a regular computer (http://www.settoplinux.org/index.php?title=RCA_RM4100 ). That was okay, I suppose—the box was extremely small and could often be purchased cheaply.  What flipped my switch was the discovery that the normally locked-down BIOS could be unlocked and hacked to allow Linux to be loaded on the box.  That would turn it into an extremely small media player that would be hooked to the network and a TV or stereo system, enabling streaming audio and video.  The development work was in its preliminary stages but looked extremely promising, so I purchased a box with its accessories at a local thrift store. 

I’ve continued to keep up with developments.  There’s a project afoot to create an open, universal BIOS that can be loaded on a number of computers and motherboards called Coreboot (www.coreboot.org); the RM4100 was added to the list of supported platforms.  While a number of problems were solved concerning support for the box’s on-board hardware, the developers still had trouble getting the on-board video and audio outputs to work.  The box also has places on the circuit board that, when components are added, allows the addition of a digital audio output.  From what I can determine no one has tried adding those parts.  You can, however, add a VGA jack to the board and hook up a PC monitor to the box.  I think most folks are like me—they’d love to add a player like this to their home entertainment system but they don’t want to add a VGA monitor.  The non-operational outputs are badly needed to make the project viable.  The recent discovery of hardware documentation for the box, as well as the purchase of an original “development box” by a user who dumped the unlocked BIOS for the project, seem to indicate that a breakthrough may be imminent.  I’m not holding my breath but things look good.

Then there’s the guy who built his own MiniMoog keyboard synthesizer (http://www.meadowfield.freeuk.com/synth/mini.html ).  I’ve wanted my own keyboard synthesizer since the 1970’s when I first heard Edgar Winter’s “Frankenstein.”  I worked for Radio Shack at the time, and they carried a Moog variant called a Concertmate-1.  I could never afford one on my meager paycheck, and as the years went by other priorities took my cash.  This guy wanted a MiniMoog but couldn’t afford a used one (these are now pricey antiques), so he designed circuit boards around the original schematics (upgrading parts as necessary due to obsolescence) and built his own!  Pretty slick—but this is one of those “bragging rights” projects where he won’t share his PC artwork and doesn’t even show pictures of all the boards he designed.  I know he won’t share because I asked several years ago. Anyone who wanted to follow his lead and build one themselves would have a harder time as they’d be starting from scratch.  I have no use for these kinds of maker/hackers.  If you’re going to show it and talk about it, then help others to do it themselves by providing the necessary information.  Anything less is simply Internet noise and isn’t worthy of the eyeball time.

That’s a short list of specific projects…there are many more I can list (the Cyclone 20, a USB interface for reading/writing Amiga disks on a PC comes to mind), but you get the point.  There’s a lot of great information out there on the triple-dub, but there are far too many unfinished or incomplete projects.  You can certainly find inspiration for your inner maker from other’s efforts.  Just don’t expect to duplicate what you see unless you’re willing to completely re-engineer those efforts yourself.

Speaking of duplicating other’s efforts, a great Internet site for prospective makers has recently fallen victim to the poor economy.  Instructables.com used to be a great site to see all sorts of do-it-yourself projects.  People wrote up instructions and assembled pictorials on everything from making Pepto-Bismol ice cream to re-using old VCR parts.  I considered the site a must-visit for several years before some things started to change.  First, the site began to require users to get a free account and log in before allowing them to see complete pictorials.  This was a hassle as I didn’t want to log in every time I visited and I couldn’t find a way to make a persistent login. Then, several months ago they began severely restricting what visitors could access.  A visitor can view the first picture on a page, but if they wanted to see a larger version of a second or third picture they’re hit with an advertisement to “Go Pro.”  “Going Pro” means establishing an account with a minimum $2.00 per month charge.  What do you get for $24.00 a year?  Certainly not freedom from ads—they promise more “targeted” ads suited for your individual tastes.  I sent a message to their publisher expressing my displeasure and received a polite but typical “We’re sorry you feel that way, but you’ll really miss out” message in return.

What’s my take on this?  The site is stealing from its members.  They use their member’s published works to make money by selling memberships, but do not compensate the members for their efforts.  If you, as a maker, want to contribute your hard work to a closed community for no compensation and limit the dissemination of your work then this is the place to be.  I believe this is against the spirit of free information sharing and refuse to participate. 

I have several projects I’ll be posting here, and I’m not going to charge for the information in any way.  You’re free to use it as you please, dear reader, and I hope it helps you in some way.  Just don’t do anything illegal or immoral with the information, and don’t kill or maim yourself by following my instructions.  I can’t be held liable if you do something dumb.

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