March 23, 2007

Anatomy of a Hack

So, I have that "New every 2" plan for my cell...which basically gives you a $100 credit for a new phone every 22 months. Well, Thursday was new phone day. I used the credit and another special rebate they had going to hook myself up with a shiny new phone.

Now, some of you will understand and some just won't, but for people like me the funnest thing about a new electronic device is to see how far you can push it. I'm the guy that explores all the features of a device just because they're there. And then I try to make some new features. So, this post is mostly for the Reidolphs and AArolphs out there who dig adventures in nerd land.

I got my phone on Thursday afternoon and by Friday at 6:00PM I successfully "hacked" it. It was fun and interesting so I will describe it here. Please note that trying any of the things I mention in this post may very well "brick" your nice phone or any other electronic device you are trying to hack or mod. I was well aware that I might ruin the thing but have you noticed that every time someone does something cool there is a "Don't try this at home" disclaimer? How do you think those people learned how to do it? That's right, trying it at home.

Chapter 1 - Proxy Servers:
Cell phone service providers (hereafter referred to as CellCo) charge too much for internet access on your phone. I already pay for internet service at my house. I also pay for every minute I'm on the cell. Why should I pay for Net again and pay for airtime? Phones access the internet by dialing (like a phone call) a server that translates the web into a format the phone can understand. These servers operate something called a Wireless Application Proxy server. When you access the internet, via the proxy, your cell provider makes a note of your phone number and begins to charge you for every little thing you do. But these WAP servers are nothing special, they are very similar to HTTP proxy servers and there are a variety of free HTTP proxy servers out there for Windows and Linux. I figured if it exists for computer browsers it probably exists for phone browsers. Turns out that I was correct, there are free solutions that let you provide an internet access point for your phone.

Chapter 2 - the Phone OS:
Most interactive electronics have an Operating System in some form. That OS often has a file structure, configuration files for programs and other things, just like a computer (usually because it has to interface with a computer at some point). If you can access these configuration files you can often alter the intended function of said device. I needed to change some of these files to redirect my phone to my own proxy because it's set by default to go through CellCo's servers. Unsurprisingly, these configuration files were locked. You can get to the settings on the phone via a hidden service menu but it won't allow you to change them. Surprise, surprise.

Chapter 3 - Access Roadblocks:
I got a data cable with my phone that allows me to transfer music to my phone. However, the CellCo intentionally crippled the functionality so I couldn't transfer ringtones, pictures, my contacts, etc. Why? Because they charge $0.50+ per ringtone (that you can download anywhere on the internet in many cases for free), they charge you $10 to transfer your contacts from your old phone, and they charge you for the airtime and Net time it takes to download the info. Is that evil or what? Plenty of files are legally and legitimately free on the internet, I paid for a data cable (extra) and my phone has the capability to transfer the data and even accept data from programs like Outlook, etc. But they turn it off because they want me to pay them for that too. Forget that. I found a tool that would allow me direct access to my phone's root file structure and I was in...

Chapter 4 - A Parting Blow:
The phone knows I'm inside. I can see all the data contained neatly within it's little circuits. I navigate the directory structure until I understand where and how ringtones, pictures and other info is stored. However, when I try to open, copy any of these files or move any additional info to my phone....DENIED. CellCo has installed a last little barricade to forward progress. But it can't be a complete roadblock. What if your phone needs service? What if a file gets corrupted and the OS stops working? CellCo doesn't want to replace the whole phone for a software error. So they build in a service mode that usually allows a little more "flexibility." I had been into the basic service menu (using a special combo code that you can find around the net if you know where to look) but that was the menu where they locked the proxy config so you can't change it. Time for advanced service mode. This got a little more complex but suffice it to say that I released the ties that bind and made some alterations to the way my phone was set up. I also am now relatively confident that I could restore my phone to factory defaults if things really went south.

Chapter 5 - Triumph:
Proxy server installed and running on a computer: check. Account created on proxy server for cell phone: check. Port access allowed for cell phones: check. Configuration files backed up, hacked and overwritten on phone: check. Phone rebooted: check. Time for the moment of truth. I turned my phone back on and logged on to the internet, meanwhile watching the logs on the proxy server:
[cellphone] is attempting access. Password accepted. User [id number] logged on.
And there it was: Google Mobile on my cell phone screen and the sweet taste of success.

Let me make a few things clear here: as far as I know I did not break any laws. I'm sure I voided some warranties, and I probably pushed the rules in my EULA a bit. But there are companies out there that offer legal, cheap alternatives to your CellCo's mobile internet service so it appears to be a legitimate industry. Also, I am not getting anything for free that I should be paying for. The CellCo charges you to access the internet through their servers. However, I am not using their servers. I'm accessing it through my own, which I provided using Internet service that I paid for and computers that I built. I still have to pay for the air time like a regular mobile customer (but nights and weekends are free). I'm sure that CellCo would be irritated that I'm not buying ringtones, etc from them but I wouldn't have done that anyway on principal. The phone manufacturer themselves shouldn't have any problem with me demonstrating that their product does more than advertised.

Hacking my phone has provided a few useful things, I can transfer pictures and data back and forth more easily and add unique ringtones. I can also back up my contacts, which I did. Mobile Internet actually is near-worthless on a tiny cellphone screen and I can't imagine what I'd use it for (try typing in a URL on a stupid cellphone keypad). Most of the things I hacked you can do in other's just slower and/or more expensive. I mostly did this because I thought it might be possible and challenging. Both were true and I learned a lot.

March 22, 2007

It's A Girl (we think)

Well, you probably figured out by the title of this post that Wifey got an ultrasound today. Lots of our friends lately have had little baby girls so we were sorta hoping for a boy to mix things up a little. That being said, we were not disappointed to find that Wifey is, most likely, carrying a little girl. I have taken the liberty of posting the poor girl's picture right out here in public, girly bits and all, properly labeled and identified. Sorry kid but there ain't much to see anyway. If you're not offended by murky sonar images of naked babies, then scroll on down.

Below is the first portrait of our baby girl. It's kinda like one of those 3D magic-eye pictures. If you sorta squint at it, cock your head, and back up a few feet, you can almost make out a human-like face.

And the last pic is her foot. They measured a bunch of different bits of anatomy: spine, head, guts, etc. and finally determined that she ought to be a roughly-normalish kid. It's pretty fascinating to see everything where it's supposed to be, heart pumping and all. Miraculous. Speaking of the heart, I got to hear the little ticker on the ultrasound machine. Have you ever taken a two-liter bottle or a milk jug and upended it? The baby's heart sounds pretty much like that "BLUBG-BLUBG" sound that water chugging out of a bottle makes.

After looking at that little foot (not quite an inch long) I shudder to think how many pairs of tiny baby shoes wifey will come home with tomorrow. She was already eyeballing some tiny Puma's at the mall. I admit, they were pretty cute.

Now excuse me while I go talk to my shrink about living with two females in the same house.

March 21, 2007

When You Come Back Down

So, I recorded a version of "When You Come Back Down" on a $5 mic I got from a pawn shop several years ago. I used an electric guitar, piped into the computer and the cheapo mic for vocals. I knew even less about recording then and it turned out pretty awful. Mostly due to the mic recording sound quite terribly. I sound like David Allan Coe with a head cold.

Since then, I've wanted to take another shot at that song. I recorded a quick version last Friday night and then did some refining on it on Saturday morning but it came out very plain with just a guitar line, vocals and faint "shaker" in the background.

When my Great Grandfather (mom's mom's dad) passed away, his well-used mandolin went to my Grandma (mom's mom). Before she passed away last year I asked for the mandolin and claimed it after she was gone. In the months that have passed since then it has primarily been holding our piano down (that sucker is always trying to float away). I wanted to play it but it appeared to have significant structural damage and I was afraid it wouldn't take the strain of being tuned properly. I inquired with a few luthiers about repairs but they basically told me that it wasn't a very valuable (sentimentality excluded) instrument and not worth the considerable expense of fixing. I examined it more carefully and the main damage appears to be more cosmetic than structural.

So, I tuned up the ol' zither and looked up a the chords from "Come Back Down" in a mando book. I recorded some ham-fisted, mando strumming that was supposed to be very subtle in the background and quit working on it for the day. I intended to go back and adjust the volume and such (Wifey didn't like the mandolin so present in the song, especially since I can't really play it very well) but when I opened back up the source file it was corrupted and half the song was gone. Fortunately I had exported it as an mp3 but I can't go back and edit individual volume levels or other things now.

Being a geek, I did save the project in stages (meaning I have a v1, v2, v3...) but I would have to do about an hour's worth of tweaking to get back to where I was and re-record the mandolin parts if I still want them in the song. I'm already bored with this project so that ain't happening. You get the product as is, too-loud mandolin and all.

Oh, and there is also about 5 seconds of silence before the song starts. And the tempo is too slow. This is an amateur production folks, what did you expect? That dude from Nickel Creek, the one that sang this originally, would cry if he heard me butcher this tune.

Listen to the new AKoustic47's When You Come Back Down cover.

and just for kicks:

Listen to the old $5 mic version from several years back.

Come to think of it, I'm not sure the new version is any better. I like the harmony on the old version better but the audio quality is terrible.

March 15, 2007


Okay! My rear is now numb from sitting on this little wooden stool toying with sound waves. Here is my latest effort at recording something to earitate the masses. It's short because I got sick of working on it. It's crappily crackily, ludicrously low fidelity, got more gold than Greg Louganis, more gain than Gloria Gaynor and more chorus than Deep Forest. It's called Blues on Glue, recorded in G flat-ish because I like G and I felt like playing flat. I hope you think it's sharp...

Download AKoustic47's Blues on Glue

March 8, 2007

New: Infernal Racket in High Fidelity!

I ordered a Large-Diaphram, multi-pattern, condenser USB microphone (Samson CO3U) from last Saturday. Large-Diaphram means that it can pick up a fairly wide range of frequencies. Multi-pattern means that it can record from a single direction or a few different configurations (so you can record a single instrument or multiple people at once). USB means that it plugs into my laptop. I don't know what the hooey "condenser" means but I've got my fingers crossed for "makes you sound awesome."

To my great delight the microphone was waiting at the door when I got home. I went and played ping pong again so I didn't get to experiment with it right away. But you can bet that after I got home the first thing I was doing was plugging it in and testing it out. The mic lived up to my expectations: which means it captures every flat note I hit and every buzzing string on my guitar in high-fidelity. Or at least, it records pretty good for the price. Good microphones can get extremely expensive. This one strikes a balance between performance and price.

The last mic I tried to record something with was a $5 piece of junk I picked up from a pawn shop back in college. The results were pathetic at best.

Anyway, I downloaded Audacity, a free sound recording and manipulation program and began fiddling. I don't know anything about recording, sound manipulation or much of anything else short of how to play the guitar. The result of my efforts is still pretty sad but at least you can tell that the mic records nicely for amateur stuff. Now if I could sing better, add some other instruments so it's not so bland, and actually learn to use the music software to take out the pops, crackles and other imperfections I will eventually achieve mediocrity! Now if Wifey ever gets over her cold, I can coerce her into laying down some vocal tracks. Yeah!

If you care to torture your ears you can download the mess here:
my first recording effort

March 6, 2007

The Moral of the Story

There is a story about a man who encounters a salesman, hawking a potion that can make anyone instantly in love with you beyond any human comprehension. The potion will sculpt whomever you use it on to be exactly what you want in a partner/lover/soulmate, whatever. The man buys the potion, surprised that it only costs a few pennies. He uses it on the woman of his desires. To his dismay, she becomes like a leech, always jealous of his time and needy. A few years later he desperately tracks down the salesman and demands a cure. The salesman says he has an antidote that will make the person detest them for life. But it will cost the man his soul/most prized posession/life savings...whatever. There are several versions of the story.

Now on to an "entirely unrelated" post.

I love sleek, geeky toys (do I have to tell you this? You read the blog) and I bought a nice one in December: a shiny, pixel processing, high-powered gaming console known worldwide as the Xbox360. It was a smooth little piece of hardware. The graphics it was capable of rendering were stunning (see photo at top). My computer is pretty amazing but I think the Xbox still had it beat. Part of that is because, since all of the consoles are the same hardware, game developers can optimize their product to run perfectly on a single system. They don't have to program for the lowest common denominator.

Anyway, before I descend into geekspeak, let me get to the point. I don't have a television in my house. Why? Because of how much time it wastes and what it brings into the home. It's nonstop, always-on trash that quickly infiltrates your mind and sucks away your spare time. Some of my friends ask me "How do you get so much done?" because I work on so many projects and hobbies. Easy. I don't have a television that is waiting at home to entrap my mind.

The line between television and computers is getting blurry. BitTorrent, YouTube and company, DVD players and video games are waiting to eat your life if you have a serviceable computer and broadband internet. Digital entertainment can be a subtle trap that makes people drift apart even as they seem to be together.

So, my XBox360 brought me to a moral dilemma, one that I should have thought out more carefully before I even bought it. I looked forward to getting back into whatever game I was playing as soon as I got home from work. At the end of a particular week I realized that I had spent the VAST majority of my spare time playing through a very immersing game. I also had spent a substantial amount of cash on something (albeit cool) that only had one capability: entertainment. (Actually, that's not entirely true. I used my XBox to chat all the time with Coal in Missouri but that's beside the point)

These thoughts had kinda nudged my consciousness a few times and then today a coworker was asking me a few questions about how I liked it. I said I was actually thinking about selling it because I liked it too much. Suddenly several coworkers were in the market for a high-power gaming console and I just like that I had my antidote.

So, my save games and gamer profile have been deleted (that was tough). The system is carefully repacked and sitting by my keys and phone. There is an eager coworker waiting, check-in-hand to enjoy the system. And I am sad. But in terms of lessons, this one was relatively cheap.

Will I still play games on my computer? Of course, now and then, but I also enjoy things like programming, designing websites, even blogging and other (at least somewhat) productive pursuits on this machine. The Xbox360 was exactly what I wanted and exactly what I didn't need. I almost didn't post this, scoff at what I enjoy or post smug comments if you like but beware of getting exactly what you want.

The Tao of Table Tennis

Yesterday my buddy Newline invited me to play table tennis (aka ping pong) at a local league. I have a really nice table at home (probably $400+ new but I got it for $175 on craigslist) and we have a table at work that we play on at lunch.

Over the past year and a half I've gotten pretty decent at the sport but my skill has leveled off somewhat. Most of the people that I play with at work are roughly the same skill level as myself. We all slowly improve and we all win some and lose some. But to really excel you have to play people that are better than you. So, I rescheduled the guitar lesson I was supposed to teach and, after a few warm up games at my house, Newline and I went over to the club to play.

I really had no idea what to expect. A friend of Newline invited him and he invited me so I didn't know anyone at the club. We were greeted by a fit, older man (hereby referred to as Runner) that I would have put at about 61yoa. He was very enthused that we were there and told us all about the club (it's been around since the 70s) and membership. He mentioned that he is in his 70s and runs 10k every weekday! He said he's been in the local ping pong (I think pro players are slightly offended at the term "ping pong." People play ping pong in their basement. Pros play table tennis) club since the 70s. I thought to myself, this is going to be good.

Other members began arriving, which included a (several time?) Wyoming state champion, a cute little Korean lady that I later found out was 76, and Newline's friend. There were six of us and two tables and we took turns warming up (a concept that I had never applied to pong before). Champion would serve a whole ice cream bucket of balls to my forehand and I would practice slamming every one. Then the same for backhand. Then, instead of slamming he would have me chop (backspin) the ball. Every once in awhile, when I did a particularly fast return (i.e. one of the best returns of my life) he would casually return it even faster. The whole time we were warming up he was coaching me on how to improve my shots. My slams immediately improved in both speed and consistency by probably 20%.

After everyone had warmed up we drew ping pong balls to find an opponent and played a lot of matches. It was just as fun to set out as to play because we Champion and Runner faced off. Every return was a wicked slam that I thought was a kill shot for sure. Somehow, though, the opposing player would slam it back just as fast or chop it so it went sailing into the air with gallons of backspin (yes, spin is measured in gallons) and manage to find it's way back to the table.

Anyway, to make a long story...less long, we arrived at 6:30 and didn't leave until 8. It's been a long time since I enjoyed myself that much. I was also impressed at how easily a 70 year old could have me running all around the table to return their shots.

I'm not sure if I will join the club or not. The price ($50/year) is extremely reasonable. Especially given the fact that they have a lady that was once on the US Team give free coaching on Saturdays and Champion is there every Mon and Thur. However, I workout at the gym, teach guitar lessons and need to keep some wifey time.