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All right.

We’ll start out the new decade with some geek etiquette: Out of respect for the gift-giver, it’s polite to not void any warranties in the same year the gift was given. Well, we’re 5 days into the New Year and all bets are off. We’ll take a quick look at the most popular presents people received during the holidays and offer suggestions as to how you can best augment them with free software. That’s free as in price and in the ability to hack and mod to your heart’s content.

If you were lucky enough to receive an e-book reader this year, like the Amazon Kindle 3G or the Barnes & Nobles Color Nook, the first thing you should do is read up on what makes your device better than someone else’s. If you can’t defend the merits of the hardware you’re carrying, you should be prepared to have natural brown sugar kicked in your face by all the e-book jocks at your local coffeehouse.

A few survival tips: If you’re defending anything with electronic ink against something that uses a color LCD, take the fight outside into the sunlight: your opponent’s resolve will fade as quickly as their display. Conversely, if you received a reader with a color LCD, it’s imperative that you engage your opponent in low lighting levels while leveraging the power of full color content, like a current issue of a popular tech magazine. Things will fall decidedly in your favor if you’re able to select an article in the magazine that illustrates the superiority of your chosen e-reader. Tablet users: simply launch Angry Birds to derail the confrontation all together.

One thing that *all* e-book readers can agree on: Calibre. It’s a free e-book library management application, developed by users of e-books *for* users of e-books. Calibre offers library management, e-book conversion, syncing to a nearly every e-book reader out there, utilities to convert web content into e-book form, and even a content server for online access to your book collection. Think of it like iTunes for text.

And unlike the iTunes store, you don’t have to break the bank to bolster your e-book collection: there are tens of thousands of books in the public domain that can be had for free. Started in 1971 under the auspices that “anything that can be entered into a computer can be reproduced indefinitely”, Project Gutenberg has become the de facto digital library for the classics. For user created and user contributed items, be sure to check out the 20 million+ items at OpenLibrary.org. If you’ve ever wanted to play librarian, this is the site for you.

And if you don’t have an e-book reader, hit LibriVox.org for an acoustical library liberation carried out on the music player of your choice, be it an iPod, a Zune, or a cassette tape deck in the Cutlass. The Calibre application can be downloaded from www.calibre-ebook.com and over 33,000 free books are available from Project Gutenberg at www.gutenberg.org.

If you were lucky enough to receive an XBox Kinect, you really have your hacking cut out for you. The Kinect is a game controller built by Microsoft for the XBox. It contains an RGB camera, a depth sensor and a multi-array microphone, which provides full 3D motion capture, facial recognition and voice recognition abilities. To get an idea of what people are doing with their Kinects, simply search for “kinect hack” on YouTube. The real-time light saber and transformation into Ultra Seven, an old-time superhero in Japan, are especially cool, but shy away from the man who is projecting piercings onto his chest.

To play around with some of these hacks at home, you’ll need to install the OpenKinect driver on your laptop or PC. This driver allows the Kinect to communicate with your non-XBox system, letting you direct the stream of data into the application or utility of your choosing. This is definitely bleeding edge stuff, but if you have even moderate technical chops, you can probably get your rig up and running within a few hours. Hit www.openkinect.org for the drivers and installation directions for your particular platform.

Those were definitely two of the coolest presents for 2010. But what do you do if someone gave you something not so cutting edge? What do you do if you received an ancient 486, an underpowered netbook, a Playstation 2, a very merry VAX cluster, a toaster or even a dead badger? Guesses? That’s easy… You install Linux on it. The operating system that really gave the free software movement legs, Linux, in some form or fashion, is available for nearly every piece of computing hardware under the sun. Even badgers. Lucy A. Snyder’s book, Installing Linux on a Dead Badger, walks you through the installation process on the badger of your choosing, step by step. (Supposedly, partitioning the badger is the hardest part. Well, that and the smell.) The book isn’t free, but Snyder has published the user guide to the badger installation on the web to be freely read by all. If you’re short on time and more into toast than taxidermy, you can actually buy a ready-made NetBSD Toaster from Technologic Systems on the Web. NetBSD is actually more appropriate than linux for bread-based applications due to its use of disk slices.

Just don’t tell the members of the Houston Linux Users Group that I recommended NetBSD over Linux when you attend their first bi-monthly meeting of 2011. The group gets together at the HAL-PC Headquarters located just inside the 610 West Loop near San Felipe from 2:00 to 4:00 in the afternoon. The meeting takes the form of an hour and a half presentation over something useful you can do with Linux. As always, both noobs and gurus will be better off for having attended. Hit www.hal-pc.org for driving directions and a full calendar of their Special Interest Group meetings.

And lastly, if you have a piece of new or “new to you” tech, we invite you to bring it out to the January installment of the Geek Gathering. KD5 and I will be unveiling XyrgBee, a game that began life as a simple idea and has manifest itself in a distributed computing platform, complete with several Arduinos, some wireless communications and a matrix of 192 discrete light emitting diodes flickering faster than your eyes can perceive. That’s right! We’ll have Arduino’s there that are actually DOing something. All of this happens this Friday at 7:00 PM at The Coffee Groundz, located at 2503 Bagby at McGowan in Midtown Houston. Free wifi and geeky conversation abound, complete with a staff offering coffee, beer and wine and a light menu. Hit the Tech Bytes site at www.geekradio.com for details, directions and your own electrifying invitation.

That’s it for your first 4-eleven of twenty-eleven and that’s that for BarretTime.

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