Instapaper makes ‘premium’ services free to all users

My favorite article-clipping service just got even better. A few months ago, Instapaper was acquired by Pinterest, in the usual tech-company deal we see these days when one company thinks that the technology another company developed would make its own products and services even better. Google and Amazon have done this countless times.
But rather than the usual case, in which the acquiring company shuts down the company it just bought (as was the case with Google and Etherpad, or Safari Books Online and Ibis Reader), Instapaper has announced exactly the opposite is happening: not only will Instapaper’s services be continuing, but the add-on services that formerly required paying for a premium account will now be freely available to everyone. Those who’ve already paid for Instapaper premium accounts will have pro-rated refunds coming within the next week or so.
These premium services include zero ads on site or mobile app, full-text search for all

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Hyphen is nearly the best DRM-free ePub reader available for iOS

Why does iOS have so many good plain-vanilla DRM-free ePub reading applications? I already checked out Marvin, whose latest version carries on the tradition of offering a remarkable number of features in a single application. Now I’ve had a look at Hyphen, which is very nearly as good.
Hyphen is available in a free trial version, which limits you to reading the single book you just added, or a full version for $2.99. It’s certainly a worthwhile purchase at the price. My one reservation is that Marvin may make it a touch redundant.
I suppose it just goes to show how impressed I was by Marvin that while I was reading with Hyphen, I kept catching myself thinking, “That’s just like Marvin” or “That’s almost as good as Marvin.” For starters, you can add e-books to the device from Apple’s Cloud Drive, Dropbox, or Google Drive, just as with Marvin. (Though you

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How to edit ePub files manually: A handy overview

Here’s a handy overview of the basics of manually editing ePub, the industry standard format for e-books—courtesy of Kotobee.
Yes, sometimes Calibre, Scrivener and the like are enough for creating e-books, especially for your personal use or very limited distribution. But what if you care about the details and know the readers will, too?
Even the people at Kotobee, the developers of Kotobee Author, admit that only so much can be automated.
It’s a huge failing of ePub—the fact it’s been around for years and you may still need to resort to manual editing, even for a simple book, unless you want to use a commercial service.
Why can’t the industry get this right? And now the International Digital Publishing Forum—the group behind ePub—may merge with the World Wide Web Consortium and team up on new standards for other reasons. Let’s hope that this time the standards people are more helpful to publishers of all sizes and early on can develop

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Google Play Books e-reading app update brings new icon, much else?

Google Play Books appGoogle Play Books, still many ebook readers’ preferred EPUB reading app, has just upgraded to version 3.9. The most obvious change is to the app icon, which now sticks the old blue rectangular booklike thing inside a play button, consistent with the same motif that’s now appearing across many Google apps. Personally, I find this new design irritatingly unbooklike, but that’s me. Meanwhile, though, is there much new under the hood?

Well, as per the Google Play Store’s What’s New guidelines, “Read now highlights your books, and recommendations are easier to browse.” Furthermore, “Search remembers words you entered in previous searches” and “A notification now flags the arrival of new books by favorite authors.” Additionally, there sounds to have been some fine-tuning, as “Changes you make to display options are easier to see” and “Downloaded books open faster.”

So, no great leap forward in app capabilities and services to accompany the big jump in icon design – unlike, for instance, Google Play Music with its new podcast functionality. Google Play Books’ popularity is probably one sign that there’s no need to fix what ain’t broken. I do note, though, that some reviewers on the Google Play Store are also saying how they dislike the new icon. That’ll probably be a talking point until the next really significant upgrade comes along.

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iOS e-reader app review: Marvin and Gerty

marvin-pageFor my first major iOS app review in years, I’ve been looking into a pair of e-book apps by developer Appstafarian. First of all, I’ve heard good things about the Marvin EPUB reader. Juli Monroe reviewed it for the iPad, discussed how it works with Calibre, and looked at the iPhone version over the last few years.

However, I never had the chance to take a look at it—it came out after iOS 6 launched, so it was never compatible with my first-generation iPad. Since I now have an iPad Mini 2, I decided to remedy that.

But did you know that Marvin also has a sister? (Or cousin, or wife, or something. It’s not a perfect metaphor.) Appstafarian makes a another EPUB app called Gerty, which is very similar to Marvin except for a couple of interesting differences. But I’ll look at Marvin first.


With a name like Marvin, I have to admit that my first thought was to wonder if the developer only made it for iOS because he was paranoid about Android. But all joking aside, just a few minutes of use convinced me that I’d found a suitable replacement for the long-departed Stanza e-reader that used to be my go-to iOS e-book app. Some of the features that most impressed me most about Stanza, Marvin takes and goes one better.

The Interface

For starters, Marvin offers a nice, clean, simple reading interface. A wide variety of fonts are available, both serif and sans serif, including the Open Dyslexic font that Amazon only recently added to the Kindle. There are formatting options for adjusting font size, margin width, line spacing, depth of paragraph indent, paragraph spacing, full or left justification, and even enabling or disabling hyphenation. There’s also a “Switch to publisher’s formatting” option that reverts the book back to how it was originally formatted.

There are three color themes available—normal, night, and “other”—and these themes can be customized by setting the foreground color and the background color or pattern of your choice. If you want burgundy foreground text on an electric blue background, you just have to scroll the text color and background color/texture listing up until you find what you want and tap on it.

My one complaint about the color selection screen is that the basic simple options, such as “black” and “white,” are a screen and a half of scrolling down, below all the different shades of grey. I’d rather have black and white right at the top, but that’s just me.

marvin-landscapeThe reading process is simple. Just as with the Kindle, you tap on the right side of the screen to page forward, or on the left to page back. (Though you can change that under the “Gestures” controls if you want.) Tapping in the middle brings up the top and bottom status bars. By default, you only get one column of text in either portrait or landscape, but there’s a configuration option to change it to two columns in landscape, or even two columns in portrait and landscape. (You have to rotate the screen before the changes take effect.)

Page turns are swift and responsive, the text is clear and easy to read, and the myriad of font and formatting options means you can make the book look pretty much however you want it to. It also retained the blank lines separating sections, which I noted Moon+ on Android didn’t when I tried it. You don’t get the skeuomorphic page-turn effect of iBooks, but then you don’t get that with the Kindle or most other e-reading applications either—and some people don’t like it from iBooks.

Even if that were as far as it went, Marvin would still be a useful EPUB e-book app—plain, straightforward, and self-contained, not requiring you to upload books into the cloud and re-download them to read them the way Google Books does, and not full of fancy features you may not want or need like iBooks. But there were a couple of other features that did impress me.

Deep Reading

deep-readingFirst of all, there’s Marvin’s “Deep Reading” mode. Activated by tapping on a pair of eyeglasses in the top status bar, Deep Reading is a sort of automatic concordance program—it quickly catalogs all the character names and other important words that appear in a book, and lists them by order of appearance, importance, or alphabetically. It takes about a minute or so to process a given novel.

Deep Reading could be very useful when reading a book with so many character names that it’s hard to keep them all straight in your head. If you’re wondering, “Wait, who was that person?” you can pull up Deep Reading and get a list of every place his or her name has been mentioned so far. I’ve read a number of books where I’ve had that problem, especially with regard to foreign or alien-sounding names, and I’m already looking forward to seeing how Marvin could make reading such books easier.

There are also Deep Reading tabs where you can look up and import Wikipedia and other articles about the book or its author, and where you can build a summary on selected names—Marvin excerpts just the paragraphs in which that name is mentioned and incorporates them into a separate e-book file. This could make a handy reference for obscure characters. For that matter, it could be an excellent way of making study guides for subjects in non-fiction books.

Overall, it may not be quite as useful as a manually-compiled Cliff’s Notes on a given book, but it’s a lot more nuanced and flexible than just doing a text search. It’s basically an index of text searches for every major character or concept, accessible with just a tap or two.

Dropbox Integration

The other feature is, if anything, even more impressive. I keep my Calibre library in Dropbox, and every so often use Calibre2OPDS to update an OPDS catalog file for remote access. I originally used that format with Stanza, though Stanza is no longer around anymore.

Marvin also offers the ability to read an OPDS catalog, though I haven’t been able to get it to work as yet—apparently it uses a different OPDS format than the XML files Calibre2OPDS makes. But that’s all right, because it offers alternatives. You can download books from Project Gutenberg or Mobileread, or link up directly to Calibre and pull books down that way, or even pull them from your iCloud account.

marvin-dropboxBut the most useful option for me is that it can link to the Dropbox app on your device, then list all the EPUBs you’re keeping in Dropbox for you to download. It does it pretty quickly, too—it found the 1,375 e-books I have in my Dropbox over the course of about a minute or so. Then I could sort or search them however I wanted. It was simple enough to do that I might not even need to keep using OPDS to download my books anymore.


And all of these features are available in the free version of Marvin, as far as I can tell. The only difference between the free and paid versions are that the free version only lets you keep a library of one downloaded e-book at a time, while the one that costs $3.99 will let you load as many as you want.

This seems like a reasonable price to me, and a reasonable division of features—if you’re the sort of person who only reads one e-book at a time, the free version might be just fine for you, and it won’t bombard you with advertisements like some free e-readers. But $3.99 isn’t bad at all for such a good application. (You can also add on an app theme pack for $4.99, but this seems less necessary to me.)


We apparently haven’t ever covered the other Appstafarian e-reader yet, which is a little surprising. Gerty resembles a simplified version of Marvin, with a number of similar features—in fact, I suspect it uses a lot of the same code base. But there are some important key differences that might make it a more useful reader for people with different needs than Marvin users.

The Interface

Unlike Marvin, Gerty works on a scrolling principle. Instead of tapping left or right to turn a page, you slide the screen up or down by swiping your finger—just like scrolling on a web page. Tapping anywhere on the screen brings up the top and bottom status bars. Since you’re scrolling, you don’t have the ability to split the screen into separate columns either. I personally prefer the pagination method, but I can still appreciate that Gerty’s scrolling is smooth and simple. And there are people who would rather have a scrolling e-reader app.

Gerty doesn’t have as many customization options as Marvin. You can select the font, make the font bigger or smaller, switch between narrow or wide margins and vertical line spacing, and change the orientation lock settings (lock to portrait, lock to landscape, don’t lock) and that’s pretty much it. You also don’t get as many fonts to choose from as Marvin, and Open Dyslexic isn’t among them. (Though, weirdly enough, the info page on Appstafarian’s web site claims it is.) There are only six preset color themes, which you can’t customize beyond choosing the one you want.

The text still looks just as crisp and clear as in Marvin. In fact, it looks basically exactly the same as Marvin when you’re reading it, which is why I’m not bothering to throw in another screenshot here.

One of the features that you have to pay to add is auto-scrolling. Once you’ve added it, you can set the scroll rate and then the text will slide up the page at a steady rate of speed, teleprompter-style, without you doing anything. This could be useful for reading while your hands are busy with other things, like exercising or eating messy food.

Book Journaling and Other Features

book-journalGerty doesn’t feature the “Deep Reading” mode of its sibling Marvin, but it has its own features that Marvin doesn’t. In particular, it has a private blog or journal feature built in, where you can note down thoughts on the book as you’re reading it, even including the ability to snap photos with the device camera to attach to it, and to attach a map showing exactly where you are at the time. You can export your entries into an EPUB, or share entries via iOS’s share-to-other-apps menu.

reserved-catBut Gerty isn’t just for reading e-books. It also allows you to keep track of your paper books, and write journal entries to associate with them. It’ll even scan the book’s barcode via your device’s camera and look up the author and title for you, if it can. It’s a clever idea for people who like to read a lot and share their feelings on what they read, and it might also be useful for taking notes on e-textbooks for class. I don’t think I’d be inclined to get much use out of it myself, though. It will also keep track of statistics on how much and how often you read.

Like Marvin, Gerty can read your Dropbox account so you can download e-books from it, and does so just as quickly as Marvin. It also has the option to read from your Google Drive account. However, it doesn’t seem to read directly from Calibre, OPDS, or iCloud.


Like Marvin, Gerty costs only $3.99 to unlock all its premium features. That’s not a bad price to pay for a full-featured e-book app, even one I don’t expect to use all that often. I found it a little odd that Marvin’s paid version is a separate app, whereas Gerty’s premium features are unlocked via an in-app purchase. But I suppose the way the premium features are set up makes in-app purchase work better for Gerty.

I’m sure I’ve barely scratched the surface of the features that are available in both Marvin and Gerty, but I can say this for sure—they’re both going to be permanent fixtures on my iPad, and very possibly Marvin is going to supplant iBooks as the way I read all the DRM-free EPUBs in my Calibre library, at least when I’m reading from my iPad rather than one of my Android devices.

I can’t see getting into book journaling a la Gerty, but I could see how frequent journal-writers and note-takers could get a lot of use out of it. Whichever one better suits your style of reading, they’re both great little e-reader apps, and both are well worth the $3.99 price.

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Calibre breakthrough: Convert e-books to the new Kindle KFX format with enhanced Typesetting

calibre pictureWant to be able to read sideloaded books in the fancy KFX format with your recent-model Kindle?

Craving for dropped caps, hyphenation, better kerning?

Now, even if a book didn’t come from the Amazon store, you can enjoy the above features thanks to a new KFX Conversion Output plug-in for Calibre. Here’s the lowdown from MobileRead:

“The plugin is activated by selecting KFX as the output format when converting books in calibre. It performs the following steps during conversion:

  • Convert from the original e-book format to EPUB.
  • Use the Amazon Kindle Previewer to convert from EPUB to KDF.
  • Repackage the KDF data into a KFX container.

”Because the first step in conversion is to produce an EPUB and since the Kindle Previewer has no configuration options, the Conversion Output Options tab for KFX output is the same as for EPUB output.”

Please drop by the MobileRead posting from jhowell for more information, relevant links and caveats. Alas, the plugin isn’t for the faint-hearted:

enhancedKindleFormat“Unfortunately, the Amazon Kindle Previewer often fails to convert books and provides no guidance on how to correct the problem when this occurs. Getting a book to convert successfully may require trial and error editing of the source format. If a conversion error occurs the plugin attempts to capture the most relevant error message from temporary log files produced by the Previewer. The error messages produced are cryptic, but better than nothing. View the conversion job log after an error occurs to see the messages produced by the Previewer during conversion.”

And still more: “This plugin has only been tested on the Windows platform. Compatibility with Mac OS has not been tested. It is unknown whether or not the Previewer will function under Linux/Wine.

”This plugin only converts from other e-book formats to KFX. It does not convert from KFX to other formats.”

Oh, the fun of the Tower of eBabel! High time for Amazon to abandon its proprietary formats (and really really lean on publishers to drop encryption-based DRM or at least it with the more benign social DRM). Yes, the KFX plug-in is a break-through. But not for everyone. I love Calibre, but must one really have to use it to keep up fully with the latest format changes at Amazon?

If Amazon wants to add formatting capabilities for typical e-books, then it should work within the International Digital Publishing Forum. Amazon can compete very well, thank you, in a number of areas ranging from price to selection, and the last thing we need is for the company to keep inflicting more complexities on users. Bring on the criticism. I’m sticking to my guns. Amazon, as much is ever, needs to do ePub.

(Via The and Nate.)

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Google Docs: A quick way to get ePub from a Docs or Word file or other common formats


If you want a quick-and-dirty way to turn a Google Docs file into ePub, then Google has a solution—a new feature that lets you export into that format.

Using Word instead? No problem. You could import Word into Google Docs, then export from there (the format must be newer than the one for the Microsoft 95 version of Word).

Among other major importable formats for Google Docs are HTML, .txt and .odt.

No, Random House isn’t likely to rely soon on Google Docs’s ePub export. But if you’ve just finished your novel or Ph.D. dissertation and want to beta-test it on friend, then Google Docs’ ePub capability could be handy.

Same if you’ve written a corporate training manual that you want employees to be able to read on their iPads or iPhones.

I tested this with a copy of The Adventures of Huckberry Finn in the text format from Project Gutenberg, and sure enough the results were readable in Calibre and Marvin on my iPad. Line breaks went astray. But I could have cleaned that up before the conversion (I’m in a hurry).

Here’s the command to reach the ePub export feature of Google Docs: File menu > Download as > EPUB Publication (.epub).

OK, good job, Google. Now when are you going to give us not just an ePub exporter but also stellar ePub editor?

Reminder: For more polished ePub for free, you could try Sigil.

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A brief guide to using Sigil

For book lovers, it’s an age of plenty. Thanks to e-books and ubiquitous computers, not to mention other devices, millions of titles are available cheaply or free, often as easily as clicking on a link. We’ve never been able to read more, for less money and effort, and that means a revolution in culture comparable to the invention of print, or pulp serial novels.

Part of this revolution is the ease with which you can make your own e-books. In a previous article I explained why you might want to, and gave a few hints as to how. Now it’s time to look at one way to do it—a personal approach that worked well for me. Consider it a taste of what is possible, a morsel to whet your appetite for discovering this new frontier on your own.

So, Sigil. You can get it at for Mac or Windows (Linux users, check your distribution’s package repositories). It’s free and open source software, so you don’t have to worry about restrictions, and if you have an older computer you’ll notice it’s also very light on system resources. I can’t help you with the installation process; let me know how it works.

Anyway, the first time you start the application it should look like in the screenshot below, possibly with more buttons because I have an older version:


The center column is a text editor. Simply start typing your document. Save it when you’re done, and that’s it! You have a perfectly good e-book that should work out of the box on your favorite e-reading device. (Unless that’s a Kindle, in which case you’ll need to convert it first. But that’s outside the scope of this article.) It’s really that simple to get started.

Of course, this first e-book you just made is going to need a bit of work before it starts looking professional. But first things first.

Acquiring the content


The first thing you need to understand is that the EPUB files Sigil works with are little more than archived web pages. If you happen to keep a blog, making e-books in this format will feel most natural. Otherwise, things might take a little adjustment. Let’s look at a few ways to get your content in the right format:

  1. Copy-pasting from your web browser or office suite. Beware, that only works right for text; if the pasted content includes images, it will look like it worked, but you’re going to have unpleasant surprises down the road. See below for how to handle image files properly in Sigil.
  2. Saving from your web browser. In the former case, make sure to choose “Web page, complete” in the save dialog if you want to capture images as well. Then select File -> Add -> Existing Files… in Sigil and point it at the saved web pages. Notice how it also imports any images referenced from these, but only if the images were also saved to disk.
  3. If all else fails, you can type your book directly into Sigil. It’s not the best solution, as the in-app editor is rather barebones, but it works, and some people like it minimal.

As for me, I use a more technical method: writing in Markdown format with a programmer’s text editor, then converting to HTML (that’s the language of web pages) and finally importing into Sigil as described above. I mention this for completeness, as it’s not for everyone. But your mileage may vary.

Either way, once you have your content in one place it’s time to start turning it into something resembling a book.

Organizing the content


On the left side of the Sigil window there’s a list of folders (labeled Book Browser): Text, Styles, Images and so on — you can ignore most entries for now. When you first open the application, or create a new document, there is only one entry under Text, called “Section0001.xhtml”. You can right-click on it and choose Rename… if you like. You can also add more sections in several ways:

  1. with File -> Add -> Existing Files, as described above;
  2. with File -> Add -> Blank HTML File;
  3. by splitting the current section with Edit -> Split At Cursor.

It’s a good idea to use multiple sections, both for easier editing and to help lower-end devices render your book without straining. How to divide your content is another story; for example, a novel might have each chapter in its own section, with the title page, acknowledgements and so on each in yet more sections (so you can mark them as such).

Note: Sigil calls these sections “files”, because they are in fact just files inside an archive. That’s what your EPUB file is: a container for even more files. From now on I’ll just call them files like Sigil does. Just don’t mistake them for your finished e-book. The latter is the one file with an .epub extension that Sigil saves to disk.

Naturally, you can manipulate files in many ways: reordering them with drag and drop, merging them — select two or more consecutive files and right-click to get the menu option — and even delete files you no longer need. Just be careful that operations on files can’t be undone. Save often and keep backups.

Once you have all your content in the right order and properly divided, you can in principle stop here. Most readers are going to read your e-book in order from end to end anyway. But have you ever seen a book without covers, table of contents and so on? Only if it’s been torn apart, and it’s just sad when that happens. So let’s see how to add some needed elements to your masterpiece.

The table of contents


You can of course create your table of contents manually by typing it in somewhere close to the beginning. Use the ID… and Link… options in the Insert menu to create bookmarks and point at them, respectively. But that’s a lot of work, you must remember to update it, and you’re forcing people to keep jumping back to the beginning. Worse, some apps or devices may not have support for links in the text.

Luckily, there’s a better way. EPUB files can have a special table of contents that can be accessed from anywhere in the book at the press of a button. And Sigil can create it for you automatically. You just need to let it know the outline of your book.

In the upper left corner of the Sigil window, on the second toolbar, there are buttons labeled h1, h2, h3… These indicate heading levels. H1 is for chapter titles and the like — top-level entries in the table of contents. H2 is for subheadings, and so on. Apply them as needed, then choose Table Of Contents -> Generate Table Of Contents… from the Tools menu. You’ll get a dialog where you can pick which entries to include. You can also select the maximum depth, and if your book has a fancier structure, with multiple parts and such, you can use the arrow buttons on the right to indicate the proper nesting without having to go back and mess with the headings again. Hit OK, and you’ll see the results appear in the rightmost column of the Sigil window. Voila!

(You can also single-click ToC entries to open them in tabs for editing, while in the Book Browser you need a double-click.)

Adding covers and other images


Unlike in print, e-books only need one cover image — the front cover, as it were. Graphics design is outside the scope of this article, so I’ll assume you already have one. Now, Sigil has an Add Cover… option in the Tools menu, but I never used it. Rather, I import my images manually, using the same File -> Add -> Existing Files… dialog we already encountered. Notice how they appear under Images in the Book Browser. Now all you have to do is right-click on the desired file and select Add Semantics -> Cover Image. That’s it! Now any piece of software handling your e-book file will know where to look.

You can also insert images right in the text, with the Insert -> File… dialog. Note that you have to import them first as above. Stick to formats like JPG and PNG, there’s no guarantee e-readers can handle anything else. Choosing the right size is another story, but many devices still have small screens. 1-2 megapixels should be large enough for a while.

Other metadata


Store or library records wouldn’t be very useful if books were just stuck on a shelf with no information about them. Any online retailer will at the very least give you the title, author, cover and a blurb. These are called metadata — data about something else, in this case a book. (The table of contents is also part of that.) I already showed you how to set the cover, but what about the rest of it? Sure, you probably have them all on the title page. Too bad your e-reader doesn’t know how to pick them out.

Enter the Metadata Editor (you’ll find it in the Tools menu). Upfront, it will ask you to fill in the title, author and language. Use the Add Basic button to fill in other details such as a description (the blurb), additional authors, creation date (you want it, trust me) and so on. There you go! Now your e-book can benefit from automatic indexing by various applications, such as catalog generators.

What’s left?

A lot more! Sigil is relatively simple, and we’ve still only scratched the surface. I didn’t say a word about styles and fonts, for example. That’s because working with those requires more specialized knowledge. Also, you don’t really need that stuff. E-reading software already takes care to make e-books look pretty, and you never know what kind of device your e-book will be read on. It’s best to just make sure titles are marked as titles (with those buttons in the toolbar) and so on, to make your intentions clear. Looks can then be changed easily.

Do look at e-books from other sources. Smashwords for example gives them to you without DRM, and you can use Sigil to edit any EPUB file, regardless of origin. See how they’re put together. Maybe you’ll even learn a trick or two.

Most of all, have fun. And never stop loving books.

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Breaking news: Mantano to become Bookari

Screenshot_2016-02-05-12-00-06Following my earlier post on the latest Mantano Ebook Reader upgrade, here’s one answer to the question I asked there: What’s going on at Mantano? Well, as you can see from the flash screen that the Mantano Ebook Reader pops up in its latest version, as of its next release, “Mantano Reader will become Bookari.”

Right now, there’s no indication elsewhere what that means for my – and many others’ – favorite EPUB reading app. A search of the Mantano Desk, which currently seems to be Mantano’s preferred venue for latest news and updates, turns up nothing for Bookari. Ditto the main Mantano website. The announcement itself doesn’t have, or link to, any further content. But obviously the game’s afoot. The new logo, as I suggested earlier, evidently is linked to some big new rebranding plans and strategic developments. I’ll get back with further news once I get some feedback from Mantano. Watch this space.

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