Yearly Archives: 2009

Xmas Rapping Re-release

I couldn’t resist reposting this for the new decade.

Ho ho ho, ho ho
Ho ho ho, ho ho
Ho ho ho, ho ho
Ho ho ho, ho ho
Yo when I step up in the place you know I step correc’
Wooha! Got Yule in check
Got that egg nog shit that make you break yo’ neck
Wooha! Got Yule in check
You know we come down to wreck the chimney stack
Wooha! Got Yule in check
Raise up cups of Christmas cheer don’t ever disrespec’
Wooha! Got Yule in check

Apologies to Busta Rhymes and everyone else in the world. From an original idea/SMS by G Wilson, dogg.

Peace Out On Earth, Good Will To All You Muthaphuckas.

2009 – WTFIGO?

It’s about that time. I’ve got a nice lunch and some cocktails sloshing around inside me, so I just wanted to say to you all, Happy Holidays, and the best wishes of the season!

Interestingly, despite the US supposedly being a theist cloud cuckoo land, it’s much more acceptable to say “Happy Holidays”, so that’s what I’m doing. As I’ve said before, Xmas to me is about the atmosphere, lights, yes gifts, food, family, friends. Cold weather helps. San Francisco is certainly colder than San Diego, but not as cold as London, from what I see on the telly.

It’s been quite the decade! Lots to talk about, but in the meantime, I just want to repeat

HAPPY HOLIDAYS

Nice New Old Dresser

Now that Cassie and I are settling in our new place in labradors-strollers-and-badly-parked-SUV-crossovers-ridden Noe Valley, I needed to get hold of a dresser for my half of the bedroom. I had a tall dresser from Ikea in the UK, and I wanted something similar here. However, I didn’t want to go to Ikea again, because I wanted to find some more solid and long lasting. I’m through with temporary solutions – I want something that will stay with me for a while.

So, I set up an RSS feed for Craigslist on the word “dresser”, and a few days later, one crops up that seems to fit the bill. Solid wood, five drawers, right dimensions, $80. We contacted the seller, and on the Saturday morning we drove in the Jeep to collect and pay.

I’m really pleased with it – good solid pine, and built to last. And heavy! Even empty and with the drawers out, it was an effort to get it down the stairs at the seller’s and up ours. Apparently the same model new would cost over $500, so I got a great deal. The seller said that he had owned it since he was 12, and it was nice to think that it had been used and taken care of for that long. When I got it into my corner in the apartment, I cleaned out the drawers, aired it out, and put down brown lining paper before loading it up with the various clothes and personal effects which were piled up on the shelf. Very satisying. It goes well with the parquet flooring.

After talking to friends, it seems clear that men prefer the tallboy style of dresser (not to be confused with the “tallboy” cans of cheap beer that litter the gutters in the Mission) because men get ready to go out standing up, whereas the ladies tend to sit and do things in mirrors.

Whatever. I’m pleased my pants and socks have a decent home now.

Before taking the dresser home, we went to get some breakfast, and ended up having a nice omelet at a Palestinian restaurant that also does omelets. We looked into Lovejoys Tea Rooms, but it was busy, with a wait of an hour for a table. We’ll definitely go back there, perhaps with houseguests. They also have a cute little store opposite that sells teapots, loose tea, dainty teacups and all that shit. They also, joy of joys, sell Branston Pickle, which even at $6.50 a jar is worth it. Apart from basic black tea, it’s the only UK thing of which I need a regular supply. Dark Chocolate Digestives would be nice too, but there’s no shortage of fancy cookies here.

PDF Forms, Linux, Fax Machines And Pain

Because I know you’re all crying out to hear about how things are going in SF with C, I’ve decided to write about creating PDF forms in Linux. I knew you’d be pleased.

When I got home from work at about 18.45 a couple of days ago, C told me she had to had to fill in (or is it “fill out”, now I’m “American”?) a form for a job application. It had to be done quickly, and we agreed that it would be best to do it electronically. That way it would be neat, legible (not that C’s writing is poor, quite the opposite) and correctable in case of error.

The form was a PDF file, but it didn’t have form fields built in, which would have allowed C to simply enter and edit her information. This is fair enough, I think. Many organizations have PDF creation tools, such as the Adobe PDF printer, and of course Mac and Linux systems have PDF printers built-in. Anyone can create a nice form in a word processor and create a PDF for distribution. But form fields require fancy tools to create, and as such they aren’t as common. Surely, I thought, surely there is software out there to add form fields? Surely there is a free or open-source package to do this?

(If you’re thinking, “But you can create forms with MS Word”, kindly leave.)

Google found me several possibilities.

pdftk – The PDF Toolkit

Command-line tool which looks very powerful from my brief glance at the man page. Can chop up PDFs, rotate pages, and much more, all from a command-line interface. But it doesn’t enable you to add form fields. You can complete them, by providing a text file containing your desired entries, but not create.

Inkscape

I tried Inkscape as a side-attempt, but it screwed up the fonts in the document. Inkscape is great, and well worth using and supporting. It’s an open-source vector graphics editor that uses SVG as its native format, but it can open, edit and save PDFs as well. I’ve used it for fun and flyers and stuff, but for this purpose, it wasn’t the tool I was looking for.

PDFescape

This turned out to be the one that saved us. PDFescape is an online, JavaScript powered, GUI-driven PDF editing system. You can create PDFs, edit and download them, or save them to your free account. And yes, you can add form fields, so that when you download the PDF, you can use Adobe Reader, Gnome Evince Document Viewer (the default Ubuntu PDF viewer), OSX Preview, or your PDF viewer of choice to enter your details, and then save or print the results.

It’s worth noting that Evince doesn’t work right when filling in fields. It doesn’t use the correct font size you set when creating the field, using instead a tiny sans-serif font. No good.

At first the process ran like this. I would open the PDF in PDFescape on my Ubuntu desktop PC downstairs, then use the clearly laid-out interface to add text fields and check boxes. I was able to save at regular intervals, and when I was ready, I downloaded a finished PDF to my Desktop, and then copied it to our shared folder on Dropbox, where we regularly swap files.

C would then open the PDF in Preview on her Macbook upstairs, finding various errors and problems with text size, placement and so on. So I would open the form again downstairs, make the edits, re-save and on it would go.

At one stage my PC froze, which it does from time to time if I don’t watch it. I think it may have been due to my moving the desk on its casters to plug the printer in – I find US power sockets very tenuous and wobbly. Not like the huge, proud, Imperial heel-crippling UK ones – that’s the spirit! Luckily, the PDF was saved on the PDFescape site, so nothing was lost. A quick reboot and re-login allowed me to continue.

One persistent error with the form fields caused the text entered in one field to be duplicated in another, somewhere else in the document. This was probably due to the moving, copying and pasting I was doing. I reported it as a bug anyway.

After a few loops of the edit-review cycle, we realized it would be easier to add the form fields and add the text at the same time, on my PC, with Cassie dictating the contents over my shoulder. So we did that, and eventually, at about 1.30 (yes, AM), we had a document that was completed and ready to print and sign.

Printing, yes…

I have a printer that I rarely use, an HP PhotoSmart 8050, which has worked well in the past, although the cartridges are of course excruciatingly expensive. I set it up, and a couple of test pages showed that it wasn’t printing right. I cleaned the cartridges, but that didn’t help. I think the 18 months and more that it has sat unused in the cupboard had meant that the ink in the cartridges had dried up. By a huge stroke of luck, I had one black and one color cartridge at the back of a drawer. I inserted them, ran the alignment, and all was running fine. We were able to print the PDF so that C could sign and date it.

This printer is pretty good, all told. But the cost, and drawbacks like this of rare use, have got me think about alternatives. I’ll post something about my thoughts later.

It was now nearly 2AM, and although we could have connected up my crappy USB-powered flatbed scanner, which would have another painful project, scanned the signed copy and emailed it, we were both dead on our feet. C said she would take it to a copy shop to fax it the next day.

Jensen’s Mail and Print up the hill from us charge $2 per page to fax a document. This of course is outrageous, and part of why they have consistently terrible reviews on Yelp. Not wanting to pay $20 to fax the 10 pages, C got them to scan the document. She emailed it home, and then found that some problem meant she couldn’t forward it to the person waiting for it. So she emailed it to me at work, to ask me to fax it.

The quality of the scan from Jensen’s was terrible, it looked like a bad fax. If I faxed that again, it would be doubly illegible. Eventually, C went to a Kinko’s, and they faxed the original. It was done!

-oOo-

All in all a pretty unpleasant experience. I looked around on the net for faxing alternatives. All the fax software you can get expects you to have a fax modem in your PC, which I don’t. There are services which will provide you with enterprise-level email-to-fax services, which allow you to email an attachment to a special email address, and have it pop out of your contact’s fax machine, complete with attachment. That would be ideal, but it would be nice to have a one-off service for situations like these. The available services are all $10 a month or thereabouts.

The Phone Company provide a free fax service, which allows you to send text messages from your email account, via a specially formed email address to any supported fax number. Because it’s a free service, not all numbers are supported, and you have to check first. Also, if you have to send non-text information, it has to be in a MIME attachment type, such as TIFF. Not so bad, but a bit labor-intensive. But free!

Writing Things Down So I Don’t Forget

When I was employed in my first “proper” job, which in fact I have to this day, I was always trying to find ways to organise my thoughts and notes in such a way as to record everything I needed to know, and to remember, and to write up elsewhere. I would watch respected senior colleagues draw margins in notebooks, and scribble with pencils and fountain pens, and try to incorporate their methods. Now, finally, as I approach 38, I feel I have settled on a pretty decent system. It’s just a few things I do, and I don’t know if it’s perfect or even ideally suited to me, but I thought I’d lay it all out in plain sight.

The Tools

I use a regular hard-backed spiral bound notebook, with the spiral on the side rather than on the top. In the UK I would use a A4-sized one. Sometimes it would book-bound rather than spiral, which didn’t matter much. Now in the US I use some weird thing that is 7″ wide by 9 1/2″ tall. Doesn’t really matter. This book is my everyday notepad, work to-do list, sketchpad (I’m an engineer who thinks in diagrams), and everything else. I also use Outlook for email and calendar, but I carry the book around, to meetings and so on. It’s my record of everything. I have a shelf with about half a dozen of them.

I have one blue and one black Parker Vector fountain pens. I find that my terrible handwrting (I’m an engineer after all) is at least partly legible if I use a fountain pen. Failing that, I have a couple of Pilot G1’s floating around. I also have a Staedtler Mars 780 lead holder for pencil sketches. I love the metal knurling, but wish it would stay sharper for longer – the lead pointer makes such a mess.

The Method

In the insde front cover, I write the date, so that I know when I started using the book. When the book is full, I write the date again. This gives me a record of all my notes.

I number the books pages in the top outside corner as I go, and give it a margin if it doesn’t have one, using the old hold-the-pen-with-fingernail-against-edge-of-book-to-get-straight-margin-line-method. My current book has margins, and date boxes and all sorts of good stuff.

As I write stuff down during meetings, I draw a little box next to each task, or other notes if they’re required. Then later I can go through, rewrite stuff, and check off the tasks. When everything on a page is done, checked, ticked, or otherwise finished with, I write a diagonal slash across the bottom outside corner. That way I can flick through and see that there is nothing on that page that needs my attention.

Once a bunch of pages is completed, I clip them together using a small foldback clip. If I have one undone task on a page which is preventing me from marking the page as complete, I copy it to a newer page, marking the number of the new page in the tasks little box. On the newer page, I also mark the task with the page it came from, to show that it  has been deferred, and should be dealt with quickly.

That’s it really. Pretty simple. Considering it took me years to settle on a method that seems to work, you’d think it would be more complex and profound. Nope.

Anecdote: A colleague used to use a small tape recorder to record thoughts on the way home in his car. It was quite amusing what he would do to mark the end of one thought and the start of another – when he had finished talking about one subject, he would make a long, low beep noise, “beeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeep”.

Later, when he was trying to find his various thoughts on the tape by using the fast forward and rewind buttons, he would be able to hear his speeded-up talking, interspersed with high pitched, “biiip!”

25 Albums – Pet Shop Boys – Actually

Part of the 25 Albums project.

Spotting a trend yet? Not one for the rock music, me. Maybe later in the list.

The Pet Shop Boys’ second studio album was the one that really pushed them out, with several chart hits. They had the 1987 Xmas Number One, with a song that still makes me tear up, the cover of Presley’s Always On My Mind (which didn’t appear on this album, but never mind). It was just what everyone was into, and I had a taped copy from Paul, or Gavin. I listened and listened…

One More Chance

“The city is quiet, too cold to walk alone, strangers in overcoats hurry on home”

This album always had a very “London” feel. This was the late ’80s, with large amounts of development along the banks of the Thames, new sterile yuppie communities springing up and images of “strangers in overcoats” hurrying on home. This song always made me think of what it would be like to live in the capital, in a modern flat in the Barbican, for example, or in the new Docklands area. A clean slate of an environment, and a clean slate of a life. No history, or at least a history buried under smooth concrete and frosted glass.

Musically, this album has quite a few similar tracks. Despite the fully electronic instrumentation (I think it was one of the first to be performed on digital instruments, mastered digitally, and then distributed on a digital format, that is, the CD ([D][D][D])) it’s the organic sounds that strike you here. The tom-toms, the strange sampled “meep-meep” sound, and most evocative of all, the squeal of tyres in the underground car park.

In common with many tracks on this album, it combines some quite sparse sounds and drums, with atmospheric strings and piano, all given a big space with some reverb. Lovely stuff.

What Have I Done to Deserve This?

“Now I can do what I want to – forever…”

The video for this always makes me smile. Backstage rushing about, dancing girls getting ready, and the Boys just doing their standing around thing, while Dusty grooves as the curtain goes up. PSB had wanted to do a big theatrical performance tour around this time, but couldn’t afford it. Later they could, and Performance was the result.

This is a classic story spelled out in song. Broken relationships in an unfamiliar (to me) place and time. I wonder what it would have been like being of “dating” age when this album came out. Or at least 30.

When Dusty Springfield sings her second verse, and the strings take off, it makes me shiver.

Shopping

“I heard it in the House of Commons, everything’s for sale”

Little bit of politics. There were lots of de-nationalizations around this time, with electricity, gas and telecoms companies all being sold off. Add to that the fact that the new entrepreneurialism was sweeping away lots of traditional industry, and Thatcher (may the ground swallow her) was cementing her leadership. Yuppies, free market enterprise, those who can’t streamline go to the wall (“what wall?”), “no such thing as society”.

Musically, not a great one. More sampled voices used as instruments, electronic horns, and so on. Let’s move on.

Rent

“You buy me things, I love it.”

A classic, and another twisted love story. Quite the giveaway as well. There were those who thought PSB tried to hide the gay aspect of their music and background. Fools. Famously (?) covered by Carter The Unstoppable Sex Machine, this one. It hangs around in a melancholy key, but some phrases lift themselves up into a more optimistic space, before dropping back.

Hit Music

“… all night long to your desperate hit music”

Quite a barnstormer. Cunning use of string hits, and touches of sampled crowd noise to make a point. Pop music is an outlet. You work the working week, then dress up and head out for your dose of hedonism. A bit like Soft Cell’s Bedsitter, except you get the impression that the subject of this one has a job.

I like the way this one switches to a slower groove for the fade-out, leaving a nice space for the next song…

It Couldn’t Happen Here

“In six-inch heels, quoting magazines”

A slowie! The title theme for PSB’s movie starring them and a crazed Joss Ackland! I never saw the movie, funnily enough, but I loved Ackland’s manic grin on the cover of Always On My Mind.

The lyrics refer to Tennant’s early days in London, when they “were never being boring”. Optimism, friendship, followed by sadness and disappointment.

It’s a Sin

“I didn’t care and I still don’t, understand?”

A real breakthrough hit for PSB. Big stab at Catholic school education and an apocalyptic trashing of Catholic guilt. Weird sample about “20 seconds…” or something. Big blarey horns and synths, great beat.

I Want to Wake Up

“I stood at the kitchen sink, my radio played songs like Tainted Love and Love Is Strange

Talking of Soft Cell. A bizarre love triangle, a kitchen sink drama that mentions the kitchen. Musically, pretty similar to most of the rest of the album.

Heart

“If I didn’t love you, I would look around for someone else”

I didn’t like this one when it was released as a single. But repeated listening on the album melted my resistance a bit. It’s a bit like It’s A Sin, but not quite as triumphant. Strings and synths again, with a swirling guitar, is that?

I was unaware that Ian McKellen played the Nosferatu-like protagonist in the video.Would that have changed my initial opinion? Hard to say, considering I didn’t know who he was at the time. Still, a favorite now.

King’s Cross

“I’ve been hurt and we’ve been had. You leave home, and you don’t go back”

Prescient indeed. In my original taped copy of this album, this song overran the end of the tape, and as it was a slowie, I wasn’t that bothered. But it rounds off the London feel of the album. Stations, streets. It touches on homelessness, street life, drugs. It’s one of the reasons I liked PSB so much – they had one foot in the gutter and one in the… perhaps not penthouse, but a nice flat in Islington at least.

I was interested to read that The Sun tried to get PSB to release this one as a charity single after the fire, but they refused. I bet that didn’t endear them to the noble, upstanding integrity-ridden Sun or their highly intelligent and dispassionate readership.

Overall, the tracks seem to fall into two types, the string-laden reverb-y slowies which ended each side of the vinyl or cassette versions, and the rest, which were mostly simple synth-and-drum-machine workouts. Standouts were It’s A Sin and What Have I Done To Deserve This?. Another example of an album which grabbed a time and place for me.

“Stop the car! I’m getting out!”

Restore An iPod Without Windows, iTunes Or A Net Connection

This is a continuation of an earlier post about getting music onto my iPod in Linux.

After all the to-ing and fro-ing with various music software, my iPod went a bit strange. It showed all my music files on there, with album art where I had added it. But if I tried to play a track, the ‘play’ symbol would appear in the top right, but the time bar would not move from 0:00 and no sound would come out. After pressing ‘pause’ and ‘play’ a couple of times, the iPod would crash, showing the Apple logo before restarting and showing all my tracks again.

I decided that doing a hard reset and wiping the iPod clean (called a “restore” in Apple-speak) would be a good idea. How to do that. Well, according to the help files, you need the following:

  • either a Windows PC or a Mac
  • the latest version iTunes
  • a net connection

Cassie has a Mac, but from what I understand, I didn’t want to restore my iPod to Mac format, because I need it to be formatted as FAT32 to allow Linux to connect to it. So I needed a Windows PC.

I have admin rights on my work WinXP laptop, so I brought it home, installed iTunes and tried to connect the iPod. Unfortunately, probably because of the way the laptop has been set up to access the company WAN, I couldn’t get a net connection at home. So I tried it at work, and still couldn’t get a net connection, despite being able to access the web.

The most frustrating thing about problems like this is searching for your error message, and finding forums at the manufacturers site overflowing with people with the same problem, but no way to fix it, and the manufacturer not stepping in to help.

So, how do you restore your iPod when you aren’t running Windows or a Mac, you “don’t have a net connection” and you don’t have iTunes. After some searching, I found this great set of instructions: Jose Mousetrap: How to repair / restore iPod firmware on linux.

I followed the instructions, and apart from a couple of minor quirks, they seem to work. I have reproduced what I did here, with the minor changes I had to make.

First unplug your iPod and run this command:

% sudo fdisk -l

Then plug your iPod in, wait for it to mount, then run:

% sudo fdisk -l

again, and note what has changed. You should have another drive added to the list, such as “/dev/sde”.  Now run the following, and select the options as described:

% fdisk /dev/sd* [where * is the device representing you iPod, as noted above]
n   [make new partition]

At this stage I could not create a new partition, becase it said there was something already there. What the hell, I thought. I opened Gnome Partition Editor, selected /dev/sde and wiped it. Back to fdisk. I ran the following commands, then selected the commands as below to create the partitions.

% fdisk /dev/sd* [where * is the device representing you iPod, as noted above]
n   [make new partition]
p   [primary]
1   [first partition]
[just press enter -- default first sector is 1]
5S  [5 sectors -- big enough to hold 32MB]
n   [make new partition]
p   [primary]
2   [second partition]
[just press enter -- default first sector is 6]
[just press enter -- default size uses all remaining space]
t   [modify type]
1   [first partition]
0   [first partition has no filesystem; ignore warning]
t   [modify type]
2   [second partition]
b   [second partition is FAT32]
p   [show partition map]

Device Boot    Start       End    Blocks   Id  System
/dev/sd*1          1         5     40131    0  Empty
/dev/sd*2          6      3647  29254365    b  Win95 FAT32

w   [commit changes to disk]

This creates two partitions on your iPod, sd*1 for the firmware and sd*2 for storage.

Then download the right firmware for your iPod from this site. The file you download will be an IPSW file, which can be opened with an Archive Manager. Extract it somewhere convenient. Note the name of the firmware file.

To install the firmware to the iPod type this command:

% sudo dd if=FIRMWAREFILENAME of=/dev/sd*1

BE 100% CERTAIN YOU TYPE THE RIGHT SD*1 NAME! For example, don’t try to install iPod firmware on your computer hard disk by accidentally typing ‘sda1’ instead of ‘sde1’, unless you like reinstalling your operating system.

To format the storage partition type this command:

% mkfs.vfat -F 32 -n "ipod" /dev/sd*2

This creates a vfat partition of F32 type named “ipod”.

Unplug your iPod. Reboot if necessary. You should see a picture on the screen telling you to plug it back in for charging. Do so – hopefully all should be fixed, it will automatically mount.

(end of instructions)

All seemed to be well. I had an empty iPod, which mounted nicely in Banshee, my new music player of choice. Banshee is now the default in Ubuntu, and it works fine, and fits in well with the scheme of the OS, without adding extra weird controls and stuff. I’m not bothered about skins.

Time to do a sync, after some quick housekeeping.

  1. Run Songbird to organize tracks
  2. Run MusicBrainz Picard to tag untagged tracks
  3. Run Songbird again to be sure – use the Find Duplicates and Find Ghost Tracks tools to clean up the database
  4. Run Banshee, updating the library from scratch to ensure I had a clean sheet.

I ran Banshee and tried to sync the tracks across. Banshee looked like it was working – about half an hour to sync 7500 tracks across. Then I clicked the ‘Eject iPod’ button. “Ejecting iPod” appeared. But then Banshee decided it needed to sync everything all over again. Another half an hour.

When it had finished, and the iPod was ejected, I checked to see what tracks were on the iPod.

Nothing. Empty. Godammit.

To be continued again. Fun this, isn’t it?

Songbird, Amarok, Ubuntu and iPods

This is a marathon rambling one about iPods, MP3s and my struggles to get the two together. It’s been sitting in my Drafts folder for ages, and recent events have made me finish and publish it.

When I first got an iPod (white 20GB color model in 2004), I was still running Windows on my PC. Apple’s software, while bloated and jarring a bit with the look of Windows, remains the best way to sync your Windows music collection with your iPod, no question. The playlist functions are great, and for a while, it really did “just work” – plug in the iPod, iTunes started and synced up. All was well. I also like the way I could drop whatever badly tagged MP3 I wanted in my music folder, and iTunes would see it, and file it in the correct artist folder. I would check the “Unknown Artist” folder regularly to re-tag stuff.

Then I switched to a Linux distro, Ubuntu, after some earlier dabbling with Mandriva back when it was called Mandrake. I had to find a new way to sync my iPod with my Linux box, and there were several choices.

Amarok

Amarok was the first choice I tried. This was back a couple of years, so it was an earlier version. I notice there is a new one out now – Amarok 2.2 – which may be totally different from the one I tried.

It looked kind of OK, but had a strange way of dealing with playlists. When you double-clicked on a file in your library, it didn’t just play it, but created a new current playlist with that track as the only member. It’s a bit blurry now, to be honest, but I remember it had some unusual and unpredictable UI behavior.

It couldn’t watch a folder for new files and file them correctly, but you could manually ask Amarok to “manage files”, which would rename the files according to the tags. This was very useful at one stage in particular.

With the correct plugins installed, it was apparently able to sync to an iPod. In common with most FOSS music player software, Apple iPods needed special treatment, unlike all the other DAPs. Typical. Unfortunately, I found it very difficult to figure out how to sync. There seemed to be a possibility to just copy playlists across, but I wanted to set up playlists on my PC, and have them mirror across to the iPod, just like iTunes used to do.

I tried searching online, in the official help files and elsewhere, but I have to say there was little help to be found – a symptom of getting the user base to write the documentation. In the end I decided to try something else.

Sidebar – Removing duplicate music files using Amarok on Ubuntu Linux

One thing Amarok did let me do was remove a ton of duplicate files from my collection. I got into this situtaiton because of another great Amarok feature – the ability to copy files from the iPod to the PC. I did this to make sure I had everything in one place, because I wasn’t sure how many files on the iPod were already on the PC. There were definitely files on the PC that weren’t on the iPod. But this created 4000 duplicates! 75% of my collection! Uh oh.

After some thought I came up with this solution. Using Amarok, just use the cool “manage files” feature, which renames your files according to their tags. Renaming your files can also mean moving them, because you just rename them with path information according to Artist, Album and so on. I switched on the “overwrite destination” function, so that when multiple files with the same tags were renamed, they would just overwrite each other, leaving one. By doing this, and testing it first, I was able to get rid of all the duplicates.

Songbird from Mozilla version 1.0

After leaving Amarok behind, I started to use Songbird for a while, because I already used and liked Firefox and Thunderbird (and more recently Sunbird), so it seemed natural to collect the set. It had a plugin installed by default for iPod support, and it seemed to do almost everything I wanted (although not everything that iTunes could do).

Cassie had bought me a new iPod for Xmas 2008, a black 120GB “Classic” (you know you’re getting old when what you remember as the standard model is now the “classic” version). I plugged it in, and Songbird mounted the device and allowed me to synchronize. Sync works like iTunes. You can sync all files and playlists, or a selection of playlists, or manage your files manually. I like to sync all, for simplicity’s sake.

But as time  went on, Songbird started to irritate, and then annoy, and then frustrate, and finally anger me. It seemed like every time I clicked a control, it would take ages to respond, to the extent that Ubuntu would do that lovely “fade to grey” thing it does when it’s struggling to respond. Mounting the iPod started to take several minutes, when it worked at all. The UI is OK, but the default is very small text, and irritatingly small controls, and while I could have installed any number of “feathers” (skins), I took the easy route and gave up on it.

Sidebar – “Party Shuffle” on Songbird

Songbird allows the creation of regular playlists, and smart playlists with the usual filtering features. There’s no “Party Shuffle” on Songbird yet. There is an add-on called “Party Shuffle” which claims to implement this feature, but all it seems to do is generate a one off random playlist according to some rules. What I want is the following:

  • Random selection of songs
  • Filter by tags (e.g. only songs in genre X)
  • Allow drag and drop of other songs you think of while playing
  • Allow view of upcoming songs
  • Allow removal of songs from queue
  • Auto-update of playlist

Perhaps there’s some way to do this using a combination of a normal playlist and a smart playlist.

This has been discussed at length in various places, so it’s definitely something people want.

Organizing music files

Amarok does this already, as described above. Basically I want software to use the MP3’s ID3 tags (Artist, Album, Track Title etc) to rename the file and it’s path, effectively moving the file into the appropriate folder. Some people don’t like their music software to do this, because they want to manage it all manually. I’d rather let the machines do the filing, with guidance and minimum intervention.

EasyTAG

EasyTAG says it can do this, but I find the interface far too complex, and the possibility of renaming all the files incorrectly has stopped me from testing this too far.

Songbird 1.2

The latest version of Songbird, 1.2, has the ability to watch a folder, and add any new files that appear to the library. It can also shift files around according to their tags. Great! Just the functionality I want. Sadly, all the other problems remain, so while I leave it installed to organise my library from time to time, I won’t be using it to sync with my DAP.

Musicbrainz Picard

This clever thing doesn’t rename files and put them in correct folders, but it did a great job of correcting my tags. It reads the files and makes a digital fingerprint of each one. Then it matches them against the Musicbrainz database of tags, and allows you to easily retag a load of “unknowns” with the correct artist, album and so on. It was a bit tricky to understand at first, but once you try it with a few files, it becomes very simple to use.

Once the files are renamed you can use another program (like Songbird 1.2) to automatically move them to the correct folder.

A Problem

But all of this experimentation meant that something very odd was wrong with my iPod, which led to some angry words.

Continued very soon.

The Ducks And The Slabs

Recently, gaming blog Kotaku had an interesting set of instructions to allow you to adapt videogame classics to be played in the playground. It reminded me of a game we used to play in the playground at my primary, Scott Lower School.

In the playground there were these three large concrete slabs stuck in the playground. They were flat on one side, probably with painted circles and targets for throwing balls at. The other side had a sloped section at 45 degrees, which stuck out about two feet from the bottom. They were known as “The Slabs”, and from what I can see, they’re not there any more.

In the gender-polarized world of the 5-year-old, girls would play on one side of the slabs, and boys on the other, although there may have been some crossover. I doubt it involved me if there was. The girls used to do handstands against the side with the sloped part, and the boys would play something altogether more … sinister.

To the tune of When The Saints Go Marching In they would sing “When the Ducks Go Marching In”, and walk past the slab in a row. A lone kid with a tennis ball or a small toy ball would would throw the ball at the row of kids. If a kid was hit, they would be out, and they would stand with the thrower. If they weren’t hit, they would run around the slab and back for another pass.

Eventually, one person was running past the slab, as a group of children cheered them on and sang, while the thrower desperately tried to hit them with the tennis ball.

I think the ducks thing was referring to those old carnival games where you fired pellets to knock metal ducks over, as simulated in the video arcade classic, Carnival. Hence the Kotaku link.

OK, not so sinister. Anyway, it was either that or Kiss Chase (yuck!) or worse, Knicker Chase! Double yuck! (At least until eight or nine years later…)

A-Movin’ And A-Truckin’

Cassie and I moved in together, at the same time moving north to San Francisco. Double whammy! Luckily, my company paid for the move, so we were able to sit back and relax as paid men boxed all our crap personal effects and loaded it onto trucks.

They were amazingly quick, because they weren’t distracted by everything they picked up, like books or scraps of paper, they just packed everything in their path. They were like locusts, it was incredible. We had to shift all of the stuff they weren’t to take out of the way. That was easier for me, because I was living alone in San Diego, and I had a spare room. I just put my suitcase and the stuff I was taking by car in there and told them to ignore it. It was harder for Cassie, because she had a roommate, and lots of his stuff was mixed up with hers, especially in the kitchen.

But because they were so quick, they also ended up packing some stuff that was a little unnecessary. They would open a drawer, take a sheet of their wrapping paper, grab a handful of the drawer contents, and wrap it up, almost without looking at it. This meant that when we were unpacking, we would open a bundle of paper to find that they had wrapped a couple of paper clips, a half-burned tea light and some lint. If we had packed, it would have taken ages, but we would have purged at the same time. As it was, while unpacking at the other end we filled the trashcan twice over, and the recycling bin, and two or three boxes for the thrift store.

It was kind of embarrassing to have them running up and down stairs in San Diego on a very hot day, while I literally just sat on the sofa. There was nowhere else to sit, the sofa wasn’t being moved, and it was out of the way. I walked to 7-11 and got them cold drinks, but other than that I was just hanging around, keeping out of their way and answering questions from time to time.

Once they had left me alone in my little place in San Diego, Rimah, the best landlord I’ve ever had, came over and we did the paperwork and final sorting out. Then it was time to hit the road, first to LA, where Cassie had just said goodbye to all her stuff as the movers whisked it away.

Her place looked weird, completely empty. I don’t think her roommate had much of an idea how much of the furniture was hers. A blank slate, so he can make his mark. We spent a day or so making final preparations, meeting friends, feeling too hot thanks to the local brushfires, and getting psyched up. Then we hit the road, Cassie in her Jeep and me in my Audi, stopping first at Home for a final breakfast. We didn’t plan to drive caravan the whole way, but that’s the way it ended up. We got a mighty convoy, ain’t she a beautiful sight, only with Bluetooth instead of CB Radio. We only got split up in the morass to pay your toll and get over the Bay Bridge into San Francisco itself. Once we arrived, we had a bit of a rest before inflating our temporary air beds and getting comfortable before the delivery of our stuff.

In San Francisco it was the same embarrassing situation. I stood there with a clipboard, while the movers dealt with the stairs, boxes, and sweat. When they left, Cassie and I were stuck with the task of trying to make all this stuff fit in our apartment. We’re still trying now,  but slowly and surely we’re getting there.

After unpacking, we had a dozen boxes filled with flattened other boxes and wrapping paper. A call to the movers and they came and collected that as well, for reuse or recycling.

And here we are! It’s been couple of weeks, and we’re pretty settled, but there are some boxes around the place which whisper to us and make us feel guilty when we watching whatever’s On Demand on the cable. Soon, my boxy friends. Soon.