Monthly Archives: October 2009

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.


“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.


“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.


“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 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 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.