Tag Archives: Tech

Backup Your Android Phone Photos With The Google+ App

It’s easy to snap a load of photos and then run out of space on your phone, especially if your phone has an 8MP camera. I wanted to figure out a way to backup these photos automatically to my PC or a cloud service, and after looking around at options like Dropbox/DropCap, I discovered that the Android Google+ app has a built-in feature that allows you to automatically backup your photos to Picasa, the Google photo sharing site.

In the Android Google+ app, tap Menu > Settings > Instant Upload Settings. Then select your preferences. I have it set up so that my photos and videos are uploaded to a private Picasa album when my phone is on Wifi AND plugged in, which basically means overnight.

I can then go to the Pictures section of Google+ and decide which photos to share. Neat!

Google+ – Android Market.

My TSA Opt-out Story

[Found this on my phone – I’d started writing it using the very good WordPress Android app, then failed to follow through – what are the chances?]

I’m in Legends of San Francisco, the sports bar near our departure gate at SFO. We’re flying to Las Vegas for Xmas – Cassie’s folks are there, and her brother and his family will be there as well so we’re all heading down there.

I’d forgotten about the new body scanning machines. They look a bit like the machine Sam Malone uses in Quantum Leap, crossed with a smaller version of the giant machine in Contact, but without the dry ice and catastrophic failure. I’ve read a lot about these things, and the horror stories about pregnant ladies, children, people in wheelchairs and so on. So here’s my less-than-dramatic experience.

After I put my stuff in the trays, I stood for a second, and then the TSA person waved me toward the scanner. I said I preferred to opt out. There was a flicker of annoyance on the TSA guy’s face, perhaps a very slight eye-roll, and I was asked to stand aside. I had to wait a second because it was busy (although not as busy as we’d expected) they had to bring someone over.

The guy asked me why I wanted to opt out. I said it was because of the issues surrounding storage of the images, and (stupidly) because of the dangers of the radiation. He said that there was no danger from the radiation, and that the images were stored in a computer “just behind that wall there”. Why the location of the stored images of my family jewels matters, I don’t know. I didn’t say anything to that, but it’s well know that despite the TSA claiming that the machines cannot store images, despite the unpleasant (and obvious) fact that they TOTALLY CAN.

I am annoyed with myself for mentioning the radiation. I guess I was a little nervous, so I wanted to say what other people seem to be saying, but I know pretty well the “radiation” is a lower dose than you would get just be being at 30,000 feet anyway.

The second TSA guy took me aside, I stood on the mat with my feet in the foot marks, and he did the enhanced patdown. It wasn’t so bad, it was mostly like the regular one: all around the arms, legs, waist, back and front. When it came to the groinal areas, he went as far as the upper thigh and no further. There was no cupping. It wasn’t like the bit from Andrew Dice Clay about an examination at the doctors, “Then he starts jugglin’ my cojones like he’s looking fer ripe tomaters! I said ‘back off man this ain’t no fuckin’ social call!'”.

That was that. Cassie opted out as well, and she says it was the same for her with her TSA lady. All pretty friendly, and utterly pointless. But just to reiterate: There was no cupping.

Welcome To The Future

I’m posting this using my new HTC Incredible Android phone, which I received on Friday and spent the weekend playing around with.

It’s already overloaded with apps and nonsense,which I will no doubt remove soon.

This WordPress app is good though. I’m typing on the on-screen keyboard with the phone propped on my wallet to give it an angle and keep it in landscape mode. So far, so good, but its clear you couldn’t use it for long written pieces. I’ll have to try using the voice recognition feature to dictate a post next time.

I also need to figure out how to change all the various bleeps and vibrations for all the different notifications. Loving it so far though – glad to be free of AT&T. Haven’t found anything I miss from the Palm Centro yet.

Possible Use For iPad?

I’m not getting one, but I have to say these iPads are pretty intriguing, and I’d love to play around on one. Wil Wheaton has found a possible case of buying one after initial scepticism – board games. Complex board games like Car Wars and Arkham Horror. And reading that post, and the comments, made me think of the movie Big, with Elizabeth Perkins and Tom Hanks. Towards the end of the movie, Hanks’ and Perkins’ characters make a presentation about an “electronic comic book”:

JOSH
You see it won’t be like these where you just follow the story along. You would actually make a whole different story appear just by pressing these buttons.

SUSAN
An electronic comic book? That’s amazing!

JOSH
Yeah. An electric comic book. It’s gonna be different every time.

SUSAN
This is incredible. You’re brilliant–you know that?

JOSH
If you like one you could see it, you know, over and over and over  again.

SUSAN
You’re wonderful.

JOSH
You really like it?…You think Mac will like it? You know, what we could do…We could do like sports comics… or like if you’re going to steal second or something like that…You’d have sports books… baseball, football…really, it works with almost any sport there is. Hockey!

Later on they give a presentation which goes into more detail, including interchangable “disks” with new stories on them.

JOSH
There’s this flat screen inside with pictures on it and you read it. And when you get down to the bottom you have to make a choice of what the character’s going to do… Like if he going to go in and fight the dragon then you have to push one of the buttons.

SUSAN
See, there’s a computer chip inside which stores the choices, so when
you reach the end of the page, you decide where the story goes. That’s
the point.

MR. M
Terrific Susan.

SUSAN
A kid makes his own decision.

MR. M
This is really possible?

SUSAN
Yeah. In fact, it’s a very simple program. Isn’t that right?

MAN
So what happens when you run out of choices?

SUSAN
Well, that’s the great thing. You can just sell different adventures. Just pop in a new disk and you get a whole new set of options.

MAN
We could market this on a comic book rack.

MR. M
How much would the unit cost?

SUSAN
Well, our initial figure is around… around $7.00, with a retail cost of around $18.95.

PAUL
You expect a kid to pay $19.00 for a comic book?

Only the first time, you racketball-playing dick, Paul. The disks would be a lot cheaper, and you could have serial stories, new heroes, the possibilities are literally (OK not really) endless!

Talking of Big, Cassie and I like the bit when he calls his Mom, pretending to be his own kidnapper, to say he’s safe and will be coming home soon. She forces the “kidnapper” to sing the song “I used to sing to him when he was a little boy” to prove he’s safe.

Oh, I got it! I got it! “Memories, like the corner of my mind. Misty water color memories, of the way we werrrrrrrrrre. Scattered  pic-tures…”

The Choose Your Own Adventure books from Bantam weren’t a big success in the UK, but Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone’s Fighting Fantasy books certainly were, from the classic (and infuriating) Warlock of Firetop Mountain to the stranger Sword of the Samurai and more complex Starship Traveller. I had a few of these, and they were well-thumbed and covered in rubbed-out pencil marks. I also had a few of Joe Dever’s Lone Wolf books, which had a much more (IMHO) immersive story and better (and more creepy) artwork. These were similarly thumbed and marked, so in the end I got my Dad to photocopy the score page, so I could keep the pages free of scribbles.

Searching around, I find that the series is now freely available to download, or even play online, complete with links between pages, and all the beautiful artwork. You can also view an SVG flowchart of the pages! The HTML version looks like an ideal candidate for iPad play – but you still have to maintain your own scores and inventory, which would be a pain. Easy to implement though, I guess.

It looks like there would be a range of complexity for electronic comic books, from a simple text document with built-in choices, to added features like hit points and skill levels, item inventories and magic spells. It would be a blurred line between that and the old text adventures like Zork, The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, and, er, Ship of Doom. But rather than having to type in directions, like simple VERB NOUN stuff, or the more flexible Level 9 parser as used in my old favorite The Saga of Erik The Viking, it would be preferable to use on screen buttons. But the text parsers could allow a huge variety of commands, whereas a button interface would be limited. You could just display the set of commands possible at a particular moment, but that would make the game a case of just trying all the available possibilities, instead of thinking around a problem. I suppose it depends on how good the on-screen keyboard is.

Of course, it goes without saying that a Linux-based tablet would be more open, flexible and probably cheaper, and would allow all sorts of experimentation along these lines without being forced through the Checkpoint Charlie of Apple’s walled garden. But then I would say that, wouldn’t I?

This should be interesting.

Downscaling My IT Operations

My desktop computer has been playing up for a while. After it was shipped to the US, I managed to blow the power supply because I didn’t know it was non-auto-switched. I got the PSU replaced, but like someone’s back after a minor rear-end collision, things were never really the same again, Doc, just sign here, cheers thanks.
A series of problems manifested themselves. I would press the power button, and nothing would happen. I would press the power button, the machine would get through grub and then freeze on the Ubuntu logo. Or it would freeze partway through the drive check it kept wanting to perform. Other times it would boot up, connect to the network, and operate for hours, but then freeze at some random point when I was in the middle of doing something important, like playing Nexuiz.
When it froze, I found that neither pressing the little reset button or holding down the power button would work – I had to use the PSU switch on the back.
After some poking around and asking some questions, I was told that it may be the memory that was at fault. So I downloaded the Memtest86+ ISO file, burned a bootable CD from it, and rebooted then machine from that. The program found multiple errors, so I bought some new RAM sticks from Crucial. It was pretty simple to figure out which type I needed, because although the Crucial System Scanner only works with MS Windows, they had a tool to figure out what manufacturer and model my motherboard was. I bought the maximum 4GB, and when they arrived, I opened one stick and tested the box with it.
No luck – it still froze at the same places.
This was getting tedious, so I called Castro Computer Services, a few blocks down the hill from my apartment. I had checked their reviews on Yelp, and they seemed pretty good, and this feeling was reinforced when I dropped the machine off. An unassuming front window with blinds and a couple of screens showing screensavers hides a large workshop with big tables, those high stools you remember from the science labs at school, tools in racks, and machines being worked on, as well as a Yorkshire Terrier and a big parrot. I brought the machine in at the weekend (desktops are heavy!) and explained the various symptoms. Yesterday I got a call saying it wasn’t good news – my motherboard was dead. My drives were still OK, and all the other various parts are probably OK too. So, question: Do I want to build a new desktop and start again?
Perhaps not. I’ve been thinking about downsizing to a laptop for a while. Why do I need a big powerful computer? I don’t do video editing or music production, apart from the minor dabbling which doesn’t need much horsepower (think OpenShot, SoX, and espeak). I don’t really play games anymore, apart from some MAME, and the above mentioned Nexuiz. The former doesn’t need a powerhouse, especially for my older favorites like Strike Force, Robotron 2084 and Defender, and the latter can be scaled back to provide fast action without all the glow, shadows, particles and rippling water (I keep the blood splatters though, otherwise where’s the fun?). In addition to all this, space is limited in our apartment – at least space for a big desktop is limited. A big desktop needs a big desk. We have a smaller desk in the living room, but that has Cassie’s Macbook and papers on it. My big desk that I bought in San Diego takes up a big load of space in the bedroom, and it’s just not really justified anymore. I still have my nice widescreen monitor, keyboard, mouse, external drives and so on. I can plug those in if I need them.
So. A laptop. It just so happens that a few days ago I finally received my free Dell Mini 10v from Comcast for being such a good little customer. I was going to put it on eBay, and then buy another laptop with the proceeds plus some more, but the situation has forced my hand somewhat.
So it was that last night I spent a couple of hours setting up my shiny new black 10″ laptop. It came pre-installed with MS Windows XP, and I couldn’t resist playing Space Cadet 3D Pinball for a few minutes. I read around before breaking the seal on the box, and it appears that Ubuntu will install fine. So that might be a project for the next week.

Because we all now how well I deal with these ongoing IT projects.

It Was Twenty Years Ago Today, That We Went After The NSA

Had a fun and social time at the Electronic Frontier Foundation 20th Birthday party at SF’s famous DNA Lounge last night. Met up beforehand with foodie and antiques fan Adam at Tu Lan Vietnamese restaurant, which is a tiny grubby place, with amazing food at incredible prices. It was the first time we’d met after being that most modern of things, “Internet Acquaintances”, for nigh on six years, via Monkeyfilter, WTFIWWYP and so on. Great to finally meet.

After stuffing ourselves we went over to the venue, where the earlier VIP event was still winding down. But they soon let us proles in, and we had a look round the space. The DNA Lounge is pretty popular amongst the geeky set in San Francisco, and there are several club nights there I might take a look at. Then again, I haven’t been to a club proper in years – and an Industrial night called “Meat” may not be the best place to start.

I got to meet lots of cool people. Adam is friends with the EFF’s Rebecca from way back, a symptom of what he described was the incredible way that in SF, there only seems to be 3 degrees of separation (is that why lots of guys in San Francisco are big fans of The Three Degrees?). He introduced me, and it was nice again to meet someone who I follow on Twitter. Hearing my accent, Rebecca in turn introduced me to Veteran Of A Thousand Cyberwars Danny O’Brien, who was working the room like a pro after his on-stage antics, and he seemed pleased that I was wearing my old “Elite” NTK tshirt. We had a chat about the old NTK days, how it started, why it stopped, and why it’s no longer needed. I contributed a couple of tiny things to the site “back in the day”, including the Paunch tshirt of which I am not really that proud.

paunch_tshirt

Here’s a couple of Flickr sets from the evening, including clips of the hilarious “Legends of EFF” theatrical production, which told the story of the EFF, from the first case of the US Secret Service raiding an RPG manufacturer because they thought it was a cybercrime cell, through the incredible antics of AT&T and the NSA (just a block away from my office!), to the court battles over the Broadcast Flag.

Great evening, good fun, good cause, and it’s spurred me on to dump the evil (and under-performing) AT&T and get a better phone – so much of the social whirl seems to be driven by iPhones and Androids, and my battered Centro just doesn’t cut the mustard anymore. Plus I want a new toy.

On The Phone With Apple, Windows Help (iWoe Part 3)

I arranged a support call with Apple about my iPod woes. I filled in the form online, then I got a call from Texas straightaway, and I was connected with an agent. The options only let you choose Mac or Windows, so I had to explain the fact I’m on Linux in the little comment box.

I was put on hold for a bit while the agent got an expert over to help. The only hold music I could make out was Stevie Wonder’s Higher Ground. I couldn’t hear the rest of the music, because of a horrific rending, whooshing sound, which I though was just the line, but when the agent came back, I could hear them fine.

In the end, the expert said he couldn’t support Linux software, so all he could do was suggest I reset  the device using Menu+Center button. Ideally I should also Restore it as well, but to do that I need a Windows machine with iTunes and a net connection. I can’t do it at work, and Cassie’s MacBook only lets me format it as OSX.

I did ask whether the problem of showing “No Music” while at the same time having only 50GB free (consistent with the amount of music I transferred) was something that has showed up before. He wasn’t able to help, saying that the standard method of Reset and Restore were the only things he could suggest.

I guess I’ll ask around at work to see who could restore it for me. There must still be some Windows users in SF somewhere.

time passes…

I gave my iPod to a colleague, who said they could restore it for me on their Windows machine at home. Great!

At 23:30 that night I got a call from said colleague, asking me to talk them through the process. I did so, eyes closed, from memory, and at the end of a tense process, she said it was all done. She dropped it off at my desk the next day (in a Ziploc bag for some reason), and I tried to sync it with Songbird that evening.

It seemed to work. First I just sync’d a couple of playlists, rather than the whole thing. Then when I was confident it would work, I sync’d the whole thing. I think a result of that decision was that I have multiple copies of some songs on the iPod, depending on how many playlists they were in. Not a huge problem, but one to be solved at some point. For now, I just like having a working iPod in my pocket.

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!

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.