despair.com

One of the .coms that survived (and ridiculed) the whole .com thing is despair.com. For years now their calendars have been a yearly treat. Hilarious, month by month (the individual months are put online, at unprintable but readable size). I’ve been regularly checking their site since around 1999. And now they have a vidcast. It looks like a regular business video but the content is pure satire. Be sure to check out every corner of that site.

New PC & moving itunes library

Update 30/07/2009I just bought an imac and moved the same, but now consolidated, library over to it. Check out the instructions here.

Whoohoo! My new hardware has arrived, last week. I’ve been busy playing with it so that explains the small delay in posting.

Right now I am still going through the tedious procedure of getting everything the way I want it. I have a local network so I can access my old PC. However, dragging my external HD between the two machines is much faster.
Tediousness includes copying my itunes library. Tricking itunes into accepting the old library is somewhat of a challenge. But that’s what’s google is for. Since I found google’s answers a bit disappointing (lots of drag this folder there type of stuff from Apple users), I’ll post some detailed instructions for real users who do not “consolidate” to the itunes folder but choose to keep their music organized manually. To add some difficulty, my new machine has no second harddrive so the paths are different after copying.

If all goes well everything is moved (music, playlists, play statistics, ratings) AND I can sync my ipod with the new pc without that requiring it to be wiped and refilled with the moved library. I’m moving the library, not recreating it.

The Itunes library consists of only two files, its own itunes music folder and whatever external directories you imported (two in my case). One of the two files is a binary file, the other one is an xml file with data on all your songs, including path names, statistics, ratings, etc. Essentially, the xml file contains everything we want to migrate except for the mp3s. Unfortunately, moving the itunes library is not as simple as copying the files to the new machine. Sadly, Apple deliberately made it hard to do what you are about to do. So here’s a step by step guide (windows specific though Apple probably is about the same):

  1. At all times, keep at least one intact backup of all files mentioned in this post. Never work on the originals. Preferably, leave the original library untouched, you can always go back to that.
  2. Start by copying your mp3 folders to your new machine. That may take a
    while. Make sure they are where you want them to be. It took 20 minutes for my folders using an external HD, not
    counting the time it took to create the backup from scratch on
    the external hd (basically I used my incremental backup). Also copy both Itunes files (xml and itl) and the itunes mp3 folder (if not empty)
    onto the external hd.
  3. Now dowload, install, run & close itunes. It will create an itunes
    directory for you the first time it starts, that’s where it will look for its files. Replace the stuff inside this directory (My Documents\My Music\iTunes) with the
    backups on your external hd (including the itunes music folder). Now here comes the tricky part. Thanks for
    this post for putting me on the right track! DO NOT start itunes again until after the steps below.
  4. First fix the pathnames in the xml file. They still point to the old location. Open the file in a capable editor, the thing to look for is search and replace functionality. Search and replace the parts of the path names that are now different: your itunes music folder and any other folders you imported in your old library. Save the file.
  5. Now this is important: iTunes will ignore whatever path info is in the xml file! Unless the itl file becomes corrupted. We can fix that! Open the itl file in an editor, delete the gibberish inside, save. Your itl file is now corrupted, normally this is a bad thing. You still have the xml file though (and a backup of the itl).
  6. Start itunes, it will ‘import’ your music and afterwards complain that the itl file is corrupted, let it fix it.
  7. Check if everything is there. In my case I messed up with the search and replace and some files were missing. Just go back a few steps, copy your backups and retry.
  8. Done. Everything now is on the new PC. What about the ipod? Just plug it in!. You already installed iTunes on the new machine so you have the drivers for your ipod. The key or whatever itunes uses to recognize you ipod is in the xml file. And now also in the recreated itl. Apparently the xml file is sort of a backup of the itl. I suspect the itl is a bit more efficient to manipulate programmatically. I have no idea if this preserves any itunes store stuff you purchased. Presumably, this involves deauthorizing your old machine and authorizing the new one. I never used the itunes store so it’s not an issue for me.

The only thing I lost in the transition is some iTunes preferences that are easy to restore. For example I had some of my playlists set to shuffle. The imported playlists no longer had the shuffle enabled. Big deal. The preferences probably aren’t part of the library. I noticed that the shuffle settings do not sync to the ipod either. This is annoying actually because the shuffle settings is deep down in some menu on the ipod and I only want to shuffle playlists. I like my album songs served up in the order that they were put on the album.

I’ve used winamp for most of the past decade (I think from 1996?). Only when I got my ipod a few months ago, I started using iTunes, by choice. There is an excellent winamp plugin which will allow you to sync winamp with your ipod. Presumably, moving a winamp library is a lot more easy since winamp uses a file based library rather than a database. However, the main developer has left AOL, so winamp development seems a lot less interesting these days. AOL seems to just pile on commercial crap with every release. So I’ve given up on it for now.

The coming paradigm shift in TV broadcasting

The coming paradigm shift in TV broadcasting
The coming paradigm shift in TV broadcasting

This article comments on Apple’s latest move to offer video content through their iTunes and how this is a logical and inevitable move with some far ranging effects.

In this blog post I abstract from this and apply it to the whole telecommunications, media and IT industry. Some things are about to change in this economically important sector.

It’s understandable they put up a fight. The telecommunications sector is built on the notion that exchanging information (in any form) costs money. The media industry is built on the notion that media needs to be distributed (physically) and that they can charge dollars for that. And finally the IT industry is used to steady income from license fees from software. All these industries may lose a lot of revenue if the rules are changed.

And that’s what’s going on. Apple just changed the rules for the Media industry. This will have a snowball effect. Right now if you want to watch something (movie, the news, tv series, documentary) you need to turn to one of the industry controlled and closely guarded media: cinema, a tv channel, a dvd, etc. Each of these things is a source of revenue to the industry and you pay directly or indirectly for it in all sorts of ways. There’s nothing against that in principle they offer access to scarce resources and people pay a market price for access.

Their problem is that Apple just made these resources a lot less scarce. Distribution through the internet of content is cheap and will become even cheaper. Technology will gradually erode the cost to close to 0$. There’s plenty of bandwidth available and an increasing amount of people has what I call a critical amount of bandwith: enough bandwidth to make streaming high definition audio and video feasible & desirable.

Apple is tapping into this by letting their users access content over the internet through their iTunes store and by providing the necessary hardware and software to them. That’s a small change and not at all revolutionary. But it will teach people an important lesson: hey I can watch desperate housewives (one of the offerings used to commercialize the new itunes ability) whenever I want, wherever I want and I don’t need to buy the dvd, I don’t need to turn on the tv on a specific time and I don’t need to watch the commercial blocks. The next steps are obvious and imminent: why store the desperate housewives episode on an ipod when you can just stream it? Mobile networks will soon mature enough to reach the same critical bandwidth as home users are currently enjoying on their home networks.

That means that anytime, anywhere you can start streaming anything to your mobile phone, your pda, your ipod, your tv that anyone bothers to put online. Inevitably this will replace all existing forms of content distributions. Why tune to a channel to view some program when you can just start streaming the program whenever you want, skip to any part you want and pause it whenever you want, etc?

Apple just gave the industry a little reality check, just like they did when they kick started online music sales a few years ago: if the industry doesn’t move, somebody else will. Over the next few months, one after the other media company will either join apple or similar iniatives from e.g. microsoft. Once this happens the pressure will be on and the market will do its work. Better content leads to more online revenue, at the cost of traditional revenue. The huge gap between cost of content production and content distribution and the market price (which is obscene) will start to come under pressure as well. At some point in the near future the market model will change from paid downloads to paid streams (subscription, per view, etc).

This will put an end to tv networks as we know them. They are content distributers and we don’t need them anymore.

The same is going on in the telecommunications sector where revenue used to come from telephony and related services. IP telephony has eliminated the need for paid telephone services since it works just fine over a modest internet connection. If you have umts phone, it is technically possible to use the internet for IP telephony so why exactly are we paying 30 cents per minute for a local phone call? Some mobile networks already offer fixed price bandwidth (expensive though). The operators on these networks get their revenue from a number of services, all of which with the exception of the network connection are technically possible with already available software packages that use the connection. People think it’s normal to pay 25 cent for the delivery of a 160 character message to a cell phone (SMS). If those two cellphones are umts phones and run msn, icq, aim, jabber or any of the other IM network clients you can send unlimited messages to anyone freely. Surprisingly few people have figured this out but they will. These changes are already happening and will kill much of the telecom industry as we know it. A mobile phone is nothing else than a general purpose computer with a umts modem or similar wireless connection and some general purpose software. The form factor is irrelevant.

Which brings us to the software industry because nothing of the above requires software with a pricetag greater than 0$. All of the services mentioned above can be implemented using existing, open source software. In fact oss developers have already done most of the work and created OSS media centers, video & audio codecs, communication software, real time operating systems and any other kind of software component you could possibly need to implement any of the services mentioned in this document. It’s just a matter of putting together the components.

So what remains is bandwidth, hardware and intellectual property. Any revenue not coming directly from these, will vaporize in the next few decades. The remaining revenue will still be sizable but probably less than the industry is used today. 50$ for a dvd now is considered normal today. I’d be surprised and disappointed if I was unable to watch star wars III on my mobile phone anywhere, anytime for over 5$ in about ten years. And no way am I going to watch that shit ten times.

My impression is that the whole proces will be slow thanks to the industry resisting any form of progress. It will take some outsiders, like Apple, to change the rules gradually. These outsiders exist and are already changing the rules.

iPod

As posted earlier, since a few days, I am the proud owner of a 60GB color iPod, which as of today is already obsolete. Nevertheless a few impressions.

My previous mp3 player was a shitty Philips 128 MB memory stick with even worse software (tip, don’t install it at all). The only nice thing about it (at least conceptually) was the fact that the volume controls were integrated into the flat chord you use to hang the thing (or yourself) from the neck. That was a slightly geeky, cool thing. Of course 128MB was way too little and the insistence of the thing to not keep track of what song you were playing and to play the first song of an album last was especially shitty.

The iPod on the other hand lives up to its reputation as a genuinely cool thing. What I was worried about most (the menu system) turns out to be a well designed, easy to use tool that does exactly what I want: expose my music which is organized on artist and albums as such and allow me to play albums from start to finish, the way the artist intended them to be played.

It came in some well designed packaging. Everything about it just looks cool. No cheap plastic but nice minimalistic, elegant design. Everything about the package screams: this is an expensive designer thingy and you know you just gotto have it. Once you open it the experience continues. The contents of the box are well designed. No styrofoam in here but nice white cardboard and again functional use of the available space in the box. Packaging is something you throw away but this packaging had me impressed as being elegant, beautiful and almost a waste to open and discard. If Apple understands one thing it is that the first experience matters.

The hardware itself looks really nice. It has a shiny chrome body with a nice white front. Except from a lock button on the top, right of the headphone connector the only controls are the disc in the center. The disc is a touch sensitive control with a round button in the middle and four buttons under it north, east, south and west. The north button is the menu/back button, the center button is the ‘ok’ button, east and west are next and previous and south is play/pause.

Navigating the menus works like this you stroke the dial clockwise to scroll down and counter clockwise to scroll up. The center menu ‘selects’ an option, the menu button backs you out of nested menus. So you stroke down to artist, ok, the pixies, ok, doolittle, debaser, ok and you are listening to one of my favorite albums. While it is playing you can go back to the menu by clicking menu four times and then navigate to settings, eq and adjust the sound.

Now one thing had me puzzled for a while: where’s the volume control? It took a manual to figure it out: while the song is playing, stroke the wheel to change the volume (clockwise for up, counter clockwise for down), easy and intuitive but people won’t figure this out by themselves the first time.

That’s the good part. Now the bad part: the photo feature of the color ipod sucks. I have a nice photoalbum at photos.jillesvangurp.com. Mirroring this to the ipod seemed like a good idea so I pointed iTunes to the root of my photo directory which contains well over a thousand large jpeg photos.
Problem #1: the photos take up more space on the ipod than on my harddrive. Apparently everything is copied full resolution to the ipod + some thumbnails.
Problem #2: the iPod screen is tiny and not very suitable for viewing photos. The screen on my camera is smaller and much better for this.
Problem #3: the ipod is incapable of recursive directory structures characteristic of well organized photoalbums. The first time I tried this, all my photos ended up one huge folder. Navigating from 1999 to 2005 took quite a while ‘stroking’ the disc.
Problem #4: it doesn’t use the meta information attached to the photos.

Clearly the first generation color iPod is a missed opportunity in doing anything useful with the color screen. Other than that, I am really happy with it. The sound quality is good, the head phones are decent. I connected my sennheiser headphone to get a better impression: excellent, clear sound.

iTunes v6

Well it’s only a few days ago I bought my ipod and now it’s obsolete already :-(, bastards. The new one is also 60GB, looks just about the same but can now also play videos on its slightly less tiny screen. In addition they upgraded iTunes from version 5 to version 6. I installed it just now, eager to find some improvements.

I’ve clicked through all the options and they are exactly as I rember they were in version 5. To confirm that I was indeed running v6 I of course checked the about dialog and indeed I am now running v6. I have absolutely no idea what it was they fixed or what was added or what actually made them decide this was +1 version increment instead of a .01 version increment like the version I installed this weekend. Probably it has something to do with the online store which now also sells music videos and disney crap, which I can’t play anyway (and have no desire to play) on my new ipod.

iTunes review

After about a day of intensive use of iTunes (5.0.1.4, win32) I have decided to stick with it for a while. However, I’m not entirely happy with it yet and I’ll list my detailed criticism here.

1) It looks nice but it is not very responsive. Especially not when managing the amounts of music the ipod is intended for. I am talking about the noticable lag when switching from one view to another, the lack of feedback what is doing when, apparently, it can’t respond right away to any mouse clicks.

2). I am used to winamp which has a nerdy interface but gets several things right in the media library that iTunes doesn’t. The most important thing, the notion of a currently playing list of songs, is missing. That means that if you are navigating your songs, you are also editing the list of songs that is currently playing (unless you are playing a playlist in a seperate window). This is extremely annoying because this means you can’t play albums and browse your other music at the same time which is the way I prefer to listen to my music.

Steps to reproduce: put the library in browse mode (so you can select artist and than album), select one of your albums, start playing the first song. Browse to some other album, click the next button. Instead of playing track 2 of the album you were listening to (IMHO the one and only desired behavior) you were playing the music stops because by now a different set of files is selected.

A solution (or rather workaround) to this would be to create playlists for each album and play those. This cannot be done automatically. I have 300+ albums. You can drag m3u files (a common playlist format that simply lists the files in the order they should be played) to itunes (good) but if you drag more than one it merges them into one big playlist (bad).

3) So if you have m3u files for your albums or other playlists, you still need to import them one by one. That sucks.

An alternative solution would be to treat albums as playlists when clicked upon.

The best solution is of course to do it like winamp. Until you start to play something new the player plays whatever is in its current playlist. If you click an album, that becomes the current playlist. So simple, intuitive and yet missing. Of course it contradicts with the misguided notion of putting checkboxes in a list of 5000 files. The browse mode sort of covers up for this design error by automatically unchecking everything hidden by the browser. That’s why your album is unchecked when you select another album.

I can guess why apple chooses to not fix this issue. It requires changing the user interface to add a list of currently selected songs. This product is for novice users and adding user interface elements makes it more complex. Incidently the ipod is much smarter! It doesn’t change the current selection until you select something new and browsing is not the same as selecting!

4) Double clicking a playlist opens a new window! The idea of a playlist is to play one song after another (like I want to do with my albums). Effectively the playlist becomes the active list once you start playing it. However, as discussed above, iTunes does not have a concept of a current playlist so they ‘fixed’ it by opening a new window. IMHO this is needlessly confusing (for windows users, I understand multiple application windows is something mac users are more used to).

5) Of course this conflicts with the minimize to traybar option which only works for the main window. You can also play playlists like albums but then you encounter issue number 2 again. Conclusion Apple’s fix for issue number 2 is a direct cause for number 4 (serious usability issue) and this issue.

6) A separate issue is album art. Many users have file based mp3 players like winamp which store album art as a separate folder.jpg file in the directory the album mp3s are in. iTunes has an album art feature but will ignore those files. Worse the only way to add album art is to add the image to each individual music file (so if your album is fifteen tracks, the same image must be added to fifteen files). Aside from the waste of diskspace (or worse flash drive space), this is just to cumbersome to manage. I found a neat tool that can automate fetching and adding album art for albums.

7) Finally some issues with the help system. I normally do not refer to help files unless I need them. A day of using iTunes has forced me to do this several times because the user interface has a lot of obscure buttons and options that are not always self explaining. For example the menu option “consolidate library” sounds rather scary and, as I found out by reading the help file, you probably don’t want to click it. Another beautiful option is “group compilations when browsing”. This is a bit harder to figure out because the help search feature returns one result for ‘compilation’ which is a huge list of tips.

The problem: the help information is not organized around the userinterface like it should be. Task based documentation is nice to have but not if you are looking for information on button X in dialog Y.

So why do I still continue to use it: it is integrated in a clever way with my ipod 🙂 and I hope to find some solutions to the problems above using 3rd party tools. Ipod integration seems to work rather nicely, just plug it in and it synchronizes. I have the big version with plenty of space so I just want everything I have to be sycnhronized to it and this seems to work well. Except for one thing:

8) Apparently I have songs that the ipod can’t play that itunes can play. The synchronization process warns of this by telling me it can’t play some songs but fails to inform me which ones (so I can’t fix it)! The obvious solution would be to translate these songs to something it can play when copying them to the ipod (and keep the original in itunes). All the tools to do this are available so it should just do this, no questions asked.

UPDATE

I’ve found some more serious issues with drag and drop:
9) You can drag albums to the sidebar to create a playlist and you can drag playlists to a folder but you cannot drag albums to folders to create a playlist there.

10) Dragging multiple albums sadly creates only one playlist so this is no solution for problem 2 and probably shares the same cause as problem 3.

Music

I was thinking about buying an mp3 player lately. I knew I wanted one. Not a shitty 512MB samsung but the real deal. Nor some shitty wannabe ipod from Philips with crappy software but the real thing. Inevitably this drew to the conclusion that I just had to buy me an ipod with 60 GB 🙂 and a nice color screen. Yes they are expensive but I don’t care.

Right now it is charging. Except from a minor conflict with my usb extension cable, the installation went fine. The installer barfed out with an ‘assertion failed error’ that should never be displayed to users. After I connected the ipod directly to the pc the installation completed without further errors.

Right now it is charging and copying my mp3s and a few thousand photos to its disk. In a few hours it will be done and then I can enjoy some music :-).

iTunes on the other hand will take some getting used to. I’ll give it a try but I’ll likely go back to winamp unless it is really neat.