Saturday, September 23, 2006

Firewire problems: Hope springs, and then...

After upgrading to iTunes 7, I had a glimmer of hope that the constant iPod/Firewire problems might have software roots and be fixed within iTunes. I went almost a week, and 3 iPod synchs, with no lockups. Naturally, when the problem recurred, it was a doozy.

20 minutes after plugging in the iPod, it still hadn't synched and was hot to the touch from constant drive activity. The iPod icon was in Finder, but iTunes reported "unable to read the contents" of the iPod. Trying to eject via the Finder locked up the whole computer -- no dock, no finder, no Command-Tab switching, all windows unresponsive. That's the point where I yank the iPod out of the cradle and realize that was the smarter approach from the beginning; you get the "device was improperly ejected" error but otherwise no ill effects. Instead, after a solid half hour of spinning rainbow and no sign of the device error dialog, I had to power down the computer and lose whatever work was open.

And how do I repay the company that made such an unreliable computer-to-iPod link? Why, get another computer of course. :-) A new Intel iMac comes with USB 2.0 ports, and some of my Firewire drives also have these fast USB connections. Maybe reducing the number of daisy-chained drives will fix the lockups, or maybe the new iMacs have beefier fuses behind the Firewire ports. We can always hope.

Saturday, September 16, 2006

First Trial of Multiple Library Support in iTunes 7

I went round and round in my head looking for the best way to use an alternative iTunes library. (iTunes 7 lets you keep multiple libraries under one account, and choose the library at startup.)

In the end, the most practical turned out to be a simple "scratch" library to use for holding small bunches of songs while editing their song info. You know how iTunes can freeze for several seconds every time you make a tiny edit to a library with thousands of songs? Well, transfer a couple of dozen songs that need the same fixes into a new, empty library, and you can do those edits in no time at all. Look for the writeup here in a day or so.

The Success of the Apple Store

I must confess, although I live near the Emeryville Apple store, I rarely buy anything there and don't especially enjoy visiting it. It's in a very shallow, mall-ish, "Valley Girl" type of location. It's hard to attract the attention of the staff. When I visited today, I found that to get a customized system with my particular corporate discount, I'd have to go through the online store.

(On the other hand, I always enjoy visiting the Palo Alto store.)

Now, the Apple stores are seen as a good move on Apple's part. Why are they successful despite the up-and-down experience from store to store? For my money, it's the freedom with the demo machines. The guy who told me they didn't have any original Airport cards didn't just say that, he Googled for other sources to buy 'em. Someone thinking about buying an ElGato EyeTV was browsing that company's FAQ page. The Internet access and extensive range of apps running on the machines show off the machines themselves, and let customers do some investigation while right there in the store.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

First thoughts about iTunes 7

Computer problems delayed me from giving the new iTunes 7 release a thorough workout until today. Here are some impressions, which you can compare and contrast with what others are saying around the net.

Audio playback quality: No problems here. I have had a lot of problems with stuttering and non-responsiveness in the past. Since any change (even increasing the play count or setting a rating) always caused iTunes to save all the library data (in binary form and in XML form), iTunes used to stop updating its display and stop responding to Play/Pause/etc. controls about 30 seconds before the end of each track. Doesn't seem to be lagging like that anymore, although the recent reboot to upgrade QuickTime might also factor into it. I notice that when I quit iTunes now, there's a "Saving Library" progress dialog, so maybe it's less aggressive about writing every last change to disk now.

Video playback quality: Previously, I absolutely couldn't watch a video played through iTunes because of stuttering and lagging. I would always do File > Show in Finder and play videos through QuickTime. Now the performance is OK, even at full-screen, although a floating control bar appears with no obvious way to dismiss it. (Various attempts to dismiss the control bar just resulted in the video ending.)

Navigating via cover art: The new "Coverflow" view is cute, and performance seems to be good even with a big library. iTunes couldn't locate art for plenty of albums that I thought would be slam dunks. (Abba "Gold" for example.) The coverflow view will prompt me to go back to the Clutter freeware app and fill in some of the missing covers. The other cover-displaying view, a hybrid of coverflow and the song list, looks like it will be useful for playing or otherwise manipulating whole albums worth of songs. To use it productively will require some extra cleanup -- filling in missing track numbers, dealing with duplicate copies of songs from the same album, and turning off the "Compilation" flag for greatest hits albums all for the same group. I suspect both of the new views will work best with the library filtered down to something manageable, either by selecting a playlist or searching for an artist name.

Multiple libraries: I installed iTunes Library Manager, a shareware app that enables multiple libraries for a single user, some time back. But I never got enthused about it, because (a) if even a few songs from some category should go on my iPod, it's easiest if those songs are in the main library, (b) the search and sort options in iTunes are good enough that I don't worry too much about the number of songs, and (c) I didn't want to worry about whether it was OK to delete a song file, or if that file might be used in some other library. However, once the library gets into the tens of thousands of songs, memory and performance overhead pile up to the point where it's tempting not to keep iTunes open all the time.

So I am reconsidering the use of multiple libraries. I expect to keep all "active" music in one main library, and shunt stuff off to secondary ones as an alternative to unchecking songs or sequestering them in never-viewed playlists. I'll start off with those songs in a playlist, export the playlist from the main library, delete the songs from the main library, then import the playlist into the secondary library which has the side-effect of adding those songs if they aren't part of the library already.

Skip count: I see this as kind of a backup to the 2-star or 1-star low ratings. You might feel guilty assigning a low rating to a well-known song, but a high skip count can serve as evidence that you're just not that into it. Or, when listening to songs in the car, you can skip bad ones rather than spending the clicks to give them a low rating. (Think of it as Apple's contribution to driver safety.) Then, assign the ratings in iTunes later by looking for songs that were skipped. I envision tweaking my current "Never Played, Never Rated" smart playlist to be "Never Played, Never Rated, Never Skipped". Then once a song moves from that playlist to another smart playlist looking for a positive skip count, I'll know it's OK to give it 2 stars.

Backup via iTunes: Hey, there's a popular article on the Lifehacker blog explaining how to do this in older versions of iTunes. And I have my own more extensive version of such a procedure on this blog. Some Mac afficianados scoff at the idea as not being a "real" backup like you get with Retrospect. I liked the technique even when it took some work pre-iTunes 7, so at worst I'll stick with the old procedure. The big question is whether the backup options will be flexible enough. That is, can I back up just a specified set of playlists? Will the backup include unchecked songs? If I back up purchased music now, can I back up the entire library later? And will it get confused if I switch the backup type and select the option to only back up songs added or changed since the last backup?

Now that I've stepped through the dialogs (without actually doing the backup), it looks like the choices are not flexible enough to make me stop using the manual procedure. My whole library is too big for me to want to do a full backup now. There's no obvious way to restrict it to a particular playlist, or to say "assume I've got a decent backup already, and set now as the starting point for recording new/changed songs". This feature seems aimed more at people starting with relatively small libraries that can be backed up to just a few DVDs.

Come to think of it, after adding artwork to zillions of song files, I'll probably need to make a gigantic backup anyway!

Searching: Although from a usability standpoint I didn't like the Search Bar with all its options, now that it seems to be gone, I kind of miss the ability to see in advance which search option is selected before I start typing. Doesn't look like there is any way now to see different types of content like videos and songs all in the same list. That was a useful capability to figure out just how much U2 etc. someone had in their library. But I can see where it might confuse many people.

iPod sync options: Haven't tried 'em out yet. Still verifying that nothing bad has happened to my song files or library data! My multiple computers are different enough in terms of free space that I tend not to want to copy song files between them, except in very small numbers to the laptop before trips or while working on a media project.

Stay tuned for more iTunes 7 items as they come up...

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Cleaning the Pipes

Like many people, I have a couple of Smart Playlists that I frequently listen to on an iPod. There's one that's a variation of the built-in "My Top Rated", and another I made called "Never Played, Never Rated". (Try to guess what the conditions are for that one.)

Both of these playlists are big enough that I use cut-down versions on the iPod, by making other Smart Playlists with a single condition (Playlist is ) and a limit of some number of songs, "selected by random".

Now, Smart Playlists like this can get stale. You have some percentage of your top-rated songs, but the selection never changes. You have some bunch of unfamiliar songs, chosen way back when you created the playlist, and they only turn over one at a time. Newer songs only have a slim chance of being included as other songs drop out (as you rate or play them).

Normally, a Smart Playlist is impervious to the Delete key. If the playlist includes every song that meets some condition, or picks its songs based on date added, most played, etc., it's not practical to delete a song from that playlist. The same song would just reappear a moment later.

However, playlists with a limit "selected by random" form an exception to this rule. You can select and delete a song from such a playlist, and another (different) one takes its place.

So, to keep these playlists fresh, you can periodically select and delete all their songs. You'll get a whole new set. This technique keeps your iPod "Favorites" playlist from turning into an echo chamber, and brings your recently added songs into an "Unrated" playlist.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

More Firewire Wackiness

Recently I had some lockups on the hard drive that holds my iTunes library (the song files, not the library data files with all the ratings and playlists). Must be the killer heat lately, or the number of devices all hanging off the same power strip.

One of my big OS X gripes is how any sort of device problem tends to lock up every application, including the system GUI (Finder, Dock, file dialogs). To get things moving again, I had to turn the drive off and then on, leading to the usual "you didn't eject the device properly" warning. Although the system started working again, the drive icon didn't reappear in the Finder drive list. I noticed a new strange Firewire wrinkle. If I clicked on a symbolic link or alias that normally points to the rebooted drive, the window that opened actually displayed the contents from the next hard drive over.

Didn't think anything more of it, until I went to play something in iTunes. "iTunes can't find the song file", and an exclamation mark appeared next to the song. What the...? The same happened for any song. iTunes preferences showed a blank setting for the library directory. OK, that I could live with, but when I viewed the contents of the "iTunes Music Library.xml" file, all locations pointing to the old drive had been replaced by the name of the other drive, producing thousands of incorrect paths!

I was kinda looking forward to the opportunity to try out modifying the .xml file. This is the trick where you back up the "iTunes Library" and .xml files just in case, nuke the original "iTunes library" file, edit the .xml file to have updated path names, and start iTunes which rebuilds its library using the data from the modified XML file.

However, when I rebooted the computer, cycled power on all the hard drives, and started iTunes again, it once more found the songs in the right locations. Very strange how it would record completely wrong paths in the XML file, then reconsider once the files were once more available at their former locations. Just another reason to be cautious about anything involving OS X and a Firewire drive.

Dream If You Will A Picture

Ya know, I think the only 2 songs I've ever heard by the J. Geils Band -- "Freeze Frame" and "Centerfold" -- both get 5 stars in my iTunes library. Must be the combination of music and photography that makes them so appealing.

The same goes for Paul Simon and/or Simon and Garfunkel's "Kodachrome". Every time I hear that one though, I want to write an updated set of lyrics for the digital photography age. "Compact flash, give me those nice bright JPEGs, give me those RAWs and MPEGs..."

Saturday, May 27, 2006

The Worst Thing about iPods

I'm very happy that Apple has provided Firewire for fast data transfers for so long. However, if you asked me to name the worst thing about the whole Mac / iPod / iTunes system, I would have to name Firewire as my #1 gripe.

How do you stop an iPod from charging? Plug it into a Firewire port! When the iPod first came out, I read how you could trickle-charge it by leaving it connected to the Firewire port on a Mac instead of using its own power brick. Well, I've tried that more times than I can count, with iPods from different generations, and it's never worked. I've left an iPod plugged in for 2 days straight, and the battery indicator didn't budge. I've plugged in iPods that were near the end of their battery charge, and had them shut off in the middle of synching because of low battery.

How do you stop an iPod from synching? Plug it into a Firewire port! Macs have some sort of fuse to prevent Firewire from overloading the power capacity of the computer. Frequently for me, the fuse gets tripped, possibly because I've got some external hard drives daisy-chained off one Firewire port. When this happens:
  • Plugging in the iPod leads to about a 20-minute wait before the computer announces it can't read the contents of the iPod and I should reformat it. (Don't fall for this trick!)
  • The Finder, file dialogs, and anything else that tries to check available volumes also lock up during this period.
  • The iPod icon never actually appears in the Finder, so there's no way to eject it properly.
  • Unplugging the iPod causes warnings about how the volume wasn't ejected properly, with subsequent rise in system instability.
  • The iPod's hard drive keeps spinning this whole time, leading to excessive heat buildup, loss of battery power, and often the need to reset the iPod by mashing down the buttons in combination.
  • If the iPod has to be physically reset, it frequently forgets any ratings I've assigned using the iPod controls since the last synch. (Sometimes, this results in losing ratings for >100 songs.)
Once the fuse is tripped, it doesn't matter if the iPod is plugged directly into the computer's Firewire port or daisy-chained off one of the drives. It doesn't work in either case.

The fuse seems to trip spontaneously without any help from the iPod. That is, it gets fouled up just from having the external drives going, so even the very first iPod connection fails. Meanwhile, the hard drives all keep working happily; the fuse doesn't cause any problems for them.

Rectifying the problem requires serious disassembly of a system with lots of external components. I've found that the computer must be powered down, all external hard drives must be powered down, and all the Firewire cables must be disconnected -- computer to drive and drive to drive. I also unplug the power cables from the drives, just to be safe. Leave everything turned off for 1/2 hour, then most times the problem will be solved when everything is plugged back in and reconnected. Not always though; I've had to go through this process multiple times just to synch an iPod successfully once. Then the problem might happen again later the same day. Leaving the iPod connected in its cradle while the computer is asleep seems to exacerbate the problem.

Apple seems to have woken up to this problem, and lately all the iPods come with USB connections. My Nano charges perfectly well over USB, and I've never experienced any similar problem with USB, either for the Nano or my older iPod that I can connect either way using a dual-connector cable. However, those of us with older Macs don't have USB 2.0, making it an all-morning proposition to synch a Nano, or an all-day proposition to synch a larger iPod.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Optimistic and Pessimistic Ranking Strategies

With computer algorithms related to performance, there are often variations known as "optimistic" and "pessimistic". That is, you figure out whether each operation is likely to be trouble-free or error-prone, and arrange things so that you don't waste a lot of time going down the wrong path.

I've run through a lot of different scenarios for ranking songs, and found that these complementary strategies can save plenty of time and aggravation if you use them wisely.


Let's start with the pessimistic technique, because I've found this applies in more kinds of situations. For me, it usually involves rating songs on the iPod while driving. It could also apply while listening to a particular playlist, particularly on shuffle play.

You should use this technique when you're listening to music that is unfamiliar, or from a genre that's not your favorite, or from a whole range of genres. You don't have any particular reason to expect great things from each song. You might like an occasional song, but chances are that >50% will get a low rating.

With the pessimistic technique, as soon as the song starts playing, you give it a low rating. For me, "low" means 2 stars. That's the rating where I'll actually uncheck the songs so they don't get synched to the iPod or played on shuffle or sequential play.

With the iPod, this typically involves 2 presses of the center Select button, spin the wheel until you hear 2 clicks corresponding to stars, then you can either put down the iPod and or press the Select button one final time to go immediately back to the time display. Within iTunes, I'd recommend a utility like SizzlingKeys that lets you use a keyboard shortcut to assign an iTunes rating regardless of what application you're in.

With a little practice, it becomes automatic to assign the same low rating every time a new song starts playing, or immediately after you skip to a new song.

The key with this technique is that the moment a song starts to bore or annoy you, you skip to the next song without even a fraction of a second of unnecessary torment. The low rating becomes permanent, you assign the next low rating in the first 1-2 seconds before the next song can really get going, and most of the time this is all you need to do.

For those relatively rare cases where a song deserves a higher rating, you have to assign a new, higher rating later on during the song. But this is not so unpleasant to do for an enjoyable song. Since you expect most songs to get low ratings, it's more important to avoid going into a funk from listening too long to bad songs, or having to fumble with the rating controls before you can skip ahead.

This technique is appropriate for:
  • Diverse collections. I'm using it for rating songs from SXSW 2005, which featured hundreds of free songs across a wide range of genres.
  • Exploring an artist's back catalog. If the band isn't one of your favorites, you already know their hits, and just want to make sure all their other songs are rated, you can expect that most songs won't be all that good.
  • Taking a flyer on a new style of music. For example, if someone says "you really should try some" modern jazz, nu metal, world music from a place you've never heard of... In other words, some style that if you were actually going to like it, you'd probably know if already. Hey, you might be pleasantly surprised, and if >50% of the songs earn a good rating you can stop using this technique.


With the pessimistic technique, the priority is to get out of a bad song as fast as humanly possible. The optimistic technique uses the opposite approach, the idea being that most songs deserve a high rating and so should play all the way through without having to touch the rating controls.

Instead of assigning a (low) rating to each song as it begins to play, then bumping up the rating for the occasional good song, you assign high ratings to all the songs beforehand, and only lower them for the occasional bad song. There's an assumption here that these rare bad songs won't be especially bad -- maybe deserving 3 or 4 stars instead of 5 -- so it doesn't drive you nuts to keep listening while you bump down the rating.

This technique is appropriate for music that you are familiar with and have high expectations for:
  • A "Greatest Hits" album from a group you like.
  • A box set from one of your favorite groups.
  • An acclaimed album (critics' choice, or on some "greatest of all time" list), in a genre that you like.
  • A live concert, or collection of cover versions, where you already know the songs.
I usually save this technique for cases where the average rating is likely to be 4 stars (meaning it's much rarer than the "pessimistic" case above).

Because this technique involves assigning ratings in bulk before you even start listening, it's not appropriate to use with a Smart Playlist with the condition "My rating is blank". That's a great way to rate unfamiliar music, because as you rate each song it drops off the playlist, meaning you only hear each song once, until you've rated them all and the playlist is empty. But to do something similar for songs with pre-assigned, guesstimated ratings, you must get a bit fancier with Smart Playlists:
  1. Put the collection of songs you're rating into a standard playlist.
  2. Make a second playlist, this one a Smart Playlist, with "All" of these conditions: "Playlist is name of first playlist", "Play count is 0", "My Rating is ****" (or 3 or 5 stars, whatever you want to use as the default rating).
Now you can listen to this new Smart Playlist at leisure, with minimal need to fiddle with ratings. Once a song plays all the way through (and you leave its rating on the default setting), it'll drop off from the playlist. (I'm assuming here that you're rating these songs while listening to them for the first time.) If you decide to change the rating for a song, it'll also drop off the playlist. Listen long enough, and the playlist will become empty; all the songs will be rated, with minimal effort since most of them just keep the default rating you set up in advance.

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