Thursday, 18 June 2009

iPhone OS 3.0: audio and video scrubbing

There has been a lot of hype about the iPhone 3GS and the iPhone OS 3.0. I have decided not to go for the 3GS and to hold off for the next iteration. I will have gadget envy for everyone with the video camera feature, the digital compass and the voice control, but I don't think it's fully worth the upgrade.

In any case, of all the features I saw published, I found a few useful ones today on my trip into work and back whilst I was listening to an audiobook, music and video (plus fiddling with the software on and off!). They are all to do with playback and scrubbing through the media. It used to be a bit patchy and confusing and I'm pleased to say the quality has improved. Moreover, you now have a few options when scrubbing through your media.

Let's start with music. When you activate the bar that shows your position in the track that's playing you could always hold it down and navigate to a point in the track. That was alright, but now, when you hold down your finger, you are presented with this (not easy to read as your finger is covering most of the text!):

The Hi-Speed scrubbing note tells you that you can "slide you finger down to adjust the scrubbing rate". The lower you go, the slower the scrubbing gets, and hence you get greater accuracy. First you go from the default Hi-Speed to Half Speed:

As your finger goes further South, you get Quarter Speed:

And then at the lowest point you get the most accurate Fine scrub:

It's not a massive feature, but I find it quite useful for navigating more accurately. Unfortunately it's not included in the Remote app just yet, but I'm sure they'll get there.

Next we look at Audiobooks. Once again, you get the scrubbing feature, which is potentially even more useful here, since they tend to be long tracks and hence it can be easy to get lost. I haven#'t bothered to show any screenshot, since it's exactly the same as the music version. You also get a nifty 30 second rewind button to press, which is great if you lost concentration or nodded off for a bit. I will press this each time I finish listening so that I get a 30 second recap each time I start again to key me in. You don't get this on music tracks:

You'll notice on the image above that on the right there's a white box with "1x" written in it. This button adjusts the playback speed. You used to be able to do this in the settings of the main iPhone, but now you can do it whilst your listening. One tap changes it to "2x":

A second tap changes it to half speed:

And a third brings it back to normal playback. I don't think I'll use this much, but I'm sure it's useful for some.

Lastly, you get the 30 second recap feature and the scrubbing functionality on Vidcasts, but you have to be watching them in portrait view in order to see the controls. It did not seem to work on videos I had uploaded onto my iPhone:

So far, I've been really impressed with the OS 3.0 upgrade and have also had fun with the MMS functionality, sending pics and audio from the new voice recording app - for once the UK gets something ahead of the US! It took a while for O2 to activate it today, but they got there at about 3pm.

Wednesday, 3 June 2009

I Love Stars (for Mac) and SkiniTunes (for Windows)

Skinitunes is something I've found after looking for a windows equivalent of I Love Stars which is only for Macs.

Basically, I wanted to find a way to play music on my computer and to be able to rate tracks without having to turn my attention away from what I'm doing and go into the iTunes window.

Unfortunately, the iTunes miniplayer and toolbar player that Apple include with the software do not allow you to rate tracks.

I Love Stars is a Mac solution that places stars at the bar at the top of your screen:

Screenshot 1

I like it for its imsplicity, but there's nothing like it for WIndows, as far as I could find. I got the next best thing which is SkiniTunes. this gives you more features and flexibility in an iTunes mini player.

I can still choose what I want to play in iTunes, and then activate SkiniTunes to run. I can then rate tracks as they play and skip without losing focus on the current window.

If anyone out there knows of anything like I Love Stars for Windows, please let me know...

Thursday, 21 May 2009

Rating your music in iTunes easily, but thoroughly

Have you wanted to rate your mp3 collection in iTunes, but never got round to it? It's another one of those all consuming tasks that just seems too unwieldy for a 25,000 song collection. It would take ages.

I have been on a little odyssey to clean up my collection to make it easier to listen to. After all, there's no point having lots of music and letting it all fester. I realised, that after finding that iTunes was my answer for a media player and MediaMonkey was my answer for my tagging needs, that I also needed to put in the leg work on rating my music before it would become user friendly.

Obviously, this is a very personal thing as no one will have the same likes and dislikes as anyone else on the planet. Therefore, firstly you need to come up with your rating strategy. Here's mine:

5 stars - absolute favourite tune and I will never get tired of it
4 stars - a good tune that gets rises above the rest, but isn't one of those that I absolutely adore
3 stars - my neutral setting: all of these songs are neither like or dislike much
2 stars - these are songs that I don't really like but can tolerate if they came on
1 star - I hate these songs and never want to hear them again, but can't get rid of them as they are part of an album or compilation
No stars - either new songs that need tagging or music that needs deleting

Once the rating system is in place, I set every single track (assuming you haven't started yet) to 3 stars. This is the neutral setting, and in any case, will form the bulk of the collection.

The next step is the long and arduous journey through the entire collection. I recently committed myself to listening to my entire music library, trackable with iTunes playcount feature. This is going to take an absolute age and I had already listened to a significant amount of music before I decided to go ahead and rate tracks. Furthermore, I wasn't about to sit at my computer and rate music as each track passed. I work in an office and listen on my iPhone there. At home, we broadcast music with AirTunes. So I had an inherent problem as I was never listening to music directly in iTunes.

Fortunately, this problem drove me to find a solution that fitted my listening habits and how to rate tracks. Simply put, the iPhone is actually an excellent tool for rating music on the fly and iTunes is an excellent way of rating music retrospectively. Also, the crux of my process is that every track starts at a neutral position; the idea being that this cuts down on the amount of rating that needs to be performed.

Here's what I do…

Whilst listening to music on my iPhone at work
If I am listening to music on my iPhone, I keep it on the iPod application, specifically on the track listing screen. You access this by pressing the button at the top right when you're on the album art:

The top of this track listing screen gives you the ability to rate the current track by simply pressing the number of stars you require:

Keeping your iPhone on this area whilst listening to an album gives you quick and easy access to the rating system. If you keep the iPhone plugged into the power, you'll also save the need to unlock each time. This doesn't disrupt work too much, since I only need to rate a track if it's better or worse than neutral. Otherwise, I just let it play.

Whilst listening to music at home using AirTunes
Similarly to listening on my iPhone, I can rate tracks directly from my iPhone at home by using the excellent Remote app and the rather spiffing AirTunes.

It works in exactly the same way (the interface is identical) and only requires rating when a track is better or worse than neutral.

Catching up on the music I already listened to and was fresh in my memory
I had listened to a considerable amount of music which I hadn't rated, which meant doing it retrospectively. The best way to do this, if the music was easy enough to remember, was to use iTunes.

I simply placed a rating column in the track listing as so:

Then whenever you highlight a track you can simply tag the amount of stars you require:

You can do this in bulk very quickly if you are still familiar with the music and track names you have listened to. I caught up on half of what I had already listened to in about 3 minutes.

Catching up on the music I already listened to, but wasn't fresh in my memory
On the flipside, there were a number of compilation albums where I wasn't familiar with the track names or the music and it required listening again to choose a rating.

What I found here was that it doesn't actually take a long time to ascertain whether you like a track or not. You don't need to listen to the whole thing. A simple way to do this is to scrub through the track, stopping to listen about 5 times for a few seconds. This gives enough time to work out what the track is and whether you recall it enough to deem it a four or five star, or a two or one star. Otherwise, it remains at three and you don't need to do anything, since this is neutral and it is already rated as such.

I found it easiest to dump a group of tracks on to my iPhone and go through albums. After a few tracks, you get used to the process or scrubbing, listening then either going to the next track or flipping the screen to rate it. I did slip a few times and activate the Genius function, but it was easy enough to remedy. I think I could get through about 10 to 15 tracks a minute this way, which meant I quickly caught up on my backlog.

No doubt, you could just as easily do this in iTunes - I just found that my iPhone suited the circumstance for me.

Granted, I have only really just started on my rating odyssey, but at least I now have a system in place and it will only take as long as it takes me to go through my collection - not any longer. I also caught up on everything I had already listened to over the last couple of months in less than an hour.

If anyone has any tips and hints on how they go about this, I would be very interested to hear about it. Any pieces of software that make this even easier or your strategies for rating your music would be of particular interest.

Wednesday, 20 May 2009

Flash animated label cloud for Blogger!

Do you like my new tag cloud to the left?
Check out how to do this at this site which also has many other great Blogger hacks:

Blogger Buster
Blogger Buster: Blogumus: a flash animated label cloud for Blogger!

The Hunt for Gollum

Slightly off topic, but I've been looking forward to this for some time.
I've not had the chance to watch it properly yet, but can't wait to see how they've done.
It fills the wait nicely between the trilogy and The Hobbit.

Check it out here: The Hunt for Gollum
Or watch this embedded hi-def version:

Let me know what you think of it as well in the comments...

Thursday, 14 May 2009

The Tippopotamus 'todo' system

I've tried a lot of things over the years to try and keep organised. To be honest, I'm a bit of a hard sell as I can quickly tire of a system if it's not easy to access and easy to use. I started with paper and found that I didn't always carry a notebook and pencil with me. I tried using my laptop, but again, it's not something I always had with me.

Only recently (the last 3 or 4 years) have cellphones become powerful enough and sufficiently user-friendly to take on an organizational role. The good thing for me is that I carry my phone everywhere, so long as I'm wearing something with a pocket. I plumped for an iPhone as it really is the canine's cahones. The App Store really was the icing on the cake.

I set about trying a bit of everything until I found a system that really worked for me. This took a while, but I was very strict with my criteria, having been through a number of failures:

  • I needed to have an offline to do list on my iPhone
  • It needed to sync to the Internet for total backup
  • Ideally it would sync to an application on my laptop for offline bulk entry
  • It would also sync to a web-app that was easy to use, anywhere
  • Items would need dates, categories, tags, importance and notes
  • Tasks that had specific times or dates would show up on my calendar
  • I wanted the ability to add tasks verbally
  • It needed to cost very little, or be free
My current system covers most of these, but not all - there's still room for improvement. Here is a diagram of how it all works, and I will explain each piece of software and numbered step below:

The system really revolves around this excellent todo list web application. I only hit upon it after finding out that my iPhone app of choice synced with this and Remember the Milk. I tried out RTM, but found that you got more for your money (i.e. free) from Toodledo. The interface wasn't as pretty, but I rarely actually use the website itself - I do it all on my iPhone and synchronise.

Toodledo has lots and lots of features and ticks all the boxes in terms of functionality. I really don't have any gripes with it, especially since it is completely free. You can pay for some advanced features, but they're just dressing and not needed, in my opinion.

Essentially, Toodledo acts as my todo hub. Everything passes through it and I can trust it as a constant backup of all my task and notes information.

Appigo Todo
Toodledo does have its own iPhone application, but, my favourite is Todo by Appigo.

It's not free (it's £5.99 in the UK), but I think it's worth the money. They have provided a lovely clean interface and do updates every now and then that add lots of functionality. They made an update a couple of weeks ago that allowed nested tasks and checklist tasks, without compromising the simple and easy to understand interface.

Synchronisation (1) can be done to RTM or Toodledo. you simply press a button each time you want to sync (or make it automatic). This is great, because you have a constant backup and can recover your data in seconds if something goes awry.

I would add, that pretty much all my task population and editing is done directly on my iPhone, so the user-friendliness of this app is perfect for me.

UPDATE: Check out this screencast if you are interested in Appigo Todo's functionality and interface:

Appigo Notebook
I found that I was also keeping some records that weren't really tasks. Lists of things to buy or present ideas. Measurements or other data to remember. These did not suit a todo list, but i did want them available and backed up. I useed to jot them down in the iPhone notepad, but this wasn't that secure. I then tried the service called Zenbe Lists and was impressed for a while. However, it wasn't very fast and seemed a little clunky to me.

I then saw that Appigo released a notebook and decided to buy it for £2.99. It was worth it and now my todo list and notes are consolidated, since both apps sync to Toodledo (2). This is great for backup, but also means that where I have lots of text to enter into a note, I can do it quicker by accessing the notes portion of Toodledo and doing it there.

Phone numbers also show up automatically on the iPhone version - I have found it great for doing research on my laptop for suppliers or trades persons and then calling them from my iPhone after a quick sync.

I was envious of all the folks in the US being able to use Jott for free before it started charging. The great thing was that a couple of options presented themselves that worked in the UK soon after Jott went fee-based.

I tried reQall for a bit, but it was trying to do more than I needed it for. I then found the brilliant Dial2Do - a free service that works just like Jott does and it does the UK.

Using it, I am able to send emails and sms messages, but more importantly, it can populate tasks in Toodledoo directly (3). This means that if I'm out and about, I can simply phone my Dial2Do number and say "Toodledo", then say my todo item. When I next launch the iPhone app, I sync and there it is!

There are lots of other functions you can do with Dial2Do, but I stick to Toodledo and the Email (which I use to send myself the odd piece of information I could forget). I don't use Dial2Do much, because I can often just enter the data directly into the iPhone, but it's a useful option to have in your todo arsenal.

Google Calendar
GCal as it is sometimes known is great and I would normally fully adopt it if I was not bound to using Outlook at work. Toodledo recently added the functionality to import your tasks into GCal using the iCal protocol (4):

This means that I can now look at my weekly calendar and see tasks with a date at the top of each day. Tasks with a specific time get placed at the correct point in the day. This is a great way to look at the week ahead - you can see todo items and your schedule all in one place. Now, if only I could get that into Outlook...

Microsoft Outlook
As you may well know, Google Calendar Sync allows you to synchronise your Outlook calendar and your GCal (5). This is great as a backup and also so that you can see your calendar online wherever you are. However, there are a couple of drawbacks (or opportunities for Google to work on, if you like).
  • GCal can only sync with the default Outlook calendar
  • GCal can only sync the main calendar in GCal, not iCal imports
This means that I can't (for the moment) get my Toodledo tasks into my Outlook calendar, which is a real bummer. I'm sure they'll sort this at some point, but right now, I'll just have to make do.

Furthermore, I keep two calendars active in my Outlook mailbox. One records my forward plan and the other records what I actually did. I find this useful for retrospectively finding out when things happened (e.g. tax returns). Only one of these syncs to GCal.

Before I move on, I would like to give a nod to Chromatic Dragon's utility ToodledoSync which allows you to sync from Toodledo (and hence from your iPhone) to Outlook's tasks. I used this for a good while, but then decided to stop as I was not using the tasks function in Outlook much. It works really well, and if you need this option, this is the solution.

iPhone Calendar
Of course, all this syncs back to my iPhone from Outlook (6). In a perfect world, my todos would be in Appigo Todo, Toodledo, GCal, Outlook calendar and my iPhone calendar. The only thing stopping this is being able to sync iCals in GCal to Outlook. It does manage to sync my two Outlook calendars, though, presenting them in different colours, which is really nice.

So, I'm almost there - just waiting on technology. I'd be interested to see what anyone has to add on this and if I've missing any utilities that can fill the gaps. I'm sure there might be other solutions out there that do the same things in slightly different ways, but I find this one works well for me and has cost less than a tenner (so $15ish). I have definitely become more organised because of it and find that after a little bit of setting up categories, tags, folders and whatnot, every piece of information has its own place.

Adopting iTunes for the uninitiated

Have you grown tired of Windows Media Player's clunkiness, MediaMonkey's interface or [insert your music software here]'s something or other? I was and decided to go and give iTunes a try. I was afraid of letting iTunes rule my collection (see my previous post on how I got there), but have been happily using it ever since I got over this.

In terms of how I went about adopting iTunes, here are the main steps I went through.

1. Read this iLounge article

This is all the research you need to do as it gives a great overview on how iTunes handles your files and where data is stored. I found it invaluable in getting my head round my personal transfer, even though it was adopting iTunes and not moving my library.

2. Back up your entire collection
Just go ahead and copy your current music folder somewhere safe. You never know, you might not like the change and rue the day you read this article. Always backup your music library so that you never have to weep into your pillow. Also, this is a good time to make sure all of your music files are in the same place as it means you won't miss importing any into iTunes when we get to that step.

3. Decide where your library is going to be (don't move any tracks yet!)
All your music is going to be in one folder, so decide where that's going to be. I chose to put everything on a portable external hard drive as I wanted to move about with it. I also chose this so as I wanted two identical collections (see my post on syncing two iTunes libraries). The important thing I learnt from the iLounge article was that wherever the library is, it need to have the same drive letter and path inside that drive (therefore, both my computers access the library in the X: drive). One other thing of note is that during the transition, you will need room for two versions of your entire collection, so you might need to use an external drive at some point if you are gigabyte-challenged. For this very reason, I would also suggest that you don't make the new library location the same as your previous one as you are eventually going to delete the old one. Having them in the same folder could get confusing.

4. Point iTunes at root folder
Open iTunes and navigate to Edit -> Preferences -> Advanced. Change the 'iTunes Music folder location' to your chosen drive and folder in step 3.

5. Set iTunes to manage your library
On the same tab, check the boxes near the top called 'Keep iTunes Music folder organized' and 'Copy files to iTunes Music folder when adding to library'.

6. Let iTunes help you sort your compilations
Whilst you're still in the Preferences window, check the box named 'Group compilations when browsing' if you have a lot of compilation and soundtrack albums as this will make navigating your library a lot easier. See this post for how to let iTunes know which tracks are part of a compilation.

7. Let iTunes move your music for you
When I say move, this is really a copy, so don't worry too much (in any case, you should have a backup from step 2 as well). This is also why I warned you in step 3 that you will need twice the space your collection takes up - don't ignore this or the process will stall on you. Navigate to File -> Add Folder to Library. Choose the root folder that has all your pre-iTunes tracks in it (the folder you backed up in step 2).

8. Leave iTunes to build your library
Press 'OK' and then leave iTunes to run. Depending on the size of your collection, this could take a while. Remember, iTunes is copying your entire collection into the new library location, creating a new folder taxonomy based on artist and renaming each track. If you have tens of tracks, check your email; if you have hundreds, make a cuppa char; if you have thousands, order a pizza and watch a movie; if you have tens or hundreds of thousands, go to bed.

9. Check it has all worked
Be a pedant and check everything. Have a browse through iTunes and have a look in the new folder to see the automated taxonomy. The best check is to compare the folder sizes of the old and new. They should be pretty much identical, unless you have given iTunes the go ahead to convert (not something I am covering here). My system has always been to convert to mp3 first (see this post on how I do this), so I never had a file format issue.

10. Delete your old folder
Providing everything was successful, you now have two versions of your music, plus a backup. Go ahead and delete the original version to free up the space, unless you want two backups.

10. Sort compilations tags
iTunes will now have organized your library the Apple way. You have to accept this from now on. Before you look at the iTunes folder and panic that there are squillions of artists, you need to do the next step of the compilation tagging process. It's a manual activity, but is well worth it in my opinion, and it doesn't take too long. I have already written a post detailing how it's done, so have a look here.

Congratulations! You're pretty much there now. You are now an iTunes user. The next steps (for me at least) were to add lyrics (see this post) and create some playlists (see this post for some ideas). I will post in the future about using the grouping tag and smart playlists, which I think are relevant here.

You may also be interested in how to deal with new music, how to perform everyday tagging on your new tracks, and making sure your tags are consistent.

Tuesday, 12 May 2009

Know your car's mpg to find the real cost of a shopping trip

Do you know how much petrol you use to go shopping? It's a useful measure to find the actual cost of any trip you might make. For years, especially in the US, we have taken for granted the cost of fuel in our vehicles. However, now (and very much so in the UK) I find it worth knowing how much a particular trip is going to cost.

You can very easily find (with a bit of Googling) what your particular mode of transport's fuel efficiency is in miles per gallon. If you want to, you can find data that shows urban, extra urban and combined metrics. You can then quickly work out how much each mile will cost, since you know what the price at the pump is and where you're driving from and to.

If you have weighed up postage and packaging on some Internet shopping site and decided to go ahead and drive to get said product instead, it could well be worth calculating how much you will spend in petrol, especially if the drive is significant. It's a very simple thing to do nowadays with the resources available, such as Petrol Prices in the UK (which givens you a range for your postcode) and Google Maps.

You also might want to do a quick calc on how much you spend a year on driving to work. I was surprised.

One thing I would love to see in the future is some sort of Google Maps mash-up that would give you the fuel price of your journey as well as the distance, based on your login profile. It could get very clever in working out your cost based on the type of road and the average traffic at the time of day.

Thursday, 7 May 2009

How to get a blog started and set up with Blogger

I wrote my welcome post for this blog 5 weeks ago before this one you're reading. I started it just to see what happened - a sort of science project if you like - after a conversation during a long drive about, talking about all the information we keep in our heads and don't share. I have had a lot of fun tinkering with the blog and watching the analytics as they progress. For a stats geek like myself, it's very satisfying to write something and see exactly what happens and where it happens.

6 weeks ago, I knew absolutely nothing about blogs except that I liked reading Lifehacker and Gizmodo. I thought blogging would be a simple format I could use to get across some of the information in stuck my head, and I was curious as to see whether it would make any money (only US$46.92 to date, so not really!), without costing anything.

So I set about researching what was on offer. I read all about hosted blogs and self-hosted blogs and quickly decided that, for my 'science experiment', I didn't want to go and pay for a domain just yet. I just wanted to dip my toes in and see. So that ruled out which seemed to be many people's favoured blogging application, but for me meant paying out for a domain and getting into setting up databases and complex stuff like that. Not something I wanted to commit to just yet.

Therefore, I needed to find a hosted blogging service and I whittled it down to and Blogger.

These both seemed to be highly regarded. I plumped for Google's Blogger in the end because part of my experiment was to see if writing articles about the information in my head could generate hard cash. Blogger can be used with Google Adsense (more on that later) and hence that fact forced my decision.

The purpose of this post is to show what I have learnt over the last 5 weeks and what resources would have helped if I had known them at day one. I am not going to show step-by-step procedures as all of these resources have great instructions. If I were to set up another blog today, this post would show me exactly what I would need to get straight to where I am right now (minus the posts of course). I'm assuming you already have a topic to blog about...

Keep a list of posts to write
I started writing a list before I even looked into blogging software and I keep it up to date everything I have an idea. I have plenty of material right now, but there will be some date when that runs out. By writing down an idea as soon as I have it, I'm never without material - I just have to write it.

Set up blogging by email
This has been very useful as I can write the main text of a post wherever I am, be it at a laptop or on my iPhone out and about. I actually find it easier to compose an email, send it to Blogger and then add the images.

Get good screenshot software
I use screenshots a lot and hence this is invaluable. I like and use Faststone Capture for it simplicity and speed. I believe every post should have some sort of illustration, no matter what the topic is.

Set up Google Analytics
This is a stat geek's paradise and I absolutely love it.

I can't help checking it every morning. Just look at the effect of getting referred to by Lifehacker with my post on MediaMonkey scripts:

[My best post that has not been linked to this one is the one on Lyrics in iTunes and on your iPhone which has managed to get 1,344 page views on its own back, but much of that was probably generated by Lifehacker - thanks guys!]

I went from a personal best of 19 visitors in one day (some of which were me) up to almost 12,000 in one day! It has now levelled out to around 500 per day. You can explore all sorts of statistics, such as what your most popular posts are, global locations of readers, how many have come back for more - the list goes on and on. I could honestly spend hours analyzing it. It may be my favourite thing about blogging so far apart from sharing info.

Set up your blog for indexing with Google Webmaster Tools
Make sure you get Google indexing your site straight away! It took almost a week to get mine indexed, so the earlier you start, the better. You simply follow the instructions that will help the Googlebot verify and index your site easily.

It can also provide data on where your blog comes in search results that people have run, which is very interesting. However, it seems as though the data only updates once a week.

Set up Google Adsense
I wanted to see if blogging could bring in the Benjamins. It can, but not a lot thus far. I'm sure there are pro-bloggers out there who make a tonne of moolah, but I'm just tinkering. I set up Google Adsense which is dead easy. I'm sure there are other things you can do, but I wanted to keep it simple to start with.

As noted above, to date, this blog has made US$46.92. Most of that was on the weekend I got posted on Lifehacker, so I would be fooling myself to think that casual blogging could ever supplement income significantly. It is fun, though. I found it hard to research information on how much Adsense might payout before I actually tried it, so here's my summary fro anyone interested over 5 weeks with The Tippopotamus:

  • 40,315 page views
  • 26,288 visits
  • 22,843 unique visitors
  • 360 clicks on Adsense ads
  • US$46.92 earnt

This works out as:

  • 13 cents per ad clicked
  • 0.2 cents per unique visitor
  • 0.1 cents per page view

Not terribly lucrative…(but it would now pay for its own domain if I wanted to go and self host)!

Get RSS feeds going and trackable with Feedburner
I wish I had managed to set this up properly earlier, but I dropped the ball on it. Basically, it gives you the ability to track who is subscribing to your blog as an RSS feed. I did this only a couple of days ago after realising I was missing out.

At time of writing, it says I have 88 subscribers. I wonder what it really is and how I can find out. If anyone knows - please post a comment so I can find out.

Put social bookmark buttons in place with AddThis
I realised I should add the ability to socially bookmark my posts fairly soon after starting. I initially chose a resource that supplied some HTML I put into my layout. However, after reading the comments my post generated on Lifehacker, I saw that people using Google Chrome as a browser were getting warnings about my site hosting malware. I eventually realised it was in the HTML and changed it to the excellent AddThis.

AddThis is also a piece of HTML you add to your Blogger post layout, but gives a nice clean button at the bottom of each post that the reader can hover over to select their social bookmark of choice:

Also, AddThis provides some analytics so you can track how many social bookmark clicks you've had and where from. More stats - whoopee!

Get yourself a blog hit counter with StatCounter
At the top right of my blog, I have my Blog Hits:

This is provided by another analytics service, like Google Analytics, called StatCounter. It is free, but I prefer the look, feel and product that Google provide. However, Google are missing out on one trick - the ability to show stats on your website. This is where StatCounter comes in.

You simply sign up and put some HTML into a Blogger widget and hey presto! You have a hit counter. You can choose whether you want to show unique visitors or individual page views. I chose the page views because it was a bigger number, and I like bigger numbers as it makes me feel good about my blog. I was also able to retrospectively add the number of hits I had accrued beforehand, which means the count reflects all 5 weeks of my blogging.

Get a post counter to let people know how popular each article is
I liked having a blog hit counter (see above), but it lacked the ability to show the hits on each individual post. I browsed around, looking for a solution for Blogger and this is what I came up with. It looks like this and involved putting some HTML at the bottom of my post layout to show the individual post's hits:

I missed out on this one and only put it on about a week ago. Hence I missed out on a lot of traffic being counted. Right now, my biggest post shows 5,456 right now, but is actually 31,268!

UPDATE: I have since taken this off as it firstly does not align very well and secondly it resets to zero every time I try to make a change. If anyone has a good way of counting post views in Blogger, please let me know in the comments se

Get a site specific Google Search bar
This is another thing you can quite easily add with a free Google service.

I opted for the ad-supported search bar, which I did through Google Adsense, but it's exactly the same otherwise. One thing I would point out is that I put the search bar in an HTML widget on the right hand side, but the results needed some width to it, so they went in a discreet widget spanning the whole width of the blog.

Get trackback enabled in your comments with JS-Kit
I don't fully understand what this is all about, but it seems as though Blogger cannot do 'trackbacks' in your comments. Trackbacks are, according to Wikipedia:

A trackback is one of three types of linkbacks, methods for Web authors to request notification when somebody links to one of their documents. This enables authors to keep track of who is linking, and so referring, to their articles.

It sounded like I should jump on the bandwagon, so I found a service called JS-Kit that essentially replaces your Blogger comments with its own system that does support trackbacks.

I like the comments system it gives me and it is quite flexible. It is also completely reversible if you decide to stop using it, or Blogger announce they will support trackbacks in comments. This means that all your comments will remain in the Blogger system if you turn JS-Kit off. Nice.

Try out advertising with Amazon for a giggle
I thought I'd give Amazon's affiliate programme a go and see if it generated any greenbacks.

Unfortunately this has earnt zip so far. But I haven't tried that hard. I do like their little widgets and am using it on this blog more as a way to show the gadgets and music I like. Look at them on the right hand side to see. There are quite a few things to choose from and if your blog promoted a specific product, it would be a good way to link to sales.

Make sure you tag your posts well
I've noticed that these are used, so it's worth doing. I wish Blogger could display a nice tag 'cloud'.

Use a title image instead of text to make your blog 'pop' a bit
I am by no means saying my title is a work of art - it was in fact about 15 seconds with a pen and paper and then 1 minute with a scanner and then I brought out the GIMP for another 2 minutes. It looks a lot better and more individual than the default and is time well spent.

Make use of the following widgets provided by Blogger
Don't miss out on these which you should pick to display beside your posts

  • Blog archive - let readers immediately see what else they can read
  • Followers - give these guys and gals the kudos they deserve by putting them up there
  • Labels - there's no point tagging without showing the results

I am sure there's more for me to learn and other little tricks to discover, but this should help anyone in the position I was in 6 weeks ago, when this blog was just a twinkle in my eye. Feel free to post any tips and tricks that you have picked up for Blogger, or recommendations for Wordpress as I may well make the leap to self hosted at some point.

Tuesday, 5 May 2009

Can't start Getting Things Done? Just Do Something...

Sometimes a project can seem too daunting to even know where to start. The GTD principle requires you to break down your work into discreet tasks in the form of a brain dump and then pick them off one by one in the order they need to be done in (rather ironically, I started reading GTD, but never finished!).

However, what happens if you are starting a project that you have absolutely no idea about where to start and how to get going? If you used the GTD principle you would simply have a first task called 'research' and there's no way you could jot down anymore.

I have found that on projects like this, the best way to get going is to just do something (JDS?). The idea behind this is that by simply doing something, whether it's right or wrong, your road ahead will start to unravel before your eyes. If you were to try and plan the whole thing up front you would enter what I call 'paralysis by analysis'.

I have seen many a project get stumped at inception, simply because there is no experience in the area or the scope is so wide that there are many different routes to take. By starting with something simple in whatever direction, you will quickly discover something else and whether you are heading in the right direction.

Admittedly, this is not the sort of thing you can apply easily to the corporate workplace, but for personal projects it is a real winner. I am always entering new projects that I have no idea about. Sometimes detailed planning and analysis will tell you something, but not everything and you find you lack your own experience base. By getting your teeth into an actual task, you may find that you learn more about the project than you would have any other way.

You have to be open to the fact that the actual task you have performed may well turn out to be a wasted activity on a particular route. But in the broader scope you may find that the route to your goal is much clearer as a consequence and the resource you applied to get there was far less than analysing the project in its entirety.

As an example, when moving back to the UK after 3 years in West Africa, we knew where 'work' was going to be. We knew we wanted to live somewhere more rural than before, but the area we could choose from was so large and varied that deciding on a specific location to buy was a near impossible and tremendously daunting task. We also had a time constraint to work to.

In the early planning stages, the project was in dire risk of stagnating, due to the infinite complexity of researching and looking at every town and village in a particular commuting radius. We would have to ascertain the house prices, amenities, shopping, supermarkets, drive time, etc - the list went on. It seemed too much to take on.

However, we decided that we should just start looking at properties somewhere, regardless of whether that would actually be a useful allocation of our time. This actually kick started us as it quickly gave us an appreciation of absolutely everything in a short space of time and we quickly became experts in evaluating a district/town/village for suitability. In effect, by just doing something (which at the time seemed way too early and a huge waste of planning time). You might call this market research, but it was more like 'let's pretend this is what we're doing and see what happens'.

I'm not advocating this for every single project out there, but if you are stuck and don't know where to start, this may be a way of getting past that particular road block. We have applied it to many personal projects since and found it to be very effective when the scope is fuzzy and broad.

Just do something - sit down and explore the Internet, get out and look at something real, write down what you think, talk to someone, draw something, fire off some emails. Just don't do nothing. You may find that the answer comes looking for you…

Friday, 1 May 2009

Automatic mp3 genre tagging: is it possible?

Genres are a tricky business and crawling the web has shown that listeners either love or hate them. Right now, I haven't formed a final opinion on whether I like them or not and if they're worthwhile, but I haven't fully committed to using them on my collection yet.

However, I have done a fair bit of research on the matter, and that's what I want to lay out here as it may save some of you a lot of time to get to where I am (still without a solution, but a lot wiser nonetheless). Apologies for the length of this particular diatribe, but it can't be made any more succinct.

My previous posts on mp3 tagging have focused on processes, software and automated ways of beating mp3s and tags into shape. After processing my entire collection, I sat back and saw that two things that were still missing:

  • Consistent genres
  • Ratings
I am not dealing with ratings here - there's a whole post in itself.

I wanted to get my genres into shape, not because of my crusade against badly tagged mp3s, but because they have the potential to help hugely in coordinating my listening and building playlists of similar types of music. This would be a necessary step in reaching my mp3 nirvana.

As a first foray into genre tags, I thought I would start by looking for an automatic method for populating the field. It made sense to me that with all the tagging software and mp3 databases out there, there should be a successful solution. Not so. However, here's what I did find...


There are a number of good databases out there that genre population could come from. I thought these ones could do the trick if there were a way of getting the data into an ID3 tag:

I did a test to see which was best, looking at the legendary Led Zeppelin as a case study. I thought there was sufficient ambiguity in how to classify their music to generate quite a varied set of results. And I like them quite a lot. And I'm English.

So following the order of my bullet points above, I set about going through each of these sources starting with the old CDDB, Gracenote. This one did not help me much. I couldn't find a way of seeing the genre, even when I chose an album (Led Zeppelin I):

Hence, I decided this was not a great database for genres. I guess this is fine since it is mainly designed as a database of track info, not a method for organising individual music libraries, so I'll let it off.

Freedb wasn't a hell of a lot better than Gracenote. I found that I could only get a genre returned by disc, not by artist or track:

Also, it was not consistent between different instances of the same disc. Under the same album (Led Zep I), I got rock, blues, misc and even reggae! The only reggae-ish track I can think that the Zep did was D'yer Maker - not on this album. So, not too impressed here, but again, this is more a database of track info rather than for structuring your music in any way.

Discogs is a nice site, but once again, I could only get results returned by disc rather than artist or track. However, I noted that it was split into first Genre and then Style:

I was pretty happy with the simple set of results it returned as well - Rock as a genre, then split into Styles of Classic Rock and Blues Rock. Not bad.

I was sure the iTunes store wouldn't disappoint too much, and sure enough it did an alright job, returning quite a few applicable genres:

However, the more genres that get returned, you start thinking "well, which one do I choose for my tracks". This was starting to look like a very complicated idea, hence why no one has put together a bulletproof method or database yet.

Next was the mighty On first impressions, it looked promising, with 5 applicable results returned as 'tags':

However, on clicking the 'See more…' link, I was shocked to find a massive cloud of tags. It was apparent that this was heavily influenced by all the users tagging tracks and creating a muddled mass of genre information:

'awesome', 'dance', 'favs', 'indie pop', 'punk', 'yeah'? Give me a break…
So, suffice to say, I was not too impressed with as a tagging source for genres.

Finally I came to Allmusic, sometimes known as AMG (All Music Guide). This was quite impressive. Firstly, artists are broken down into a Genre and then subdivided into Styles, just like Discogs had gone for. Good and applicable ones too:

Allmusic went one step further, though and put together 'Moods' and 'Themes' as well. Although there were a lot of moods, I began to think that these could well be useful in generating playlists. These are the moods and themes for the Led Zep I album:

Furthermore, just take a look at this link to see the pretty comprehensive breakdown of their Pop/Rock styles.

I thought that I could use the Genre, Styles and Moods in my ID3 tags as follows:

  • AMG Genre maps to ID3 Genre (there is only one)
  • AMG Styles can go into the the ID3 Comments, with underscores instead of spaces and separated by a space or a period (I am currently using Comments for artist bios, but I have realised I never look at these)
  • AMG Moods can go into the ID3 Custom 1 field in MediaMonkey for the moment
Therefore, I think I might have found a winner in Allmusic. Now If only I could find a way to get this data into my mp3 tags without any huge manual effort…


I searched for quite some time on this, so I think I can safely say without any doubt that there is no way to automatically populate your mp3 genre tags directly from Allmusic.

It seems as there used to be a solution called the Allmusic ID3 Tag Fixer by KRKeegan, but it seems as though Allmusic changed their terms of service back in 2007 which has prevented anyone from using the data. Humbug!

I also found that the well respected Mp3tag used to have Allmusic as one of its web sources framework (meaning you could select it as a tagging source), but with the terms of service this stopped working in 2007 as well.

Lastly, I found a post about a script that a chap called Steegy had written for MediaMonkey called Web Sources Tagger that could access Allmusic which has since disappeared.

How I wish I had a time machine…

So my plans were scuppered at the first hurdle. So I looked at what else was available. I found that Mp3tag could use amazon, discogs and freedb as web sources, but having seen what Allmusic had to offer, I decided not to proceed as I would always be left wanting.

I went a bit further and found another Media Monkey Script by Trixmoto called ' genre script' and gave it a shot for a laugh. It did exactly what it was meant to, but if you cast your eyes up to the results above, you can imagine the mess my genres were left in. The idea of this was to get something consistent going.

I think I ended up with many, many more genres than I had originally - 1047 in all, including such gems as...

  • Brutal Death Metal With Nordic Influence And Guest Vocalist Satan
  • Candy Ravers Rules The Universe
  • Existential Saturdays
  • Have Other Music by This Artist
  • I-feel-oh-so-classy-music
  • Jangly American Guitar Pop
  • Plunderphonics
  • Sing Yer Wee Heart Out
…and those are just some of the clean ones!

A great script, though - if only Trixmoto could apply it to Allmusi. Unfortunately it seems as though our hands are tied in terms of access to the data. My collection remains tagged like this, but I'm not bothered as I don't use the genres yet anyway - I need a solution.

So, still no success, and my dream of automatically tagging my genres was quickly fading [if I have missed anything, I would love to know about it, so please comment with your feedback below].

Hence, I set about seeing if anyone had any guidelines on how to do it manually without too much bother...


I went trawling the Internet again to see what I could drag up. The most useful thing I found was a great post by Daniel R Stout called 'Organizing iTunes: Simplify your genre list'.

I won't repeat everything that Daniel says here - you can read his blog - but as a synopsis here are the main points:

  • Less genres are better
  • Have a basic list to choose from
  • Use smart playslists to filer music on genre to sturcture your listening
He also suggests a quick way of manually getting your genres into shape:

"It’s an easy thing to change the genre on many songs. Create a playlist that sorts by existing genre data. You can find out what genres are in your music library by doing a Get Info on any song and then clicking the dropdown menu for the genre of that song. So create a playlist that grabs some genres that fit under, say, Alternative & Punk. Then highlight a bunch of songs together and do a Get Info and change the genre for all of those songs. In my case, it took less than an hour to get my 20,000 song library into shape."

He then provides a list of 25 basic genres to start with. Which he further breaks down into sub-genres, if needed. This does end up as one long list which can be a little difficult to digest, so I have created a handy table in Excel that you can find here. Apologies for the Excel pastel colours.

This should be a useful lookup tool for anyone wanting to go ahead and manually tag their genres. I may go ahead and adopt this method of genre tagging, but I think it would take me longer than the hour suggested for 20,000 tracks. I just need to sum up the courage.

I would also like to credit the commenters (Lucas, amazon_blonde and Nick) for this post of mine on organising your iTunes library. There are some useful insights and another list of genres from Lucas that may suit you better if you are going the manual route.


As I think I have shown, there are no bulletproof ways to automatically tag your genres consistently. At least not yet.

Also, genres are a very personal thing - one person's 'Prog Rock' is another person's 'Cheesy Listening'. Hence it may be best to just take the plunge and manually tag them with something bespoke that simply works for you. The problem is that this takes time; and time is a resource many of us are not blessed with.

Another point to consider is how much detail do you put into it? Or, to coin a phrase, what is your 'depth of genre'? Is it best to have 25 basic all-encompassing genres, or to go to town like the Allmusic system and have a genre broken down into multiple styles and moods?

You can also argue over whether individual tracks should have different genres, or if genres should be grouped by album or artist. I think that single track genres would be best if you are going the detailed route, but artist grouped genres would be superior for a 25 genre system.

Lastly, one might put it out there that genre tagging is a complete waste of time and will only bring me closer to my own 'Stairway to Heaven'.

Personally, I think this post is using too may of my little grey cells and I'm going to sit on it for a while and see what debate it generates. Over to you...