Fed up...

The title says it all. I’m fed up!

I’ve been AppleScripting things for many years now, and I’ve come to expect some pretty idiosyncratic behavior from AppleScript. Sure, there’s the occasional application that won’t take “whose” or “which” and insists on “where its” instead; or the method that mixes up “true” and “having”; that’s part and parcel of the AppleScript English-like syntax.

But it’s gotten worse.

See, I’ve been trying to script Apple’s Mail application. And, well, it’s pretty damn near impossible to do.

Why? Well, because it’s broken, that’s why. Create an outgoing message, and it has no identifier! Try to classify an incoming message via a rule? Well, it doesn’t have an ID, either.

So, my plans to make a fancy new version of Mail to KGTD with MailTags support built-in, is sort of indefinitely on hold. (And I won’t belabor you with the problems I’ve had getting MailTags scripted, since I’m sure it’s just beta teething pains.)

Then there’s Kinkless GTD itself. It’s a wonderful productivity tool. Agile, responsive, entirely AppleScriptable (heck, it’s almost entirely AppleScript, itself), and a true work of hacker art.

But it’s broken, too…

iCal sync is problematic if you add a PDA to the mix (not Kinkless’ fault, just more of Apple’s broken software) and there’s some bugs which cause tasks to just disappear if you set your dates incorrectly.

And, again, I can’t seem to really get it integrated with Mail. Not cleanly, not easily. It’s a definite case of a square peg in a slightly clogged and not-quite-round hole.

I can’t help but feel that there’s a better way of doing this. Something that doesn’t try to build everything out of an outliner, without any real starting point. Something that doesn’t rely on Apple’s half-baked attempts at software…

Something just a little more… purple…

Written on October 27, 2006

Turn a shell script into a Dashboard Widget

Andy Herbert released a bitchin’ (did I just date myself?) little bundle for TextMate, which takes any shell script you whip up in TextMate and turns it into a Dashboard widget. Click the widget, run the script. Easy as can be.

Widgets can show their output (it opens it up in Console.app) and can also accept dragged items (and pass them as a variable to the script).

Awesome tool for making something clickable out of a shell script. Perfect for the weird little utilities you need to run now and again. (Like my script to reload a crapped out Cisco VPN kernel extension when I forget to disconnect before sleeping my Mac.)

You can read about it here, watch a movie of the bundle in action or just download the bundle directly.

Written on October 24, 2006

Why wouldn't you want to be delievered to your customers?

I got the following message in my RSS feeds this morning:

>Thanks for your interest in the Bastard Operator from Hell. Simon Travaglia, the author of BOFH, has asked us to remove links to his articles from our RSS feeds. We will not restore the BOFH RSS feeds without his permission.

BOFH (short for Bastard Operator From Hell) is one of many columns in The Register, an IT-related news site. I was a subscriber to a feed that only gave me the hilarious stories of the Bastard, and I enjoyed reading them.

My question is this: Why would Mr. Travaglia not want to appear in feeds? The feeds didn’t contain the full text of his columns, but really only served to send me to The Reg’s website so that I could read the latest adventure.

This is more or less like asking that clothing you design not appear in the latest Macy’s catalog!

I can only assume that Travaglia, for all his supposed technical brilliance, isn’t much of a marketer and quite possibly isn’t that interested in reaching readers. And, personally, I lament that I probably won’t think to check The Reg any longer for new articles. My news is in RSS, and I rarely venture out to visit other sites, especially ones updated as haphazardly as BOFH.

Written on October 23, 2006

Get your iTunes library into shape

Despite all the crabby things I say about iTunes, I use it every day, and there’s a lot to like about it.

For example, iTunes offers some amazing ways to organize your music. You can rate it, you can build up albums, browse by cover art, and even create smart folders based on the year the tune was released or by the beats-per-minute of the song.

That’s great, provided that you have a team of data entry personnel getting all that metadata up to date, scanning Amazon.com for album art, and listening to your various mislabeled tracks to figure out what song it is and add the appropriate information in iTunes. But otherwise, you generally end up with some smart folders that track about half a dozen of your songs, and you kind of give up on the rest.

But hey, isn’t that what computers are for? Shouldn’t your Mac be able to handle all that tedious work for you? And for those tasks that it can’t do by itself (rating songs, for example, is an inherently personal task), can’t it make it easier for you to take care of it?

But if that were possible, wouldn’t Apple have built in into iTunes for you?

Apparently they didn’t (at least not all the way), so here’s a handful of utilities that will help you get your iTunes library into shape, and make the most of what you’ve got in there.

ID3 Tags

ID3 tags are all those funny little bits of information about your MP3 files. Things like artist, album, the name of the song, the track number, and even the beats-per-minute are stored in these extensive tags. So what’s a person to do to get them all updated?

Well, first you’ll want to check out iEatBrainz, a client for the MusicBrainz database. This program will analyze what your MP3 file sounds like and then suggest songs that it might be. It works remarkably well, and is just the thing for finding the information for that one track that’s just named “track1” that you love listening to, but don’t know the artist. (If you were alive during Napster’s heyday, you’ve got a lot of these files.)

For the rest of your files that are just missing proper tags, take a look at MP3 ID3X. This is a wonderful little utility that lets you batch tag your files, much faster and more powerfully than selecting more than one file in iTunes. Best of all, MP3 ID3X will let you tag files based on fragments of their file name, or based on the folder that they’re in. So if you have some untagged files in, say, a “Depeche Mode” folder, it can figure out that they should all have “Depeche Mode” as the artist. Nifty.

Cover Art and Ratings

What do cover art and ratings have in common? Well, these utilities all cover both.

iTunes can grab cover art from the iTunes store, which is awful nice, but there’s a lot of stuff that just can’t be found in the store. These utilities can grab album art from other sources, such as Amazon.com, or Google’s image search to help fill out your library.

Album Art Widget is a nicely put together Dashboard widget that grabs album art, and also lets you rate your songs while they play. If you want a little more power, you can install Yahoo Widget Manager (formerly Konfabulator) and pick up the iTunes Companion widget, which does everything Album Art does, and can also grab lyrics from the web and add them to your songs. Both of these widgets also let you control iTunes (play, pause, forward, back, etc.).

Another application, in the same vein, is Clutter. Clutter not only grabs album art, but also lets you clutter up your desktop with virtual CD covers, which you can use to play any of your songs. Not as tidy as iTunes’ new CoverFlow feature, but for some folks, it’s just the ticket.

But my favorite of all these utilities is the all-purpose iTunes helper, GimmeSomeTune. This program’s a bit hard to describe, since it does so much, but basically it adds a menu control which can control iTunes from anywhere (like the widgets), and pops up a little bezel-style window every time a new track plays, showing some info (user configurable) about the track. It can automatically grab album art, rate songs, and do all kinds of other things, plus it lets you bind keyboard commands to all of these controls.

Basically, it lets you control iTunes to the Nth degree, whether or not iTunes is open.

Taking it to the Next Level

So now you’ve got a nice customized iTunes controller, album art everywhere, and your metadata and ratings are all up to date. What’s next?

Well, first let’s get your tracks all set at the same volume. Yeah, iTunes has its “sound check” feature which kind of does that, but there’s a little program called iVolume which does a heck of a lot better. It’ll scan your library and set all your songs perfectly to the right volume, even taking into account album groupings (since albums tend to mixed at the same volume).

Then you might want to create a nice mix for, say, working out, and another for a mellow evening with the significant other. Say hello to a new beta app, Tangerine, which does an amazing trick: It tells you how peppy each of your songs is.

Peppy?

Well yeah. It tells you the beats-per-minute and beat intensity of all your tracks. So when you want a throbbing fast beat for working out, grab your high speed, high intensity music. For that romantic night, you’ll want something close to the opposite. (And then maybe a nice beat as a nightcap.)

Very cool trick, and it’s an amazingly effective way to put together a playlist.

Finally, if you want some more music, there’s a handful of ways to get recommendations. Check out Goombah, Mobster or TuneBounce, all of which promise to introduce you to more music that you’ll like.

So check out these utilities. Most are free, and those which cost money are quite inexpensive. Every one promises to make your iTunes experience richer and more satisfying.

Written on October 22, 2006

Internet Explorer 7

I just installed IE 7 on my PC at work, and I thought I’d share my impressions after using it for an hour or two. I was trying to put this review into a “The Good, The Bad and The Ugly” theme, but I found out that all I had was bad and ugly and one tiny shred of good. So we’re just going with The Ugly.

Is it just me, or is it the ugliest browser ever made?

Those tabs are HUGENORMOUS, there’s toolbars everywhere, and it’s all this kind of sickly blue color. Those giant jeweled buttons are absolute eyesores, too. Ugh. It’s like MacOS X’s public beta with all life sucked out of it. Garish and depressing.

It doesn’t even look like a regular application. More like some insane WinAmp skin or something. Just bizarre.

And can we talk about the UI? No menu bar, huh? Weird. Sure, you CAN make it show up, but it can’t be at the top of the window like in EVERY OTHER WINDOWS APPLICATION!

Then there’s some weird set of buttons which take up valuable tab space, and I can’t seem to MOVE that toolbar out of the way of my tabs even though there’s a little movey handle next to them (only right and left, bucko!), nor can I make them disappear using my contextual menu… How annoying. (Although I CAN delete all the items from the toolbar by customizing it.)

Bookmarks have been relegated to a strange pop-up tab sidebar thingamajigger. I guess they decided nobody likes bookmarks, because the Links toolbar doesn’t even show up by default. That’s a bad idea. Everyone at work puts ALL their bookmarks into the links toolbar and they’re going to be lost as soon as they upgrade.

If only there were some way to encapsulate all these many commands into a streamlined use of screen space…. Oh, I know, how about using a menu?!

The RSS reader looks like, well, Safari’s RSS reader. I don’t really understand it, either. It doesn’t really AGGREGATE feeds, it just sort of displays ‘em. All of them. Every article. Even ones you’ve read. I don’t get it in Safari either. Still, for what it does, it does it well and is not unpleasant to look at. I’m just not sure why it’s useful.

They’ve added links to categories in the feed, which is a sort of neat idea until you realize that you’d probably get a better experience just reading the site. (John C. Dvorak’s incredibly ugly blog notwithstanding.

The one innovation I can see (well, except that Firefox had it first via an extension) is the ability to see a largish thumbnail of every tab you have open. Unfortunately, since tabs quickly become thin and illegible, thanks to the useless toolbar/menubar replacement widget getting in the way, you’re going to need it. A lot.

Rendering seems pretty good. Still has trouble with pages that push the envelope on whizzy effects (click the images or the About button at the top for examples of what’s wrong, then try the same thing in a better browser), but it generally does well. Pages load snappily and render correctly. Of course, IE could always do that, despite its bugs, thanks to the tireless efforts of web designers throughout the world.

Still no spell checking. Drag. Every web browser should have that now, since every OS has some system-level service to provide it.

Apple’s simple and underfeatured Safari browser manages to beat it out in every respect except for compatability with retarded vertical market web apps (Lotus Notes webmail, I’m looking at you!), and Firefox or OmniWeb make it look positively pathetic. Forget IE 7 vs. Firefox 2.0, compared to Firefox 1.5, IE 7 seems dated (and ugly, did I mention that it’s ugly?).

All in all, I just have to wonder why it took so incredibly long to build this basically mediocre browser. It’s getting excited about features that already exist in basically dead-end browsers like iCab.

Written on October 20, 2006

Web optimization made easy (sort of)

A very, very, interesting new product from Google just launched: Google Website Optimizer

They boast that it can perform multivariate tests of landing page content in order to increase website conversions. In non-marketer speak, that means that you can send people to different versions of your website’s landing page, each with a different mix of text and graphics. You can then track whether or not you got a purchase/registration/subscription from each person who landed, and thus quantify the added benefit of each different combination of web page pieces.

It’s all pretty automatic, and can be integrated into static HTML or dynamic pages. As far as I can tell, Google actually routes people from their site to a special version of your page, and drives the conversion tracking through their excellent analytics package.

This is a big deal, if you ask me. This puts randomized marketing tests into the hands of everybody with a website. There’s no longer an excuse to not perform tests all the time to keep improving your site’s relevance to websurfers who come across it.

And no, I won’t be doing that for iNik.net. I mean, hey, I don’t need your money, I do this for the love of reading what I write.

Written on October 19, 2006

Subvert iTunes: Video Part Deux

This post is part of an ongoing series about how to subvert iTunes and make it more agreeable to those of us who dislike DRM, high prices, and general customer-mistreatment. Read the whole series!

We’ve already discussed putting oddball video formats into iTunes, but what if you want to put those same files onto an iPod for watching on the road?

Well, there’s lots of details and things to think about regarding video formats, resolutions, bitrates, and all that. But, in the end, life is too short. So here’s a short list of software to make your life easier, whether you’re on a Mac or a PC.

  • Got a Mac? All you need is iSquint.
  • Handbrake is a good Mac program to handle ripping DVDs to iPod-friendly formats. Not a necessity, but awful nice to have around.
  • VEMoDE is a free video converter for Windows. Handles all the basics and has easy pre-sets for your iPod or other mobile device.
  • Videora is another converter, also free. Can’t say which is better.

Disclaimer: I don’t own an iPod capable of playing video, so I haven’t throughly tested all these apps. Please sound off in the comments if I’m leading people astray or if there’s a product I’ve overlooked. So go out there and load up your iPod, you lucky video-iPod-having-bastards! I’m sooooooooo jealous!

Written on October 17, 2006

Nik's Picks: Subvert iTunes with Xcast and Democracy Player

This is only one post in a series on how to get iTunes to do what you want, rather than what Apple thinks you should want (high priced, DRM laden content). Read the whole series!

In keeping with our “Subvert iTunes” theme this week, Nik’s Picks is featuring two programs which beat iTunes at its own game: Xcast and Democracy Player.

Whether you call them “podcasts” or “netcasts,” one of the best sources of original content is just these ‘casts. Unfortunately, iTunes’ handling of ‘casts leaves something to be desired.

Firstly, the iTunes interface kind of, well, sucks for video playback. It’s a LOT better in iTunes 7, but video still feels just a little tacked-on.

Secondly, it’s not uncommon for iTunes to forget where you were in a ‘cast, and start downloading a handful of ancient episodes. If you’ve got a smaller iPod (say, a nano), this can pretty quickly fill it up. And using a third party “podcatcher” (great term until they get sued) eliminates the benefits of having ‘casts nicely categorized in iTunes, since they instead get jammed up in with all your other music. And who, I ask you, wants that?

So how can you work around these problems?

Xcast

If you want to catch audio ‘casts better than you can in iTunes, you’ll want a little program called XCast.

XCast is just a regular old RSS reader, but it excels at feeds which have enclosures (attached files, for the ‘cast layperson) of any sort. On a ‘cast by ‘cast basis, you can specify whether attachments should be automatically downloaded. Better still, you can specify that enclosed files should be automatically added to iTunes as a Podcast. (Or a Netcast if you use my hack.)

If Xcast adds the audio file to iTunes, it shows up in the Podcast section, and even has the nice hierarchy, just like if you downloaded it from within iTunes! From there, you can play the audio and deal with it as usual, but then you can delete it directly from Xcast. Nice and easy.

For full details on how to use Xcast, there’s a handy “screencast” on the Xcast site that walks you through the whole process.

Xcast is donationware, and is worth every penny. It still has some niggling beta-type bugs (for example, you can’t select multiple posts in a feed and delete them all at once), but the author is working hard on fixing them.

Democracy Player

Okay, but what about video? How can do you do better than iTunes for watching online video?

That’s easy: Get Democracy!

Democracy Player is your gateway to thousands of internet video feeds. You can subscribe to them, play them, and organize them all in one great interface. Best of all, unlike iTunes, it handles DivX, XviD and other video codecs which give Quicktime fits, and does so straight out of the box. (Unlike iTunes!)

Democracy also has a Bittorrent engine built in, so people can create feeds which only send out torrent links, and thus defray their bandwidth costs via peer-to-peer networking. Yes, that’s right, it’s not just for piracy anymore!

But don’t worry, you don’t ever really see bittorrent running, you just subscribe to a feed as usual, and receive it as usual. It really couldn’t be easier.

Video playback is smooth and full screen (if desired), and the whole thing is open source and free of charge. You’ve got to love that! The program is always being worked on and has seen many improvements since going public, so be sure to get the latest version. (And if you already tried Democracy Player and didn’t like it, you may want to give it a second chance.)

Hard to rate these two programs since both are technically in beta, so we’ll average out five stars for Xcast and seven for Democracy Player and call it an even six.

Written on October 6, 2006