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?


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

MacOS X Booting on a Centris 650

The headline pretty much says it all, except it rather skips the point that MacOS X is still booting. See, he had to install Linux on his Centris and then run PearPC to emulate a PowerPC process capable of booting OS X. As a result, he’s running about the equivalent of a 0.5mhz G3.

I wish I still had my overclocked Quadra 840AV (overclocked from 44mhz to 48mhz!), that would cut a day or so off his boot time.

Read the whole story on MacTalk

Written on October 6, 2006

Subvert iTunes: Make Your Own Audiobooks

This article is part of a continuing feature on how to make iTunes work better with free content and your own content, so that you don’t have to be trapped by the many restrictions placed on you when you buy from the iTunes store. Click here to read all the articles in the series.

The iPod is, perhaps, one of the world’s greatest audio book players. It supports Audible’s audio books, and the iTunes store provides plenty of audio books (which are, incidentally, all provided by Audible). Of course, both of these sources are crippled with DRM and full of restrictions, so you may want to make your own audiobooks.

Doing that is pretty easy if you have an audio book on CD. Just encode the CD’s tracks as MP3s and you’re done. Right?

Not if you you want the audio book to show up in the Audiobooks section of iTunes and your iPod.

To make that work, you’ll have to do two things: First, encode your files as AAC files (which will create .m4a documents) of no higher than 64kb bitrate (which is quite acceptable for an audio book). Then you’ll have to rename all the files so that they end with “.m4b” rather than “.m4a”, and they’ll show up in the audiobooks section. If you run into trouble, check out the FAQs on Doug’s Scripts site.

Okay, let’s take this up a notch, shall we? What if you want to make your Audiobook not only show up in the right place, but appear as a single file with chapters and bookmarks and all that good stuff, just as though you’ve bought it from Audible or iTunes?

Once again, we head out to Doug’s Scripts, where we find the wonderful Join Together script and the equally wonderful Audiobooker. These two scripts will let you create a single audiobook from either a collection of sound files or from one or more CDs that you want to rip to your library.

If what you have is a collection of sound files (for example, MP3s you’ve ripped previously or which you downloaded from a legal online source), you can just use Join Together to merge the files together into a single .m4b file with chapters.

If you haven’t ripped your CD yet, that’s where Audiobooker shines. It will let you insert multiple CDs, tag them reasonably (so you don’t have a bunch of tracks named, for example, “Track 1”), and encode all of them into iTunes. Once they’re in iTunes, you’ll want to re-process them using Join Together to create your final audiobook masterpiece.

There’s one catch: The .m4b format will pretty much only play on Apple’s stuff, so you may want to keep a copy of all those separate MP3s around for use on other players. There’s no DRM, but the format just isn’t widely supported.

Give Credit where Credit’s Due This article was produced with copious help from the great information on Doug’s Applescripts for iTunes site. It’s an absolute mother lode of information for anyone who wants to get the most out of iTunes.

Written on October 5, 2006

Subvert iTunes: Netcasts vs. Podcasts

netcaststrings.zip51.85 KB

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!

Netcasts in iTunes

The grand poobah of the TWiT Network, Leo Laporte, has put out a call to change Podcasts into Netcasts. This is a response to Apple’s over-litigious behavior over third parties’ use of the word “pod” in reference to music, podcasting, etc. You can read all about it on Leo’s own site.

As a show of support, I have put together a hacked version of iTunes strings file that transforms iTunes from a Podcast subscribin’ program, into a Netcast program.

Important Note: The following procedure may totally wreck iTunes. Make a backup copy of the application before proceeding. I make no guarantees as to whether this will work and whether or not it will wreck up iTunes, although it does work fine for me.

Just download and decompress the attached file, and then show iTunes’ contents (right click on the iTunes icon and choose “Show Package Contents”), then navigate to the Contents/Resources/English.lproj/ folder. Drop the downloaded Localizable.strings file into there, replacing the existing one, and you’re good to go.

Welcome to the Netcast revolution! It will not be televised! (Digg this article to help spread the word!)

If any readers know how to do this for the Windows version of iTunes, post it in the comments.

Written on October 4, 2006

Subverting the iTunes Store: Video

Personally, I despise DRM, and therefore despise the iTunes Store (formerly the iTunes Music Store). Not only is it overpriced and DRM-laden, but the quality leaves much to be desired. You can get better quality audio and video with a CD or a TiVo and a simple analog->digital bridge (I have a little Dazzle-branded box) and a copy of Handbrake.

And so, in honor of iTunes 7’s release, I will be posting a few articles about how to get your content into iTunes, so that it works as well as (or better than) what’s already in there. Read the whole series!

First up: Video.

iTunes has decent video support, and it’s much better in the latest version. But here’s the thing, you may prefer to encode your video in DivX, XviD, 3viX, Windows Video (WMV) or some other format which iTunes and Front Row won’t accept. (The same is true of most video you can download elsewhere on the ‘net, legally and otherwise.)

So how do you get these oddball formats into iTunes (and, by extension, Front Row) without having to buy your videos all over again from the iTunes store?

So, here’s how you do it:

First, install Perian, which I featured as a pick just the other day. This is a component that gives Quicktime access to all the typical formats for video sharing and encoding.

If you’re using (ugh) WMV files, pick up the Flip4Mac video codecs for Quicktime.

Once installed, you should be able to open your files in Quicktime. Go you!

Next, we need to put this AVI file (or whatever it is) into iTunes. If you try dragging it into iTunes, iTunes will reject it, because it’s an unclean format that earns Steve Jobs no money whatsoever! So, we have to trick iTunes here.

Just open the movie up in Quicktime Pro (you’ll need to have the Pro version registered – so it looks like Steve will get $30 out of you after all), and then choose Save As…

You’ll be prompted as to whether you want to save a reference movie or a self contained movie. You can do either. If you do the reference movie, then it’ll be small and your original file will need to stick around if you want it to play. If you do it self-contained, it will wrap up that AVI in a Quicktime .mov container and you can do as you like with the original. Up to you.

Now, take the saved movie (reference or otherwise) and drag IT into iTunes. Bingo! That works!

Now all that’s left is the meta-tagging. Get Info on your file, zip over to the Video tab, and start entering meta data. You can enter even more in the Info tab.

Note that you can set your video kind to TV show, if you want, and it’ll show up in Front Row’s TV Shows menu.

This is also a good opportunity to subvert the purpose of the Music Video grouping and use it as an arbitrary category to hold other kinds of content. I mean, unless you’re a huge fan of music videos or something. I use my for short, YouTube-type videos, but you could just as easily put your, err, “Romance” videos in that section, or whatever you want.

Now you’re all set! Your video is in iTunes, and you didn’t give those greedy Apple executives a dime of your money! (Except for that $30 QT Pro registration, dangit!)

Written on October 4, 2006

kGTD Development In Light of OmniFocus

It’s taken me a few days to consider what, if any, reaction was warranted by the recent announcement of OmniFocus. Given that I am hopelessly addicted to all the software Omni makes (although I don’t own all of it, I would buy it if I didn’t have a family to feed), I assume I will be migrating to OmniFocus when it ships or enters public beta.

However, I am currently stuck wholly in Kinkless GTD, and I expect to keep working there as well.

So the question comes down to whether I intend to continue to improve/support the many scripts I’ve built to enhance Kinkless GTD.

Basically, I think I’m going to put a halt on my major projects in this regard. Both Mail to KGTD and Send to KGTD Advanced are solid, mature, scripts that run well. I may make some small tweaks here and there, but that’s about it. My plans to build a next-action-summarizer are on hold as are improvements to KGTD to Go (which desperately needs a total overhaul).

As for the many users of these scripts (I think there’s at least three of you out there!), I will continue to squash bugs and provide support as needed, so don’t worry about that.

When OmniFocus ships, I hope to provide the same ease of workflow that my current scripts provide, perhaps even down to the syntax for quick data entry. And, I’ll do what I can to get the Omni folks to put me earlier in the beta so I can get started that much sooner, and maybe have something out on OmniFocus’ drop date.

Written on October 2, 2006

Nik's Pick: Perian

Two picks on one day?! Well, I was just too excited about this one to not share it immediately!

Perian isn’t anything terribly sexy or cool. It’s a simple Quicktime component which adds support for a variety of codecs to the Quicktime player. (Specifically, XviD, DivX, AVI MPEG-4, MS MPEG-4, 3viX and more.)

Why not just use VLC?

Well, like VLC, Perian offers easy smooth playback, and simple installation, but it also builds all this video support into Quicktime, so that it works with Front Row and any other video player based on Quicktime.

Written on September 30, 2006

Nik's Pick: Google Reader

Today’s pick isn’t Mac-specific software, but rather a web based goodie from Google. You see, Google just updated Google Reader, their web-based RSS reader.

First, let me just say that I am a firm devotee of online RSS readers. I have a license to NetNewsWire, and I love it. It’s a great program. However, when I’m not at a Mac or not at my computer at all, it’s useless to me. Furthermore, online readers (if they’re good) fit seamlessly into my browsing experience. It’s all in one application, and serves as a launchpad for all my daily reading.

Up until today, I’ve been solidly in the NewsGator Online camp. It’s easy to use, does a good job with feeds that require authentication (which Bloglines never did manage), and offers minute and simple control over all your feeds. I still stand by it being an excellent product, but it just got one-upped.

Google Reader is, in many ways, very similar to Bloglines, NewsGator and other RSS readers (online or off). It lets you group your feeds into folders (and a feed can belong to multiple folders, so they’re more like tags than folders), and you can browse either headlines or the full feed text. Whichever you prefer.

Where it gets better is in making the workflow easier. It has full keyboard navigation, so you can easily browse through headlines and then expand a single headline to the full text, without ever touching the mouse. (Or you can use the mouse, if you prefer.) It makes batch changes to feeds or tags/folders simple and easy, letting you select multiple items and do whatever you wish with them (re-categorize, delete, change settings, etc.). And, perhaps most importantly, it’s fast. Really, really fast. Newsgator would occasionally slow to a crawl, where Google Reader always responds quickly and easily.

Then there’s one more feature which just nails it for me: Google Reader can automatically mark feeds as read not when they’re loaded (a la Newsgator or Bloglines) but as they’re displayed in your window! As you scroll past an item, it’s marked as read!

This, alone, is about the best feature I’ve ever seen in an RSS reader. I enjoy reading a long river of news when I do take the time to read, but then I get all stressed out about marking them as read or not each time I go through. Now, if I’ve seen it, it’s read. If I have to give up and go do some work, everything below the bottom of my browser window sticks around, waiting for my next visit.


There are some bugs. Doing batch deletes of tags/folders seems problematic, as a select-all + delete action will prompt me that I can’t delete my starred items tag. Ooookay, fine. Why, pray tell, can I select it at all then, when it cannot be deleted renamed or modified? And, moreover, why do I still get that dialog after un-checking the starred items tag?

Also, the whole tags vs. folders thing seems to be half-baked. The last version of Google Reader used tags. Now we have folders. But folders are assigned in the “tags” tab of the interface. Furthermore, when I select “change folder…” for a feed and assign it to a new folder, it actually just adds it to that folder, as though I were merely picking a new tag to assign to it. And, of course, I have no ability whatsoever to just add tags unless I’m specifically tagging an article. I can’t just create a new folder/tag to put my feeds into. Blech.

So I give this program a mere 5 out of 7, but it’s still got me hooked. All the problems above can be worked around in various ways, and the most common usage of simply reading articles is so much better than with the alternatives that I think it’s worth the headache of working around those bugs. Presumably those bugs will be fixed soon, too.

So, go check it out, see what you think.

Written on September 30, 2006

Find iTunes songs without album art

The perfect script for the obsessive-compulsive iTunes user! Want to make sure all your albums have artwork? Then this is the script for you!

When run, this script will create a new playlist, entitled “::No Album Art::”, containing all your iTunes music tracks which don’t have any associated album artwork. (This is best used after running *Find Album Artwork* from the iTunes 7 *Advanced* menu.)

Once you have all your artless files in a playlist, you can then easily update their artwork manually, or using the [Album Art widget for Dashboard](, the [iTunes Companion]( Yahoo Widget, or any of the [many other album art grabbers](

This does take a pretty long time, so be patient. Any errors are logged to the system.log (viewable via the console).

To install: Either run it directly from Script Editor, or copy it to ~/Library/Scripts/Applications/iTunes/ to use it from the script menu.

Written on September 13, 2006

Another idea on how to "save" Digg

The Escape blog has another idea on how to make Digg a bit less slanted toward the top users: Collaborative filtering. Basically, make it so that you can get a view of articles dugg by people who dugg similar articles to those that you dugg. (I am so sick of the term “dugg” now!)

While this seems similar to the text mining idea I floated earlier, it also has the advantage of bringing up articles which are truly relevant and interesting for an individual user. Since the whole point of Digg is to have news from all over which is relevant and interesting, this is a terrific idea!

Written on September 11, 2006