Category Archives: Gadgets and Stuff

How to Remove the Exclamation Point Icon in iTunes

Our music collection lives on a network-shared drive. One of my ongoing annoyances with iTunes is, if it can’t find that drive because the network is down, it marks all of the music with an exclamation point icon. That icon keeps iTunes from synching the songs with your iPod or iPhone. Once the drive is again accessible, you can remove the icon by loading each track’s information individually, but there’s no good way within iTunes to tell the program, “Hey, idiot, my songs are back. Re-scan my library and you’ll see.”

There’s a workaround, though. When you start up iTunes, hold down option (Mac) or shift (Windows). iTunes will ask you what iTunes library it should load. Select your original iTunes library. iTunes will re-load it and, as a by-product, strip the exclamation point from all the files it can now find.

How to Put Non-Amazon Ebooks On Your Kindle

Amazon and Macmillan have been in a pissing match recently over ebook pricing. On Friday, as part of their continuing battle, Amazon removed the “Buy It Now” button from all Macmillan titles in their catalog, even the print ones. The only way you could buy a Macmillan title through Amazon was through one of the Amazon Marketplace sellers.

As you can imagine, authors weren’t happy.

By Monday Amazon had given in and started re-instating the “Buy It Now” button on Macmillan titles, though they’re taking their time doing so. Meanwhile, lots of people on the internet are happily choosing to be on Team Amazon or Team Macmillan, since you want to choose which giant company will crush your dreams instead of having one forced on you. They’re also parsing the meaning of words like monopoly, monopsony, and collusion. It’s very exciting!

In the wake of what was a pretty stupid attempt by Amazon to muscle Macmillan, some have said that they don’t want to buy books from Amazon, but they bought a Kindle. What are they to do?

Since I’m a physicist and thus have a technical answer to any question, even “Who should I date?” (answer: the robot, for he is programmed to love you always), let me explain how you too can put non-Amazon ebooks on your Kindle.

The big thing you’ll need is a copy of Calibre. Calibre is free software that runs on Windows, Macs, and Linux. It’s the Swiss Army knife of ebook software. It’ll manage your entire library if you want, but the most important feature in this case is that it can convert ebooks from one format to another. The Kindle uses a modified version of the Mobipocket format (files that end in .mobi or .prc), so that’s the format you’ll convert to. (Calibre’s frequently-asked questions has an entire section on converting an ebook to different formats.

The big question when buying an ebook is: Does it have DRM? DRM, or Digital Rights Management, is a scheme where the ebooks are locked so that they can only be opened by a specific ebook reader or piece of software.

No DRM: you can buy the book in nearly any format you want, though Mobipocket is best. If you buy the book in a different format (such as ePub or HTML), use Calibre to convert it to Mobipocket format. Once you’ve done that, you can plug your Kindle up to your computer and drag the files onto your Kindle.

DRM: Ooh, now it’s going to get tricky. You need to buy your ebook in Mobipocket format, and you have to jump through some hoops to make it readable on your Kindle.

Mobipocket DRM uses something called a PID key. The PID is a unique string that identifies a specific reader. Your Kindle has one that’s based on its serial number. You can find out your serial number by looking on the back of your Kindle (for some models), checking the box it came in (it should have a sticker on it with your serial number), or going to your Kindle’s “Settings” screen and typing “411” (without quote marks). To turn that serial number into a PID, you can use this online tool. (Alternatively, you can download a python script called to find out what your PID is, if you’re a Python kind of person.)

When you buy a DRM-protected Mobibook, you’ll be asked for your PID. Enter your Kindle’s PID and download the file. What happens next depends on your operating system and whether you want to get rid of the DRM entirely.

Are you on a Mac? If so, you can use Mobi2Kindle to convert your ebook to a protected format that your Kindle will read. This won’t get rid of the DRM, but it will make the book readable on your Kindle.

Are you running Windows? If so, you can use the unswindle package (as described here) to remove the DRM and create an unprotected Mobipocket book that your Kindle will read with no problem.

Are you on Linux, or on a Mac and want to get rid of the DRM altogether? If so, you’re going to have to do some Python hacking! You’ll need a copy of to remove the DRM so that you can read the book on your Kindle. The process is a bit complicated; fortunately, there’s a guide to help you out.

How can I tell if it has DRM or not? The best way is to try to purchase a Mobipocket format book. If you need to enter a PID to do so, you’re buying a DRM-protected book. Chances are, you’re going to be buying a book with DRM on it.

There you go. You now can read non-Amazon ebooks on your Kindle.

Brand Loyalty

The other night, Liza was tearing through a piece of cake (Liza’s motto: “AHHHHHHHH! CAAAAAAAKE!”), so of course we had to take another picture in the ongoing series of “Liza eats something and gets it all over her”. We didn’t have our real camera at hand, so I took a picture with my iPhone.

A cake-covered Liza points at the camera.

The moment she saw the iPhone, she pointed at it. “Ooooh,” she said. “Ap-ple.”

Productivity Porn

I didn’t used to obsess about productivity. Friends were welcome to get all wrapped up in methodologies for being more productive; I was getting things done just fine, thanks. I had an excellent memory, and seldom forgot to do what needed to be done.

Then I started getting older. I’d leave small tasks lying around, only remembering them when I re-found them or they blew up loudly in the corner.

Even that wasn’t enough to push me over the edge. Sure, I signed up for Remember the Milk, but I put tasks in it like an old man erratically handing out coins to his grandchildren. Otherwise I went on as I had before, mainly relying on memory and the kindness of others.

But then came the iPhone. Oh, goodness, what a difference having a computer in your pants can make. I started using Remember the Milk — really using it, instead of dabbling in it. I found how to create saved smart searches, a crazy feature that only crazy people really need. Then I realized I also wanted to note down random web pages that I wanted to look at later, as well as snippets of blog posts and random thoughts and, oh, hell, why not sign up for Evernote to remember all of this for me?

Wait: what if I’m driving and a particularly clever thought zips its way through my brain? I can’t type and drive at the same time? But I can talk and drive, as Misty will tell you while rolling her eyes. So I signed up for reQall, which has an iPhone app to transcribe voice to text.

I haven’t yet set up 43 folders to dump stuff into, and Lifehacker isn’t in my Google Reader subscriptions. But if I graph my use of productivity tools as a function of time, I should reach the productivity singularity in early 2010, at which point I will be so productive that I have no time to do anything.

Review of Element Case’s Liquid Case for the iPhone

Hey, look what I got to review: a Liquid case from Element Case. Here you can see my encased iPhone menacing my poor old SLVR.

An iPhone in an Element Liquid case menaces a Motorola SLVR. Grr. Argh.

It’s a hard plastic case designed for either generation of iPhone. You drop your iPhone into the case and screw a bezel on to hold it in place. The tiny hex-head screws means you won’t be popping the case on and off easily. For normal use that’s not a problem, as all buttons and slots are available, but you can’t dock the iPhone with the case in place.

The $100 sticker price is eye-popping — that’s half the base cost of an 8GB iPhone 3G — but the price is offset by its rugged design and customizability. You can choose the color of both the case and the translucent flip lid. You also get to choose what graphic you’d like laser-etched on the front. You may notice mine is sporting a sweet DCTV logo.

The Element Liquid case for iPhone, with the lid artistically slid to one side.

The lid is held on by magnets at the four corners, and can be attached to the back while you’re using the phone. While that obscures the camera, if you don’t use the camera all that much, it shouldn’t be a problem.

My iPhone felt well-protected in the case. I didn’t feel like the iPhone was going to slip out of my hand the way my caseless phone did, and I didn’t have to collapse my thumbs as much to type thanks to the case’s extra thickness. The thing is armored like a Sherman tank.

The Element Liquid case for the iPhone standing up.

Of course, then you end up with a Sherman tank in your pants, and despite what my spam emails claim, it wasn’t all that thrilling. At first I didn’t much care for the added bulk when I was carrying it around, but over the two weeks I’ve tested it out I grew accustomed to it. It didn’t end up being as big of an issue as I first thought it would be.

To sum up: it’s extremely rugged, sports an eye-catching and customizable design, and adds enough thickness that it makes the iPhone easier to type on. On the downside, some controls like the sleep button are harder to get to, and that thickness adds bulk when you’re carrying it in your pocket. Should you buy it? If you don’t mind paying $100 for a case, you’ll have a well-protected iPhone in a case that will draw attention. I’d be interested in trying a Griffin Clarifi case for taking close-up pictures of business cards and napkin sketches, but I’ve enjoyed the Liquid case enough that I’m going to keep using it.

A Very Baroque Digital Music Setup That Nonetheless Has No Actual Baroque Music In It

How I go from physical CDs or purchased mp3s to my music library:

  1. Rip the CD with Exact Audio Copy, which converts the album to mp3s using LAME.
  2. Since EAC uses freedb to populate each song’s metadata, that metadata is often wrong. Fix the metadata using the MusicBrainz Picard tagger.
  3. Normalize album volumes by using foobar2000 to encode Replay Gain information in mp3 tags.
  4. Get album art using Media Art Aggregator and save it to a file in the directory with the mp3s.
  5. Embed the album art in the mp3s’ tags and convert Replay Gain data to the equivalent Sound Check value using Mp3tag.
  6. Move the music to our Linux server.

And that’s how I re-invented iTunes!

Like all crazy complicated systems, it didn’t start out that way. Back when I began the Great CD Ripping Project, my requirements were simple: turn my CDs into mp3s and put them on our Linux server so Misty and I could access them through SMB. iTunes did crazy things like put album art in each mp3, increasing their filesizes, and I was using foobar2000 as my audio player. We didn’t even have much in the way of mp3 players, just a couple of iPod Shuffles. So all I had to do was rip the CDs using EAC and LAME.

Then I read about Replay Gain, and since foobar2000 had Replay Gain scanning built in, I started doing that. And, hey, wouldn’t it be nice if I had album art stored in the directory with the mp3s? foobar2000 would happily read a cover.jpg file and display it instead of depending on art embedded in the mp3s. That’s when I added Media Art Aggregator’s predecessor, Album Art Aggregator.

The iPhone was the final straw. Now I had to have the album art stored in the mp3’s tags, plus Apple had its own alternative to Replay Gain. Lucky for me I could put actions together in Mp3tag to put the cover.jpg files in the tags and to convert Replay Gain to Apple’s Sound Check.

Hey, at least I can be snooty about how much better LAME’s mp3s sound than iTunes, and how Replay Gain lets me adjust volume on a per-album basis. Right? Right?

Gizmodo’s Matt Buchanan Doesn’t Understand Consumer Reports

Earlier this week Matt Buchanan ranted in Gizmodo about Consumer Reports’ review of smartphones. He didn’t read the actual reviews, of course. He just saw the top five list on someone else’s blog: the Samsung Blackjack II, the T-Mobile Wing, the Motorola Q9C, the T-Mobile Shadow, and the Blackberry Pearl Flip. Then he went to town.

Ignoring for the moment that four out of the five are Windows Mobile phones, they didn’t even pick new, actually good hardware. Not one of the phones, except for the Pearl Flip—which is actually the least capable phone in RIM’s new batch of devices—is even from this year. Its top phone, the BlackJack II, doesn’t even have Wi-Fi or a touchscreen, and is loaded with Samsung’s BS proprietary ports, rather than industry standard ones. Beyond that, where the hell are the other good smartphones? If they wanna be dated, where’s the BlackBerry Curve? They could shoehorn it in by reviewing one of the newer iterations with Wi-Fi. No Symbian?

In short, based on a top five list presented without context, Matt got angry that Consumer Reports didn’t pick the most recent smartphones and don’t get that the only thing that really matters about smartphones is the software.

Unlike Matt, I’m actually interested in context, so I dug up the actual article and ratings.
They judged the phones based on things like voice quality (both talking and listening), talk time, and ease of use. The article gives further sub-divided groupings of smartphones, like their recommended ones for multimedia (the iPhone 3G and the T-Mobile G1) or office-like tasks (the Samsung Blackjack II and the Motorola MOTO Q 9c). So it’s not just a top five list; it’s a constellation of recommendations based on usage.

Also unlike Matt, I understand the difference between generalist and specialist reviewers, the difference between tech-obsessed early adopters (hi, all of Gizmodo) and more average users, and the pitfalls of trusting numbers that are generated by qualitative rather than quantitative tests (such as “ease of use”).

Look, it’s simple: a generalist review site like Consumer Reports works best when you’re using it for items you’re not geekily obsessed about. Car enthusiasts bitch about their car reviews; audiophiles bash their stereo reviews. I’m sure if I were the kind of person to subscribe to Coffee Maker Magazine I’d be annoyed about their coffee maker reviews. And it’s okay to point out flaws in their methodology and places where you disagree with their results. But whinging about a top five list when you didn’t even do your homework and read the primary source? That’s as out-of-touch as Matt accuses Consumer Reports of being.

Ten Tips and Tricks I’ve Learned About the iPhone

Yes, I’m still enjoying my iPhone. Yes, I’ve been using it a lot — probably more than is healthy. I’m going to end up with thumbs that look like Popeye’s forearms at the rate I’m going. There were a number of things I had to learn about by experimenting or looking on the web. Here’s ten that you can make fun of me for not knowing.

Delete mail by swiping your finger across it. Right-to-left or left-to-right works. Other apps use this same approach — the iPhone app for the task-management site Remember the Milk lets you swipe tasks to mark them complete.

Hold down the .com key to pop up a list of other top-level domains such as .net and .org. This has made typing URLs in Safari much easier for me.

On keyboards where there is no .com button, you can hold down the period to get a list of top-level domains. That’s especially useful in Mail when you’re typing an email address.

When typing a single number, punctuation mark or symbol, press and hold the 123 button, then slide your finger to the number or symbol you need. The keyboard will then reset to letters automatically.

Double-tap a column or image in Safari to make it resize to fill the screen. Yeah, yeah, I know, they showed this in the iPhone commercials. Bite me.

Use two fingers to scroll list or entry fields in Safari. One finger scrolls the whole page, but two fingers scroll just the field.

Scroll to the top of any page by tapping the top bar.

Take a screenshot by holding the home button and then pressing the sleep button.

You can change what double-clicking the home button does. Look under Settings/General/Home Button. I set mine so that double-clicking the home button takes me to the iPod app.

Double-click the home button while the phone is locked to bring up iPod controls. I’ve set my phone to lock after a minute or so, and when I’m using the iPhone to play music, it’s nice not to have to fully wake it up to change songs.

Any tips I’ve missed, fellow iPhone users?