the little computer that should

My home server went phut last week. There was a brief power outage, and everything else came back on — except the server. It was a three year old Mini-ITX box, and I’m casting about for ways to replace it.

To serve my immediate music serving and podcasting needs, I have pressed The Only Computer That Runs Windows into service, running Ubuntu using Wubi. Unfortunately, I do still occasionally need to run Garmin Mapsource, which only runs on Windows, and also The Only Computer That Runs Windows is also rather too nice a laptop to be sat doing server duty.

I have some options:

  • Get a new motherboard for the mini-itx box. Via still has some crazy ideas about pricing (over $200 for a fanless C7?) but maybe I’ll go for Intel’s snappily-named D945GCLF, which looks okay for what I need and is only $80.
  • I could resurrect the old Athlon box I got in 2002, but it’s big, loud, and its components are probably near end of life. Also, why disturb a mature spider habitat?

What I was really looking for was one of those tiny fanless internet appliance boxes that were so 2007 (like the Koolu and the Zonbu, both of which have moved on to other things), but such units, without the tied storage service contract, are upwards of $500.

My needs are simple:

  • run Firefly to feed the Soundbridges;
  • generate the automatic podcast every day, which realistically means a linux box with Perl, sqlite and the like;
  • have something to ssh into when boredom strikes the need arises. Perhaps unwise having an open machine sitting directly on the internet, but only the ssh port will be open.

I really also need to get rid of all the computer junk in the basement. It now includes two fritzed mini-ITX systems and the world’s slowest PostScript laser printer. Such fun.

half-assed, but endearing

So I bought the Kross Bluetooth Hands Free Cell Phone Car Kit with FM Transmitter. It has its good points, but it has some quirks and serious shortcomings.

Here’s what’s good:

  • It’s cheap (< $40)
  • It provides in-car Bluetooth speakerphone
  • It plays MP3s from SD card, USB stick, or an line level source.

Here’s what’s not so good:

  • Playback quality is limited to finding an open FM frequency, which is hard in the GTA
  • The transmitter is not very powerful, so nearby vehicles can swamp your signal (or, if you want to call it a feature, it’s a “random positional mashup”)
  • The phone mic is a tiny port on the unit, so sometimes the caller can’t hear you too well
  • You need to have your radio on to answer your phone
  • The USB port doesn’t provide enough charging current for a phone or GPS
  • The remote isn’t very good
  • Voice dialling doesn’t seem to work with my Blackberry
  • The MP3 playback function usually remembers where you were when you start the car, but sometimes forgets, and needs the card ejected and reinserted
  • It doesn’t know about ID3 tags
  • Weirdest of all, it plays back files in the strict order they were written to the directory – not ordered by file name. It seems that, under Microsoft operating systems, files are copied in name order, but under Unix, they are (winging it here) copied by inode. Using tar on a Mac or Linux is the way to go, as it writes in name order.

The Kross S-150 Manual (scanned PDF) is pretty terse, and has been of limited use to me. For all its faults, it’s kind of useful, but if I had a USB-capable stereo, I wouldn’t need this.

cleaning up your FireFly Media Server database

mp3 tagging is a minefield. Like all metadata, one has to balance obsession with detail against ease of acquisition.

Some Firefly clients are pickier than other about tagging. Regrettably, some of the music I get from emusic has bad characters in the tags, which throws the players right off. Finding the problem files is the majority of the problem – here’s a method that at least helps:
wget -O- http://host:port/rsp/db/1 | perl -pwe 's,<(?![/\?]),\n<,g;' > firefly.xml
xmllint --noout firefly.xml

You’ll likely get a few lines like:

firefly.xml:463415: parser error : PCDATA invalid Char value 65535
<title>�Singing in the Bathtub</title>

In this case, the song title tag has some junk characters in it that you’ll need to fix. After cleaning up the tags and rebuilding the database, try this process again to see if you’ve caught all the errors.

announcing the automatic podcast

Every day, the automatic podcast presents a random selection from my music collection. And I mean random: cartoon incidental music, snatches of folk songs, instrument tuition, and ancient scratchy 78s nestle up against my favourite indie hits. And it’s all introduced by a synthesized compère. I have no idea what’s going to be in it each day, and no records are kept of what was offered yesterday. It’s meant to be a daily snapshot, not an ongoing record.

There are still a few bugs to get out of the RSS feed, but generally I’m happy with how it works. There is some listener discretion required, as I can’t vet what goes into each day’s presentation.

Update, 30 Sep 2008: think I’ve fixed the RSS problems.

less than 100 CDs to go …

1492 Artists / 999 Albums / 15245 Tracks / 34.9 Days / 62.12 GB
(and here’s me thinking I had about 2000 CDs, too)

CDs that wouldn’t read: 0 (so far). That’s not to say that there weren’t some difficulties (copy-controlled CDs can go die, glitching and gronking in my drives) and my oldest CD (XTC’s Skylarking, my copy of which I think has just turned 20) had a ton of retries.

Lost CDs: Thomas Dolby’s Aliens Ate My Buick is somewhere in the house, but nowhere I’ve looked.

Found CDs: My long-lost promo copy of the (Portland) Decemberists’ Picaresque, which I thought had vanished in a road trip to Missouri. It was lurking in a long-forgotten portable CD player in the bottom of a storage bin.

Pleasant surprises: that freedb is generally better than it used to be.

Peeves: copy-controlled CDs (see above); flappy cardboardy cases that only have the title on one spine; oversized CD cases (Japanese imports, I’m looking straight at you), dark blue text on a black background, idjit freedb submitters who insist on Band, The syntax or worse, submit whole albums called sdfsdf;aefhsdf; bonus DVD “premium” releases (who watches these?).

song counts

1332 Artists / 774 Albums / 12074 Tracks / 27.1 Days / 47.34 GB
— and the sad thing is, this would barely half fill a current iPod.


m4a2mp3 – convert AAC to MP3. Uses Perl, LAME and faad. Semi-gracefully converts weird iTunes genres to ID3v2, or to “Other” if it’s something else. Uses lame’s new VBR settings, so you end up with an MP3 not massively bigger than the source M4A.

PS: broke the 8000 tunes on the Firefly server …

emusic: where Canada still means more expensive and second-rate

I’m not going to get all Swindleeeee!!!!! about it, but I’ve noticed a few things missing in the new emusic Canada site. I lost all my MP3s in the break-in, but I thought I’d downloaded all of the ones I’d bought from emusic a couple of days ago.

Not so. For unexplained reasons, I got humming The Whole House is Singing, and I thought I needed to listen to some Alasdair Roberts. Couldn’t find it in the share, so I went back to emusic to download it again, and rats!, it’s gone. So here’s some music I’ve paid for, but now emusic (champions of no-DRM) can’t make good on their promise to let you re-download everything you’ve bought.

(I’ve also noticed that most of the Deva Premal tracks [hey, they’re Catherine‘s] have gone, but have had no compulsion whatsoever to hum them …)

rockin’ the plastic: four turntables and an mp3 share

Now I’ve got the Soundbridge set up to share from my server, I’ve been ripping CDs like crazy. I’ve got two drives on my Ubuntu box, and hooked an external CD drive to my laptop, so I’m rocking four drives at once. After years of using Grip, I converted to Abcde this weekend. What I really like about it is that I can run multiple copies at once, and it very nearly things right (aka “my way”) out of the box.

By the end of tonight, I should have about 6700 tracks on my share, and a bunch of CDs in storage.

annoying ringtone

Now I’ve discovered how easy it is to create MP3 ringtones for my BlackBerry (make a 64KBit mono MP3 of short length, e-mail it to the phone, open attachment, save it, and select “Use as ringtone”), I just had to use this little snippet of the DeZurik Sisters: dezurik.mp3.

guess my music competition

So I could listen to semi-disposable CDRs in the car (and with that phrase, my green cred has vanished) I wrote a program that converts directories of mp3s to WAV files and TOC files for cdrdao. It works rather well.

In order to get sensible file names, the program truncates album names down to eight letters. I will send $5 canadian by paypal to the first person to guess correctly the album and artist of the following four names:


Answers in the comments only, please. They’re all official releases, before you accuse me of getting you to guess my mix CDs.