November 2005

Liner notes

Moving can be an occasion for reconsidering how you live your life. One aspect that Gwen and I are confronting is how we listen to music.

I’ve got all my CDs ripped to digital files, and since I spend most of the day working at (or, well, sitting at) my computer, listening to my music through iTunes is the most obvious option. I’ve been pushing for having a gadget to relay music off my hard drive to the stereo in the living room, something like the Airport Express or Slimp3 player.

Not Gwen. She doesn’t dislike iTunes, but she’s visual. She wants to browse through the covers of her music to make a selection, rather than scroll through a list of artists or the like. But she and I both feel that it would be nice to put away all of our CDs. So what to do?

The MP3 and AAC file formats allow you to include cover art as metadata right in the file. iTunes can display this art while it the track is playing. And there exist a number of applications for the Mac that will display the art when iTunes is hidden, and even help look for it on the Internet–Clutter, which I could never bond with, Sofa, which is an intriguing app now caught in limbo by its author’s death, and Synergy, which I’ve been happily using for some time. But these don’t help you browse your collection by cover—they just show you the cover once you’ve selected something.

One of the big problems with cover browsing is that you need to have the cover art. As I said, there are some programs that can help (by mining Google Images or Amazon), but often enough, they can’t find anything, or they find the wrong thing, or they find the right thing, but only a thumbnail image. And there’s some stuff for which there simply is no cover art (remixes, bootlegs, etc). I’ve been rather laboriously going through my collection and manually searching the usual sources to dig up good-quality images to make cover browsing possible. I reckon once I’m done, I’ll still be left with 2% to 5% of my collection sans art, and for that stuff, I’ll have to improvise.

I recently learned about Cover Buddy, which gives you a slide-sorter view of your cover art. It’s got some nice features, and it’s reasonably priced. But I’m really excited about my latest discovery, CoverFlow. When I read the description of this, I was doubtful of its utility, but having played with it, I’m hooked. It’s still very beta and rather primitive, but also very impressive. You really need a scrolling mouse to make the most of it.

I showed it to Gwen, and she was impressed as well. I think we’ve solved our music-browsing dilemma. Now we just need a Mac that can run CoverFlow in the living room…

Well, that was fast

Just had a pow-wow with my contractor, Karl. We discussed a few problems that necessitate some modifications to our plans.

This house has a gabled roof. Normally the ceiling joists would run parallel to the rafters. Not in this house. A related problem is that they are not continuous beams from one end to the other, and we were planning on removing a wall under a spot where they join. Fortunately, there were going to be non-structural built-in cabinets there, so it is a relatively simple modification to turn them into structural closets. There’s another spot where we want to remove a wall underneath another run of joints. There’s no easy workaround for to this: Karl’s solution to this is to actually take down the joists, install a reinforced beam to carry the load out to the nearest load-bearing walls, turn the joists 90°, and hang them off this beam. It’s a lot of fooling around, but I don’t want to cheap out on the structure. In 100 years, when someone crawls up into that attic, they’ll look around and wonder “…what the hell?”.

The kitchen is a little bit knottier because of tight dimensions. Our plan called for a 72“ kitchen island where a wall is now. The problem is that this would leave only 32” of space to pass on each side, and Karl is pretty convinced you need at least 36“. I’m inclined to trust him. The simplest fix would be to make the island 8” shorter, which we may do. Karl suggested a more ambitious plan that involved making the island into a peninsula against the wall, and running a narrow 12“ counter along the wall between the original counter location and the peninsula, and leaving the fridge where it is instead of moving it, as we currently plan to. Moving the fridge to the corner we’ve planned could clash with the island/peninsula.

And so it begins

Last night, Gwen and I took possession of our new house, the one we bought about a month and a half ago. We then proceeded to throw a party:

Wake of destruction, Empty house party - 2

The house we’ve bought is basically a good house, but it’s a little on the small side for our purposes, and that means there’s not a lot of slack in the floorplan. Very quickly after we put in an offer on the house, we took pretty good (though not quite good enough) measurements, plotted out the house’s current floorplan in Illustrator, and then started to monkey around with ways to improve it. We showed our ideas to our contractor, who suggested a few tweaks but thought the ideas were generally sound and doable.

Current paln

Current floorplan

Proposed floorplan

Proposed floorplan

Some of the windows are positioned incorrectly here, and there are some omissions in the proposed plan–there’ll be a big kitchen island, the kitchen door will probably go, and there will be some built-in cabinets not pictured. There are some dimensions that are pretty sensitive–not allowing any wiggle-room–and they still need to be pinned down more accurately than we know them. So there will probably be some tweaks to these plans.

As I said, the house is a little on the small side. This means we need to divest ourselves of a bunch of furniture. So if you’re in the market for a bed (king or queen, both really nice) bookcase (we have three), a pair of speakers, a futon frame, or some bentwood chairs, drop me a line.

From the department of really bad ideas

I’ve seen a sudden upsurge in a particular kind of spam over the past day or so. All of them come with a (Windows) executable attachment.

Several of the messages read as follows:

Subject:  Your IP was logged
Date:     21 November 2005 22:07:31 CST
To:       [my e-mail address]

Dear Sir/Madam,

we have logged your IP-address on more than 30 illegal Websites.

Please answer our questions!
The list of questions are attached.

Yours faithfully,
Steven Allison

++++ Central Intelligence Agency -CIA-
++++ Office of Public Affairs
++++ Washington, D.C. 20505

++++ phone: (703) 482-0623
++++ 7:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m., US Eastern time

Call me crazy, but it seems like a really, really bad idea to use the CIA—the same organization known to torture prisoners—as the Joe in your little joe-job phishing expedition.

later: Apparently I’m not the only one getting these.

Greetings from mission control

I had a full-time Internet connection in 1997. The first thing I did once I got that working was to set my mail client to check my e-mail on a regular schedule instead of manually.

The second thing I did was turn off the alert that told me I had new mail. Of course I had new mail. I always have new mail.

Using a computer to tell you things you need to know, and how it tells you, have interested me for a long time. These topics are addressed in the article from the Sunday NY Times Magazine, Meet the Life Hackers, This has been so widely discussed in blogs that I probably read the whole article via scattered excerpts before reading the article start to finish. And we continued discussing it at the small but stimulating blogger meetup last night.

Quite some time ago, I had an e-mail conversation with Brent Simmons regarding the dock icon used for his excellent NetNewsWire. The dock icon shows a total count of unread articles as a badge, much as Apple’s Mail program does. This is fine, although I always feel a little guilty because my unread count is typically over 1000 (maybe I need to prune my subscription list a bit). We discussed ways to get more fine-grained information into that icon; I suggested using a compass-rose icon where each point of the compass would represent a specific feed or group of feeds, and its fill level and color saturation could be used to indicate unread count and recency.

In the Times article, a couple of sections caught my eye as being somewhat similar in spirit

Czerwinski proposed a third way: a visual graphic, like a pentagram whose sides changed color based on the type of problem at hand, a solution different enough from the screens of text to break through the clutter.

Another experiment created a tiny round window that floats on one side of the screen; moving dots represent information you need to monitor, like the size of your in-box or an approaching meeting. It looks precisely like the radar screen in a military cockpit.

In retrospect, I’m not sure if a multicolored compass rose is really all that important for keeping track of how far behind I am on my newsfeeds. But I do think that something along those lines could be useful in a more general way.

I’ve been experimenting with different ways of using my computer to tell me things lately. One widely-touted aspect of the latest version of OS X is Dashboard. Dashboard is almost right, but exactly wrong. Dashboard allows you to show widgets–tiny one-trick programs. These widgets generally break down into two categories: either they passively show you some piece of information (such as the weather or traffic conditions), or they actively let you manipulate information (such as a calculator or posting tool). The problem with Dashboard is that it is modal: either you’re viewing Dashboard, or you’re viewing the rest of your system. For “active” widgets, that’s not so bad. But for passive widgets, it’s dead wrong. I want to see my to-do list all the time. If I have to remember to take action just to look at my to-do list, I’m less likely to look at it.

Although Apple doesn’t make it easy, I decided to disable Dashboard almost immediately. Casting about for something that would remind me “hey, mom’s birthday is tomorrow” in a way I could not overlook, I revisited Konfabulator, a program that does almost exactly the same thing as Dashboard (about which I’ve written before), but whose widgets actually live on the desktop. I had tried Konfabulator a long time ago and wrote it off as a resource hog. Between my newer computer and perhaps better coding in Konfabulator, it seems to work with my system much better. I’m using it right now to show my calendar events and to-do list, and the weather, and that’s it. It’s not absolutely perfect for my needs, but it’s pretty good. I’ve also been intrigued by Stattoo — I like the fact that it has a more disciplined appearance on-screen, but find some of the modules to display too little information to be really useful–it omits a lot of extras that seem obvious and desirable; it is also severely limited by the fact that it apparently has no plug-in architecture. A slightly more fleshed-out version would be ideal–even though Konfabulator is free, I’d pay money for a sort of “Stattoo 2.”

Another feedback mechanism on the Mac, and one that is becoming widely supported and well fleshed-out is Growl. Growl was an outgrowth of the excellent Adium chat client, and can be used to show ephemeral blobs with the text of incoming instant messages–very handy. But it also gives me numerous other status updates–how long my cellphone calls last, when a blog entry has been successfully posted, etc. I frequently get e-mail from clients overnight, and want to know right away whether there’s anything I need to look at, so I’ve scripted Growl to show a little notification blob for client e-mails that persists until I make it go away. In theory I could use Growl to show upcoming events, although to-do list items might be trickier. I use sound as a mail notifier as well, with special chimes for mail matching certain criteria–I even have Mail speak the name of the sender when I receive mail from a friend.

In fact, Growl probably isn’t exactly the right tool for the job of showing ambient, persistent information–it’s more intrusive, its blobs of text float over everything else. Ambient, persistent information should probably sit under everything else–a murmur, not a growl.

Ideally, I’d probably corral all these visual notifications and status monitors into a separate display, or have a region of my main display roped off for just that purpose. Right now, that’s not feasible. I know that Microsoft’s Longhorn is going to have special support for subsidiary displays, although I suspect those won’t be exactly what I have in mind either. It’s obvious that my current setup, although it’s pretty good at presenting information in a way that’s ambient, unobtrusive, and pretty well customized to my needs, is still undisciplined (I haven’t mentioned all the various forms of notifications I get). The available tools generally seem to be moving in the right direction, though.


I could have easily missed MirrorMask if I hadn’t been trolling through the Chron’s review section, and I’m glad I didn’t. I only know Neil Gaiman’s work by reputation, which is very strong, so when I did notice this, I was eager to check it out.

Despite starting off at a circus, the movie’s opening is surprisingly drab. It quickly settles down into the visually imaginative dreamscape I was vaguely expecting–though I’d have no way to really expect what I did see, it being altogether fantastical. At its core, the movie turns out to be a fairly conventional coming-of-age story. But it’s the visuals that make it very much worth seeing.

Good night and good luck

Saw Good Night and Good Luck recently. Excellent movie. Beautiful to look at in black and white, the story is taut and told in punctuated chunks, interspersed with old kinescope footage; all together, it gives an interesting look into the ways life was different about fifty years ago. Appropriate to its subject matter, it has a sort of eyewitness, journalistic quality. George Clooney is clearly more than a pretty-boy actor, and while David Strathairn makes a believable Murrow, Clooney is a hell of a stretch for Fred Friendly.

The movie is not remotely subtle about the messages it is laying out–there are several–but they are messages that are worth telling.

It was especially interesting seeing the movie at this exact moment in history, when a right-wing government that is suspicious of its own citizens is just beginning to fall into disarray.

And my pretty countryside had been paved down the middle

Construction machinery for SH130

Rode out FM 969 to Webberville today. Saw this and moaned “fuuuuuuuuuuuuuck.”

Any road construction around Austin is going to be controversial, and SH130 is no exception.

Originally sold as a bypass for I-35 to allow long-haul truckers to speed past the congested parts around Austin, even TxDOT claimed it would yield only a 4% reduction in traffic on I-35.

The notion that this is really intended as a bypass–if it was ever taken seriously–is clearly off the table, as it is clear that there will be an interchange here, about halfway to Webberville. There’ll be another one on the other side of Manor as well.

There are a lot of smaller and organic farms out along this way, but suburban-style development has already encroached. This is going to speed that process along and help kill another one of the things I like about living in Austin: being able to ride my bike out into the countryside.


iPhoto is bundled with every new Mac, but I never really bonded with it. The way it maintains photos is grossly inefficient, and it doesn’t deal as gracefully with batch processes or metadata as I’d like. I always used Graphic Converter for that stuff, but I have to admit that it isn’t great for just organizing photos.

From time to time, I’d read that people using the current version of iPhoto found it much improved–indispensable, even. And with a 250-gig hard drive, I could tolerate some inefficiency. So I decided to give it a shot. Thanks to the Keyword assistant and Flickr export plugins, I can use iPhoto with a tolerably efficient workflow. I’ve managed to import, tag, organize, and upload a lot of old photos to my flickr account–check ’em out. More to come.