Tuesday, November 8, 2011

The Best Data Collection App (And Format) for iPhone

I’ve long been intrigued by Nick Felton’s Annual Reports. Felton has become the poster child for a new kind of a subculture growing up around this idea of “personal metrics.” Measuring and reporting esoteric and insane amounts of data about your personal habits can be a great way to Meet People And Make Friends.

Creating these reports will involve coming up with your own solutions to an interesting set of problems: how to capture all that data, how to store it in an analytics-friendly format, how to actually analyze it, and how to design the information displays. In this post I’m dealing mainly with the first two parts of that list: capturing data and storing it, with some hints about analytics afterwards.

In data collection, your smartphone is your friend. You want to make sure collecting data is easy and frictionless, so that you get it all. Your phone is always with you, so you can jot things down and not worry about having to get it later. And as much as I love pen and paper, if you go that route you’re going to end up collecting the same info down twice when it comes time to get it into your computer for analytics.

There are a lot of apps out there for collecting and reporting various kinds of data — running times/length, weight loss/gain, sex, sleep and eating habits — and these can be great if you’re only interested in tracking one or two aspects of your life. But as soon as you begin to raise your sights a little and think about comprehensive Felton-scale data collection, you realize what a pain it’s going to be to have a herd of seventeen apps to manage. Another problem with most of these apps is that they don’t provide any access to the actual data.


For awhile, Felton was working on a project called Daytum that would help people create their personal reports similar to his. Daytum has always had a lot of promise, but there are a few major problems with it that need to change before it can be really useful:

  1. Felton was hired by Facebook recently, and doesn’t seem to be actively maintaining the service anymore
  2. The web interface is clumsy for entering anything more than simple quantities
  3. The iPhone app — which would ordinarily be the ideal channel for collecting data — is buggy, infrequently updated, and (worst of all) has been known to randomly erase data

The Format is Text

I found what I was looking for in Ben Lipkowitz’s lifelog project. He developed a simple text format that allows you to quickly capture personal events and data as they happen. A self-explanatory sample is below:

date 2011 01 08
0000 0851 sleep
0851 0902 domestics
0902 0904 walking langton-labs
0904 0906 setup kitty
0906 0907 science guinea-pig
0908 0920 food cookie-cereal 2c soy-milk 0.6c peanut-butter-ice-cream 1c
0920 1000 net thermal-clothing, food donut-hole 2pc oatmeal-cookie-dough 3pc
1000 1052 net thermal-clothing
1052 1100 riding kaplans
1100 1145 shoppin, act tour-kaplans
1145 1155 riding langton-labs
1155 1200 chat rachel-?
1200 1210 riding rei
1210 1445 shoppin, domestics test-clothes
1445 1451 stupid rei-membership-form

The syntax is pretty self-explanatory. Each interval is given an activity (e.g., net or drive) followed by any number of tags that add detail (e.g. drive commute-home). Multiple activities and their tags are separated by commas.

The advantages of capturing data in this way are obvious:

  • Both the time length and frequency of activities is captured
  • It’s easy to add custom data to different kinds of activities (such as the quantities given in the food activity above)
  • You can easily enter and read the data without any special software
  • The data will still be easy to read ten or fifty years from now

How to actually use the data: Creating any visual displays of all this data is going to involve brushing off your script-writing chops. The good news is if you have any programming ability whatsoever, you should be able to cobble something together quite easily for whatever you want to do. Check out the lifelog project for examples of scripts for parsing and displaying the data. Ben currently produces graphs showing time intervals colored by activity, but you could just as easily build a script in your favourite language to build reports for things like average commute times, top five conversation topics, or total times you had to look for things and how many of those times you found them, etc. If you have your script output the results in a CSV format, you can open those reports directly in Excel and create charts from there.

This format doesn’t work well for capturing broader categories of events that span over multiple time intervals. For example, there’s no clear way to record that everything you did this afternoon was part of Brother Mike’s Wedding, for example. There are a couple of ways to extend this, such as adding mark, start or end keywords to mark the beginning and ending of these types of things, or simply recording that info elsewhere.

I don’t recommend trying to record your moment-to-moment moods for any reason whatsoever. That way lies self-referential madness.

The App is Nebulous Notes


Nebulous Notes has a couple of great features that make it great for this kind of data collection:

  • Shortcut keys: You can set up shortcut keys to quickly insert date and timestamps in right format, as well as skip forward and backwards by word or character (see screenshots above)
  • Dropbox support: Store your text file on your Dropbox account and it will be auto-saved to the cloud every time you edit it, and you can easily pull it into your laptop for analytics.

I recently switched to the iPhone, so if you have an Android or Blackberry you’ll need to find your own favorite app for that platform. (Personally I can’t imagine attempting anything like this on my laggy old Blackberry.) Let me know in the comments if you find anything!

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

For Kindle: The 33 Best Science Fiction Novels Ever

Another “best of” list for your Kindle, brought to you this time by this Ask Reddit post.

The links given in this list are to Kindle editions of the books, free wherever possible, unless there have been severe quality complaints with the ebook versions. If you want to see book covers and a summary of comments by those who have read them, see this summary of the reddit thread by John Forsythe.

  1. Dune by Frank Herbert — 1965

  2. The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy by Douglas Adams — 1979
    Good light bathroom reading. Perhaps the schtick will wear off as quickly for you as it did for me, but lots of people never tire of it.

  3. Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card — 1985
    My personal favourite of the ones on this list that I have read.

  4. Foundation Trilogy by Isaac Asimov — 1942
    More of a saga broken up into smaller novels with one majestic overarching connection. I really enjoyed this one.

  5. Hyperion by Dan Simmons — 1989
    “On the eve of Armageddon, with the entire galaxy at war, seven pilgrims set forth on a final voyage to Hyperion seeking the answers to the unsolved riddles of their lives.”

  6. Neuromancer by William Gibson — 1984
    “Case was the hottest computer cowboy cruising the information superhighway — jacking his consciousness into cyberspace, soaring through tactile lattices of data and logic, rustling encoded secrets for anyone with the money to buy his skills. Then he double-crossed the wrong people, who caught up with him in a big way — and burned the talent out of his brain, micron by micron. Banished from cyberspace, trapped in the meat of his physical body, Case courted death in the high-tech underworld. Until a shadowy conspiracy offered him a second chance — and a cure — for a price…”

  7. Snow Crash by Neil Stephenson — 1992
    “In California of the near future, when the U.S. is only a ‘Burbclave’ (city-state), the Mafia is just another franchise chain, and there are no laws to speak of, Hiro Protagonist follows clues from the Bible, ancient Sumer and high technology to help thwart an attempt to take control of civilization — such as it is.”

  8. Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clark — 1953 (Not avail. for Kindle at this time)
    “The Overlords appeared suddenly over every city — intellectually, technologically, and militarily superior to humankind. Benevolent, they made few demands: unify earth, eliminate poverty, and end war. With little rebellion, humankind agreed, and a golden age began. But at what cost? With the advent of peace, man ceases to strive for creative greatness, and a malaise settles over the human race. To those who resist, it becomes evident that the Overlords have an agenda of their own.”

  9. The Forever War by Joe Haldeman — 1974
    “Short, but fantastically well executed. It might be so good, in part, because it's short.” — “Humans first bumped heads with the Taurans when we began using collapsars to travel the stars. Although the collapsars provide nearly instantaneous travel across vast distances, the relativistic speeds associated with the process means that time passes slower for those aboard ship. For William Mandella, a physics student drafted as a soldier, that means more than 27 years will have passed between his first encounter with the Taurans and his homecoming, though he himself will have aged only a year. When Mandella finds that he can’t adjust to Earth after being gone so long from home, he reenlists, only to find himself shuttled endlessly from battle to battle as the centuries pass.”

  10. Ringworld by Larry Niven — 1970 (Not available for Kindle at this time)

  11. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick — 1968
    This is the novel on which the movie Blade Runner was based. “By 2021, the World War had killed millions, driving entire species into extinction and sending mankind off-planet. Those who remained coveted any living creature, and for people who couldn’t afford one, companies built incredibly realistic simulacrae: horses, birds, cats, sheep…they even built humans. Emigrées to Mars received androids so sophisticated it was impossible to tell them from true men or women. Fearful of the havoc these artificial humans could wreak, the government banned them from Earth. But when androids didn’t want to be identified, they just blended in.”

  12. A Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert A. Heinlein — 1961
    “The story of Valentine Michael Smith, born during, and the only survivor of, the first manned mission to Mars. Michael is raised by Martians, and he arrives on Earth as a true innocent: he has never seen a woman and has no knowledge of Earth’s cultures or religions. But he brings turmoil with him, as he is the legal heir to an enormous financial empire, not to mention de facto owner of the planet Mars. With the irascible popular author Jubal Harshaw to protect him, Michael explores human morality and the meanings of love.”

  13. Starship Troopers by Robert A. Heinlein — 1987
    “Juan Rico signed up with the Federal Service on a lark, but despite the hardships and rigorous training, he finds himself determined to make it as a cap trooper. In boot camp he will learn how to become a soldier, but when he graduates and war comes (as it always does for soldiers), he will learn why he is a soldier.”

  14. The Culture Series by Iain M. Banks — 1987: Consider Phlebas, Surface Detail, Use of Weapons, Matter and others

  15. A Canticle For Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller, Jr. — 1960 (Not currently available for Kindle)
    Strangely arresting and thought-provoking look through the lens of a post-apocalyptic world.

  16. Rendezvous With Rama by Arthur C. Clarke — 1973 (Not currently available for Kindle)

  17. Pandora’s Star by Peter F. Hamilton — 2004
    “Hamilton creates a dense, thoroughly defined twenty-fourth-century world, in which humanity has colonized the stars, thanks to the discovery of wormhole travel, and established a successful commonwealth. The species has even encountered aliens and space-faring artifacts. One remaining mystery is the barrier around stars known as the Dyson Pair. Human curiosity still being what it is, a spaceship capable of faster-than-light travel (thanks to those wormholes again) goes to investigate. When what’s behind the barrier is discovered, the thrill-ride really starts. Aliens formerly trapped inside it, fighting over limited resources, are freed to invade human space.”

  18. The Mote In God’s Eye by Larry Niven & Jerry Pournelle — 1974
    “In the year 3016, the Second Empire of Man spans hundreds of star systems, thanks to the faster-than-light Alderson Drive. No other intelligent beings have ever been encountered, not until a light sail probe enters a human system carrying a dead alien. The probe is traced to the Mote, an isolated star in a thick dust cloud, and an expedition is dispatched. In the Mote the humans find an ancient civilization — at least one million years old — that has always been bottled up in their cloistered solar system for lack of a star drive. The Moties are welcoming and kind, yet rather evasive about certain aspects of their society. It seems the Moties have a dark problem, one they’ve been unable to solve in over a million years.”

  19. The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester — 1956
    “Marooned in outer space after an attack on his ship, Nomad, Gulliver Foyle lives to obsessively pursue the crew of a rescue vessel that had intended to leave him to die.”

  20. Altered Carbon by Richard K. Morgan — 2002
    “In the 25th century, it’s difficult to die a final death. Humans are issued a cortical stack, implanted into their bodies, into which consciousness is “digitized” and from which — unless the stack is hopelessly damaged — their consciousness can be downloaded (“resleeved”) with its memory intact, into a new body. While the Vatican is trying to make resleeving (at least of Catholics) illegal, centuries-old aristocrat Laurens Bancroft brings Takeshi Kovacs (an Envoy, a specially trained soldier used to being resleeved and trained to soak up clues from new environments) to Earth, where Kovacs is resleeved into a cop’s body to investigate Bancroft’s first mysterious, stack-damaging death.”

  21. Red Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson — 1993
    The first in a trilogy. “An action-packed and thoughtful tale of the exploration and settlement of Mars—riven by both personal and ideological conflicts—in the early 21st century.”

  22. 2001: A Space Odyssey by Arthur C. Clarke — 1968 (Not currently available for Kindle)
    “When an enigmatic monolith is found buried on the moon, scientists are amazed to discover that it’s at least 3 million years old. Even more amazing, after it’s unearthed the artifact releases a powerful signal aimed at Saturn. What sort of alarm has been triggered? To find out, a manned spacecraft, the Discovery, is sent to investigate. Its crew is highly trained — the best — and they are assisted by a self-aware computer, the ultra-capable HAL 9000. But HAL’s programming has been patterned after the human mind a little too well. He is capable of guilt, neurosis, even murder, and he controls every single one of Discovery’s components. The crew must overthrow this digital psychotic if they hope to make their rendezvous with the entities that are responsible not just for the monolith, but maybe even for human civilization.”

  23. Contact by Carl Sagan — 1985 (Not currently available for Kindle)
    “After years of scanning the galaxy for signs of somebody or something else, this team believes they’ve found a message from an intelligent source — and they travel deep into space to meet it.”

  24. The Sirens Of Titan by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. — 1959
    “Plain and simple, there would probably be no Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy as we know it without The Sirens of Titan.”

  25. I, Robot by Isaac Asimov — 1950
    “In I, Robot, Asimov chronicles the development of the robot through a series of interlinked stories: from its primitive origins in the present to its ultimate perfection in the not-so-distant future—a future in which humanity itself may be rendered obsolete.”

  26. The Left Hand Of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin — 1969 (Not available for Kindle at this time)
    “Genly Ai is an emissary from the human galaxy to Winter, a lost, stray world. His mission is to bring the planet back into the fold of an evolving galactic civilization, but to do so he must bridge the gulf between his own culture and prejudices and those that he encounters. On a planet where people are of no gender — or both — this is a broad gulf indeed.”

  27. Revelation Space by Alastair Reynolds — 2000
    “Sylveste is the only man ever to return alive and sane from a Shroud, an enclave in space protected by awesome gravity-warping defenses. Now an intuition he doesn’t understand makes him explore the dead world Resurgam, whose birdlike natives long ago tripped some booby trap that made their own sun erupt in a deadly flare. Meanwhile, the vast, decaying lightship Nostalgia for Infinity is coming for Sylveste, whose dead father (in AI simulation) could perhaps help the Captain, frozen near absolute zero yet still suffering monstrous transformation by nanotech plague. Most of Infinity’s tiny crew have hidden agendas — Khouri the reluctant contract assassin believes she must kill Sylveste to save humanity — and there are two bodiless stowaways, one no longer human and one never human. Shocking truths emerge from bluff, betrayal, and ingenious lies.”

  28. Old Man’s War by John Scalzi — 2005
    “With his wife dead and buried, and life nearly over at 75, John Perry takes the only logical course of action left him: he joins the army. Now better known as the Colonial Defense Force (CDF), Perry’s service-of-choice has extended its reach into interstellar space to pave the way for human colonization of other planets while fending off marauding aliens. The CDF has a trick up its sleeve that makes enlistment especially enticing for seniors: the promise of restoring youth.”

  29. Anathem by Neal Stephenson — 2008
    “Fraa Erasmas is a young avout living in the Concent of Saunt Edhar, a sanctuary for mathematicians, scientists, and philosophers, protected from the corrupting influences of the outside ‘saecular’ world by ancient stone, honored traditions, and complex rituals. Over the centuries, cities and governments have risen and fallen beyond the concent’s walls. Now, in celebration of the week-long, once-in-a-decade rite of Apert, the fraas and suurs prepare to venture beyond the concent’s gates — at the same time opening them wide to welcome the curious ‘extras’ in. During his first Apert as a fraa, Erasmas eagerly anticipates reconnecting with the landmarks and family he hasn’t seen since he was ‘collected.’ But before the week is out, both the existence he abandoned and the one he embraced will stand poised on the brink of cataclysmic change.”

  30. Armor by John Steakley — 1984 (Not available for Kindle at this time)
    “Felix is an Earth soldier, encased in special body armor designed to withstand Earth’s most implacable enemy-a bioengineered, insectoid alien horde. But Felix is also equipped with internal mechanisms that enable him, and his fellow soldiers, to survive battle situations that would destroy a man’s mind.”

  31. Oryx And Crake by Margaret Atwood — 2003
    “Snowman (a man once known as Jimmy) sleeps in a tree and just might be the only human left on our devastated planet. He is not entirely alone, however, as he considers himself the shepherd of a group of experimental, human-like creatures called the Children of Crake. As he scavenges and tends to his insect bites, Snowman recalls in flashbacks how the world fell apart.”

  32. Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury — 1953 (Not available for Kindle at this time)
    “In Fahrenheit Ray Bradbury’s classic, frightening vision of the future, firemen don’t put out fires — they start them in order to burn books. Bradbury’s vividly painted society holds up the appearance of happiness as the highest goal — a place where trivial information is good, and knowledge and ideas are bad. Guy Montag is a book-burning fireman undergoing a crisis of faith. His wife spends all day with her television “family,” imploring Montag to work harder so that they can afford a fourth TV wall. Their dull, empty life sharply contrasts with that of his next-door neighbor Clarisse, a young girl thrilled by the ideas in books, and more interested in what she can see in the world around her than in the mindless chatter of the tube. When Clarisse disappears mysteriously, Montag is moved to make some changes, and starts hiding books in his home. Eventually, his wife turns him in, and he must answer the call to burn his secret cache of books. After fleeing to avoid arrest, Montag winds up joining an outlaw band of scholars who keep the contents of books in their heads, waiting for the time society will once again need the wisdom of literature.”

  33. A Fire Upon The Deep by Vernor Vinge — 1992
    “Vinge presents a galaxy divided into Zones — regions where different physical constraints allow very different technological and mental possibilities. Earth remains in the ‘Slowness’ zone, where nothing can travel faster than light and minds are fairly limited. The action of the book is in the ‘Beyond,’ where translight travel and other marvels exist, and humans are one of many intelligent species. One human colony has been experimenting with ancient technology in order to find a path to the ‘Transcend,’ where intelligence and power are so great as to seem godlike. Instead they release the Blight, an evil power, from a billion-year captivity. As the Blight begins to spread, a few humans flee with a secret that might destroy it, but they are stranded in a primitive low-tech world barely in the Beyond. While the Blight destroys whole races and star systems, a team of two humans and two aliens races to rescue the others, pursued by the Blight’s agents and other enemies.”

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Cleaner titles for podcast posts in Tumblr

After reading my post How to publish a better podcast using Textpattern, Tumblr, or anything else, Lars Jannsen of gamesandmacs.de, a new German website/podcast, wrote me a question:

“When I use an audio post to publish my latest podcast episode as .mp3 (since I want my listeners to get the Flash audio player on Tumblr) and put the link to the .mp3 file in the description of that audio post it also shows up in the iTunes description of the episode when I use FeedBurner to get my podcast on iTunes. In order to get ‘cleaner’ show notes, I’d like to exclude the link from the iTunes info field. Looks a bit weird if there’s stuff like (‘Download MP3 file’) in the show notes.”

I noticed the same thing on my tumblr-based podcast. This titling originates with how Tumblr serves up its feeds to FeedBurner. Tumblr has no descreet “Title” field for audio posts; instead Tumblr takes, from the description field, the first however-many complete words there are before the 63-character mark (or thereabouts, including spaces and punctuation), slaps an ellipses (…) on the end, and uses that as the title. This title is the one that gets passed to Feedburner and the one that your listeners eventually see in iTunes. This is what causes ugly things like seeing “Download Mp3 file” as the episode’s title in iTunes.

Fortunately there’s a simple workaround. The MP3 download link doesn’t need to be at the very beginning of your description, it just needs to be the first link in the description. So, just make sure it occurs after the first several words (or after the 63-character mark, to be precise).

In my posts, I’ve been using variations on the following template in my description:

Episode 1234: Blue-Collar Reading Habits, recorded on Aug 23, 2011, is now available for download etc etc

You can download the mp3 audio [mp3 link] (1:26:46, 59.8 MB) or subscribe to the podcast [feedburner link].

This ensures that the episode’s actual title is the first thing in the title that ends up in iTunes. The “overflow,” if there is any, contains relevant info like the record date, etc.

In the above example, the title would show up in iTunes as “Episode 1234: Blue-Collar Reading Habits, recorded on Aug 23…”.

Update, Lars responded:

By the time I got your e-mail I also figured that iTunes takes the first 63 character to create the episode’s title and the rest flows into the description field. However, I’m still wondering if there’s a way to have a shorter title (without having to put lots of spaces in there…) and the body of the audio post (without the actual MP3 link as description in iTunes). I might be a bit perfectionist in this case, but I’d really like to find a solution to that without having to manually edit the XML feed every time I update my Tumblr blog with a new episode. Maybe there’s a way to “tweak” FeedBurner to take the “Title” field you can specify for an MP3 file you link on Tumblr.

I currently don’t know of any tweaks that are possible; neither Tumblr nor Feedburner seem to expose the kind of functionality that would allow for this tweaking. Any suggestions are welcome!

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

How to find free e-books for your Kindle using Google

Don’t waste your time with torrents. Google already indexes the locations of many ebooks, you just need to know how to find them.

Just enter your search using the form intitle:index.of Moby Dick epub mobi — replace Moby Dick with your desired title or keyword. This search will turn up file listings with direct downloads for (hopefully) ebooks. You may, in fact, get many more ebooks than just the one you were searching for.

If clicking on a search result gives you some kind of “access denied” message, just go back to the Google search result and click where it says Cached to access the copy Google cached before the file listing was made private. Usually the download links from these cached listings still work.

Kindles don’t support the epub format, so if that’s all you can find, you’ll need to convert it to MOBI format using Calibre.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

How to use Markdown in Blogspot posts

If your blog is hosted on running Blogspot and you want to use Markdown for your posts, here’s how to do it and future-proof your writing in the process.

  1. Write your posts in a text editing program on your computer and save them on your computer. (I use a yyyy-mm-dd post title.txt format)
  2. Then copy and paste the text into the online Markdown processor and click Convert to generate HTML. (Set "Filter" to "both" for extra typographic goodness.)
  3. Finally, copy and paste the HTML into a new post in Blogspot.

This has two advantages. First, it future-proofs your blog. No matter what happens, if Blogger ever gets shut down or becomes undesirable to use for any reason, in ten years you’ll still have a very useable copy of all your writing. Second, a text-editing program is much less likely to crash than your browser. This approach eliminates the risk of a browser crash causing you to lose large amounts of work.

Getting Blogspot to play nice with your Markdown-generated HTML

This is the area people seem to have trouble with, but it’s really quite simple.

  1. In Blogspot, go to Settings tab, then the Formatting section. Set “Convert Line Breaks” to No.
  2. In your New Posts,
    • Make sure you are using the “Edit HTML” tab
    • Under “Post Options” (at the bottom) make sure
      • “Edit HTML Line Breaks” is set to Use <br /> tags
      • “Compose Settings” is set to Interpret typed HTML

It’s that simple really. Now you can paste in your Markdown-generated HTML without getting extra linebreaks or other wierdnesses.

Solution for persisting "Windows created a temporary paging file on your computer" error

Solution for persisting “Windows created a temporary paging file on your computer” error

My Windows 7 laptop began displaying a notification/error every time I logged in:

Windows created a temporary paging file on your computer because of a problem that occured with your paging file configuration when you started your computer. The total paging file size for all disk drives may be somewhat larger than the size you specified

After clicking OK, it would open the virtual memory settings without any explanation of what you were supposed to check or do there.

This evidently happens because pagefile.sys, the file that Windows uses for virtual memory, has become corrupted in some way.

This Microsoft Answers article recommends running an SFC (system file check). Here’s how to run an SFC. This did not solve the problem for me, but it is something you should try first.

Here’s how I cleared it up:

  1. Log in under a local Administrator account. (Do this after each restart in these instructions as well.)
  2. If it’s not already open, open the virtual memory settings by rich-clicking on Computer, → PropertiesAdvanced System Settings → click the Advanced tab → Under Performance, click Settings, go to Advanced tab, finally under Virtual Memory section click the Change button.
  3. Uncheck the Autmatically manage paging file size for all drives checkbox.
  4. Set a “Custom size” for the paging file on the C drive: 0MB initial, 0MB maximum.
  5. Click OK, close all dialog boxes, and restart your computer.
  6. After logging in again, delete the file C:\pagefile.sys
    1. To do this, you may need to change your folder settings so you can see it first. Open a window of your C: drive and click Organize at the top, then Folder and Search Options
    2. Click the View tab, and make sure Show hidden files, folders and drives is turned on, and that Hide protected system files is not checked.
    3. Click OK and go back to your C: drive, find pagefile.sys and delete it.
  7. Now go back to the virtual memory settings (see step 2 above) and set the paging file for the C: drive to System managed size, and then make sure the Automatically manage paging file size for all drives checkbox is checked.
  8. Click OK, close all dialog boxes, and restart your computer.

A summary of what this does: By temporarily turning off virtual memory, you allow yourself to delete the (now-corrupt) paging file. Then when you re-enable virtual memory, Windows automatically builds a new paging file from scratch, and voilà, problem solved.

I was helped by this thread at geekstogo.com although I did not find it necessary to do any editing of the Registry or any of that jazz. Try the simplest solution first, I always say.

Friday, July 1, 2011

How to publish a better podcast using Tumblr, Textpattern, or anything else

This isn’t about equipment or recording technique, but just the cranky details of publishing a podcast that I have found by trial and error. This article assumes you have some basic computer/web/HTML know-how.

I publish a couple of podcasts: Howell Creek Radio uses Textpattern, and Anything Good uses Tumblr. So in some of the steps I have given some examples that are specific to those CMSs, in order to help you along; but the important thing is that these steps can be easily adapted to any CMS such as Blogger, WordPress, etc.

Create a separate tag or category for your podcast posts on your blog.

This is optional; I recommend it because it allows the website for your podcast to be more flexible. For example, if you use Tumblr, you can create a podcast tag, and then continue posting a mix of videos, photos, quotes, etc. alongside your podcast episodes. This way your podcast subscribers will get a clean feed containing only audio downloads, while your website readers will be able to see all your other posts as well.

Even if your website is pretty much exclusively a vehicle for your podcast, you may want to publish other kinds of things posts now and then for administrative purposes, and this will give you the freedom to keep those posts separate.

Make sure you have cover art where you need it

You need to create and use cover art in two places: first you create cover art for your podcast as a whole, and then you also embed cover art in every individual podcast recording. If you use nothing else from this article, please: add cover art to your mp3 files. Without it, your episodes show up with blank covers in iPods and most mp3 players! Your podcast episodes will look dorky without it! It’s not enough to add cover art to your itunes feed, you need to embed the cover art in every finished mp3 file. This is easy to do, yet many beginners forget to do it.

Set up your podcast feed with cover art: Create a 600×600px cover art image for your podcast and upload it to your site, or somewhere publicly accessible. (In some places Apple says 300px is OK but their technical spec says 600.) I recommend using JPEG<, not PNG — the latter is allowed but will look blocky when viewed at reduced sizes in iTunes.

  1. Get a FeedBurner account and set up your podcast feed:
    1. Tumblr: Set the “original feed” on FeedBurner to the RSS feed for the specific tag you created for your podcast. To get this feed, add tagged/YOURTAG/rss to your tumblr’s address. (Example: http://mytumblr.tumblr.comn/tagged/podcast/rss)
    2. Textpattern: Set the “original feed” on FeedBurner to Textpattern’s atom feed for that category (e.g., http://foopaux.com/atom/?category=podcast).
    3. Blogger: Set the “original feed” on FeedBurner to http://www.YOURBLOG.blogspot.com/feeds/posts/default/-/PODCASTTAG (per these instructions from Google).
  2. Under FeedBurner’s Optimize tab, add the SmartCast service to make your feed podcast-friendly. Set the cover art to the URL of your covert art image and add as much description, keywords and categories as you can muster.

Embed cover art for individual episodes: You’ll find that iTunes does not automatically use your cover art for downloaded episodes when they are playing in your iPod. The cover art you created in the steps above is only used in the iTunes store listing for your podcast (if you get one). In order for your cover art to actually display in people’s iPods when your episodes are playing, you need to embed the cover art into each episode’s MP3 file. Luckily, this is easy to do using only the iTunes (the simplest way I know how):

  1. Prior to uploading, open add the episode’s MP3 to your iTunes library.
  2. Right-click the episode in iTunes, click Get Info.
  3. Go to the Artwork tab, manually add your cover art to the file, and click OK. (Tip: in Windows you can actually copy/paste the artwork JPG file from Explorer directly into this tab.)
  4. The cover art is now embedded, you can now upload your MP3 file.

Create a “subscribe” link on your website.

Lots of folks use iTunes, so it’s nice to provide an iTunes instant-subscribe link for them and a standard RSS link for everyone else. To create an iTunes link, just prefix the URL of your FeedBurner feed with itpc:// instead of http://. So, for example, you could place this prominently on your website:

Subscribe in <a href="itpc://feeds.feedburner.com/MyPodcast">iTunes</a> or <a href="http://feeds.feedburner.com/MyPodcast">RSS</a>

Record and upload your podcast episodes

I use Audacity to record, then upload the MP3 to my website using FTP. If you don’t have any hosted space, you can use a free Dropbox account and host your files in a public folder. The bonus with this approach is that uploading is automatic.

Format your podcast posts properly

A properly-formatted post ensures that your subscribers will get their episodes automatically with no hiccups.

  1. Don’t forget to set the post’s category (or tag) to the podcast category you created earlier.
  2. Each podcast post should contain a manual, direct download link to the MP3 file for that episode. This is non-optional, and it should be the first link in the post. This will allow FeedBurner to correctly detect and include your audio in the podcast feed. For the text of the link, I recommend something like “Download MP3 audio (14.76 mb, 19:32)”
    (Update, Sep 13, 2011: this link doesn’t have to be at the very front of your post, it just has to be the first link in the post. Also, when using Tumblr, to ensure cleaner descriptions see this follow-up post.)
  3. One nice thing to do if you will be syndicating onto another service, such as Facebook notes etc., is to create a special CSS class called for-syndicate and set it to display: none. Then add a little “helper” boilerplate on the bottom of each post, in a paragraph set to that class:

    <p class="for-syndicate">This is a podcast post: <a href="http://site.com/episode.mp3">click here</a> to download the MP3 audio, or visit <a href="http://site.com/podcast">site.com</a> to listen online and subscribe in iTunes.</p>

    The for-syndicate class will render the paragraph invisible on your website, but it will be visible when imported into Facebook or when the feed is viewed in a newsreader, since these other sites do not import your CSS styles. (If you like, this quasi-hidden paragraph can also serve as the required MP3 link.)

Letting people listen from your website

People will listen to your podcast in one of two ways: by subscribing in iTunes or some similar program (which we’ve already covered) or by going to your web page and listening on their computer. Although they can click to listen to the MP3 file using the link you provided, it’s nice to embed some kind of player that will stream the audio and let them listen right there.

There are lots of ways to do this:

  1. In Textpattern, install the jnm:audio textpattern plugin and include a <txp:jnm_audio> tag in each podcast post.
  2. In Tumblr, create your podcast post as an “audio post” and Tumblr will automatically embed an audio player. (Don’t forget to also include the download link in the text portion of the post though.)
  3. Other platforms (WordPress, etc): Let me know how you do it in the comments!

These methods use Flash programs for the audio players, which don’t run on iPhone or iPad browsers. I’ve been tinkering with ways to use HTML5 audio players when the browser supports them, but HTML5 audio support is still flaky for the time being. Check back again in a year or so and maybe I’ll have something for you.

Get listed in the iTunes Store

After you’ve gotten your production groove down and can demonstrate that your episodes come out at least somewhat regularly, it’s worth trying to get your podcast added into the iTunes store. Read Apple’s FAQ for Podcast Makers.

Free Kindle Book: Back On Murder

J. Mark Bertrand, having just released Pattern of Wounds , the second in a series of mystery novels, is giving away the Kindle edition of Back on Murder (the first book in the series) for free for a limited time.

I have not read either yet, but I have downloaded the free ebook and will be reading it as soon as I can! I’m always on the lookout for new reading material and thought I’d pass this on.

J. Mark Bertrand is also known as the writer of Bible Design Blog, which centers around reviews and features of very high-quality Bibles and book-making in general. It’s actually a rather interesting subject even if you are not religious. See his announcement about his novels here.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

The 50 books every child should read - With Kindle Links

The Independent recently asked three of Britain’s leading children’s authors and two of their in-house book experts to each pick 10 books, suitable for Year 7 students. Their original list is here.

Unfortunately, in typical traditional-media fashion, they neglected to add any links to any of the books mentioned, losing an obvious opportunity to use the web to both their readers’ and their own advantage. So I have gone through the list and added links to the Kindle editions of every book for which one is available.

I linked to a free edition wherever possible. If a book was not available on the Kindle store, I marked it with an * asterisk. If you know of a Kindle version of a book I could not find, or of a free or better-formatted edition than the one I have linked, let me know via email or comments!

Philip Pullman
Michael Morpurgo
  • The Star of Kazan by Eva Ibbotson. The heroine is blessed with such wonderful friends who help her through the twists and turns of this incredible journey.
  • A Christmas Carol (free) by Charles Dickens. The first few pages were so engaging, Marley’s ghostly face on the knocker of Scrooge’s door still gives me the shivers.
  • Just William books by Richmal Crompton. These are a must for every child.
  • The Happy Prince (free) by Oscar Wilde. This was the first story, I think, that ever made me cry and it still has the power to make me cry.
  • The Elephant’s Child * from The Just So Stories by Rudyard Kipling. The story my mother used to read me most often, because I asked for it again and again. I loved the sheer fun of it, the music and the rhythm of the words. It was subversive too. Still my favourite story.
  • Treasure Island (free) by R.L. Stevenson This was the first real book I read for myself. I lived this book as I read it.
  • The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway. A classic tale of man versus nature. I wish I’d written this.
  • The Man Who Planted Trees* by Jean Giono. A book for children from 8 to 80. I love the humanity of this story and how one man’s efforts can change the future for so many.
  • The Singing Tree* by Kate Seredy. The story of two children who go to find their father who has been listed missing in the trenches of the First World War.
  • The Secret Garden (free) by Frances Hodgson-Burnett. I love this story of a girl’s life being changed by nature.
Katy Guest, literary editor for The Independent on Sunday
  • Refugee Boy * by Benjamin Zephaniah. Story of a young Ethiopian boy, whose parents abandon him in London to save his life.
  • Finn Family Moomintroll* (and the other Moomin books) by Tove Jansson. A fantasy series for small children that introduces bigger ones to ideas of adventure, dealing with fear, understanding character and tolerating difference.
  • Diary of a Wimpy Kid * by Jeff Kinney. It’s rude, it’s funny and it will chime with every 11-year-old who’s ever started a new school.
  • I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith. Written for a teenage audience but fun at any age.
  • The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkein. Be warned, these tales of hobbits, elves and Middle Earth are dangerously addictive.
  • The Tygrine Cat * (and The Tygrine Cat on the Run) by Inbali Iserles. If your parents keep going on at you to read Tarka the Otter, The Sheep-Pig and other animal fantasies, do — they’re great books — also try Iserles’ stories about a cat seeking his destiny.
  • Carry On, Jeeves * by P.G. Wodehouse. A grown-up book ? but not that grown-up.
  • When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit by Judith Kerr. Judith Kerr’s semi-autobiographical story of a family fleeing the Nazis in 1933.
  • Moving Pictures by Terry Pratchett. Elaborate mythological imagery and a background based in real science. If you like this, the Discworld series offers plenty more.
  • The Story of Tracy Beaker by Jacqueline Wilson. The pinnacle of the wonderful Jacqueline Wilson’s brilliant and enormous output.
John Walsh, author and Independent columnist
  • The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (free) by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Irresistible puzzle-solving tales of the chilly Victorian master-sleuth and his dim medical sidekick.
  • The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon. Age-transcending tale, both funny and sad.
  • Mistress Masham’s Repose * by T.H. White. Magical story of 10-year-old Maria, living in a derelict stately home, shy, lonely and under threat from both her governess and her rascally guardian.
  • Little Women (free) by Louisa May Alcott. Inexplicably evergreen, trend and taste-defying 1868 classic.
  • How to be Topp * by Geoffrey Willams and Ronald Searle. Side-splitting satire on skool, oiks, teechers, fules, bulies, swots.
  • Stormbreaker by Anthony Horowitz. First of the action-packed adventures with 14-year-old Alex Rider.
  • Private Peaceful * by Michael Morpurgo. “Dulce et Decorum Est” for pre-teens.
  • Artemis Fowl by Eoin Colfer. Lively, amoral, wildly imaginative debut (six more followed) about the money-grabbing master-criminal Artemis, 12. The author called it “Die Hard with fairies.”
  • The Silver Sword * by Ian Serraillier. Inspiring wartime story of the Balicki family in Warsaw.
  • Animal Farm (free) by George Orwell. Smart 11-year-olds won’t need any pre-knowledge of Marx, Lenin, Trotsky and 1917 to appreciate this brilliantly-told fable.
Michael Rosen
  • Skellig * by David Almond. Brings magical realism to working-class North-east England.
  • Red Cherry Red * by Jackie Kay. A book of poems that reaches deep into our hidden thoughts but also talks in a joyous voice exploring the everyday.
  • Talking Turkeys by Benjamin Zephaniah. A book of poems that demands to be read aloud, performed and thought about.
  • Greek myths * by Geraldine McCaughrean. Superheroes battle with demons, gods intervene in our pleasures and fears — a bit like the spectres in our minds going through daily life, really — beautifully retold here.
  • People Might Hear You (Viking Kestrel picture books) * by Robin Klein. A profound, suspenseful story about sects, freedom and the rights of all young people ? especially girls.
  • Noughts and Crosses (free) by Malorie Blackman. A book that dared to go where no one thought you could with young audiences because it raises tough stuff to do with race.
  • Einstein’s Underpants and How They Saved the World by Anthony McGowan. A crazy adventure set amongst the kids you don’t want to know but who this book makes you really, really care about.
  • After the First Death by Robert Cormier. Cormier is never afraid of handling how the personal meets the political all within the framework of a thriller.
  • The London Eye Mystery by Siobhan Dowd. A book that allows difference to be part of the plot and not a point in itself.
  • Beano Annual. A cornucopia of nutty, bad, silly ideas, tricks, situations and plots

* — not known to be available as an ebook.