The Crutch Series, Part 2: Snorkels

Last time I looked at noise-makers underwater, such as rattles and horns, and how they irritate me and serve no purpose.

Now it’s the the turn of the trusty snorkel, and how it has no positive role to play in Scuba Diving.

I know it’s not a hugely popular one to pick on, given the number of organisations who swear by them, but to me they seem to be the perfect example of (yet another) crutch people take with them because:

  1. It’s what they were told
  2. They don’t know any better
  3. They think it makes a difference

The point is that none of the reasons are particularly valid.

Of course, everybody will come up with other reasons as to why they take their snorkel with them (‘in case I’m stuck with a long surface swim’; ‘so I don’t use my air on the surface’; ‘in case the weather’s rough and I need to swim back to the boat’ etc. etc.), but the point is that all are solutions to problems that shouldn’t exist in the first place, if everything is truly covered to an adequate level of safety.

The simple fact of the matter is this: Snorkels are for Snorkelling.

Snorkels only have any real application when you are within centimetres of the surface, which for 95% of my time in the water (if not more) is simply not the case. For all the added complexities a snorkel adds to gear configuration (dangling and dragging from the mask, causing confusion and irritation in a gas sharing situation, generally being an object that screams ‘entangle me!’ to any loose line or catchy bits) it doesn’t give enough in return to be worth taking. Even if you strap the thing to your leg, as some people do, it only serves to add an extra ‘hook point’ (however small) to your gear, and it does so in the one place you’d struggle to get to if entanglement occurred or if you needed to use it – if you don’t need it, don’t take it.

For all the arguments thrown above, there is a much simpler way to solve the initial problem.

1. Using Air on the Surface

Simply put using your air on the surface shouldn’t be a huge deal, provided you account for it in your gas planning, and your gas planning is correct. If you know that you use, on the surface, say 1 bar / minute from whatever tank configuration you are diving (which, by the way, is an easy calculation to learn and use regularly) and you know you have to swim 5 minutes to and from the site you want to do, then you can calculate that you should use 5 bar each way, and so you will need 10 bar for the two legs of the journey. Perhaps you want to factor in some reserve in case you have to work hard, in which case you can apply it appropriately (say another 10 bar in this example). That means you need to plan for using 20 bar to go to and come back from the dive. So you can simply take this figure off from the amount of Usable Gas you have (Starting Pressure – Minimum Gas) and see how it affects what you want to do (in most scenarios this will probably make the difference of 1 or 2 minutes over the course of your dive) – suddenly you realize that it’s not that huge a difference. Of course, if 1 or 2 minutes is too big a difference for you to handle (maybe because the dive site is going to disappear… ?:-/) then you’ve just told yourself that you should be diving a higher capacity backgas (be that doubles or a larger single tank). Taking a snorkel in this case simply does nothing but add confusion for, potentially, the sake of 1 or 2 minutes, although by using the snorkel and dealing with the water entering / having to be cleared during the swim, you may end up so tired at the start of the dive that you use this amount of gas anyway on descent. But what you have done is add an extra piece of gear that you don’t need.

2. So I don’t use my Air on the Surface

See above. Plan your gas properly…

3. Rough Weather

As alluded to in Point 1, this is also a completely counter-intuitive, but oft-mentioned reason for taking a snorkel, especially when diving from boats – “There are some big waves between the boat and the descent point so I can’t have nothing protecting my air way”.

While the reasoning is good – you certainly don’t want to be stuck on the surface in bad weather without a surefire way to be receiving air all the time – the choice of snorkel over regulator is insane. The regulator is simply the better choice, in all situations. The regulator is attached to your tank, and forms a sealed system to deliver air without water. The snorkel is an open tube to the environment. This means that whilst it is realistic to expect at least some water to get into the snorkel (especially true in bad weather, regardless of your snorkel technique), it is virtually impossible (barring opening your mouth, which would be dumb in any situation) to get water into the regulator feeding you your air. This in turn means that the regulator provides less hassle than the snorkel, which makes it both easier and more efficient… so why take the snorkel?

Again it would seem the reason comes down to being Point 1 again, and the issue of ‘wasting’ gas supply. See Point 1 for why this is (or should be) nonsense.

Again, it ultimately comes down to a matter of education, which is a reflection of the fact that diving is an ‘alien’ activity – it’s not something we were meant to do or designed to do. This means that anyone receiving instruction will be receiving (in most cases) completely fresh information. As I believe the phrase goes, Shit Sticks, and people are very hesitant to question what they hear first, and keep going through it until they are finally convinced that it’s wrong. As with most things in the dive industry, so many people have done it / been taught it so repetitively that they rarely have to question it, so it sticks. Equally, it’s not a huge safety issue in itself, and I doubt many (if any) people have died from it, so people ignore it. But the fact is that whether it is life-threatening or not, it is not as efficient as it could be, and is a very easy change to make. If you stop striving to make things more efficient and effective then you are making a backwards step – in any area / sport / technology. Some things just make more sense, even if they are telling you that you’re wrong. It can be a bitter medicine to swallow.

Just to reiterate though, this is not a dig at snorkels are general. Snorkels are great and suit their purpose fantastically, but:

Snorkels are for Snorkelling, not for Diving

Linux Music Management

Music. Everybody loves music. At least, everybody who’s normal does (that’s fact by the way, right there).

It’s also true that most people now manage most of their music using their Computers, even if only as a medium for transferring them to the latest portable music device.

So, music management is important. It’s important that as people expand their music collection, they can keep track of it all from one location, play it, and do whatever they want with it. For some, that may be too much, and they’d rather find exactly what they want to play and hit play (generally, these people will just use a CD player, it’s easier, and quicker than firing up a computer to play a song or album you can see on your shelf…).

But, for me at least, I like to mix and match what I’m listening to, to try and access the full spectrum of music I own and see where I end, so such things as random selection become important, and other things.

So what I’ve decided to do here is attempt a quick review / run down of how five different Music Management applications perform, things I like about them, things that could be better, things that – for me – are notable in their absence. Where applicable I will also make broad comparisons to the proprietary equivalents such as iTunes, Windows Media Player and… I can’t think of another.

Because all the ones I am looking at here are Open Source and running on Linux. Some of them will be able to run on Windows or OS X, some won’t, some may be currently under development as forks.

The Media Players I’ve chosen to look at (with their version numbers) are:

As you can see from the version numbers (if you use those as a guide), some of these projects are more mature than others and all offer slightly different things. I have used all of these projects for extended periods of time recently, and still use Amarok, so it might come across as bias in some areas. But I use Amarok for a number of reasons, which will follow.

All thumbnails used in each section link to bigger screenshots, just click to follow.

I don’t pretend that these five comprise the only options for Linux users or any other users, but they are the five better ones I’ve tried. Players such as XMMS and others are classics and solid players, but they don’t handle the management part well enough to be included. If you feel there’s something I’ve overlooked, please comment!

All items were used on a PowerBook G4 running Ubuntu 6.10 (Edgy Eft) and the GNOME Desktop.

Amarok 1.4.3

amarok_1a

Amarok (http://amarok.kde.org) is the only player in this roundup to my knowledge that is designed with the KDE Project in mind, and as such is also the Project’s Music Player of choice, coming pre-loaded with the majority of – if not all – distributions that ship KDE. The website states:

Amarok is the music player for Linux and Unix with an intuitive interface. Amarok makes playing the music you love easier than ever before – and looks good doing it.

I think most people would have a hard time disagreeing with that statement.

amarok_1b

The interface is fairly clear cut, whilst a couple of things could be adapted to make it easier for people crossing over from using iTunes or similar. It is intuitive. The album cover manager works well for those who like to be able to view the cover artwork of the albums whilst listening to their music.

Even running Gnome with the default Ubuntu ‘Brown’ in the window title bar you become immersed in the Amarok GUI – it just looks nice. There’s no other way to describe it. I’ll agree, the Windows Media Player GUI isn’t too bad either, nor is iTunes, but I find them both a little overbearing, whereas Amarok comes across as very soft. But that’s a personal opinion one would guess.

Another thing that the Amarok team have done well with is the tight integration to last.fm. A lot of music projects now are including last.fm integration as standard or plugin form, but Amarok, to my knowledge, were one of the very early adapters, and it shows with the maturity the integration has reached. Not only do last.fm Radio stations appear in the Playlists tab, but all songs are quickly and easily uploaded to the last.fm servers whilst you listen and recommended artist and song lists are generated for you to check out – very useful.

As with most things KDE, the options and settings boxes for Amarok offer quite a high degree of configurability, with certainly more options than the Gnome equivalents.

amarok_2

The basic layout when starting up Amarok works something like this: Down the left hand side you have 5 Tabs: Context, Collection, Playlists, Files, and Media Device. In the very latest versions of the software there is also a 6th box that links to the Magnatune servers – an online music store that allows full playback of it’s entire catalogue before choosing whether to purchase or not. Very cool.

Along the top of the window you have all your usual options plus a few Amarok specific ones: Engage (allowing you to play CDs, web streams, or specific folders without yet adding them to your collection), Playlist (for playlist-specific functions, such as undo, clear, add, remove, save, etc.), Mode (repeat or randomize), Tools, Settings, and Help.

Following on from this, the main bulk of the available window space is taken up by the playlist window, showing the songs that have either finished playing or are due to play, along with the usual Forward, Back, Stop, Play, Pause buttons, timetrack, and a spectrum-analyzer for bored.
amarok_3

The Context tab is a great feature for those who want to learn more about the music that’s playing. It itself is subdivided into 3 more tabs: Music, Lyrics, and Artist.

The music tab will provide you with information on the current playing track, linking in with last.fm as mentioned earlier to provide short lists of recommended / related artists and tracks, as well as displaying the current album art (if applicable), the last time you listened to this song, and this songs present rating (by default as based on it’s playback). Below all this there is the list of your favourite tracks by this artist (again, based on playback) and the list of albums by the artist that also reside in your collection. All these albums are expandable to choose a particular track you want to listen to – just drag it into the playlist.

The lyrics tab has also matured over time, and now gives you the option to connect to one of several online lyric sites which it goes off and searches to find the lyrics of the current playing song. It’s a really nice idea, but personally, I’ve found that often, no matter how many of the sites I try, it struggles to find the song I’m listening to exactly and provides some ‘Related Choices’ that seem to bear little or no relation to what I was looking for. However, this could easily be the fault of the Lyrics hosts over Amarok’s.

The Artist tab, on the otherhand, is a very useful tab indeed, if you want to waste time. What it does is takes you to the corresponding Wikipedia page for your currently playing artist and embeds it in the tab. For the well documented artists it is nice to have for extra pictures, band history and the like, but for less well-known artists it just yields empty pages. Of course, the beauty of Wikipedia means that if your favourite band or artist is lacking information, you can add it yourself right there and then.

amarok_4

The Collection tab, to me, highlight’s one of the most important areas as it covers just how the application handles the music it does – ie. How well it does it’s job.

Amarok’s Music Collection is handled in a similar way to others, such as Quod Libet and Exaile, in that the user adds the folders that contain the music into a selection field and then the application goes off and searches that folder and all sub-directories and adds all the music it finds to the collection. The important point here is that it doesn’t actually move the files and put them in it’s own music directory as iTunes would, nor does it track where these files go if the user moves them outside of the ‘Selected Directory’. It simply reads the Selected Directory / Directories constantly and adds changes to the collection and removes ones that no longer exist. As far as I understand this it achieves this through the use of databases to make things simpler. For me, living my life out of the laptop, this is ideal, as it means I configure the player to read all music files from both the music folder in my Home Directory, and on my External Hard Drive. If the External isn’t plugged in then Amarok (obviously) doesn’t show the tracks that are there as they aren’t playable. However, if I plug the external in, then the next time it checks for a collection auto-update, all those songs will appear back in my Collection Tab, ready to play. It also means that if I copy a new CD and slot it into the Music Directory where I want it and organised how I want it to be, Amarok can find it, read the files, put them in collection, and… leave the Filesystem alone! I’m particularly anal about how my music is organized both in my CD Rack, and on my Computer, and so this point is very important to me.

Once in the collection, the files are shown, by default, organized by Artist under subheadings of 0-9, A, B, C etc. Spreading the artists out a little bit when quickly scanning through to find where, for example, the Red Hot Chili Peppers albums are. It also groups Albums containing songs by multiple artists into their own ‘Artist Name’ of Various Artists, which appears at the top of the list. Each artist name is then expandable to reveal the available albums (individual tracks are placed in an ‘Unknown’ box). In turn, each album expands to show the tracks. Double-clicking on any aspect will add the appropriate parts to the playlist – so, if you double click on the Red Hot Chili Peppers then all songs by them will be added to the playlist, if you just double-click the album ‘Blood Sugar Sex Magik’ then just that album’s songs will be added and so on. One downside to this is that it can become frustrating for new users who double click a few too many times to find multiple songs in their active playlist as they add them when they intend to play them, but it takes only a short amount of time to get used to this.
amarok_5

The Playlists tab opens up, as the name suggests, all the playlist options, but also includes the Podcast directories and Radio Streams, all of which you can add and subdivide at will. There really isn’t too much more to add on that point, a host of different Smart Playlists are already in place, and the one other aspect is the Dynamic Playlist option.

Because of the way in which Amarok handles music playing (you add songs from your Collection to a ‘blank’ playlist and wipe or save when finished) there is no real need (yet it exists) for a ‘Shuffle’ or random play button – you are able to create your playlists on the fly with ease and rarely have your entire collection in the playlist – and so the Dynamic Playlists came into play (or so I would have thought). What these do is basically start a script that will constantly keep xx number of songs that are coming up for play in the playlist, and Y number of recently played (xx and y are configurable). As each song plays, one disappears from the recently played and a new song is added to the end. Ad infinitum. It’s effectively random play, but you get to see what’s coming up and make some changes. The one major annoyance I have with this is that if I don’t monitor it closely then I end up with Podcasts or speeches turning up in the middle of my music. Sometimes I appreciate it but it would be nice to be able to block it.

The Files tab gives you access to your filesystem to find files that maybe aren’t in your playlist / have just downloaded or maybe just to move things around. That’s up to you, and I’ll be honest it’s a tab I don’t find myself using often because everything is already in my collection. Still, it’s there.

The final tab on the list is the Media Devices tab, probably more commonly known as the iPod tab. With the rise of such devices nearly all media players feature one of these now, and Amarok is no different. I can’t comment much on its functionality though I’m afraid, as I run Rockbox on my iPod so treat it as a hard drive. Sorry. As far as aesthetics and interface though, the Amarok one stays true to form and truly looks easy. Whether it is or not is someone else’s area of expertise.

Of course though, nothing is ever perfect, nor is Amarok. Whilst it is an excellent Music Manager, it suffers, in my mind on one major level – it is just too KDE. All the extension options that I’ve tried to use whilst running on Gnome just don’t quite match the ease of performance you get when running in a KDE environment. I suppose this is to be expected, but I will provide examples. One major example is burning playlists to CD. If you have K3b installed then you have no problems, but there is no customisation option (that I can find) that would allow you to change this to Serpentine (for example), the default Gnome CD Creator. Now, I’m not getting into an argument as to which is better, but it would be nice to have that choice, even when running KDE. Another (and in my mind, bigger) example is web browsers. Now, for this, there is an option to change your preferred browser when Amarok needs to access the outside world but – in my experience – performance suffers greatly when I have it set (as I do) to Firefox over Konqueror and is generally a pig to the point that I don’t bother to use it.

Another issue I have is that there really are almost ‘too many’ features in Amarok. To really get the most out of things like the Wikipedia hooks, the rating system, and all the other pieces of information you can give yourself you need a really wide screen. Even on the 15″ PowerBook I’m running on the Wikipedia information and occasionally the album information looks too ‘bunched up’, but expanding it loses a lot of the playlist information off the edge of the screen (and I only have Song, Artist, Album, Length, and Type selected!). But then the flipside is that most of the features that exist are features I like and wouldn’t like to miss out on, so drawing the line is difficult.

Rhythmbox 0.9.6

rhythmbox

Rhythmbox is a Music Management app designed specifically for GNOME, and lives up to that name in providing something that ‘just works’ and with limited configuration right out of the box. It is the default Music Management app that ships with Ubuntu on the Gnome desktop and is in most respects the opposite of Amarok. That’s not to say it’s bad though. It does what it does very well. If it didn’t it wouldn’t have such a large userbase.

But it is different. The first thing I noticed back when I first started to try Rhythmbox (about a year and a half ago) was that it looked vaguely familiar. And it still looks the same now, give or take, although other factors have changed so you might not recognise it. The reason it looked so familiar is because it was originally inspired by iTunes, and to the end incorporates some features i Tunes users will be familiar with. By far the most useful of these is the fact that it uses DAAP, which is the same protocol iTunes uses to share music, thus allowing someone using Rhythmbox to see and listen to an iTunes users music on the same network, and vice versa.

As far as the music management goes, again it runs things quite similarly to iTunes. Looking through the preferences allows you to set the Library location, along with a check box to enable watching for new files. Conversely, if files are removed from the library then a list appears under the Library option to show you what’s disappeared. Adding files or folders is as simple as sticking them in the library directory, or by going to Music > Import File.. / Import Music… – fairly straight forward really. This is where you will also find all the other goodies, such as adding a radio station or podcast.

Playlist management works very similarly to iTunes as well. Simply create your playlist on the sidebar, open up your library, and drag and drop the songs you want into your playlist. Arrange them at will.

When you open up the library, what you will be met with is a split-pane window, the top off is occupied by a searchbox, Artists Pane, and an Albums Pane, allowing you to search through for the artist you want, then a specific album if you so desire. The results of your clicks will appear in the lower half, with all the songs and associated information, ready to play or to move into a playlist. The biggest downside to this, in my opinion, is that if you set an album off playing in the Library Pane and then head off somewhere else in your library to see what you want to play after the album finishes you need to be wary. As soon as the current playing song finishes, the next song to play will not be the next one in the album, but whichever artist / album / song you have currently navigated to. Not so bad if you like to make playlists for every album / situation, but I don’t like that. It’s a personal preference though.

And there really isn’t much more to it than that. One really nice aspect is that all the main buttons (Previous, Play, Next, Repeat, Shuffle, Browse) and the timescale are all right there, nice and large, giving easy access to the important functions.

Rhythmbox also stays very Gnome when it comes to Preferences, leaving little to be edited, and more things that can be turned on / off or chosen from a pre-written list. It doesn’t get into the nitty gritty, but it does work. Similarly, plugins are available for a number of different features, covering last.fm, iPod support, and more.

It is very hard to actually knock Rhythmbox down on any specific technical issues as it does just work. The only things I can really knock it back on are my own personal disagreements, which mainly come from liking how I control my music. The fact that everything has to go in just one library screws me up from using my external drive in conjunction with my hard drive, which the collection setup in amarok and some others allows me to do. I also struggle with the playlist idea as it’s just not a process I particularly like. I’m the same with mix-tapes / mix-cds. After a very short while I get bored with them and want to mix something else on there. I can happily go back to the same mix after a break of other music, but listening to anything repeatedly frustrates me. I also dislike having large numbers of playlists available (as I would have to do if I wanted to playlist each album separately). Incidentally this was something I never liked about iTunes either.

Another is the lack of a ‘Various Artists’ grouping such as Amarok has. This leaves me with the same problem I used to have with my iPod that every artist on a compilation album has there own listing, album, and all for one track. It strikes me as illogical. But Rhythmbox is not alone in doing this.

So, whilst there’s not something I can point out as being a single reason for others not to use it, it’s just something that doesn’t ‘feel’ right to me.

Banshee 0.11.1

banshee

Banshee is the fairly new entrant as far as my experience goes and I had high hopes for it. This probably sways my judgement somewhat and it must be taken into account that is still a fairly new project, and has a lot of growing to do before it is as mature as some of the others here.

The reason my hopes were so high for it is that, having used Beagle for desktop searching quite a lot, and having F-Spot recently beat off the competition from Digikam in becoming my Photo-Manager of choice, I figured another Mono-related Project would also be able to sway me. Quite simply it hasn’t. But it still has plenty of time to prove itself. To start with the positives though:

It has to be said that Banshee does look, very simply, delicious. The artwork is clean, simple, and well finished. It has a very polished look to it for such a low version number.

The Preferences and configurability options are, like Rhythmbox, kept to a minimum but provide variables for all the basic functionality you might need. The Music folder can be set here, along with the option as to whether you want to copy the imported files to the folder. Very similar to iTunes in that respect.

There is a notable lack of ‘Smart’ Playlists, which to my mind is a good thing. Playlist management already is quite tidy, with new playlists sitting in their correct place within the library, not sitting after the Podcasts option, which is one minor grumble with some other players. This also aids the visual impact of plugging in an accessory, such as an iPod, as the icons for these appear after the Podcast icon, and help give everything a sense of proportion (Playlists are comprised of Library files, and so such be considered a second level of the library itself – makes sense to me). Once again, I didn’t try to use the iPod connection feature to sync items, but judging by the Project Website’s screenshots it seems that the whole process very much adapts the polished feel and looks almost as though the iPod was designed to be sued with it. As to how well such features actually work at the moment, again, I’m afraid I don’t have the experience with the feature to comment.

As with Rhythmbox, the Plugins are very easy to handle, and simply need checking to be activated and then any minor configuration, where necessary, can be made. The plugins currently available allow for things such as Podcasting, last.fm, and Recommendations. Commendable stuff.

One area in which Banshee is nearly unique to the other options mentioned here it is that it is designed, out of the box, to be a complete solution – you can rip a CD inside it, fix up the tags and make playlists, and then burn an audio CD all in the one project, something open source players up until this point have not really concentrated on as a major issue. This is nice to see

But still, I just cannot warm to Banshee. True, it looks better than Rhythmbox and yet shares many features, but I wouldn’t even entertain the thought of using Banshee over Rhythmbox. I think my primary (and possibly only) reason for this is the Library setup.

Firstly, with the standard Library view, it is exactly what I, personally, do not want from my Music Manager. everything is lumped together in the same list with only the search box in the top right to help find things. Now, it’s true, most of the time I will know what I want to find, but equally there are many times where I just like to scroll through my entire catalogue of music and see what I have. If I was to do this in Banshee I’m sure I would soon be blind. There are no spacers or ways of cutting down the lists at all. Whilst Amarok has the A,B,C collection approach, and Rhythmbox / Quod Libet / Exaile have the artist lists, Banshee just has one big grouping and a search box. Now, I know, by using Mono and given the nature of Beagle (smart searching) and F-Spot (tagging) the search feature has always been enough and is probably every bit as intelligent as Beagle-search is (perhaps one day Beagle will scan ID3 tags and bring back those search results as well) but it just doesn’t cut it for the way I use my Music Management. If I want to skim through my entire library of artists, the very lack of an easier to read list makes that job a lot more difficult and confusing. For example, I have over 300 songs by Bob Dylan alone, by using any of the other Music Managers’ methods of Artist-handling that immediately removes 299 list entries to skim through. I would agree that to many people it’s probably a minor point, but to me it just becomes irritating.

Exaile 0.2.3

Exaile is another fairly new project, setting out to be the Gnome equivalent to Amarok – that is a fully featured music management solution – and it’s started out on the right footing.

The main layout is similar to Amarok with a central playlist ‘whiteboard’ taking up most of the space and tabbed options int the left hand side bar, although it stays ‘very Gnome’ by placing the current track information and album art on the top of the screen and leaving the main play buttons at the bottom of the screen. To find out more artist information you need to navigate the View menu, where you can go to Lyrics, Artist, or Album information. In this menu you can also add or remove viewable columns, or use the Action Log to see what your version of Exaile has done since you opened it up, including last.fm logs (if you use it) and the like.

Moving across one to the Tools options opens the key feature – the Library Manager. Unlike the other Gnome apps I looked at, this bears much more operational resemblance to Amarok, giving you the freedom to add whichever directories you want and then hitting apply. Also in here you can manually rescan your collection, force a retrieval of album covers from Amazon, clear or view the queued songs and playlists, or use the Blacklist feature.

This is a superb feature of Exaile and opens another playlist tab with the heading blacklist. As the name suggests, what this playlist does is act as a reference point for the randomization options, giving a list of tracks that should not be selected by the random method. It may not sound too exciting, but when you have an archive of 40 or so 90 minute spoken word podcasts it is a godsend. There is nothing more disruptive than having a random playlist playing your music and then to have the start of a speech or podcast break up the flow of music. The blacklist gets around that. Of course it can also be used to place music you don’t want to listen to in, but my suggestion would be to simply hit the DELETE button in those instances. It’s an excellent feature.

Exaile_2

You may have noticed that in introducing the Blacklist feature I also passed over tabbed playlists. This is another, in my opinion, very smart move on Exaile’s part allowing you to have open and accessible multiple playlists whilst one playlist plays through in the background. Why is this useful to me, he of little faith in playlists? Well, it’s useful to me because if I need to make a playlist of music I want to stick on my audio player for a car journey or trip, rather than go through specifically worrying about finding each track I like and where it belongs right before leaving, I can instead be listening to a randomized playlist, and whenever a track comes on that I like I simply drag it over to the new playlist’s tab and drop it straight in. When I finish my listening for the day I simply go have a look at what’s been collected in the new playlist and stick it on the audio player. Of course, for those who like to design custom playlists, this feature will never grow old, and would in fact become a standard requirement in managing your music. No more having to look through the list of all your playlists to make sure you add to the right one, just open that one up next to the one you are listening to and drag and drop. Easy!

Ratings within the playlist are also straight forward and, unlike most other music managers on the market, allows up to 10 stars, giving you much more freedom to grade your music realistically and determining a good cut off point when deciding what you want to listen to.

Exaile_3

As far as the sidebar tabs go, Exaile doesn’t differ hugely again from Amarok – Collection is there, as is Playlists, Radio (which is kept separate, unlike Amarok), and Files are all there, and one would imagine that if it doesn’t do it on automount already, one day the Media Device option will be there as well. Of course, Context isn’t needed, as it handles that information elsewhere (see above).

The Playlists tab is worth a quick mention in the way it physically boxes off the difference between Smart and Custom playlists, unlike the folder option in Amarok. Personally, I think I actually prefer this method. I also prefer separating the Radio and Playlists tab, allowing them to both do exactly what they say (granted, Radio also handles Podcasts). I was, in honesty, a little disappointed to see that the Radio tab doesn’t follow the trend set by the Playlists tab in the organization of Radio and Podcast – for this it reverts to the Amarok folder idea. Still, it’s functional and works fine.

As with both Rhythmbox and Quod Libet, the Preferences area remains quite limited on Exaile, although I would imagine there may be a necessity to expand this slightly if it follows its course of becoming the full Gnome alternative to Amarok. I would have thought plugins and the like could quite easily be fitted in this area. But, it is presentable, straight forward, and lets you change the most important things which, I guess, is what it needs to do.

Exaile_4

Without a doubt, Exaile is an excellent and exciting looking project, considering it is still in such early days. The interface is, like most Gnome user interfaces, very straight forward, clean and usable. But it still lacks, just like Rhythmbox and Quod Libet before it, a way of compressing some of the collection under a ‘Various Artists’ label. Related to this, the Collection list at the minute still doesn’t have the subdivides (A, B, C, etc) that are nice to have when collections get silly-big. Methods of sorting through the collection are good, but not as configurable as those that Amarok has, although this sticks with the simplicity aspect of Gnome.

Another problem I found personally was with the On Screen Display, something that I haven’t mentioned with the other projects because, even though they have them, they don’t either stand out as a huge positive or negative either way, they’re just there. But the one on my PowerPC version of Exaile here seems buggy. By which I mean that it seems to choose its own moments for reminding you what you’re listening to as it pleases, whether or not you’ve selected it to even be displayed. The lack of a transparency layer option to this also makes this frustrating as it manages to complete cover up whatever was underneath it. But I can let that slide down to early version numbers and running on another platform.

Quod Libet 0.23.1

quodlibet

Quod Libet is another music management application designed in GTK+ and designed primarily for the Gnome desktop, but not exclusively.

It is a lovely music management app and ships with Ex Falso, which can be run as a standalone program for mass-editing of ID3 Tags. This utilises the same tagging backend as is used if you want to edit tags within Quod Libet and functions perfectly well for the job it performs.

On initial startup, I found the main interface to be fairly similar to what I was used to with Rhythmbox – very Gnome, well laid out, clear, and functional. The default View on startup is the ‘Paned Browser’ option which provides 3 panes – Artists, Albums, Playlist, as described in Rhythmbox. This functions perfectly well and with all the same functionality as Rhythmbox provides. The Back, Play, Forward and Volume controls sit at the top of the window on clear view and easy to access.

The one main difference here though is that there is now sidebar with Library and Podcasts and the like as exists in Rhythmbox and Banshee. Instead, what Quod Libet does is introduce a View section to the top taskbar, allowing you to choose which Browser view you want (from a choice of Disable Browser, Search Library, Playlists, Paned Browser, Album List, File System, and Internet Radio) and whether you want to see the Song List (for each album / artist / library), Queue of upcoming songs, or both. Most of these options don’t need explanation as they have been mentioned earlier so I will concentrate on the ones that are slightly different, primarily the Album List.

As you will expect from the name, this is a list of all the album’s in the current collection library, sorted by either title, date, or artist – options you can choose via a drop-down menu. It also features a search bar to help wade through the list and, where available, will show the album art next to the title. Any albums not assigned an album will all appear together under a ‘Songs Not in an Album’ section.

Preferences, sticking with the Gnome approach are fairly minimal, although a bit more fleshed out than Rhythmbox. One library option is available, which is also regularly scanned for updates.

Plugins- and Extensions-wise, Quod Libet seems to have quite a dedicated fan base that supply quite a good range of plugins to cover the same range as most of the other players here offer.

Now, for the disagreements. As with Rhythmbox, my primary concern is the option to obtain music in your library from a single source. This works fine for someone with all their music files in the same location all the time (desktop user) but simply doesn’t cut the mustard for someone in a position such as mine. I won’t the labour the point, I’ve said it already.

Missing Audio Feeds. This could well be a harsh criticism on my part, as the Quod Libet Wiki does indeed say that there is a view option for this, but it is not in my latest Ubuntu package. Which is a shame, as it is a useful feature for all media managers to have and to avoid having to use an external app / manual download for keeping things up to date. Maybe it’s the case that this is a plugin, but on my version, such an option didn’t exist.

The Album List. Doesn’t quite work right for me. First of all, I have a lot of individual tracks that don’t have an album associated with them (if I don’t have a full album I wipe the album tags of all the odd tracks and lump them in one folder in the artist’s directory). I found on mine that whilst, by and large things were ordered properly, there kept being one or two odd-cases at the top or bottom of the list that were out of sync. This is ok though, as I don’t actually have to use it, the pane browser works just fine, albeit with the same lack of a ‘Various Artists’ tab to keep the numbers down.

And the Winner Is…

Amarok.

In my personal opinion it is the only music manager out there at the moment that caters so entirely for my needs. This could be claimed that it only manages that because it’s bloated and has so many features in that parts of it just have to appeal to something somebody wants, but I don’t feel that’s the case here.

Certainly, it does have an overdose of features, not all of them that work well in a smaller screen environment (ie Wikipedia links), and it does have some options that are plain gimmicky (moodbar, which I don’t use), but overriding all of that is the fact that it works excellently at what I want it to do – which is manage where the files in my music directories are, what they say, and present them to me in the most clear and concise manner. It suits me because that’s the way I like to browse through my music.

Incidentally, Exaile very nearly meets all my requirements also, and as soon as things such as the ‘Various Artists’ annoyance, and Alphabetically-separated collection browsing come into it, it would become my first choice when using Gnome simply because it fits into the environment so much better.

But for now, it simply can’t match Amarok for the way it displays my music to me and allows me to organise it.

Equally, the ease at which Amarok incorporates such things as its scripts manager (plugins) by allowing browsing, installing, and configuring within the confines of the application is admirable, and something the Gnome projects could learn from. There is nothing more frustrating from a user perspective than having to fire up the browser, search through the website listings, download a tarball of the plugin you want, untar it to the correct directory, and then going back into your music manager to activate it and hope it works. Tight integration is the key here for me. Of course, if its something completely abstract that hasn’t been uploaded to the kde-look archives then that’s my responsibility to find, but for all the cool little tweaks, extras, and themes, it makes sense to keep access to them as simple as possible.

Of course, as I mentioned earlier, none of these applications are perfect, and Amarok is no exception. Things that I believe could help improve it as a complete music management are things like tight cooperation with a pure tagging application (such as EasyTag, to use a KDE example). Tagging and Tag Editing is already pretty good within Amarok, but I do sometimes find my tags haven’t saved properly when accessing my music in another application, and occasionally when trying to reopen the same file in Amarok, moments after it has saved the changes. Odd, but it happens.

Another feature that I never even thought of until I used Exaile but which I believe all the other apps severely lack is the Blacklist feature and the Tabbed playlist. The extra level of usability and enjoyment they have the potential to provide the user with is immense, considerably more than it sounds when you read about it…

And that’s not the only application that Amarok could learn from. There’s still plenty to be said for making the Play / Pause / Forward / Back / Stop buttons play a significant role in the interface – they are, after all, the key functions of controlling music, and are and aspect that the Gnome-projects tend to do very well in.

Even Banshee, the definitive loser in this race has significant enough positive points in it that Amarok should take note of – namely the ability to listen, rip, and burn CDs within the application, without having to link that work off to another application is a huge step forward, and an important one in usability. I have no idea what the development plans are looking like for Amarok, but my personal thinking is that this should be a number one priority (along with Blacklist and Tabbed Playlists ;-)) in future versions – the current interface and level of operation is good enough to not have to worry about adding new shiny-bits such as the moodbar – of course, it will always be able to be improved, and shouldn’t be forgotten about, but something such as the CD control would be a huge step forward, and raise the bar that bit higher for all the other media managers. I mean, K3b is a brilliant CD application, but I don’t won’t to have to go through the extra step of loading that up when I want to quickly burn a CD before I head out. I should be good to go from the minute I choose ‘Burn Playlist to CD…’.

Still, there will always be room for improvement, and I am not for one minute suggesting any of the applications need to become the same – the fact they are all different is the one thing that gives us such choice – but they do all have certain areas that I see them lacking in with respect to their current features, and some minor tweaks that would make the whole thing much easier.

To finish, I’ll be a bastard and rank them all, in order of the preference that they do the job I want them to do:

1 – Amarok

2 – Exaile

3= Quod Libet

3= Rhythmbox

5 – Banshee

So there it is. Of course there will be people who disagree with what I’ve chosen or the grounds on which I’ve judged it, that’s inevitable. If you feel I’ve missed something or been too harsh, comment on it. But the important thing to note is that I don’t rate any of these as particularly bad applications, and would certainly run any of them before I would run Windows Media Player or iTunes through CrossoverOffice or anything similar – even Banshee (if I have to have a Music Manager move my files, I’d rather an Open one did ;-)).

“Too Hard to Be Free”?

In this new wave of ‘combating terrorism’, ‘fighting oppression’ and spreading ‘Western’ ideas of civilization, ‘freedom’, and ‘democracy’, at what point are we[2] going to step back and admit, “okay, we were wrong… again”? Or perhaps that question should read, “when are we going to be forced to admit we were wrong… again?”
In this technological age, where our methods and ability to perform a multitude of tasks instantaneously extends and evolves continuously and rapidly, will this wave of new imperialism fall on the same harsh curve as its predecessors? One can always dream I guess…
Before I truly begin with yet another amble through my mind, let me state that I currently suffer from a rather remarkable lack of current affairs. Given my present location[3], the only source of information (that I can read and/or understand) is via irregular viewing of BBC World or Euro News. Even more rarely I may get to check various websites for more/different information. I trust others will pick up on and correct any errors, both factual and assumed.

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Combat Oppression and Discrimination: Open Source Your Life

Let’s get something clear: I am not a technology guru. In fact, compared to many I’m not even computer literate. But that doesn’t detract from having an opinion on the matter – as far as I’m aware. If I’ve made any glaring errors/miscalculations in anything I say I trust others to tell me/correct me/hold me/thrill me/kiss me/kill me.

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Cast Off Your Ingrained Prejudice and Open Your Mind

Following a rather interesting conversation a group of us had the other night, I finally decided to tackle head-on my thoughts on the topic of drugs and their legal status by putting pen to paper (or finger to key to screen to Internet) and seeing if it clears my mind any more (see, you don’t need to be a crack addict to have a confused mind…).

Ok, first of all I need to state where (I think) I stand on all this: I think all currently illegal drugs should be legalized. Not necessarily immediately, but certainly we should start on the path towards legalization and, in turn, some form of regulation. We should timetable the legalization of substances and, unlike most governmental plans, we should stick to that timetable.
Maybe I’m a hard-liner, I don’t know. And, to be honest, I don’t care – it’s just what I think.

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Looking Forward to Death

Looking back through things I’ve written in the past I’ve noticed a certain trend of mine to write about, or include in my articles, death – in some way, shape, or form – so I figured it would make sense to spend a little time addressing my own mortality, and what I think about it. Not a particularly earth-shattering piece of information for anyone, and perhaps self-centered, but last time I checked I wasn’t really the kind of person who gave a shit. If you don’t want to read it then don’t.

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The Nature of Death

Nature is just a higher, unknown power’s way of saying ’Better than you’.

That is the only conclusion I can draw.
The ‘higher, unknown power’ is not mine to name. Nor is it anybody else’s. That is how it comes to be ‘unknown’.
Make of it what you will. Be it God, Allah, Jupiter, Venus, Satan, Zeus, a higher conscious and spiritual level – it matters not. Nor is the point of these writings to prove/disprove any theories.

“The artist is the creator of beautiful things.
To reveal art and conceal the artist is art’s aim”

– The Picture of Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde

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Rule By Fear

Got Bin Laden?

Just to put these writings/musings into perspective, I am, at present, in the United States of America, and will be for another week yet.
Before I got here I already had a vague idea of the subject of this article, having journeyed here a few times since the events of 11th September 2001, and I was curious to see whether the ‘climate of fear’ in which Bush and Co. had been able to pass some ridiculous laws (pretty much with a carte blanche) had at least begun to subside, what with the run up to the elections this year and all that…

My, my. How naive can I get…

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Two Glorious Years On…

Ahhh two years ago today, 11th September 2001. Popularly dubbed 9-11. We all remember it. The promises that were made, the laws, skirmishes and subsequent protests that were to follow. The vow to rid the world of terrorism and to bring those responsible for the attacks to justice (American justice, that is) and all the other tricks Mr Bush and Mr Blair had up their sleeves.

And that’s my purpose in writing this. To see just how much the world really has changed, beneath all the hype. Now, I know I am hardly the first person to write such a piece, just a glance at today’s papers shows that, nor am I completely competent on all aspects of what I am about to discuss. Some areas I have a better understanding of than others, but I shall do my best to present what I do know as efficiently as possible.

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“American Funded Genocide, While We Sit and Sympathise.”

There never was a good war, nor a bad peace.” I have used that quote from Ben Franklin on many occassions recently as I believe it is very important. “What about World War Two?” some people ask. Well, that was not a good war. It was a horrendous war which brought with it unimaginable death tolls. 26 million Russians died in action. 6 million Jews slaughtered as part of one man’s plans. The only (as of yet) nuclear bomb to have been used in action dropped on innocent civillians. To me that is not ‘good’. Perhaps the reasons to fight were justified, but the war itself was not ‘good’. And this war shall not prove to be any different from history.

Continue reading ““American Funded Genocide, While We Sit and Sympathise.””