Posted by Shawn Oster on 1/11/2008 9:42 PM | Comments

My wife gets 'O', the Oprah magazine, and I have a bad habit of reading whatever is near me while I'm having breakfast and so found myself perusing an article where some celebrity such-and-such listed off the top influential books in their life which got me thinking of what mine would be.  My list isn't as deep or grand as theirs but it's honest.

1. Stranger In A Strange Land

This book shaped a huge portion of how I view the world, religion, relationships, how to treated others and as a reminder to always question everything around me.  Oh, and to laugh because sometimes that's all we have.  It introduced the new verb 'grok' into the nerd lexicon and to this day you'll see it pop up anywhere nerds mingle.  Stranded on a desert isle with only one book, this is it.

2. Perdido Street Station

A rich tapestry of weird with fine political stitching.  A relatively new book compared to how long I've been reading but it still managed to work it's way under my skin.  It presented the concept of egalitarianism in a way that I hadn't considered before and so thoroughly mixed genres that it was a real adventure to read.  It came along at at time when I needed a jolt and this was just what the doctor ordered.

3. Hamlet

This will always hold a special place in my heart because of the memories I have of learning to read Shakespeare from my high school teacher Mr. Tosh.  I'm sure that without the guided tour through Shakespeare's language and the double and triple entendres I would have found this a rather dull read but instead I learned that just because something is old it doesn't mean there isn't bite or relevance and that some books should be read for their craftsmanship as well as their plot.

4. Your First Basic Program

This was the book that turned me into a software developer.  I still remember the day my dad took me to the book store and helped me pick it out.  I must have been all of 11 or 12 at the time and I'm pretty sure I picked it because of the really cool dragon illustrations on the inside and the big castle on the front.  I read it cover to cover, over and over, until it was tattered and creased, all while learning the classic control, flow and looping constructs that every developer still uses to this day.  In fact it wasn't until the Gang of Four's 'Design Patterns' that a single programming book had that much effect on me.

5. Acid House

Most people picking an Irvine Welsh book would probably go with Trainspotting but I never actually read Trainspotting, instead I read almost every other book he wrote and Acid House was the first one, the one I cut me teeth on learning to read his delightful written Scottish brogue.  It begs to be spoken and I'd entertain myself for hours just reading passages outloud, chewing through brogue and feeling myself slightly transported to gritty Edinburgh streets.  It was the first time a written brogue actually worked for me and I loved how much texture it added to the experience.

6. Towing Jehovah

I picked this up on a whim, mostly because of the quirky title, and ended up not only enjoying the story but viewing people's relationships with religion in a different light.  Having no strong religious affiliation myself I was exposed to some of the issues others struggle with as well as some very scary realizations about how certain people could act if they lost their faith.  The concept of God being dead and having to be towed across the ocean was pretty much the perfect device to explore theology, culture and more without losing sight of the humor in life.

7. How To Be Good

I love this book because it highlights just how hypocritical we can be when we talk about how to cure the world of it's ills.  It slyly holds a mirror up to the reader with comical wit and satirical poking at what it means to be 'good' and how for as much as we talk about it how often we fail miserably.   It got me thinking of my own actions and intentions and judgements and that maybe I shouldn't cry foul on others before giving myself a good hard look.  All done with of course the one element I need from any good book, humor.

I'm sure more will pop into my head but those are the ones that jumped out.  I could of course go on and on with various books that I loved or just found greatly enjoyable, but I tried to pick books that actually had some impact on me besides just being a good read.

Posted by Shawn Oster on 1/9/2008 10:11 AM | Comments

My favorite tag editor is Mp3tag and I use it at least a couple times a week to populate the album artist field that both WMP and Zune seem to depend upon for proper organization.  Instead of manually typing in each album artist field I use this handy script:


Basically if the album artist field is already populated then I don't touch it, otherwise I transfer the value from the artist field into the album artist field.  Mp3tag calls the album artist field 'band' but I don't let that stop me.  If you feel like using it as well here is how to add a new action:

  1. On the menu select Actions –> Actions (or just hit Alt + 5)
  2. Click the 'New' icon in the upper right
  3. Give the action a name, I used 'Populate Album Artist'
  4. Click the 'New' icon again to add an action type
  5. Select the 'Format value' action type
  6. For field select 'ALBUMARTIST'
  7. For format string use: $if(%band%,%band%,%artist%)
  8. You'll end up with a dialog that looks like this:

OK your way through everything and now you have an action to automatically fill out that needed Album Artist field and help prevent the silly 'Unknown Artist' folder that Zune seems to like to create.

To use the action it’s as simple as selecting the tracks you’d like to apply it to and then either bringing up the Actions menu from the menu bar or the toolbar icon.

UPDATE: Thanks Oscar for pointing out that you need to remove the space before the %artist% portion of the formula.  I've updated the post to reflect that (still working on the screen cap though).

UPDATE #2: I’ve updated the steps to reflect version 2.48 of Mp3tag, this post was a little crusty.  Thanks to Eric Nemchik for pointing out that ALBUMARTIST is now the correct Field vs. BAND in old versions.

Posted by Shawn Oster on 1/3/2008 10:11 AM | Comments

The media world is cannibalistic, books become movies, video games are based on movies, books are written for video games with every permutation in between.  Granted a large number of these tend to be real stinkers but every once in awhile something is actually gained in translation.  Over the years a few movies and books have really stood out as prime candidates for the video game treatment, some of which are below:


This 2006 movie came out to some pretty bad reviews but since I'm a sucker for anything Milla Jovovich I laid down my hard earned cash to see this on the silver screen and the only thought in my head as I walked out was how great a video game it would make.  It's high on visuals and fast-paced combat with a smorgasbord of "future talk" vernacular while not overly stressing the plot which is high on drama, low on surprises.  In other words the perfect elements for a video game.  It comes with built-in factions and feuds, uneasy truces, a bevy of places to draw talents/skills/powers from, vehicles, gadgets and even some mini-game ideas like driving up the sides of buildings and quickly shifting the direction of gravity.

As much as the style was ridiculed in the gaming press I see this as Shadowrun-style game play, quick rounds with chances in between to upgrade abilities and powers.  It would need a single-player story though, there are just too many elements that wouldn't multiplayer well yet would be great in a solo or co-op fashion.  Basically a slightly beefier Halo that's not so static in the initial player load-out during multiplayer.

Altered Carbon by Richard K. Morgan

Anyone that's read this book or any of the other Takeshi Kovacs novels, Broken Angels and Woken Furies, probably harbors the same thought I do, that these books are just crying out to be turned into a video game.  There is already a great death handling mechanism in the form of "cortical stacks", basically backups that can be used to slot you into a new "sleeve" or body, which is where you have a rich source of player upgrades and customizations.  There is even a black-ops force, Envoys, which work on either end of a game plot line, either starting as an Envoy and having to track down the baddies or working towards the ultimate goal of becoming an Envoy.

Given the detective anti-hero narrative of the books any game based on this franchise would need strong RPG elements, with a good plot, a bit of snooping yet a great combat system.  I'm thinking a mix between Gears of War and Mass Effect with a heavy upgrade and player customization system.

Revelation Space by Alastair Reynolds

This is the first book in one of most intelligent space operas I've read in a long time.  Great interweaving plots and layers of interactions are spread out across the books and there are some very distinct factions all with their own career and upgrade paths yet they do mix so you get some common equipment, plot and upgrade items.  The books span a huge range of time and there are a ton of great events to center a game around as well as enough unwritten history that new timeline slots could be opened up.

Given the shifting alliances, rich characters and plot thick aspect of these books a RPG in the vein of Oblivion and Mass Effect would be perfect.  A great twist would be to mix in some ship-to-ship combat and perhaps a sprinkling of the RTS genre, though I'd keep it grounded in RPG.

There are tons of books and movies that could be given the game treatment but these few I've listed seem like natural candidates, you can practically image the various selection screens and character creation systems.  Of course they'd need first class treatment vs. the usual rush job with the hopes that fans will buy anything as long as it has they're favorite franchise name splashed across the front.  I'd even put good money that someone has already approached Richard K. Morgan about licensing his world for a video game.

Categories: Zune Posted by Shawn Oster on 12/16/2007 7:43 AM | Comments

Playing with the new gadgets that were released with the latest Zune web-site update.  One thing I really like is that if you click an album or artist it'll show the tracks and if the Zune Marketplace has them available you can preview the music.  It's a pretty cool way to see what others are listening to and get a quick sample, all without needing to have the Zune software installed.  Here's the big version of mine:

Posted by Shawn Oster on 12/14/2007 11:27 AM | Comments

I've been dabbling in the Ruby on Rails world for awhile and I've always been drawn to the very clean separation of the Model-View-Controller framework, something Rails pretty much nailed in their implementation.  I've done a few small Rails sites here and there, played with it enough to be dangerous but I didn't use it enough in my daily life to really get it under my belt.  At the same time I was doing a lot of ASP.NET work and felt like I was constantly fighting the WebForms architecture to get it to produce proper stateless standards-compliant web applications that were based around the concept of request/response.  I'd disable ViewState, override Inits(), hack into the page lifecycle and ignore server controls so I had real control the HTML output and get back my CSS id selectors.  In a very bad way WebForms reminded me of VB6 and all the hacks I had to do during my stint with that language.

The most frustrating point came when the CSS Adapters were released and touted as some kind of panacea to those that cared about web standards when in reality they are more akin to giving a woman with a horrible breast job a big baggy sweater with a picture of a nice rack on the front.  Sure, it may be a pretty picture but the scar tissue and ugly layers are still there.

I think I got some of my faith back after I started reading Rob Conery's blog because in him I found a Rails enthusiast who still enjoyed the many good aspects of ASP.NET and C#.  Instead of just jumping ship he was bringing some of the better elements, and more importantly concepts, over to the .NET side with the SubSonic project.  Then he somehow got mixed up with some other crazy people like Phil Haack, Scott Guthrie and Scott Hanselman and now we have the ASP.NET 3.5 Extensions Preview which contains a juicy little nugget otherwise known as ASP.NET MVC.

After wading through the bits, doing a few sample projects and generally taking their version of MVC for a walk-about I can say I'm once again excited about .NET.  Sure there are some rough spots and some areas that are a bit too "chewy" (you know a line of code that's a 100 characters long and includes at least three generics and two type casts?  yeah, that's chewy) and design decisions that some people are taking umbrage over but all in all it feels useful, feels clean and feels like real programming.

In an odd way I have the same feeling I had back in the day when I switched from Visual Basic to Delphi (which I still think is the best tool for creating native Win32 applications), like I once again have control.

Categories: Music Posted by Shawn Oster on 12/3/2007 7:54 PM | Comments

While looking for some mellow music for a late night coding session that wouldn't disturb my wife I remembered an album I used to listen to quite a bit,  'Far Away Trains Passing By' by Ulrich Schnauss, and wondered if he had something new out for me to enjoy.  Seems he's been busy since I first picked up that album in 2001 with at least four other releases so after listening to some samples I figured I'd pick up an album or two. 

I started first with Zune Marketplace which has become a viable option ever since they started offering DRM-free MP3s.  While they have all his albums none of them are in MP3 format which crosses it off my list.  Not to be daunted I hit up Amazon's MP3 downloads but no dice there either, I can order the CD but I want satisfaction now.  Last on my list is eMusic, usually a great location for smaller or indie labels but I only found a scattering of his songs on compilations.  I thought about checking iTunes to see if it was available as a "Plus" track, meaning DRM-free, but you can't browse their catalog online and I really can't be bothered to install iTunes just to see if it may or may not be there.  I even toyed with using BitTorrent for some nefarious illegal song grabbing but honestly that's entirely too much fussing just for a few songs.

After all of this searching and disappointment I realized I'll probably never buy another Ulrich Schnauss album, not out of some petulant pouting or idealistic, chest-beating stance against the horrors of DRM but because I had an impulse and now it's gone.  Anyone that knows me knows that I'm slightly impulsive while at the same time I lose interest quickly so in a few days time it's doubtful I'll even remember Mr. Schnauss and instead I'll be buying some DRM-free tracks that caught my ear on eMusic or something tasty I see come through Zune Marketplace. 

I'm not just not buying (neat) Ulrich Schnauss either, The new Dropkick Murphys album 'The Meanest of Times' hasn't gotten any rotation from me and they're one of my top 10 favorite bands.  There is just too much good music out there and my tastes are too varied for me to obsess over a single album.  These days if I can't get it DRM-free it's doubtful I'll ever buy it or listen to it.

A little note to Ulrich Schnauss's label Domino USA, you really need to look at licensing  your music as DRM-free, whether it's on eMusic, Amazon, Zune Marketplace or even iTunes.  You could have had some of my hard-earned dosh, instead I'm just cueing up some 'Thievery Corporation' and calling it good.

Categories: Zune Posted by Shawn Oster on 12/1/2007 4:21 AM | Comments

Ever have an artist not show up where you expected in the Zune software?  Ever swear it's correctly labeled 'Red Hot Chili Peppers' yet it's showing up under 'Unknown Artist' instead?  How about this one, you can find it in the software but under the Zune it's in the wrong place?  The culprit here is the Zune software's really weird use the artist and album artist metadata bundled inside the file.  I consider this a huge and highly annoying bug.

A lot of tracks out there only have the 'Artist' field filled out while a second, less-used field 'Album Artist', sometimes called 'Band', is empty.  The Zune, instead of defaulting to the artist when it has an empty album artist, puts all those tracks under the dreaded 'Unknown Artist' section.

I just had this comment on an older blog post showing just how frustrating this can be, Shad said...

I am having a hell of a time getting CDs that I recorded in my commercial recording studio to show up as anything other than Unknown Artist. I finally got the folders that I have labeled (by right clicking and renaming them) to show up in the software but when I sync to my PC and update the Zune, they do not show up as "Unknown Artist" in the Zune. I cannot find them at all on the Zune. Any ideas?

I answered him in the comments but thought I'd repeat the steps I use to fix this issue here:

  1. Download and install mp3tag or any other tag editing program. I just like this one because it's straight forward, free, and small in size.
  2. After you install it run the software.
  3. On the menu go to Tools, then Options.
  4. Select the 'Tag Panel' node on the left.
  5. Click the 'Add Field' icon on the right, looks like a rectangle with a star.
  6. Under 'Field' select BAND.
  7. Under 'Name' type 'Album Artist' or 'Band'. Doesn't matter, it's for your eyes only.
  8. OK out of everything.
  9. Drag & drop the files or folder of files you want to edit into the main white area of the app.
  10. You'll notice on the left side you can edit all the metadata about your tracks. Make sure to edit both 'Artist' and 'Album Artist' to be the same thing.
  11. Save.
  12. Sometimes the Zune software will pick up on your new information, sometimes you have to kick it a little by renaming the file.
  13. Everything should be rocking now!

Another great thing about mp3tag is that it can rename your files using your metadata, can add cover art or look it up from Amazon and guess at what the metadata should be based on filename.  It supports pretty much every single audio format I've thrown at it as well that supports metadata.  The renaming is nice because the Zune software lacks the ability to customize how your files are named.

Any questions drop them in the comments.

Posted by Shawn Oster on 11/22/2007 8:35 AM | Comments

Black Friday, the perennial classic day of Christmas shopping and crowd control, is almost upon us which means I'll be battening down the hatches, pulling up a warm mug of spiked egg-nog and doing the bulk of my holiday shopping online. is usually my go-to retailer for everything purchased online but this year I'm going to do something slightly different, instead of first going to Amazon I'm going to start at, which in turn gets me right back over to Amazon with a bit of giving along the way.  Huh?

The short version is that if you're going to be doing any online shopping this season make your first stop.  You pick a non-profit you want to help out and then search one of the many supported stores, including Amazon, eBay, iTunes, Apple Store,, eToys, NewEgg.  Once you find something you want you are redirected to the retailer's site and do your normal Amazon (or whatever store you picked) thing, at the normal discounted price, the normal store shipping, safety and security.  Only difference is that now you've made a little extra money for a constantly under-funded and overworked organization and hopefully warmed your heart.

The long version is that at it's core is a way to donate to charities and other non-profits (NPO's to those that like to sound in the know) without much more effort than indulging in the wonderful past-time known as shopping.  They achieve this by a very clever use of the various affiliate programs that online retailers offer, such as Amazon, eBay and many more.  Most affiliate programs offer a commission for every purchase that you send their way and often increase the commission based on how much money you helped them generate.  Most individuals or NPO's can't generate enough traffic to push their commission percentage past the base rate and so don't usually see much return and that's where steps in. acts as a single affiliate helping to pool all the purchases, so while a lone NPO may only have a couple of purchases a month Giveness takes the purchases of all the NPO's signed up and those determine what the commission rate is, helping to push it past the usual meager base rate which in turns means a much bigger commission for the NPO than they could usually get on their own.

Oh, besides just being an amazing way to shop and help out Giveness is also a social network, with support for blogs, messages, comments, sharing videos, RSS feeds and recommending and reviewing fav products.  They have a very cool widget for sharing your recommended products and also sponsoring your chosen NPO.  All wrapped up in a clean web 2.0 UI.

I'm not the only one that thinks Giveness is a great idea either.  Amazon has featured them as a success story, so has  The Wall Street Journal (back then they were known as Givezilla) as well as others.

The catch here of course is that the system only works if people use it and if people actually buy stuff.  So... go buy some stuff!  Christmas is the perfect season to both avoid the nightmare of malls while doing some giving along the way.  Great thing about Giveness is that it doesn't actually cost you anything to give plus you still get all the same great deals, discounts, shipping, rates and selection your normally do.

Categories: Zune Posted by Shawn Oster on 11/16/2007 10:51 AM | Comments

Awhile back I wrote a wee little Delphi application to mimic WinAmp's Global Hotkeys in the Zune software, call ZuneKeys.  With the new Zune software out I had to update ZuneKeys to work with it so if you're one of the three people that actually like global hotkeys go ahead and grab the new version from the above links.

For nerds that care I had to change the window class I was searching for from "WMPlayerAppZune" to "UIX Render Window".  Long Zheng over on istartedsomething has some more interesting bits about this whole "UIX" business.

Categories: Zune Posted by Shawn Oster on 11/15/2007 12:29 PM | Comments

Being both an early Zune adopter as well has having been critical of some of the v1 features it's only fair I weight in on the v2 firmware and software and see how it compares.

Firmware / Device UI

The new interface on the device is clean, stylish and functional and after a little readjustment it's definitely an improvement on what was already a great experience.  The navigation sounds are a little different, the menu style has been brought in-line with the rest of the brand, podcasting has it's own little home and there are little improvements to navigation and song management that make the entire device experience simple and fun to use.

The best new features are wireless sync, which can either be triggered manually or automatically if it's docked, and the ability to resume songs which is important not only for long podcasts but audiobooks as well.

Being able to sync as soon as I come in the door means I'll have the latest podcasts even if I'm just stopping by home quickly before heading out again.  It also prevents me from getting sucked into my computer which happens all too often when I'm just going to "quickly" sync before taking a bike ride and before I know it I've wasted an hour fiddling on my computer and my bike ride gets pushed to the side.

I hadn't even attempted to listen to an audiobook on my Zune for the last few months because of the v1's spotty support of paused tracks.  Nothing takes the joy out of an audiobook like having to spend 5 minutes hunting for where you last left off and thankfully the v2 firmware gives us the ability to resume tracks from where you left off.

So, adopting the new rating system I heart the new Zune firmware.


The new software takes a less is more approach, stripping away features in an effort to bring the library browsing and music playing experience into sharper focus and for the most part it has worked smashingly.  In terms of style and experience the software blows away iTunes, Windows Media Player or really any other media application.  Usually media applications look like nothing more than overblown database browsers and the "creative" is lost in the whole experience. 

This has come at the cost of standard media library features though, such as auto playlists, the classic 5 star rating system, ID3 editing and customized views of your music.  This will probably create the biggest schism amongst users  as it can be jarring for the power user that uses all of these features but for the average consumer I doubt they'll even notice the features are gone.

What's been interesting about the loss of these features is an awareness of how I did or didn't use them.  For example, a song's genre has been greatly de-emphasized, not even appearing in the main 'browse' view, and at first this seemed like a glaring lack but it was also a relief.  I've agonized over how to classify certain bands, are they punk, swing, folk, rock, metal?  Usually I'll either dump them in a generic 'rock' category or change the genre three or four times over a month and still not be happy.  I end up with either a few huge genres or a ton of small specialized ones thus defeating the genres use.

Another "less is more" example is the new rating system of Unrated/Heart/Broken Heart.  With the old 5-star system I found I'd change my rating system over the years, at one time 2 stars meant "I had to be in the right mood" but then it became "this song sucks" at which point I had to ask myself why I was keeping the track.  Same with five star songs; songs that were 5-stars one week turned into 4 or even 3 as I got to know the song or 3 star tracks turned into 4 or 5 as an album grew on me.  Ironically with all this song rating I never actually used the ratings themselves, except they looked pretty in the software.

Visualizations  are for the most part gone, though there is a very cool "wall of album art" mode as well as a very subtle "bleeding" effect on the bottom of the main playing area that is very cool.  I've never been into visualizations so the loss of them doesn't even show up on my radar but I'm sure some people will miss them.

This doesn't mean "less is more" has worked for everything though.  The loss of a solid mechanism to find missing album metadata or edit the ID3 tags is a big bummer and I discovered just how much I was using the auto playlist feature to manage my syncing.  Compared to WinAmp, Windows Media Player or iTunes the v2 Zune software is going to feel downright naked in terms of ways to view your library and customization but what is there is done very well.

So far I've been pleasantly surprised with the v2 features and feel like there is finally a solid base for the Zune team to build on now that they truly own the experience.  I do miss some features and I really hope they add in new ones faster than just yearly or bi-yearly updates but for the most part I find it much improved over the old skinned WMP.