Category Archives: Entertainment / Arts

An Update on the Music Player Quest

I’ve written a few times (parts 1, 2, 3) about my annoyance at music players. I’d come down to two finalists to consider: Rhythmbox and Banshee. I’ve used both for awhile now, and as of today, am also trying Songbird (after finally managing to make it run; see part 3 above).

In addition to my previous observations, then, I’ll add:


Two problems exist in the current version. The first is that playlists aren’t sortable, which is annoying for those of us that use them as an organization tool. I put a patch in bug 327042, but the authors say they won’t apply it, and there has been no recent activity from anyone working to do something better. Highly annoying, but I’m running my own patched copy anyhow.

More annoying is that it doesn’t let you modify metadata of tracks on the iPod. Perhaps worse, its GUI lets you remove tracks from iPod playlists, but this change is not saved back to the iPod (bug 586964). Confusingly, adding tracks to playlists does get saved. There has been no action on that bug in the 1.5 weeks since I’ve reported it.

I was able to supply the Rhythmbox developers with the needed information to resolve the issue of moving files to .Trash-1000 instead of deleting them on the iPod (586649). However, they refuse to fix the larger problem of leaving these directories on the filesystem; a great annoyance for people using KDE or no desktop environment at all.


On the surface, its iPod support looks even better than Rhythmbox. Yet it silently ignores some (not all) metadata changes. You can modify a rating, a compilation artist, etc. and it will look like it changed. But close Banshee and open it up again and you see it wasn’t. (Bugs 580632, 389550) They’ve done some troubleshooting with me, but there hasn’t been activity there since June 30.


Aside from my story today griping that it doesn’t even start by default on Linux, I haven’t written about this one before. Its philosophy is somewhat similar to Thunderbird: ship with a very minimalistic set of features, and support multiple addons.

I found that its iPod support works the best of any of these I’ve mentioned, at least for manually-managed iPods. It has a feature to sync your iPod, but has no documentation whatsoever on what that does. It also doesn’t document what it will do with the FLACs I’ve downloaded from Magnatune when it puts them on the iPod. The only references I’ve seen to transcoding state that it will be present in 1.2.0 (which I have), and that it won’t be present until August. Not very helpful.

With a few addons, it makes a quite nice player, with quite good iPod support. The interface, however, has a few quirks. First off, it’s really sluggish, even on very fast hardware. Secondly, if you flip from playlist to playlist, or even breathe on it the wrong way, it will move you back to the top of the playlist you’re on, leaving you to manually find the track that’s playing again. It has no “jump to currently-playing track” feature like other players do. Its tray icon (which you must get an addon for) has a basic menu of play, pause, next, but no ability to set ratings from there. Also, sometimes setting ratings don’t appear to work from the UI, but might have actually been saved anyhow.

Overall, though, Songbird looks like my best bet for the moment. I’ll keep using it and see what I think.

The other option is gtkpod+audacious. I’d miss the integration of player with browser, and gtkpod’s extremely sluggish interface makes even Songbird look like a Formula 1 car in comparison. But its iPod support works well (though its attempts to sync with the filesystem are undocumented and cause issues more than once).

Songbird: How To Make Great Software Unpopular

As part of my ongoing quest for working media players, I’ve more than once tried Songbird. But it never wanted to work in Linux, always crashing before it even fired up the GUI with errors like this:

(songbird-bin:17595): libgnomevfs-WARNING **: Cannot load module `/usr/lib/gnome-vfs-2.0/modules/' (/usr/lib/gnome-vfs-2.0/modules/ cannot open shared object file: No such file or directory)
././songbird-bin: symbol lookup error: /usr/lib/python2.5/site-packages/gst-0.10/gst/ undefined symbol: gst_xml_get_type
Could not initialize GStreamer: Error re-scanning registry , child terminated by signal

Googling reveals dozens of threads about this among Debian, Ubuntu, Fedora… well, ALL Linux users. Some people reported success removing bits of GStreamer from their systems, but that didn’t work for me.

I noticed that the Linux binary distribution of Songbird contains a lib/ directory, which has, among other things, full copies of many GStreamer libraries, libvorbis, libFLAC, libogg, libtheoradec/enc, and more. On a lark, I ran rm lib/libgst*. And that fixed Songbird.

Now, that gets me to the point of why Songbird isn’t popular on Linux, a fact which appears to mystify the Songbird developers from the posts I’ve read.

And the reason is: Songbird doesn’t work on Linux out of the box. More to the point, Songbird tries to distribute itself on Linux as if the user is running on Windows.

You do not install a local gstreamer with each app on Linux; you use the system’s. You don’t try to use a local copy of everything; you use the systems. Even songbird plugins package their own .so of files I already have installed system-wide. The Linux shared library system can handle it, I promise.

And even worse, the fact that they are trying to use local copies of things instead of system ones are making it very difficult for distributions to package up Songbird. Distributions — the ones that care about quality, anyhow — want to do things The Right Way, which means only one copy of GStreamer on the system. Songbird doesn’t want to get along well with this. None of Debian, Ubuntu, or Fedora have Songbird packages in their repositories, though third-party packages of greatly varying quality exist for each. Read their respective bug tracking systems and you’ll see that it has to do with Songbird wanting local versions of system-wide libraries.

So, Songbird folks: If you want to make a cross-platform app, please stop treating Linux as if its library system is as broken as Windows. It wasn’t until you got here.

Aside from that, it looks like the best music player I’ve tried yet, despite its sluggish interface.

Update: The original version of this article incorrectly stated that Songbird was a Mozilla project.

Tagging music… No, not like that

I’m thinking it would be great to be able to assign arbitrary tags to my music, like I do to my photos. For instance, I might tag the finale to Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony like this:

symphony beethoven loud choir german

I can’t figure out how to Google for this sort of feature because, well, the word “tag” is already taken for something else in the context of music.

I believe Amarok offers it, a bit, but Amarok has too many other serious flaws for me to be able to consider it.

Any ideas?

Buying a SoundBridge Radio

A day or two ago, I asked for suggestions for a tabletop MP3 player. I got lots of good ideas — thanks! The two most common were the Roku SoundBridge Radio and the Nokia N800.

I’ve ordered the SoundBridgeRadio. I spent some time looking over its website, and it really impressed me for several reasons:

  • It’s one all-in-one device with Wifi, FM and AM tuners, speakers, even an SD card slot and atomic clock shortwave receiver.
  • It has explicit support for Linux. Roku actually sponsors the Firefly Media Server (package mt-daapd in Debian), which will serve up music to this and other devices. They also can stream from SlimServer. In general, it supports any UPnP AV server.
  • They publish specs for just about everything: the TCP-based Roku Control Protocol that lets you control the SoundBridge remotely; user-editable localization files; even detailed IR specs for the remote control. The only other thing I could wish for would be the firmware on the device itself being Free.
  • Their manual has a “Hey geeks, read this!” section describing telnetting to a port. People are doing some fun stuff with it.

The N800 is also a good suggestion. It has an FM tuner built-in, and of course is capable of streaming media files. I have an N810, and I just don’t think a device this size would be capable of playing loudly enough for a kitchen. So I’d have to get external speakers, and then we’re into a mess of wires and stuff — making it less portable to other rooms in the house.

One person also suggested a Chumby. It sounds like an awesome gadget, but I couldn’t find anything on their site that indicated that it could stream music from my own server. From the Internet or an iPod, yes, but not from my server.

Thanks to everyone for your ideas. I’ll post a review of the SoundBridge Radio when I get it.

Flowers, Music, and Grandparents


I’ve written a lot lately about my Grandma Klassen, who passed away this week. But I’m going to start this post about my Grandma Goerzen.

She died when I was just an infant. I never knew her, but as the years pass, it seems that I remember her better and better.

After we moved out to the farm where she and Grandpa Goerzen lived for decades, we noticed some flowers she had planted 30 years ago were still coming up, having withstood hail, hot summers, frost, construction equipment, and neglect all that time. Terah said, “It’s like your grandma left us a housewarming gift.”

Some of these flowers had never bloomed. Until this week.

One bloomed for the first time the day Grandma Klassen died.

A second bloom appeared the day of her funeral.

Music #1

My jr. high and high school band teacher loves music (and old engines, but that’s another story). You couldn’t sign up for “band” at my high school; you’d sign up for the class called LIFE. To him, music and life are indistinguishable. He says that anybody can speak to somebody, but music is the best way to speak to the heart.

My Grandpa Klassen died when I was 11. Grandma Klassen, before her health declined, loved to tell me the story of the music at his funeral. At his funeral, my mom and I played a piano duet of Nearer, My God to Thee which we had already learned for a different event. When we were done, Rev. Epp went to the pulpit and said something along the lines of, “If the music in heaven is as good as that, it’ll be a great place indeed.”

I was just 11, and though music did speak to me at that age already, I don’t think I understood how it moved people, such as my grandma, until many years later.

Music #2

Grandma Klassen loved music, too, and that’s reflected in each of her children — all of them play trumpet, for instance. So it’s no surprise that there was a lot of music this week.

She died as two of her children were singing hymns to her at her room in the nursing home.

Two of her grandchildren played trumpet for her at her burial.

And my brother and his wife played trumpet and piano at her funeral.

It was all beautiful, and like my band teacher said, it spoke to my heart.

Music #3

I knew about gradma’s love of music for quite awhile. When she was in better health, I took her to concerts sometimes. One of her favorite hymns was Joyful, Joyful, but she hadn’t known it was based on Beethoven’s 9th Symphony. I learned that the Wichita Symphony Orchestra was performing the 9th, and took her to the performance. She loved it, and I seem to recall that she kept talking about it for a few years afterwards. It certainly didn’t hurt that the singing on the 4th movement was in German. I burned her a “new-fangled” CD of it, which I frequently saw in or near her CD player.

The Kansas Mennonite Men’s Chorus is an all-volunteer choir with about 300 members. They give a couple of concerts a year, and occasionally tour throughout North America and Europe. Their motto is “we sing that others may live” because 100% of money collected at their concerts goes directly to charity.

Attending one of their concerts is a powerful experience not easily forgotten. I think the only time I’ve heard a choir come close to being as amazing as that was when I had the opportunity to attend a Robert Shaw concert a few years ago.

I went with grandma to one of the Kansas Mennonite Men’s Chorus performances a few years ago. As you might expect, she loved it — I think she called it “powerfully good.”

This year, I finally joined the choir. I still remember that first practice. We “warmed up” by singing Holy God, We Praise Thy Name — a song that has opened every KMMC concert for years. These people hadn’t sung together for almost a year, and there were plenty of new people like me there too. But it only took a few bars of singing before I realized just what it was I had joined. The choir started out with the quietest, but most powerful singing you can imagine: “Holy God, we praise thy name.” By the time we got to the end of the page, the building was ringing from 300 men singing “Infinite thy vast domain, everlasting is thy reign!” at the top of their voices, in perfect harmony. We got to the end. The director said. . . “Wow.”

I don’t think a first practice ever spoke to my heart before that day.

Music #4

Nearly 20 years ago, Grandma Klassen bought me a new bible. After she gave it to me, I asked her what some of her favorite passages were. She took me straight to the blessing in Numbers 6, and made sure I underlined it and bookmarked it. It goes like this:

“The Lord bless you,
The Lord keep you,
Make his face to shine upon you and be gracious unto you,
The Lord life up his countenance upon you and give you peace.”

My uncle had read this blessing to her the last time he talked to her. And the KMMC for years has ended their concerts with a beautiful benediction based on this passage. Grandma heard it at the concert I attended with her. It has been a favorite of my mom for years, too.

So I had the thought: we really ought to sing it as a benediction at her funeral. It was hard to find the right mix of people on short notice, but we wound up with me singing baritone, my brother singing 2nd tenor (we both normally sing bass), and his wife both playing piano and singing 1st tenor, and relying on the piano to fill in the bass part.

We had a little chance to practice before the funeral, but not a lot. The two of them have done a lot musically, but I haven’t nearly as much, so I got in some extra practice at home, too.

When it came time to sing, it was an emotional moment for sure — more than a bit hard to focus, knowing the history and meaning of these words. When we got to “and give you peace”, and moved into the chorus of “amen” that finishes the song, I almost broke down right there, but didn’t quite.

We didn’t give a perfect performance, for sure, on such short notice. (And they had me singing with them, so we wouldn’t have been perfect even with plenty of notice!)

But it didn’t have to be perfect. After we ended the last, quiet “amen”, I think I heard about a half-dozen noses blowing all at once. My band teacher was right about music speaking to the heart.

Later, during lunch, my aunt said to me, “Wow, John, I’ve never heard you sing before!” “That’s right, and this may be the last time you hear me sing, too! I don’t normally sing in a small group like this.”

A few minutes later, my uncle that gave the message came over and talked to the three of us. “John, today you three brainwashed me.” “Oh?” “Yes. For years, I thought that there was no music as beautiful as the trumpet. After hearing you three sing, I have to reconsider.”

And so my band teacher was also right: music is life. My grandma was a person that could hardly speak without touching the heart. That beautiful melody of her life didn’t stop when she died Tuesday afternoon. I’ve been hearing it all week.

The Power of Love

A few years ago, Elvera Voth, a musician that grew up a few miles from here was back in the area. Her specialty is vocal music, and one evening, she led a hymn sing at our church.

During the event, she talked about how much music can touch the heart. Elvera remembered many years ago that a woman in the church was leaving for a service trip to India. She would be gone for 7 years straight. None of her family or friends would be able to see her during that entire time.

The day she was to depart, friends, family, and church members went with her to the Santa Fe station in Newton, KS. While waiting for her train, at some point, the group started singing. Elvera remembered that they sang So nimm denn meine Hände (Take thou my hand, O Father) and Ich bete an die Macht der Liebe (O Power of Love).

Elvera remembered they sang in the station, and the high, wood ceilings made it sound like the music filled the whole building. I can’t think of a better goodbye than that.

Elvera remembered so many details about the event, but two things she didn’t remember were who was leaving and what year this happened. So I remembered this story for awhile, but didn’t really follow up on it.

Then last December, our neighbor Hildred called. Hildred and her sister live on their old family farm about a mile from us. They’re some of the older members of our church, and I believe both of them have lived on that farm their entire lives. Hildred heard that I am gathering photos for a book about the centennial of our church, and she offered to bring some of them over. Knowing that it was cold and dark outside, the roads were snowy, and that Hildred drives a car at least 40 years old (because “Daddy said this is a good car”), I offered to drive to their place. “Oh no,” she said, “it’s no trouble. I like to get out. Besides, I haven’t seen your house since it’s been remodeled!” So she came over.

Hildred had stacks of amazing old photos from the church and the community. And she had a stack of photos and letters from India, where her aunt Augusta Schmidt was a nurse for 14 years. She was very proud of her aunt’s service to the needy there. I started to put things together in my head and asked her if she remembered singing at the train station when Augusta left for India. “Oh sure,” said Hildred, as if everyone knew about that.

So that’s how it happened that the “historical moment” on Feb. 10 was about Augusta Schmidt. Each month during church, leading up to our centennial in October, we have a brief time where we highlight some interesting story from the church’s past. I happened to mention this one at a historical committee meeting.

So, on that Sunday in February, someone got up and told everyone about Augusta’s life. She was born in 1894 and graduated from college with a nursing degree in 1927. She heard about India at a conference, and quickly felt that God wanted her to serve there. She left for India in the fall of 1927, and would serve two 7-year terms there.

She wrote that India was a beautiful land, contrary to things she had heard. The city where she worked (I believe it was Bombay, but I’m not positive) had hallmarks of a wealthy city, such as educational institutions, hotels, etc. However, it saddened her greatly to learn that 80% of the people in the city were homeless and slept on the street. No doubt this played a role in her dedication to service there.

After we learned about Augusta, the choir sang So nimm denn meine Hände — one of the songs that Augusta heard at the train station back in 1927. Imagine you were there, 81 years ago, seeing a friend off on a trip across continents, not to see her again for 7 years. Then the people there start singing a cappella

So nimm denn meine Hände
und führe mich
Bis an mein selig Ende
und ewiglich!
Ich kann allein nicht gehen,
nicht einen Schritt;
Wo du wirst gehn und stehen,
da nimm micht mit.
Take thou my hand, O Father,
and lead thou me,
until my journey endeth
Alone I will not wander
one single day.
Be thou my true companion
and with me stay.

You probably weren’t there that day in 1927, or even the day in February when the choir sang the song. I wasn’t either because I had the flu that day. But I borrowed the cassette recording of that day’s service, recorded using the best we have right now — the wrong type of microphone pointed the wrong way, onto a cassette tape that has certainly been reused way more times than anybody knows.

Click here to listen.

The choir sang the first verse in German, verse 2 in English, and the whole church joined in on verse 3. I’m told there weren’t many dry eyes in the church after that. After all, how could you keep a straight face singing “Take, then, my hand, O Father, and lead thou me, until my journey endeth eternally” right after the narrator read about Augusta’s retirement and death, saying, “there, I was surrounded by friends, but most of all, by the sovereign love of God who had been with me my entire life.”


Remember Elvera Voth, from whom I first learned this story? In 1961, she moved to Alaska. Elvera taught at several universities; founded the Anchorage Opera; directed the Alaska Festival of Music, Anchorage Boys Choir, and Alaska Chamber Singers; and there is Elvera Voth Hall at the Alaska Center for the Performing Arts.

But her best work, I think, happened after she retired and moved back to Kansas in 1995. In 1998, Elvera founded the East Hill Singers, a choir composed mainly of minimum-security prison inmates, plus volunteers from the community. Elvera has inspired so many people, taught them that they have value, that they can succeed and make themselves better. One of the said:

Can you imagine what a standing ovation feels like after being told all your life that you are worthless?

And another inmate commented:

It made me feel like maybe I’m not just being punished. I mean, I am being punished for what I did. But being in this program made me think that I can also come out… well, better … a better person.

It all makes me think. What an amazing thing these two women with love in their hearts have done to make this planet a better place. Is it even possible to do that by using weapons that kill and power to frighten?

As Elvera puts it, “many of the men in prison will be back in the community soon. I’d rather have them as a neighbor with hope in their hearts than with hate in their eyes.”

An iPod under Linux

I finally purchased my first iPod: a black 60GB iPod video model. I had been holding off for years. The iPod sounded nifty, but I just didn’t quite go there.

The thing that finally won me over was the camera connector. It lets you plug your iPod directly in to a digital camera. The iPod can download photos from the camera to its internal disk without the need for a PC. Very slick.

So anyway, we got the iPod and the camera adapter at the Apple store in Cambridge — a quick subway ride from Usenix. They were out of stock on the FM tuner, so I ordered that online.

The next step was to get the iPod working with Linux. I currently have it working with both music and video. Here’s how I did it.

New Mic Equipment

I wrote yesterday that I’m looking for a nice microphone.

I decided to go mostly with the setup suggested by The Roadhouse:

  • MXL 990 Condensor Mic ($50)
  • Behringer eurorack UB802 Mixer/Preamp ($50)

After assorted accessories (mic stand, XLR cable, pop filter, etc.) I wound up spending $143 at Musician’s Friend. I just need a 1/4″ to 1/8″ adapter cable yet from RadioShack to hook this up to the audio input on a sound card (or my iMic USB gadget).

Librivox sounds great and I look forward to volunteering.

New console gaming system

Thanks to everyone that responded to my earlier post looking for suggestions for a video game console.

I wound up choosing a Playstation 2, and the game that tipped the balance was Ico. I’ve only spent a few minutes with it, but it looks great. I especially like that it has no on-screen status displays, messages, etc. whatsoever. A refreshing change.

I am a little disappointed with the lack of 16:9 games available on any console.

Also picked up a nice Logitech wireless controller from the local GameStop. Very nice little unit.