This Space for Rent

Some days I really dislike open source software

As part of a long complex scheme I'm trying to work up to crack my spectacularly impressive needle phobia (and let me tell you it makes it *really* fun to go to the dentist; I'm pretty indifferent towards dental work, to the point of not even noticing root canal work [I had a molar detonate a few years ago, and once the dentist managed to get the needle into my mouth he was shocked to have the rest of the procedure, including pouring molten structural plastic into the tooth, go past like assembling furniture. "So, when am I going to have the root canal? Next session?" "Um, we just *did* it?" "Oh. Sorry I didn't panic over it."] but the initial application of anesthetic is spectacularly stressful) I decided that I would try to use tranquilizers and trance music to duplicate the single time I managed to get a shot without freaking out during my adult life (I was having a brain MRI to try to figure out a batch of numbness on my right side. It wasn't successful at finding anything, but after 30 minutes of lying in the MRI machine listening to it go BANG! BANG! BANG! KLUNK! KLUNK! WHAM! WHAM! WHAM! I was so relaxed that when they proposed to inject me with a bunch of indicator I was perfectly willing to let them poke holes in me and pour in all the indicator they wanted.)

So I decided I'd go out, buy an Apple iPod, pour all of my digitised music onto it, then listen to a carefully mixed batch of trance, industrial, and whalesong before and during the shot part of my next dentist's visit.

Simple enough, right? Well, not quite; when I digitized our ridiculously huge music collection a few years back, I did a lot of listening to various lossy music formats, and decided that's Ogg Vorbis format was the least horrible of the lossy formats (it was much better than the popular, and encumbered, .mp3 format. Since this was the dark days before the expiration of the .gif patents, the detail that it wasn't patent-tangled was a big plus, and at that time I expected that I'd be playing it on home-built stereo gear like the Ogg-O-Matic, so the format it used didn't matter that much.) This may have been a good idea at the time, but it meant that I had 20+ gigabytes of music that was in a format that most commercial music players (including, of course, the iPod) couldn't read.

So when I got a music player, I'd either have to find one that supported ogg vorbis (few and very far between. Ogg Vorbis is the beta format of the 2000s) or one that could be loaded with a different OS that could read the format. The iPod was fortunate enough to have two different alternative OSes available; Linux or the Rockbox player (which claimed to support Ogg Vorbis format). I've been making my living writing and maintaining open source software for about 13 years now, so I thought that with these two alternatives around I'd be able to find one that worked.

Well, iPodLinux was a bust. The 5th gen video iPod isn't supported (usb isn't supported? How the devil do you use the damned this if you can't get music to it?) But Rockbox claimed that it supported the 5th gen video iPod (the only thing I could find when we went out shopping today), so I thought I was set.

I pulled a copy of rockbox (actually two copies after the first one loaded and failed to work), used the handy installer to write it to the iPod, recoiled in horror at the thing they call a "user interface", found a couple of skins (not via the rockbox web site, which is not what I'd call intuitively designed), stuffed them onto the box, poked around enough to be comfortable with them, then dumped (s-l-o-w-l-y because I was going over the house wireless network) all of my .oggs over to the box.

After the oggs were dumped over there (I couldn't actually do anything while they were transferring, because the iPod was in "I'm a disk! I'm a disk! And you can't do anything with disks!" mode during this transfer) I poked around trying to build a playlist (with no success. The playlist maker said it was loading all of my files into a database, but after running a counter up to the number of files in the machine, it silently returned to the "create a playlist" menu item and did the same thing again when I selected it.

Okay, so I'd have to do some research on how to make that work. But I'd already been cooling my heels for quite a few hours waiting for it to load, so I was impatient to actually hear some music. So I used the file browser to pick one of my Alison Krauss album, selected one song, and sat back to listen to the music.

For about 10 seconds. And then there was a horrible SSSKKKRRRAANNKKKSSSRRRGGG sound and the iPod locked up like a drum, requiring a [menu][select] reboot to shock it back to life.

Ooooo-kay. That was bad. But I didn't know just what kind of bad it was, because rockbox had blanked the screen five seconds into play and I was doing [menu][select] on an iPod that looked as if it was a doornail.

After it restarted, I went and picked a different song, selected it, and 10 seconds later (after the screen had blanked) the exact same crashing sound happened and I was left with the corpse of my iPod.

So I looked at the rockbox bug tracking system, and found reports of .oggs crashing the system. But they were old .oggs, from a pre 1.0 version of libvorbis, and I'd encoded my files with libvorbis 1.0 (these encodings are perfectly happy to work with videolan and foobar2000, btw,) so that shouldn't be a problem, right?

So. I [menu][select]'ed the thing back to life, went into the file selector, picked a third song, and started twiddling with the controls to keep the screen lit so I could see wtf was going on. 10 seconds passed, the sky fell in, and a little "ogg decode error (something)" popped up on the screen.


Now, Ogg Vorbis might be the Beta format of the 2000s, but it's a darling of the Open Source®™© crowd, so you'd expect that one of the things that would be important to an open source®™© music player would be the ability to play that format? Well, um, no, apparently not. A second browse of the bugtrack database left me with the distinct impression that nobody involved with rockbox actually has any music encoded in the Ogg Vorbis format, and instead went to all this trouble to build an open source™®© player that poorly emulates the bog-standard iPod OS.

And it is a poor emulation. Where the Apple OS for the ipod has smoothly scrolling pages that roll left and right, this one has a series of text menus that would be perfectly at home on a V7 Unix some 27 years ago. And while the iPod uses nicely antialiased fonts, the free alternative uses blocky x-windows style fonts that would be right at home on an Atari ST some 24 years ago.

And it crashes on the file format I'm using it for.

It's not the iPod's fault that Steve Jobs is a jerk, or that it's a proprietary OS that doesn't let people wedge new codecs onto it, or that the server-side part of the file transfer protocol is the hideously bloated monstrosity that is iTunes. But it's not a particularly useful tool for me to use if I can't use the stack of digital music that took me a week (and a 14 drive cd tower) to slurp up and write to my jukebox directory.

And the open source alternatives (that aren't actually alternatives unless you've got a pathological dislike for properly designed user interfaces) are nothing but a waste of my time, energy, and stress levels. (it would be useful to have a version of iPodLinux on the shuffle, since no screen := a teeny tiny web server.)

So, instead of putting an "open source alternative" on an iPod and having a teeny tiny music player for my next dentist's appointment, I'll be loading all of my music on my Windows laptop and and using foobar2000 (it would be an inferior UI, but it plays Ogg Vorbis format music without crashing) to play trance music for me.

And the iPod? Well, the best has been wanting an iPod for a while now, so it will hopefully be seeing some use before it sneaks off to the secret clubhouse where so many of our electronic gear has hidden themselves in.

Maybe I'll take one of the big apple stickers that came with the iPod and slap it onto my Windows notebook, then tell people it's an iPod with a hyperactive pituitary gland.