Software: Audiobook Builder

Audiobook Collection Back in the days of iron men and wooden computers, I listened to audiobooks on cassette.

In 2001, I joined and listened to digitized audiobooks using my trusty yet problematic Digisette Duo-Aria; for years, my secondhand cars only had cassette players so the Digisette served me well. I preferred listening to audiobooks over music whilst commuting, traveling, or just motoring about. The other great thing about digital audiobooks was that I could listen to them anywhere, while raking the leaves or working out. Carrying my books everywhere was as important to me as carrying music everywhere was to other people. I also subscribed to Audible’s various monthly or weekly audio programs, like NPR’s Science Friday, in those dark days before podcasts.

After my second Digisette bit the dust and I entered a fraught period of unemployment, I stopped subscribing to Audible. My cars now had CD drives so I recorded BBC radio programs, burned them to CD, and listened to them in the car.

In 2009 or so, I bought an orange iPod nano as a birthday present for myself. I then began delving into the bizarre world of iTunes, how it manages music files, how it loads and plays podcasts on my iPod, etc. Audible-encoded files play very well in iTunes and with iPods of all kinds, so with my podcasts and Audible books now playable anywhere, and with a more dependable gadget, I was even happier.

Now, when I download an Audible file, it comes usually as one or up to three large files. But when I bought a few of the Doctor Who Big Finish productions via digital download, each track arrived as a separate file. Since they were originally published on CDs, and some of the productions are 2-CD sets, there could be upwards of 40-odd separate audio files to be managed. I can categorize the files as Media Kind “Audiobook” and they’ll show up with my other audiobooks. They would transfer to the iPod just fine, but the order-out-of-chaos maniac in me hated that they existed as individual files — I really wanted them to be in one or two big files, as the Audible books are.

Over the years, I had also collected many other MP3 files: stray podcasts or interviews not available from iTunes, audio programs I had bought, or coaching programs where the instruction arrived as lots of MP3 files. I had also recorded things off the web, such as this BBC2 radio documentary on the history of British comedy — four hour-long programs. It offended my sense of order to have all these files scattered in separate directories and not snugly nestled in iTunes where I could control them a little better. The iTunes interface really doesn’t handle these kinds of rogue files very well, in my experience, and I thought the whole operation could be made much easier.

To consolidate these separate files into a few merged files, I had been using the Join Together script from the amazing Doug’s AppleScripts for iTunes site. It combined individual files into audiobook files and worked fine, but I wanted more of a standalone app.

After poking around, I tried out and bought Audiobook Builder from the App Store (link). It’s a great little app that takes all those separate audio files, merges them into iTunes audiobook files (.aab files), and deposits them into iTunes’ Books area, where they belong — NOT with the music! This makes the files much easier to manage.

One of the things I like about the app is that I can throw a ginormous amount of files at it — such as a directory of 36 MP3 files totaling 1.1 GB — and it will not crash or fall over. In this example, it will process all those files to produce three large audiobook files, each suffixed with “Part 1, Part 2,” and so on. The largest files will run about 11 hours each. Now, the process is slow on my 2007-era MacBook, I’ll grant you. It can take up to 45 minutes for it to chew through a gigabyte of audio files. That’s OK for me if I get the files I want.

I can then delete or archive or offload those original files to other media so they don’t take up room on my hard drive. Order! Contained chaos!

If you have have audiobook CDs, it’s simplicity itself to have Audiobook Builder compile them into proper iTunes audiobook files. The help file is good and, after experimenting with some small jobs — particularly when it comes to creating and naming chapters (if you want to do that) — its mysteries are soon revealed.

One tip: I like having an image of the book or speaker or interview subject as part of the file. The simplest way to get that image applied to your new audiobook is to do this:

  1. Go to Google Images and enter the name of the book or person.
  2. Select and copy the image from your browser.
  3. In Audiobook Builder, after you’ve created the project file, left-click in the box that says “Drag Cover Artwork Here.”
  4. Press Command-V to paste the image from the clipboard.

You can also use this method to copy images from your existing audiobooks to new ones you create. Easy-peasy.

Update: I should have added another important reason why I prefer the audiobook format over separate files: you can stop anywhere in the file and pick up later where you left off. With audiobooks, I can interrupt the recording, listen to other stuff while I work, go back to the audiobook when it's time to commute home, select "Resume", and I carry on listening from the previous stopping point. To do that with individual tracks categorized as Music, you have to manually select the files and activate the bookmarking capability.

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Software: MacBreakz and Joe Ergo

You. You who are reading this blog post.

You have already spent an ungodly number of hours sitting down, hunched forward, staring unblinking into this screen.

Do we really need your computer to remind you that you need a break every now and then? Sadly, yes.

There are many software-based solutions out there for Mac users, I'm sure, but here are the two I use.

MacBreakz (site | YouTube) is the more sophisticated of the two. I used this software extensively when I was spending 4-6 hours a day writing my thesis. It offers a good variety of stretches and ergonomic tips. It also monitors the intensity of your activity; if you're mousing around a lot or furiously typing to beat a deadline, it will pop up a reminder to take a micro-break of a few seconds. It nags because it loves. It's more expensive ($25) than most shareware, but worth it if you spend a lot of time on the 'puter.

Joe Ergo (App Store) is lighter weight, but also much cheaper ($2). Set a time for when you want to receive a reminder to take a break and then minimize the window. Joe Ergo offers fewer stretches, but that's OK -- it's the break that counts. I set the interval at 25 minutes (yes, like the Pomodoro). If I'm only on the MikeBook for an hour or so on a weekday night, then I'll use Joe Ergo.

I guarantee you will be surprised at how swiftly the interval you set passes and how irritating you will find these reminders. Starting the software and setting the interval is your calm, wise self looking out for the impulsive, in-the-moment, future self who wants to keep clicking those YouTube links until well past your bedtime.

In addition to giving my body a break, I also want to give my eyes a break. One of my eye doctors said that, when you stare into the distance, the muscles that focus your eyes relax. But when you focus your eyes onto a bright screen only a foot or so away from your face, the muscles tense up and "go all out like a Masseratti." Both programs above remind you to do eye exercises as well.

I also put wetting drops in my eyes when I take my break. My cataract doctor recommended keeping a wetting agent of some kind nearby and to use it often. He said he was horrified to see his wife working on her laptop and not blinking for minutes at a time. As he explained it, when the eye is moist, its surface is smooth as a marble. But when you stop blinking, the eye's surface begins drying out here and there and the surface gets rougher. The result is more refraction of light, glare, and squinting.

I recommend GenTeal liquid gel drops; I keep a bottle by my monitor at work and at home. It's tough to remember to do it regularly, but your eyes will thank you.


Don't overthink it (Installment #247)

I volunteered to do a tedious job at work -- copy/paste about maybe 200-400 parameters scattered throughout a group of FORTRAN files. The parameters may be in one of maybe 3 different formats. Also, the parameters came with multiline comments (with each commented line starting with !), and sometimes just big wodges of comments on their own that serve as documentation. The goal was to transform these snippets into something our customer could scan using Excel.

I volunteered to do it because it made no sense for a highly paid developer to do such a menial job; also, I kind of like taking on little challenges like this, developing a new technique or learn some new tools, and seeing how quickly I can rip through them. Then it's just a matter of putting on the headphones, pressing a few keys repetitively so the computer does most of the work, and voila.

I realized that my initial solution for this would be overly complicated, as it always is, and that the exploration process as I groped my way toward simpledom would be haphazard, as it always is. I thought "How can I use Applescript to parse the text? Should I just copy the fragments into Word and use Word's formatting functions? Should I use a text editor with some text formatting Services?" (DevonThink makes a killer set of text-formatting services available to Mac users for free; DevonThink not required to use them.)

I spent about 5 hours over the weekend scarfing up text-formatting Applescript code, messing with text editors, messing with Automator, messing with some copied fragments that I was using as my test case, messing with Applescript in Word (which adds its own complications), and seeing possible workflows getting more complicated.

Sometime around Monday evening my brain settled down and I decided on my workflow:

  1. Copy each parameter and comment into a Word file.
  2. Fix the formatting of each snippet to remove the extra lines, excess ! marks, and insert tab marks judiciously to make importing into Excel easier.
  3. Transform the tab-delimited text into a table using Word's Table>Convert>Text to Table command.
  4. Copy and paste the tables into Excel and format accordingly.

The intent of this workflow brings in what I've mentioned before, about batching similar actions together. With this workflow, I could check each line off as done and move fully to the next set of operations. I could do each set of operations more quickly and efficiently than transitioning from 1 to 2 to 3 to 4 within each file.

#2 gave me the headache, of course, and is where I spent the bulk of my think time. I had on blinders as I was sure I could use some sort of Applescript in Word that would reformat everything in one go, without needing multiple passes. And because I thought it could be done, I thought I had to do it that way.

However, I had set myself a time limit for the R&D, and I had passed it. Time to drop that all-in-one solution. As I looked at the line fragments, I noticed that the bulk of the work would be done in the first line of each multi-line fragment. OK, let's start there.

That shift brought me back to the Agile programming maxim of, "Do the simplest thing that could possibly work." This is when I turned back to Keyboard Maestro; it's not as powerful as QuicKeys (or my beloved Macro Express in the Windows world), but it's quick, dependable, and does the job. In this case, I was using it as a robot typing the keyboard, but that keeps it simple.

That's when I cobbled together my workflow for #2:

  • With the text in Word, select the lines that will be reformatted.
  • Run Joe Kissel's great Clean Up Text script (scroll down the page to read about how to coy and paste his code into the Applescript editor). This script removes all spaces and tabs and removes multiple line breaks, making each fragment a unified paragraph. Kissell's article also tells you how to assign a keystroke to a script.
  • For a multi-line parameter with comments, the bulk of the delete symbols/insert tab action happens in the first line of the reformatted paragraph. So, position the cursor on the first line, and run the Keyboard Maestro macro (assigned to the F19 key) that manually moves the cursor, deletes a character, inserts a tab, etc. and then stops. Because the macro is working within Word, I added keystrokes to take advantage of Word's keyboard-based cursor movements.
  • For the remainder of the ! comment marks now studding the reformatted paragraph, select the entire document and use a simple Word find-and-replace to replace all the ! with " ".

Hm. Well, that still looks pretty complicated, doesn't it? But it's faster than me burning hours to get my head deep into Applescript territory, with delimiters, variables, if-thens, and so on.

The other advantage of this workflow is that this should cover about 80% of the code I'll have to reformat. I now have a base set of actions that I can clone and customize to handle the exceptions.

Anyway, the lesson as always: don't overthink it. Keep it simple.

Kindle for Mac

In late August, I had bought Timothy Pychyl's e-book The Procrastinator's Digest via Xlibris for use with Adobe Digital Editions. (I subscribe to Pychyl's iProcrastinate podcast.) However, trying to get Adobe Digital Editions set up and registered on my MacBook was a pain, and then my credit card number was stolen suspiciously close to the Xlibris purchase. Then, over the weekend (as I was procrastinating on my research project and, thus, decided that reading his e-book would be nourishing for me) I could not for the life of me find the file that I had downloaded.

I saw that Pychyl's e-book was available on Kindle and also happened to see in the margin of the book's Amazon page that Amazon is releasing Kindle software (free!) for other platforms -- including the Mac. The install went great and I was able to quickly download Pychyl's book into the Kindle software. Whilst there, I also downloaded a few of the free e-books, just to play. Everything went very smoothly.
And no, I did not start reading the procrastination book. I had spent so much time looking for my original download and playing with the Kindle software, that time demanded I move on to other chores. Maybe later.