Category Archives: Apple

Review of reviews of iPad reviews

Since we’re talking about the third generation of iPads, it seems silly to stop at the “review of reviews” level and we should be meta-to-the-cube. So here’s a review of reviews of iPad reviews. Because no-one asked for it.

Forbes and Barron’s reviews of reviews are pretty much indistinguishable from one another and cover the same original reviews (with the only difference that Forbes adds a quick quote from John Gruber). And of course, since they both cater to people who see significance in daily stock prices, they both end by marveling that the Apple stock flirted today with the $600 mark.

Om Malik’s review of reviews wins the “most obvious laziness” prize (in a category that invites laziness), but if you really want to know ahead of time how many words each review will inflict on you then he’s got the goods.

Daniel Ionescu’s review of reviews for PCWorld is the most readable of the lot and manages to find a narrative flow among the links and quotes.

The CNET review of reviews comes a close second and organizes the piece by feature rather than by reviewer. Which makes it more a “review-based review” than a “review of reviews” if you’re into that kind of distinctions.

The Washington Post’s review of reviews just slaps quote after quote and can be safely avoided.

You know what you have to do now, don’t you? No, I don’t mean write something original, are you crazy? I mean produce a review of reviews of reviews of reviews, of course. This is 2012.

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Filed under Apple, Articles, Off-topic

The war on RSS

If the lords of the Internet have their way, the days of RSS are numbered.


John Gruber was right, when pointing to Dan Frakes’ review of the Mail app in Mountain Lion, to highlight the fact that the application drops support for RSS (he calls it an “interesting omission”, which is both correct and understated). It is indeed the most interesting aspect of the review, even though it’s buried at the bottom of the article; Along with the mention that RSS support appears to also be removed from Safari.

[side note: here is the correct link for the Safari information; Dan Frakes’ article mistakenly points to a staging server only available to MacWorld employees.]

It’s not just John Gruber and I who think that’s significant. The disappearance of RSS is pretty much the topic of every comment on the two MacWorld articles (for Mail and Safari). That’s heartening. It’s going to take a lot of agitation to reverse the trend for RSS.

The Mountain Lion setback, assuming it’s not reversed before the OS ships, is just the last of many blows to RSS.


Every twitter profile used to exhibit an RSS icon with the URL of a feed containing the user’s tweets. It’s gone. Don’t assume that’s just the result of a minimalist design because (a) the design is not minimalist and (b) the feed URL is also gone from the page metadata.

The RSS feeds still exist (mine is but to find them you have to know the userid of the user. In other words, knowing that my twitter username is @vambenepe is not sufficient, you have to know that the userid for @vambenepe is 18518601. Which is not something that you can find on my profile page. Unless, that is, you are willing to wade through the HTML source and look for this element:

<div data-user-id="18518601" data-screen-name="vambenepe">

If you know the Twitter API you can retrieve the RSS URL that way, but neither that nor the HTML source method is usable for most people.

That’s too bad. Before I signed up for Twitter, I simply subscribed to the RSS feeds of a few Twitter users. It got me hooked. Obviously, Twitter doesn’t see much value in this anymore. I suspect that they may even see a negative value, a leak in their monetization strategy.

[Updated on 2013/3/1: Unsurprisingly, Twitter is pulling the plug on RSS/Atom entirely.]


It used to be that if any page advertised an RSS feed in its metadata, Firefox would show an RSS icon in the address bar to call your attention to it and let you subscribe in your favorite newsreader. At some point, between Firefox 3 and Firefox 10, this disappeared. Now, you have to launch the “view page info” pop-up and click on “feeds” to see them listed. Or look for “subscribe to this page” in the “bookmarks” menu. Neither is hard, but the discoverability of the feeds is diminished. That’s especially unfortunate in the case of sites that don’t look like blogs but go the extra mile of offering relevant feeds. It makes discovering these harder.


Google has done a lot for RSS, but as a result it has put itself in position to kill it, either accidentally or on purpose. Google Reader is a nice tool, but, just like there has not been any new webmail after GMail, there hasn’t been any new hosted feed reader after Google Reader.

If Google closed GMail (or removed email support from it), email would survive as a communication mechanism (removing email from GMail is hard to imagine today, but keep in mind that Google’s survival doesn’t require GMail but they appear to consider it a matter of life or death for Google+ to succeed). If, on the other hand, Google closed Reader, would RSS survive? Doubtful. And Google has already tweaked Reader to benefit Google+. Not, for now, in a way that harms its RSS support. But whatever Google+ needs from Reader, Google+ will get.

[Updated 2013/3/13: Adios Google Reader. But I’m now a Google employee and won’t comment further.]

As far as the Chrome browser is concerned, I can’t find a way to have it acknowledge the presence of feeds in a page at all. Unlike Firefox, not even “view page info” shows them; It appears that the only way is to look for the feed URLs in the HTML source.


I don’t use Facebook, but for the benefit of this blog post I did some actual research and logged into my account there. I looked for a feed on a friend’s page. None in sight. Unlike Twitter, who started with a very open philosophy, I’m guessing Facebook never supported feeds so it’s probably not a regression in their case. Just a confirmation that no help should be expected from that side.

[update: in fact, Facebook used to offer RSS and killed it too.]

Not looking good for RSS

The good news is that there’s at least one thing that Facebook, Apple, Twitter and (to a lesser extent so far) Google seem to agree on. The bad news is that it’s that RSS, one of the beacons of openness on the internet, is the enemy.

[side note: The RSS/Atom question is irrelevant in this context and I purposedly didn’t mention Atom to not confuse things. If anyone who’s shunning RSS tells you that if it wasn’t for the RSS/Atom confusion they’d be happy to use a standard syndication format, they’re pulling your leg; same thing if they say that syndication is “too hard for users”.]


Filed under Apple, Big picture, Everything, Facebook, Google, Protocols, Social networks, Specs, Standards, Twitter

Why I don’t use iTunes metadata

I am taking quite a beating in the comments section of my previous post. Apparently I am a soon-to-be-crestfallen old man with OCD (if I combine Kelstar’s comment with the one from “Mr. D.”). Thankfully there are also messages from fellow Luddites who support my alternative lifechoice.

The object of the scorn I’m getting? Nothing to do with the Automator scripts I shared (since I am new to Automator I was hoping to get some feedback/correction/suggestions on that). It’s all about the use case that lead me to Automator in the first place, my refusal to rely on iTunes metadata to organize my music collection.

Look, I’m a software engineer. My employer (Oracle) knows a thing or two about structured data. I work in systems management, which is heavily model-driven. As an architect I really care about consistent modeling and not overloading data fields. I’m also a fan of Semantic Technologies. I know proper metadata is the right way to go. As a system designer, that is, I know it; any software I design is unlikely to rely on naming conventions in file names.

But as a user, I have other priorities.

As a user, my goal is not to ensure that the application can be maintained, supported and evolved. My goal is to protect the data. And I am very dubious of format-specific metadata (and even more of application-specific metadata) in that context, at least for data (like music and photos) that I plan to keep for the long term.

I realize that ID3 metadata is not iTunes specific, but calling it a “standard” that’s “not gonna change” as another commenter, Vega, does is pretty generous (I’m talking as someone who actually worked on standards in the last decade).

Standard or not, here are a few of the reasons why I don’t think format-specific metadata is a good way to organize my heirloom data and why I prefer to rely on directory names (I use the artist name for my music directories, and yyyymmdd-description for photos, as in 20050128-tahoe-ski-trip).

[Side note: as you can see, even though I trust the filesystem more than format-specific metadata I don’t even fully trust it and stubbornly avoid spaces in file and especially directory names.]

Some of the pitfalls of format-specific metadata:

  • Metadata standards may guarantee that the same fields will be present, but not that they will be interpreted in the same way. As proven by the fact that my MP3 files carry widely inconsistent metadata values depending on their provenance (e.g. “Beattles” vs. “The Beattles” vs “Beattles, The”).
  • I can read and edit file names from any programming language. Other forms of metadata may or may not be accessible.
  • I don’t have to download/open the file to read the file name. I know exactly which files I want to FTP just by browsing the remote directories.
  • I often have other types of files in the same directory. Especially in my photo directories, which usually contain JPEGs but may include some images in raw format or short videos (AVI, MPEG, MOV…). If I drop them in the 20050128-tahoe-ski-trip directory it describes all of them without having to use the right metadata format for each file type.
  • File formats die. To keep your data alive, you have to occasionally move from one to the other. Image formats change. Sound formats change. The filename doesn’t have to change (other than, conventionally, the extension). Yes, you still have to convert the actual content but keeping the key metadata in file or directory name makes it one less thing that can get lost in translation.
  • Applications have a tendency to muck with metadata without asking you. For example, some image manipulation applications may strip metadata before releasing an image to protect you from accidental disclosure. On the other hand, applications (usually) know better than to muck with directory names without asking.
  • You don’t know when you’re veering into application-specific metadata. I see many fields in iTunes which don’t exist in ID3v2 (and even less in ID3v1) and no indication, for the user, of which are part of ID3 (and therefore somewhat safer) and which are iTunes-specific. It’s very easy to get locked in application-specific metadata without realizing it.

[In addition to the issues with format-specific metadata listed above, application-specific metadata has many more, including the fact that the application may (will) disappear and that, usually, the metadata is not attached to the data files. That kind of metadata is a no-starter for long-term data.]

So what do I give up by not using proper metadata?

  • I give up richness. But for photo and videos I just care about the date and a short description which fit nicely in the directory name. For music I only care about the artist, which again fits in the directory name (albums are meaningless to me).
  • I give up the ability to have the organization of my data reflected in metadata-driven tools (if, like iTunes, they refuse to consider the filesystem structure as meaningful). Or, rather than giving it up, I would say it makes it harder. But either there is a way to automatically transfer the organization reflected in my directories to the right metadata (as I do in the previous post for iTunes) or there isn’t and then I definitely don’t want to have anything to do with software that operates on locked-away metadata.
  • I also give up advanced features that use the more exotic metadata fields. But I am not stripping any metadata away. If it happens to all be there in my files, set correctly and consistently, then I can use the feature. If it isn’t (and it usually isn’t) then that piece of metadata hasn’t reached the level of ecosystem maturity that makes it useful to me. I have no interest in manually fixing it and I just ignore it.

I’m not an audiophile. I’m not a photographer. I have simple needs. You may have more advanced use cases which justify the risk of relying on format-specific metadata. To me, the bargain is not worth it.

I’m not saying I’m right. I’m not saying I’m not a grumpy old man. I’m just saying I have my reasons to be a grumpy old man who clutches his filesystem. And we’ll see who, of Mr. D. and me, is crestfallen first.


Filed under Apple, Everything, Modeling, Off-topic, Standards

MacOS Automator workflow to populate iTunes info from file path

Just in case someone has the same need, here is an Automator workflow to update the metadata of a music (or video) file based on the file’s path (for non-Mac users, Automator is a graphical task automation tool in MacOS).

Here the context: I recently bought my first Mac, a home desktop. That’s where my MP3 reside now, carefully arranged in folders by artist name. I made sure to plop them in the default “Music” folder, to makeĀ  iTunes happy. Or so I thought, until I actually started iTunes and saw it attempt to copy every single MP3 file in its own directory. Pretty stupid, but easily fixed via a config setting. The next issue is that, within iTunes, you cannot organize your music based on the directory structure. All it cares about is the various metadata fields. You can’t even display the file name or the file path in the main iTunes window.

Leave it to Apple to create a Unix operating system which hates files.

The obvious solution is to dump iTunes and look for a better music player. But there’s another problem.

Apparently music equipment manufacturers have given up on organizing your digital music and surrendered that function to Apple (several models let you plug an SD card or a USB key, but they don’t even try to give you a decent UI to select the music from these drives). They seem content to just sell amplifiers and speakers, connected to an iPod doc. Strange business strategy, but what do I know. So I ended up having to buy an iPod Classic for my living room, even though I have no intention of ever taking it off the dock.

And the organization in the iPod is driven by the same metadata used by iTunes, so even if I don’t want to use iTunes on the desktop I still have to somehow transfer the organization reflected in my directory structure into Apple’s metadata fields. At least the artist name; I don’t care for albums, albums mean nothing. And of course I’m not going to do this manually over many gigabytes of data.

The easy way would be to write a Python script since apparently some kind souls have written Python modules to manipulate iTunes metadata.

But I am still in my learn-to-use-MacOS phase, so I force myself to use the most MacOS-native solution, as a learning experience. Which took me to Automator and to the following workflow:

OK, I admit it’s not fully MacOS-native, I had to escape to a shell to run a regex; I couldn’t find a corresponding Automator action.

I run it as a service, which can be launched either on a subfolder of “Music” (e.g. “Leonard Cohen”) or on a set of files which are in one of these subfolders. It just picks the name of the subfolder (“Leonard Cohen” in this case) and sets that as the “artist” in the file’s metadata.

Side note: this assumes you Music folder is “/Users/vbp/Music”, you should replace “vbp” with your account user name.

For the record, there is a utility that helps you debug workflows. It’s “/System/Library/CoreServices/pbs”. I started the workflow by making it apply to “iTunes files” and later changed it to work on “files and folders”. And yet it didn’t show up in the service list for folders. Running “pbs -debug” showed that my workflow logged NSSendFileTypes=(“”); no matter what. Looks like a bug to me, so I just created a new workflow with the right input type from the start and that fixed it.

Not impressed with iTunes, but I got what I needed.


I’ve improved it a bit, in two ways. First I’ve generalized the regex so that it can be applied to files in any location and it will pick up the name of the parent folder. Second, I’m now processing files one by one so that they don’t all have to be in the same folder (the previous version grabs the folder name once and applies it to all files, the new version retrieves the folder name for each file). This way, you can just select your Music folder and run this service on it and it will process all the files.

It’s pretty inefficient and the process can take a while if you have lots of files. You may want to add another action at the end (e.g. play a sound or launch the calculator app) just to let you know that it’s done.

In the new version, you need to first create this workflow and save it (as a workflow) to a file:

Then you create this service which references the previous workflow (here I named it “assign artist based on parent folder name”). This service is what you invoke on the folders and files:

I haven’t yet tried running more than one workflow at a time to speed things up. I assume the variables are handled as local variables, not global, but it was too late at night to open this potential can of worms.


Filed under Apple, Automation, Everything, Off-topic