And then I realize: The way for me to be better than my parents isn’t to do my taxes on time. That would be nice. But really I need to not give myself choices about how I spend my time. The more choices I have throughout the day, the more decisions I make, the more willpower I need, the more I get distracted from paying attention to the building blocks of a fulfilling life: gratitude, meaning, and ritual.

Being productive means simplifying how you use your time. Which in turn, simplifies your life.

Review: Elf, a reminder service to avoid overdue library fees

The Durham Country Library – which is a great organization I support with patronage and donations of both books and money –  does not notify me when books are either coming due or are overdue. This can be inconvenient when life gets hectic or I forget that the checkout period for DVDs is different from that for books. If you don’t have a system set up to remind you about such things, then it’s all to easy to forget when they’re due. library card found in pittsburgh pennsylvania

Enter Elf (from its About page):

Elf is a web-based and email tool for library users to keep track of their library borrowings. Elf is like a personal assistant, whose task is to help with keeping track of what one has on loan from the library.

Designed with the busy or avid library user in mind, Elf is ideal for families with multiple library cards or for individuals (writers, researchers, students, readers, etc.) who have cards from different libraries.

Elf makes it easier to keep track of what’s due, overdue or ready for pickup from one or more library accounts. Users have the option to consolidate their library accounts into one account if they wish. This account is checked everyday and email notices are sent when items are coming due, overdue or when holds are ready for pickup. As well, get up-to-date realtime information by browser.

How many people knew about Elf before I did? Probably everybody, I bet. And not a word from any of you! I only discovered it by happenstance, through the weekly Back to Work newsletter. 

Durham happened to be in its list of libraries, and I eagerly signed up. I set the level of advance notice I want to receive (3 days) and provided my cell number so I could be texted also. Elf also offers RSS and iCal feeds if you prefer to be notified that-a-way.

It’s a terrific service, it’s free, and it’s simple to figure out. If you use your library card a lot, you should check out (heh) Elf.

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The Conet Project

http://www.irdial.com/dorchester_antenna_closeup.jpg I must have heard about the shortwave numbers stations years ago on this Lost and Found Sound recording for NPR’s All Things Considered (original page, YouTube version).

The story was strange, the recorded sounds spooky, and the low-fidelity of the shortwave signal making them sound even spookier, as if other sounds and voices are edging their way into the transmissions. (I guess in this context, “spooky” has more than one meaning.)

It seemed – and still seems – so weird that in this day and age, when so much of the world is gridded and mapped and monitored that there are still spy organizations (for lack of a more correct term) out there doing this: playing a tune or song to alert whoever is receiving the transmission and then reciting a series of numbers, letters, or words. We don’t know who is sending the transmission, who is receiving it, or what the numbers mean.

And this is happening everywhere, it seems, not just the old Cold War countries. When I listen to the recordings of these stations, I feel an eerie tingle creeping up the back of my neck. There is still mystery in the world, still things that do not want to be known. I read somewhere that the best way to listen to these recordings is late at night, with the lights off. That sounds right.

The Conect Project has 5 CDs worth of these recordings collected from all over the world and over a long period of time. The first four CDs worth of recordings – collected over 20 years through 1997 – can be heard and downloaded for free via archive.org. Also free is the 80-page CD booklet in PDF, describing the project, the shortwave stations, and every track. You can also download the free sound files and PDF or order the CDs from Conet’s official site (which offers links to other sites on the numbers mystery).

The first four CDs are available as a digital file from Audible.com (for the exceedingly odd price of $2.09) or from Audible’s parent company Amazon for only 95 cents! Inexplicable.

Other resources: Wikipedia links to The Conet Project and Numbers stations, and the results of a Google search on “the shortwave numbers mystery.”

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Domestic Comedy

Exchange between me and Liz as we drove past Ravenscroft school. ME. That's where Matthew did his play.

LIZ. Yeah, that musical about Noah's ark. He was Ham.

ME. (Pause. ) (Seriously.) He was doing his best.

LIZ. (Pause.) No! His character! His character's name was Ham! He was the son of Noah!

 

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 Audible.com 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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