Sunday, April 08, 2007

CalTrain, iPod Hacking, and the Tylwyth Teg

Last Christmas, my employer gave us all iPod Shuffles as a thank-you for a good year. It came pre-installed with the "greatest hits" of 7 years of company morale-boosters. That was fun once, but pretty soon I wanted to put my own stuff on there.

You're supposed to use iTunes for that, but after several years of using iTunes, lately I've found that as this software evolves, it gets less and less useful. Lately I've been using a barebones PC music player program called FooBar on my office PC, and between this and the fact that I really had trouble figuring out how to get the tracks I wanted onto the Shuffle using iTunes (what happened to your intuitive interfaces, Apple?), it ended up sitting on the shelf for a while.

So finally I decided to try bypassing iTunes and using it as a generic portable MP3 player. It turns out you can do it, but it's not quite as convenient as with other brands--you can plug the Shuffle into your PC's USB port, copy MP3 files onto it, but it won't recognize them until you build a special index file.

You're supposed to use iTunes for this, but various hackers have put together alternatives. There are apparently some pretty nice ones if you're running Linux, and although I'm pretty Unix-centered at work, I haven't quite "gone penguin" to the extent of using it as my main desktop OS.

So here's a pretty simple way to do it from a Window's PC.

  • Download the Shuffle-DB builder "rebuild_db" from
  • The instructions tell you to install Python and do lots of other stuff. This will let you use the latest version, which is cross-platform and no doubt has lots of neat features, but you can ignore it all--just open the zip archive you downloaded and look for rebuild_db.exe. This is a standalone Windows program that doesn't do much, and is no longer supported, but hey, it works.
  • Plug your Shuffle into your PC find it under "My Computer", where it should look like a disk drive. Copy rebuild_db.exe onto it (you don't have to put the program onto the Shuffle, but if you do that, then when you run it, it the Shuffle will automatically be the "current directory" and it will find your music without any extra help).
  • Copy MP3 (and I suppose other formats) audio files onto your Shuffle, delete old ones, whatever. Whenever you're done, double click on rebuild_db.exe. It will run (in a DOS window) and rebuild the track db so that the Shuffle knows what's actually on it.

So what are the Tylwyth Teg? That's the "Fairy Folk" in Welsh, which I'm using my Shuffle to brush up on, by listening to folktales, on the train.