Wednesday, December 28, 2005

How to use your MP3 player for cool stuff ( first take - be merciful :) )

OK, here is an example of what geeks might do when they have too much time in their hands ... which normally is never, but small miracles sometimes take place :)

Normally I do NOT consider any Apple product as "cool" but rather as an overpriced gizmo and paying for one is VERY low on my priority list (unless it will help me make more money than I invested) - but I got an iPod shuffle as a gift and while the lack of a display makes it a very poor choice as an MP3 player the "form factor" is almost OK for an "MP3 player and USB stick" ... so the first challenge was to actually have something useful on it without totally losing the (poor) ability to "shuffle the shuffle" as some presidents might say :))

The shuffle is visible to most modern computers as a small USB disk drive (if correctly initialized) - I never use iTunes but instead the open-source iPod shuffle Database Builder (which is a very small - less than 32 kbytes - pair of programs that you keep on your shuffle and which you run once after you manually add MP3 files on it) - so the idea is to keep the FAT32 format and just add some small things that could make it a nice computer mini-rescue tool - in my case the very first two things that came to my attention are called (maybe cryptic for some people) GRUB and DSL.

GRUB is apparently standing for GRand Unified Bootloader - the home page is here - I like to think of it more like a VERY, VERY SMALL operating system who's main target in life is only to start another (maybe bigger) operating system but at the same time it can also replicate itself - or you can think of it as a multiboot loader which is very powerful and also does have a "direct command line" - GRUB will only eat around 250 kbytes from the 512 Mbytes of the shuffle and will not only be very handy for the second part of the project but can also be used to boot and rescue some other OS installation (maybe a Linux) that became inaccessible after (re)installing another (not so friendly with others) operating system that for the moment should remain unnamed :))

The second part of the mini-project is Damn Small Linux - this one can almost be called a huge operating system since at 50 Mbytes will take about 200 times more space than GRUB - but only until you realize that many other full operating systems will take at least 100 times more than DSL !

Damn Small Linux does have a full GUI and nice tools (including not one but two web browser, one of which is Mozilla Firefox) but also a lot of lower-level stuff that can help a geek do his magic when something goes horribly wrong with your computer :))

Since those pages should serve more as a way to stimulate thinking rather than providing step-by-step detailed instructions I will only mention that first I have saved all the existing iPod hidden files (which might be used to restore things at a later time), and then from an existing Linux installation I have placed GRUB first stage into the partition table and the rest into the FAT32 partition from the shuffle (also made the partition active - just in case). I have also copied the large file called knoppix into a folder called knoppix and two other DSL files - the Linux kernel called linux24 and the initial ramdisk minirt24.gz - and I have also edited a menu.lst file adding something like:

default 0
timeout 15

title DSL
kernel /boot/linux24 noacpi noapm frugal
initrd /boot/minirt24.gz

If you have a larger MP3 USB drive (like for instance a nice Archos XS202) you can use a much larger knoppix file from the original KNOPPIX distribution and the newer 2.6 kernel with a lot more drivers inside! If you really hate MP3 players and you would like a slim USB stick (or just if you would like to support DSL) than you can also get one already prepared !!!

In the end I have lost only around 10% of the capacity of a 512 Mbytes iPod shuffle but I can now boot from it on many systems and still listen to some music - maybe in the 50's geeks were carrying screwdrivers but now they have USB sticks :))

Next time I'll try to say some words about running OSX86 and Vista on the same AMD64 system and how sometimes an USB MP3 player can help you with that ... or not :))