All posts by brian

Downcast – A Great Podcast App for iPhone

Downcast is an excellent podcast app for iPhones; it’s much better than the Apple Podcast app.

Related: See my list of top technical podcasts I’m currently following.

When I first started listening to podcasts on my first MP3 player (a Creative Zen Touch), the software was very basic. I was tracking my podcast RSS feeds in Bloglines, so I wrote a Bloglines enclosure download script which I would run periodically on my Windows desktop, then use Windows Media Player to bulk copy everything to the Zen Touch.

For today’s iPhone users, there’s no excuse to not have a great podcast player. You’ve got the network connectivity, the audio player, and plenty of storage. Apple’s own Podcast application leaves a lot to be desired. It provides only basic functionality and doesn’t seem to ever be improved upon by Apple. Just check this Google search for Apple Podcast App – the top 5 results tell the story:

Google Search Results

Searching for “Apple Podcast App” shows some unflattering results

Instead, I recommend buying Downcast (US $1.99). I’ve recently switched and have my dozen or so tech podcasts up and running:

Downcast app screenshot

Screenshot of Downcast main screen with several podcasts loaded and ready

What makes Downcast so great? This is my short list of favorite features:

  • Automatic refresh & downloads. Configurable to only download over wi-fi.
  • Skip forward & backward by remote control commands (the “now playing” view), or by shaking the phone.
  • Adjustable playback speed (1.5X, 2X, etc.). I’ve set this to 1.5X for most podcasts and it’s very listenable without making everyone’s voices sound funny.
  • Settings galore. Possibly more than an iPhone aficionado would like to see, but I like the detailed level of control. In addition to global settings, you also have settings for individual podcasts (like the playback speed).
  • Export feeds to OPML. Useful for backing up your current subscription list, and if you want to follow along with an RSS reader.

I have not played with everything yet, including iCloud Sync which is supposed to help when listening over multiple devices.

Finally, I have one feature suggestion: an option to email the “show notes” from each podcast episode you’ve listened to. It could be pretty simple to add, and would really make the whole flow of listening to podcasts much better. I don’t know of any podcast or similar app that does this, so to the maker’s of Downcast, here’s your chance!

Converting HTML to Text or Markdown

I’m working on a documentation project where I might need to convert some existing HTML pages back into text or Markdown format for the new system. Rather than manually editing the HTML source, I’m testing with a couple different ways to script it automatically. In the examples below, I’m using a documentation page for our GoToMeeting API method Get Meetings.


Lynx is an open-source text web browser that is usually present on Linux machines and can be installed for Mac and Windows. I’ve used it in the past to see how web pages will appear to search engines or for accessibility testing. In both cases, you can quickly tell whether your text is sufficiently communicating your content.

For the case of saving web pages in text format, Lynx also has a command-line option “-dump”:

$ lynx -dump > example.txt

In my test case I couldn’t convince Lynx to fetch an SSL page, so I download it with Curl and pipe it into Lynx:

$ curl --silent | lynx -dump -stdin > lynx.txt

Here's a sample section of the output:

Response Type
scheduled A string "true" to get all future meetings.
history A string "true" to get past meetings within date range.
startDate If history=true, required start of date range, in ISO8601 UTC
endDate If history=true, required end of date range, in ISO8601 UTC


Pandoc is an open-source "universal document converter" which understands (and can convert between) about two dozen different formats. It's well suited for writing a document in a primary source, then converting to other formats for different publishing options.

The option we'll use here is Pandoc's ability to convert from HTML to Markdown, for example:

$ pandoc -s -r html -o

For my page, I use the same trick as above because Pandoc can't connect to SSL directly:

$ curl --silent | pandoc -s -r html -o

And here's the sample output of the same section as above:

### URL
### Method
### Response Type
### Parameters
**scheduled** A string "true" to get all future meetings.
**history** A string "true" to get past meetings within date range.
**startDate** If history=true, required start of date range, in ISO8601
UTC format.
**endDate** If history=true, required end of date range, in ISO8601 UTC


Both of these options do a pretty decent job of converting HTML into text or Markdown format. Pandoc seems slightly better in terms of getting to Markdown format, but I would need to run some more samples to see how much manual editing would be needed after.

I'm also going to play a bit more with Aaron Schwartz's Html2Text. In my quick test, it appeared to have a problem with malformed HTML so I need to do some further testing with it.

Tech Advent Calendars

As in year’s past, several tech communities are running Advent calendars during the month of December:

I have a combined RSS feed (created with Yahoo! Pipes) that picks up all of these advent calendars: (Yahoo Pipe source).

Movable Type 5.2 on Mac OS X

It’s been a while since my notes about local development copies of Movable Type and WordPress on XAMPP – a local LAMP stack that runs on Windows. I’m still using both blogging platforms and wanted to update the steps now that I’m doing most of my work on a Mac laptop.

The steps below walk through the installation of a local copy of Movable Type 5.2 on Mac OS X.

These instructions assume you already have MySQL, PHP, Perl, and Apache installed. I believe most of these are present in stock OS X installations, but in my case I’ve upgraded everything manually to more recent versions:

  • Mac OS X 10.6.8
  • PHP 5.3.15
  • Perl 5.10.0
  • Apache 2.2.22
  • MySQL 5.5.17

As an alternative, you could use MAMP which is a packaged, pre-configured compilation of Apache, MySQL, and PHP. You may still need to upgrade some Perl modules, however, as Perl is not included in MAMP.

Important Note: In the instructions below I’m using a lot of settings which should not be used in a production environment (like having a MySQL root user with no password). Since this is a local dev environment, we can take a few shortcuts, but don’t do the same on a live site.


First we’ll set up Apache for our local hosting of Movable Type.

I’m going to host everything under my home directory: mkdir -p /Users/brian/mt/cgi-bin; chmod 777 /Users/brian/mt. We’ll use this path in the examples below, so change it accordingly for your system.

Next, edit the Apache configuration which is based in /etc/apache2. Edit httpd.conf and make the following changes:

  • Find and comment-out the line that starts: ScriptAliasMatch ^/cgi-bin/... (if present)
  • Add a line somewhere to include our custom config: Include /private/etc/apache2/extra/httpd-mt.conf

Under the /etc/apache2/extra location, create a new file httpd-mt.conf with the directory and virtual host settings:

<Directory "/Users/brian/mt">
AddHandler cgi-script .cgi
AllowOverride None
Options FollowSymLinks +ExecCGI Indexes
Order allow,deny
Allow from all
<VirtualHost *:80>
DocumentRoot "/Users/brian/mt"
ErrorLog "/private/var/log/apache2/mt-error_log"
CustomLog "/private/var/log/apache2/mt-access_log" common
SetEnv DYLD_LIBRARY_PATH /usr/local/mysql/lib/

Next, restart Apache: sudo apachectl -k restart.

Add our virtual host “” to the /etc/hosts file:

To confirm that Apache is set up correctly, visit in a browser. Check /var/log/apache2/ to see content in both of the MT log files and confirm there are no errors.


Next we’ll set up the MySQL user (mt), password (password) and empty database (mt) for Movable Type.

$ mysql -u root
mysql> create user 'mt'@'localhost' identified by 'password';
Query OK, 0 rows affected (0.07 sec)
mysql> grant all on mt.* to 'mt'@'localhost';
Query OK, 0 rows affected (0.04 sec)
mysql> create database mt default character set = utf8;
mysql> show grants for 'mt'@'localhost';
| Grants for mt@localhost                                                                                   |
| GRANT USAGE ON *.* TO 'mt'@'localhost' IDENTIFIED BY PASSWORD '*2470C0C06DEE42FD1618BB99005ADCA2EC9D1E19' |
| GRANT ALL PRIVILEGES ON `mt`.* TO 'mt'@'localhost'                                                        |
mysql> exit;

Movable Type Download

In the instructions below we’ll download the latest open source Movable Type. (Similar steps could be followed for any of the commercial versions of Movable Type.)

The steps below use the Movable Type “Install via SSH” instructions if you want to follow on. The first step is to download and example the .zip file, then move and set up the directories:

$ wget
$ unzip
$ mv MTOS-5.2/* cgi-bin
$ cd cgi-bin
$ chmod 777 mt-static/support
$ chmod 777 themes
$ cd ..
$ ln -s cgi-bin/mt-static mt-static

Note: If your perl is in a location other than /usr/bin/perl, you will need to edit all of the .cgi files to change the first line.

Movable Type System Check

Now we run the Movable Type system checker script:

This script will check all the required Perl modules. Make sure your Perl configuration has all of the required modules and the database module you intend to use. (In this example I’m using MySQL.) Use Perl CPAN to install additional modules as required.

In my case the Perl modules were pretty straightforward except for DBD::mysql. I finally found the solution (including the SetEnv DYLD_LIBRARY_PATH in Apache config above) from this Stackoverflow answer about Perl CGI not working with MySQL.

Movable Type Configuration

Once we have all the required Perl modules in place, create a config file for MovableType. Copy mt-config.cgi-original to mt-config.cgi and set the appropriate values for the web paths and database settings:

ObjectDriver   DBI::mysql
Database       mt
DBUser         mt
DBPassword     password
DBHost         localhost

With the configuration in place we can login to Movable Type for the first time:

The first step will create the admin login account and password. I suggest using your real email address here to test any of the system messages.

Next is the “Create your first Website” dialog. Make sure to set the website URL and root correctly using the paths above. For example, above we have the Movable Type files in /Users/brian/mt/cgi-bin, and the website root will be /Users/brian/mt.

Finally you should be able to log in to the Movable Type interface. Create a blog and publish it, then confirm you can view it with the local path provided.

Happy hacking!