This is the post I was trying to write earlier this month before I realized that what was supposed to be a parenthetical explanation of my Mix-o-matic playlist was spiraling out of control and needed to be quarantined in its own post. If it wasn't already clear from that post, I spend an absolutely inordinate amount of time thinking about the star ratings I assign songs in iTunes. That's partly because I rely on ratings to fuel things like the Mix-o-matic, and partly because I am just kind of obsessive that way. So obsessive, in fact, that I feel obliged to expose my thought process here....
I first wrote about the Mix-o-matic, the iTunes smart playlist that serves up the vast majority of my music listening, back in 2007. It's still my go-to playlist, but it has evolved quite a bit in the past five years. It's hard to imagine a geekier topic than yet another exploration of the intricacies of my playlist system, but because the Mix-o-matic plays such a central role in my listening habits, it's hard for me to write about music without referencing it, and if I am going to do that, I figure I should at least be referencing the current incarnation of it and not its ancient ancestor. ...
It is Day 4 of the Great Adventure. We are still working on establishing Base Camp, but we’ve succeeded in unpacking, and actually finding places for the heaps of things we brought with us from the US. (We’ve also already started the list of critical things we forgot to bring.) We have also successfully used all of the major appliances in the apartment at least once (admittedly, the oven was only used to make toast; we haven't actually cooked a proper meal yet). We don't have Internet yet—except for the irregular interludes when we can mooch off some neighbor's unprotected wireless signal—and it won’t be set up until after I leave (which means that if you are reading this I have already returned or I discovered an Internet café somewhere nearby). Since the Adventure has not exactly generated much of a narrative yet, I'll fall back on making a few random observations at this juncture.
I have c...
Heavy rotation: Oct. 29-Nov. 4, 2007
Here's installment number two of of my new format for music-logging. One thing that is already clear is that given my listening habits, which are structured around the monthly cycle of my eMusic subscription, the weekly "top artists" lists are going to have a fair amount repetition in them from one week to the next. I don't know if that's a problem per se—in fact it might be interesting to see if my enthusiasm for a brand new acquisition sustains for several weeks or fades after the first blush—but I'll go ahead an apologize in advance for entries along the lines of "Still listening to [insert album name] a lot. Still rocks."
I finally got around to trying Amazon's MP3 Store, the latest attempt to challenge the hegemony of Apple's iTunes Store in the world of digital music sales, and for the first time, there seems to be a legitimate competitor in the market. I bought PJ Harvey's new album, White Chalk (2007). It's available on the ITMS as well, but because her label (Island) is a subsidiary of Universal, it is only available DRM-free from Amazon. That, much more than cost or encoding details, is the main draw of Amazon's store. ...
Heavy Rotation: Oct. 21-28, 2007
Having fallen woefully behind on my "Acquisitions" series, I am trying out a new approach to logging my music habits, namely looking at my Last.fm "weekly top artists" list and commenting on what I find there. This should have two advantages over the Acquisitions approach. First, since it is limited to ten artists, I shouldn't get overwhelmed by sheer volume, as was happening regularly with my monthly acquisitions lists. Second, since this is the music I've listened to the most in a given week (more or less—not everything I listen to manages to get scrobbled to Last.fm, but the vast majority does), I should actually have something to say about it, which was not always the case with the brand-new music covered in my earlier posts. There should actually be some intersection between what comes up with this method and what 's actually new in my library, because the structure of my playlists keeps new arrivals in heavy rotation for about a month after they get added to iTunes. But it will also give me reason to revisit older music that's caught my ear, which appeals to me as well. Obviously, this will not wind up being some perfect log of my listening habits, but I never really set out to do that in the first place. The tougher question will be whether I can keep up with a regular schedule of weekly posts. History would suggest not, but maybe this exercise will be the impetus I needed to get more disciplined about my blogging.
Sooner murder an infant in its cradle than nurse unacted desires
Taking the above Proverb of Hell to heart, I finally acted upon my desires and bought an iPhone this week. I had held this particular desire pretty much from the moment it was announced, but I don't think I started actually nursing it until the TV ads appeared last spring. Before that, I was prepared to be very reasonable: "it's a new product, it will have bugs, better to wait until the second generation, yadda yadda yadda." The moment I saw the ads, all that went out the window. It was pure "Gimme, gimme, gimme! Mine mine mine!" And there were just too few obstacles. I'd been saying I needed my own phone for over a year, and I was already leaning toward something in the "smartphone" category (as an owner of several Handspring/Palm PDAs, I was seriously considering buying an almost-new Treo off a colleague right about the time the initial iPhone announcement was made.) AT&T is, for better or worse, the only cellular carrier in these parts anyway. Add to that all the glowing reviews, the cool factor, and, finally, the price cut, and my desire had become irresistible. I placed my order a week ago Thursday, and by Monday afternoon, I had the object of that desire, at last, in my hands. And while I admit to having slaked my lust a bit that first night, the next morning I found myself stricken with a nasty gastrointestinal infection that put me in no kind of condition for such dalliances for the next three days, and Friday was spent doing little more than digging out from the load of missed work from my illness....
Christmas in July
iTunes has been besieging me with Christmas music lately. Why this happened and how I fixed it cannot be explained, however, without delving into the maze of twisty little passages (also known as playlists) that I use to manage my iTunes and iPod listening experience. So strap on your spelunking gear, here we go!...
Still trying to catch up on the inventory additions. February was a very light month: it's shameful that I haven't been able to get this posted before now. At least I've formed some pretty firm opinions on most of this....
iTunes innovations big and small
The big iTunes news of the week is the announcement by Apple and EMI that beginning in May, EMI music will be available without Digital Rights Management and at double the current 128kbps bitrate for $1.29. Consumers will even be able to previously purchased ITMS tracks to the higher-quality unprotected format for 30 cents a song. Besides being, very likely, the death knell for DRM in the music industry (yes I know we aren't there yet, but without a united front, the other majors won't be able to hold the line on copy protection much longer), this announcement is pleasant vindication for those of us who took Steve Jobs at his word when he released his "Thoughts on Music" two months ago. (As for cynics, like Cory Doctorow, who accused Jobs of lying in February, the Macalope puts it succinctly: "Eat my shorts." On the other hand, kudos to the BBC's Bill Thompson for admitting he was wrong [via Daring Fireball]. ) It's also probably the end of Apple's European lawsuit problems. Everybody wins, except, perhaps, people who've stockpiled a lot of Zune-bucks. ...
Continuing my attempt to get back up to date with my library additions. ...
Since I have fallen so very far behind with this, I'm just going to list the last couple months of iTunes library additions with a minimum of commentary. Here's the rundown for December. ...
Jobs throws down over DRM
Well, this is interesting. There's an open letter by Steve Jobs, dated today, on the Apple website. It is simply titled "Thoughts on Music." It may, however, be a landmark moment in the history of Digital Rights Management. In the letter, Jobs takes on the various calls that have been made for Apple to "open up" the iPod+iTunes franchise. After a brief history lesson on how we got to the current state of affairs (namely that the "big four" music labels were dragged kicking and screaming into digital distribution and only with promise of DRM protection), Steve gets down to business with refuting the criticisms that have been leveled against Apple's successful combination....
Ooops, it looks like I've fallen a little behind in my 'Acquisitions' reporting. Although I reined in the breakneck pace of previous months, I still have plenty to write about, so I'll catch up in two posts, starting with November's acquisitions....
Acquisitions - October
Installment number 3 in the saga of the ongoing bloat of my hard drive. ...
Acquisitions - September
In the same spirit as my August report, here's all the additions to my iTunes library for the month of September, with comments: ...
By George, I think she's got it!
Just when I thought everyone in the media industries had their eyes clamped shut, their fingers in their ears and started chanting "DRM, DRM, DRM" whenever the topic of the digital revolution comes up, ABC-Disney's Anne Sweeney proved there is some sentient life in that sector after all. The following comments quoted in Ars Technica are so startlingly perceptive, open-minded, and forward-thinking it's hard to believe they came from the mouth of a media executive....
Acquisitions - August
I seem to be fighting blogger's block (or perhaps blogger's "I have things to write about but that would require thinking harder than I feel like doing right now") at the moment, so here's a pretty much mechanical post, which might become a regular feature, just to get things moving again: all the new additions to my iTiunes library for the month of August. ...
Meet the new hacks, same as the old hacks
Cory Doctorow's article on Digital Rights Management in InformationWeek a few weeks back is a sad example of the "new" journalists of the blogosphere being every bit as sensationalist and inaccurate as the "old" journalists they disdain. Provocatively titled "Apple's Copy Protection Isn't Just Bad For Consumers, It's Bad For Business," this piece is a muddled critique of DRM that inexplicably blames Apple—purveyors of the most consumer-friendly and commercially successful DRM scheme in existence—for all of the problems inherent with copy-protection generally. Even more bizarrely, the article somehow manages to portray the entertainment industry—whose short-sighted, heavy-handed policies have given us our current DRM mess—as victims of mean old bullying Apple.
I am no...
I was out at a school last week doing a professional development workshop, and I got my first good look at the use of web filtering software. It ain't pretty. The workshop was on web resources for educators, and several things we'd counted on showing to the teachers there were either completely blocked or broken to the point of uselessness. These included:...
I cannot be the first person to notice this, but I made a fortuitous and surprising discovery recently. Having just noticed the three-week-old news that selected shows from FOX were available through ITMS, I was having a look at what they had, and found, with a certain nostalgic excitement, that Lost in Space was among the offerings. What jumped out at me were the running times of the episodes: just under 51.5 minutes. That's about 8 minutes longer than the Battlestar Galactica episodes I'd been downloading. So I dug around some more and here are some rough averages, based on ITMS track information:...
Finding new music
Diane Greco was moved by my post on the New Pornographers/Belle & Sebastian show to go out and get The Life Pursuit (Stuart Murdoch, you now owe me 37¢!). She goes on to muse on the difficulty of finding new music: "I don't find new music by listening anymore. No radio, no MTV. It's all so sucky and boring. So the result is I don't hear about much, and when I do, the channel is almost as interesting as the band."
An argument for mediocre television
This may be heading off into tinfoil hat territory, but it occurred to me after watching tonight's encore presentation of another fine Battlestar Galactica episode, that the the television industry may not want to create good programming. Even watching for the second time in three days, this week's Galactica was gripping and memorable, but despite or because of that, advertisers got exactly zero return (from me at least) on their investments in those two hours' commercial slots. There were some Sci-Fi station IDs, that tasteless commercial from the Superbowl where a family is led to believe that the father has just been killed in the hospital, and I think Bill Ford showed up once to talk about cars. That's all I remember. I generally don't pay that much attention to commercials under the best circumstances, but I felt particularly that my level of engagement with the episode diverted any marginal attention I might have spared for advertising. ...
iPods and bloggers and bears, oh my!
There are two recurring jeremiads that I am really tired of hearing: one is the lament that we have replaced social contact with technological isolation (the current manifestation of which is to complain about people being absorbed in their iPods, but we've heard the same argument against the Internet, video games, and television, to name a few); the other is the charge that technology is making us stupid (lately, it's that blogging is promoting poor writing, but again, we've read this about calculators [kids don't learn math], television [rots the brain], and writing itself [no one will remember things — Plato]). These kinds of massive oversimplifications, which serve mostly to congratulate people's complacency and fear of the new, are prime examples of the flaws of technological determinsim. Denying determinism does not amount to claiming that technology has no effect. I'll be the first to agree that technology has profound effects on our daily lives at many levels and that technological change can have profound social repercussions for good or ill, but such effects are neither simple nor unidirectional. We need intelligent criticism of technology that explores the complex interactions of human beings and their technologies, not knee-jerk reactionaries blaming the latest fad in consumer electronics for whatever social ill happens to suit their fancy.
Not that my love of iTunes and the ITMS is waning, but recently, I've been experimenting with a couple other online music services. Pandora and eMusic are quite different from each other, and for my purposes, both are complements to rather than replacements for iTunes. Each is interesting in its own way....
I am back from a 12-day family trip to Germany (Christmas with the grandparents), and am still working through my (and the kids') jet-lag, but I want to get a post up for the new year and there's some interesting stuff going on there that I don't want to completely ignore, so here's some quick jabs that I might (but very well might not) come back to in greater depth....
The snowball starts to roll
Looks like iTunes/iPod video is taking off even faster than I expected. Two items from MacNN today:...
When Apple announced the video iPod and the ability to buy television episodes and other videos through the iTunes Music Store earlier this fall, I took note, but did not feel in the least tempted, mostly because none of the handful of shows in that first installment interested me. With the inclusion of Sci-Fi's Battlestar Galactica series in the latest content additions, I'm officially worried that I might get hooked. It's obvious even from the scattering of episodes I've managed to watch on teevee that Galactica is tremendous, probably the best science fiction series since Babylon 5. Its complex, interweaving plots and rich, gritty characterizations stand up on their own merits; the fact that something this good could be built on the foundation of the schlocky 70s series of the same name is nothing short of miraculous. (Don't believe me? Even the curmudgeonly vidiots at TeeVee.org like it: "it’s a sci-fi series for adults that doesn’t shy away from dealing with big issues: God, sex, death, betrayal, obsession, self-denial… it’s all in there.")
To type or not to type (links)
Perceptive readers with good CSS2 support (sorry, IE users) may have noticed funny things going on with my links lately. I have been playing with the :before and :after pseudo-elements and the content property to generate markers distinguishing different kinds of links. Why? Well, the notion of "typed" links (i.e., links that express not just a generic connection but a specific relationship between the linked elements) has been floating around hypertext theory for a long time. I've also long been intrigued by what George Landow (in "The Rhetoric of Hypermedia," 1991) identified as the need for a "rhetoric of departure" in hypertexts. Both of these ideas tie into a number of practical accessibility/usability web design issues regarding providing appropriate visual and textual cues to aid user navigation. Rather than tackle all at once, I've just concerned myself one small problem: distinguishing between internal and external links within a web site....
The ultimate iPod?
All the world seems to be a-twitter about Apple's iPod nano. The press is using words like "marvel" and "perfect" to describe the ultra-thin music player (I'm impressed, too, but I have to say that one of my first thoughts looking at the promotional pictures was "I wonder if it breaks as easily as a Number 2 pencil, too?"). In that light, let me nominate this ad for the "iPod Flea" (which was forwarded to me by a colleague a few days before the nano launch) as the logical extension of the product line.
The Educational iPod?
Since the announcement last year that Duke University would give all incoming students an iPod, I've been watching with some bemusement as others have hopped on this bandwagon: the Drexel University School of Education recently announced that they would launch their own iPod initiative; Apple has set up an iPods in Education site; a some quick googling reveals a slew of other sites either advocating or musing on the educational impact of Apple's music player (see iPodEd and articles at MacUsingEducators and IN3 network). To my mind, this is an example of education's infamous faddishness at its worst....
8'03" (apologies to John Cage)
I've mentioned Apple's iMix before — a feature of the iTunes Music Store that allows account-holders to upload playlists and gives other shoppers the opportunity to buy those tracks with one click (I wonder if anyone actually does this, or if iMix mostly serves the vanity of the mixer). Well some clever iMixer has posted what is perhaps the ultimate playlist: one consisting entirely of silent tracks from iTMS albums. 14 tracks (seven of which are individually purchasable) amounting to 8 minutes, 3 seconds of empty bytes. Even more interestingly, three of the tracks are offered in both "Explicit" and "Clean" versions.
I just became aware of Clutter this week, and already I'm in love. Although the intended purpose is to add a more familiar interface for selecting music to listen to on your computer (namely the visual metaphor of "albums" laying scattered all over your desktop), what I found most delightful about Clutter is that it automatically looks for album art (via Amazon) and you can copy that found art into iTunes. So I was up till 3 a.m. the night after installing it, grabbing cover art for all the music in my iTunes library. I was amazed that I managed to find most of it, although my practice of renaming and re-dating compilations and re-releases to reflect the original issues sometimes caused some confusion. I'm not sure I will use Clutter in its primary capacity that much (my desktop is cluttered enough, thank you), but I definitely like having the visual reminders of where my music cane from.
Napster = liars
One thing I left out of my Super Bowl non-review was Napster's shamelessly misleading ad that aired a couple times during the event (no, I won't link to it because I refuse to lend even my meager traffic to these jerks). Their assertion boils down to this: owing an iPod will cost you $10,000, while subscribing to their Napster-to-go service only costs $15/month. Where to begin?...
iPod segue of the day
My iPod is almost always set to random shuffle. Sometimes this leads to small miracles of juxtaposition. Today's: Sonic Youth's "Bubblegum" (from EVOL) into "Questo è il fin chi fa mal!," the choral coda to Don Giovanni. Delightful!
OK. Like everyone and his brother has already posted their impressions of the Macworld San Francisco announcements from last week. Reactions have been mixed (Mac Net Journal is "underwhelmed"; Creative Bits thinks the marketing of the iPod shuffle is "genius" even if the device itself isn't; bsag finds the MacMini "adorable"), but there seems to be broad agreement that the three announcements of significance are the the $499 Mac Mini desktop, the ultra-small flash-based iPod Shuffle, and (to a lesser extent) the iWork productivity suite. Here's my two cents....
2004 music review
It is the season of 2004 retrospectives and best-of lists. In that spirit, I offer this meager review of 2004 music releases. Meager primarily because I just did not buy much new music last year. I actually acquired quite a bit of music last year, adding over 1300 songs to my iTunes library (admittedly many of these were me ripping CDs I already owned), but only 80 of these were 2004 releases (and quite a few of these were free MP3s from band and label websites). In the end, I only picked up six new albums last year, just about all by established members of my personal canon.
PJ Harvey, Uh Huh Her
: Her first album since 2000's Songs from the City, Songs from the Sea, this is certainly a good album, but does not match the near-perfection of its predecessor. I can't think of anything negative to say about Uh Huh Her except that after six months of listening, only "The Letter" has managed to stand out in my mind as an exceptional song. That track is quintessential PJ Harvey: haunting, jagged vocals and razor-sharp guitar riffs held together by a driving percussion that never let's you forget this is a rock song. PJ Harvey is the artist that wannabe angst-mongers like Kate Bush and Alanis Morrisette dream of being.
: I probably shouldn't like Interpol, given that everyone traces their geneaology back to New Order/Joy Division/The Cure, all of which I never did have any time for. But 2002's Turn on the Bright Lights, reminded me, instead, of The Feelies, in its jangly, almost percussive guitars and (oddly appealing) flat vocal style. Antics is similar, although I hear the other influences more strongly here. It's still fun in a dreamily moody sort of way.
Le Tigre, This Island
: Their third full-length release, This Island sees Le Tigre polishing the art of merging the raw energy of feminist punk with the danceable beats of the techno-club scene. The explosiveness is still there (on "Seconds" and "Don't Drink Poison"), but the balance seems to be tilting further toward pop appeal. Occasionally, I think the balance has swung too far (the cover of The Pointer Sisters "I'm So Excited"), but more often they seem to hit it just about right and succeed in creating an unexpected hybrid: the dance-music of radical politics ("Viz," "New Kicks").
The Magnetic Fields, i
: There was probably no way that Stephen Merritt could live up to the expectations he established on the last Magnetic Fields album, 1999's epic triple-CD, 69 Love Songs. To be honest, i probably doesn't reach the level of my second-favorite Magnetic Fields album, The Charm of the Highway Strip (1994), but it is a solid effort and does boast at least one perfect gem, "I Thought You Were My Boyfriend," perhaps Merritt's best song ever.
Sonic Youth, Sonic Nurse
: I have been faithful to Sonic Youth ever since I was exposed to the Starpower EP by a roommate my freshman year of college, although the intensity of my devotion is not what it once was. Stick-in-the-mud that I am, I still think 1987's Sister is the pinnacle of their oeuvre (with 1990's Goo a solid second). I kept up with them through the 90s but, to be honest, found a lot of the stuff from that period to be meandering and diffuse. Murray Street (2002) sparked my interest again, and I think Sonic Nurse might really signal a Sonic Youth renaissance. It seems more tuneful than anything they've done since Goo, and while I don't hear a "Schizophrenia" or even a "Kool Thing" on this, the top-to-bottom consistency of the album is impressive. Their art-punk sound seems to reach full maturity here: effortless, controlled, and utterly confident in what it is trying to do. I'm not sure this album will entice new converts to the SY cause, but it ought to be good for winning back a few prodigals.
VA, Old Enough to Know Better - 15 Years of Merge Records
: A 3-CD retrospective in celebration of Merge's 15th birthday, I got this on the strength of some of the more recognizable contributors (The Buzzcocks, Neutral Milk Hotel, Superchunk) and the presence of a number of I've-kinda-herad-of-them-but-don't-really-know-what-they-sound-like bands (The Clean, East River Pipe, Portastatic, Spoon, Versus). Also because proceeds were supposed to go to the Future of Music Coalition. Unfortunately, I haven't heard much on this to hold my attention -- no lost gems, no new finds (OK, maybe Portastatic, a side-project of Superchunk's Mac McCaughan). At least some of the money went to a worthy cause.
Through the 90s, I waffled back and forth on the question of CDs. To be sure, I bought a fair share of CDs, but I also kept buying vinyl, both out of used bins and from indie labels that continued to offer it. But even as I continued to buy new LPs, I seldom listened to them. The convenience of CDs and, recently, the deterioration of my turntable, trumped my nostalgic loyalties. However, I've more or less forbid myself (for financial reasons as much as any real scruple) from actually buying CDs of albums I have on vinyl. As a result, a large portion of my music collection is seldom listened to, and quite a few of my late vinyl acquisitions didn't get much play at all....
Fun with Smart Playlists
iTunes's Smart Playlist feature (which creates dynamic song lists based on search criteria) is useful for all sorts of silly things. Among the ones I am currently using: ...
I signed up with del.icio.us, the "social bookmarking" service, a few weeks ago (found via Liz Lawley, who's had quite a bit to say about it). So far I'm not really using the social aspects of it, but it is a handy repository for links I suspect I am going to want to look at again, but which I don't want in my bookmarks or which I'll need from another computer. Lately, del.icio.us/donutage has been especially useful for holding links for my off-campus course (hence the links to Kentucky curriculum standards)....
Singles Going Steady
One of the ways in which the iTunes Music Store revolutionizes music purchasing/listening is by once again making the single a viable unit of music. Album-oriented rock has been in ascendence since the seventies; today the main purpose of singles, at least in mainstream music, seems to be to lure saps into paying $15-$20 for a CD with two or three listenable songs on it. (This argument is perhaps a tangential elaboration on a theme I vaguely remember reading in Robert Christgau's Record Guide.) Singles (whether 45s, 7"s, or mini-CDs) have remained available, but they have not really been things you'd buy unless you were a professional DJ, a collector or a completist. Albums have been the center of the music industry for three and a half decades. ...
Others (notably jill/txt and 08# --The Grey Notebook) have been noting ipodsdirtysecret.com, which purports to expose Apple for charging over $250 to replace the battery of an 18-month-old iPod. They have produced a Quicktime movie that positions itself as some kind of guerrilla consumer advocacy. The implication is that Apple is using (or tried to use) an exorbitant replacement cost to pressure customers into buying unnecessary new products. If that's true, even a little bit, it's despicable. However, my own experiences with Apple in general and the iPod in particular don't corroborate the Neistat brothers (commenters at both the above sites have also questioned the the movie and its conclusions). ...
A night at the Dame
Jenny Toomey's show at The Dame last night was well worth the hour-plus drive and $8 admission (even if that worked out to approximately a dollar per song). Accompanied by Franklin Bruno on piano (mostly) and Jean Cook on violin, Jenny did a short set alternating songs from 2001's Antidote and 2002's Tempting: Jenny Toomey Sings the Songs of Franklin Bruno. The Antidote material sounded much better live—if anything, my complaint about that album is that it seems a little overproduced and too "smooth." Live, it was more raw and passionate. The stuff from Tempting—which I was hearing for the first time—is a bit unusual, recalling, dare I say it, classic showtunes more than anything else (the CDDB listing I pulled when I added the album to my iTunes library today classified the album as Easy Listening). But if post-punk indiepop has taught us anything, it's that no style is inherently uncool, and this stuff was definitely not uncool. "Your Inarticulate Boyfriend" deserves a prize just for its delightful title, and the rest of the album maintains a tone of clever but embittered wackiness that is endearing. I would have liked the set to go on all night, but as first openers, Jenny et al. played less than an hour. Since it was a school night, I only stayed for a few songs by Fruit Bats and missed headliners Iron and Wine completely. Given the small sample size, I'll refrain from comments on either.
Impulse buyers beware
I finally got around to trying the iTunes Music Store, which is part of Apple's iTunes 4 software. Although I'd been keeping tabs on this since it was first released, I hadn't been in a hurry to actually use it because initially all that was on it was mainstream from the major labels. But I had heard that they were expanding the inventory, and I had some time on my hands, so......