if its too loud, turn it down

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Apple and Amazon Demonstrate Device Douche-baggery

Apple lays the smackdown on some of their own customers

The recent upgrade for iTunes contains a "feature" which basically locks out the Palm Pre. Before, the Pre would show up as an iPod in iTunes, allowing Pre users to sync it with their music an podcast libraries. This was a big selling point for the Pre.

I am not a Pre user, but I think this is a real dick move on Apple's part. People who use the Pre with iTunes, are at some level, customers of Apple. They are likely mac users...and even if they are not, they are at least using iTunes and therefore likely using it to purchase music. Basically, they are pissing off their own customers. Never a good strategy.

I'd be willing to bet that many people who purchased the Pre did so because they are stuck in egregiously long contracts with Sprint. Otherwise, they'd be iPhone users. If I was in this boat, and Apple pulled these kind of shenanigans, I'd be totally turned off to the idea of ever switching to the iPhone when my Sprint contract expired. Who wants to support a company who treats their customers like this?

That Apple would take such a drastic, dick measure indicates to me that they think the Palm Pre is a real threat to their smartphone business. They are scared of it, and have reacted out of fear. If I was them I'd a have stuck with their general, conceited, "you can't be serious" attitude towards competition. They should feel confident that their product is superior to any other smartphone, which it is. By taking such drastic action against the Pre, they have legitimized the Pre as a competitor in the mind of the marketplace.

Competition is good. It breeds innovation and keeps prices in check. The way to gain the competitive edge is not to take rash, semi-monopolistic measures against competitors, but to beat them fair and square with a quality product. I think Apple needs to hear it from customers, whether they use the Pre or not, that we don't appreciate this Microsoft-like behavior.

Apparently, Palm released an update to their software which once again allows it to sync with iTunes. It remains to be seen how Apple will react to this.

Link: http://gadgetwise.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/07/24/palm-pre-update-syncs-with-itunes-again/

Amazon, like a thief in the night

In a somewhat ironic move, Amazon took the unprecedented step of remotely deleting some of George Orwell's books from all Amazon Kindle devices of customers who had paid for them. Apparently, they were added to the Amazon store by a source who did not have the rights to them.

Sure, Amazon did refund the customer's money, but there are two very disturbing elements to this story. First, the privacy issue. Most customers were unaware that Amazon had the right and the means to remotely delete content from the Kindle. This is an invasion of privacy and it raises questions as to what else Amazon is doing remotely. Recording customer behavior? Monitoring other content users put on their Kindle?

Amazon swears up and down they will never do this again. But I think there needs to be independent action (seems like a great case for the EFF). There should be updates to the contract between manufacturer and the user, and updates to the software that will prevent any access to the device that the user does not explicitly authorize.

The other issue is, why is Amazon not vetting the content they are selling in their store? The issue here is between this "unauthorized" source and Amazon. The customers are unwitting participants in this dilemma, and end up getting the raw end of the deal. Amazon should pursue and work out the issue with the source.

Link: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/07/18/technology/companies/18amazon.html

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

"Smarter" iTunes Smart Playlists for podcasts

iTunes Smart Playlists are a great way to auto-populate playlists that you listen to often. I listen to alot of podcasts, so I created a "programs" playlist that is populated by podcasts I subscribe to, as they become available. Of course, Smart Playlists are not just for podcasts, but I'll use podcasts for illustration's sake in this how-to.

As neat as they are, Smart Playlists do have one major limitation, there is no way to mix boolean "AND" and "OR" expressions. To illustrate, let's say I wanted to create a Smart Playlist containing the "Marketplace" and/or "Planet Money" podcast, but only ones added in the last two days (new episodes). Simple concept, but it's actually not possible with a single Smart Playlist. See below:

Why a single Smart Playlist won't work
If I chose the match "all" following rules option, I would get a list with no podcasts on it (because there are no podcasts that are labeled both "Marketplace" and "Planet Money"). If I choose the "any" matching method, I would get the podcasts I desire, but I'd also get every other podcast that's arrived in the last two days (because of the third rule). Not quite what I'm looking for.

The good news is that there is a solution. One of the rules you can select basically says "...and is on the playlist x". That's the key! So, we can create a playlist-of-playlists, or nest "member" playlists, containing rules specific to each podcast, to get what we want on a single playlist. This helps us achieve the mixing of boolean AND and OR expressions that a straight Smart Playlist can't do.

Step 1: Create a new playlist folder in iTunes. We'll call it "nested" for purposes of illustration. Creating a folder is not absolutely necessary, but since these playlists aren't going to be directly accessed, I like to keep them contained for housekeeping reasons (you can collapse it to save space).

Add New Playlist Folder

Step 2: Create individual member Smart Playlists within the "nested" folder. Each playlist should contain the specific rules you want for each individual podcast you want on your master playlist. For example, one playlist for new "Marketplace" episodes within the last two days, and another for new "Planet Money" episodes within the last two days. (Note: There are a variety of ways to match a podcast - by Album is what I use because it's consistent). Be sure to match by "all following rules" on your member playlist. Also, if you're making a playlist of podcasts, be sure to add a rule, "Play Count is 0" to exclude podcasts you've already listened to. Don't do this if your playlist is of music.

Smart Playlist Rules

Step 3: Create a "master" Smart Playlist that will contain our nested member playlists. First, click away from the "nested" folder (click on Library->Music) so we can create a top-level iTunes Smart Playlist (we don't want this one inside the "nested" folder). In the Smart Playlist dialog box, make sure to select "any" as the matching method (very important), and add one rule for each member playlist you created. In this example the first rule is "Playlist contains Marketplace" and second is "Playlist is NPR: Planet Money". When you click "OK" you can name the playlist whatever you wish. I'll call it "Awesome Business Podcasts".

Creating the "Master" Smart Playlist

And voila! There's our incredible new complex-rules Smart Playlist. New "Marketplace" or "Planet Money" episodes will automatically arrive and old or previously-listened shows will automatically drop off.

The finished "master" Smart Playlist

Gettin' Tricky

There's about a bazillion different things you can do with Smart Playlists, and even more when you create complex Smart Playlists like we did above.

But one problem I ran into even with these "smarter" Smart Playlists is how to handle when, for example, I want to make a "finance" playlist all new Planet Money and Marketplace episodes (like the example above), but also a handful of select finance programs (podcasted or not) from the past.

Easy enough! Just create a nested member playlist called "Manually-Managed" (note: this is a regular playlist, not a smart playlist) and added my desired past episodes to that. I then include that "Manually-Managed" playlist on my master playlist. Here's a snot of my master podcast playlist, along with the nested member playlists that make it up:

My Smart Playlist Setup for Podcasts

You can add unlimited nested "member" playlists to a "master" playlist. I've heard some grumbling that it sucks up computer resources to do this, but that is not my experience.

One neat thing to note about Smart Playlists is that you can manually re-order them. So if I wanted to listen to Marketplace first, I just drag it to the top. If you are going to use this playlist on an iPod or iPhone, be sure to set it to sync whenever you plug it back into the computer. That way it will update your library with the play count (and therefore update the Smart Playlist).

Here are some links detailing other great Smart Playlists you can try:

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Top 10 "This American Life" episodes

The greatest radio show (and podcast) ever. Possibly the best show ever, in any media. I look forward to every episode, and get seriously bummed out when it's a re-run. In case you're interested, here's my top 10 favorite episodes. I've listened to each of these multiple times, and will continue to!
  1. #355 The Giant Pool of Money - Definitely the best explanation of what went wrong with the US (and world) economy, and is referred to as such by other media and even politicians. I believe this is their most popular show to date (even topping "Squirrel Cop"). This episode was so well-received it spawned a delightful new show, NPR's "Planet Money" which podcasts thrice weekly. There were a few great sequels to this episode. If you group them together you have just about the best layman's-terms synopsis of the financial meltdown put together so far. They are: #365 Another Frightening Show About the Economy, #375 Bad Bank, #377 Scenes from a Recession and #382 The Watchmen.
  2. #304 Heretics - Great story about how this minister, Carlton Pearson, decided one day that hell was a human creation, a method of controlling people. And he wasn't going to believe in it anymore.
  3. #168 The Fix Is In - Classic episode about how a clown of a middle manager exposed the biggest price-fixing scheme in history. Looks like this is coming out in movie form, as a comedy: The Informant!
  4. #261 The Sanctity of Marriage - Helped to put me off the idea of marriage altogether (ok...I'm just chicken). The opening bit with John Gottman is a must-hear. For more from the guy, there's also this great podcast, and this one.
  5. #179 Cicero - The story of Cicero, IL...probably the most corrupt city in America!
  6. #254 Teenage Embed, Part Two - A young Afghan-American goes to Afghanistan with a tape recorder, and records events as they unfold. His father has returned to Afghanistan to serve in the newly-formed government. It's a follow-up to the original episode #230 Come Back To Afghanistan, which was also very good.
  7. #290 Godless America - This is on here strictly for the Julia Sweeney segment. She tells the story of how she fell away from Catholicism. Hilarious.
  8. #127 Pimp Anthropology - If you ever wanted to know how pimps work...
  9. #220 Testosterone - Dedicated to the chemical which is the essence of male-ness.
  10. #84 Harold - Being from Chicago, I love the Chicago stories. This whole show was dedicated to the story of Harold Washington, the first black mayor of a major American city. Fascinating guy.