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portable, digital, plausible

The always interesting Clive Thompson has a bee in his proverbial about the iPod. Which is OK. The latest thing he addresses is the latest research on how people use their portable digital music players. The research (by Solutions Research Group) indicates that most people who have digital music players don’t put very much music on them. The average, evidently, is 375 songs.

Mr. Thompson finds this a confirmation of his idea that iPods are essentially presentational, that is, that people don’t need iPods for their function, but for what having an iPod says about you. I don’t necessarily agree, but it is clearly true that a lot of people—probably most people—are willing to pay extra for more memory and then leave that memory empty. Apple takes advantage of that. I don’t know that the extra memory necessarily has to do with showing the white earbuds, or hanging the Shuffle around your neck outside your overclothes whilst jogging. But there it is. I would point out that iPods, according to the survey, tend to have more music on them than their competitors do, but only to an average of 500 songs or so. The numbers that SRG made available on the web are pretty minimal, and don’t tell me anything about outliers at all. That is, of the people who want to put 2,000 songs on their portable digital music players, how many have iPods? Of the people who put less than 50 songs, how many chose some cheaper, smaller alternative? Are there more iPods with more than 5,000 songs than there are with 1,000 to 4,999? That is, are most people small-numbers, with another large group of big-numbers, but very few in-betweens? I have no idea.

Anyway, I don’t own a portable digital music player, myself. I made the switch from CDs to the hard drive a few years ago, and I really like it. My current library is 8,800 songs. My usual listening is a shuffle that draws from 5,772 songs (at the moment) out of 7,268 that I’ve called Rock, Jazz or Klezmer, but various restrictions trim that list down to a trifle over 1,000 (but that changes frequently, depending mostly on how much I’ve been listening lately). I suspect that if I had an iPod or its near equivalent, I would just port those thousand tunes, but I might well decide to move the whole 5,772, if it didn’t interfere with the thing working properly.

But then, I can’t quite figure out why I want an iPod (or something like it). I spend most of my time either at a computer, in which case an iPod is clearly second-best, or with friends or family or acquaintances, in which case I wouldn’t have the earphones in anyway. The times I use my portable CD player are when I am going for a Walk for Exercise, which doesn’t happen as much as it might, and which takes about an hour anyway. I don’t come up against the limitations of the CD player, except I suppose if I bump it around too much. If I want to, I can make myself a mix CD, very nearly as easily as I can make myself a playlist, or I can listen to one of the hundreds of discs I have in the rack.

There is the car. If I had to drive a lot (and thank the Lord and my Best Reader that I haven’t had to drive a lot), I could imagine the benefit of having an iPod-like-device in my dashboard. I understand that there are devices which allow you to play the iPod through the car, and I suppose I could just leave it hooked up like that, but it seems gimmicky. I’d rather just have a little USB connecting device for my external hard drive or my laptop or some such. Anyway, something like that would work just fine. But, as I said, I don’t need it at present, and with any luck, by the time I do need it, they will have invented something better.

I listen to music a lot. I mean, a lot. I hate silence; silence makes me tetchy. So I almost always have music on in the house. If I’m in the house a lot (and I am these days), I have music playing all day, and I like that. But as far as the portable digital music player goes, the question isn’t when I listen to music, or how many songs I listen to, but where I listen to music, and who I’m with when I listen. What I imagine a portable would be really good for would be gardening, if one liked to garden. Or a longish commute on public transportation, although I did that once upon a time, and didn’t really like to have the earphones in.

Just to ramble for a moment longer, my current playlist is a party shuffle out of (1) those songs I have rated 3, haven’t listened to in the last four weeks, and haven’t listened to more than a total of n times (through the player), where is currently equal to 2; (III) those songs I have rated 4 and haven’t listened to in the last week; and (3) those songs I have rated 5, haven’t listened to in the last day, and haven’t listened to more than n times, where n is currently 8. The reason for the variable n is that it assures me that I will listen to pretty much all my 3s eventually and won’t go more than a month or so without hearing each and every one of my ninety-six 5s. Of course, getting a portable device would screw this up, unless I bothered to calibrate the last-played and playcounts every day or two (which I assume one can do).

chazak, chazak, v’nitchazek,


it'd be more useful to find out % of capacity used instead of avg # of avg songs in avg player, n'est-ce pas.

the little black ipod finally struck me as one i could use. kewl! but i won't get one because new things related to music strike me as being less useful than the music that money could have bought.

we have a cd/mp3 combo we bought maybe years ago (so we could listen to music during our trip to san diego for a marriage). i don't mind listening to albums with it but the batteries last longer if you play mp3 discs and you get about 7 albums on a cd-r. so i was using it for commuting, but stopped because the bus was too loud and turning up the volume to hear the music was making my ears hurt.

however i have found something useful: having a player available for vegetating in strange locations. i've found that closing my eyes and letting music pour through headphones is very amazing. for this, i tote the machine in bag when i go places. the advantage of the ipod infinitessimo is it isn't heavy.

walking about while listening is a little clumsy but is acceptable. playing mp3s in the car would be interesting, if the city's radio stations weren't already diverse and fascinating. (a new "reggaetón" station is around - this is hot caribbean dance music, kinda hip-hoppy.) besides there's a cd player in the dash, which works.

we use a similar playlist scheme, with the goal of plowing through the entire library every six months or so. in service of this there is actually a script that tags very unplayed songs for special attention, and another that acts as a panic button for allison when a song is just not RIGHT.

i read that usage stat somewhere else recently and it confirmed the 2-of-2 "empty ipod" experiences i've had with people's so-called "music collections." however i suspect there may be a correlation between this success and the success of "bigger, safer, because you need it" SUVs.

being able to play endlessly has transformed everything. for a few years we could go for days at a time without playing a cd - maybe because we were listening to news on the radio instead or watching tons'o'movies. with a gigantic hard drive and a lot of music, it's just totally different. push button: surprise song comes out! and then another and another!

I haven't ever had a portable music thing. When I had a transit commute, I would read, at least when I was on the train. I guess if I ever exercised in a gym I might want one. Outside exercising I don't like to be cut off from my surroundings.

As David said, we do listen to an awful lot more music using the computer. Fortunately we're of similar minds on aiding, abetting and enjoying incredible randomness. I don't even use my override button very much because "it's only one song!" and the next one's going to be really different.

the comments on clive's article were neato. i can imagine word of mouth selling a lot of ipods - "you just plug it in and then you can listen to your music as you go."

I bought an 40GB iPod about three years ago which I have used for music (it's probably got about 2,000 songs on it) but also as a portable hard-drive / back-up device, which is where the majority of its 40GB gets used.

It used to sit in its cradle, plugged into the aux-input of my stereo, essentially acting as a 100-disc CD-changer for which I didn't have a remote. This gave me superior sound as compared with playing from iTunes on my laptop, though far less flexibility as far as playlists. But I also used it for long drives: I tend to take at least a half-dozen five-hour-each-way trips per year (visiting my parents or L's parents or friends in Boston, etc), not to mention larger trips like my January vacation, so the iPod is perfect for those situations.

But now that I replaced my aging war-torn PowerBook with a new shiny PowerBook, while keeping the old one, I just keep a charger next to the stereo, and play all my music off of whichever laptop I'm charging. Decadent, but it gives me greater control over playlists and more of my music is on the laptops than is on the iPod. So the 'Pod is relegated to long car trips (since I dare not keep it in my car now that I live in a high-crime zipcode).

Even as such, L & I were very glad to use it this weekend in our rental car driving around the Greater Metropolitan Regional ChicagoLand Area, as I believe they call it these days. Said area has expanded to include most of Wisconsin, which is where we actually were for most of it.

As far as playlists go, I am totally wog-boggled by the complexity of yours--how did you set that up? I'd love to have something like it.

Well, I didn't mean to wog-boggle you, and the how-to may be more wog-boggling than the description. At any rate, first I made a "smart" playlist of Jazz Klezmer and Rock tunes, just match any of the genres (it helps that I pile everything into big genres, rather than separating into bop, big band, jive, etc.). Then I rate everything. Then I make another smart playlist with the conditions that the playlist is JKR, the rating is 3, the Last Played is not in the last 28 days, and the play count is less than three. Then I make another smart playlist with the conditions that the playlist is JKR, the rating is 4, and the Last Played is not in the last 7 days. Then I make another smart playlist with the conditions that the playlist is JKR, the rating is 5, the Last Played is not in the last 1 day, and the play count is less than nine. Then I make one more smart playlist with the (any) conditions that the playlist is 3 or 4 or 5. Than I set my party shuffle to use that last playlist as my source.
Every few weeks I have to go and change the playcount condition on 3 and 5, or else it'll eventually only play 4s. But I can see on the Party Shuffle (I have it set to show the last 20 and the next 20) if that's happening.
Oh, and all of those smart playlists have live updating. And, in my case, they all have another condition that excludes songs where I've typed the word profanity in the comments box. Just in case.

i found a very nice way to handle songs that never want to play - make a smart playlist that collects all the songs you don't want playing, and exclude that playlist from your other smart playlists. this saves a lot of duplicated effort. with itunes 5 (which i know is wonky on windows at the moment), i keep a bunch of "do not play" playlists in one "off" folder, and the other playlists all have a last condition - "[playlist][is not][off]"

(now signing off for day)

It had never occurred to me to try to include smart playlist membership as a condition for another smart playlist! This will revolutionize my listening habits. Thank you.

Wow! How long has it been possible to use a playlist as the basis for another (Smart) playlist? I've been wanting that capability for ages, but I was sure I had checked and it wasn't available. But it definitely is now. That's an extremely powerful feature; now if only I can remember specifically what I wanted to use it for.... Thanks for letting us know about it!

it's been around at least long enough for it to have worked and then gotten broken on ipods, and for itunes geeks around the world to get tired of waiting for it to get fixed. how long is that? a week? 10 days?

this conversation had the unfortunate effect of making me notice that i wasn't actually listening to music on the cd/mp3 player that much anymore because of its size and inability to play fast-burn cd-rw discs. so i took my student ID and bought the cheaper of the ipod nanos, figuring that 20 albums is more than enough music for a whole trip. player and earbuds together fit in the watch pocket of my jeans. unbelievable. i think it weighs less than my wallet. plus it has my address book, calendar, a few wallet-sized photos, world clock, etc.

all this and no-moving-parts.

Uh ... Jed, wasn't it you who suggested it? Oh, well. I'm using iT4 for MSXP, and I know I've had playlists off playlists for a year or so.

i think i got the idea from vardibidian, when we were talking at length about managing music libraries on computer.

ipod update: (1) for some uncertain reason, the ipod's battery ran only 2/3 of promised time. the apple store people replaced it without incident after having me do a software restore and full recharge to verify the problem. (2) i financed this thing by cutting into the music budget over the next year. (3) the headphone jack output is considerably stronger than that of the old player - we can actually dig out our old pair of unpowered speakers, and use them in the bedroom as an alarm clock!

...and here I am, just now easing into music-on-drive from music-on-CD and bemoaning how many of my old favorites that I Really Would listen to more are on cassette and thus ineligible for the new regime. I don't think I'm likely ever to have a portable music player, unless it's part of a general-purpose device I might acquire sometime in the utopian future.

But, hey, it's fun catching up on old journal entries and leaving irrelevant comments!

Welcome back! I think we got rid of our last 200 or so music cassettes in the last-but-one move, along with most of our floppy discs. What I should have done, I guess, was sit with them for an hour or two and jot down the Really Would listen to songs, for eventual purchase, now that we've gone back to a side-based, rather than album-based, economy.

there was a nifty article - this - the premise:

Where else can the development of portable music players go? They can only get smaller, larger capacity, different storage technology and convergence/integration. But the boundary has been crossed. ... The portable record player’s life was ended by the portable cassette player, whose life was only as good as when someone built an affordable portable device for playing “those new fangled CD thingies’, whose life would be cut short by the next music media format - would it be DVDs? Mini-discs? ... But no, something else happened instead. There has been no new media. CDs are still the major form of music distribution. Yet the hottest portable music players on the market do not play them. ... The compact disc format - whether it be CD, DVD or mini-disc - is the end of the line for the distribution of music by external media.

also learned yesterday that the online business of selling songs for listening is "dwarfed" by the online business of selling ringtones. according to this, 23% of cell phone owners have downloaded ringtones. about 4/5 of those were purchased, so about 18% of cell phone users have bought a ringtone off the net - which is "intriguing" because ringtones usually cost a couple bucks and you can't really listen to them.

more intriguing to me is that this suggests a different explanation for the ipod phenom - music as decoration for technology. both the white headphones and the ringtones speak of musicality without giving the witness a musical experience. so there's a certain social tempo being set and followed. rather than an insider/outsider thing, it's like a continuity of rhythm, emphasizing and dramatizing the beat in public spaces. maybe extending "home" outward.

here is what i think to be a nearly finished form of my hands-off deejay program for itunes. it only works on macs because it uses applescript.

party shuffle is preferring higher rated songs.

4 smart playlists assemble for party shuffling:
unfamiliar songs (can play again in 2 wks)
familiar songs (can play again in 2 mos)
burned-in songs (5 mos)
duplicates (treated as either familiar or burned-in)

1 smart playlist shows recently played songs that still have ratings. an applescript strips the ratings.

4 smart playlists catch the escapees for rating. if a song has been available to play for more than 4 mos, it pops up in these playlists (divided by familiarity) and that same applescript applies a rating (3-5 stars depending on which list).

i figure in a month or so things will settle in. right now a chunk of the library hasn't been played for months due to mistakes in the first algorithm. so the whole thing is going through a correction and about 3/5 of party shuffles are songs not heard since way-when. which is pretty cool, actually.

(i've found no significant difference between itunes's preference for 3 stars over 5 stars. maybe because i'm not rating songs as the programmers expected and the math - only 1/7 of songs are rated - is too weird?)

ah sorry i forgot. how does familiarity work. i put small tags in the "grouping" field of the song.

hmm - familiar but want to hear it more.
o'p - overplayed
dnp - do not play - out of shuffle but not unchecked
eek - songs not to play when the sweetie is around

as things stand now multiple tags do actually work together. so if a song is "hmm dupe" then it gets treated as "o'p" and so does its twin.

all this together should go through the whole mess at least once a year, possibly twice.

yes - there is no other person talking. i'm leaving these notes here... i don't know why.

when i started trying to solve the problem of playing through everything of a large music library without either noticeable repeats or staggering of particular tracks --

okay for those who don't know this, this is the second big randomizing project i've tried. the first involved seeing every very-well-regarded movie ever made in no particular order - slavishly so. that is still ongoing, a couple a week, and it continues to be largely a surprise which ones i'll see and even what they are, what they're about, stuff like that. but the shock of the last ten years (the movie project started in 1998, shortly after seeing the umbrellas of cherbourg for the first time and loving it) - the shock was discovering that movies while not entirely irrelevant are bad at transmitting cultural information and in particular, they can't communicate to foreigners what it is that makes a given individual enjoy living in their own place.

i'll just leave that. it's probably really obvious to people anyway even if they might put it another way. no - how about this: a movie is essentially a shopping list of things to love written in beautiful colors. it isn't alive and the people who will be using the list are the ones who will make it live. this brings up things about reading documents... audience, "author" (which becomes a ridiculous thing when you're talking about who "made" a movie)...

sometime last year i'd seen so many movies that i could predict events in art films from 1930s bangladesh and tell from colors where and when it was shot and stuff like that. useless junk unless you're a librarian, but it convinced me that something wasn't there. there wasn't good evidence of everyday utility in movies. i don't know if i can draw a line like this but, for me, there's this line. it separates one set of symbols from another. on one side, art-tools, on the other side, art-other. art-tools are community symbols that everyone can use and blend with their own stuff.

i don't know why but somehow because of their ubiquity i thought movies - even though they're ridiculously expensive - i thought they were sort of community property, with elements that people could use for making themselves. and i think they are in some ways. but nowhere even remotely near the complete usefulness of music.

music is just really close to us. it predates us. it may have been part of what made us. concepts of concepts as rhythms and responses and such. even more complicated if you think of a particular singing animal as a concept itself - that's not a bird, that's a flying swamp puddle, and it/they are communicating a desire to make more flying puddles please.

communication isn't dry. harmony is the thing. it's the reason for talking, not the transmission of information. i mean i knew this. you see social discord and it's almost always a cadence mismatch.

this is sort of funny because there are so many groups of people for whom social participation means making music together. but those people would probably not think of learning 4/4 time with a backbeat or the trickier clave as the equivalent of saying "please" and "thank you." time signatures aren't etiquette, they're proof of living. worth killing for. worth your life.

anyway it looks like now i can really start loading the computer with music and as with the movie algorithm, the songs will come back almost as though i'd never thought about them at all. past results indicate it will take me a few months to forget having made the algorithm.

Well, and I'm enjoying reading it (and the 'author' question for a movie is similar in a way to the 'author' question for legislation). My problem at the moment is that I've gone on a small binge of getting more music (I wrote new music, but most of it ain't new) onto my hard drive, which requires me, on the system I've been using, to listen to each new song at least twice to rate it before I can include it in my system. That means that after I set up my elaborate system for playing music without thinking about it, I haven't used it much over the last two months.
On the other hand, you are setting up a system for playing music and thinking about it, without (much) intervention song-to-song. I think that's terrific. I particularly like how you are using the 'rating' stars for your own purposes. I'm cranky about how iTunes (among others) imposes its sense of how I want to listen to stuff, both with the stars as if a song has just one quality rating, as opposed to different kinds of appropriatenesses and with the single genre which makes no sense to me whatever. I mean, the big advantage of hyperlinking, right, is that I can shelve something on the blues shelf and on the rock shelf, and on the jazz shelf, too, if that's where I'll look for it. It seems like it would be easy to accomodate database nerds like myself, without having all the options intimidating people who just want to listen to albums.

I wish I had something worth adding to david's essay on movies and music. Sadly, today is a small thoughts day for me, so instead I'll talk about my music-shuffling strategy.

In an ideal world, my music would not be played from shuffled lists. Instead, each time a song ended, a new song would be picked randomly out of the library with each song weighted by a function of how many times I had played it and how recently it had been played. There would be speakers out in the main part of the house even though there's no place for the computer out there, with a small set of controls: levels and a skip button.

The speakers/controls thing will have to wait for me to get significantly more crafty, but in the meantime I'm roughly approximating the random selection bit with playlists. I've made a set of "at least N plays" playlists, with Ns going by x^1.6 and 1.6^x -- I haven't decided whether I want to weight by the root or the log of the number of times a song has been played -- which all get included in a master playlist, so that more-played songs get included multiple times. All playlists exclude songs that have been played within the last month.

actually you can buy the speakers/controls thing off the shelf for something like $300. a wireless receiver with audio out (like airport express but i think there are others), a good set of powered speakers, a remote for the wifi gizmo, a power strip. added bennie is internet radio in the living room. there are also stereo components that do some of these things too but they cost more than the kit.

my temperament is such that i hate rating things. i'd rather do that on the front end - for both movies and music there's so much good stuff to which i have not been exposed, and about which people have written volumes, i can't get to all of it in my lifetime. it's a little dishonest though. the approach ends up looking for conventional music from outlying groups (where center is me OC). it may lack color, i have no idea.

i thought of doing some kind of stack like that though not with logs or such. a year from now i may need something like that because the majority of the music is familiar. so why didn't i do it. when i looked at how often things were happening, i thought the odds of a particular song coming up were so bad that schemes for precise timing wouldn't work. for instance if you gave it a 1 week window, you'd miss the window consistently. size of window just doesn't work well unless you're going to severely constrain the sequence of songs. which you could do. if you script this you could even stick a rank in a useless field like bpm and sort on that if you want to keep the ratings for something else. then just have a smart playlist that included only high-rank songs and run the script every once in a while to refill that playlist.

movies and agreements. nifty! probably the biggest difference (apart from the "outright lie" part) is how many of the major authors of a movie do not have authority to sign the final version. ultimately that's between the director(s), editor(s), and producers.

essentially the scripted ranking system idea is a kludge for having calculated fields. what we need is OOPtunes. every track knows when it's needed.

#3 - i forgot the other reason to prefer using the ratings over tiers in the bpm field or somewhere similarly available and easy. the ratings aren't stored in the music file's own meta data; when backing up, only the itunes database needs to recorded. yes, having lost the whole library to a hard drive mess earlier this year and then having to re-rip the lot of it - yes virginia we do backups now thank you very much.

pre-tag test

#4 here's an applescript that would generate scores based on those preferences.

tell application "itunes"
repeat with aTrack in playlist "library"
set bpm of aTrack to (score generator here) * 999 as integer
end repeat

the advantage of that is that you can correct the raw score as seen fit for length-of-time-not-played. (bpm allows only 3-digit integers.)

the various gizmos are working well. after this flurry of little posts i came up with something good to actually do with the bpm field: get rid of thinking about decades!

i wrote a script that puts the years difference between now and the year listed on the track into the bpm field. in most places, instead of the year, the bpm field now displays, so that what you see is how long ago a song was recorded. this gives a referent without binding the song to an epochal stereotype; the song, the musicians, and the original audience get back a little power.

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