Sunday, September 30, 2007

13 Years Over, to be Exact

My hand stamp from tonight's They Might Be Giants concert at The Fillmore. They are getting more like a "normal" band as they age, and I do miss the days when it was just two Johns and a bunch of electronics, but they still put on a great show.

D and I also saw In the Shadow of the Moon earlier today. It's a great documentary, even if you already know the Apollo program inside and out; it's not so much about giving new information as it is about seeing and hearing the astronauts themselves talk about it.

I was born after the last humans walked on the Moon, and I'm hoping I don't die before we go back.

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Saturday, September 29, 2007

It Belongs in a Museum!

Specifically, the NASA Ames Exploration Center. I've been living in the bay area for over a decade, and this was the first time I'd visited. What's wrong with me?

(In case you're wondering, the button rotates the SOFIA telescope array in a model airplane.)

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Friday, September 28, 2007

Advantage: Amazon

Earlier this week, launched their MP3 Music Store. In the three days since then, I've bought two complete albums from them--that's as many as I've ever bought from the iTunes Store, in more than three years. And I'm going to end up buying a lot more music from Amazon. You know why? Because they don't treat me like a criminal.

I hate DRM. I hated it when I first succumbed to the lure of the iTunes Store (convenient! fast!), but I had a good reason--I just couldn't wait to get the Avenue Q soundtrack. Note that I also bought the physical CD later, from Amazon, because I wanted a copy of the music that I could easily transfer to other devices later.

I hate that I can't burn more than seven copies of an iTunes-purchased song to a mix CD. I also hate that iTunes slaps me in the face with a pop-up dialog after the first few copies, but primarily, I hate the arbitrary restrictions.

Like this one: I can't "authorize" more than five computers at a time for my iTunes account, and I can only reset the list once per year. Why does Apple care how many computers I have? More to the point, if I have a dozen different machines, why doesn't Apple want me to use iTunes on all of them? Shouldn't they make it easier, not harder, for me to buy their stuff? Do they want my business or not?

Back in 2000, publisher Jim Baen started the Baen Free Library, a web site featuring free downloads of complete novels by various science fiction and fantasy authors. One of those authors, Eric Flint, wrote the introduction on the home page. An excerpt:
I'm not worried about [piracy], however, basically for two reasons.

The first is a simple truth which Jim Baen is fond of pointing out: most people would rather be honest than dishonest.

He's absolutely right about that. One of the things about the online debate over e-piracy that particularly galled me was the blithe assumption by some of my opponents that the human race is a pack of slavering would-be thieves held (barely) in check by the fear of prison sentences...

The only time that mass scale petty thievery becomes a problem is when the perception spreads, among broad layers of the population, that a given product is priced artificially high due to monopolistic practices and/or draconian legislation designed to protect those practices. But so long as the "gap" between the price of a legal product and a stolen one remains both small and, in the eyes of most people, a legitimate cost rather than gouging, 99% of them will prefer the legal product.
I've probably quoted this bit before, and I'm sure I'll do it again. It's a great argument against the very principle of DRM, and I wish it would get more play in the mainstream media.

The "price" of buying music in a digital format--whether it's MP3, OGG, or (preferably unprotected) AAC--includes ease of use. The whole point of having an MP3 collection is that it's easier to manage than a CD collection--easier to make copies for backup purposes or for sharing with friends, easier to search for specific songs and make playlists.

And the people who want to do all those things love music. We're not Sunday listeners; we're walking around with iPods and blogging about our favorite bands. We respect the people who make music, and we don't want to steal from them.

Amazon is doing more than offering a great new service; they're building goodwill. I'm already happy to fork over $80 a year for "Amazon Prime" (free 2-day shipping on most items), and in a world where brand loyalty is getting rarer every day, that's saying a lot. I trust them. And I like that they trust me.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

iPod's Surprising Lack of Usability

I'll keep a running list here of what I perceive to be shocking lapses of usability in the iPod. I find these on a weekly if not daily basis. Of all devices I've recently purchased, this has been such a disappointment, and frankly, a complete surprise given it's commercial success. Feel free to comment away.

1. Lack of a true shuffle.
  • It has TWO shuffle settings in two different menus. One setting can be set to "Shuffle OFF" and the second can be used to override it and start shuffle mode. But the first setting will still display "Shuffle OFF"
  • Shuffle doesn't truly shuffle randomly. Instead it hits every song once in the set. And if you put it on repeat, it repeats the exact same set again instead of reshuffling. It's the most simplistic shuffling algorithm possible.

2. No purpose-built tagging facility. Oft-mentioned on the web but still a huge pain point.
  • From iTunes desktop app, one needs to overload an existing field in order to tag.
  • Can't tag from the iPod player where most are likely to listen from.

3. Can't continue listening to music while browsing for new music.
  • When listening to music in the iTunes app, if you browse in the music store to an album or artist page, the player will stop, even though you haven't selected a sample track.
4. Can't move songs from iPod to desktop iTunes app.
  • I don't buy the piracy argument. There are ways of making this non-batchable that it would limit wholescale transportation of music. Besides, keep the precious DRM on the tracks and allow me to move them. I'm (grudgingly) willing to authorize another desktop to play the music if you'll just let me move my songs between my two laptops.
5. Can't sync iPod to two computers.
  • Palm has done a wonderful job of allowing sync between multiple computers, figuring out how to just Do The Right Thing. Apple can't? Not so hard to set a dirty bit, figure out which copy is most recent, etc.
  • There is increasingly a need for this. How many of you have different personal and work computers where you wish you could maintain not just your music but your meta information (smart playlists, play counts, unfortunately-ghetto tagging, etc.)
More to come, but for an audience who are passionately in love with music, iPod has sadly fallen short on so many opportunities.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Quote of the Day

"I can't believe NBC is promoting Bionic Woman like this. What a terrible idea."
- snarky comment on Boing Boing: MIT student arrested for entering Boston airport with "fake bomb"

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Best Logline EVAR

Here's the official marketing blurb for the movie Rogue (2007):

"An American writer (Michael Vartan) goes on a wildlife boat tour in the Australian wetlands and is pleased to see that leading him into the wilderness is a hot tour guide (Radha Mitchell). However, his plans for romance as well [as] writing [are] set on the backburner when they're attacked by a giant crocodile with a taste for human flesh."

I mean, what more do you need to know?

Thursday, September 06, 2007

"Mandelbrot Set" Music Video

"This next one is a song about math. [crowd cheers] Wow, this is probably the only place in the world where that would get applause."
- Jonathan Coulton at PAX

(You can hear the complete song at Coulton's web site.)

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Flight of the Bowie

Okay, so I'm a few weeks behind, but I watched the "Bowie" episode of Flight of the Conchords last night, and musically, it's brilliant. Even better than the guest appearance by the man himself on Extras last year, I'd say.

And it really works because they don't even attempt to explain why David Bowie (well, their version of him, anyway) shows up in the episode. Bowie exists in a reality unto himself, and that's part of the joke. Total genius.

Here's Bret dreaming about "1976 David Bowie, from the Ziggy Stardust tour:"

And here's the first part of the absolutely fabulous "Bowie's In Space" music video:

My only complaint about the series is that outside of the songs, the comedy tends to be a little too broad. The gender role reversal in "Girlfriends" was hilarious, but the main characters--Jermaine, Bret, and band manager Murray--are played as complete idiots who wouldn't survive a New York minute in the real world. I don't mind that they're clueless, or naively child-like, but being so utterly vacant is starting to break the fourth wall for me.

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Dollars and Sense

"$5 an episode?" asks screenwriter Alex Epstein on his blog. That's what NBC wanted to charge for their TV shows in the iTunes store, which Apple refused to do, preferring to stick with their current $2-per-episode price.

(Not to say I told you so, but I talked about this distribution method in my 2001 "Pay for TV" post. It's really only a matter of time before blind broadcasting--i.e., spewing content into the ether without knowing if anyone's actually watching--is a thing of the past.)

I'd love to pick a side here, but both Apple and NBC are being pretty boneheaded. I'm guessing NBC is already trying to figure out how to build their own online video store, but even if they do, it will suck. On the other hand, Apple needs to think about broadening its pricing horizons.

$5 an episode is too much, but Alex makes some good points about how consumers would be willing to pay a little more for the newest shows, and would be more willing to buy reruns if they were a little cheaper. You wouldn't sell stale bread at the same price as a fresh loaf; treat content the same way.

Look. If your show is any good at all, you're going to make money. We want to watch TV. We'll even pay for it. But don't get greedy! Push the price up too far, or make it too annoying to deal with your idiotic DRM crap, and people will just flock to BitTorrent.

UPDATE 2007-09-05: NBC is going with Amazon Unbox. No word yet on exactly what their packaging/pricing scheme will be, but hopefully Amazon can talk some sense into the peacock.