08 December 2005


Posted by Jameson Penn

12 November 2005

Bringing Order to Chaos: My Music Collection

Posted by Jameson Penn
An iPod is a wonderful thing.

And while only a few short years ago, I would have made an effort to say mp3 player rather than iPod in my previous statement, that changed once I became equiped with my 4 gig iPod Mini. My enjoyment is derived from far more than the mere hardware, which is simplistic and ideal in its own right, but rather the complementing iTunes suite. Arguably, it is the most important software to affect the digital music revolution. Well-- that's stiffing Protools, Reason, and Mixmeister-- my beloved dj program of choice --but I assume you get the point.

I've been posting about online music (my apple customer service experience, thoughts on online music services, demographic podcasting fact, thoughts on the mp3j movement, dabblings in podcasting, etc.) but have failed to discuss my obsession of smart playlists, one of the greatest features of iTunes. Its true benefit is the way it brings the beauty and brilliance of database management to the common Joe who probably doesn't give two shits about efficient data management and warehousing. Ah, well. Leave it to the total geeks --like apparently me. I digress.

Smart Playlists provide an easy filtering medium that improves your music organization through a simple process to sort, manage, and update your music library. I've stolen some ideas posted on smartplaylists.com, which no doubt has great ideas, but as a whole, the website is a pain to navigate.

Consider this versatility: an iPod performs great as a physical locker for all your music. You can sort by songtitle, artist, album, genre, playlist, etc. That's great, but let's say your music library dwarfs the capacity of your iPod. You can pull songs on and off the iPod manually, but what fun is that?
Imagine a web of interweaving smart playlists that produce an array of mix playlists that will dynamically change. Generally, I have seven types of playlists that are synched to my iPod Mini. Below is a description for each type, some examples, and a quick how-to.

With the exception of the Manual Selection Lists, all smart playlists are modified so that they only include songs that have not been played in the last __ days. I tend to flop between 2 weeks and 3 weeks. I find I vary based on the genre because of the varying number of available songs for each category. Additionally, I only include songs that are unrated, or have four or five stars.

I determine a song's rating based on the following scale:
One Star: Delete. I don't need it either because it's a duplicate or the audio is distorted. Every one or two weeks I query my one-star songs and remove them from my computer.

Two Stars: Annoying and I don't want to hear it unless I have to. For example, I tend to lump interludes, skits, intros, outros, and live rants into this category. I don't delete them because maybe one day I'll want to hear Wyclef's The Carnival with all of those courtroom skits ("That's pure beeeesheeeeeet!").

Three Stars: Decent song that wouldn't make me change the radio station if it came on. This category includes OK songs on a good album, anything by the Dixie Chicks that I'm archiving for Christina, and much, much more.

Four Stars: Good songs that just aren't great. If I hear it five times in a row while waiting for the check, I would still think it's a decent song.

Five Stars: Best of the Best. Play it over and over and I'll still be happy to hum it a month from now. Alternatively, the CD it's on would have occupied my car disc changer for a full year back when that's I how I would gauge my music.
Now to the different smart playlists:

Genre-Specific Heavy Rotation Lists:
My first step to music organization was maniacally updating every song's information (artist, title, album, genre, year, etc.). For genres, I developed a naming convention that connected allowed a tiered community for songs
of each genre down to as narrow of a subgenre as you desire. The most obsessed I got was Blues Classic Mississippi Delta. As you can see the secret is all in the order of your names. Moving from most general to most specific:

Genre (blues, e.g.) --> subgenre (classic, e.g.)--> Regional Affiliation (Mississippi Delta, e.g.)
Other Examples of such naming: alt rock 80s, alt rock classic, alt rock pop, alt rock, Jazz Swing, Jazz Modern, Jazz French, Jazz Electronic, Jazz Dixieland, Jazz Cuban, Jazz Brazilian, Electronic dnb, Electronic House, Electronic House French, Electronic House Disco, Electronic Lounge, Electronic Trance, Electronic, Hiphop East, Hiphop Dertysouf, Hiphop West, Hiphop, Funksoulbrother, Reggae Dancehall, Reggae; I assume you get the idea.
Even more obsessed, you can make a distinction between those songs that are more Jazz than Electronic than it is Electronic more than Jazz. Or vice versa. I see the contrast in Jazzanova versus a remixed Blue Note collection by a modern house dj.
Example: Alt Rock Rotation (Genre|contains|Alt Rock; MyRating|Range|4-5; Limit to 25 songs; and Selected by Most Recently Played).
Most Often Played Song Lists
These playlists provide a quick reference for my favorite songs. Ratings alone don't help, particularly when half of your rated songs are five stars. Therefore, I measure favorites by how often I've actually listened to the songs. Further, I've broken the lists up into manageable pieces. These I have in mind are: Top 40, Top 41-120, Top 121-200, and Top 201-500.
Examples: Top 40 (Playcount|>|0; MyRating|not|1,2,3; Genre|notcontain|podcast, audiobook, unclassifiable; Limit|40; Selectedby|Most Often Played). Top 41-120 (Playcount|>|0; MyRating|not|1,2,3; Playlist|not|Top 40; Limit|80; Selectedby|Most Often Played). The latter list pulls the most often played songs that meet the criteria but must ignore the top 40 songs, leaving 41-120.
Theme-Based Lists
These started by simply employing the comment field in selected songs Info by right-clicking on the track. For all the songs that meet the criteria you're using, select them all, right-click, Get Info, and enter a descriptive keyword that will be used for this them. Use the comment field in a smart playlist filter.
Example: El Caribe (Comment|contains|El Caribe; Last Played|notlast|14 days; MyRating|not|1,2,3; Limit|60 songs) . El Caribe is for Caribbean, Reggae, Latin Jazz, etc.

***NOTE be sure to keep in mind whether you want to use the contains or is modifier when filtering the comment field. I have several songs that are included numerous themes cataloged by this method. This allows me to pull the songs into different theme lists.***
Maintenance Lists
These work behind the scenes because sometime you can't include all filters simulatenously. At the top of the Edit Smart Playlist window, you can either match all or any of the included criteria. For instance, a first playlist, will include any tracks that are in X, Y, or Z playlists. Unselecting the limit of songs allows this playlist to serve as a dumping ground for any that meet your criteria. A higher tiered list will manipulate that set of songs. (see below)
Example: =BPMDanceParty (Playlist|is|BPM116-120, BPM116-120, BPM121-123, BPM122-14, BPM123-125, BPM126-130; Unselect Limit)
Tiered-Maintenance Lists
Tiers arrive once all of the filters can't be run at the same time. A second playlist will include only tracks from the first playlist that haven't been played in __ days, have MyRating=__, etc. You can't include these filters in the first because you chose the include as any, not all. The resulting list would include some songs that haven't been played in __ days, some that have MyRating=__days, and so on.
Example: *BPMDanceParty (Playlist|is|=BPMDanceParty; MyRating|not|1,2,3; LastPlayed|not|last14days; Limit|60songs; Select Random).
Manual Selection Lists
Old School playlists, of the drag and drop school. I keep a few around because sometimes I don't want to leave it up to my system to choose my music for me. Really, there is only one I employ: Songs to Hear. I drag and I know I may want to hear on my drive somewhere. The idea of this is to have somewhere for songs that I may want to hear repeatedly within the Last __ days (Aside from the Top 40 lists).

Fresh Mix
This playlist was what started this obsession. Not amused by Apple's attempt at shuffle, I stole an idea from smartplaylists.com that first introduced me to using tiers. See this post on smartplaylists.com for an excellent description of what to do.

MonitoringTraffic by Cellphone Use

Posted by Jameson Penn
Some states including Maryland and Virginia are beginning to monitor traffic by tracking cell phone signals and mapping them against road grids. Very practical approach to take, which is refreshing in light of revenue-hungry localities such as DC who see correlations between driving and cell phone use and issue an outright ban to reign in the revenues.
State officials say the systems will monitor large clusters of phones, not individual phones, and the benefits could be substantial. By providing a constantly updated picture of traffic flow across thousands of miles of highways, they argue, cellphone tracking can help transportation agencies spot congestion and divert drivers by issuing alerts by radio or on electronic road signs.

Next month, Maryland, with the help of the University of Baltimore, plans to begin tests for a cellular tracking system in the Baltimore area. Virginia also plans to test a system around the Norfolk beltway. Similar technology is already in use outside the United States, including in London, Antwerp, Belgium, and Tel Aviv.

"The potential is incredible," said Phil Tarnoff, director of the Center for Advanced Transportation Technology at the University of Maryland. He said the monitoring technology could drivers by issuing alerts by radio or on electronic road signs.

20 October 2005

Host Your Own Podcast For Free! (I am)

Posted by Jameson Penn

For more than five years, I’ve used software to mix mp3s into continuous mixes that I would burn onto CDs that I played in my car and distributed to friends. My mixes got me through many, many hours of pizza deliveries during the ghetto college years of my life. For awhile, I was averaging a mix every week. But admittedly, that was during college when free time was easily managed. Having joined the workforce, time is not so cheap. As a result, my mixes have become less frequent, maybe every three or four weeks.

Stepping back, I can now count more than 100 mixes that are scattered across my desktop and laptop at home, not including those I’ve archived on CD. All in all, I probably have accumulated 150 mixes.

For 2005, my personal New Year’s resolution was to eliminate my dependency on CDs as a media format. They’re wasteful, easily lost, a pain to organize, easily scratched, and lacking in storage capacity. Analog is so last century. Upon my full-on love affair with iTunes + my iPod mini (just say NO! to the Nano), I have realized it makes the most sense to format mixes into podcasts. The mystery was how to host those podcasts for free.

Enter: podomatic. You can have up to 250mb in mp3s for the public to hear and download all for free! I’m in love.

27 September 2005

Screw the iPod Nano

Posted by Jameson Penn
I'm with this guy 110%. Sure, the flash memory is cool. But at what cost? The smaller nano is more fragile, has a shorter battery, fewer options/abilities, and none of the user suggestions apple has compiled.

I've been assuming apple was smart and was merely delaying the flash mini for a later date, but only recently realized that was me thinking they had a better business model. Stupid, stupid, stupid company! Rather, they kill the mini as it's fastest selling iPod, and instead opt to redirect consumer demands they way they have unsuccesfully done in the past.
The most requested features I heard among the Mac web and the AppleXnet audience concerning the iPod mini included higher storage capacities, a color screen, a removable battery, Wi-Fi or Bluetooth, and more battery life. No one was suggesting they wanted a flash-based player over a hard drive one, and no one was complaining about the iPod mini being too wide or too heavy.

In comparison to the iPod mini, the iPod nano made the battery even harder to get at, lowered its battery life, removed the "remote connector," ditched FireWire support, weakened the device making it much more fragile, and features a scrollwheel inconsistent with that rest of the iPod lineup. I've spent the past several weeks scratching my head trying to figure out why Apple did all this, and after pondering long and hard I still can't think of a reasonable answer. The iPod nano is beyond reason from a user standpoint. Apple seems to be riding purely on hype, cool, and the "iPod" brand, because the iPod nano does not offer a single user-requested feature, in fact Apple removed features and lowered capacities.

Would a black iPod mini with an 8GB or 10GB 1-inch hard drive, 20+ hours of battery life, 3rd party device capability, a user-removable battery (similar to what's found on every mobile phone ever made), and a color screen really have been too much to ask for?
My prediction: a smart company takes advantage of this foolishness, copies the mini and improves it in all the ways described above, and unseats apple as the mp3 player king. Once again, Apple proves it may know how to design and present a pretty toy to the public, but it sure as hell doesn't know what to do beyond that.

18 September 2005

Great Customer Service Supporting a Great Product

Posted by Jameson Penn
Working in the consulting field of Customer Relationship Management, I can't help but notice when a company does something better than I expect, and applaude their service. Recently, my beloved iPod mini has been acting up and three days ago, the screen just stopped working. I was very concerned having had plenty of fancy electronic toys crap out on me in the past. In fact, my past experiences braced me for the worst. To Apple's credit, the worst as I expected never happened.

This morning I logged onto the website for my local apple store at Tysons Corner and placed myself in their intuitive queue for support from their supposed genius bar. It just seemed to easy. My appointment would be for 3:05. I drove over to the store, and walked in the store right at 2:45. This gave me enough time to wander the aisles of their foreign hardware and fiddle with the new iPod Nano.

Nice design, and I love the flash memory, but I wouldn't be able to justify the extra expense for a 2 gig mp3 player. When it's time to upgrade Christina's lifestyle, I am still leaning towards a twin iPod mini for her, however I hope for the new flash drive, which will go for the same price as the Nano.

Just as I was fiddling with the JBL subwoofer and tweeters that resemble a school of jellyfish, I heard a genius call my name: Jameson? Jameson Penn? I checked the clock to my left: 2:55 -- 10 minutes before my assigned appointment time. I was quite impressed with their ability to get ahead of schedule. Well done.

I sidle up to the Genius Bar and take out my injured iPod mini. My personal genius looks too hip for his own good, with his mod-style hair, black pants and black shirt, and wide-ruled rhinestone belt. How very Apple. He reads off my summary I entered on the website and I explain I have tried the soft and hard resets, full battery charge, and still no luck. He asks if my iPod software has been updated. I say the most recent version I had was from February of this year, which leads him to grin as though he has quickly solved my problem. His optimism leads to my smile, as I say, that easy?

He plugs in my iPod, updates the software and... nothing. He sighs. Never good when the genius sighs. He quickly punches the keys on his keyboard, turns to me and says: "I have good news and bad news. The bad news is that your iPod is faulty. I see no reason for the failure. I mean, it doesn't look as though it has been dropped (it hadn't). That leads me to the good news. You'll be getting a new iPod. Let me go check our stock."

He jets off, leaving me stunned. In a matter of five minutes, they have admitted that the product may be faulty, resolved the issue, and are about to set me off on my way. At this point, the only thing for me to do is sign a form acknowledging the faulty product, and head on home. Not bad.

Don't get me wrong: I will never be one of the switch stories. But as an avid free marketeer and active consumer, I look to highlight great experiences I have with businesses. There's no way that I will ever join the odd cult of Apple but I will certainly take advantage of their innovatively intuitive products and, now, their seamless customer service. Well done, Apple. Well done.

06 September 2005

Why Are Music Services So Stupid?

Posted by Jameson Penn
The Long Tail is hitting on something very near and dear to my heart: music. The particular question he is asking is:
Why are the current generation of music services so dumb?

Recommendations, playlists and even detailed genre-level organization (which Rhapsody does best) are great, but they're not enough. I want to reorder the world of music my own way, and my way is different from the next guy's way. In the movie world this is easy, because we've got IMDB, which demonstrates what extensive cross-linking of every pertinent fact, from each cast and crew member to all the companies involved, can offer. So why don't we have the same for music?
I completely agree. I've been dabbling with a very basic user-created fields within itunes, which compliment the smart playlists I have setup. In a very limited way, I have links between songs, albums, artists, using groupings and the comments field (as keywords). These aid the ease of use for my complex network of smart playlists, but oh, the places we could go!

The Long Tail mentions Discogs and Upto11, which I have not played with but will definitely check out.

(One of these days I'll go into detail about how I have exploited smart playlists from within itunes, as influenced by smartplaylists.com. But that is a story for another day.)

28 August 2005

Living in Your ATM

Posted by Jameson Penn
Common sense dictates that if something seems too good to be true, than it probably is. As home equity increases, more and more people are taking this to mean that they've struck it rich.

Suddenly, a no-interest, no money down "investment" in a fabulously over-priced condo, townhome, or single-family home is perceived as a golden opportunity for the homeowner. Refinancing that mortage will further draw down equity (if there even is any), but the homeowner walks away richer, at least in the short-term. While this may seem like something you've seen on a late-night "get-rich-quick" pyramid scheme infomercial, that's probably because it has been. In reality, money has not been created for the homeowner, but rather squeezed from their future.

On a macroeconomic scale, think of the consequences of inflation, where the government devalues the dollars held by consumers. In the short-term, everyone holding those dollars feels richer because of the sudden inflow; however in the long-term, inflation leads to the decline in the dollar's stored economic value. The same can be said for all of this "easy money" that is flooding the pockets of homeowners.

It is my opinion that low interest rates and the (artificially) sustained high demand for consumer goods is masking the drastic effects of our general homeowner binge. The Fed will typically raise interest rates to slow growth that may be leading to economic overdrive.

Further compounding the complexity of the situation we currently find ourselves is the fact that people feel richer, unemployment continues at an all-time low rate, and interest rates are still far below historical levels. I can't help but be afraid we are on our way to experiencing our own 10 years+ recession that Japan only recently emerged from.

Indeed, a cautious, if not scary indication of what may come if we don't reign in our consumption and giddy allergies to true equity.

The Graying Entrepreneurial Movement

Posted by Jameson Penn
Unpublished government data show that the number of Americans 55 and older categorized as self-employed in non-agricultural industries has increased 22 percent from 2,136,000 in May, 2000 to 2,598,000 as of May, 2005. These senior entrepreneurs now represent nearly 27 percent of all self-employed workers, which is second only to 45- to 54-year-olds who make up more than 27 percent of the self-employed.
While self-employment was expanding among those 55 and up, it was falling for almost every other age group. The biggest group of self-employed workers in 2000 was the 35- to 44-year-old cohort, which numbered 2,703,000. Their numbers have fallen 10 percent to 2,422,000. Self-employment has also dropped, by about two percent, among 25- to 34-year-olds.
Americans are retiring earlier than ever before and are now taking up second or third careers in their later years. This is an interesting development, given that the entrepreneurial spirit is typically identified in youthful and risky investments.

Web Sudoku

Posted by Jameson Penn

Web Sudoku is simple to understand but difficult to figure out.
The puzzle is most frequently a 9×9 grid made up of 3×3 subgrids (called "regions"). Some cells already contain numbers, known as "givens". The goal is to fill in the empty cells, one number in each, so that each column, row, and region contains the numbers 1–9 exactly once. Each number in the solution therefore occurs only once in each of three "directions", hence the "single numbers" implied by the puzzle's name.