And All That You Hear: Mastered for iTunes

Apple announced today a new service or product or category or something called Mastered for iTunes. You can see the thing for yourself in iTunes at this link courtesy of The Mac Observer; here is the description from Apple if you don’t want to bother reading it there:

Mastered for iTunes means these albums have been specially tuned for higher fidelity sound on your computer, stereo, and all Apple devices. Browse a range of music across all genres below, and keep checking back as we add more music that is mastered specifically for iTunes.

What this means is anyone’s guess, at least until people prod Apple for details and if Apple deigns to respond. Most likely they’re just compressing the tracks to make them sound louder and punchier. This would make them sound worse rather than better, especially on an iMac or a pair of pack-in iPod earbuds, but that does seem to be where modern tastes have landed us. I don’t suppose I will ever know, as I’m not going to re-buy any of my (relative few) iTunes purchases to compare old and new versions.

What caught my eye was the categories of music available in this new format. You have your Jazz, your Classical and whatnot. And then you have this:

Tastes come and go, but any format meant to appeal to serious audiophiles has to have the Floyd catalog. One day, music players may be able to stream music directly into our brains, leveraging the mind’s extraordinary sensory powers to make you feel as though you are within and surrounded by the music, inhabiting it in every fiber of your being, every nerve ending ablaze with it. And no one will buy it until you can play Dark Side of the Moon in it.

Edited the title to improve the Floyd reference. I can’t believe I got that wrong.

They May Take Our Lives, But They’ll Never Take Our Freebird

Today on Popdose I published a piece making fun of people who yell “Freebird” at concerts. (I know, I know. Tomorrow I’m going to write a piece making fun of airline food.) I don’t usually post links to stuff I write on other websites, but I wanted an excuse to use the above graphic. I created it to go with the story but ended up using another one, and didn’t want this one to go to waste. It kind of freaks me out, truthfully. Don’t look at it too long.

Check out the piece here.

I Know What Conservatives Like. I Know What Liberals Want.

Conservatives don’t like things that liberals like. That’s not surprising, nor is it surprising that the reverse pretty well applies: liberals don’t like things that conservatives like. Where the difference starts to creep in is that conservatives seem more likely to take this stance to its next logical step: going out of their way to do things that liberals don’t like, solely because liberals don’t like them — even if doing that thing ultimately harms them.

For instance, there was a great deal of attention given recently to a study that tried to persuade people to reduce their energy usage at home. Notices were sent to the highest-consuming households with gentle suggestions that the household in question could do better in conserving energy. The study found that Democratic households were likely to reduce their usage in response; Republican ones, by contrast, were likely to increase it. As noted in the linked article, Rush Limbaugh even encouraged his listeners to turn on all of their lights during Earth Hour, a gesture that certainly cost his audience many thousands of dollars in wasted utility spending. Glenn Beck told his audience not merely to refrain from using their own grocery bags, but to use as much plastic as possible. That’ll show us tree huggers!

It is a commonplace among conservatives that liberals are bereft of humor and joy, hate individual liberty and derive their sole pleasure from curtailing other people’s happiness. A popular conservative slogan goes “Annoy a Liberal: Work Hard and Be Happy.” As a liberal myself, I think it’s only fair to confess that this supposition is true. At our secret monthly meetings (which we totally have, usually in mosques or Whole Foods stores), my fellow liberals and I like to swap stories about the various successes we have had in jealously undermining the successful and the hard-working, persuading women to have abortions and redistributing as much of America’s material wealth to undeserving poor and minority households as possible. We like to strategize about which decadent cultural practice we ought to demonize next: how about off-roading, or fishing? And we speak of the true ache in our hearts when we contemplate those who are prosperous and happy, and who bear the lowest tax burden of nearly anyone in the First World. It is our mission to destroy such comforts, and we will get there one day, Dawkins willing.

At any rate, in the spirit of free discussion, I would like to confess on behalf of my fellow liberals several other activities we liberals hate, and which our conservative countrymen may feel compelled to adopt.

1. Punching Yourself in the Face
As a liberal, my reflexive compassion compels me to help people whether they want it or not. Were I to see a successful American savagely pummel his own mug into swollen, eggplant-like mush in defiance of my touchy-feely values, I would want to see him restrained, evaluated and possibly commited for his own protection. You’re not going to just let me get away with that, are you?

2. Setting Fire to $100 Bills
Little-known fact: the smoke from burning American currency is actually deadly to liberals, and the higher the denomination, the more toxic the fumes. If you were to bring a $5,000 bill to a David Sedaris reading and set it on fire, you would kill most of the audience in the space of a few seconds. You probably don’t have a $5,000 bill, so an equivalent amount of Benjamins would probably do the trick (I haven’t actually tried it).

3. Giving Away All of Your Possessions to a Poor Family
Hey, it’s the government’s job to confiscate your wealth and redistribute it! Stop that!

I offer these suggestions in the hope that my conservative countrymen will make reasoned decisions based on what is actually good for them, rather than what they imagine to be bad for someone else. If that doesn’t work, well, maybe someone will actually punch himself in the face, which would be kind of funny. Glenn Beck, care to take this one up?

Lordy Lordy.

I am 40 years old today.

When I was growing up, 40 was the official over-the-hill birthday. A 40th birthday party involved novelty canes, ear trumpets, black armbands, walkers and other unfunny, made-to-be-thrown-away crap that occupied a dedicated shelf at Spencer’s Gifts. It still does, somewhat, but as I’ve aged I’ve noticed that culturally, we have tacitly agreed to move back the point beyond which “it’s all downhill from here.” As more Baby Boomers edge closer to the abyss, we have grown less willing to draw the line at which we must admit to ourselves that we are, finally, old.

I am a bit unsure of what to make of it all. Statistically, the odds are that my life is more than half over. When I think of all the things I would like to have done by this age – mostly involving writing and traveling, neither of which I’ve done to anything like the extent I once hoped – I am torn between two competing realizations: that youthful dreams rarely come true and mostly aren’t even meant to, and that I have squandered too much of the only existence I will ever have.

How badly should I feel that I have never lived abroad (well, apart from that semester in college), written a novel or been to Italy? That I work in the corporate world and have often substituted workplace ambition for personal or artistic goals? Is there any point in regretting the many mistakes I’ve made — situations where I sacrificed my happiness for someone else, gave into fear and laziness or knowingly made a bad decision to spare someone’s feelings?

I tell myself that any mistake is worth making as long as I learn from it. I tell myself that it is never too late to do the things that matter to me: to live in a place I don’t know, to use my talents for my own ambitions rather than for my bosses’, to live a life I will be grateful for once it’s over. I think these are valid views — but I would, wouldn’t I?

Shortly before he died, Christopher Hitchens said, “You have to choose your future regrets.” We can never fulfill all our dreams — not if our dreams are worth the name. I haven’t fulfilled all that many of mine. But I do have a beautiful, intelligent and fantastically talented woman to share my life with; reasonably good health; and that persistent, nagging urge to do something more than show up to a job every day — to make something lasting that reflects who I am.

Yes, I wish I had more time ahead of me. But do I wish I were younger? Not a chance. What wisdom I have has been very dearly bought. I wouldn’t rather be anywhere else than where I am today.

Happy birthday? Why, yes it is, thank you.

And My Dream of a Better iPod Takes Another Blow

Good news, everyone! Oh wait — not so good news:

If you want to buy an iPod shuffle or iPod classic from Apple, you should do it sooner rather than later. We’ve heard those two iPods are getting the axe this year. (Courtesy TUAW)

Assuming this is true, is it likely that Apple is going to release a 128-gigabyte iPod touch this Christmas, so that die-hard music lovers might find something in their stockings that comes close to suiting their needs? I’m guessing not. The mp3 player market is dead. They are to this young decade what digital watches were in the ’80s: formerly sleek emblems of progress reduced in price and stature until they ended up being sold out of gumball machines.

Time was that Apple needed to offer a high-capacity iPod model to stand out from the competition. Now that race is run, and music playing is just one more function on a smart phone, or a handheld gaming and Internet device (to describe the iPod touch accurately). If the rumor is true and the shuffle is in line for the axe along with the classic, that means that the iPod nano will be the only remaining device Apple makes whose primary function is to store and play music — and i think it’s reasonable to assume that the nano will itself continue to exist only until Apple can price an iPod touch below $199. (Side bet: if the above rumor comes to pass, watch the nano drop to $99.)

So why is this a big enough deal that I keep harping on it? Because there is no smartphone or iPod touch that can do what an iPod classic does: hold a library of songs numbering in the tens of thousands, all stored locally and accessible without a network connection. And it does not offer a hardware interface optimized for playing music.

Don’t mistake this for sentimentality or Ludditism. (Ludditery?) I recently started using Rdio and was sufficiently taken with it that I thought it might obviate the need for my iPod classic. It offers a sizable library to choose from, the mobile app is pretty slick and it has some nice music discovery tools. But it doesn’t offer the granularity of iTunes: the ability to rate songs, tag songs, construct dynamic playlists or change metadata. In short, it doesn’t afford the kind of advantages that come from owning and curating your own music files. So Rdio on my iPhone is like having two different, mutually incompatible music libraries, one of which has everything by the Beatles (in mono, even) and not much else, the other of which is so ungainly it has 12 different songs called “Learning to Fly,” just because I wanted to see how many there are. (There are more than 12, but it was starting to get ridiculous.) And if I want to, say, make a playlist with “Flying” and Kate Earl’s “Learning to Fly”? Well, that ain’t happening. I can put Kate Earl on my iPod, but I can’t put the Beatles on Rdio.

If the classic is going away, then I and thousands of others like me are marooned. Our choices are to either keep our devices operating until Apple offers a new product that can serve our needs (mine is already three years old and on its second battery), or jump ship for something else. Such a change, for all I know, may not be possible, or if it’s possible, it may not be worth the trouble. Leaving the iPod will also mean leaving iTunes, and the information that app has stored about my music — my ratings, my playlists, which songs I’ve played or skipped in a given time — is, given the nerd-tastic way I listen to music, almost as valuable as the music itself.

So while I am chagrined to arrive at the end of the road with my iPod, I am hopeful that some competitor out there will finally seize the opportunity to build a music player that offers us what Apple will not. People are still buying vinyl records, for god’s sake. You mean to tell me there is really no return on catering to rabid music listeners — people who have already demonstrated their willingness to devote a lot more of their income to music than the average person?

Anyone want to sell me an mp3 player?

The Unelucidated Facebook Tragedy

You’re scrolling your Facebook news feed, populated with friends, acquaintances, relatives, that guy you met waiting in line to get into a concert, coworkers you never speak to, and so on. Down the list you come to that old high school friend you haven’t seen since graduation. (That is a long time ago. You are approaching 40, like me. And you are probably losing your hair, and you really ought to do something about that belly. But I digress.) Next to her name you see something like this:

To our beloved Cassie [for example] — you would have been 16 years old today. Daddy and I miss you so much and we carry you in our hearts every day. We love you!

Hmm. I take it something happened.

I am not making light of anyone’s tragedy. Truly — the thought of losing a child is horrifying to me and I don’t even have any children. But being a person who suffers from a degree of social awkwardness, I have a masochistic fascination with this kind of social cul-de-sac. The person who posted about this loss obviously did so in the knowledge that those close to her would know what she was talking about. I have not spoken to her in person in twenty years, and barely even pass the time with her on Facebook, and so I have no idea what she’s talking about, apart from what I can infer. The dilemma, obviously, is this:

Is it appropriate to ask for more details when a distant Facebook friend refers to a personal tragedy you know nothing about?

On the one hand, the simple answer appears to be, why not? If they posted it to Facebook of their own accord, it would seem they are capable of engaging with the subject on at least a limited basis. Imagine the corollary real-world experience: you are making the rounds at your high school reunion. Having already met and greeted this friend earlier in the evening, you find yourself near her in a quiet corner where you can exchange words. And she says to you, My daughter would have been 16 years old today. I still think about her all the time. In this situation, it is obviously completely appropriate to ask for more information — indeed, it would be rude not to, and your friend certainly wants to be able to share with you the pain and loss that she has carried with her.

But Facebook is not real life, and it is really not even close to real life. There is nothing in the real world that maps to Facebook’s strange social stew of acquaintances, ex-boyfriends, bosses, grade-school friends, parents and that really nice gal you met at Subway all bobbing around in the same virtual medium. Unless you take the time to stratify these people into castes and direct certain posts only at certain groups — which, judging by my personal experience, virtually no Facebook user knows how to do — your tragic outpouring is hitting every pair of eyeballs with the same force. It seems crazy to think that someone would compose a reflection on the death of her own child that is equally suitable for both her mother and for a schoolmate she hasn’t seen since Please Hammer, Don’t Hurt ‘Em came out. Therefore, I think she can’t be doing it on purpose: the Facebook settings that would allow her to target her post to a select group of readers must either be too opaque to figure out or she just doesn’t know about them. Which leaves me thinking, again, that I really ought to not say anything.

I don’t know. I really have no clue what is the appropriate thing to do. But I can tell you this: if you came to this post through a link on my Facebook wall, it’s because I wanted you, and you specifically, to see it. I think I’ve had all the social ambiguity I can take for a while.