Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Save the iPod!

I’ve been living in the cloud the past few weeks, although not this new-age cloud of streaming music and movie files. The cloud of non-Apple devices and the unbelievable amount of nonsense you need to put up with occasionally to make the devices work properly.

It’s been a few years – I’ve forgotten. And I do have non-Apple devices that work well. The laptop I’m typing this on, for instance. And the Kindle I bought last fall – a fantastic device that works as advertised. But I’m thinking more portable MP3 devices.

For years, I denied the pull of iPods. To me, they seemed like frilly little things people bought purely as accessories to demonstrate how “cool” they were. For most people, they are just that, to this day. Most models don’t hold a lot of music, and the people who carry them don’t have or know a lot of music to put on the device. Therefore, the concept of an iPod with a 32GB capacity seems like a limitless sea of possibilities that they will never fill up.

For me, 32 GB is a bump in the road. Before iPods, I used Creative Nomad Zen players. Had to – at the time, they were the only game in town for larger players, and I first bought a 30 GB player, and then a 60 GB player which, at the time, seemed like a huge field to play on. And so it was, but because it was so big, I figured, time to really dig down in my collection and start putting on music that I know I want to have with me at all times. Hardly entire album and artist collections. But if you’re talking about bands like The Beatles, Kinks or Rolling Stones, there are hundreds of tracks that apply for each bands. I didn’t go wild – I rationally asked myself, now that I have a bigger playing field, what songs do I want immediate access to at all times.

And I kept on with my Emusic account, often taking out monthly booster packs to add extra tracks when I stumbled on an artist who had an intriguing catalog that I wanted to flesh out. And friends, as they do, kept on sending me DVD-Rs and flash drives with enormous amounts of music on them, thousands of songs … which I’d sort through and find what I wanted. And that golden age of blogs and websites that had rare and out-of-print albums on them as RAR files … an age which seems to be passing now with the crackdown on copyright infringement. (I have no problem pulling down music from websites that’s either hard-to-find, absurdly import priced or out of print … not to mention a vast ocean of live and demo material that I used to pay top dollar for at small mom-and-pop record stores that quietly sold this stuff as bootlegs.)

It didn’t take me long to push the limits of 60 GB. I came to a point where I had to start deleting music from the Creative Nomad player because there was no more space, which pissed me off, but what choice did I have? And a few months after that, Apple rolled out it’s 160 GB iPod Classic. Which blew the Creative Nomad (and every other portable device) out of the water with nearly 100 more GB of space. As much as I didn’t want to give my money to Apple and be mistaken for just another hipster with those telltale white earbuds, what choice did I have?

And buying that player was a revelation. It showed me a few things about Apple. The most obvious thing was they charged too much for their product, reason number one why I was never a fan. But they also showed me that while they get away with this, they also put out superior product. Simply stated, the 160 GB iPod Classic was and is the best MP3 player ever made for music lovers. Enough room to roam, the design is such that the player is no larger than half a deck of cards, the battery life is astounding, and iTunes, once you get used to it, is fairly easy to use and convenient. (I know the number of people out there who despise iTunes as a media player is legion, but aside from one glitch a few years ago where an upgrade messed with my files tags, I’ve had zero problems with the software.)

This device has been everything I ever wanted in a portable music player. And so I took the time to re-tag all my files to fit into this new format and started down the iPod road. I’ve gone hog wild in the past few years in terms of branching out into other forms of music. Celtic. African. Brazilian. A smattering of Asian and Indian. Jazz. Classical. I’ve always been curious about these kinds of music, so why not delve in, now that we’re in the digital age, I can sample everything before I buy it, and roam around fairly easily, building good-sized sampling of any genre in a fraction of the time it used to take. Owning this iPod made that not just possible, but somehow pushed me outward to find these things, since I had such a large space to use.

I’ve been on it for five years now with this player, but now find myself coming up on only 10 GB of space left on the player. And now that Apple is doing one of its usual “fuck you, we don’t care what you want, we’re going to tell you what you want, and then we’re going to tell everyone this is the future we must all live in” marketing campaigns for “the cloud” … it seems very unlikely that they’re ever going to put out a new model MP3 player with a larger drive than the 160 GB iPod Classic. In their eyes, it won’t be necessary … we have “the cloud” … there’s no need to store anything anymore.

Well, I know enough about computers to know what bullshit this is. The world, or at least America, is not yet ready for portable device streaming, and may not be for a very long time to come. For one thing, there are data caps in place on most cellphones that crap out after 2.5 GB of monthly data usage. I know … the past few months, my internet use at home has been determined solely by a Virgin Mobile flash-drive 3G modem that I spend $50/month on to get “unlimited” data (which slows to a crawl after 2.5 GB … and is already achingly slow as-is when compared to cable or DSL). I’ve learned not to watch video on the computer with this thing – if I do, I easily reach 2.5 GB of data usage inside a week or two. As it is, I push the limit of usage every month just sampling and downloading from my monthly Emusic account. I don’t even stream music – I can’t. The stream breaks up constantly. When I sample a 30-second piece of music on Emusic to see if I want to buy the track, invariably, the stream will stop somewhere in that 30 seconds, usually somewhere around the 15-second mark.

Using this flash-drive modem been an education on “streaming” and “the future” as it replicates what someone would experience using a phone to “stream media in the cloud.” It sucks. Until folks like AT&T and Verizon decide that we all have unlimited data usage for any plan we choose, streaming on a portable device is not an option. Sounds like a no-brainer? I don’t see it happening. I think AT&T now has a truly unlimited data plan for $80/month … but do you want to pay $80/month for only one device on top of your normal monthly home cable/DSL charges? And that one device is your phone. If you really love music … do you want to listen to music only on your smart phone? With a stream that most likely has lesser sound quality than the MP3s you listen to and, I don’t care what anyone else tells you, will crap out routinely, like when you go underground for any reason (a constant with most New Yorkers and the subway) or enter any kind of situation where streaming signals grow hazy (being out in the country, on open highways, in office buildings, etc.)?

No. The “cloud” is cool for people who don’t have a lot at stake musically. Who look at 32 Gigs of space as a vast sea of space for their music. For those of us who blew by 32 Gigs as an after-thought, streaming is not an option. I’d gather most of us in this boat understand implicitly, there is no substitute for having music you’ve acquired, there in actual files, in the palm of your hand, not being streamed to your device as a monthly rental. I’ve tried a service like Spotify, one of the larger new streaming music sites. It’s fantastic … for the home computer. I can sample albums in their entirety, even put on whole albums and just let them play … on the home computer, with cable. But I would sure hate to try using that on a device. Forget about the monthly data caps that would be reached in a week or two – just knowing the stream would stop and garble routinely in the NYC living area, and drop out completely for the half hour I spend each day on the way to and from work in Manhattan is enough to put me off.

So, faced with this “future” of streaming I recognize as a hard sell to people who don’t really like or care about music (as I’ve stated in the past, that constitutes a massive portion of the audience the music industry pays total attention to for their teenage lifespan, while basically ignoring everyone else), it just doesn’t wash with people who love music. In theory, it should. But theory doesn’t recognize the reality of data caps and satellite signals that grow hazy the farther you get from populated areas … which could be just as easy as hitting any interstate near any major city and driving no more than few miles into the countryside. Or taking a subway train. Or being in an office in any metropolitan area where cellphone service is bad to non-existent.

So what do I do? I do the next best thing. There’s one other device out there that trumps the 160 GB iPod Classic in terms of drive space: the Archos 48 Internet tablet, with a whopping 500 GB hard drive. Not sure why they call it a tablet – it’s larger than an iPod, but I can still fit it into my shirt pocket. It feels like a monster next to the iPod, which I attribute, again, to the brilliance of the design team at Apple. I bought one of these a few weeks ago, for $200, considerably less than the iPod Classic. And I was thinking, “I hate to abandon the iPod (and won’t for at least the rest of the year or so), but I’m being left no choice as someone with a large music collection who wants to go on listening and branching out … as anyone who loves music is supposed to do over the course of his life.”

And that’s the cloud I’ve been living in the past few weeks … trying to get this god-damned Archos player up to snuff. It’s been an enormous pain in the ass. Just finding the right software/media player to act as a solid transfer point to the device was a problem. (iTunes is a completely closed system that will not transfer to any non-Apple device.) I finally stumbled on Media Monkey, which I actually like more than iTunes as a media player, and respect a great deal as it pulled all the songs from my iTunes library and had a very good percentage of tagging everything properly. (I’d say about 300 tracks didn’t work out right and had to be re-tagged, but that’s not bad considering there were over 24,500 all together.) Unlike iTunes, it can mimic iTunes itself, and then allow the user to transfer the files from Media Monkey onto any non-Apple player.

Which is what I’ve been doing the past two weeks. I’ve learned a serious lesson in data transfers that you had better dot every “i” when doing something this large, as getting anything wrong will require you to scrub/erase the data and start all over again … which I’ve done three times between Media Monkey and the Archos player. The auto-synch also takes forever. When I auto-synch from the iTunes library to the iPod, it takes literally seconds. This things takes 20 minutes just to read the files, and then an indeterminate amount of time to dis-mount the player. I’m doing this process right now, for instance, since my last data transfer was mostly successful, but neglected to copy my dozens of playlists. I’ve been sitting here over 45 minutes waiting for the auto-synch to end and may well just get frustrated and un-plug the device from the USB port. It shouldn’t take this long to synch up a player that already has all the tracks on it.

Just one of more than a few issues I’ve had, and it’s made me realize Archos puts out a pretty choppy product. Unfortunately for now, the only product larger than the 160 GB iPod. I do like the device, but the amount of shit I’ve had to go through is not worth it. And don’t get me started on the anti-Apple tech heads who over-populate the online forums for Media Monkey and Archos. When you have to run scripts, and get into your computer registry, and write code, and make sure every minute aspect of a transfer is perfect, and run de-bugging programs, and download firmware … then you’ve just demonstrated why Apple is so popular beyond the hipster quotient. You just plug the fucking thing in, and it works. That’s hard to beat, and that’s what all these tech heads aren’t getting. Nobody, save tech heads, wants to spend hours trying to figure these things out and jump through burning hoops just to make the device work normally. It just underlines a level of quality a notch or two below what most people come to expect as standard operational procedure for any Apple product.

Can we save the iPod? I hope so, but I just don’t see it happening in the current climate of cloud hype. The Apple folks seem dead-set on driving their point home that we must all acquiesce to the cloud and their version of the future … when they’ve made a device that is just sheer perfection in terms of listening to portable music. And they should be building these things with larger drives, and switching to flash drives and putting them in the devices as flash drives grow larger and cheaper over the next few years. Doesn’t even have to be iPod Classic. I’d assume they could move forward with iPod Touches since they have larger viewing screens and people could watch movies and videos on them. The key for me is room to grow, and if I had a 320 GB device, or even a 240 GB Apple portable device, it would take me a long, long time to fill it up. It took me five years to fill up a 160 GB device that automatically had 60 GB on it, and you can throw down about another 20 GB when I went into my CD collection and went hog-wild in terms of throwing everything I wanted on the player. A device with twice the size hard drive would take me another decade to fill up, at least.

But I know this is all idle chatter. Everyone in my shoes does this – speaks it out loud, or writes it on the web, and thinks wishing publicly like this will make it so. In the mean time, I’ll face reality and wrestle with the frumpy, tank-like, pain-in-the-ass Archos player. It may be royally pissing me off, but it’s my only hope for the future right now.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Jury Duty

They got me again. Jury duty. Third time. Second time was a few years ago, sitting around a jury waiting room in Jamaica, Queens that had the exact feel of a decrepit bus station in East St. Louis. That time, I was gone in a day, not even selected. First time was in the early 90s, in the Bronx, a six-week murder trial, and I’ll get into that later.

This time, in Kew Gardens, Queens, it really got to me. I know, I should be used to metal detectors by now. But I never will be. For jury duty? Really? They were calling me there to perform a civic duty. With a court-decreed summons. Am I really going to bring in a sawed-off shotgun under my coat to randomly kill people in a jury duty waiting room?

The worst part was the guards: incredibly rude and brusque, past the point of antagonism. Barking at people. Demanding they empty their pockets, everything, not even tissues or cough drops, empty them. Really? If I leave one Halls mentholyptus in my pocket by accident, it’s going to set off … the Halls mentholyptus alarm? Assholes. Incredibly rude assholes who eyed everyone waiting in line as if they were child rapists being brought before a judge. I get summoned by the Court, to take time out my life, to perform a civic duty … and all I do is get treated like dogshit by these community college dropouts with badges who have no need to be so openly antagonistic to people who clearly aren’t criminals, who can’t be, otherwise they wouldn’t be summoned?

It really put me off, this time, really hit home how deeply abnormal this process is, how courthouses, and schools, and so many other public institutions, are now. Just as bad as anything you’ll read in 1984 … this is where we are now as a society. I doubt the rest of the country is this bad, just a perfect storm of the New York City Prick Mentality and this awful lock-down mentality we now have with places like this.

I thought about it more. Especially with schools. Most urban schools have this metal detector/guards set-up. It struck me this time in jury duty how much this felt like I was entering a prison facility: the same level of scrutiny and disdain. I put myself in the shoes of a 12-year-old kid going to a cruddy inner-city public school, his first day outside of elementary school … where every morning means walking this gauntlet of shit. Probably for good reason, too, in their case, as there are predators-in-training stalking the hallways of many of these schools.

But let’s say I’m 12 years old, a relatively good kid, not a criminal … but every day when I go to school, I’m being treated like a criminal entering a prison. What kind of mentality does that give me towards the education system? Would I even know enough that there are places in the world where being metal-detected and wanded by guys with badges is a deeply abnormal and unthinkable process to put a 12-year-old boy through, going to a school, no less? I would be raised inside this culture where the expectation was that I was already under suspicion for having done nothing. And living in a world where the expectation would be that, sooner or later, I would do something requiring all these guards with their handguns and clubs to take action against me. Why else would they be there? Presumably to protect me … but if they’re there to protect me, why are they also treating me like someone they need to be protected from? I’m not carrying a gun, or a club. Should I be if I want to be on equal footing? A grown man carrying a gun and club projects one thing to me: fear. You need to be afraid of something to arm yourself that heavily.

That would play on my mind. It played on my mind this past jury duty assignment. How fucked this next generation of kids must be if they consider this kind of daily abuse in any way “normal” … when it’s about as far from normal as you could possibly get. I had this conversation with people at work and was alarmed how many of them think this is perfectly normal behavior. It just isn’t. It’s sick, and it warps people’s minds.

They’ll keep telling us it’s all to “protect us” … but at some point, you have to ask yourself, where does it end? Many of us can remember life before these drastic measures, when you could amble up to a courthouse anywhere in America and just walk in, as opposed to feeling like you’re bringing a carton of cigarettes to an unlucky friend incarcerated in Rahway. We’re so ramped up with this bullshit that I can’t possibly see how we could ramp down again to a relatively normal life where people walked freely into schools and courthouses. The only logical progression would be for things to get worse from this point, not better.

In a sick way, this whole process, especially with schools, seems geared towards making lower and working-class kids feel more comfortable and familiar with being institutionalized, to embrace it in some sense at an early age … so they won’t mind so much when it happens for real a decade down the road. To get used to guards making them feel less human, to be taunted by people with guns, to be made to feel they have to answer to people no one should ever have to answer to.

I can only grasp how awful prison must be, if this sort of treatment is a small fraction of the discomfort and disrespect inmates are exposed to daily for years on end. (I'm assuming it goes both ways, and inmates surely treat guards the same way.) Believe me, getting treated like dogshit in a courthouse is incentive enough for me to do everything possible to not fall under the care and control of any institution. I’m sure I’d figure out how to live and survive in that environment … but I can see, through these minute glimpses, how awful and soul destroying it must be. As with any institution, be it a prison or a hospital, everyone is there to treat you as a dollar sign, whether it’s you in a hospital bed running up a six-figure bill, or you in an orange jumpsuit feeding tax dollars into prison construction and employment. I don’t want any part of either and will do whatever necessary to avoid being part of either situation.

About that earlier jury duty in the Bronx … I’ve forgotten so much about the experience. Must have been mid-90s. I found an article about the actual case. And here’s an even better article about the mass murder leading up to that revenge murder our defendant committed. Read The New York Times article as part of the entry: it gives the entire history of how this story came to be, basically a neighborhood beef amongst teenage drug dealers that exploded into this awful story of multiple corpses. I don't believe the first link mentions that the defendant from our case was in a rival drug gang struggling for dominance of that neighborhood.

I think it was because of that murder on the courthouse steps that this whole era of courthouse lockdowns began – at least that was made explicitly clear to us at the trial, that this was why getting into the Bronx County Courthouse was such an ordeal. Being part of that jury was a terrible experience, as you could imagine, but at least there was a story to tell afterwards. How many of us are exposed to that world, where teenage kids push their bounds by falling into drugs and easy money, and then not have maturity or sense enough to quietly ease out of that life after making a small fortune? In this case, petty neighborhood beefs were tossed into the mix (in this case, a teenage girl slapped in the face in public) and resulted in seven deaths over, essentially, nothing but hurt feelings. When’s the last time you shot someone for hurting your feelings?

I don’t recall being as outraged at the time over my treatment as someone being scrutinized upon entering a courthouse. Why? Because that was one case where they should have sequestered the jury completely from the public. As noted, this was a jury for a high-profile murder case. Every day, I’d look out in the crowded audience and notice the actor Sam Waterston sitting there, dapper and small in a white shirt. Little did I know he was researching his role for his stint as a District Attorney on the TV show, Law and Order. He surely got an education with that case. But every day, there’d be a parade of teenage drug gang members, some in prison uniforms, others not, giving testimony as to what they knew about this revenge killing, and how circumstances came to be that these people found themselves walking around in bullet-proof vests and killing each other execution-style in cramped apartments.

And every day … I’d see these same punks and assholes, not a dozen feet away from me, eating lunch on the courthouse steps with family and friends! Riding elevators with me. Making eye contact. As a juror, I had zero protection from these people. They knew who I was … could have followed me home, if they wanted. The Bronx is notorious for having an ass-backwards attitude on providing guilty verdicts to violent felony crimes. I think part of that is that people who live there simply know or are related to people who have done time so that they tend to let things slide when it comes to making a hard call like that. But more importantly, they’re afraid of vengeance as most of the crimes are related to drug gangs and such. There are a lot of reasons why I left the Bronx, but this realization was one of them, that I was living around people who had lowered their expectations of life to match their physical surroundings, i.e., when you know a few guys who’ve done time for felony offenses, have a relative or two in jail for stupid drug-related shit, you tend to see the world through that sort of lens, where these situations most people find soul destroying simply become part of every-day life.

And, thus, we’re back to where I started, imagining myself as a relatively innocent 12-year-old standing in front of a metal detector at the local P.S. for the first time, and treating it like it’s no big deal. It is a big deal. What it represents. What it says about the place you live. The building in which you are to learn about life, and how to live in this world. What it says about you. Who you are. Who you aren’t. Why you should be made to feel like you’ve done something wrong, when you’ve done nothing wrong. Why you’re made to feel like you’re already institutionalized, when you’re just a kid, and life is spread out in front of you, waiting for you to live it, to sense that freedom … and have that freedom empty its pockets every morning, take off its belt, pass through a metal detector, and maybe have a rent-a-cop curse it and pass a wand over then wave it through after a pat-down.

How did we get here? More importantly, how do we get out of here? Is it even possible?