Fight consumerism – get time on your side

mistersquirrel  has been watching TV, in particular an excellent three-part series about consumerism. The third programme was the one I found most insightful, which develops the theory that adults are being infantilised by systems that give micro-rewards to urge them into purchases, and the process of buying is being made as frictionless as possible.

Tesco really loves football. Look at all the things Euro 2012 realted you can buy
Stuff. Shopping. Special Offers. Buy it Now! Won’t it be easier when you simply pay for the item as you put it in your trolley with contactless payments?

It goes along with the general gamification of the world – people being herded along desired paths of action using sophisticated micro-reward systems. This sort of thing started to really piss me off at work, stupid metrics on irrelevant areas being used to herd and control people, and it appears to be going on in the consumer space too. Unlike work, however, in theory as a consumer you are in control of the money so you are in charge. One of the key techniques, however, is easy to fight. Trying to get you to buy quickly. Don’t do that. Buy slowly.

First, check out the enemy

the credit problem

It’s in Episode 3 at 45mins into the programme

“Every other company on Earth is trying to get you to spend money, and they’re putting all their effort into getting you to spend your money on Stuff all the time. […] Make no mistake, the house always wins. […]Business had learnt from children how the adult market could be turned into a game.!”

“The trouble with adult consumers is they think too much”

Benjamin Barber, Rutgers University

I hear there’s a fellow who’s saved loads of money doing just that – thinking. Don’t give it up, adults. That’s why you’re adults – so you get a hold of the steering wheel of Life…

“The last 30 years of selling has been about getting us to give in to this instant gratification”

Now I have to admit, at first the Ermine thought to himself “bollocks”, but the programme developed its thesis well. In particular, the process of handing over your money has been transformed. There has been a progression –

cash -> credit cards -> stored card details like Paypal, 1-click, mobile purchasing, contactless wristbands,

The consumer merchandisers came up with a magic bullet, the credit card. The credit card becomes the facilitator of impetuous, narcissistic buy now consumerism, because you don’t have to wait a second.

Benjamin Barber, Rutgers University

Now I got my first Access credit card in 1979, as a freshman student. And yet I never got into huge trouble with it, indeed I was in my mid-twenties when I came to the conclusion that my parents were right

Don’t spend more than you earn, son

So I have generally paid them off within the interest-free period. Yes, I cocked up a few times and had reason to be grateful for the minimum payment direct debit feature all suppliers offer. I have sometimes carried a rolling balance, if some card company is going to be so dim as to offer me interest-free credit. On occasion I’ve been prepared to pay interest – when the Nationwide building society was prepared to pay me more interest on the borrowed money. So I don’t viscerally understand this part of how Big Consumerism is suckering the proletariat. Despite what one woman in the programme claimed, credit cards can be used properly. Just always remember you’re not borrowing money from the bank, you are borrowing from your future self. Make that your one month future self and you’ll be fine, because you’re close to him and he’s real to you. And the card won’t charge you interest!

the Buy It Now problem

However, I am susceptible to the buy it now problem.It’s across the modern consumerism estate – they are trying to shorten the gap between want it and buy it. Credit cards help you buy it now if you don’t have the money, but things like Amazon 1-click and Paypal make the process of paying quicker and less onerous. There’s a simple way to fix this, however. Remember the good Prof Barber. The solution I use is simple

Put the stuff in your virtual shopping cart. Then wait 24 hours before making the purchase

You don’t have to do too much thinking. If you’ve been suckered by gamification you will come back to the purchase the next day and think ‘how dumb is that’ and move on. Though with Amazon remember to empty the cart – else you’ll end up buying it with the next thing you get there, although there’s enough of a grace period to cancel the order. I used to think that the cooling off period needed to be seven days, and indeed in my hardest saving period at work I used a month. But I’m not so frazzled now, I can recognise dumb consumerism within a few hours now. [ref]This is probably the same sort of thing as your mother used to tell you to sleep on something before doing something crazy – I think most people’s emotional states vary across the diurnal cycle, it’s a way of getting a ‘different you’ to look at the purchase.[/ref] That inserts a great big monkey-wrench into the ad-men’s ability to tap into your ‘I want it now’ state of mind. It’s future-proof too – even if in ten years time they have a thought-swipe method of instant purchase you can still split the ‘I want it’ from now. Live intentionally. There’s nothing fundamentally wrong with consumerism – as long as it suits your wants and needs rather than theirs.

Think like an adult. Think too much for marketers of consumerism. Ice the “I want it Now” mentality. And don’t spend money you haven’t got, which is a different take on the same problem

But – but- what if it’s a unrepeatable sale, or a Black Friday or a Everything Must Go?

Leave it be. Remember the fellow above. The house always wins. They’re trying to deny you the space to think. There’s only one way to beat the house, and that’s not to play their game. You don’t have to be nutty about it – for regular consumables it doesn’t really apply. If you always buy organic butter, know the price and it really is on offer at 10% less then knock yourself out and load up on it (you can freeze butter). It the purchase of something new to you, or being stampeded into an upgrade, where I’d say just ignore the special offers if they can’t match the 24 hour rule.

increasingly things are being sold in a dishonest and gamified way

Take the concept of apps – where you get something that appears to do a job for free, but to make it work you need to make an in-app purchase, for some individually small amount. Now I despise apps and the concept of paying for software in general. I wouldn’t mind paying if you had some comeback on the supplier, but licensing has generally been on a ‘sold as seen’ basis for the last 20 years or so. Open source has largely fixed that problem – by dealing with the ‘sold’ part of the deal 🙂

The great thing about in-app purchases for the seller is that the app promises, fails to deliver but says you can make it work if you pay the ransom money. In other areas of life this is considered nefarious activity. It isn’t actually new – PC software used to be sold this way in the late 1980s – it was dearer to start with but often many layers of functionality that you’d pay more for. The piss-taking toerags at Novell Netware used to sell you per seat network connection licences[ref]it was sweet when MS, and then TCP/IP destroyed Novell’s business case and ate their lunch. I still detest this company for that egregious policy a quarter of a century after it got in my way at work[/ref], and the DOS version of MS Word had varying levels of functionality. Electronics schematic layout software would sometimes only let you lay out so many components before you’d have to pay. So this sort of incremental sales strategy isn’t new, but it was usually confined to the B2B sector back then. Businesses are usually much better at qualifying the ROI they will get on a piece of production equipment than consumers are at evaluating the enhancement of quality of life they will get for spending money on some consumer goods.

case study:  buying an app to play a mixtape

A mixtape is a long continuous gapless track – my application is for parties, where I use foobar and continuator to intelligently crossfade a sequence that I’ve manually scheduled and mixed in key. Some time a go I bought an iPod to develop some mobile web HTML. It did the job admirably and cost-effectively, and to be honest doesn’t owe me anything now. But I have never got it to work properly for playing music, because I despise iTunes,  which failed me dismally. Given I am playing this out on a field with no power or Internet access I had one primary CD player and two failover solutions – a second copy of the 7 hour mixtape CD on a cheap backup player and the iPod as third-line.

As the weather deteriorated and the humidity rose[ref]everybody thinks dew is a thing of the morning, but it happens in the evening as soon as the sun goes down. Humidity rises and condensation often happens by twilight[/ref] the main player started to skip, so I wanted to crossfade to the iPod, with no moving parts it should be best able to run through the dew point.

iTunes lied to me when it said it uploaded the file
You really don’t want to see this if you’re going to crossfade to it. iTunes lied to me when it said it uploaded the file

So I had to crossfade to the crappy CD player and a regular album, and start to cue the backup CD four hours in. For technical reasons that sort of track fast forwards glacially slowly, I just got there by the time the regular album was about four tracks in, ready to crossfade back.

Now I should have tested everything including the third-level failover, so it’s my bad. However, in seeking a solution to this, I find the music app on the iPod can’t play a mixtape and index the songs. Most people play pop songs on their iPods with a gap or an auto-crossfade, which sound poor to me[ref]the crossfade is fixed in the iPod which works fine most of the time but sounds rotten when it doesn’t and the iTunes soundcheck level matching sucks compared to foobar’s replaygain[/ref], and is what I’m trying to improve on. Presumably nobody listens to classical music or live albums on an iPod which are also long gapless tracks. The correct solution to indexing a continuous track without gaps is to use a cuesheet and FLAC, because another thing I realised when playing the regular CD is although I can’t hear the difference between MP3 and CD audio at modest listening levels the difference is all too apparent at high levels .

So what I need is an app. I now know what I need is an app that will play a cue-indexed single track file, but initially I thought I could mix the tracks automatically on the fly. I don’t want to manually DJ it because I don’t have the skill, I don’t get to  talk to anyone and the results will get worse as the evening goes on due to the power of drinking 🙂

Enter the world of hurt that is apps – gamified consumerism in action

I really hate apps. They’re vile, because they do so little, and the nickel-and-diming to coax even the slightest bit of usefulness out of them is hard to track. I got Algoriddms djay LE for free. but to load my own tracks would mean an in app purchase. So I did that, for £1.50, only to find that once I’d downloaded into itunes it wouldn’t let me load it on anything less than iOS7, which is Apple’s way of deliberately deprecating old gear – they just stop updating iOS for it, and 6 is as far as they will go for mine. Would it really be too much to ask that they check first before letting you buy an upgrade that won’t work on your kit, given they use such corrupt business practices? The ermine is down £1.50 with a fail on caveat emptor – I was unaware that an upgrade to a working program could be non-compatible. As I observed before, everything Apple is easy but hard at the same time.

So I look for an app that does work. Ah DJ mixer 3 does work, but you need to pay £7 to be able to use your own tracks. Now I can’t say I didn’t have fun with that app scratch mixing and finding sixty seven ways to make things sound crap. But the automix sounds poor with pop and rock, though it’s okay with dance. I still don’t think most  of the adults at the Oak Tree farm parties are ready for EDM/dance, though I got some of the kids out in the middle dancing with the odd dance track.  I have no complaint about that app, it works for what it’s designed to do, but not well enough for me.

So I still need an app to play a long wav or FLAC track with a cue sheet, so that’ll be Golden Ear then. I now have a bit of trepidation about dropping £6 on something that promises it’ll do the job after the frustrating experience with apps so far. You can’t trust apps to do what it says on the tin, it appears, even down to basic things like installing…

I’ll be down £15 just to get this to play music in a way that fits my requirements. Now I can’t say that’s a huge outlay, but I only wrangle apps every six months or so, and I’ve had rotten value so far because I wasn’t allowed to test with my material before shelling out. Not only that, but there’s the incremental way these are sold. If you have a smartphone and are buying apps every other week your app costs could easily exceed your mobile subscription, but it’ll happen in random itty bitty pieces so you won’t clock it. Plus the way individual functions are chargeable means they can avoid sticker shock – you wouldn’t pay £20 for an app in one go but you might to get different levels of functionality enabled as the crippleware gets in your way.

This experience has left me much less likely to get a smartphone in future. I hate working this way, I’d much rather pay for something that does the job upfront[ref]although I don’t like paying for software I’m not religiously opposed to it. I try and find a free way of doing things but I do have a  folder of shareware registration details and I still use some of these programs[/ref] than be nickel-and-dimed like that. I do want to be able to test things out properly, and this is something that is craftily prevented by crippling specific features.

The other thing that is nasty about iOS is I can’t code for it without high up-front costs. Even if I had a Mac, I’d have to pay $99 a year for the privilege of getting my own programs onto my own machine, WTF is up with that?

Low capital costs and high running or replacement/upgrade costs is the way things are going

Unfortunately an increasing amount of things are sold this way, at a low upfront cost and you get sliced and diced on the consumables. You rent your music with Spotify, you rent your printer with shockingly expensive ink cartridges though the machine is virtually a freebie, any Apple hardware is on borrowed time because it will become orphaned as iOS leaves it behind in a few years. You as a good little consumer will simply funnel part of your paycheque into the consumerism machine to keep the world turning.

It’s not how I want to buy Stuff, I don’t expect to keep on changing it. For instance, I have only ever had one scanner, an Epson Perfection 1200S SCSI scanner, it is now about 15 years old, and I recently got this working with my Windows 7 machine. It would have been easier to buy a new USB scanner, but I like this, it’s served me well and I want to keep it going. Back then I used it a lot, now I just want to scan the odd thing here or there. My computers are about seven years old. I can’t use a tablet because I am also a creator of content as well as a consumer. I’d punch the screen out if I had to tap tap tappity tap on a touch screen.There hasn’t been that much development in computers over the last few years that makes a difference for writing, browsing and running design software or editiong audio[ref]I do feel the lack of performance when editing video, but I don’t do enough of that to be worth changing[/ref]. Obviously if you play games to push the graphics then you’ll disagree, but I don’t have those sorts of requirements.

I purchased my hi-fi preamplifier secondhand thirty years ago, and my power amplifier is a secondhand Naim 250 which has probably been in service for 20 years. I have had to service the preamp and had the power amplifier serviced a few years back. Decent gear lasts if you look after it. But more and more there just isn’t decent gear to be had, or it is made deliberately obsolescent. And I’m tired of it.

This low service life and deliberate obsolescence is one of the reasons that I find Stuff much less rewarding now. I don’t want to have to  buy a new phone, or music player, or camera every year. I don’t give a toss about being with it, I’d just like to be able to do what I used to be able to do with it, and if apps are part of the way to make it do stuff then not get locked out of the app ecosystem after a couple of years.

update 9 July 15:00 –

Another great example of this came through my door

1407-tesco-140709Loads of savings on offer from Tesco, What do I have to do to get my £45 off –

you want me to trot along once a week like a good li'l consumer? On yer bike...
you want me to trot along once a week like a good li’l consumer? On yer bike…

I have to spend £375 with them, over six successive weeks. No Mr Tesco, I am not a lab rat in your maze, so I’ll pass on this. In the event that I really do want something worth £70+ from you I’ll consider it, but the existence or otherwise of your promotion will not change what I do.

Fight impetuous, narcissistic buy now consumerism. 24 hours at a time. Time is on your side…


Why is everything Apple so easy and so hard at the same time?

Note this post is a random musing of an ermine poking an inquisitive snout into a wrinkle of the world that interested him. Nothing made by Apple can ever be described as frugal, there’s no personal finance angle and it’s definitely not simple living 😉

The Ermine has avoided everything to do with Apple in life so far. I didn’t own any Apple hardware, don’t own AAPL stock, never understood the fandom. It all started badly when I began work at The Firm – everyone in the office used the little squiffy mac classic/plus computers to write reports, and there was an Apple Laserwriter laser printer.

A Mac classic. Nasty little things, where the obvious way to shut theb uggers down is - wait for it- drag the floppy disk into the trash icon. Obvious, innit. Stupid human for thinking this neans "Computer - erase all my shit, NOW."
Mac classic

Much was made of the intuitive nature of the Mac, compared to the arcane command line of the PC. I didn’t find it intuitive at all. F’rinstance how d’you turn one of these off? The obvious way to shut the bugger down is – wait for it- drag the floppy disk into the trash icon. Obvious, innit? Stupid human for thinking this means “Computer – erase all my shit, NOW.”

Unfortunately at that time you couldn’t do anything useful with a Mac as an engineer, y’know, like run circuit simulation software or the like. I had a great big 286 PC that could do this. I was able, via the Appletalk network and a shockingly expensive PC Appletalk card, to copy the output of a SPICE circuit simulation file to the office LaserWriter. I shouldn’t be too hard on Apple about the cost, this was in the late 1980s, where Novell Netware ran a piece of software on their servers for the sole purpose of counting up the number of connected network cards and kicking people off if there were more simultanous users than there were network connection licenses. Cheeky blighters. TCP/IP and the Internet came along just in time to save us from this sort of rent-seeking usury, Apple at least just collected their rent from the high cost of the network cards. However, Apple never allowed me to me print that document, because if I wasn’t in the Apple ecosystem I was Unworthy to touch their printer. I was able to get the file onto the printer, but without some sort of fork file to attach the file to something to make it do something I was stuffed.

Every so often one of these macs would have a hissy fit and the EHT would start to flash over. We’d take it into the lab and pull it apart. We were electronics engineers, don’t try this at home. You could usually get it going again by pulling off the anode cap[ref]really don’t do this at home. You have to short the CRT to ground after removing the cap, but dielectric absorption means the some of the charge on the CRT comes back while you’re not looking, ready to give the unwary a shock ;)[/ref] and getting some isopropyl alcohol and cleaning round it. It was then that I was exposed to my first experience of fanboidom. Everyone crowded round to observe the most vainglorious piece of narcissistic codswallop I have seen in any piece of gear. Apple thought they were so Really Great they inscribed the signatures of the design team in the plastic moulding of the inside of the case, and everyone cooed about how marvellous this was. It was all I could do not to chunder in the wastepaper bin.

I ended up with a deep dislike for everything Apple ever since 🙂 When I buy a piece of equipment I own the damn thing, not the manufacturer, and this seems to be a simple fact that the Apple corporation doesn’t get. What else does a printer expect to do when it receives a PostScript file other than print it, FFS? HP got this, but Apple specifically made their printers slightly nonstandard so they would only work with Apple kit. When you buy a piece of Apple hardware, you get to check in your balls with Apple. You do it their way, or you feel the squeeze…

So how do people use smartphone screens then?

Fast forward 25 years, I have no smartphone. It was a struggle for me to imagine how people use any sort of website on a poxy little two inch wide screen, and in portrait mode. And I needed to understand this, else I would be authoring stuff that would really hack my users off, and in the end the user is always right, even if they’re mad as a bag of spanners. So the Ermine was in the market for an iPod touch, which does most of the things a smartphone does, but using wifi, so without tying me into a phone contract and feel the squeeze of a different corporation on my parts – the Ownership of my bank account via a mobile phone contract for the next three years.

Now I have to say that the experience of unboxing the device, sparking it up and connecting to my wifi network was the best ever user experience of connecting a piece of computer kit I’ve ever had. The various programs look nice and run well. Since this is the Apple universe you get to call programs Apps, and they tend to be single-function. I was quickly able to run up the browser and learn what I needed to learn about the website design – and that my use of a folding CSS structure did indeed sort of track iPod and presumably smartphone screens. Thank you Skeleton CSS for doing the grunt work and saving my ass while I was authoring blind 😉

And I discovered I was getting old 😦 I had lost my last pair of glasses so I was slumming it with the pair from before, on an old prescription from 10 years ago. But the iPod scales websites down if they are too wide for the screen. As you get older the short focus of your eyes drifts out. Mine was different in each eye, and I could not read the roughly 4pt text with both eyes unless I held the device so it was too far away to read. So I either read it with one eye and get a splitting headache, or do without. Getting this machine has cost me about £400 so far – £160 for the iPod and the rest because I have to accept I need varifocals and reading glasses. In the optician at least I was able to read the smallest grade of text so I will be able to read the iPod rendered website and develop with it. I can’t blame this on Apple 😉

This is the bees knees for the job I bought it for. I can see how stuff looks like on a smartphone like screen, I now know why I get headaches using the computer and what to do to fix this, and the iPod fires up in a couple of seconds so it’s easy to see the weather, email and stuff like that. The share price screen even works well, though I was reminded of the original vainglorious streak when I see the first example stock is AAPL. The iPod doesn’t owe me anything now – I was able to finish the job and the project has already earned me more revenue than the capital cost of the iPod. And I understand how teenagers can use the web on a small screen, because the screen has a finer dot-per-inch resolution that a regular computer screen. Although the total number of picture elements is still larger on a laptop or desktop, the iPod screen picture elements are closer together, so the loss of quality isn’t as much as I had expected from the smaller physical screen size. But you do have to be under 35, or equally short-sighted in both eyes if older, to be able to see the screen well enough to use that resolution without visual aids, and you’d look kinda daft on the bus looking at your smartphone with a magnifying glass!

How to you use this thing for music then?

Then I thought I’d try and put music on it. This, apparently, is the primary purpose of an iPod after all, though I didn’t buy it for that reason. Now I have it, I may as well use it 😉

First, some background. I’ve loved music over the years, and it is one of the pleasure I used to have in life. I never used portable music players in a big way – with a car commute of 20 minutes each way there’s no need. I don’t have the death-wish of cycling plugging up my ears and losing situational awareness. Call me chicken-hearted, but I like to know if a great big truck is coming up behind me, even in rural Suffolk.

a detour into hearing

As a result the ermine is still capable of hearing up to about 12kHz though I have to be careful to use hearing protection with power tools. The mammalian ear is strangely and poorly designed in that there is a mechanical amplifier inside. The ossicles couple the high impedance of the air to the low impedance of the fluid-filled works inside the snail-shaped cochlea, using three bones to the eardrum. Then you get to the outer hair cells, which act as chemically powered-mechanical amplifiers, they do not send signals to the brain. This cochlear amplifer is the damnedest way of getting amplification and very susceptible to damage from loud sounds, but this preamplifer gives the ear remarkable sensitivity if working right. Then you get to the inner hair cells, which occupy a tapered shape, resonating at the input end for high frequencies and further in for low frequencies, acting as a coarse spectrum analyser. As you get older you lose some of the ability to adjust tension in the eardrum and the ossicles which reduces the damaging effects of loud sounds, so you need to be  more careful to avoid exposure to excessively loud sounds from 40 onwards.  ‘Cos otherwise you start to trash the hairy preamplifier, and you get to know about that eventually, because it has a stupendous amount of amplification- about 50dB or 100,000 times power gain. Lose or seriously damage that and you are deaf as a post. Young’uns should note that you’re not immune to the damage, it just takes a little more loudness to do it. From what I hear on the Tube and on the street, some of you are doing fine wrecking that sucker. Please, for God’s sake read this and take the test. If you are below 40 and it indicates any problem whatsoever then you may want to re-evaluate your relationship to music. I am well over 40 and do fine on the test, and there are a lot more miles on the clock in my case.

Music isn’t particularly a threat to my hearing as when I listen there is a convenient device called a volume control, and I don’t go to that many live concerts. I stopped using portable audio devices on planes  (then called a Walkman not an iPod 🙂 ) after I got off a LHR to LAX flight and fired up the walkman in the hotel room, to be greeted by a hellaciously loud volume I’d never normally listen at. A jet plane is a stupendously loud environment already, running at 80-85dBA[ref]Passenger noise environments of enclosed transportation systems, US Office of noise abatement and control[/ref], there’s no real headroom to make any music heard safely above the engine roar unless you are using noise cancelling headphones. 80dBA is considered the danger level so you don’t want to add too much more noise to your ears inside a plane.

Using tools and transportation which is probably my main noise risk. I use hearing protection even for things like hammering, now, and definitely for any use of power tools. I may look like a jerk, but so what. There’s not much more I can say to the young, but it saddens me when I walk on one side of the street and can hear what track someone is playing on the other side of the street from their earbuds. There is no cure for deafness, and if you are young now and start to lose your hearing before my age you are likely to spend half your life in a silent world cut off from the rest of humanity’s preferred way to communication. My Dad once worked in a glass bottling factory and was very hard of hearing towards the end of his life. It was no fun at all for him.

back to music

1304_1940_family_radioI grew up with actually sitting down to listen to music. Yeah, I know it sounds kinda funny now, like a family gathering round the wireless to listen to the news on the Home service. Part of this was determined by the media of the day – record players were never portable in any useful way, and I’d have never played mine on anything crappy. Each time you play a record, a little piece of it dies, and the capital cost of the record collection was by far the greatest investment in audio entertainment, even for a hi-fi nut, so I didn’t take risks.

Cassette tapes were noisy, unclear and all round ghastly, and I was unlucky enough to be oversensitive to speed instability. I was eventually reasonably happy with CDs, and more recently have moved to a Slimserver (now Logitech) media server and streaming players, playing losslessly compressed data from the CDs (ie the player gets exactly the same digital data as was on the CD). All of these work entirely within my four walls. I don’t do Cloud anything, for the simple reason that I hate third-party dependency for anything I put effort into. Cloud is fine for something you don’t need, or only need for a few weeks, and you don’t put any effort into. My music collection has been with me for thirty years and I’d like to hang on to it…

Getting CDs into a digital music library is something that costs a lot of effort, leastways if you start off with a few hundred CDs. Transferring my CDs was a project that took me two years using multiple PCs and CD drives, sometimes running EAC on two drives at once, ripping the CDs to lossless FLAC and Cue files, which the SlimDevices/Logitech kit can play. It’s a long, tedious and soulless job ripping CDs. You only ever want to do that once, though I had to do it one-and-a-half times because I discovered why you should not split CD albums into tracks as soon as I ran into my first live album, and reinforced again when I ran into my first classical album. It’s a bastard when you get a gap between the first and second movements of a symphony that wasn’t there on the CD, or the applause hiccups between tracks on a live CD.

And then work went bad and other things went wrong. In a twist of fate something that had given me joy for decades came to hold no meaning for me, and there is a gap of about three years when I bought no CDs and listened to hardly anything at all, and even that with jaded perception. Although I love the idea encapsulated in Miranda Sawyer’s lovely Observer article about the power of music to score our lives, and lift spirits in adversity I didn’t find the same. Until the spell was broken earlier this year, and the music came back to life.

Now in trying to sort this out I discover much has changed in the three year intercession. Some people actually pay for digital downloads. When it comes to information I don’t pay for what I can’t touch, and in many cases the CD is actually cheaper these days if you take it secondhand, but yes, you do need to wait for it in the post. It seems there is some unholy digital download battle between Apple/iTunes AAC and the rest, led by Amazon MP3, with cloud streaming systems like Spotify throwing in a wildcard. I don’t want any of that shit. I grew up with a standalone audio system depending on only power and what’s within my four walls. Sometimes I am going to run a party in a field with no phone service or mains electricity. No Cloud service, no tunes.

I managed to use the iPod without trouble for everything but music. When it comes to music, there seems to be a world of hurt in store for me, because I am not a new-born come to Apple to sort my life out. I have a perfectly good existing  digital music collection, held in a free open source losslessly compressed form specifically because I don’t want any company to be able to control my usage or suddenly render my collection useless. It seems the way you are meant to get music onto an iPod, iTunes, wants to control me 100%. It wants to say how and when I can listen to my own music, and how and where I can move it. I’m not having that at all. I didn’t rent this iPod, I bought the damn thing, and  I want to use my existing music collection without handing over the keys, so iTunes is right out. I’m happy to accept compression on a portable, but not the lock-in, and as for saying what I can or can’t do with my own data, sod that for a laugh. I say what I can do in my own four walls, not Apple.

How to get music onto an iPod without installing iTunes

I did finally crack how to do this, without installing the infernal iTunes. I have a desktop computer with a load of electronics software, kept on XP which I have to use for ripping CDs because EAC doesn’t work on Windows 7. The last time I installed iTunes on this XP machine it installed half the contents of Steve Jobs’ control-freakery ecosystem without having the decency to ask if that really was what I meant to do. Not just iTunes but bonjour which confused the hell out of my existing streaming system, Quicktime, Apple updating service, the lot. Not an exercise I wanted to repeat.

Because I still think in terms of albums and not tracks, I use foobar2000 to split the CD image files into tracks and convert to MP3 for the iPod, which, though proprietary is at least a widely supported standard. Somehow foobar2000 was smart enough to tell the MP3 files that they are part of an album and tell them the track number, and the iPod is bright enough to take note of this and present me the music in terms of albums again. I used CopyTrans to do the job of shifting the MP3s to the iPod. Foobar2000 can also embed the cover art, which helps brighten up the selection process on the iPod somewhat. Both programs are free though only one is open source.

CopyTrans had to download iTunes and use some part of the guts of it, but other than that I have snatched control of my own hardware back from Apple, without making the Beast angry by jailbreaking it. It kinda scared the hell out of me when I pressed play without headphones to hear a truly nasty tinny rendition of the track sodcasted to me from the internal speakers. It’s funny to think that forty years of technological innovation has brought us a poorer portable loudspeaker reproduction quality that the first transistor radio I ever owned, because at the portable level it’s all about the size of the enclosure that baffles the out-of-phase back output of the speaker. This was nasty, tinny, distorted and unclear. It was fine when I jacked in my headphones. I’m still not sure I have the clarity/resolution of playing back on my hi-fi, but it’s entirely fit for purpose as a portable 😉

Apple products are great and easy to use as long as you are prepared to stay in the walled garden. Do as the nice man says and use the Apple ecosystem in the way prescribed, which in my case presumably would mean paying for several hundred CDs from the Apple store again or losing another two years of my life to ripping them into a compressed format that is locked to one PC and one iPod. And it will all work a treat, in general attractively, smoothly and without serious problems apart from the hurt to your wallet. That’s the easy part of the Apple universe.

If I’d wanted a portable music player as such, I should probably have got anything other than Apple, where you can simply dump the MP3s onto the player as a mounted mass storage device, and the player sorts it all out. However, I needed to understand the smartdevice and Apple world and this the iPod has done for me. I do like some of the one-task programs, the share prices, the weather app and, to be honest, the music player itself with the cover art. So I can accept the hoops I have to jump through to make this device work with my existing digital music library. However, it’s another example of how Apple makes life hard for free-thinking customers. I’m not particularly tempted to buy an iPad after this experience if and when my existing laptop cashes in its chips. That’s the hard part of Apple.

I was left with a greater admiration for Apples’ craftiness and the quality of their customer experience. And a greater dislike for the company at the same time for trying to turn an Ermine into a consumer zombie. A lot of the developments in computing, information technology and telecoms at the moment are trending towards making us good little consumers who don’t have any control or creative output. You can’t write code or write books or articles on a tablet computer[ref]not fundamentally impossible, but without a real keyboard your productivity sucks[/ref], an iPod or a Kindle, but they’re great for consuming the work of others. We are all consumers now, it seems, and soon the act of creating content, which was democratized by the general-purpose personal computer in the 1980s, will be professionalised and locked down again, by the simple act of not allowing the user to install non-approved programs 😉