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 😉