Sunday, January 15, 2006

Embarrassed to be a Mac user

Sunday, January 15, 2006 0

Let's face it, some of them are vogue-enslaved dolts ripe for the duping. I swear these Apple accessory bazaars could sell iSnow to Apple worshipping Eskimos.

Take the iPod for instance (please take them all away!). I'm left dumb-struck by the sheer number of two-bit, fly-by-night schlockmeisters to have jumped on this bandwagon in order to peddle their useless tat. The lunacy of this industry really hit home for me yesterday when I was watching episode 28 of CommandN (an IPTV tech show). For his regular 'Hot Stuff' segment Jeff McArthur presented us with the PED2 iPod stand from Thought Out. Admittedly he wasn't too thrilled with the idea of receiving one as a present at first, but soon lost the plot as he waxed lyrical about its innovative features and ergonomic design. The demonstration was neatly rounded off with the rubber-stamped verdict, "at $40 it's great value for a stand".

Firstly who on earth needs a stand for their portable music device, iPod or otherwise? You connect the thing to your computer, transfer some new media, unplug it and pop it back in your pocket. At which stage in this simple process is a stand necessary? Does resting my MP3 player carefully on my desk when connected to my computer make me a radical deviant? Maybe these contraptions are designed to be head-mounted when their owners are out and about. Hey, just think, if people had their iPods dangling from their foreheads you'd know instantly they belonged to the hip clique allowing you to gasp with wide-eyed adulation in a timely fashion as they swaggered past. Pure genius!

Buying a stand for a device which only spends a matter of minutes on your desk wouldn't be so silly if this white (also available in black) elephant only cost a couple of quid. As we all know, trendy junk like this is always pitched at a premium price - for the privilege of becoming the proud owner of this particular useless trinket you'd be expected to shell out $40 (roughly £22.50). I should add that for this price you don't even get a cable to connect your iPod to your computer - that will set you back an extra $18 (just over a tenner in real money). So all in all that's a whopping $58 for a hunk of metal which doesn't actually serve any purpose whatsoever.

None of this matters of course because it's an iPod accessory. In other words, iDrones throughout the world will be chomping at the bit to get their hands on one. Behold Apple fanboyism pushed to the limit - and you thought fundamentalist Christians were scary.

If you need any further evidence of this phenomenon you only have to look to the Tango speaker system, PlasticSmith Mini Skirt Glo and iPod socks.

When contemplating the practicality of a monstrous speaker system for the iPod, I'd again have to draw your attention to the fact that iPods are supposed to be portable. We can safely assume this is a given can't we? I just don't get it. Are iPod owners expected to carry this ear drum obliterator around in their back pocket in case, on the spur of the moment, they succumb to the urge to stage a rave on the bus on their way to work or in the office once they arrive?

If the intention is to provide people with a home audio system, likewise, what the hell? My memory may be a bit shaky here, but didn't people play music through their computers before they were blessed with the wondrous gift of the iPod? How many people who are musically-inclined enough to buy an iPod don't already have a decent pair of speakers rigged up to their computer?

I know I shouldn't start a sentence with 'and' but. And, correct me if I'm wrong, doesn't iFood (the media you copy to your iPod, I made that one up myself) emanate from your computer in the first place? So let's get this straight; iDisciples are transferring a limited selection of audio content from their hard-drive-capacity-superior computers to their iPods to be played back through a superfluous set of speakers in the very same room where their multimedia jukebox (PC or Mac) is located, and sits idly in the corner wondering what it did to deserve being paired up with such a muppet. Yours for only $199.

As for the glowing MacMini miniskirt, it originally entered the market with a £35 price tag, uses up one of the Mini's two precious USB ports, and, serves absolutely no purpose. In its defence, it does come equipped with those elegant and absolutely crucial non-skid feet. I've lost count of the number of times a careless nudge has sent my Mac Mini gliding over the edge of my desk because it relies on a mere foam layer of padding to keep it in position. Thanks PlasticSmith.

iPod socks! At $29! I'm sorry I can't bear it any more. I'm going to unburden my frazzled mind of all this madness by boogying the night away with man's best friend, the iDog.

Saturday, January 14, 2006

Mind-reading, spontaneously generated radio stations

Saturday, January 14, 2006 1

Every time the internet goes through a stale period where I start to wonder if all the really ground-breaking ideas have already been implemented, a web service comes along to blow away the cobwebs, taking my breath away in the process.

Last.fm epitomises this cycle. It's a social 'music-marking' community web site for curious audiophiles. You begin by creating a profile and introducing your favourite audio player to the 'Audioscrobbler' plug-in. From then on, the artist names and track titles of whatever you listen to are transmitted to the Last.fm web site and stored under your profile.

The site's clever, back-end scripty stuff (sorry if the science behind this is going over your head) then compiles this data to establish a representative snapshot of your musical tastes. The algorithm doofer looks at other people's snapshots too and tries to identify correlations between their favourite artists and bands. For instance it has been demonstrated that many people who are fans of Ben Folds also enjoy listening to Belle and Sebastian, Radiohead and Weezer.

Yes, Amazon also has a "if you like this band you may also like blah de da" system, yet what Amazon can't do is introduce you to new music by streaming an around-the-clock, ad-free, chatter-free, bespoke radio station to your computer. That's precisely what the Last.fm Player does! All you are required to do to kick-start your personal playlist is type in the name of a band or artist you appreciate and poke the 'go' button. The player responds by generating a continuous stream of genre-related or 'taste-linked' media. There's no annoying DJ to tune out between tracks, each of which is identified as it plays - the artist, track and album names are displayed at all times. Any tracks you'd rather not listen to can be skipped, and there are even options to give the thumbs up or down signal to tracks you either love or loathe. I assume the player reacts by 'spooling' more of the bands you give the nod of approval to, and banishes those you can't stand so you never have to suffer them again.

Last.fm don't keep an all-embracing database of music on their own servers. Instead, the music is streamed from member to member, radically reducing the bandwidth costs levied by the service operators. Unlike file-sharing, this is perfectly legal because the music is not being exchanged in the traditional sense, rather it is 'aired' and then it perishes. The player has no built-in facilities for storing the tracks it plays, though there's nothing to stop you recording the stream for delayed playback or replays. This of course would be totally immoral and surely buy you a one-way ticket to hell, once the RIAA had confiscated everything you own, your life's savings and the right to sell your family and pets into slavery.

The threat of eternal damnation aside, Last.fm easily gets my vote for web service of the year, if not the decade! I'm fortunate enough to work in a super-chilled out office where we're allowed to listen to music so I predict the Last.fm Player and I will soon become inseparable.

Thursday, January 12, 2006

3D surround sound theatres are on me; transform your crummy £1.99 earphones!

Thursday, January 12, 2006 0

Mooching around the net today I stumbled across a curious MP3 file. This wasn't any old crackley rip of a cheesy pop tune; it was lauded as a demonstration of holophonic sound technology - a binaural recording technique designed to reproduce 3D sound using ordinary headphones.

Sounds like unadulterated hyperbole, doesn't it? Actually I was pleasantly surprised to discover that it really does live up to the marketing blurb. In this sample you will experience several vehicles approach the periphery of your auditory consciousness, grow louder as they speed towards you, perilously roar past your nose and then fade into the distance. Another highlight is the highly authentic recreation of a helicopter swooping by overhead, lingering momentarily, and then apparently morphing into an ear-splitting, supersonic jet plane.

A less dramatic, though still impressive sound sample of a lunatic shaking a box of matches in your left lug-hole, right lug-hole, under your nose, overhead and all locations in between can be found here.

Oi! Stop looking at me as though I've been smoking crack. I promise you'll be blown away as long as you listen to the samples through your headphones. The effect will be totally lost on you if you pump them out through your desktop speakers, even if you got those from the £1.99 bargain bin too.

It would appear that 'binaural recording' technology has been around since the 80s - not the 1980s mind you, the 1880s! As this is the first I've heard of it, maybe it's time to get my ears syringed.

 
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