iTunes Playlist Shuffle

For the better part of a year I've been having issues with iTunes. Specifically, there has been a problem with iTunes syncing music to my iPhone.

Ever since passing on the opportunity to get a 120GB+ iPod Classic, I've come to terms with the fact that my portable music playing device would not be able to hold my entire music library. This means it's much easier for me to just pick a few playlists and keep them synced at all times. One of these playlists is called "New Stuff" and is defined by the following rules:

This creates a nice little playlist of the 200 most recently added songs. The problem comes when this playlist is synced to my iPhone. For months I noticed this playlist just wouldn't update on my iPhone. It never matched the playlist as it appeared in iTunes. Finally I decided to figure out what's going on. After repeated discussions with friends, re-formatting my iPhone, re-installing iTunes, and even a trip to the Genius Bar, I think I've figured it out.

It appears that the iPhone is applying the rules of the playlist beginning from when a particular song was added to the device, regardless of when that song was added to iTunes. This explains why the playlist would appear different on the device as opposed to iTunes; they each are using different reference points.

This seems like it could be a feature instead of a bug, but if you create a playlist with these parameters:

you'll notice that it behaves as you'd expect: the reference dates are the same and the playlist will display the same songs on your device as appear in iTunes.

If you're like me however and would like to have a playlist on your iPhone or iPod with a particular number of recently-added songs (as opposed to all songs added within a particular time frame, which number varies depending on how often you add new songs) then there is a workaround to achieve playlist harmony. 

I created a playlist called "New in iTunes" with these parameters that is not synced to my iPhone:

Then I created a second playlist called "New Stuff" which is synced to my iPhone and which is based on the other playlist. It looks like this:

Now I have a playlist on my iPhone that displays the 200 most recently-added songs to iTunes. This is definitely a kludge, but it appears to be the only way to get this to work until Apple gets around to fixing it.


Twitter Wit

Twitter is many things to many people. To those who don't use the service, it's a means by which self-aggrandizing narcissists talk about their turkey sandwiches. By the way, I did have a turkey sandwich for lunch today, with fresh avocado. It was delicious. But to those who use it regularly, Twitter is a cool way to tell people about those little things, the ones that are too short for a blog post and not important enough for an email, and which are likely forgotten over a beer, but which are insanely funny or relevant right now. They are the little annoyances, joys, or in the case of the new book "Twitter Wit"—witticisms that usually go by the wayside.

Twitter is chock-full of wit, and there just so happens to be a nice little book devoted to sharing The Funny on The Twitter. It's 162 pages of things people have said on Twitter that will probably make you laugh, or at the very least crack a smirk. If you're a Twitter user, you'll find hundreds of great new people to follow. If you're not you'll find hundreds of reasons you should be.*

Far be it for me to recommend the quintessential bathroom book, but if ever there was a book designed for quick laughs for hopefully regular intervals when you have a few minutes of private peace and respite; this is it. Just don't tell anyone you heard it from me.

Get your copy at for cheap. Buy it as a gift or buy it for yourself. Just buy it! Oh, and you should follow me on Twitter as well.

*Especially on pages 21 and 146 where you'll find some choice contributions by yours truly.


Trip to Hawai'i

Pictures of our trip to Hawaii, courtesy of Flickr


The Age-Old Battle

One of the things I want to write about in this shiny new space is the design (or lack thereof) of various products. Personally, I try to use products that are designed with intelligence. In kicking things off, I wanted to start with a classic comparison of Microsoft and Apple.

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Microsoft has placed itself squarely in the commodity PC market. Of this there can be no question; they've done everything possible to balloon their market share by focusing strictly on volume. Inevitably this means operating in the low to mid markets every bit (if not substantially more) than in the high-end markets. Microsoft is of the opinion that the greatest number of installations will yield the greatest adoption—not necessarily by choice but perhaps by necessity—which in turn will yield the greatest profit.

This is not entirely unsound business sense, especially in the computer market. But it's often at odds with how the company tries to portray itself. Steve Ballmer often compares Microsoft's products to Apple's, deriding Apple's lack of choices or in some cases predicting Apple's inability to succeed in existing markets, like mobile telephony.

Ballmer's attitude seems to be that Microsoft products are genuinely superior, when their business model is visibly focused on profit as the single most important measure of success. Perhaps I should break the bad news: profit should not be the mark by which you measure success. If money is your ultimate goal, you will create products only as good as necessary to keep profiting.

Contrast this to Apple, whose ultimate goal is to make really awesome products. To them, money is only useful as it helps them make more great products, so the equation is exactly reversed. This is not to say Apple doesn't need or try to earn as much money as it can; but it is to say that Apple refuses to sacrifice the quality of its products for the sake of financial gain.

This dichotomy explains why Apple continues to operate from the high end of the market; targeting people who have money to spend and want to spend it on the highest quality products. Apple has that market secure. A recent study finds that as of June, 2009, Apple has a 91% revenue market share in PCs costing $1000+. This means that for every $10 spent on a computer costing at least $1000, nine of those dollars go into Apple's pocket.

From this stranglehold, Apple has slowly began creeping down towards the middle market areas, with all three pegs of its current business: the Mac, the iPhone, and the iPod. The best example of these is the iPod, which debuted in 2001 aimed squarely at the very high end of the market. As its popularity grew and prices came down, Apple moved in and took over the middle and even the low-end of the market, with the cheapest iPods coming in at just $59. The iPhone and the Mac are moving in the same direction. iPhones began selling for $500 and you can now get a fantastic iPhone 3G for just $99. Mac prices have come down in recent months as costs have continued to decline, and Apple seems poised to move down another rung with a new product (some have called this a tablet; we'll see) in the sub-$1000 range.

What's important to realize about this strategy is that starting from the high end is very different, and much more difficult than the reverse. At the high end of the market margins are greater while potential users are fewer. Higher quality begets higher prices, and high prices are unsustainable without high quality. Establishing a brand of estimable quality is necessary to operate in the high end of the market, which in turn necessitates high-quality products.

Moving to lower market segments is easy for a company with a reputation for quality, as long as they can continue to maintain quality in lower market segments with lower margins and prices. I'm sure that Ferrari would love to sell a $10,000 Carrera if it could do so without going bankrupt. But Ferrari, like Apple, refuses to make the compromises necessary to operate in the lower market segments. They'd rather create the cars that meet their particular and lofty standards because that's what people come to expect and for what they pay.

Establishing yourself in the low end of the market as Microsoft has creates a very different situation. By reinforcing the idea that your products are cheap and that anyone can afford them, you create the impression that the quality of your products is just that—cheap and commoditized. Your market share may swell and your profits may rise, but you are vulnerable when companies like Apple begin encroaching on your territory, as is inevitable as technology costs continue to decline.

Apple has begun to do this to Microsoft, and Microsoft has responded by running advertisements that bolster their position as bottom feeders in the market. Apple is advancing into Microsoft territory, with the knowledge that even if they do not succeed—if it turns out they cannot make a Mac that can compete with cheap PCs—they still have the high end of the market safe and secure.

But Microsoft is in a much more precarious situation. Their options are to continue defending their turf from Apple and other advancing adversaries, or to move into higher segments of the market and compete with Apple et. al. at those companies' strengths. To do that, Microsoft must re-brand (and re-organize) itself as a company focused on quality and impeccable user experience, which is completely at odds with the way the company is currently heading, and has been heading pretty much since its inception.

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The Apple v. Microsoft is the sexy comparison to be sure, but by no means the only one. I strive to design things that are a pleasure to use, because that's what drives me.



You are witnesess at the new birth of my site, hope you enjoy the new direction...

I'm going to re-post some recent articles from my other site before continuing with this new site.


On the Bases-Loaded Walk. And a Douche.

So now the Dodgers are only 2.5 games ahead of the Colorado Rockies in the National League Western Division. The Rockies are playing like a team in a pennant race; the Dodgers are playing like a team that doesn't really believe they have anything to worry about. Perhaps they've forgotten about 2007?

Last night was a perfect example. The game was tied going into the bottom of the 9th and the Diamondbacks were 0-11 with runners in scoring position. Dodgers pitcher Ramon Troncoso throws away a come-backer and ends up walking Mark Reynolds on a 3-2 pitch with one out and the bases loaded to end the game.

This is perhaps the most despicable way any game can end. If you're pitching in this situation, there's absolutely no reason not to throw the ball right down the fucking middle of the plate. I don't care who the batter is, with one out there's no reason for them to swing at a ball that's even close to the corner. If you throw it down the middle and they hit a game-winning sac fly, get a base hit or even hit a home run, then you've lost game but at least you didn't hand over the game. The key is to make them beat you; keep your pride. Because maybe—just maybe—he'll hit into a double play. Or he might ground out. Or maybe he'll even swing and miss. But Ramon Troncoso will never know, because he tried to be fancy.

And one more thing, after Mark Reynolds got that game-winning walk, he said this to the media:

"I just fouled off some tough pitches and was able to work a good AB. Some of them were close. He was throwing that sinker and trying to run it back over the outside corner. They were close, there's no doubt, but they were off and you've got to credit the umpire for seeing that."

Man, what a douchey thing to say. I'll translate: "Those pitches were probably strikes, but I'm really happy the umpire gave us the game."

Let me be clear, I'm not saying that Troncoso doesn't deserve the blame, because he does, but Reynolds didn't have to be such a prick about it. Maybe he's just bitter because his teammate Jon Garland got traded to a playoff contender and he didn't. Too bad the Dodgers don't play Arizona again this season.


The Trouble with Monkey Island

Some of you may remember a popular computer game during the early 1990s called The Secret of Monkey Island. The game was created by visionary Ron Gilbert, and combined puzzles, humor, and pirates into a compelling adventure game. It became a successful franchise until the FPSs and MMORPGs seemed to drain the public's desire (or more likely, the producers' checkbooks) for witty adventure puzzle games. Undaunted however, Gilbert has returned with a new episodic Monkey Island game and a revamped version of the one that started it all.

The Secret of Monkey Island: Special Edition features completely updated graphics and sound, including the addition of voice actors for the characters. Dominic Armato leads the way as our hero Guybrush Threepwood, reprising his role from the 3rd and 4th games. Previous versions of the original game used text rather than actual voices.

As an added treat, this updated version of the original game has been made available on the iPhone/iPod touch platform. If you're like me and spent countless hours trying to figure out how to open the gate to the Giant Monkey Head, you probably won't bat an eye at the $7.99 price tag. After all, this game is a classic.

The iPhone is an amazing device, and the operating system is nothing short of stunning. It has created an incredibly high bar for developers to reach for their applications, and for the most part we've been treated to an extremely high standard of applications; certainly higher than what was available prior to its release.

But this means that our expectations are similarly raised, and an application that fails to meet those expectations stands out like a sore thumb. Unfortunately, this is the case with The Secret of Monkey Island: Special Edition iPhone port.

The game itself offers some pretty cool features, the most impressive of which is the ability to switch from the Special Edition to the Classic Edition anytime during gameplay–even during a cut scene.

Top: the special edition graphics. Bottom: original graphics.

The overall gameplay is lacking however, primarily because the game still requires the use of a cursor-like controller. Rather than tapping on items to interact with them as you would expect, you're required to move your finger around the screen which operates the cursor, then tap to execute the action. Here's an example.

One of the biggest breakthroughs of the iPhone is the multi-touch screen, which has obliterated the need for a cursor. Why should I have to scroll a white glowing ball up and down to move an arrow to select objects when I can just touch them directly with my finger?

This crutch is mostly just a nuisance, but there are times where the actual gameplay is significantly impeded. For instance, obtaining the red herring and transferring the mug of grog become much harder than they should be.

I'm sure that the team responsible for this effort spent a lot of time on this, and I wonder whether LucasArts will even turn a profit on it. The game is certainly a technical achievement, but it's very clearly not the best it could, or should be.

Despite the brilliance of the game itself, playing on the iPhone it is a constant reminder of the ways in which the interface does not do it justice. Whether the blame lies with the developers themselves or with LucasArts I don't know, but I wish their standards were higher.

I still enjoyed playing the game for the nostalgia, but I can't help but think that the gameplay alone would turn off any would-be addicts to the franchise. The puzzles that Ron Gilbert and team devised are supposed to be frustrating and somewhat diabolical. The user interface is not.

I really hope we get to see an iPhone version of Monkey Island 2 (my personal favorite), but this time with a proper interface that's more befitting of the iPhone, and the game.



Welcome back, Manny!

Bill Plaschke has a piece in the LA Times about Manny Ramirez' return to the Dodgers.

He takes issue with the way the Dodgers have coddled Manny, and about how the franchise and fans are embracing his return as if he'd ben on the Disabled List.

He writes:

Surely, somebody will hold him accountable for a 50-game suspension for violating baseball's drug policy?

Surely somebody would let him know that, because he has yet to offer any true remorse or explanation since his May 7 suspension, somebody was going to publicly wonder why?

As a fan, I think Manny should be ashamed of himself, and I wish he would take more responsibility than he has, and I'd wish he'd talk more openly and honestly about what happened. I wish the Dodgers had given him less leeway, at least in forcing him to attempt to pay back the fans and the franchise for the turmoil he's caused and will continue to cause. And I wish he would consider his place as a role model for kids and his role as one of baseball's superstars who bring excitement and attention to the game worldwide.

That said, the Dodgers are a baseball team trying to win a World Series for the first time in over 20 years. Yes, the case could be made that the Dodgers can win without Manny, but there's no doubt that they're better with him. Some have called for the Dodgers to dump Manny altogether, and while that sounds very noble, it's completely impracticable.

Trading Manny would be a Herculean task, and the Dodgers may not even be able to do it at all. Dumping him altogether just makes no sense since the Dodgers would have to eat the rest of his salary, and noble or not it doesn't seem fair to punish the Dodgers for Manny's transgression.

No, if the Dodgers are paying his salary, Manny will be playing for them (nobody wants another Andruw Jones). Let's also remember that Manny was charged and sentenced. He served his suspension and now he's done. Whether he deserves a stiffer penalty is a question for the next collective bargaining negotiations. For now, the penalty is 50 games, and those 50 games are up.

So as with many Dodger Fans, I welcome Manny's return to the Dodger lineup. I will cheer when he does well. I hope he helps the team reach new heights. And I also hope that he never touches steroids again and uses this as an opportunity to speak out on his mistakes and make some necessary changes.

Like him or not, booing and chiding him now doesn't help the Dodgers be a better team. Dodger fans have spent the last 50 games being upset at Manny. Now they're done and ready to watch him play.

Dodger fans want a World Series title. They want a team of which they can be proud. As one fan put it to Plaschke, "I love baseball, and I love the Dodgers, and so I cheer for them all." So who can blame them for that?

I hope that Manny doesn't make the same mistakes that Barry Bonds has made in handling the controversy, although he's off to a very inauspicious start. Ramirez' legacy will forever be tarnished, but he still has an opportunity to make a positive impact on the field as well as off. Let's hope he takes it.

Now, he's baaaaaaaaaaack! (again). Play Ball!


Selecting Text

On the minutiae of selecting text on your computer, there are multiple methods. Anchored, unanchored, etc.

It's an issue that just seems to linger, as Pierre Igot explores:

In several of Apple's text editors or applications with text editing tools (probably all based on the same underlying text editing engine), including Mail, TextEdit, but also Pages, Excel, etc., there is a total disconnect between the orientation of the mouse selection and the orientation of selection expansions with the cursor keys.

Why is this problem so vexing? I think the solution lies in defining the reference point. The problem exists because once a selection is made, it becomes ambiguous where the reference point, or focus lies. Does it lie at the end of the current selection? Or the beginning?

If this reference point was highlighted, it would be trivial for users and developers to solve this conundrum. Arrow keys would expand or contract the selection from the reference point.

So something like this:

becomes something like this:

The dark orange indicates the reference point for the selection. It also attempts to clarify the fact that the reference point can operate line by line (with the ↑ or ↓ keys) or character by character (using ← and →).

But where should the reference point be placed initially? At the end or the beginning of the selection? A logical solution would be to place the reference point at the end of the selection, as if while you're creating the selection you're dragging the reference point as you go. When finished, you can press either the ↑ or ← key one time to change the reference point to the beginning of the selection, like so:

From there, the existing shift-arrow combination would expand or contract the selection from that point.

If the ↓ or → keys are pressed when the reference point is at the end of the selection (or if the ↑ or ← keys are pressed when the reference point is at the beginning), then the entire highlight is removed and the cursor moves in that direction; exactly what happens now if the arrow keys are pressed without the shift modifier.

This method guesses from which direction the user likely intends to add to or remove part of the selection, but makes this assumption observable and gives people the tools to change it. It disambiguates the problem while offering more control and flexibility over text selection.


The Middleman

Apple's App Store has been out for just over 9 months and has garnered relative praise. It has done a phenomenal job at purveying applications and transforming the role of mobile phones in popular society.

But the style with which Apple has implemented the App Store leaves some things to be desired. The fact that Apple is the sole legitimate means by which users can acquire applications means that they are the middleman, and the only middleman.

The advantage of this is clear: the purchasing experience is the same for every app. With Apple, the experience tends to be pretty darn good. Aside from complaints regarding the abundance of low cost fart apps driving prices down; the exposure, ease of purchase, and universal compatibility have been real successes.

The downside however is that because Apple sells the apps, the developer is removed from the purchasing equation. Users never have to have any contact with a developer to acquire an application, and because each app is downloaded without any supporting materials, it's extremely difficult for developers to effectively publicize any support avenues they may have established. Some developers have included this information within the app itself, but by breaking the link between the developer and user, it becomes far more likely that a user will miss important information regarding known problems.

Take the example of the Ego app by developer Garrett Murray:

A little over a week and a half ago, Google blocked Ego from getting XML reports from Analytics. Every user's GA widgets stopped working (they started reporting all zeros). I panicked, tried to figure out how to get around this problem, and eventually talked to Google and they helped me solve it [...] I submitted the update to Apple. Now, of course, I wait.


But my favorite part of this whole experience is that there's no way for me to respond to reviews as the app creator. So I can't go in and say, "Hey, by the way, version 1.3 fixes all this and we're just waiting on Apple's ridiculously slow and convoluted approval process!"

Murray's case is not unique; there are doubtless hundreds of applications which have bugs, or as in Murray's case, suffer when some 4th party code is changed. Murray and others have several options: they can publicize problems and solutions on their own site or use a 3rd party solution, they can embed bug fix notes in the new application versions when they're released, or they can reach out through other sources such as Twitter.

But none of these solutions offer Murray what he needs: a direct line to communicate with customers that goes through Apple. Apple does not and should not handle the actual tech support, but they should provide a direct means for developers to communicate with their users and vice versa. Developers should have the opportunity to provide as much support as they desire without requiring users to visit their website. Every iPhone and iPod Touch user has access to the App Store either through their device or through iTunes; it's the one avenue that developers can absolutely count on for each person using their application.

Murray comments that perhaps the types of users attracted to App Store are somewhat undesirable, and he's probably not wrong. But that's not something for which Apple should be held accountable. There will always be users who would rather leave a nasty comment and tell their friends just as there will always be users who would seek out the developer and properly report a bug or other concern. Apple can't control the types of people who purchase apps, but they can (and should) provide a means for maintaining the dialogue between the user and the people responsible for the actual performance of the app.

One simple solution would be for Apple to push application update notifications out to users automatically. Rather than having to launch the App Store from an iPod or iPhone (or manually check for updates through iTunes), users would at the very least be able to see which applications have updates, and provide a field for developers to indicate exactly what's new in this version from the last version.