Doin’ the iPod Shuffle

He was the wizard of a thousand kings
And I chanced to meet him one day wandering
He told me tales and he drank my wine
Me and my magic man just feelin’ fine…
Above, a quote from the song The Wizard by Uriah Heep, a band that was probably a real-life prototype of Spinal Tap if ever there was one.

This song was on the album Demons and Wizards, which came out in 1972. A friend of mine was really into the album and loaned it to me. I listened to it a couple of times and gave it back. We discussed it. He thought The Wizard was an allegory about knowledge. I agreed because I wasn’t particularly eager to take the album back and give it another spin in a literary critic frame of mind.

But it’s really amazing what kind of stuff can clutter up a human brain. Like those first four lines from the song I posted up there. I still remember them even though it has been more than thirty years since I’ve heard the song. Kind of a waste of brain cells, y’know? Wish I could clear them out so I could store something useful in them, like a Bible verse or where I last left my car keys.

Anyway, here’s something more. Several weeks ago I was bored and was flipping through stations until I found a classic rock station based out of Youngstown that was really what my idea of a classic rock station should be. It was like an oldies station, playing stuff from the seventies and eighties, but it wasn’t pop. It was rock and roll (this also led me to the conclusion that rock and roll is pretty stupid stuff, but that’s a post for another day when I’m more in guitar mode). I was driving somewhere listening to this station when out of the blue they played a song that I haven’t heard in probably 33 years. That’s right. The Wizard by Uriah Heep.

And here’s the kicker. Even though I remembered the opening words, I didn’t remember the acoustic guitar intro – and yet I knew the title and artist within the first five notes of the song. It all came rushing back. Instantly.

That’s the power of the brain – being able to dredge that up from all that time ago – remembering something that I didn’t even know I’d remembered.

All this is by way of discussing the iPod Shuffle, one of which I am now the happy owner of. Because one of the features of this cool little device is something that draws on the astonishing power of something with seemingly unlimited memory. That’s right, your brain.

See, a lot of people have complained about the iPs because it doesn’t have a display. This means you can’t look up the song that’s playing when it’s playing. And what if you don’t know it? Well, that’s where the amazing capacity of the brain comes in.

At this writing I have almost 4,000 songs ripped into my iBook. So I’ve got to have a display so I can see what’s playing, right? Not necessarily. See, playing songs randomly, I could give your either title or artist of probably 95% of those songs. I’ve got the Nuggets collection of psychedelia in there, and once I get beyond Incense and Peppermints by the Strawberry Alarm Clock, I’m lost when it comes to who sang Time Won’t Let Me. I’ve got a good number of Pat Metheny albums ripped, but aside from a few standout titles (As Falls Wichita, So Falls Wichita Falls) or favorites (Are You Going WIth Me, Cathedral in a Suitcase, I’d be hard pressed to name the title of his often-heard and enjoyed pieces.

In the two days since I’ve had it, I’ve listened pretty solidly (I listen to music while writing at work, too), and was only stumped once – by a Wang Chung song that was on their hits compilation – that obviously wasn’t one of the songs I bought it for. Remind me to give it one star (read: marked for deletion from my hard drive).

I’m sure most other people could do the same thing given a little thin stick full of music that formed the soundtrack of their lives. Unless they’ve spent too much time terminating brain cells with various and sundry means of chemical entertainment.

So if you fill it up with random songs for your collection, there’s a really good chance that you’re going to know something about the song. And if you choose to manually select the songs that go into it, the odds of knowing the song – even on random playback – approaches 100%.

All right, having flogged the “but it doesn’t have a display” argument to death, how does the rest of the iPod Shuffle fare?

Well, it’s a quite brilliant little piece of merchandise. It’s about the size of a pack of Wrigley’s gum, but flatter, and weights less. One end comes off to reveal a USB port used in charging and loading/unloading songs. The other end has a slot with a minijack for plugging in headphones. Small colored LED’s tell you the unit’s status when needed, and there’s an Off/Play/Shuffle Play switch and battery check button on one side and a round Play/Pause button, surrounded by a ring that controls volume and Fast Forward-Jump Ahead/Rewind-Jump Back on the other. When you get into the software end, you find it is configured through the iTunes – I set mine to allocate 128Mb of space so I can use it as a jump drive, with enough space left over to hold 210 songs (I have the 1GB model).

In my mind, the best feature of the iPs is that it is an extension of something that iTunes got me into the habit of doing probably two years ago – that is, listening to my music library on shuffle mode – the random selection and playback of songs. As I’ve commented before (and as now shows up in some of Apples iPs propaganda), it’s like finding a radio station that only plays your favorite songs.

Now I had been holding out for a 40GB iPod. My thinking had been that I could have access to my entire music library when it came to random playback bliss. But when my jump drive died, and I started looking into maybe getting something that could carry data and play music – particularly in the proprietary Apple format – I came to realize something. What’s the purpose of having the entire library in your pocket when at best you’ll only be able to listen to a couple of dozen songs? According to iTunes, my just-updated Shuffle has 208 songs on it that will run 15 hours 30 minutes and 25 seconds if played back uninterrupted. The battery is only supposed to run 12 hours on a charge.

Thus, with a single charge and load session, I have enough music to last me two days. With no hard drive skipping, on a little white stick that probably weights less than an ounce.

So it was perfect for everything I was looking for, or, in the case of the jump drive, needed. And the fact that it could randomly choose songs and install them in random order, and then randomize the random installation for playback… icing on the cake.

(You can also fill it with your own music. Or you can put some of your favorites on and have iTunes fill the rest of the space with random selections. Then you can play them back in order – your choices followed by randomness – or shuffle your choices together with the iPod’s.)

I’m also impressed by the sound of the unit, as have some of my colleagues who heard it. I used to be an audiophile snob back in my college days, but having a family to feed took that out of me pretty quickly. There’s still enough quality of sound here to make my ears happy. And with a cool little device called a Roadtrip from Newer Technologies, I can listen to the Shuffle through my car’s FM radio, hands-free. I just set it and forget it – and enjoy how short it makes the commute.

Now, just so this post isn’t a total gush over this product, here are a couple of things that could be downers but aren’t. Not really:
� Because my iBook only has (slow) USB 1.1 ports, it takes about an hour to fill it with the aforementioned 210 songs. But that doesn’t bug me because it’s also charging while it loads.

� The hardest thing for me (“Old Fumblefingers”) to do was put the little foam cushions on the ear buds. I managed to put a small tear in one, but at least now I can tell the left bud from the right. It does come with two sets of cushions.

� As with any brand-new product, there are issues with some of the units and bugs to be worked out (there’s already been an update for the iPs’s onboard software). Fortunately, Apple has an easily accessed discussion forum that gives solutions, workarounds, and help to the iPod beginner.

� I was wearing it while walking through a mall today, and I kept catching myself singing along (albeit under my breath, I hope) to what I was listening to. I couldn’t help it. Could be a hazard for those who never wanted to be those “wandering through the mall, talking to one’s self” types.
To boil it all down, the iPod Shuffle is the perfect music player for my wants, needs, and listening habits. Your requirements may vary.

(Useless piece of trivia – the first song my iPs played was The Core by Eric Clapton. I’ve only got a couple of Clapton songs in my library, but it picked my all-time favorite. I felt like dancing around like a fool, just like the folks in those iPod Shuffle TV commercials.)

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