Tunes, a Hard Drive and (Just Maybe) a Brain
By RACHEL DODES
Published: August 26, 2004, NYT
WHILE Bob Angus was presiding over a summer dinner party at his Upper West Side apartment in Manhattan, his Apple iPod decided to reveal its softer side.
Mr. Angus, a second-year graduate student at Columbia Business School, had selected the Shuffle Songs mode on his iPod, which was connected by an adapter cable to his stereo receiver. By doing this, he relinquished control of his 1,300-song music library - and, as he would soon find out, of his party.
The Guns N' Roses song "Paradise City" blared from his speakers. It was followed by the melodic piano solo at the beginning of Elton John's "Your Song." Mr. Angus's 10 guests burst into laughter.
"Everyone was rocking out," Mr. Angus said. "Then Elton comes on and kills it - it was like strike No. 1 against my manhood."
Such are the perils of using Shuffle, a genre-defying option that has transformed the way people listen to their music in a digital age. The problem is, now that people are rigging up their iPods to stereos at home and in their cars, they may have to think twice about what they have casually added to their music library.
Shuffle commands have been around since the dawn of the CD player. But the sheer quantity of music on an MP3 player like the iPod - and in its desktop application, iTunes - has enabled the function to take on an entirely new sense of scale and scope. It also heightens the risk that a long-forgotten favorite song will pop up, for better or for worse, in mixed company.
There is an unintended consequence of the allure of Shuffle: it is causing iPod users to question whether their devices "prefer" certain types of music.
Revere Greist, a doctoral student and amateur bicycle racer in Los Angeles, has concluded that his iPod's Shuffle command favors the rapper 50 Cent - and perhaps more important, that it knows exactly the right time to play 50 Cent's biggest hit, "In Da Club." He finds the dramatic beat, coupled with the lyrics "Go Shorty, it's your birthday," inspirational.
Mr. Greist rides his bike 15 hours a week, often more than three hours at a time. To get him through the tedium of this workout, he created a 40-song mix called "What It Takes," a name derived from a quotation on a documentary film about Lance Armstrong's training for the 2000 Tour de France. (After Armstrong defies his team manager's orders and races up a snowy mountain, his team manager says into the camera, "Now, that's what it takes to win the Tour de France.")
The iPod "knows somehow when I am reaching the end of my reserves, when my motivation is flagging," Mr. Greist insisted. "It hits me up with 'In Da Club,' and then all of a sudden I am in da club."
For Mr. Angus, though, Shuffle can be a workout killer. He said that while working out at the gym, his portable music player invariably drifts toward the Billboard Top 40.
"It really likes Ruben Studdard," the winner of "American Idol's" second season, Mr. Angus said. This, despite the fact that he only has one song of Mr. Studdard's - the soulful ballad "Sorry 2004" - stored on his 20-gigabyte player. "There's nothing worse than when you are having an intense workout and Ruben comes on," he said, "but it seems to always happen to me."
Lucy Shaw, a social worker in New York, has stopped using Shuffle altogether. "It was totally not reading my moods," she said. It would play upbeat music when she was feeling low, and dark, somber selections when she was feeling upbeat. Furthermore, she said, her device had a penchant for picking songs containing four minutes of dead air followed by a bonus track - like Roxy Music's "More Than This" (the song to which Bill Murray sings karaoke in "Lost in Translation," a bonus track on the film's soundtrack album).
These people are not the only ones who think that iPods have minds of their own. IPod enthusiasts are throwing all manner of Shuffle conspiracy theories around on Internet message boards, ranging from the somewhat plausible to the absurd.
At the macslash.org discussion site, one posting said: "I'm pretty sure iTunes is not sorting my songs randomly. It seems to learn. I'd say it's using some Bayesian logic and/or simple neural networks to vary probabilities of songs to be selected and adjust parameters of selection by the users history of song skipping."
When confronted with such elaborate theories, Stan Ng, Apple Computer's director of iPod product marketing, laughed. "The funny thing about it is that it really is random," he said. "When you turn on Shuffle Songs, it creates a randomized list of all the music on your iPod without repeating a song."
That is to say, if you listened on Shuffle to all 1,000 songs stored on an iPod Mini, you would theoretically never hear the same song twice, much the way you would never get two queens of hearts if you pulled cards from a single deck one by one. (Conversely, if you select Random on the iTunes Smart Playlist function, you might hear the same song twice in a row, though it is unlikely.)
The popularity of the listening mode led Apple's product design team to add Shuffle to the main menu on the fourth-generation iPod, which was introduced on July 19. Now, instead of having to scroll down into Settings to turn Shuffle on or off, users have it at their fingertips.
Mr. Ng said that the technology behind the Shuffle function has remained the same since the first-generation iPod. He declined to reveal the algorithm used to generate randomness on Shuffle, but said the only reason that an iPod might seem to know a listener's preferences is that the listener, after all, chose the music in the first place.
"I have friends who say, 'My iPod is, like, totally into 80's music,' " Mr. Ng said. "And I will say to them, 'Well, how much 80's music do you have on your iPod?' " The answer, he said, is usually an amount sufficient to ensure a steady stream of Flock of Seagulls and Duran Duran.
This logical explanation doesn't always jibe with users' experiences. Dan Cedarholm, a Web designer in Salem, Mass., insists that his iPod has a predilection for the indie punk band Fugazi. Even though he only has two of the band's albums stored on his "vintage" 5-gigabyte device, the band seems to dominate his iPod to a degree wildly disproportionate to the amount of space it occupies on his player's memory, he said.
"It is truly bizarre," said Mr. Cedarholm, who no longer likes Fugazi. "Before, it was this hidden gem, and when I heard them I would be like, 'Oh yeah. Fugazi. Cool.' "
Now he hits the Fast Forward button.
Mr. Cedarholm has contemplated removing all Fugazi songs from his iPod, but he said he fears that "the baton will get passed" to some other band, like his beloved Pixies, "and God help me if I wind up hating them too."
According to Mr. Ng, there is no way that an iPod can be a "fan" of a particular artist or band. Rather, he asserted, the anthropomorphizing of the iPod is "just another example of how much people love them."
Other MP3 players, like those from iRiver and Rio, also have Shuffle functions. But because of its popularity and larger market share, the iPod is the overwhelming focus of online tales and conjecture on the subject.
Dan Torres, vice president for product marketing at Rio, whose iPod competitor is called the Rio Karma, said the topic of the randomness of Shuffle comes up often in Rio's discussion forums as well. "I think that one of the issues is that it is easy for users to perceive that if two songs come up right next to each other from the same artist that the Shuffle feature is not working," he said. "But statistically, this will just happen from time to time."
There are ways to circumvent Shuffle - on an iPod at least - by using iTunes, most notably by creating a Smart Playlist. Indeed, one could argue that the most innovative thing about the iPod is not the number of songs that can be stored on it, but the intelligent ways in which the iTunes software can manage users' music. After all, having 10,000 songs on a tiny device is relatively useless unless you can play exactly what you want, when you want it.
Creating Smart Playlists enables users to slice and dice their music libraries using pretty much any criteria they want. One can produce, for example, an entire list of songs that share nothing other than that they occupy the seventh track on their respective albums. The Date Added subcategory can be used as the selection criteria to generate a mix of songs that have been added to the iPod over the course of, say, the last two weeks.
The Smart Playlists function is relatively easy to use - there is even a Web site, www.smartplaylists.com, devoted to creating them - but it is more difficult than simply clicking on Shuffle, and it seems to be popular among more technically inclined iPod owners. (Most people interviewed for this article had never heard of Smart Playlists, let alone used them.)
An added benefit of Smart Playlists is that they can reduce the chances of having your iPod ruin an intimate moment.
Bob Angus, the Columbia Business School student, became enthusiastic at the mention of the Smart Playlist function and wanted to hear more.
Once when he and his girlfriend were together in his bedroom, he said, his iPod started blasting the Beastie Boys' "No Sleep Till Brooklyn."
"I jumped out of bed as fast as I could," he recalled. "But it had already wrecked the mood." In the future, he said, he will try not to let his iPod run wild.