Dumb Thoughts

Whenever I enter our company's precincts these days, I am reminded of ice cream: a packed layer of snow, sprinkled with dark grit, looks just like chocolate chip ice cream; a thin layer of slightly dirty snow on top has more or less the colour of nut ice cream.

On Music

Never mind. I meant to tell you something totally different. It is about iTunes, the program I use to listen to music, and to keep my music library in order (and for a podcast or two). I have not yet bought anything from the iTMS, and nowadays, my iPod is used but rarely. So, I could just as well use a different program. On the other hand, iTunes works very well, it is integrated into the OS (on the Mac, that is), and I do not know of any real alternative.[1]

Out of tune

Nevertheless, there are some things I do not like. Mostly, these are minor points. For example, you can change the toolbar[2] to suit you likings in almost every little utility; this is functionality provided by the operating system, so application programmers do not have to work too hard to include this in their program. Not so in iTunes. Or take Smart Playlists[3]: You can combine several criteria by either and or or, but not by both[4]. It is possible to work around this problem[5] by combining several Smart Playlists.

Rated

Two points are, however, a bit bigger: the way iTunes works with albums, and with ratings.
iTunes' ratings are quite simple -- and that is the reason it looks a bit slapped-on to me: You can rate each track with one to five stars. These will be shown in your track lists, and you can use them in Smart Playlists[6]. That is about it. Wait, there is something else: when rating a complete album, the stars are copied to all the album's (unrated) tracks. They will be shown as outlines to remind you that the track as such has not been rated. Likewise, an album will be rated from the combined ratings of its tracks.[7].

So far, so good. Such a simplistic rating seems to me to belong to the 90s[8]. My average rating is slightly better than four -- a prime example of grade creep. This is where I would like to see something completely new. I do not know exactly how it should work; however, the fundamental idea is to take away the need to give absolute ratings. Instead, one could for instance perform relative ratings between two tracks; the application would then calculate absolute ratings for all titles. Or maybe the rating is calculated incrementally, and you rate it up and down each time you listen to a track.[9]. Or maybe there is a totally different idea. Some engineer is bound to have a great idea.[10]

Albus, -a, -um

Now, I have to admit I am pretty old-fashioned. Since mp3 and similar formats have been accepted, the music business seems to have shifted toward single tracks.[11] Albums are more or less dead.

Well, not for me. I still like to listen to whole records: the tracks belong together, forming a whole that is more than its parts, and sometimes, they even tell a story.[12].

Fortunately, albums are not totally gone: iTunes will group tracks by album, putting the cover art next to the list of tracks. You can also instruct shuffle mode to play whole records at a time rather than single tracks. Finally, there is the indirect rating system I mentioned above.

However, I think there is still much room for improvement. For instance, I like to use Smart Playlists, to look for highly rated tracks, of for ones I have not listened to for a while. Sometimes, only isolated tracks from various albums will be collected in this way: I might have stopped listening in the middle of an album last week, so its first tracks are two weeks more recent than the last ones; or maybe, I have rated several tracks differently even though they belong to the same record, and now only a few can be found on my five-star list.

I would really like Smart Playlists to work better with albums: wouldn't it be great to have a list of albums collecting dust rather than just isolated tracks?

[Edit: English]

  1. Again: on the Mac. The situation may be different for other operating systems.
  2. That is, the upper part of a window, where you will find icons serving as shortcuts to important commands.
  3. Automatically compiled, rule-based collections of music.
  4. Say, I cannot select all titles I like especially well and that are either from the 70s or belong to the folk genre.
  5. Apple Mail does it, too.
  6. For example, you could create a list of all tracks with four or more stars.
  7. Unless you have explicitly rated the album already.
  8. I am tempted to say: to last century.
  9. I may have been less than clear: a new track is given an average rating, say, 3. Once I have listened to it, I think it is better than that, and iTunes increases its rating to 3.5 or so. After listening for the second time, I still think it is underrated, so it increases to 3.8 -- and so weiter in smaller and smaller steps.
  10. I have added something to the wish list:

    What I would like to see in a future iTunes version is a truly innovative rating system. Instead of assigning a fixed number of stars per title, something that evolves as I build up my library and listen to music would be great.

    For example, once I have assigned preliminary stars to a new title, iTunes might allow me to compare it to other titles with a similar rating (say, while listening to the track). iTunes could then adjust its rating accordingly. Globally adjusting ratings in order to use the full spectrum of one to five stars might also be useful. Currently, the average rating in my library is slightly above four stars, however it is hard to correct this manually.

  11. Except for concerts, that is.
  12. And I like vinyl. But the drive does not fit into my Mac. Sob.
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