Got My Mojo Working From Home

My homeIn the grips of the current pandemic, “working from home” (WFH) is the new normal for white-collar workers, and a preview of our self-isolating future.

The high-tech industry has already embraced WFH, although some managers where challenged by it even as they practiced it (such as Marissa Mayer, CEO of Yahoo and famous work-at-home mom, who subsequently banned it). Nay-sayers believed that workers needed to work side-by-side for collaboration. The debate over whether proximity boosts productivity or remote workers are more productive raged on until suddenly, irrevocably, the coronavirus made WFH necessary.

The question is no longer why to WFH, but how to do it successfully. Working from home is not for everyone, but it is a viable alternative for writers, media producers, training presenters, and many other knowledge-based jobs — especially jobs that produce results that managers can measure. It may be a better alternative in an age characterized by pandemics and overpopulation.

Managing productivity

Hiring managers can be nervous about hiring someone who might spread their work out on the dining room table before dinner, or combine work time with child-watching, dog-watching, plumber-watching, or TV-watching. Some are simply uncomfortable if they don’t see me in the flesh working during the appointed hours, as if I punched a time clock. 

Remember the “product” in “productivity”: measure the results rather than the hours worked in a particular day — the number of pages or chapters, the minutes of finished video, the milestones in sprints, and so on. Managers can get better at judging productivity by setting and monitoring specific goals rather than using the proxy of office attendance.

Keep in mind that workers at home are always available. We don’t have to take a day off to be home for the cable service or plumber. Even if sick, we can join a web conference without showing our faces and making others sick. If we have to run errands, we have more time to do it before and after work because we don’t waste time commuting. We can be indifferent to time zones, communicating with companies on the other side of the globe in our pajamas.

Managers may not realize how loyal WFH practitioners can be. We are less tempted to defect to another company down the street because with a remote worker, there is no company down the street. There is no need to switch for a better commute. It takes time for me to build trust with a manager, so there is a built-in disincentive for me to look elsewhere and have to build up that trust again.

As a technical writer, convenience, productivity, and the desire for a better life drove my decision to WFH and subsequently to live remotely. I can live wherever I want (I chose Hawaii). I’m more satisfied with my work because I can also lead a balanced life, with hours to spare every day for exercise, relaxation, and family life. I don’t waste time in lengthy commutes, so I can work up to 10 hours a day without upsetting this balance of work and life.

I remember with pride how I used to suit up and battle the morning commute to an on-site job. I recall gossiping over mid-afternoon coffee, yawning through endless meetings, gathering with associates for lunch, and then trying to get work done in an isolated cubicle with a weary afternoon brain. Now, I can be twice as productive at home, getting up at dawn and working with my most creative morning brain. I can also plan my work time to fit any time zone in the world, no matter where I live — which is an advantage when collaborating with people on the other side of the world. 

Improving collaboration

In today’s workplaces, open, flexible, “activity-based” spaces are displacing cubicles, making us more visible and supposedly more accessible. But in my last on-site job, colleagues squeezed into workspaces were isolating themselves with headphones and using instant messaging to communicate to others in the same building (even on the same floor). As I headed to the restroom I had to dodge the walking zombies staring intently at their smartphones. The social aspects of working on-site have been rapidly disappearing beneath the veneer of productivity even before “social distancing” became a thing.

Collaboration can’t be forced. Interruptions derail us from our trains of thought. Whether they be social interactions or the ravings of a supervisor on a control-freak binge, interruptions are the enemy. Engineers understand this because they don’t want my questions to interrupt their work. Collaboration between technical writers and engineers has evolved to a process of organizing questions logically and delivering them more efficiently in emails, chats, or comments, in order to get useful answers. 

It’s usually better to collaborate by email, chat, or live in a web conference, then it is to try to take notes in a fast-paced conversation face-to-face. Emails and document comments force people to condense their thoughts to writing. Tracking the information works better — these tools help you keep copious documentation of every meaningful work interaction, so that teams across space and time are always up to speed on what’s happening. You can record web conferences and interviews, turn on history for the chat sessions, and examine email threads, which is especially useful if participants have trouble understanding accents. (For example, I kept hearing an engineer say “bi-plane” in a conversation about data flow, but found in the context of an email that the word should be “pipeline”).

Setting up at home

If you can remember the 1960s, you know that your set and setting determine a good or bad trip. Set is the mental state you bring to the experience, like thoughts, moods, and expectations. Setting is the physical and social environment. The same is true for WFH: you must have a disciplined mindset to focus on work when at home, and you must have a decent setting for this work that minimizes interruptions and distractions.

Work/life balance is a tricky subject and there is no right answer, although there are many books on the subject. Here are two: There’s No Place Like Working From Home can help you deal with isolation and improve your home office workflow. Remote: Office Not Required covers the typical challenges of working from home, with tips for collaboration, scheduling meetings, and sharing ideas.

Your setting is equally important. A home office infrastructure is the key to success. It starts with high-speed internet, a fully equipped laptop or desktop with a microphone and webcam, and a quiet place to work. I keep a separate bedroom as a home office, which makes it easier to deduct home-office expenses from my taxes. I recommend a high-speed Wi-Fi router, a Mac which includes a microphone and webcam, Wi-Fi or online backup, and the software or services that your company (or client) uses to provide email, chat, web conferencing, and virtual private network (VPN) access. For example, I use Mac Mail and Google Mail, Slack and Gchat, Google Hangouts and Zoom, FaceTime, and a Cisco VPN client configured for my client’s internal network. 

The most often cited drawback of working from home is loneliness. You can mitigate this drawback with more frequent webcam meetings with your colleagues. For tips, see Best Advice From 3,000 People Who Are Doing It Right.

A time to build

This sudden transition to working from home is extremely challenging for many people, but necessary for our economy. Pandemics like the coronavirus are likely to occur again. What we learn in the next few months could irrevocably shape the future of work and lifestyle. 

And even if you don’t believe that large percentage of white-collar workers will be working from home in the near future, it is time for companies to build out the kind of technology and culture that makes remote work easier for those who want to take advantage of it.



Facebook is not the problem: fix stupid

By Tony Bove

(Listening to: Think For Yourself by the Beatles)

Some fake news

The recent uproar over the abuse of Facebook in politics is misdirected. While the company needs to fix its problems with third parties like Cambridge Analytica and other bad actors, the real issue is a kind of mass ignorance.

Facebook is not the cause of the erosion of democracy in this country, nor did it undermine the presidential election of 2016. Had the Democrats enlisted a powerful company like Cambridge Analytica, Hillary Clinton might have won. And our country would be no closer to fixing the real problem.

Delete Facebook and something else will take its place. Ironically, those who are deleting Facebook are using Facebook to announce their decision. Facebook has been called a cesspool, and yet I’m casting into this cesspool with this article to stimulate thought and action.

We’re not bait

Most of the criticism about Facebook implies that its users were all duped. Facebook defenders say people are just too damn gullible.

Neither is completely true. Many intelligent people, especially those of a certain age (like myself), are mindful of history and wary of volunteering personal information. We don’t have time for lifestyle questionnaires. We don’t fill our Facebook profiles with nutty philosophies and pictures of ourselves holding automatic weapons. We aren’t bait for the trolls who work for mind-spammers like Cambridge Analytica.

We understand that targeted marketing is a fact of life. So are data breaches. Bombarded as we all are by misleading ads, scams, and fake news, somehow we can tell the difference. Many of us are avid readers and have learned to treat news videos and headlines as light entertainment. We don’t settle for conspiracy videos and we don’t read the obscure news stories our backwoods cousins post in fits of rage. We harbor a healthy skepticism about everything.

How did we get to such a state of grace, in the onslaught of the noxious stupidity that has overthrown intelligence in politics, entertainment, news, you name it? Our bullshit detectors were forged in our youth, in our well-rounded, liberal arts education. The more we absorb culture, and the more empathy we have towards humans of other cultures, the more we spread a sense of reasonableness about the entire world — and when something falls outside of the realm of reason, we reject it as false.

We must fix stupid

Comedian Ron White does a comic bit about how you should never marry for looks alone. Beauty problems can be fixed, but… “You can’t fix stupid. There’s not a pill you can take; there’s not a class you can go to. Stupid is forever.”

I hope not. We need to fight the gullible nature of humans to believe most of what we see and hear. We need to know more about tribalism so that we can understand why people accept hypocrisy among their own. And most importantly, we need to take a long view of education — like the way we think about global warming. The U.S. is now last in the list of the top 20 countries in education — both China and Russia are ahead of us. The next generation may not have a sustainable planet, but why would it matter if their minds are melting from ignorance? A well-rounded education is just as important as a well-cared-for planet.

We should all take a cue from the high-schoolers who are marching for gun control: keep at it. Don’t falter. These students are demonstrating that they know the difference between hard truth and NRA bullshit. We should all demonstrate for better education, and work to get rid of our horribly ignorant Education Secretary DeVos. Progress is slow but inexorable. We need to arm each new generation with history and common sense.

I’m not going to delete Facebook; I’m going to use it to fight back against fake news and misguided opinions.

#Facebook #fixstupid



A Musical Novel Experiment

“The greatest part of a writer’s time is spent in reading, in order to write; a man will turn over half a library to make one book.” — Samuel Johnson

The Experiment, a novel by Tony BoveMy first novel, The Experiment, is now published. It represents a lifetime of intensive research into the history of rock music, in which I devoured autobiographies, music histories, documentaries, interviews, and a deep and wide catalog of music.

One reviewer called it “a deeply provocative alternate look at the 1960s.” It is historical fiction and allegorical fantasy that traces the evolution of rock, and unveils the voodoo that gives this music a special power.

It is a musical novel because music is an essential part of it, adding another dimension of irony and commentary to the story. The iBook edition is itself an experiment: On an iPad or iPhone, you can tap links to listen to over 300 songs while reading. Playlists in iTunes and Spotify are provided on the book’s web page for those who read the printed or Kindle editions.

It is also a novel that plays well in the internet age, aware that readers will search for the people, places, events, facts, conspiracies, and other secrets referenced in the novel.

My hope is that musicians and people nostalgic for the Sixties will like it. Please read it and tell me what you think. Write a review on the Apple or Amazon site, and give it a rating. I truly appreciate the effort.



The Summer of Love 50th Anniversary: Celebrating the “High” in High Tech

Haight-AshburyToday, young people flock to San Francisco from all over the planet. They do it to participate in creating a new world, to demonstrate their inventiveness, to learn from other like-minded entrepreneurs, to be a part of what is hip and stylish, and to rub shoulders with and breathe the same air as their heroes in high tech.

Fifty years ago, young people made a similar pilgrimage to San Francisco to participate in creating a new world. They demonstrated their inventiveness at building community. They learned from other like-minded entrepreneurs of the spirit. They became the hip and stylish. They rubbed shoulders with their heroes in rock music, pop art, the new journalism, and street theater.

A children’s crusade

lovenotwarlThe Summer of Love in San Francisco in 1967, centered in the Haight-Ashbury district, was far more influential than most people realize. The generations that followed it have taken for granted the social and political changes wrought during that pinnacle of the Sixties. The civil rights movement, the free speech movement, the ecology movement, the psychedelic movement, black power, women’s liberation, and gay liberation — all forged in the crucible of the Sixties — were the foundations for the social and political environment we live in today. As talk of revolution spreads after the recent presidential election, we are reminded of the last great revolution in this country, when the Sixties peace movement, fused with the summer of love generation, stopped the Vietnam war.

Today, we refer to a fun gathering as a love fest. We talk about being in a groove, or uptight, or burned out. We tune in to the media, and cool gadgets turn us on. We drop out of the rat race from time to time, but we can still pass the acid test. What a trip! All this terminology has its roots in the Summer of Love. Our ultra-casual dress in our high-tech offices — everything from headbands and blue jeans to caftans and sandals — echo the style and culture of the hippies.

The poet Allen Cohen, an organizer in the Haight during the Summer of Love, recalled that the movement was like “a children’s crusade that would save America and the world from the ravages of war…. Peace and love weren’t just slogans but states of mind and experiences that we were living and bearing witness to. Living in harmony with the earth was an ideal that we felt and perceived as real experience. We were bringing forth a second Renaissance that would change human culture.”

Feed your head

rabbitlJohn Markoff’s excellent book, What the Dormouse Said: How the Sixties Counterculture Shaped the Personal Computer Industry, documents how the Sixties experience with psychedelics played an early role in the development of high tech, including Englebart’s mouse. He describes the evolution as all of a piece: the drugs, the antiauthoritarianism, and the messianic belief that computing power should be spread throughout the land. “It is not a coincidence,” Markoff wrote, “that, during the Sixties and early Seventies, at the height of the protest against the war in Vietnam, the civil rights movement and widespread experimentation with psychedelic drugs, personal computing emerged from a handful of government- and corporate-funded laboratories, as well as from the work of a small group of hobbyists who were desperate to get their hands on computers they could personally control and decide to what uses they should be put.”

You can see the influences of the psychedelic experience of strobe lights and plasma light shows in the electronic mandalas of the emerging virtual experiences. Our notions of community involvement stem from the grassroots organizing of the Sixties, and led to experiments such as the Community Memory Project in Berkeley, the People’s Computer Company in Menlo Park, the first computer games, and Ted Nelson’s vision of hypertext which ultimately evolved into the World Wide Web.

You can chart the intellectual progress from the early Merry Prankster experiments with sound and multimedia, Stewart Brand’s Whole Earth Catalog (promising “access to tools” with a photo of the entire planet), and Charles Reich’s interview with Jerry Garcia, A Signpost to New Space, through Brand’s excellent Cybernetic Frontiers and Ted Nelson’s Computer Lib, to Timothy Leary’s writings in the Eighties, and the emergence of thousands of desktop-published ‘zines covering this new frontier such as Verbum, Mondo 2000, and Wired.

Would there have even been an Apple, a Microsoft, or a Google, if not for the cultural influences of the Summer of Love? “What would America be like,” mused Allen Cohen, “if we had somehow gone from the gray flannel Eisenhower-McCarthyite Fifties to the three piece suit Reagan Eighties without the interceding influence of the beat, hippie, civil rights, and anti-war movements? The result of such a time warp probably would have been a direct line, without much resistance, to fascism or even holocaust.”

Steve Jobs credited the psychedelic experience in making him more enlightened, according to Walter Isaacson’s biography Steve Jobs. “I came of age at a magical time,” said Jobs, quoted by Isaacson. “Our consciousness was raised by Zen, and also by LSD…. Taking LSD was a profound experience, one of the most important things in my life. LSD shows you that there’s another side to the coin, and you can’t remember it when it wears off, but you know it. It reinforced my sense of what was important — creating great things instead of making money, putting things back into the stream of history and of human consciousness as much as I could.”

A ripple in still water

skullThe Summer of Love was a pivotal moment in the emergence of true compassion for other human beings, inspiring future generations to work on improving all of our lives. “The beat and hippie movements brought the values and experiences of an anarchistic, artistic subculture, and a secret and ancient tradition of transcendental and esoteric knowledge and experience, into the mainstream of cultural awareness,” explained Allen Cohen. “It stimulated breakthroughs in every field from computer science to psychology, and gave us back a sense of being the originators of our lives and social forms, instead of hapless robot receptors of a dull and determined conformity.”

During the summer of 2017, we will gather in the San Francisco Bay Area to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Summer of Love. We hope to bring together people from all the intervening generations to savor this rare moment in human history, the ultimate pivot from the close-minded industrial age to the open-minded, self-aware, and enlightened information age. Join us for this memorable event.

And be sure to wear a flower in your hair.





Developing iPhone and iPad Apps: New Video for Beginners

Infinite Skills videoMy newest video, Non-Programmers Guide To Building iOS Apps, is now available from Infinite Skills. iOS, of course, is the operating system for the iPhone and iPad. When you develop an app for iOS, you are developing a native app for the iPhone or iPad (or both). The iPod touch works just like an iPhone (as far as apps are concerned), so your iPhone app would also run on an iPod touch.

Anyone can learn how to develop iOS apps. It doesn’t require super-human intelligence, even though it may seem like magic. To compare it to an alchemical experiment, the iOS Software Development Kit, or SDK, and the Xcode development environment, are the forge and crucible. You speak, or rather write code, in the programming language called Objective-C. The SDK comes with all the frameworks you need to forge an app, and Xcode is the tool you use to bring it all together. 

Developing iOS apps can also be the most fun you’ve had in years, with very little investment of time and money. iOS apps are small enough to figure out how to do. A single developer — or one with a partner and maybe some graphics support — can do an app. You don’t need a 20-person project with endless procedures and processes and meetings.

Before plunging into Objective-C and doing some coding, you need to know a bit more about what makes a good iOS app. This course will show you. You also need to know more (actually quite a bit more) about the iOS technologies that work behind the screen — such as frameworks, windows, views, and view controllers, which I introduce in this course. And when you’re done developing the app, you need to become acquainted the details about getting your app ready for the App Store and the public. I go over all these details in this course.

iOS app development can be simplified to a 3-step process:

  1. Design the user interface.
  2. Write the code in Objective-C.
  3. Build, run, and test your app.

You can do steps 1 and 3 without knowing how to write code in Objective-C. You can learn the mechanics of creating an app and taking it all the way to the distribution process, before learning Objective-C. So, you can learn a lot from this training — even if you don’t know what this Objective-C code does.

So follow along with this training course and you too will have more fun programming than ever before!



iTunes Questions Answered: Files, Transfers, Store, and More


I recently answered a lot of questions about iTunes in other forums, and those answers are reproduced here so that others can benefit. They are segmented into sections on file management, transferring to or from devices, iTunes Store accounts, iTunes playlists, and iTunes performance.

You can learn more about iTunes in the most recent edition of my book iPod and iTunes For Dummies

File Management in iTunes

  • “What is the best way to manage music files, i.e. backing them up, with iTunes?”

The best way to manage your iTunes library is to use Apple’s Time Machine (with Time Capsule) — you did ask for the “best” way. You don’t have to worry about it. Your Time Capsule always has a backup. You can then use iTunes Match to copy most (though not all) of your music to iCloud, for a second backup. That’s basically what I do.

  • “How does iTunes keep track of its music library?”

Songs ripped or downloaded are copied to the iTunes Media folder — unless you uncheck the “Copy files to iTunes Media folder when adding to the library” option under the Advanced tab in Preferences. So normally, iTunes makes a copy of the music file, and stores it in the iTunes Media folder. If you delete the original file, the copy still exists in the iTunes Media folder.

If you uncheck the “Copy files to iTunes Media folder when adding to the library” option, iTunes doesn’t make copies of the files, and instead points to the original files. If you delete the original file, it’s gone. iTunes may display it, but won’t be able to find it — you’ll see an exclamation point next to it in your iTunes library.

  • “Some of my stored CDs are fragmented i.e. if an artist has recorded with another artist then the track is stored separately and not in the overall CD. How can I consolidate separated tracks so they are included where they should be?”

The filename and location within artist and album folders change when you change the information for a song in the information fields. For example, if you change the song title, the filename also changes. If you change the artist name, the folder name for the artist might change or the file might move to a new folder by that name.

If you want a compilation album to be stored within an artist folder, you could change the Artist field. You could, for example, create a new artist “name” that combines two artists (Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel, for example) and use that name for the albums, to store it in the “Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel” folder.

On the other hand, if you just want the songs/albums to sort in the list as if they were by the same artist, you can change the Sort Artist field for the artist under the Sorting tab in the Get Info window. You can add the artist name the way you want it to be sorted, as I do with “Hartford, John” in the Sort Artist field, so that John Hartford songs show up in the H artists (as if the artist is “Hartford, John”) rather than in the J artists when sorted alphabetically, but the artist name still appears as “John Hartford.”

You may want to change the Album Artist field under the Info tab in in the Get Info window and the Sort Album Artist field under the Sorting tab in the Get Info window, or fill them in if they’re blank, for certain songs on compilation albums or music from box sets. iTunes offers both Artist and Album Artist fields for a song so that you can include the album artist name if it’s different — such as the artist name for a compilation album that features songs by different artists (for example, a duet album by an artist who brings in other guest artists). This is a sorting trick, not a way to reorganize the way the files are stored.

Transfer to or from Devices

  • “Tony, this may be too basic a question, but here goes: Would tips cover how to transfer the data on my iTouch 4 to my new iTouch 5? (OK, you guessed it; I’m near 70.)”

If you first synchronized your iTouch 4 music, videos, apps, and other content with your iTunes library, and your contacts, calendars, bookmarks etc. with iCloud (or using iTunes with your browser, desktop contacts, and calendars applications), and your photos with iPhoto or a photo folder, you can simply synchronize your iTouch 5 to the same iTunes library for content, and iCloud (or your desktop applications through iTunes) for your contacts etc., and iPhoto or photo folder (through iTunes) for photos.

If that’s not an option for some reason, most alternative solutions will copy your music, videos, podcasts and some data (contacts, calendars) to your computer (either to an iTunes library or just the files). You can then use iTunes to synch them with your iTouch 5. You can find these utilities at the bottom of this article: “Tips on Using iPod and iPhone Models“.

  • “Your book refers to Tip #3 on your website for moving files from an iPad to iTunes with 3rd party software. I cannot find it.”

My apologies. Somehow it was left off the end of the “Tips on Using iPod and iPhone Models” page. You can find it at the end of that page under “Using Utilities to Copy Files and Music”. Thanks!

iTunes Store

  • “How do I get rid of this error on iTunes: ‘This Apple id has not yet been used with the iTunes store. Please review your account information.’?”

You should log into the iTunes Store (click iTunes Store button in the top right corner), and click Account in the Quick Links section on the right side of the page. The Account Information should appear (you may have type your password first). If there is a problem, it would be listed there.

  • “What happens to the songs I’ve already bought if I change my region settings in iTunes?”

Your purchases won’t vanish, but you won’t be able to buy in both regions at the same time. To do that you would need to create a separate account for each region.

  • “What was the first song ever downloaded from iTunes?”

I couldn’t find the very first song downloaded. The day iTunes Store opened in 2003, the top seller was “Stuck in a Moment” by U2, and the top album “Sea Change” by Beck. (My first download was the exclusive iTunes offering “Diamond Joe” by Bob Dylan.) More than a million songs sold in the first week, which is amazing considering only Mac users could purchase them.

 iTunes Playlists

  • “How do I create a Smart Playlist that includes videos I have started watching but have not finished?”

This is almost a trick question, because you can’t really do it in iTunes exactly as you want it. However, these instructions get you closer to what you want (i.e. “You can’t always get what you want / but if you try sometimes / well you might find / you get what you need”).

When creating or editing a Smart Playlist…

Create the first condition by choosing from the pop-up menus:

  1. Media Kind, is, and TV Show (“Media Kind is TV Show”). The Match pop-up menu appears. Choose to Match All from the pop-up menu. Then create the second condition:
  2. Plays, is, 0 (“Plays is zero”). The Plays measure is a play count. You have to play the last moment of the show, i.e., all the way to the end of the credits, for it to count as being played. So any TV shows you’ve already started will show up on the list, but unfortunately mixed in with unplayed shows. You can then add a third condition, such as:
  3. Date Added, in the last, 4, months (“Date Added in the last 4 months”) to get only the most recently added shows.

However, I prefer stopping at 2 conditions, and then adding the Date Added column and sorting the playlist by clicking the column heading Date Added, so that the most recent rise to the top.

You have to create separate Smart Playlists for TV Shows and Movies — change TV Show to Movie in the Media Kind condition above.

Comment on the answer:
“Thanks. I already do something like that. But I’m running my own DVR, so I have a host of recently added, unwatched content. So this works for browsing the smart playlist within iTunes, but it doesn’t work for syncing my recent shows I started watching to my iPhone.”

  • “How can you open multiple playlists in iTunes v11?”

Apple removed that feature. You can duplicate a playlist and then edit it, and you can use the Add To button under the Playlists tab to add albums and songs (but not playlists) to a playlist. That’s about it.

iTunes Performance

  • “What does iTunes do when it says ‘Determining Gapless Playback Information’?”

Albums on CD, or downloaded albums, that are “gapless” (no gaps between songs) are detected by iTunes so that they play properly. Gapless playback is always on unless you turn on the Crossfade Songs option under the Playback tab in Preferences.

  • “How can I cut down on the amount of memory iTunes uses on Mac OS X?”

Mac OS X has very efficient memory management that automatically allocates memory and adjusts the contents of memory as needed. You don’t have obvious control over it. iTunes when first opened doesn’t use as much RAM at first, but uses more as it plays more songs and especially long playlists. The only way to reduce its memory footprint is to quit and then reopen.




Google Glass Makes Us Look Ridiculous

A model poses with Google Glass

A model poses with Google Glass

I don’t mean in a fashion sense (someone else made that argument well). I mean it makes the tech industry look ridiculous. It makes us look like we’re out of touch with what real people need.

In this real world, filled with starving infants, poverty-stricken families, rampant curable diseases, chronic homelessness, corrupt politics, a poisoned environment, you-name-it… this is the only tech innovation we could come up with in the last three years (since the iPad)? Google Glass is a device you wear so that you don’t have to look down at your smartphone in your hand. And oh yes, you can take pictures and videos in the blink of an eye.

So I guess it’s more important to us — more important than solving any of the real world’s problems — that we shouldn’t have to pull a smartphone out of our pockets when we want to search or communicate.

And we think that wearing these things will make us more social, or more polite, because the wearer doesn’t need to look away from a person to use Google, or get directions, or do other tasks. But I think that most of us will approach Google Glass wearers with suspicion. Are they recording everything? Snapping candid shots of me without my knowing it? Fact is, wearing the glasses is a dead giveaway that you’re more interested in your messages or searches, or in taking pictures, than in interacting with other live humans. I think it would be awkward in the middle of a conversation to say, “Excuse me” and roll your eyes up to see your Google Glass display. It may be more polite to say, “Excuse me” and step aside to check your smartphone.

The point is, are we really so obsessed with gadgets that we think this is “the future”? How much money was spent on this idea? It’s embarrassing to think that the entire tech industry is so enamored with this.

I got excited about personal computers, workstations, multimedia, the Internet, web services, smartphones, and tablets. Each invention was a powerful tool to increase and enhance communication and expression, solve significant problems, and work on social and political causes.

I can see Google Glass being useful for some applications. Maybe a surgeon could wear it and view X-rays while performing surgery. There are some powerful applications for hands-free tablet viewing and interaction. There are powerful uses for voice-command technology, Google Glass-like displays (perhaps in cars), and continuous photography and videography. But these are not everyday uses for everyday people.

While I agree that wearable smart digital devices can be popular and useful (I still wear an iPod nano when exercising), they also have to be stylish and convenient. Google Glass is more in line with Borg fashion (that is, the Borg of Star Trek fame). I would be more inclined to try a smart watch, first envisioned in Dick Tracy comics by Chester Gould in 1946.

The actual Google Glass prototype all the pundits are wearing is not really ready for prime time. Too bad they had to pay $1500 for it. My guess is, that’s why the prototype wearers are so enthusiastic. Who would want to admit that they blew $1500? Besides, until the tech industry invents something truly powerful and useful, there’s not much for a technical journalist to write about.



A Decade of iTunes Stuck in a Moment

Apple iTunes Store home page

Apple iTunes Store

Today is the 10th birthday of the iTunes Store — that is, for Mac users. (It went live for Windows users on Oct. 16, 2003.) See the following celebrations:

The day it opened in 2003, the top seller was “Stuck in a Moment” by U2, and the top album “Sea Change” by Beck. (My first download was the exclusive iTunes offering “Diamond Joe” by Bob Dylan.) More than a million songs sold in the first week, which is amazing considering only Mac users could purchase them.

iTunes was a sea change for the music industry then, but it’s stuck in a moment now. Back then, Apple invented the digital music business. When Apple CEO Steve Jobs gave personal demonstrations of the iTunes Store and the iPod to Paul McCartney and Mick Jagger before introducing the online store in 2003 (with Jagger on stage), Jobs reported to Newsweek that “They both totally get it” (according to Steven Levy at Newsweek (May 12, 2003). The former Beatle and the Stones’ front man were no slouches: both had conducted music-business affairs personally and had extensive back catalogs of music. At the meetings they knew all about the free music-swapping services on the Internet, but they agreed with Jobs that most people were willing to pay for high-quality music rather than download free copies of questionable quality. And they were right.

Ten years after, the store offers a wide variety of content, but does not yet dominate most of those content types (movies, TV shows, e-books) the way it still dominates music. And it likely won’t dominate movies and TV shows, because the entertainment industry has learned the lessons of the music industry, which has grown to regret giving Apple so much power. iTunes also won’t dominate in e-books as long as Amazon is around. But a good many of us are locked into the Apple music closet by virtue of convenience, and because it is too inconvenient to manage multiple music libraries.

Ten years after, iTunes is also stuck in a moment of truth. Competition is building from Amazon to challenge iTunes in market share for music downloads. Reports are rampant with premature conclusions that streaming music services will overcome iTunes (here’s one from Businessweek).

Streaming services are ideal for discovering new music. Apple hasn’t yet focused on this problem. Ping failed as a social service because it really wasn’t designed to share music — you could only share a preview. The Genius feature is only occasionally intriguing but is mostly dissatisfying. I discover new music through other channels, and only buy the classic tunes and albums that appear in iTunes email alerts. Email is just not as effective for discovering new music, which I have to listen to first before buying. So I listen to music through social networks and streaming radio-like services (Pandora, Spotify, etc.).

But make no mistake: No matter where I discover music, I still purchase it on iTunes, or on Amazon. The streaming services don’t connect me to ownership, and I want to own the music I listen to all the time (even though I don’t really own the music itself, just a license to play it). The iTunes and Amazon juggernauts are not going to be dethroned anytime soon. If anything changes, it will be Apple improving its ability to entice me to buy music by launching a streaming radio-like service. And it will be a lot easier for most of us to click that “Subscribe” button — because the iTunes Store already has our credit card information. So Apple’s service will join the others to compete for my time.

I’ve been elated with the iTunes application, and I’ve been frustrated. Every time Apple added features, updated functions, and changed its user interface, I’ve had to scramble to update my books about iTunes. I miss some of the features that are now automatic, such as the “gapless playback” setting. It took me time to get used to use the new Up Next menu to dynamically build a playlist, which in some ways is better than the old iTunes DJ feature (easier to quickly pick songs) but also worse (harder to rearrange them).

But I still use the iTunes application to play everything from albums and TV shows to movies and education lessons, all downloaded from the online store. And I will continue to do so for a long time to come. I welcome more choices for downloading content, but the iTunes Store is the one that feeds my library the most, and it will most certainly survive another decade.



Estimated Charges (iTunes album)
by the Flying Other Brothers







Get Smart About Smart Playlists

iTunes can help you organize the music or video you watch or listen to the most, or listen to or watch the least. By programming a smart playlist based on the number of plays or the date added, you can automatically create a playlist of what you haven’t heard or watched yet, or what you’ve added recently.

Of course, smart playlists are ignorant of your taste in music or video. For example, you can create a smart playlist that uses the Year field to grab all the songs from 1966. This list, in no particular order, might include The Beatles (“Eleanor Rigby”), Frank Sinatra (“Strangers in the Night”), The Yardbirds (“Over Under Sideways Down”), and Ike and Tina Turner (“River Deep, Mountain High”) — a far-out playlist, no doubt, but not necessarily what you want.

Under the Playlists tab in the iTunes window (after selecting Music in the source pop-up menu), you can find smart playlists supplied by Apple, which are indicated by a gear-in-a-document icon — such as My Top Rated and Recently Added. The ones you create also appear here. Smart playlists add items to themselves based on prearranged criteria, or rules. For example, when you rate your content items, My Top Rated changes to reflect your new ratings. You don’t have to set up anything because My Top Rated and Recently Added are already defined for you.

To create your own, you can use other fields of information that you entered (such as ratings, artist name, or composer) to fine-tune your criteria. You can also use view options such as Plays (the number of times the item was played) or Date Added (the date the item was added to the library).

To create a new smart playlist, choose File>New Smart Playlist. The Smart Playlist dialog appears:


Smart playlist based on composer

The dialog offers the following choices for setting rules:

Match the Following Rule: From the first pop-up menu, you can choose any of the categories used for information, such as Artist, Composer, or Last Played. From the second pop-up menu, you can choose an operator, such as the greater-than or less-than operator. The selections that you make in these two pop-up menus combine to create a rule, such as Year is greater than 1966 or, as in the above figure, Composer contains (the words) Woody Guthrie.

You can also add multiple conditions by clicking the + button on the right of a rule. The Match xx of the Following Rules option appears when you set more that one rule. You then decide whether to match all or any of these rules:

  • All combines the rules with the AND operator (all the rules must be true).
  • Any combines the rules with the OR operator (any of the rules can be true).

Limit To: You can limit the smart playlist to a specific duration, measured by the number of songs (items), time, or size in megabytes or gigabytes, as shown below. You can have items selected by various methods, such as random, most recently played, and so on.


Smart playlist based on date added.

Match Only Checked Items: This option selects only those songs or other items in the library that have a check mark beside them, along with the rest of the criteria. Selecting and deselecting items is an easy way to fine-tune your selection for a smart playlist.

Live Updating: This allows iTunes to continually update the playlist while you play items, add or remove items from the library, change their ratings, and so on.

After setting up the rules, click the OK button. iTunes creates the playlist, noted by a gear-in-a-document icon and the name untitled playlist (or whatever phrase you used for the first condition, such as the album or artist name). You can click in the playlist field and then type a new name for it.

Setting up rules gives you the opportunity to create playlists that are smarter than the ones supplied with iTunes. For example, I created a smart playlist with criteria (as shown in the figure above, “Smart playlist based on date added”) that does the following:

  • Includes any item added to the library in the past week that also has a rating greater than three stars.
  • Limits the playlist to 72 minutes to be sure that it fits on a 74-minute audio CD, even with gaps between the songs. It also refines the selection to the most recently added if the entire selection becomes greater than 72 minutes.
  • Matches only selected items.
  • Performs live updating.

To edit a smart playlist, select it from the Playlists section of the source pane and choose File>Edit Smart Playlist. The Smart Playlist window appears with the criteria for the smart playlist.

For example, to modify the smart playlist so that items with a higher rating are picked, simply add another star or two to the My Rating criteria.

The Plays field is useful for limiting smart playlists to items you haven’t yet watched or listened to. Plays is a a play count. You have to play the last moment of the song or show (all the way to the end of the credits of a movie or TV show) for it to count as being played. So any songs or TV shows you’ve already started will show up on the list, but also mixed in with unplayed songs and shows.

To create a smart playlist that is limited to TV shows you haven’t finished watching, create these rules:

  1. Choose Media Kind, is, and TV Show (“Media Kind is TV Show”) from the pop-up menus for the first rule.
  2. Click the + button on the right of the first rule to create a second rule.
  3. Choose All from the pop-up menu in the Match xx of the Following Rules option at the top.
  4. Choose Plays, is, 0 (“Plays is zero”) for the second rule.

With this smart playlist, any TV shows you have not played to the finish appear in the list.


No More Money for Nothing, No More Chicks for Free

$100 bill

A band’s annual royalties from a well-known streaming music service.

On the eve of the San Francisco MusicTech Summit conference (one of the more interesting conferences of the year), I took another look at the music business and the ways that musicians can make a living. It’s not a pretty picture.

I applaud the myriad ways that technology has unleashed the creative spark in people to create music. With millions of musicians plying the planet waves, there’s an awful lot of good music out there, some of it great. While many of us pay for and download the albums by artists we know about, the most popular method of exploring this universe of unfamiliar music is through streaming services like Pandora and Spotify — either free (with ads), or by paying a low premium equivalent to buying an album each month.

The problem is that royalty rates from streaming services are low. A recent New York Times article (“As Music Streaming Grows, Royalties Slow to a Trickle“) called some attention to this fact. Spotify, for example, pays 0.5 to 0.7 cent a stream (or $5,000 to $7,000 per million plays) for its paid tier, and as much as 90 percent less for its free tier. By comparison, a typical artist may earn 7 to 10 cents on a 99-cent download, after deducting amounts for the retailer, the record company, and the songwriter.

The key to increasing these royalty streams is for the artist to write the songs and be the record company. The key to increasing exposure while also earning a living as a musician is to play live. “No artist will be able to survive to be professionals except those who have a significant live business, and that’s very few,” said Hartwig Masuch, chief executive of BMG Rights Management, in the New York Times piece.

Between the artist and the consumer are businesses making significantly more revenue than the artist. With new technology disrupting old-style businesses in almost every other sector, what will it take for distribution technologies to close this gap? Rock bands knew about songwriting and having their own record labels way back in the dinosaur age. Bob Dylan decided he was a “folk” too and could write his own songs, and proceeded to graft new lyrics onto old folk tunes. The Beatles eventually became their own record company (Apple Records), the Rolling Stones started their own label, and many others sought to close the gap between the artist and the consumer.

I know bands that not only book their own live shows and handle their own publicity and social media connections, but also rent out venues themselves and charge admission. Some bands put on their own festivals. But it’s a hard road, requiring business sense that artists are not known for having.

Nevertheless, the current wisdom is for artists to make use of these streaming services to get their music out there. The worry for successful acts is that streaming services cannibalize paid downloads and CD sales, and until there are enough streaming subscribers, they will lose potential revenue. History may be repeating itself, though. When the CD was first introduced, royalty rates were lower for CDs than for vinyl records. It took a while for CDs to become mainstream and replace vinyl for the royalty rates to rise.

And so, the rumbling distribution side of the music industry lurches on, overdue for a disruption and still blocking the lanes of progress.



Estimated Charges (iTunes album)
by the Flying Other Brothers