Playlist Assist Replicates Old iTunes Playlist Window

One of the things that irked many users when iTunes 11 was released was the inability to open more than one window. Some users kept an iTunes Store window open all the time; others liked to open playlists in their own windows, to make it easier to drag tracks to them and edit their contents.

AppleScript maestro Doug Adams has released the $5 Playlist Assist, a new tool which replicates some of the old iTunes playlist window features. Playlist Assist gives you a floating window that you can use to create and edit playlists. But you can also get track info, change tags, play tracks using Quick Look, and export playlists.


playlist-assist

I’ve been using this for a while in beta, and I’m quite impressed by its flexibility. If you want a great tool for creating and editing playlists, you need Playlist Assist.

Why Apple Should Pay Income Tax on Overseas Earnings: Because Other Americans Do

The recent hullabaloo over Apple not paying income tax is almost surreal. The company has so much money overseas – currently some $100 billion in cash – that it has issued bonds to proceed with a share buy-back plan. The interest on the bonds is much less than the amount of tax the company would pay if they repatriated some of their income.

In addition, it turns out that Apple negotiated a “secret deal” with the Irish government back in the 1980s, so they only pay 2% income tax on the money they park in that country, though they actually only paid about 0.5%.

My question here is not whether it is moral for Apple to do this (the law allows them to do so), but why Apple or any other major corporation is not treated like other US citizens?

Expatriate US citizens – whether they are permanent residents of other countries or not – are taxed by the US on their foreign income. There is an earned income exclusion, which increases from time to time, and which does not take into account exchange rates. A US citizen could be well under the threshold for paying taxes one year, but if on the date that the exchange rate is calculated, the rate is unfavorable, they could owe taxes the following year on the same amount of income. (The current earned income exclusion is $95,100 for an individual, and $190,200 for a couple.) This exclusion also does not take into account the relative cost of living of a country. If the cost of living is higher, salaries will be higher. I experienced this 25 years ago when I lived in Norway for a year; everything cost nearly twice as much as France (where I was living before that), but salaries were higher to compensate.

In addition, the paperwork for Americans overseas filing taxes is substantial, complicated, and in many cases requires the use of a tax attorney or accountant. (See this Boston Globe article for more about this issue.)

What’s even more unfair is that Americans abroad are taxed twice. Once in the country they live in, and another time, if they earn more than the earned income exclusion, by the US. It’s interesting to note that the only other country in the entire world that does this is Eritrea.

Yet Apple isn’t even a resident of another country. Their subsidiaries are, but those subsidiaries only make money for the US company; Apple doesn’t have separate business entities for different countries or territories. (Though they manage to avoid paying VAT in all EU countries but one by “locating” their iTunes Store activities in Luxembourg, where VAT is only 3%, thereby denying VAT income to other countries where digital content is purchased.)

It’s obvious that expatriate Americans get little or nothing in exchange for their taxes. Other than the low-probability events requiring getting bailed out by the US Consulate, Americans abroad get no Social Security benefits, no unemployment, no health care, or anything else for their tax dollars. Apple, however, and other global corporations, get huge benefits from the US legal system, research infrastructure, publicly-subsidized education system, and the many international treaties and agreements governing such key factors to their success as intellectual property and trade regulations. So all of Apple’s sales overseas benefit from the broader fact that it is a US company.

So let’s treat Apple – and Google, Amazon, Yahoo! and all the others – like American citizens. Tax their overseas income, don’t let them set up a web of tax shelters, but make them pay their share.

When Good Customer Service Turns Out to Be Really Bad

We’re all used to bad customer service; too much so, in fact, that we’ve come to accept it as the norm. So when customer service is good, it can be surprising; when it’s really good, it can put a smile on my face.

But sometimes, what seems like good customer service may actually be the contrary. Here’s a tale about a recent experience I had with what seemed to be good customer service, but turned out to be crappy.

I recently decided to try to go paperless. I have to keep ten years of accounting documents, which is a couple of big boxes worth, and I’m planning a move in the coming months; it seemed like a good time to scan all those documents and shred them.

Using information from two books – my fellow Take Control author Joe Kissel’s Take Control of your Paperless Office and David Sparks’ Paperless – I decided to acquire a Fujitsu S1500M scanner. This is a wonderful device, which has a paper-feed, scans both sides of paper you place in it, OCRs it and creates searchable PDFs. I got this last Wednesday, and started using it on Thursday, scanning hundreds of pages of invoices and bank statements. At the end of the day, some of the pages had colored vertical lines on them; nothing too serious, but annoying.

Friday morning, I started scanning more, and the vertical lines showed up after about 30 pages, and were increasingly visible. I called Fujitsu’s tech support number, and spoke with a very helpful woman who asked me to send samples of the bad scans. She got back to me quickly, said that it was a hardware problem, and that Fujitsu would replace the scanner; the next day! This was a good thing, because I had been planning to scan all weekend, and get this project out of the way before Christmas.

Well, the next day came, and no scanner arrived. Monday came, and still nothing. Tuesday was Christmas, and Wednesday there was nothing either. I tried calling Fujitsu a few times on Wednesday, and there was no answer; only a message in German. (I’m in France, and their support center is in Germany.) I sent an email, and got no reply (whereas the week before, I got replies in less than a half hour.) Thursday morning – today – I tried calling again, and there was still no answer.

I had bought this scanner from Apple’s online store*, and I called them and explained what happened. They immediately set up a replacement, though, unfortunately, it may take a week for it to come. But the person was very helpful and understanding, and I frankly feel a lot more comfortable working with the Apple Store than with a vendor directly; they have a lot more interest in keeping customers happy (especially since I buy most of my Apple products from them directly).

So what happened? What seemed to be top-notch customer service was just pretend? Did they really intend to send me the scanner the next day? I did get an email from DHL confirming that it was sent, but with no tracking number, I have no idea when it was sent, or when the delivery was scheduled. The fact that Fujitsu’s tech support team seems to be on vacation for the holidays is inadmissible; I don’t expect them to work on Christmas day, of course, but taking a week off – if that’s indeed the case – seems to suggest they only care about their customers when it’s convenient for them.

I like the scanner; it’s very efficient, and it’s going to save me a lot of time. And I’m sure the problem I have is not a common one. But I’ll think twice before buying anything else from Fujitsu, because of what they put me through.

  • I would have bought the scanner from Amazon, and gotten next-day delivery, but it’s about €30 more expensive there. I guess I should have paid more, because Amazon is very efficient regarding returns and replacements.

Essential Music: Music for 18 Musicians, by Steve Reich

Among the composers whose music I’ve been following for more than 30 years, Steve Reich is at the top of the list. I own all of the recordings he has made, and most of the other recordings of his works. (Fortunately, his music is not recorded very often.)

I still remember the very first time I heard Reich’s music. I was at a friend’s house, and my friend pulled out a three-LP box set from Deutsche Grammophon, which contained several early works by Reich: Drumming, which took up four sides; Music for Mallet Instruments, Voices and Organ; and Six Pianos. We listened to Six Pianos, with its hypnotic rhythms and shifting phase effects, and when it got to the end, I was a changed person. I had been listening intently to this music, perhaps with some chemical enhancement, and little happened; but over time, the changes became apparent, bolstered by the compelling rhythm of the work, and I realized just how powerful such subtle changes could be over time. From that moment on, I was hooked on minimalist music, and Steve Reich in particular.

The Deutsche Grammophon set was released in 1974, and following that, Reich went to ECM records, where he recorded a number of albums that made him a familiar name among those interested in new music. The most important of these was the nearly hour-long Music for 18 Musicians, composed from 1974-76, which is one of the seminal works of minimalism. In this work scored for percussion instruments, pianos, strings, clarinets and voices, Reich explores pulses, phasing and the relationships among short melodic patterns, and, while that may sound academic, the melodies of the work are memorable, and even get me tapping my foot and humming along. In the liner notes to the work, Reich says, “There is more harmonic movement in the first 5 minutes of ‘Music for 18 Musicians’ than in any other complete work of mine to date.”

This is a difficult work to perform – in part because of the length – and while Reich’s ECM recording is probably the gold standard, a recent recording by the Grand Valley State University New Music Ensemble is also excellent. It’s worth noting that the original LP of Reich’s recording was flawed, because it broke the work into two parts; this work simply cannot be listened to with a break, because, unlike most symphonies, there is no pause between sections. Fortunately, the CD came along, and it became possible to play works of that length without a gap.

I was fortunate to see Reich in concert a number of times over the years. The first was a show at the Bottom Line, a “cabaret” in New York, where the classical instruments were slightly out-of-place on the small stage, and where the “large ensemble” playing one of the works on Reich’s second ECM album barely fit. Both Music for a Large Ensemble and Octet are classic works as well, and the ECM period was very rich for Reich’s music. I later saw Reich’s ensemble perform at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in a 1983 retrospective, where most of Reich’s works were performed in a number of concerts. Seeing Drumming performed live was very impressive, as the musicians move around from instrument to instrument, and there is an element of dance in the process.

Reich has written dozens of compositions over the years, but Music for 18 Musicians remains the ur-Reich work for me, together with Six Pianos, the first work that converted me. If you’re not familiar with Reich’s music, you couldn’t go wrong with any of these pieces, but Music for 18 Musicians is probably the best place to start.

Listen to a 12-minute excerpt of Music for 18 Musicians on Steve Reich’s website, and read Steve Reich’s notes on the piece on his music publisher’s website.

Bonus trivia tidbit: Steve Reich attended composition classes given by Luciano Berio at Mills College in Oakland, California, and one of his classmates was Phil Lesh, who would shortly thereafter become the bass player for the Grateful Dead.

Music Notes: Einstein on the Beach, The 1984 Recording (Update)

As Philip Glass’s Einstein on the Beach is currently undergoing a revival at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in New York, I’m reminded of when I saw it there in 1984, the second series of performances after its initial run in 1976. This 4 1/2 hour “opera” is a combination of music, dance and visuals, and was truly unforgettable. Over the years, I’ve collected the different recordings of the work.

First was the 1978 Tomato Records set, Later released on CBS Masterworks, then Sony. At 160 minutes, this was greatly reduced from the full work. Later, in 1993, a Nonesuch recording, on CD, was 190 minutes long, still a lot shorter than the entire work.

But until now, no recording was released of the 1984 performances. Philip Glass’s Orange Mountain Music has done that now, in two versions. The first, a CD and DVD set, contains a 77-minute CD of “highlights” of the work, along with a DVD of a documentary, The Changing Image of Opera, made during the 1984 production, but rarely seen. The second is a 217-minute “complete” recording, available only by download on the iTunes Store (at least for now), and is the most complete recording to date.

The 1984 recording has several advantages over the others. First, it’s a live recording, showing much better how the work actually sounded. Second, there is no attempt to make the sound lush and rich, as on the Nonesuch recording, which, again, brings it closer to its performance.

I’m certainly looking forward to both audio and video releases of the current revival of Einstein on the Beach. Finally, we will be able to see and hear the entire work. I just hope that it’s not too “smooth,” that the years between the first productions and the present haven’t led to too much perfection. One of the charms of minimalism in the 1970s and early 1980s is its spontaneity. This was music that went against the grain at the time, but which has now become more or less mainstream. I hope the radical nature of the original work comes through in the new performances.

(See also an older article, Listening Anew to Einstein on the Beach.)

Update: I received the “highlights” disc and watched the documentary today. If you care at all about Einstein on the Beach, you simply must see the documentary, with interviews with Glass and Wilson, and extensive footage of the 1984 production.

iTunes 11 and Classical Music

With the arrival of iTunes 11, classical music fans – and anyone with a large music library – have lamented the removal of certain features and views that help organize large amounts of music. I touched on some of these in my extensive review of iTunes 11 for Macworld, and in my discussion of iTunes 11 on the Macworld podcast. But I would like to summarize here the problems that iTunes 11 has brought specifically to classical music listeners.

First, there is no Composers view. In the iTunes window, you can view your music by Songs, Albums, Artists Genres and Playlists, but Composers has been forgotten.



Next, the Column Browser has been removed. This was a very practical way of viewing your library by drilling down from, say, Genre to Composer to Album. Previously, the Column Browser was available either on the top of a window or on the left side, allowing for two different ways of viewing music. It’s still available, but only in one view: Songs. The Songs view is sterile and hard to use, because there is no artwork displayed, and because there is no visible separation between albums.



Album List view was also removed. This allowed users to display a list of their music with album art, and the artwork delimited each album, making it easy to spot an album at a glance. Also, this list view would display whichever columns a user wanted to see, and users could sort by any column, such as Date Added, Composer, Artist, Album, etc. The new Albums view only shows track names, ratings and times, and sort options are limited.



In the iTunes Store, there is no longer a Composer column when you view an album. So if you see a recording with several works of the same name, but by different composers, there’s no way of knowing which is which, if you want to buy one or several tracks of work by a specific composer.

And in the iTunes Store, the Power Search feature was removed. You could use this to search for items by multiple criteria, including composer. If you were looking for an album with a work by a specific composer, played by a specific artist, this was a practical way to find it.

iTunes is clearly targeted at those listeners who consume songs, not those who collect classical music, or who have large libraries. But what chagrins me is that it would have been simple to keep the above features; they don’t specifically clash with the overall interface. Their removal makes iTunes much harder to use with classical music, and with large libraries. I can only hope that Apple makes some changes so those users who need these features can feel comfortable with the program.

What Is the Gapless Album Tag in iTunes For? (Update)

Update: I’ve reposted this article because with the release of iTunes 11, the Gapless Album tag is no longer available in the program. However, many people don’t understand this, and think that the removal of this tag means that iTunes no longer plays music without gaps. This is incorrect. Read on and understand what this tag was for.

Following a comment from a Twitter friend, asking how to find which of a number of albums require gapless playback, I pointed him to an old article on this website. (I won’t link to it, as it was written in 2006, and addressed the problem of gapless playback on the iPod.) I realized that many people don’t understand what that Gapless Album tag is, so here’s a brief explanation.

If you select a number of tracks in iTunes, then choose Get Info, and click on the Options tab, you see this:



And if you choose a single track, you see this:



That tag at the bottom of the first screenshot, Gapless Album, or at the bottom of the second, Part of a Gapless Album (thanks for being consistent, Apple), has one, and only one usage. This tag only matters if you have Crossfade Song turned on in iTunes (Preferences > Playback), and it only affects playback from iTunes. All gapless albums are automatically detected and played as such on iPods and other iOS devices. You may even see iTunes “Determining Gapless Playback Information” when you add new files to your iTunes library; this is simply to find whether the music ends at the end of the file or not. (Not actually at the end, in fact; there’s a brief bit of silence no matter what, but it’s a set length, so if the silence is that length, iTunes knows to ignore it.)

So, unless you use Crossfade Songs, you never need to worry about this tag.

See Apple’s technical note about gapless playback.

Essential Music: The Grateful Dead Movie Soundtrack

Buy from: Amazon.com | Amazon UK | Amazon FR | Amazon DE

If you follow this blog, or read my writing on Macworld, you’ve noticed that, among my varied musical interests, one artist stands out: the Grateful Dead. I’ve been a Deadhead for 35 years, since I first saw the band in the Spring of 1977 at the Palladium in New York. (To be honest, I was already a fan by then, having heard a number of their albums, both live and studio.) People sometimes ask me to recommend a Grateful Dead album for them to discover, and this post answers that question.

In late 1974, the Grateful Dead decided to “retire.” At the time, it wasn’t clear if the band would continue, but the increased pressure and cost of touring with their one-of-a-kind “Wall of Sound” sound system, made them realize that they couldn’t go on. They had to tour to pay for the cost of touring, and the time it took to set up and break down the Wall of Sound make touring more complicated.

So to celebrate their retirement, the Dead played five shows at San Francisco’s Winterland Ballroom. Introduced by Bill Graham, the legendary concert promoter, these last five concerts were held from October 16-20. On the 20th, Bill Graham had the concert tickets stamped “The Last One” as a souvenir for those attending.

But while the Dead suggested that this would be a retirement, they actually had big plans for the final run. Much of the music was filmed and all of it was recorded with the idea of making a movie. Jerry Garcia was the engine for this project, and during the hiatus – the band came back to performing in April 1976 (there were four gigs in 1975) – he worked on editing the movie.

Released in 1977, the Grateful Dead movie was an attempt to translate the experience of a Grateful Dead concert to the screen. Concert movies were a recent phenomenon at the time, and this was more than just a film of the concert. There is footage of people waiting in line, interviews with Deadheads, clips of people dancing and enjoying the music, and some pretty hokey animation, notably a long animated introduction. The movie fails as both a concert movie and as a documentary, but, back in the day, it was amazing to see such great footage of the band on a big screen.

For years, the tapes of these five shows languished in the Grateful Dead vault, until a re-release of the movie on DVD in 2004, when the best parts of the five concerts were remastered and released on five CDs, for a total of about 6 1/2 hours of music. (This is a bit more than 1/3 of all the music played on those five nights.) Each of the CDs tries to represent a set of music; the songs flow together well, even on the discs where the music is from different nights. Three of the discs are essentially all from single nights, with a couple of exceptions.

One reason why the Grateful Dead was so interesting is because no two concerts were the same. Not only did they not have set lists – they’d choose what to play as they went along – they were consummate improvisers, and would segue from one song to another seamlessly. There were some songs that were often played together, and that formed units: China Cat Sunflower > I Know You Rider, Scarlet Begonias > Fire on the Mountain, and Not Fade Away > Going Down the Road Feeling Bad. But in 1974, only the first (China > Rider) was immutably joined, and from one show to another, the order of songs would change. In addition to these fluid set lists, the Dead would often jam on songs for a very long time; the longest track in this set is the 31:45 Playing in the Band, which is a perfect example of the band’s transcendent improvisations.

1974 was a watershed year for the Dead. One of the founding members, Pigpen (Ron McKernan) had died in 1973, and the Dead dropped many of the songs that he made famous, such as the long R&B-inspired Turn On Your Love Light, In the Midnight Hour, and Dancing In the Streets. Pigpen was a male Janis Joplin (they were lovers for a time), and he lived the blues the way he sang them; so much so that liquor killed him.

After Pigpen’s death, the Dead took a new direction, veering away from the early R&B songs, and the later folky Americana, toward some jazzier playing. That comes out here in the long Eyes of the World, a 1973 release, the mystical Playing in the Band, and Bob Weir’s Weather Report Suite, a long ballad. The Dead still played their staples: songs like U.S. Blues, He’s Gone, and One More Saturday Night, but this set doesn’t feature any of the “cowboy” songs the band played consistently in the early 1970s, such as Jack Straw, Beat It On Down the Line, Loser, Friend of the Devil, El Paso, or the perennial Me and My Uncle. The band played these songs at the five concerts, but they weren’t selected for this box set.

So on five CDs, this set gives an excellent overview of the Dead in 1974. Free jams, tight songs, a jazzier sound than in, say, 1972, but with all the power and mastery that the band had developed since their formation in 1965. While the Complete Europe ’72 box set remains the ultimate document of the Dead on tour, these edited recordings are probably the best introduction for someone interested in discovering the wide range of music the Grateful Dead played. (If you want a sample of the Dead on tour in 1972, the recent Europe ’72 Vol. 2, culled from that complete set, and tastefully remastered, is for you.) Or better yet, get both.

On Instrument Positioning in Live Recordings

All recordings of concerts are artificial. But once you’ve gotten that out of the way – you simply accept that you can never reproduce the actual sound of a live performance – you have to approach the question of how these recordings should be mixed. Not only are there questions of the volume of individual voices, instruments or groups of instruments, but also where they should be in the soundscape.

In the simplest type of live recording, you have one performer playing a solo instrument; say, a guitar. That instrument is centered in the soundstage, and there are no problems. Add a singer to the guitar, and it’s still simple to position.

But move to a slightly more complex instrument, such as a piano. There are two ways to record a piano, using microphones or a pickup. With the former, you can position microphones around the piano – most often, this is just two microphones placed facing the open lid – or you can use a pickup, which is transducers placed on the soundboard inside the piano. (There are many ways you can combine these devices, or use multiple microphones, both inside and outside the piano.) But a recording engineer faces a dilemma: do they place the piano in the center of the soundscape, or do they try to position it so the different keys are heard in different locations? I’ve heard recordings which are made to sound as though the listener is sitting in front of the keyboard; the lower notes are to the left, and the higher notes to the right. This is essentially false, because no one other than the performer hears a piano in this way. However, it does give the piano a bit more “life,” and makes the sound less static.

When there are multiple performers, the questions become much different. Generally, you want to have the performers sound as though they are in their appropriate position on stage. So a string quartet will have two instruments more on the left channel, and the other two on the right (generally the two violins are on the left and the viola and cello on the right). But I’ve heard string quartet recordings where the two instruments on the left are almost entirely on the left channel, and the same for the instruments on the right. This approximates what it would sound like to be in the middle of the string quartet, but no one ever sits there.

A jazz piano trio is an interesting group. Generally, the piano is on the left, the bass in the middle, and the drums on the right. This leads to many recordings trying to replicate this positioning. For example, listen to Brad Mehldau’s The Art Of The Trio Volume 2: Live At The Village Vanguard . (You can listen to samples of the recordings I cite by following the Amazon links.) The piano is far to the left, the drums to the right, and the bass in the middle, as they are on stage. However, you would only hear a performance like this if you were sitting in the first row, dead center. This gives a certain artificiality to these recordings, which is compounded if you listen on headphones. In fact, I find this approach very annoying on headphones, and generally don’t listen to recordings like this except on speakers. (Though even with speakers, the positioning is very obvious.)

Take the same artist when he’s in the studio. On Songs: The Art Of The Trio, Volume Three, recorded in the studio, the piano is centered, and the drums are quite creatively spread across the soundstage, while the bass is also centered. Musically, this is much more interesting than if the instruments were positioned laterally.

This positioning is even more obvious in the recent Grateful Dead releases from the band’s Europe 72 tour. You can hear this clearly on the Europe ’72 Vol. 2 release, notably on Dark Star. When the Grateful Dead performed, Jerry Garcia was stage left, Bob Weir in the center, and Phil Lesh stage right. Garcia’s guitar, in these new mixes, is far to the left, but Weir’s guitar is on the right channel. Lesh’s bass is in the center; I agree that the bass should be centered no matter what, but the positioning of the guitars is simply odd. No one would have heard the music like that, unless they were in the first few rows, and even then, the resonance of the halls would attenuate that positioning greatly. Add to that the fact that the vocals are centered. This is logical, but having Jerry’s guitar far to the left and his voice in the center is a bit jarring.

The Grateful Dead’s recent release of some music from their Spring 1990 tour follows this approach. But the drums are more spread out than in the Europe 72 mixes (probably because the multi-tracking used in 1990 allowed for this giving more tracks to the drums), and the keyboards are also far to the right (keyboardist Brent Mydland did sit on the right, as did keyboardist Keith Godchaux, in 1972). But on these recordings, Bob Weir’s guitar is in the center, which is more logical.

No matter what, an engineer has to establish a soundspace. All I’m saying here is that sometimes this soundspace is too artificial; in attempting to reproduce some of a band’s positioning, it creates music that doesn’t sound realistic. You certainly don’t want all the instruments in the center, but putting them far to either side can sound strange. Could it be that these recordings are mixed for people who keep their speakers very close together? I don’t; I have speakers on my desk that are a couple of feet to either side of my head, and my living room stereo’s speakers are fairly far apart. This speaker positioning makes sense for most recordings – especially those of an orchestra – but for some recent recordings, it just sounds weird.

iPad mini vs. Kindle Paperwhite

I like the idea of the Kindle, and the idea of the Kindle Paperwhite even more. Offering the ability to read both outdoors in sunlight, and indoors with a backlight, it seems like the best of both worlds.

Alas, having received a Kindle Paperwhite yesterday, I’m very disappointed. Not only is the backlight not very bright – not really bright enough to read indoors if there’s a lot of light – but it’s very uneven, with dark spots around the edges, especially at the bottom.

Here’s a photo I took of the Kindle Paperwhite next to the iPad mini, the latter showing a book in the Kindle app. (Click on the image to see a larger version.)

As you can see, even in this small photo, the lighting is uneven at the bottom of the Kindle, and there is a very large difference in brightness (both devices are set to maximal brightness in the photo above). While the iPad mini won’t work in bright light – such as outdoors – I have a Kindle Touch for that. So that Paperwhite is being returned. It’s a good idea, but it’s just a bit cheap and poorly designed. Amazon should really do better with a device like this.