I Just Broke the Law: I Ripped a CD

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Updated, from an article originally posted in November, 2013, because it’s still not legal.

I ripped a CD this morning; I violated copyright laws. In the UK, where I live, it is illegal to rip a CD. No one gets prosecuted, but the law is still on the books.

There is actually no law that expressly permits this in the US either, but case law and jurisprudence have allowed this act.

Copyright law is complex, in particular those parts of the body of copyright law that allow such things as time-shifting (recording something for later playback), and the ability to copy content to different devices or formats. Fair use allows much of this, but the laws are still strongly on the side of the content distributors, who would love it if we all bought multiple versions of content we want to use on different devices.

It’s clearly illegal to crack the content protection on DVDs and Blu-Ray discs, as well as certain other formats.

Keep this in mind the next time the movie or music industry go on a crusade. They try very hard to limit your choice of what you do with content you own.

Elegy for the iPod, the device that transformed Apple

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413440_g1-100358886-large.jpgIn my latest Macworld article, I look back at the history of the iPod, but also the history of the portable music player. As the iPod’s sales are decreasing, new devices are replacing it: iPhones, iPads, and even, perhaps, the mythical iWatch.

I hold a small metal device in my hands and twirl my finger on a circular controller, navigating the menus on my iPod classic. I haven’t done this in a long time. I have a full range of iPod models, and this one, bought back in 2008, doesn’t get much use any more. That click-wheel controller was never a great idea—it’s clunky and inefficient—but it’s emblematic of the early iPod line, before tapping on a tactile screen became the norm.

In a way, there’s something nostalgic about listening to music on a device that does little more than play music. (Yes, it can play videos and display photos, but with its tiny display, I’ve never used it for either of those things.) It reminds me of the early days of the iPod, when music listeners marveled at the ability to store so much music on a pocket-sized device, to listen to any of it with a few spins of the click-wheel, to play music in shuffle mode instead of one CD at a time.

The story of the iPod is, in many ways, the story of Apple’s comeback.

Read the rest of the article on the Macworld website.

App Review: Overcast, a New Podcast Player for iOS

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As a podcaster, and a podcast listener, it’s important that I have an easy-to-use app for managing, downloading and listening to podcasts. iTunes used to work for me, but with the changes that Apple made to iTunes 11, and the quirky Podcasts app for iOS, I’ve pretty much given up on using that solution. The two didn’t sync reliably, lost podcast episodes I wanted to keep, and was simply confusing. (What I’d been doing until recently was download podcast episodes to iTunes, and sync them to the Podcasts app, with no syncing of subscriptions or listening position. This is essentially the way it used to work pre-iTunes 11.)

Marco Arment, the creator of Instapaper, has just released a new podcast app for iOS called Overcast. This free app – with a $5 in-app purchased to unlock extra features, is an excellent choice for listening to podcasts on an iPhone or iPod touch. However, if you still want to listen on your Mac, and save episodes of podcasts, you might not want to use this. I’ve used Instacast in the past, which has the advantage of having a Mac version as well, and which syncs with the iOS app, but there are a couple of features in Overcast that have won me over. This said, I’ll still be downloading some podcasts to iTunes, and listening to them with the Podcasts app on iOS, because I do want to save episodes of some of my favorite podcasts. So Overcast works well for me as an app to listen to many of the podcasts I like, but it’s not a perfect solution.

When you start using Overcast, you have to set up an account with the app’s server. This lets you sync your podcast subscriptions, and even access them on a website, via a rudimentary player. But you don’t get podcasts directly, and you depend on that server working. This is good and bad; if the server’s down, you won’t get access to any new episodes.

2014-07-21 10.52.59.pngOvercast’s main screen presents all your podcasts, and playlists, in a scrolling window. The first section is Playlists. You can create one playlist with the free version, and multiple playlists with the upgrade. Playlists are good if you want to simply show all the episodes on your iOS device, or group specific playlists.

You cannot, however, create a new, empty playlist and add episodes to it. (Well, you can, by excluding all podcasts in the playlist’s settings, then adding individual episodes; this is an annoying hack, because each time you subscribe to a new podcast, you have to exclude it from this playlist.) I’d like to see a sort of Up Next playlist, so I can pick a few episodes I want to listen to during the day without messing around too much. You can re-order podcasts in a playlist, if you wish.

Podcasts are those podcasts with unplayed episodes, and a third section, further down, is Played Podcasts; this is a bit confusing, and the terminology could be better, but that groups podcast where there are no unplayed episodes. Note that Overcast does not support video podcasts. I don’t subscribe to any, but if you do, Overcast may not be for you.

2014-07-21 10.55.49.pngTap a podcast to view it, and you’ll see its episodes. There is Unplayed, All and Settings. In the latter tab, you choose to subscribe or not (which means that episodes download automatically), and you can choose how many episodes to save. In the All tab, you can scroll through the podcast’s episodes and tap any you want to download. An Unplayed is, as you’d expect, those episodes you haven’t yet listened to. When you finish listening to a podcast, Overcast deletes it automatically. In general, this is a good idea, but if you do want to listen to one again, you’ll have to re-download it; you can set the app to save any played episodes.

Downloads are only available on Wi-Fi, unless you check a setting to download over cellular data; this is a feature only available in the upgraded version. And you can’t stream episodes; Marco Arment has said he might be adding that in the future. This isn’t a big deal for me; I prefer downloading the ones I want, then being able to see a list of the episodes I have, rather than picking from a list to stream. But for many people, this could be a deal-breaker.

Some comments on the interface. I find the design a bit sketchy. It’s clean and matches a certain style, but it’s not high on the usability scale. The fonts for non-downloaded episodes are gray and hard to read, so if you want to check out an episode to see if you want to download it, this can be hard to do if you’re outdoors. There’s a lot of wasted space: the gray bars separating the sections could be slimmer, and there’s no reason to have the name of each playlist take up the same vertical space as each podcast. When you view a playlist, the episode names are truncated, making it hard to see what they are. This is particularly troublesome if you have a podcast whose episodes start with the title of the podcast itself. And the animated “audio wave” thingy that displays on the play screen is just useless. (You can see it above the play controls in the first screenshot below.)

Below, two screenshots show what you see when playing an episode. To the left, I’ve scrolled up on the podcast’s icon; it shrinks and displays show notes, with clickable links. To the right, you can see the Effects screen, which is the feature that has won me over. This lets you speed up podcasts, without the sort of Alvin and the Chipmunks sound that most podcast apps give you. The Smart Speed setting cuts out bits of silence, helping you save a bit more time when listening to podcasts, and Voice Boost equalizes the podcasts for vocal frequencies, making them clearer. Altogether, I find this the best playback of any podcast app I’ve used.


2014-07-21 10.56.08.png     2014-07-21 10.56.11.png

Overcast has become my daily podcast app, but the lack of a Mac version means that I’ll still download some podcasts in iTunes. As I said above, you can use something like Instacast, but for episodes I want to keep, I find it more practical to have them in my iTunes library. However, if Overcast could play podcasts that I’ve synced to Apple’s Podcasts app, that would solve the problem of playback. Since third-party music player apps can do this, podcast apps should be able to as well. I’d also like to see an iPad version, but I understand that one is in the works.

If you want a podcast app for your iPhone or iPod touch, check out Overcast. You can try it for free, which is great, and the $5 in-app purchase is worth it for the effects alone.

Some New and Forthcoming Classical Box Sets

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It looks like it’s going to be another bumper year for low-priced classical box sets. If you’re a classical music fan, you may like picking up these sets, because they fill in your collection, or they let you get a lot of music by a favorite performer or composer. Here’s a list of some of the box sets that I’ve spotted recently, and some that are on my wish list.

(Note: some of these sets are not available, or not yet available, in all countries. I provide links to Amazon.com and Amazon UK, but not all of these sets are currently available or announced in both countries. The links that don’t work yet for forthcoming releases will eventually work. It’s actually interesting to see how many of these sets are released first in the EU and Europe, before reaching the US.)

DG is releasing the second of two volumes of its Leonard Bernstein edition in the fall. (Amazon.com, Amazon UK) With 80 CDs, this complements volume one which was released early this year. (Amazon.com, Amazon UK) It also complements an early 60-CD set of symphonies that Sony released, featuring Bernstein’s Columbia recordings. (Amazon.com, Amazon UK) Bernstein was one of the great conductors, and, if you like his interpretations, all three of these sets are worth owning. There’s a lot of duplication, but, to take one example, his Mahler symphony cycles – the older Sony one and the later DG cycle – are both excellent, and worth hearing.

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The Seon Collection features 85 CDs of early music on the long-defunct Seon label, which was later bought by Sony. (Amazon.com, Amazon UK) This contains music by artists such as Bob van Asperen, Anner Bylsma, Frans Brüggen, Jaap Schröder, James Bowman, Rene Jacobs, Max van Egmond, Lutz Kirchhof, Eugen Dombois, Sigiswald Kuijken, Barthold Kuijken, Wieland Kuijken and others.

61Y+zuKhS5L._SY450_.jpgArchiv has released a 26-CD set of Bach cantatas conducted by Karl Richter. (Amazon.com, Amazon UK) Among the many interpreters of Bach cantatas, Richter is far from the top of my list, but his recordings represent a style of Bach performance that was important in its time. These 75 cantatas feature singers such as Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Edith Maths, Peter Schreier, Ernst Haeflinger, Kurt Moll and others.

Deutsche Harmonie Mundi has released a Hildegard von Bingen Edition in September. (Amazon.com, Amazon UK) On 9 CDs, this contains – I think – all of Sequentia’s recordings of this amazing medieval music. The project was begun in 1982, and the final CD released in 2013. I have an older 8-disc edition, and this music is mesmerizing, and Sequentia’s performances are impeccable.

815JnQqASPL._SL1500_.jpgSony is releasing a 67-disc set of Pierre Boulez’ recordings for the label in the fall. (Amazon.com, Amazon UK) These recordings are Boulez as conductor, and feature works by Berg, Debussy, Mahler, Bartok, Berlioz, Handel, Stravinsky and others.

DG recently released a 20-disc box set of Maria Joao Pires’ solo recordings. (Amazon.com, Amazon UK) I’m not very familiar with her work, but one of the first CDs I ever bought was her performance of Schubert’s last piano sonata, on a different label. There are six discs of Schubert here, five of Mozart’s piano sonatas, five Chopin, and some others.

710phmLfTDL._SL1500_.jpgSpeaking of Schubert, Decca has just re-released András Schiff’s 12-disc set of Schubert recordings. (Amazon.com, Amazon UK) I have an older version of these, and this is an excellent set. For some reason, they’ve also released an 8-disc set of his Schubert piano sonatas recordings (Amazon.com, Amazon UK), which is more expensive than the 12-disc set, and which only contains sonatas, and not the Impromptus, Moments Musicaux and other works.

How about some more Schubert? Jan Vermeulen has recorded a great deal of Schubert on fortepiano, and I have the first few releases in this series on Etcetera. I bought them back when I was an eMusic member, but never followed up to see if there would be more. Etcetera has recently released a 12-CD set of these recordings. (Amazon.com, Amazon UK) This is on my list to buy soon; his performances are excellent.

So there’s plenty of great music to be had at great prices. And this is only the summer. We can look forward to lots more as the Christmas season approaches. Maybe there will be that big, complete Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau set that I’ve been hoping for…

Amazon Announces Kindle Unlimited, $10 Monthly Access to More than 600,000 Books

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Safari001.pngAmazon today announced Kindle Unlimited, a $10 per month all-you-can-read subscription to Kindle e-books. Amazon touts “unlimited access to over 600,000 titles and thousands of audiobooks on any device for just $9.99 a month.”

I alluded to this a few days ago, when Amazon’s Kindle Unlimited webpage was prematurely leaked. I’m not sure what the value of this type of service is. As I pointed out in my article, more than 600,000 books does not mean that you will always find books that you want to read. Amazon highlights a number of books that are available via Kindle Unlimited. These include the Hunger Games series, the Lord of the Rings trilogy, and the Harry Potter books. Amazon also shows a number of popular novels and non-fiction books, and lets you browse what’s available. But they don’t offer any books from the big five publishers, so those books that are highlighted are part of a small selection of popular titles.

Taking a quick look at the Literature & Fiction category, I noticed that certain subcategories are very well represented: Action & Adventure (25,121), Erotica (34,703), Horror (19,312), and Short Stories (28,614). The Romance genre contains 35,571 titles, and Mystery, Thriller & Suspense has a whopping 46,293 titles. Let us not forget Science Fiction & Fantasy, which reaches the astounding number of 50,245 titles. These are genres where self-published books tend to lurk. And the genres I cited just above make up, together, more than 300,000 titles, or about half of what’s available from Kindle Unlimited.

What is more interesting about Kindle Unlimited is the access to audiobooks. However, there are currently only 1,704 titles available, which is a very small number. Amazon calls these “books with narration,” rather than audiobooks, which makes me wonder if these are indeed audiobooks, or just books that allow you to use the text-to-speech feature on a Kindle or other device.

Kindle Unlimited is only available in the US for now, so I won’t be able to try it out. I’m very interested to see how well this works; as I pointed out in my article the other day, given the amount that I read, this could be useful for me.

AAC: Apple’s Preferred Audio Codec

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It seems that almost every day I read something about people not wanting to rip their music in AAC (the default format for iTunes and the iPod) because “it’s a proprietary format”, or “because it is owned by Apple.” I see this in forums and blog comments from people who seem to have a fair understanding of technical issues. Yet these thoughts are caused by confusion, a lack of information, and, perhaps, a tricky abbreviation.

Some people think AAC stands for Apple Audio Codec; it doesn’t, its real name is Advanced Audio Coding. It’s true that Apple was the first major hardware or software manufacturer to champion AAC over MP3, but this format is simply a part of the MPEG-4 standard, and is owned by a consortium of companies. Like MP3, this format is available to all for licensing, and there are even open-source encoders and decoders for AAC. This page on Wikipedia goes into detail about this audio format.

AAC is used for the DVD-Audio format, and HE-AAC is used with digital terrestrial television. Most hardware and software players support AAC, and the format offers many advantages: better quality at equivalent bit rates, meaning you can rip your music in smaller files; multi-channel capabilities; higher resolution audio, with sampling rates up to 96 kHz; and much more.

So why are some people afraid of using AAC? The proprietary claim is simply one of ignorance. AAC is here to stay; it’s not Apple’s audio format, and most devices and software support it. If you still think that AAC is “owned by Apple,” think again.

Oh, and that Apple Lossless, or ALAC, format? Apple did create it, but it’s now open source. So you don’t have to worry about using that either.

The Lance Armstrong Swindle

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p021qqm3.jpgI’ve been an avid fan of the Tour de France for many years, especially since it used to pass right in front of my house in the French Alps every few years. As Lance Armstrong won his seven titles, I was amazed by his panache and his tactics; cycling races of that kind are both individual and team sports, and the tactics of a team, as well as of an individual rider, make the difference between making the podium or watching the winners ride by.

I fell for the hype and the excuses: the fact that Armstrong never tested positive, was, for me, proof that he wasn’t doping. Add to that the position of an American in France, watching as the French berated an American for winning their cherished sporting event; it all reeked of nationalism at the time.

My son was a big fan of Lance Armstrong. When we moved to the Alps, my son was ten years old, and that first year – watching the Tour roll by in person – was a huge event for him. Lance Armstrong became a hero to my son; he bought some Livestrong wristbands, and even got Lance’s autograph one day during a stage of the week-long Dauphiné Libéré cycling race that also ran near us.

But, as we all know now, Lance was swindling an entire sport. He wasn’t alone, of course; doping in cycling was a huge problem, and in the 1998 Tour, the year before Armstrong’s first win, six teams were disqualified after police raided some of the teams’ hotels and found drugs.

In many ways, it’s understandable that these guys cheat; three-week grand tours are exhausting, covering more than 3,000 kilometers in weather that can range from scorching heat to snow (yes, even in July, at the higher altitudes), with climbs that are not that easy to negotiate even in cars.

I recently saw a documentary on the BBC, entitled The Lance Armstrong Story – Stop at Nothing. (This will be released on DVD in September in the UK.) Here’s the description of the film:

Documentary telling the intimate but explosive story about the man behind the greatest fraud in recent sporting history, a portrait of a man who stopped at nothing in pursuit of money, fame and success.

It reveals how Lance Armstrong duped the world with his story of a miraculous recovery from cancer to become a sporting icon and a beacon of hope for cancer sufferers around the world. The film maps how Armstrong’s cheating and bullying became more extreme and how a few brave souls fought back, until eventually their voices were heard.

Director Alex Holmes tracks down some of his former friends and team members who reveal how his cheating was the centre of a grand conspiracy in which Armstrong and his backers sought to steal the Tour de France. Friends and fellow riders were brought into a dirty pact that no-one could betray, lest the horrifying extent of complicity be revealed. But the former friends whose lives he destroyed would prove to be his nemesis, and help uncover one of the dirtiest scandals in sports history.

It was fascinating to see how organized all this was, and how long Lance Armstrong had been “bending the rules” to win at all costs. He bullied people, cheated and lied his way to the top, then fell so sharply that it’s hard to think that he can ever come back. He lost a lot of money, though he seems to still have enough to live comfortably, and he hurt a lot of people.

I then read David Walsh’s book Seven Deadly Sins: My Pursuit of Lance Armstrong. (Amazon.com, Amazon UK) This tells the tale of one sports journalist who, from Lance’s first Tour win in 1999, knew there was something fishy going on. He spent 13 years of his life trying to prove Lance’s guilt, having his newspaper – the Sunday Times – sued for libel, and was finally exonerated when the truth came out. Walsh is a bit obsessive in his tale, and tells it perhaps a bit too subjectively, but the evidence he lays out is scathing.

Yet, in spite of all this, Armstrong fought hard in the Tour de France, as in other races. He rode those 3,000+ kilometers every year, and there are moments of these races that will remain memorable. When you think that he was racing against other riders who were also doping – the majority of the top ten riders in each of the years he won the race were found to have doped as well – one can wonder what would have happened if it had been a level playing field: would he still have won? It’s possible that his personality and his dedication to the sport would still have led him to the top.

I’m not apologizing for Lance Armstrong; I think it’s bad enough that he cheated and lied, and it’s worse that he fought so hard saying that he never cheated, harassing and suing people and ruining lives. But he did all this in a framework where cheating was the only way to survive. This highlights that it’s not just Lance who is wrong; it’s the entire sport. Everyone was complicit in his cheating, in one way or another: the race organizers, the governing bodies of cycling, and the press. Everyone stood to make money, so why spoil the party?

I still watch the Tour de France, but more the way one would watch professional wrestling. I know it’s a show, and it’s a beautiful one: it has tension and excitement, and goes through some beautiful landscapes, some of which – as you may see in the stage on July 19 – I lived in for a dozen years.

Just yesterday, the commentators here in the UK were saying about Tony Gallopin, who won yesterday’s difficult stage, how he has had such a great season, how he’s riding better than ever. Sound familiar? If it’s too good to be true, then it’s probably not.

I leave you with this, which may be the most memorable moment in a Tour de France stage in decades (since Greg Lemond beat Laurent Fignon by eight seconds in the 1989 Tour). After passing in front of my home, the Tour headed to Gap, about 45 minutes south of where I was. Just outside the town, the lead riders were fighting for position, and one rider, Joseba Beloki, who was just a length in front of Armstrong, hit a patch of melted tar or the road and fell. Watch what Lance does. It’s really spectacular. (Sorry about the ads at the end; it’s the best video of this I could find with English commentary.)



The Committed Podcast Looks at Tim Cook’s Apple

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The Committed Podcast Icon 1400x1400 01On this week’s episode of The Committed podcast, Ian Schray, Rob Griffiths and I discuss Tim Cook’s Apple. How has Apple changed since Steve Jobs has gone? What is Tim Cook doing to prepare Apple for the future?

We also deal with some technical problems, discuss customer service, Apple and IBM, and we take a brief look at Marco Arment’s new podcast app, Overcast.

And my pick of the week is The Durutti Column’s new release, Chronicle XL, the first album from Vini Reilly in several years. (Amazon.com, Amazon UK)

Listen to The Committed, Episode 42: Cook’s Apple.