A Wearable Device for Meditators

I’ve been exploring wearable fitness trackers recently, and, in addition to the three devices I reviewed, I got a Nike+ Fuelband this week. With yesterday’s news that Nike is probably exiting the wearables market, most likely because Apple will be releasing an iWatch, the thought crossed my mind that there is a market for a wearable device for meditators.

Many meditators use smartphone apps – such as the excellent Insight Timer – to time and track their meditation, but one could do so much more with a wearable device. Instead of having to use a smartphone app, you could just press a button on the device to start a meditation session, then press another at the end. You could program the device to work as a timer; instead of the ubiquitous bells that smartphone apps use to signal the end of sessions, it would vibrate. And it could have a way to motivate you to meditate more, with vibrations to remind you that you haven’t sat for a while, as well as notifications on a smartphone.

It could also attribute points – let’s call them Karma Points – for your sessions. You could compete with friends to see who meditates the most, and participate in groups, just as you can with many of the existing fitness trackers. And, you can track every meditation session you do, even those brief InstaZen® sessions you do on the bus, while waiting in line at banks, and in traffic jams.

Sure, smart watches will provide such features, through third-party apps, but a slim, stylish device worn on the wrist – perhaps with a logo of your meditative tradition, or favorite Buddha – would be so much more fashionable. Such a device would be available in several colors: Zen black, Tibetan red, Hinayana saffron and others. The Nike+ Fuelband is already available in Zen black, and this gives you an idea of what a meditator’s wristband could look like (that guy’s got lots of karma points!):

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Yes, a wearable meditation tracker would be great for those who sit and who are worried they’re not accumulating enough good karma. What better way to keep track of your progress toward enlightenment than to count those points for every meditation session you do!

(in case you didn’t get it, this post is meant as a bit of humor. Apparently some people think it’s serious.)

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Exclusive: Proof that Apple Will Be Releasing an iWatch

I was exchanging emails with my son about the rumored termination of Nike’s wearable products. He has a Nike+ SportWatch, which he uses when running, and was worried about its future support. As I was typing a reply on my iPhone, I saw this:

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Well, if iOS 7 auto-correct says so, it’s got to be true!

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The Committed Podcast Talks Tips (and More)

The Committed Podcast Icon 1400x1400 01On this week’s The Committed podcast, Ian Schray, Rob Griffiths and I talk tips. We do a round table offering some of our favorite tips for working with OS X, iOS, iTunes and more.

We also discuss Nike+ fuel (because I recently bought a Nike+ Fuelband SE), Dropbox, the cloud, and many other things.

Listen to The Committed podcast, Episode 30: “Tips Extravaganza.”

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iTunes 11: See Aggregate iTunes Radio Listening History

iTunes002.pngIf you use iTunes Radio, you know that you can see a history of what you’ve listened to on a given station by clicking on the station’s icon. The iTunes window expands that icon to show this history, along with artists or songs you’ve added as favorites, and others that you don’t like.

But what if you’ve heard a song you like, but can’t remember which station it was on? There’s a way to view your aggregate iTunes Radio history for all stations.

Just click the Up Next icon, either in the iTunes LCD or in the iTunes Mini Player (the Up Next icon is surrounded by the red box in the screen shot to the left). A menu will unfold – like the Up Next menu – showing each station, and the last 100 tracks you’ve listened to, in reverse chronological order.

The menu also tells you which device you listened to during each session. So if you listen on different computers, and on iOS devices, you’ll be able to scan the list and see which device you listened to. This may help you find the track you’re looking for.

I note that I see a number of tracks marked Unknown Title. I assume that iTunes has simply lost track of those.

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The iTunes Guy Looks at Glitchy Tracks, Numbers Game, and Too-Large Libraries

itunesguy-thum-100004188-gallery.jpgYou know the one where you get a track from iTunes Match and it’s not perfect? How about the one where you’ve just got too much stuff in your iTunes library and it slows iTunes down to a crawl? Or that thing where there are numbers at the beginnings of track names and you’d really like to get rid of them? Well, read on to find out how to fix these problems.

Find out more in this week’s Macworld Ask the iTunes Guy column.

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iCloud Is Bloated

I’ve written recently about iCloud; about how it’s a black hole that swallows up your data and documents, and how Apple is stingy with storage. But when you think about it, iCloud is many different services, all wrapped into one. Perhaps there are too many. You often hear people complain that certain apps are bloated; perhaps iCloud is bloated too, and this bloat makes it hard to manage and use.

So what exactly is iCloud? Apple’s website shows the many things it does:

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  • Content everywhere: iCloud allows you to access purchases from Apple’s various stores – the iTunes Store, the iBooks Store, the App Store and the Mac App Store – on all your devices. You can buy items, download them on different devices, and have them automatically download to certain devices. And you can stream video content you’ve purchased – or rented – to Apple devices as well.
  • iTunes Match: match your iTunes library, and access your music from iTunes, or an iOS device, anywhere. In theory.
  • iCloud Photo Sharing: this is your Photo Stream. It shares photos from any of your devices to all of your other devices.
  • Find My iPhone, and Find My Mac: this lets you find an Apple device, whether it’s lost or stolen, or whether you simply can’t remember where you put your iPhone.
  • Find My Friends: this lets you keep track of where your friends are.
  • Apps and iCloud: iCloud allows apps to store files and data, making them accessible across devices. This includes files you create with, say, Pages or Numbers, but also data that certain apps can store for you. This uses Apple’s CoreData, which has proven to be complex and unreliable.
  • iWork for iCloud: this recent addition offers web-based versions of Apple’s iCloud apps, which show the same files you’ve created or edited on your Mac or iOS device.
  • Safari: iCloud saves bookmarks, and even lets you access open browser windows on different devices.
  • iCloud Keychain: sync your passwords and credit cards across devices.
  • Mail, Calendar and Contacts: this is the heart of iCloud, and the part of the service that has been around the longest. Email is accessible on all your devices – even non-Apple devices – and on the web; contacts and calendars sync across devices.
  • Backup and Storage: finally, you can back up iOS devices to iCloud, and store files there, from specific apps. This overlaps a bit with Apps and iCloud.

A reader recently posted a comment to one of my articles saying that “iCloud just works.” Unfortunately, that isn’t always the case. As I mentioned above, iCloud swallows up your data and documents, only giving access to the specific app that created them. Document syncing can be wonky, and I’ve lost files, and have heard from many readers who have had that problem too. (Have a browse of Apple’s iCloud support forums to see some of the many problems.)

I’ve found that data often doesn’t sync in a timely manner, doesn’t update regularly, and sometimes doesn’t update at all. I’ve had problems with contacts, repeatedly, and have had to zero my contacts and re-add them all again.

As for email, it’s fine when it works, which is most of the time. Oh, except the fact that iCloud deletes certain emails when it sees keywords it doesn’t like; it doesn’t tell you, whether they’re emails you’ve sent, or ones sent to you.

Safari bookmarks sync most of the time, but I have to wait a while if I want to open a web page that I’m looking at on my Mac on a different device. iCloud tabs works, but it’s slow.

iTunes Match sort of works for many users, but I get plenty of emails from users who have problems. I often get errors when updating iTunes Match, and the way it works is inscrutable. Problems with iTunes Match are legion.

Apps that sync data with iCloud often have problems. Granted, this may be partly because of the apps themselves not working correctly with iCloud, but there are enough developers with iCloud troubleshooting pages to suggest that the problem is systemic. Some developers simply gave up trying to get iCloud to work. And, don’t forget, only apps sold in Apple’s stores can even use iCloud, limiting its use. The Verge has a long article about apps and developers who have had problems with iCloud, mentioning many who simply gave up.

And regarding storage; again, 5 GB is not a lot, considering that I’ve spent, well, thousands of dollars on Apple devices. I don’t keep a lot of email on my mail servers, and my iCloud email address is not my main account. But I know people who do, and their email eats up a good share of their 5 GB. But there’s not much I can do with that storage, other than back up my iOS devices and store files created with iCloud-compatible apps. I can’t put files there to share with other users, as I used to be able to do with the iDisk (which was part of MobileMe). Yes, I use Dropbox, but if Apple wants people to integrate iCloud into their lives, a file receptacle is essential.

Apple has never been successful with online services. From iTools to .Mac, from MobileMe to iCloud, there have always been problems. Apple has constantly rebranded these services, hoping that users would forget the previous problems, but it’s still a nightmare for many users.

Perhaps Apple is trying to do too much with iCloud. Perhaps they need to scale back the service, or not lump so many things together. I don’t know what the solution is, but I’d really like iCloud to just work.

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The Cloud Bursts its Bubble

The cloud has been in the news lately. Prices are starting to drop for a number of cloud services – those online, in-the-ether file repositories. Google and Amazon have both lowered their prices recently, by about 50% for Amazon, and 68% for Google.

But iCloud still only offers you 5 GB storage, no matter how many Apple devices you have, upgrades to iCloud are expensive, and Dropbox is holding back for now on reducing its prices.

I’ve got storage on several cloud servers:

  • Dropbox: I have 25 GB; the initial free 2 GB, plus another 23 GB I earned by referring people to Dropbox, by using their camera upload feature, and some other promotions.
  • Google Drive: I have 65 GB on Google Drive. There’s a free 15 GB, and I earned another 50 GB – good for two years – when I bought my Motorola Moto G smartphone.
  • Box: I’ve got 50 GB with Box, which came from a promotion the company ran a few months ago.
  • iCloud: I’ve got a measly 5 GB on iCloud, even though I own a Mac mini, a MacBook Pro, an iPhone, an iPad air, an iPad mini and an iPod touch. (I also have a few other iPods that can’t access the internet.) You’d think they’d give me a bit more to be able to back up all those iOS devices.

That’s a lot of space, and the only two I use regularly, for now, are Dropbox and iCloud. The former because I use it to collaborate with others, notably for my Take Control books, and the latter for apps, data and iOS backups.

But I’ve just added another cloud service, and this one is breaking all records for pricing. MediaFire has just released an iOS app, to go with its web-based and desktop service, and is running a promotion. MediaFire starts you off with a free 10 GB, and has two paid price plans. The 1 TB – yes, that’s 1,000 GB – plan is $5 a month, and the 100 TB plan is $50 a month. So, for $50 a year – you get a discount if you pay yearly – you get 1 terabyte of storage. Compared to iCloud, you’re getting 40 times as much storage for $10 more a year. Granted, it’s not baked into Apple’s apps, but the MediaFire desktop app works a lot like Dropbox, as does the iOS app.

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I’m tempted to grab the 1 TB plan, which is currently on sale half price: just $25 a year for now. I doubt I’d use all that space, though if I had enough upstream bandwidth, I’d use it to back up my music library. But it would be nice to know it’s there if I ever need it.

Cloud storage prices are going to continue to fall, and MediaFire has taken a bold step. They probably know that most users who take a 1 TB plan won’t use a lot of that space, but giving you that much for the price of a couple of movie tickets is impressive. It remains to be seen how reliable MediaFire is, but, for now, I like the way it looks.

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How It Works: Audio Compression

The term “compression” is often a source of confusion when discussing digital music. There are two kinds of compression. The first is the kind used to compress the size of files; this is data compression. There is lossy compression, using with MP3 and AAC files, and lossless compression, used with FLAC and Apple Lossless formats.

But the other kind of compression, dynamic range compression, is the much derided method of limiting the amount of dynamic range in music. The point of dynamic range compression is to make less of a difference between the quietest parts of a piece of music and the loudest parts. Most music is compressed as part of the recording and mastering process, because it does sound a lot better, and keeps you from blowing out your speakers. But over-compressing music makes it sound like crap.

The best way to understand dynamic compression is to look at a couple of audio waveforms. The screenshots below were made using Rogue Amoeba’s Fission audio editor.

Here’s a song which is free on iTunes today. I chose this one because, well, any free pop single is likely to be heavily compressed, and this example shows that I’m not wrong.

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You can see two things in this waveform. The first is that the song is almost universally loud; the waves show the loudness. The second thing to notice is that there is a lot of clipping; audio volume that hits the top of the available limit. This is bad. As Wikipedia says:

Music which is clipped experiences amplitude compression, whereby all notes begin to sound equally loud because loud notes are being clipped to the same output level as softer notes.

Excessive compression has led to what is known as the loudness wars. This is when record producers make their songs louder and louder so they stand out against other songs. Generally, the human brain perceives louder music to be better, so additional loudness can make a song more compelling. But, in the end, all this has done is made lots of loud, clipped songs.

Here’s an example of a song which is not compressed. This is Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here:

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You can see the difference in two places in this screenshot. In the overall timeline at the top of the window, you can see that the music has a shape; in the first screenshot of the free pop single, it’s just one long mass of sound. And in the actual waveform, you can see that there is modulation, and no clipping, in the Pink Floyd song.

The difference is that you may play your Pink Floyd song at a louder volume, in order to hear the quiet parts of the song, but the louder parts will be, well, loud. In the first song, the entire song is loud, and you’re likely to become fatigued more quickly after listening to music like that.

For good examples of audio that is not compressed – or only very slightly – watch a movie. In general, movie audio is not compressed; this is why the dialog is often too soft, but the special effects are too loud. This is why you often need to adjust the volume for movies with lots of explosions, otherwise your ears hurt. (You may have an AV receiver which has a dynamic range compression feature; if you’ve turned this on, you may not hear such large differences in volume.)

Dynamic range compression isn’t a bad thing; it’s just bad when it’s overdone, as is the case in much popular music today.

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