Observations and arguments.

iTunes 7 shows no love for (Video) Podcasts

A post this morning over on The Unofficial Apple Weblog gripes about a change to the iTunes UI that moves access to enhanced podcast chapters out of the application window and up into the menubar. It posits two possibilities for the change: 1) that different UI designers were assigned to the project, and simply made a bad decision; or 2) that Apple no longer cares about UI design.

Ok, option 2 is crazy talk. Apple may make some mystifying UI design choices, but it’s not because it doesn’t care about the choices.

No, I think you have to look at a third alternative: that as TV shows and now movies gain ascendancy in the iTunes universe, podcasts are being moved further and further down the functional spec sheet.

My own greatest annoyance with iTunes 7 (and why I haven’t upgraded on my main PowerBook) is that the shiny new album and Coverflow views aren’t available in the Podcast library. Currently in iTunes 6, video podcasts appear in the “Videos” library, with nice thumbnails that my two-and-a-half year old can point to when he wants to see the video of Magic Monkey Bob, or of himself running around with one of his pals.

In iTunes 7, these thumbnails are gone; because video podcasts don’t show up under “Movies” or “TV Shows”. I tried to create a workaround by creating a smart playlist of video podcasts–surely I could use Coverflow then. Except that all the podcasts from a particular source are treated as being from one “album”, so they all share the same artwork–a still frame from a random single video. I haven’t tried deleting the videos from iTunes and then re-importing them as random videos, but even if that were to work what a pain it’s going to be.

Of course, I will have to upgrade at some point. I can’t listen to shared music from my other machines in the house that are now on iTunes 7. And if I ever decide to download a TV show I’ll have to upgrade to even watch them.

And when I do upgrade, my boy is going to shout at me. Repeatedly. And at a loud volume. Because he’s going to want to know where his favorite movies went. And I’m not going to get very far with my conjectures and ramblings about UI and product road maps.

So thank you, iTunes, for that. So very much.


Learning through speech

Amid the raging river of content known as my Bloglines feeds are the writings of Seth Godin, a bit of a rockstar iconoclast in the marketing world. A big idea guy, or as he might posit, a small idea guy.

In a post from Sunday Godin asks: “What’s the point of talking to a group?

He suggests that giving a speech to a group of people–oration–might work to incite emotion or to sell (he sidesteps religion in posing his question), but that it falls short as a teaching tool, particularly in a culture comfortable with the remote control, YouTube, and Bloglines.

I can’t help but think Godin has extrapolated from his own boredom at a recent class or training session and concluded that his own learning pace and style is shared by everyone.

Yes, instructor-led training is often poorly conceived and executed (in the example he cites, the teacher read unwaveringly from a prepared text), constrained by politics and resources, and is often inappropriate for the material. But of course that’s why there’s been such a massive shift in the past fifteen years towards self-paced interactive learning systems–first CD-ROM “Multimedia”, then web-based–in corporations and universities. (This of course comes with its own problems, e.g. the assessment of skill acquisition using multiple choice questions.)

Sometimes when looking at the challenge of guiding a population of learners towards knowledge, having a teacher stand up in front of a group of people (even if some of those people are watching on screens from far away) is the best medium for the task. Because as Godin himself admits, sometimes engagement and human emotion are important parts of the learning equation.

Ask anyone who’s learned from remarkable teachers–there’s no technological substitute.

A month between posts?

It’s been a struggle to maintain a work-life balance–amidst busyness at work and busyness in life. I’ve been able to fill in as the single parent at times, and carve out time to mark our tenth wedding anniversary. I’ve married two friends, cheered on my mother at her ballroom dance showcase, and brought the family along on a surprise trip to my father’s 70th birthday.

What I’ve not been doing includes writing, something I consider a bit of work and a bit of life but which more often is attached to the idea of play–a category of activity that is set aside first at times of busyness. The lack of writing (and the paucity of videos) is the result of a function of time and emptying out.

To whatever extent I hope to make a transition in what I get paid to do–I need to work better to balance work AND life AND play.

How not to sell a car.

Went shopping on Sunday for a new car, specifically looking at the Honda Civic Hybrid and the Toyota Prius. Both cars claim long wait times of 60+ days, so shopping early is recommended (we believe we can keep our VW running through the end of the year).

The Toyota dealership my wife and I visited first offered us one of the worst customer service experiences of my life. Some of this was a function of the sales rep’s inability to read people, but some of it was by design.

Red flag #1:
When we told our sales rep we were interested in learning about the Prius, he said “Prius? No! That’s a bad word!” The choice to denigrate the company’s bestselling car is a curious one.

Red flag #2:
As for wait times for ordering a Prius, our charming sales rep said “Four to nine months, unless you want silver, in which case: forget it.” This exaggeration (three months is standard at two dealerships I’ve spoken with since) is perhaps intended to weed out nonserious hybrid inquiries among those needing a car right away, and to redirect them towards a Corolla or Yaris.

Red flag #3:
Our sales rep carried with him a hand scribbled notepad of interested “Prius buyers”, which he occasionally flipped open furtively, to demonstrate that there were people wanting cars “ASAP” and “any color”. Presumably those buyers who had placed their $500 deposit with the dealership would expect to be registered on a typed list, in a database, rather than in a single sales rep’s pocket. Presumably they would also be uncomfortable having their names and phone numbers displayed to random potential buyers such as ourselves. Perhaps the point of showing us this list was to play up the frenzy angle, to hook in those buyers likely to be caught up by the drama and excitement of a possible call saying “I’ve got one on the lot. It’s white and has the high end options, but if you get down here today we can make it happen.”

Red flag #4:
No fleet model available to sit in, let alone test drive. From a certain perspective this is understandable, as the dealership clearly has sufficient numbers of buyers willing to place an order for a Prius without a test drive. If a customer balks once the car arrives on the lot (it is a strange car to sit in and drive, at first glance), there is a list of others (apparently, in our sales rep’s pocket) willing to buy the car right away. This is a dealership decision; I can’t blame the rep for this.

Red flag #5:
In lieu of a test drive, our sales rep walked us around the lot to look at the outside of three Priuses that were on site, but already purchased. One of the cars was in a back lot behind a fence marked “Employees Only”, a transparent device employed to make the sales rep appear to be showing the customer something secret or special–when in fact what he was showing us was the outside of yet another Prius. I see the outside of Priuses every day on my car commute.

Red flag #6:
Our sales rep hurled unsolicited and repeated insults at George W. Bush, claiming that the lack of available Prius inventory was somehow due to the president’s direct intervention at the behest of “the oil companies” (of which our sales rep informed us, Bush owned two). Perhaps our rep or his colleagues had found success in closing Prius sales by riling up anti-Bush emotions, but this line of rhetoric came off as merely nonsensical to us.

Red flag #7:
In a direct and mystifying contradiction to his earlier assertion (see Red Flag #2, above), our sales rep promised that if we were to put down the $500 deposit “today,” and if we didn’t care about color, he could get us a Prius “in a week”, he had fourteen of them coming in. I understand that by the time the cars arrive on the lot that those who reserved them may have already bought a car somewhere else, or no longer have the money, or for whatever reason no longer want the car, and the dealership must then call the next person on the waiting list. Yet presumably the call would go to the individuals at the top of the list, rather than at the bottom.

Perhaps he meant that if we gave *him* the $500, he’d be willing to help hook us up. But I mean, honestly.

The upshot is: while we’re likely to purchase a Prius, it won’t be at this dealership.

We later drove to another Toyota dealer in our area, which had a fleet model on the lot for test drives, and a sales rep who spent an hour with us showing us the car–its innovative hatchback and in-car storage, the electronic smart key, the touchscreen radio and environmental controls, the hidden power outlet and aux input, the rearview video camera, and of course the curious startup sequence and gear shift toggle. So despite the fact that the Prius is the number one selling car of the number one car manufacturer in the world, this sales rep at the new dealership was willing to take the time to try to sell us the car. This dealership has earned our business, and this sales rep the associated commission.

The dealership that didn’t care whether they got my business or not: Stevens Creek Toyota
The dealership that did: Toyota Sunnyvale

I’ve kept the names of the specific sales reps (good and bad) out of this. Does that seem appropriate? Because someone else could have had a good experience with a different rep at Stevens Creek, and a poor experience with someone else at Sunnyvale. Is this all about the sales rep or is the dealership accountable by itself?

The Quoting Gene

Update: We’re currently exploring to what extent this behavior falls under the rubric of hyperlexia, an early-childhood syndrome that pretty much mimics what I write about below:

The boy doesn’t speak so much as quote from his stories.

“Stories”, in this case, being an umbrella term encompassing books, videos, and audio recordings, which he listens to on CD in his bedroom or in the car on Mommy’s or Daddy’s iPod.

As an example, when tonight at dinner he shouted enthusiastically: “Spaghetti, yummy!”–or to be honest, “Hnehi, yummy!” (his consonants remain a work in progress)–he was not simply stating his enthusiasm for the spaghetti and meatballs, but was in fact quoting from Leslie Patricelli’s Yummy Yucky board book.

(We know he was quoting because he followed his exclamation with the accompanying line from the book, “Worms, yucky!”)

Many of the boy’s stories he has access to in all three media, because the Thomas & Friends Industrial Complex develops many of its properties in all three, and also because of Scholastic’s consumer-repackaging of the video adaptations of children’s literature done for more than fifty years by Morton Schindel and his Weston Woods Studios.

This multimedia synergy is a perfect match for how his brain has been wired. It reinforces the stories through repetition (recorded or when we read to him), a process complements his own compulsion to store entire stories as rote memory. (We first identified this compulsion at the age of one and a half–before the video or audio was introduced. Even then he displayed a fierce need to convert a new/unknown book into a familiar/known book, by shouting at us to repeat the beginning of the book over. And over. And over.)

And since family and friends are impressed by his ability to recite entire stories, they are willing to forgive the fact that he remains incapable (or more precisely: unwilling) to answer a direct conversational question, with even a token nod, let alone a verbal response.

The traditional use of quotations in writing or public speaking is based on the premise that someone has expressed an idea using better words than I could come up with myself, so I’ll repeat what they said.

In one sense, language itself is based on this premise. I’m thinking of a round thing, that rolls and bounces. I heard someone else express this idea once in a way I’ll repeat now: “Ball.”

But the quoting gene in the boy’s DNA sequence is the same one found in the individual, who when reminded of a particular scene in, e.g. Raiders of the Lost Ark, does not simply mention it, or describe it, but rather recites it, at length, to demonstrate not merely the relevance of the cultural reference to the current moment, but to prove mastery of the source material, if only to one’s self.

It is the same gene that will propel him, at a point in between the ages of eleven and fifteen, to commit entire Monty Python routines to memory.

I would be tempted to turn the gene off if the option were presented, as I expect that it will cause him a great deal of trouble in the social arena, especially when it comes to dating.

My best hope for him, I suppose, is that he finds friends who also carry the gene, and some similar taste in movies, etc., with whom he can at least develop social skills within a subculture of quoting geekdom.

If it was good enough for his old man…

…is I believe how the expression goes.

Tags: ,

The makings of a good plan.

In a toddler’s life
(or, at least, in my toddler’s life),
pretty much any plan
that incorporates a honey graham cracker
a pretty good plan.

Questioning the YouTube ToS panic

On the Wired blog yesterday there appeared a post with the alarmist headline “YouTube’s ‘New’ Terms Still Fleece Musicians”. It highlights the newest YouTube terms of service, which read, in part:

…by submitting the User Submissions to YouTube, you hereby grant YouTube a worldwide, non-exclusive, royalty-free, sublicenseable and transferable license to use, reproduce, distribute, prepare derivative works of, display, and perform the User Submissions in connection with the YouTube Website and YouTube’s (and its successor’s) business… in any media formats and through any media channels.

The writer (Eliot Van Buskirk) points out, quite rightly, that YouTube could take your video (or, for example, a band’s song that appears in a video) and sell it on a DVD or CD, or broadcast it on a television show, or sell it to an ad agency, without paying you a nickel. The license is transferable, meaning they could pass it along to another entity (e.g. a television production company), and it would be retained by any entity that bought up YouTube.

The story was picked up by BoingBoing, which has a lot more readers than the Wired music blog, so there are going to be a lot more people across the internets reacting negatively to what appears to me a misreading and mischaracterization of the terms of service text.

Van Buskirk chooses to overlook two sections of this paragraph in the terms of service that seem awfully pertinent. The first is in boldface:

For clarity, you retain all of your ownership rights in your User Submissions.

and the second, more important part:

The foregoing license granted by you terminates once you remove or delete a User Submission from the YouTube Website.

Van Buskirk makes this point in the comments to his post that the term “ownership” begins to lose its meaning once you have granted a royalty-free license as broad as the one YouTube claims, and I agree with him on this. But the point about the User’s ability to terminate the license by removing the work from the website here is critical.

So let’s take Van Buskirk’s scenario in which YouTube sells your song to an ad agency looking for “edgy” work in its new commercial. (This of course would have to be an ad agency that doesn’t belong to one of the multinational marketing conglomerates, who are completely in bed with the music publishing industry. The agency would also want to overlook the shitty transcoding quality of the audio, but let’s pretend there is such an agency.) YouTube gets money, you don’t. The commercial airs, you cry foul. You remove the video from YouTube. The license has now been terminated. If the ad agency’s media company allows the ad to run again on any station, in any market, you can sue them for all the money you could want, far more than you would have been paid had the ad agency only come to you directly. Which money of course the ad agency would turn around and sue YouTube for. And then of course YouTube will only then ask you to produce all the written releases you have from everyone in your video (as required in the same section of the Terms of Service), and so then all your friends you used as extras can sue you for the money you won in your lawsuit.

Oh, I’m sure YouTube can’t WAIT to start monetizing your content.

Look, I understand the fear, I just don’t buy it.

The license is there so they have permission to transcode your work (creating a derivative), play it online (display/perform), or elsewhere if they can figure out how to convert to mobile phones or tvs. The language is overly broad to cover their asses, but that’s what corporate lawyers do.

If there is any real money to be made off your work by YouTube or its partner corporations, they will come to you directly and get you to sign a new, far more specific contract that will also cheat you out of money that you so rightly deserve.

Tags: YouTube