The Baseball Desert

Monday, November 06, 2006

Apple of my i (Part 3)

I'm thinking of flagging my posts with an NBC (Non-Baseball Content) sticker right now, in case people start getting tired of coming here for random musings on the Red Sox, only to find yet another slice of my life outside baseball...

One of the other doors that the iPod and iTunes open up is one that nicely balances the money that seems to disappear every month into the iTunes store: podcasts. Free entertainment on just about every subject under the sun, downloadable on to your iPod for endless hours of enjoyment on the way to work? Yes, please, I'd like to sign up for that right now.

Since getting the iPod, I've become addicted to several podcasts, mainly news / current affairs / entertainment podcasts from both sides of the Atlantic. I don't listen to French radio very much, mainly because it redefines the meaning of the word 'crap' on an almost hourly basis. But there is another reason, which also goes a long way towards explaining why I read very little in French, and that is the effort it takes. Even if you're completely bilingual and understand every word you hear or read, there's a certain effort needed - probably unconscious, but there nonetheless - to follow. I can read a book or listen to the radio in French, but unlike when I'm reading in English, I can't 'coast' and switch off a small part of the brain that's not needed for the book or the news programme to worry about what we're having for dinner or whether I've paid the gas bill - it needs full concentration.

Podcasts are therefore pennies from heaven - entertainment and information in my comfortable, no-effort-needed mother tongue that I can take with me anywhere I go. No radio signal needed, just sufficient battery power.

I listen to a lot of different podcasts, but a particular favourite is NPR's Driveway Moments. Unlike the genre podcasts which make up the rest of my listening, the subject matter is varied and unpredictable. Sometimes I listen and just go: "Oh, interesting...", but from time to time NPR unearths a real gem, and I find myself doing exactly what the title of the show says - listening to the end of the excerpt, even when I've already arrived at work or got back home.

One of my all-time favourites from the series is this one - once the programme introduction was over and those spooky, electronic voices kicked in I had one of those all-too-rare "Holy crap! What is that?" moments. I was transfixed - it reached out and grabbed my attention in the car one night, so much so that I had to stop listening until I got home, because I was so fascinated by the whole thing that I wasn't concentrating on the road in front of me. The show hasn't turned into a full-blown obsession, but, given a little time, it's just the kind of thing that could.

And coming full circle back to our starting point, it's not just the content available for the iPod which grabs my attention. Sometimes it's the machine itself and the mysteries - real or imagined - that have sprung up around it.

I've wondered myself about the randomness of the Random feature on the iPod - how come on some mornings I get two tracks from the soundtrack to Tucker within the space of ten minutes, and then nothing more from it for three weeks? The article is a reassuring indication not only that I'm not the only one wondering this, but also that I'm not the only one having trouble getting to grips with the answer:
Steven D Levitt, the self-described "rogue economist" who co-wrote the bestselling Freakonomics, also fell into the trap. Writing on his blog, he professed constant surprise at how often his iPod shuffle "plays two, three or even four songs by the same artist, even though I have songs by dozens of different artists on it". But as a statistics maven, Levitt understood that the bottom line is that "the human mind does badly with randomness."
It's all about clusters, apparently, and they're perfectly normal. But that didn't stop me from reading the maths trick used as an example and thinking: "That can't be right!."
Gather 40 people in a room and have everyone write down the day he or she was born. What are the odds that two people will have the same birthday? Nearly 100%.
I took the time to look into the figures - they're right. With a class of 40, the chances are around 90%, and by the time you get to 47 people, the probability is 95%. Completely bizarre, and completely true. So thanks to my iPod I can now not only carry around two weeks' worth of music in my pocket but I can also impress people at dinner parties with my elementary grasp of randomness and probability. Seriously, what more could you possibly want from a digital music player?*

* A hypothetical question, but if you really want an answer, you can apparently take your pick: FM radio, Bluetooth, better battery life, widescreen... Which just goes to prove the old adage that you really can't please all the people all the time.