I’ve been using a radio adapter to play my iPod in my car for the last year. Which works well enough, and is unbelievably better than having to rely on the radio or CDs to listen to music, but has its downsides. There aren’t a lot of holes in the radio spectrum around here; I’ve found one or two that work acceptably on the commute to work, but even so I get more static than I’d like. And if I venture up to, say, San Francisco, the radio holes change, so I have to either give up or try to find a different place in the spectrum to broadcast.

By now, the value of this experiment has clearly proven itself, so I figured that I’d see if I could get my radio modified to have some sort of direct connection. Which turned out to be really easy in this case: the radio is designed to accept an external CD changer, and the mechanism that that uses turns out to be fairly general, so you can plug iPod adapters in there, too. Cost about 60 bucks, which is fine; a lot cheaper than buying a whole new radio just to get an extra jack.

It took two tries to get it right. The first time, they installed a unit that had the iPod controlled through the radio itself; maybe this would have been fine if I’d had a more flexible radio with a better screen, but it would have made the device almost completely useless in my scenario: I’m not sure there was even a way to switch from an episode of one podcast to an episode of a different podcast. Fortunately, I realized the problem before I left the lot; they were very good about straightening things out and installing what I really wanted once we realized we’d miscommunicated.

Actually, I’m not entirely sure if it’s what I really wanted: I still have a proprietary iPod connection coming out of my radio, and I feel a bit guilty about not sticking with open standards. The thing is, though, I’d need a proprietary dock connector somewhere, or else accept an inferior signal out of the earphone jack. And it turns out that what they installed is a two-part system, where there’s something connecting the radio to a pair of standard RCA jacks (or its moral equivalent) and a second gizmo that goes from the RCA jacks to my iPod (plus a power line to charge the iPod, which is nice but no big deal). So the non-proprietary part turns out to be nicely modularized: you can’t tell that from the outside, but there’s a nice standards-compliant bit hidden inside.

While I am talking about iPods: I don’t believe I’ve blogged about the virtue of shuffle play. I hadn’t gotten around to giving that a try for a while: I didn’t think I’d particularly like it more than any other way of listening to the iPod, and I was a bit worried about how it would interact with podcasts and with classical music. But when my Mac went in for repairs earlier this year, I had no way to update my podcasts; the repairs took longer than expected, so I ran out of saved episodes, and decided to give shuffle mode a try instead of listening to albums again. And it’s great!

My fears turned out to be unfounded. Podcasts don’t get thrown into the mix, which is clearly the right thing to do. A nice bit of design: it would have been easy to treat podcasts like any other music, just with a special tag (i.e. something could be “rock”, “classical”, “podcast”, etc.), but in fact they treat podcasts differently. This is one example; syncing rules are another; the “listened to” mark is a third.

And, as far as classical music goes, when I started doing this, the only classical music I had on the podcast was some Schumann lieder, both Glenn Gould recordings of the Goldbergs, and the Glenn Gould recordings of both WTC volumes. And all of that shuffled just as well as pop songs – I kind of wish that a prelude and its corresponding fugue got played together, but it’s not that big a deal. And I’ve even learned something: to my embarrassment, I couldn’t reliably tell whether a piece was a Goldberg variation or one of the preludes, but I’ve gotten much better now at distinguishing the two. I’ve since put more classical music on the iPod; it works fine.

Having said that, I doubt that, say, symphonies would work very well. Certainly the choice of track markers makes a difference: I have a CD of Peter Maxwell Davies’s Eight Songs for a Mad King and Miss Donnithorne’s Maggot, which puts that on two thirty-minute tracks. (As opposed to, say, splitting the first work into eight tracks.) When we ran into one of those on shuffle mode, it rather put a damper on the trip; we ended up hitting the next button to skip to the next piece in the shuffle, and I took them off the iPod when I got home. No big deal, really; if I’d really wanted to have those on my iPod, occasionally hitting ‘next’ wouldn’t have been a serious sacrifice.

On a similar “track placement” note, there are a few talking + singing CDs I own (Flanders and Swann, Arlo Guthrie and Pete Seeger) where each track is “song + subsequent talking” instead of “talking + subsequent song”, even though the talking always relates to the song after it instead of the song before it. Fortunately, I’ve listened to those CDs a zillion times so I know what they’re talking about anyways, and they’re entertaining enough speakers that I don’t mind hearing talking that isn’t connected to a song I’m about to hear.

So my concerns turned out not to be a problem in practice. And the benefits were real:

  • It got me listening to some of my old friends again.

Before this, if I wanted to listen to a piece of music from my library, I had to actively decide to do so, which usually meant actively deciding that I wanted to take the time to listen to a whole album. No problem for long drives; not something that I was finding time to do on my relatively short commute.

  • It’s something that everybody can agree with.

The rest of the family doesn’t want to listen to my podcasts; and if I ask Miranda what she feels like listening to, she’ll normally pick one of a handful of albums, most of which I don’t mind (in fact, Philadelphia Chickens is stunning) but which I also don’t want a steady diet of. But she’s happy to listen to most of my music, even though she doesn’t ask for it herself (perhaps because she doesn’t know what all is on there). Because of shuffle mode, she’s even turned into a bit of a Charlotte Martin fan, and our running into a couple of songs from Striking 12 in close succession got her asking to hear all of that album, which is now sitting in the CD player in her room.

  • It fits into gaps in my commute.

Occasionally, for example, I’ll be finishing up a podcast episode as I get off of the highway. I still have six or seven minutes until I get home, which probably isn’t enough for me to want to start another podcast. But shuffle play fits the gap nicely: I can go to shuffle mode and listen to a couple of songs over the course of the rest of my drive.

  • It’s a non-inventory buffer against variance.

I occasionally run out of podcast episodes to listen to. (Well, other than JapanesePod101 episodes, but I don’t want to overdose on that.) If I were to increase the number of podcasts that I listen to in order to minimize the chance of that happening, however, my queue of unlistened-to episodes would quickly grow out of control. But I couldn’t possibly consider driving or jogging without something to listen to; listening to the radio or manually selecting albums are both possibilities, but shuffle mode works a lot better.

Don’t get me wrong: I still mainly listen to podcasts, and I’m certainly not about to buy a shuffle-only iPod. And I’m not going to wax rhapsodic about insights from unexpected juxtapositions: it’s all music that I like to listen to individually, and am happy enough to listen to in any order, but there’s nothing deeper than that. But shuffle mode is great; if you have an iPod, find yourself in situations where you have 5-30 minutes to listen to it, and haven’t given shuffle mode a try, then I encourage you to do so.

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