Saturday, July 26, 2008

Searching for an MP3 player for podcasts

I'm having trouble finding a good MP3 player. (My kids think I'm a geek, and this may prove them right.) My problem is that I cannot find an MP3 player that is designed for podcast listeners. I find listening to music on an MP3 player to be boring; I like to be stimulated by NPR and BBC news stories and features. My favorite podcasts are:

Digital Planet (BBC)
Peter Day's World of Business
NPR Most Emailed Stories
Car Talk
This American Life
RTHK Naked Cantonese

Podcast listeners need different features from music listeners. Here are some of my desired features:

1) Dedicated volume controls. No brainer.

2) A screen to be able to read summaries and information about the podcast (more important for podcasts than for music or audiobooks)
This leads to another issue: why does the iTunes software show more information about podcasts than is available on other players? Even when I look at podcasts with PC programs like Media Monkey, I cannot see as much program information as is available in iTunes? The best example is NPR's Most Emailed stories: in iTunes and on the iPod, you can see a summary of each of the 6 stories on the daily podcast. This is not visible in other programs, such as in Windows Explorer (it is not in the "Comment" or "Description" fields). Is it some proprietary Apple format?
3) The ability to fast forward (for those boring parts of NPR podcasts, or commercial messages), and rewind (when you missed something or someone interrupted you). This may seem basic, but... When I fast-forward on my Zen Neeon2 , I invariably (but unpredictably, in terms of timing) jump to the end of the file. I've I have just been told by the Creative Media tech support in Hong Kong that the reason I cannot reliably fast forward within podcasts is that they are recorded in mono. They converted my NPR Car Talk podcast to stereo, and now I can fast-forward reliably through the entire podcast. But who wants to convert their podcasts before listening to them?! All NPR and BBC podcasts I have checked use mono.

In case you do not believe me that there really are MP3 players that cannot fast-forward, here is an email from Creative Labs in reply to my query:
Dear Joseph,

Thank you for replying to Creative Customer Support.

Having read through your mail, I do understand that you have an issue
with Fast Forwarding using Creative Zen Neeon 2.

To assist you further, you might wish to know that you will only be able
to do a short burst for the fast forwarding. It will not be able to
press and hold on for too long when doing fast forwarding.

In case if you need any clarification, please do not hesitate to contact
us. [No, this is all too clear!]

This might be a quirk of Creative Media players, except that I had the same problem with my iRiver Clix player (before I dropped it and it broke). I could work around it with the iRiver because it allows you to change the speed of the fastforwarding, so I could fast forward at 12X and usually get to about where I wanted to go, but the Zen Neeon 2 does not have a "fast" fast-forward.

Actually, I should add 3b) variable speed fast-forwarding. The speed of fast-forwarding should increase after you hold the button down about 10 or 15 seconds.

4) Bookmarks, so you can find your place, and should stay "parked"in the file you are listening to when you sync (the iRiver Click, for example, has a bookmark but you need to remember what file you were listening to before sync'ing, because sync'ing with its"MyPodder" software brings you to the root of its menu). Automatic bookmarks that remember 3 or 4 files, set automatically when you turn the player off or change file, would be ideal.

5) The "delete file" capability (not possible in iPods); I don't know how others use podcasts, but I like to be able to delete the podcast as soon as I'm done listening to it, to eliminate maintenance later.

6) FM tuner; useful for listening to local programs when I'm traveling.

7) Being able to copy files conveniently (e.g. by drag and drop) is a big advantage; being forced to use proprietary software (e.g. iTunes for the Apple products) is annoying. The Creative Zen Media Explorer allows this, but it renames the file when it gets copied to the MP3 player by adding 000_ to the front of the file name. This is unnecessary and annoying for podcasts. Another reason relying on iTunes is irritating is that iTunes will stop downloading any podcast that you do not listen to regularly--there is no way to override this. There are some podcasts that I like to listen to in batches, or do not keep up with when I am busy but catch up on during slow weeks. iTunes thinks it knows my habits better than I do, so stops downloading podcasts I have not listened to.

Nice features to have (but not essential):
a) automatic rewind (when you pause or stop, re-starting automatically rewinds a few seconds to make it easier to understand and avoid missing information if you paused in mid-speech.
b) equalizer setting for voice.

There may be more features I would like, but have not thought of. I'll probably add to this list the next time I buy a new MP3 player and have more complaints. It is not easy getting all the features right, but I'm surprised podcast listening geeks have so little influence on the market. I would have thought the engineers designing these players would understand us!

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Irrational bureaucracy

I can’t stop AT&T from sending me bills for $0 that cost them $0.90 to mail to me. And I’m not even an AT&T customer.

Here is how this happened. Before the days of cell phones (AKA mobile phones), we needed to use calling cards to make long distance phone calls. We had an AT&T card, as well as a Sprint card, but once AT&T gave us a cheap plan call the “Military Plan,” we only used the AT&T card, and the Sprint card expired.

Then we got a small SIM card (a computer chip) that we put in our Hong Kong phone, and voila, we could use our cell phones in the US. It is a “Pay As You Go plan” that does not have monthly charges; you just pay for each call at $0.10 per minute. It used to be Cingular, but not that is, coincidentally, part of AT&T. So, for about two years, from 2004-2006, we did not use the AT&T calling card.

Then, I once needed to use the calling card to call the US from Europe, and I discovered the card did not work. I tried to call AT&T to find out what the problem was, but got the “helpline” runaround, so gave up in frustration.

Months later, I tried again, and this time I spoke to a person (how thrilling!). I told her my card did not work, and wondered why. When I mentioned that I was not in the military, but that I had been put on the “Military Plan” because it was the best plan for our family (and this was well before 9-11, after which the military became more prominent and were viewed as “heroes” apart from ordinary people like us), she said that I was not eligible for the Military Plan, and that she would terminate my card. I had expected her to suggest some other plan, or some other solution, but no, she just said goodbye and hung up! OK, I figured it was not a big deal, as we really don’t need a calling card anyway.

But the bills kept coming. Every month, I get a bill for the monthly “Military Plan” charge of $1. The line below the charge says “Other charges and credits” and it shows a credit of $1, canceling out the charges. After all the detailed instructions on how to pay, the bill says in bold: “Do Not Pay.”

I went to an AT&T store in Indiana to try to get the bills stopped. The very nice woman behind the desk told me that while I could pay my AT&T bill there, they were not really the same company: they were AT&T Mobile, and my bill was from another company that happened to have the same name of AT&T. I pretended I understood.

Originally, this bill was automatically paid by my credit card (which was in turn automatically paid by my bank). Since I wanted to make sure I was not being charged anything, and would not be charged in the future, I called the credit card company to make sure AT&T does not have the authority to charge me anything anymore. Credit card companies are worried about fraud, so I find that they are a lot more responsive than phone companies. They told me that AT&T has long not been on my list of authorized auto-payers.

So there we are. AT&T still thinks I’m their customer. They send me a monthly bill, at the cost of $0.90 per month, and at the bottom it tells me “Do Not Pay.” Despite numerous attempts to get off their mailing list, they still spend money sending me a useless bill.

Do you think we should sell our AT&T stock?

Friday, February 15, 2008

Valentine's Day

“Don’t you think it’s the cheapening and commodification of something rare that we would all like to celebrate in private and at our own time?”

Jeffrey Eugenides, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of the novel Middlesex, and editor of the new anthology My Mistress's Sparrow Is Dead: Great Love Stories, from Chekhov to Munro on why he and his wife have an antipathy for Valentine’s Day.

Hear him say it himself on NPR's ATC