I suppose it all began when I started getting tired of constantly changing CDs. Maya’s love of music has only matured as she’s aged. As an infant, she’d push off against me when she didn’t like a track, and she’d hold me tight when she liked one. This expression of preference changed to a more verbal grunt when we were in India, around the time she turned one. And now, it is a series of “no, no, no” (pronounced cutely as “nyo, nyo, nyo” without emphasising the “y” much). If I don’t heed to her displeasure, she begins to struggle and gesture emphatically at the CD player, commanding me to change the track. I suppose I helped the monster grow by heeding her request quite early on.
The whole thing reached a crescendo where I was constantly ejecting and inserting CDs. To top that, I’ve packed the CDs so tightly together in the CD rack – to prevent her from removing them and using the CDs to wipe the floor among other things – that I cannot pull out a CD without employing both hands, which means I have to put her down and pick her up (listening to music nestled in my arms seems to be her preference) each time I change CDs. I turned to playing the songs off my laptop where I can satisfy her musical tastes without feeling like a disc changer. However, we recently moved my laptop to a less accessed room to reduce the amount of time I spent sitting in front of it, and Maya doesn’t like to listen to music in this new room. She also prefers to listen to the music through my hifi system.
I gave up the fight and decided to buy a Roku Soundbridge. Two years ago, a good friend of mine had purchased one of the first units to come out and has been very satisfied. The Soundbridge is a device which channels music streamed over a wireless network (or a wired one) to a music system. Many applications such as the popular music player, iTunes, can stream music to a Soundbridge. About 40-50% of my music collection is ripped and on my laptop. I can now stream all this music, including playlists, via a Soundbridge to my hifi. The Soundbridge comes with a remote using which I can browse the music collection and select what I want to play. I constructed playlists of songs Maya enjoys listening to, grouped by mood, style and time of day (morning, afternoon and night) and voila ! No more frustrations, no more interruptions for me or Maya in listening to music.
If it all stopped here, this would be a simple story instead of a riff on the modern life, a tale of how the acquisition of one gadget led to a whole new set of wishes and desires, setting off a chain reaction of consumption.
Living The Well Connected Modern Life
Maya and I were happy, enjoying our new found freedom, listening to music uninterrupted. The Soundbridge seems a neutral sound source, transmitting the streamed music to my music system without distortions. Then, the phone rang. The music stopped. Maya and I opened our eyes, annoyed at what had caused the music to stop. The display on the Soundbridge said “Rebuffering….”. The phone stopped ringing and the music resumed. We were still resettling down when the phone rang again. The music stopped again. What was going on ?
Was it some interference from the phone and the DSL line, I wondered. We had the DSL filter on the phone jack already and so, that shouldn’t be the cause of any interference. Moreover, the Internet connection never seemed to suffer so far. Was the problem with the Soundbridge then ? Back to the net, scouring for information.
Disconnected from much of the hooks of the modern connected life so far, I had dozed past the problems in the coexistence of cordless phones and wireless LANs. I had a cordless phone which used the same frequency as the wireless network and so interfered with the network when the phone was in use. Now, Shanthala couldn’t make any calls if Maya and I were listening to music. If somebody called, I was snappy. I took to using the cell phone more. But the cell phone is paid for by the company and I didn’t want to use it for my personal calls during the peak hours.
We have to buy a new phone, I announced to Shanthala. And so we kicked out (we gave it somebody else who needed one) a perfectly good phone just because we had acquired a new gadget. All modern cordless phones apparently come designed to coexist with a wireless network.
The next problem came as I was listening to the music, a few nights ago. The music collection on my laptop has been built up over many years. Consequently, many of the older tracks were ripped with a poor sound quality (they made for smaller mp3 files, a big benefit for the older laptops with rather small hard disks). Now that I was listening to the music on a hi-fidelity system , I wanted to rerip those tracks with the higher sound quality. But what format to use that provided this higher quality ? mp3 is known as a lossy encoder which means that some information is lost when the track is encoded from a CD. And a CD is already somewhat lossy compared to an analog signal. Soundbridge doesn’t support FLAC, the lossless audio encoding format that is free. So, I decided to stick with mp3. After some searching, I found that a bit rate of anything over 128Kbps was pretty good and anything like 192Kbps or 256Kbps was more than sufficient even for a hifi.
A decent portion of my CD collection remains unripped because of the limited space on my laptop, space that is ever thinning given that I’m downloading videos and photos of Maya. The external hard disk that I use for backup, purchased over 5 years ago, is filling up too. Time to upgrade that too. Hard disk prices today are low enough that a 1TB disk costs about $149. But is that the right choice ? Ah! All the distracting choices we have now.
The same friend who bought the Roku Soundbridge a few years back also had just acquired a NAS (network-attached storage) box. A NAS box makes it’s storage available to all computers in a network. A NAS box would ease Shanthala’s problems in taking regular backups, I thought. The cheapest NAS box was only a few tens of dollars costlier than the external hard disk. But as I started researching, I found that many of the new NAS devices can also serve as a music server to Soundbridge, act as a print server and a photo/video server. This meant Shanthala and I wouldn’t have trudge up to connect our laptops to the printer to take a printout. Further, all our pictures today reside on my laptop, and a selected few on the website. Shanthala’s only access to the pictures, if I’m not around, is what is on the website. Lately, I’ve been tardy in updating the pictures on the website and she has no access to the pictures and movies that I’ve taken recently. The NAS as a photo server would allow her to view all the pictures as soon as I uploaded them from the camera. No sooner than I explained this to Shanthala, she approved purchasing a NAS box.
But the NAS boxes that do all this cost a little more, but still within striking distance of a simple external hard disk. By now the demon had possessed me. I started checking what protection the solution offered in the face of a hard disk failure, what additional features the different boxes provided, the performance, the quality of the build, what upteen different reviewers had to say about each box. On and on and on I went. I eventually settled on a mirrored 2TB DS209 Synology NAS box.
The next problem came when I realized that the most common NAS boxes came only with a wired ethernet port, no wireless. This meant that I’d have to place the device where I have the wireless router. A bad choice of a place for something like a NAS box because Maya has easy access to the device. The lack of support for wireless network also meant that for the NAS box to be a print server, the printer had to be moved close to the wireless router. So, I now had to buy a device that acts as a bridge between the wired and wireless world.
Searching all this information, figuring out which NAS box to buy, which store to buy it from, troubleshooting all the problems in setting up the Soundbridge took an inordinate amount of time, time I had not planned at all. But here I was, analysing all the information, shopping for the lowest price, making sure it all worked with the equipment we have etc. etc. It took a good part of last week to finalize all this. And then when the equipment arrives, more work to set that up and then ripping the music. Sigh. All this consumption will hopefully make us a happier family ?
Many years ago, I read a book on time management that said a fundamental axiom of time management is that no stuff comes without requiring some time devoted to it. Not planning for that time is a surefire way to miss a whole bunch of deadlines.
This then is the price of modern life. Choices galore, many useless, and even the useful in such vast quantities that “analysis paralysis” seems a natural state. Barry Schwartz wrote a brilliant book called the “Paradox of Choice”, a book I’ve mentioned in my column before. He mentions how a fundamental tenet of American culture is that more choices implies more freedom is false. Many tests conducted by psychologists and cognitive scientists have shown that people are paralyzed and forego decision making when faced with too many choices. Schwartz suggests that there are two kinds of people (aren’t there always): people who want the most optimum solution (called optimizers) and those who’re satisfied with what’s good enough (called satisficers). He says that modern America is a stress inducer for the optimizers because what’s optimal is changing every second. Think you got a great deal on an iPod ? A week later Apple announces a higher capacity iPod at a lower price than what you paid, and this one comes with a cool touch screen and can run iPhone apps! All the advertising is hell on optimizers, So many new products, to solve illusory problems, though the problems seem real enough to an optimizer. (Here is a link to a TED talk by Barry Schwartz on the subject, if you don’t have time for the book).
As I sit here writing all this, I feel almost frivolous and petty. A billion or more people are hungry, a hundred million or so children die each year for lack of food and proper health care, a significant portion of the world is engulfed by war and on and on. And here I am, consumed by my consumption.
The Hassles of Running A Non-Mainstream OS
For those of you who’re uninterested in computers, this section maybe boring.
I run the GNU/Linux operating system as my main OS on my laptop. This means no iTunes, but tons of free, alternative applications. I had already verified that the Soundbridge would work well with a Linux box (the Soundbridge itself runs Linux). The first problem turned out to be that none of those applications interacted well with the Soundbridge. The Soundbridge let me browse the tracks, but wouldn’t play them. A quick look yielded a pointer to another application called Firefly media server that did an excellent job. It was a trivial download and setup. Alas! The Soundbridge couldn’t even see the tracks now. Another search yielded the necessary fixes to overcome this hurdle. Et voila! Not only could I browse the tracks now, I could also play them. I was thrilled.
My not-so-20/20 eyes then spotted that my music player counted my library having about 1800 tracks, but Firefly counted only about 1600. I tracked the difference down to incorrect file permissions and fixed them. The numbers were now right, but some of the recently ripped tracks didn’t show up under the specific artists or albums. The files seemed to be present correctly on my laptop and my music player had no problems accessing them, but not the Soundbridge. A check of one of the files showed the problem. The ripped music tracks contain information about each track such as the artist, the song title, the album it is from, the year of release etc. This information is called metadata. For some strange reason, the music player that I used had an option to not write this metadata into the ripped track. So, now I had about 100 or so songs that did not have the relevant information about them. How would I go about fixing this ?
One option was to rerip the affected tracks and make sure that the metadata got written this time. I thought that this was tedious (don’t ask me why, but maybe I was just bored about doing the simple, obvious thing) and started searching for an alternate solution. A bunch of volunteers had created a voluminous database called musicbrainz that used the acoustic signature of a music track to associate a bunch of information about the track including the metadata of the track. A freeware program called Picard consulted this database to analyze a track and generate the correct metadata. What’s more, Picard also moved the tracks such that I had a coherent folder structure and naming. For example, I had Mark Knopfler under three different directories: mark_knopfler, Mark Knopfler and mark knopfler. I wanted them all under the single Mark Knopfler. Happy, I set about cleaning up my music database with Picard. The program was fast and accurate.
Now I had a cleaner music database, no more tracks not visible to the Soundbridge. But, now the playlists were all messed up because they were based on the tracks’ old location, not the new cleaned up location. So, I recreated the playlists. Finally, all was well in Soundbridge land.