I played around with the Rhapsody music service on my TiVo tonight, and it’s actually kinda cool. It can’t hold a candle to my Sonos, but it still seems like a pretty nice way to get Rhapsody music straight onto your TV and home stereo. Once you login you can browse your through existing library of music, browse the entire Rhapsody library or search for artists, albums or songs. One nifty feature is a screen saver that comes up after you’ve been listening for awhile that cycles through the cover art of albums you have in your Rhapsody library. It’s not as cool as the Apple TV screensaver, but it’s still a whole lot better than a black screen!

In my experience, TiVo’s applications like this one that add functionality on top of the DVR are a bit of a mixed bag. While most of them do seem to work crashes and glitches are common. The Rhapsody application crashed once on me in the half an hour or so I played with it. That’s not any indication that it would be unstable with regular use, of course.

Here’s one annoying thing I noticed… If you leave the Rhapsody music paused for more than something like 5 minutes it automatically boots you back out to watching TV. When you come back into the Rhapsody application you start out with an empty music queue again so you have to start over from scratch. I think that’s due to a limitation in how TiVo applications work, but it could be pretty annoying in regular use.

I went to a Suicidal Tendencies show at Slim’s in San Francisco last week. The place only holds maybe 400 people so it’s a pretty tiny place for a band as well-known as them. They haven’t released an album for several years and have been out of the bit of spotlight they did have as a result. They’re by no means a huge band but there’s a good chance anyone who’s ever been into metal, hardcore punk, or other loud, fast music has listened to them at some point.

Suicidal Tendencies’ 1990 album, “Lights, Camera, Revolution”, is on my “Top 10 Metal Albums of All Time” list (which I have not yet actually published) and I hold them in very high regard overall. I also knew that the crowd would be pretty insane in a place that small and it should be a fun show all around. We made our way up to the very front left of the stage between the first band and the second band, Municipal Waste, and planted ourselves there for the rest of the evening. Municipal Waste was previously unknown to me and was a pretty good show. They reminded me a bit of M.O.D. and Exodus at different moments and I noticed some Slayer influence at times as well.

After Municipal Waste was finished our beers were empty but there was no way we were going to give up our spots so we had to go thirsty. Sad, I know. Suicidal Tendencies first came on without Mike Muir and began to make a lot of guitar sounds for a few minutes until he came out and the crowd went wild. The guitar sounds eventually turned into an epic version of “You Can’t Bring Me Down” and it took me all the way back to those early highschool years when that song was one of my anthems. It’s a song based firmly in the themes of teen angst, like most Metal songs, but it also has a very strong sense of empowerment. It’s not a song about aggression, but instead about standing up for yourself and your beliefs. That may sound a bit trite now, but when I was 15 it did a lot for me.

Overall, it was a great show and the crowd energy level rarely dropped below a dull roar. I frequently found myself shouting along with the crowd to classic songs like “War Inside My Head”, “Send Me Your Money”, and “How Can I Laugh Tomorrow When I Can’t Even Smile Today”. Goooood times.

I’ve heard some rumors that S.T. is coming out with a new album next year and I don’t know for sure if they played any songs from it or not. I don’t know every single song of theirs but I did recognize almost all of them. It’s hard to say if a band with as much history as Suicial Tendencies will actually produce a must-hear new album, but their live shows are still an experience anyone with any inclination shouldn’t pass up.

The Oregon Trail

If you attended school in the United States in the 80s or 90s there’s a pretty good chance you played The Oregon Trail video game at some point. The game was simple by today’s standards but it was still much better than class! You had to help a group of settlers through the Oregon Trail hunting, dealing with disease, and dealing with other problems that would come up.

A company called MECC (Minnesota Educational Computing Consortium) was the original developer of the game. It was started by the state of Minnesota and originally the game was only available to schools there. Eventually they branched out and offered it to schools nation-wide. The history of the company from the early 1970s on is pretty interesting and worth a read (it’s pretty short) if you have any pangs of nostalgia over The Oregon Trail.

Until recently I had generally followed the Apple/iTunes/Steve Jobs party line and thought of subscription music services as dumb and useless. Apple describes it as ‘renting music’, which surely does sound bad. When I thought about it a little more, though, it started seeming more like cable television. Do you think of cable as ‘renting TV’? Do you expect to be able to keep watching it after you stop paying? You’re essentially just paying for access to content and it’s up to you to decide if its worth it to you to continue paying to maintain that access or not. You’re free to buy last season of Smallville on DVD and own it if you want, and likewise you can still buy CDs even if you also pay for a music subscription.

Rhapsody (and other music services) one up cable tv, though. They provide on-demand access to a pretty large library of all music. Wouldn’t it be great to have on-demand access to any episode of any television show from the last 20 years? That might actually be worth the extortion fees I pay for cable television now!

The Rhapsody library doesn’t have everything but I’ve been impressed with the selection. There’s only been a couple of things I’ve looked for and not found, the most notable being Metallica (of course). There’s likely other notable gaps in the offering as well but there’s enough to keep me interested for now.

They’ve done a pretty good job of organizing the catalog to make it easier to find new music you might like. They have a pretty good two level genre categorization (main genres and subgrenes) with key artists for each level giving you an overview of what’s in there. They also have charts (top tracks, top albums, top artists) for each genre and artist so you can see what other people are listening to. That’s handy for artists or genres you’re not very familiar with. There’s also ‘radio’ stations for each artist that plays you a mix of music their system considers similar to the artist. I don’t know yet if it’s only based on genre categories or if there’s something more advanced going on behind the scenes. I also don’t know if they track which songs you skip to tailor it more to your own tastes or not. It seems likely they’re at least thinking about features like that if they’re not in there now. There’s a lot of potential.

I’m just finishing up a 30 day free trial and I think I’m going to sign up. It costs about the same as Netflix and though I like watching movies, I listen to music pretty much all the time. I’ll get way more value out of this.

For maybe the past year or so I’ve been searching far and wide for some sort of relatively easy way to synchronize two iTunes libraries, one at home and one at the office. I could use something unixy like rsync but iTunes has to be quit to make sure the library xml file is actually updated properly. That’s doable but not ideal. There’s also iPod.iTunes which uses your iPod as a go-between medium. That looks pretty featureful and would probably do the job if not for the fact that my iPod is full.

So, when I heard about MP3tunes.com, I was excited. It’s basically a music backup service with unlimited disk space. It has an iTunes plugin (it’s actually just an application that sort of behaves like a plugin) that facilitates syncing your library to and from the server and it also lets you stream your library from the server using the iTunes plugin or their own custom web interface. In theory this all sounds perfect so when I was offered a deal to get in on the fun for half normal price (half of $39.95 per year) I decided to do it! (Note that they also have a free account but it doesn’t do this iTunes syncing so is mostly useless to me).

First the good:

  1. It pretty much does work as advertised.
  2. half price is probably worth it, but full price might not be.
  3. the online player is pretty good but kinda slow
  4. It’s neat to have access to all of my music from anywhere!

Now the bad:

  1. I actually already had access to all of my music from anywhere via slimserver.
  2. The upload speed is sloooooow. It took like a week of straight uploading on my 768k uplink to get my 40GB of music on the server. I haven’t done the math but it seems like that’s slow.
  3. The sync application is buggy and the cache has to be reset from time to time during the upload process. It just errors out sometimes and that’s the fix.
  4. The iTunes ‘plugin’ seemingly requires that you re-login on each launch. That’s not ideal.
  5. And here’s the biggie for me… It’s not a true two-way sync. It can detect changes made on your computer and upload those to the server but it cannot remove files that no longer exist on your computer. In practice this means that if you update a bunch of meta tags (like if you add album art work or something), it will re-upload all of those files creating duplicates on the server. Agh! You have to manually remove the changed files from the server before doing another Oboe sync. I asked them if they have plans to fix that and they said, ‘No’. Weird!

Update April 18, 2007: After my first year of mp3tunes.com service I decided to not renew, even though they extended the same half price offer I got for the first year. After fighting with it off and on for the first few months I ended up hardly ever using it and have probably not used it once in the last 4 or 5 months now. None of the features worked the way I had hoped and it didn’t do what I hoped it would.

I’ve had a TiVo for about two and a half years now and it definitely did change the nature of my personal entertainment, probably forever. There is no way I will watch television without a PVR/DVR sort of device again. The TiVo is far from perfect, but it does provide an overall excellent interface to what is actually a fairly complex technology underneath. There is one important thing my TiVo is unable to do, though. It can’t record Comcast’s HD channels.

Since I got my HD-capable television I have increasingly wanted to watch as much HD content as possible. It is difficult to go back after experiencing HD video with digital surround sound audio. Split between the TiVo interface and the Comcast supplied HD DVR (dual tuner) service, I decided to go with the one that could record the stuff I wanted to watch. I don’t think I’m the only one who would have made this decision, and I’m pretty sure TiVo knows that. TiVo has signed a deal with Comcast to provide them with a TiVo branded DVR device for use with their service. Knowing that, I figured I could deal with the Comcast DVR interface for a little while even if it really sucked.

Well, now I’ve been using the Comcast DVR almost exclusively for a couple of weeks and I’ve developed some opinions about it. It’s a very usable device, but there are some thorny parts of the interface and some annoyances with how it operates. The main differences I’ve noticed seem to center around the fact that the TiVo is a PVR first and foremost, while the Comcast box is a cable box first and then a PVR second. That makes sense, but it takes some getting used to after a TiVo. Also, there are some inexplicably confusing and strange aspects to the way the interface and menu system work.

Here’s a good example that I think applies to both of my gripes at the same time. There is a ‘My DVR’ button for the Comcast DVR. I assumed it would work like the TiVo button on a TiVo, but it doesn’t really at all. The My DVR button takes you to see your list of recorded shows, and that’s it. You can sort the list by Date, Channel, or Title. To go to your list of series recordings (Season Pass in TiVo-speak), you push the ‘Menu’ button once which brings up the quick access menu, and you select ‘DVR’ from there. That somewhat oddly takes you to a menu where you can choose either ‘DVR Recordings’ (ie, where the My DVR button takes you) or ‘DVR Schedule’ where you can view upcoming scheduled recordings on a date grid, view your list of series recordings in order of priority, or create a manual recording. It is pretty well organized, but why is there no option to create a series recording from that screen? That befuddles me. To create a series recording, you go back to the quick access menu and choose ‘Find’, search for the show and then create a series recording. I probably am TiVo-trained now, but I think it’d be more convenient to be able to pick Search directly from the DVR area instead of having to go back to the menu. It’s not a huge difference, but it still trips me up.

The cable box interface itself is pretty good, but the DVR part feels a little tacked on. From the quick access menu where you can choose ‘DVR’, you can also choose ‘HD’ to explore available HD content (very nice!), ‘Movies’ to see movies playing, ‘Sports’ for sports, etc. It’s pretty handy! Also, the currently playing recording or tv channel continues playing in the upper right-hand corner of the screen while you fiddle with the programming guide, the menus, or the DVR component. TiVo should take some notes from that!

Overall, the Comcast DVR gets the job done and I’m gradually forgetting about the TiVo. The TiVo interface is more intuitive and well-designed, but the Comcast interface is usable and has some nice features I’ve gotten used to. Being able to record and playback HD movies from HBO HD with the full digital soundtrack pushes the Comcast DVR over in my book. TiVo needs to provide a very compelling product for Comcast subscribers in mid to late 2006 or they could be facing a long hard decline from relevance as these competing DVR products mature. At the end of the day, it’s the content that people want and they’ll put up with a lot to get it. TiVo’s interface lead is not enough to keep them going for long.

Fabio and I went to the Groundscore 10 year Anniversary party last week (June 3, 05). Groundscore is the crew behind the Eklektic, Hektic and the Rude Metal Series of parties in the San Francisco area. It was our first drum ‘n bass party in years and had a huge lineup with some of the really big names from the last 10 years, Aphrodite, Fierce and Shimon.

Shimon’s set was filled with huge barnstormers, one after another. Some of the tunes had the crowd going, but the mixing didn’t flow that well and he repeatedly lost the energy he had built up. The songs were big enough to build thing up again quickly but I would have preferred more of a dynamic throughout the set.

Fierce’s set flowed better and of what he played I mostly remember a few intense tracks with some hard beats that rolled nicely. Fierce’s intensity behind the turntables was infectious and I found myself moving to the music without realizing it.

Aphrodite went on at 2:15 and made the night for me. He played a good mix of music including some great jump-up tunes. You just don’t hear much jump-up playing these days, and it was cool to see the whole crowd grooving to it.

We left before Aphrodite finished (because we’re old now) and I think the way too loud sound in the second room may have done permanent damage to my ears as we walked through it to the exit. Once we got outside we could still hear the sound from the club a half block away. Wow!

Overall, I had a good time and it looked like most of the sizable crowd did as well. Nice job, Groundscore!

Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 3 was one of my first few Playstation 2 games and gave me reason to worry about my future as I played it almost non-stop for the first few weeks I had it. Pro Skater 4 didn’t inspire quite the same fear for my life, but I still distinctly remember the moments as I unlocked each level.

With much excitement, I bought a copy of Tony Hawk’s Underground the other day. The series has taken a bit of a turn with this addition, going with more of a story-based format. You can read about the specifics on all the usual game review sites.

After playing it for several hours, here’s my thoughts. The addition of multiple difficulty settings is GREAT. Not everyone is a career game player and some people actually like to do their best to avoid frustration in their lives. The story mode is good enough and the dialog has made me chuckle more than once already. The skating is great (of course) and the new trick options are fun. Interestingly, some of the missions involve driving cars or running and jumping instead of just skating (strange, I know). The variety is welcome and the missions are still fun, but those parts aren’t nearly as well implemented as the skating parts. Overall, the game’s well worth the purchase price if you’re a fan of the series and if you’ve never played a Tony Hawk game before this is a good one to start with. It makes new strides in teaching you the moves as you complete the missions.