On the Nook and “lending”

NookTo say I’ve been baffled by the appeal of Amazon’s Kindle would be an understatement. It’s not that I don’t like the idea of e-books (or, more specifically, the as-yet unrealized promise of e-paper as a general technology); it’s just that I don’t think the Kindle nails it. Even in its redesigned form, it’s too big and awkward. But most importantly, I’m generally disposed to dislike single-function devices. For $60 less than the cost of a Kindle you can buy an iPod touch, which can read Kindle e-books and do 85,000 other things too, in a much more convenient form factor. Good luck sticking a Kindle in your pocket.

Which brings us to the Nook, Barnes & Noble’s answer to the Kindle. While both products have questionable names — although “Nook e-book,” said fast, would make a third grader (or Derek Powazek) titter on Twitter, I still think “Kindle” evoking book burning is worse — I think Nook is catchier and less of a head-scratcher.

So, what of the Nook? Another e-book reader. Seems like a Nintendo DS-inspired mashup of a Kindle and an iPhone, actually… right down to (inexplicably) using AT&T’s 3G network for wireless access when Wi-Fi is unavailable. It looks to me like B&N took the weaknesses of the Kindle to heart in delivering what looks to be a superior device, but it’s still just an e-book reader, which once again leaves me wondering why anyone would spend $259 on a one-trick pony. It also leaves me wondering even more about the long-rumored Apple tablet device. The one complaint I could theoretically see Kindle (and now Nook) lovers leveling against reading e-books on an iPhone or iPod touch is that the screen is too small. But if Apple were to deliver a device with a form factor on par with Kindle or Nook, but with the full technical capabilities of iPod touch, I think it would be a no-brainer: goodbye, Kindle; goodbye, Nook.

The one thing about the Nook specs that does intrigue me, at least a little bit, is the idea of lending. As stated in the New York Times:

One of the differentiating factors of the Nook is that customers can “lend” books to friends. But customers may lend out any given title only one time for a total of 14 days and they cannot read it on their own Nook while it is lent.

Well, yes, I would say that this does quite literally fit the description of “lending.” And it’s a reasonable way around the inevitable complaints from publishers about copyright and illegal redistribution of their intellectual property. But… come on. This is an absurd hobbling of technology masquerading as a throwback to the model of a physical book. While these arbitrary limitations on lending may be a helpful analogy for non-technophiles, and I certainly can’t argue with a mechanism that forces your friend to return a lent book in a reasonable amount of time (I’m sure we all have friends who’ve been “borrowing” books from us for years at a time), this is at its core the same sort of unwillingness on the part of copyright holders to adapt to an evolving technological world. Rather than finding new ways to be properly compensated for their works while simultaneously embracing and propelling forward new technologies, they’re dragging their feet, and holding the rest of the world back with them.Ultimately it matters not for me. I won’t be buying a Nook, so I won’t need to worry about “lending” my e-books. Despite my enthusiastic embrace of the latest-and-greatest technology, I still prefer plain old paper and ink and glue when it’s time to read a book. That’s a medium pretty well perfected, and despite these recent advances, the technology still doesn’t compare to the tactility, and utility, of a real book. Plus, they never need to be recharged.

Know the difference between BPM and kbps

And it’s not just type case.

As I’ve mentioned, I have taken a shine to Amazon MP3 as my primary source for music downloads now. Sorry, Apple. You know I love you, but Amazon’s just doing it better. Better selection, better prices, and usually better quality. Plus everything’s MP3, not AAC. And no DRM, ever.

And while I don’t anticipate ever switching media players (the iPod and iPhone have served me well, even if you’ve been stumbling a bit lately). My new car’s CD player supports MP3 (and, ugh, WMA) CDs, but not AAC. And yes, I keep an iPod nano in the car (note to potential thieves: no I don’t), but it’s still convenient to load up several albums’ worth of music onto a single CD and pop it in. No annoying cords or dangerous behind-the-wheel iPod fiddling.

So anyway… yeah, Amazon MP3. And MP3s in general.

I’ve ripped my entire CD collection multiple times. First, back in 2001 or so, I ripped it all as 128 kbps MP3s. Then I got to the jazz CDs and noticed how bad 128 kbps actually sounded on some music. So I re-ripped the whole collection as 192 kbps MP3s. That was the smallest size where I didn’t really notice bad audio artifacts.

Then in 2004 Apple introduced the iTunes Store, and with it everything was 128 kbps AAC, Apple’s own, semi-proprietary format. Better compression-to-quality ratio, so 128 kbps AACs sounded as good (to me) as 192 kbps MP3s, at 2/3 the size. So I went back through and started ripping my CDs again, this time as 128 kbps AAC format.

Then last year Apple introduced iTunes Plus, with 256 kbps AAC format. Sure, they’re twice the size, but now I really can tell almost no difference between the compressed versions and uncompressed CD quality. So I started ripping again, but honestly I could not tell the difference between 256 kbps AAC and 160 kbps AAC, but I could tell the difference between 128 and 160. So 160 was my new standard. I only made it through about a quarter of my CDs at this new level though.

Then this year we had the release of my own music on some download sites, and I went with 256 kbps MP3 for those. Combine that with my new embrace of Amazon and their use of 256 kbps MP3 as well, and that pretty much sealed it. 256 kbps MP3 is my new format of choice, and I’m going through my entire CD collection and ripping it yet again in this format.

Which brings me to the whole point of this post. When you put a CD in your computer, iTunes (or whatever ripping software you’re using) grabs CD track information from CDDB. This data is submitted by users. Sometimes if you insert a new release or a really obscure album into your computer, it will tell you that track info could not be found, and it presents you with the opportunity to submit information you’ve entered. Which means any typos or other idiosyncrasies in your own personal way of entering this information will now become what anyone else who inserts the same CD into their computer will see, provided they’re lazy enough not to fix your dumbass mistakes. I’ve grown accustomed to fixing band names, correcting spelling, normalizing title cases (You Don’t Capitalize Articles, Conjunctions or Prepositions in Titles, but It Is Correct to Capitalize Pronouns and Verbs, Even If They’re Only Two Letters Long, Thank You Very Much), etc.

But something I’ve noticed from time to time, and never quite got, really bothers me. First off, I think the BPM field is pretty much useless. Unless you’re a DJ and you actually know the tempo of the songs you’re working with, you have absolutely no need for this field. But sometimes I see it filled in, and with the same value for every track on an album. Highly unlikely. It’s just finally dawned on me over the past few days why this is, though, and it’s because I’ve only ever seen two values in that field: 128 or 192. The same idiots who can’t spell also can’t tell the difference between BPM and kbps.

So, let’s have a little acronym lesson, shall we?

BPM (Beats Per Minute): The “tempo” or, if your musical knowledge is severely lacking, “speed” of a piece of music. How many beats (you know, the part of the music that helps you dance) there are in a minute.

kbps (kilobits per second): This is the amount of data in the compressed (MP3, AAC, WMA or whatever) file per second of music. In other words, it’s the compression quality of the audio file, quantified.

And now you know… the rest of the story.