Honda Fit iPod controls: when something is worse than nothing

Honda FitI own a 2009 Honda Fit. It’s the second Fit I’ve owned, having purchased a 2008 model less than a year earlier. It’s not that I disliked the 2008 — I loved it. But we wanted to get down to one car, and it worked out perfectly to make an even trade of our 2008 Fit plus our old 2000 Civic for a 2009 Fit with a few upgrades. But we’ve already been over all of this.

One of the things I was most excited about with the 2009 Fit was the integrated iPod support. I have an old iPod that I’ve dedicated solely to providing music in the Fit, and it was great to not have to rely on the 1/8-inch audio input jack, but instead to stash the iPod in a special second glove compartment with an integrated USB port. Plug the iPod in and forget it — you can control it straight from the car stereo. Perfect.

Or so I thought.

Yes, it’s true that you can do all of that. But the controls for operating the iPod from the car stereo are abysmal. You can browse the iPod’s contents by playlist, artist, album or song, but there’s no secondary browsing (other than albums by artist). When you’ve got a 30 GB iPod with thousands of songs, from hundreds of albums, by hundreds of artists, this method is inefficient, to say the least.

What’s worse, you always have to start from the beginning in each list, and it doesn’t wrap around if you try to scroll backwards. Good luck finding music by a band like Yes… you’ll be scrolling for days. (And did I mention how slooooow the scrolling is? Spin that dial as frantically as you want, it’s still going to tick through the list one item at a time, at the same leisurely pace.) And if you’ve taken the time to scroll all the way to the Y’s and are listening to Yes, then you decide you want to listen to U2, don’t think you can just start at Y and scroll back to U — oh, no — you’ll find yourself right back at A.

I’ve been incredulous about this horrible navigation system since almost immediately after I bought the Fit, and I have been searching for any kind of relief — a firmware update would be best, but I’d even settle for the simple ability to turn off the console navigation and control the music directly from the iPod. But as soon as you plug it in, the car stereo takes over and you can’t control the iPod directly. The only solutions I’ve found are to unplug the iPod and set up the music you want, hit play, and then plug it in — the stereo will at least keep it going from that point — or to skip the USB altogether and go back to the 1/8-inch input. But that’s on the dash next to the stereo controls, and you’d end up with a cord dangling there — not the elegant, enclosed solution the hidden USB port offers.

What a drag. I’ve been searching for an answer and apparently I’m not alone. I’m hoping, at least for the sake of others, that Honda has improved the system in the 2010 Fit. But that won’t help me.

In the past, I’ve found that blogging about something like this often attracts the attention of someone with an answer. Here’s hoping it works this time. Someone… help!

On Steve Jobs, illness, and the future of Apple

Steve Jobs (vintage)The tech world is abuzz this week over the news that, despite his open letter from last week stating that he was going to stay on the job, Steve Jobs has announced that he will be taking a six-month leave of absence from Apple.

For those of you who don’t know, Steve Jobs has been battling pancreatic cancer since 2004. He underwent a surgery called the Whipple procedure in which large portions of various intestinal organs are removed, and has appeared mostly healthy since then. However, throughout 2008 he was observed to be losing an alarming amount of weight, which as he described in last week’s letter, is not (directly) related to the cancer.

I’ve been reluctant to delve into this topic here, because I have a personal connection with pancreatic cancer. Someone close to me has been battling the disease since 2005, and in fact underwent the same surgical procedure as Jobs. It led to a remarkable recovery, allowing her to travel internationally in 2006 and 2007. She’s still with us, but it’s been a hard-fought battle against both the disease and the effects of chemotherapy. So, in short, I probably have a better idea than most observers of just what Jobs is up against.

His cancer may or may not have returned, and he may or may not return to Apple in June as he has promised. But regardless of his health, it’s true and obvious that eventually he’ll be leaving Apple, regardless of the reason. And despite his role as the company’s founder, prodigal son, and visionary leader for the past dozen years, Apple will go on without him. But a lot of people seem not to be able to imagine how.

Apple went on without him from 1985 to 1997. It struggled, yes, and was the butt of many jokes. But I became a loyal Apple user in the darkest of those dark days: 1993. I witnessed the foibles of Gil Amelio, and yet Apple managed to soldier on.

Then of course came the return of Jobs. The past decade since his return as CEO has seen the company vault from laughable also-ran in the computer business to an innovative leader, not just in computers but in portable music players and now smartphones (though that name does a disservice to the fact that the iPhone/iPod touch is really a brand new, pocket-sized computing platform that defies the currently available categories). Their computers are more popular than ever for home users, and they’re even making inroads into the business world.

And yet, Apple fans are still viewed as something of a cult. It’s a cult of personality, largely, focused squarely on Steven P. Jobs. So, what happens to the cult of Apple without His Eminence?

It’s true that Steve Jobs is a uniquely skilled CEO. He’s a visionary without peer, he’s a ruthless businessman, a shrewd leader, and a great showman. So who can fill that void?

Well, as it happens, Apple has some pretty impressive leadership in its other corner offices as well. I think the situation at Apple, and whether or not to be worried about Jobs leaving, is best expressed in pseudocode:

if (Cook + Schiller + Ive < Jobs) { panic; } else { do_not_panic; }

There are three people at Apple who really stand out from the crowd, besides Jobs himself. They are Tim Cook, the Chief Operating Officer, who was largely responsible for the outstanding success of the iTunes Store; Phil Schiller, the showman who more than adequately filled Jobs’ shoes at this year’s Macworld Expo keynote; and Jonathan Ive, the visionary designer who has been at the heart of just about every new product offering Apple has introduced since Jobs’ return and the world-changing original “gumdrop” iMac design.

In short… these are some brilliant, talented guys. What’s more, together the three of them are at least as responsible for the current state of Apple as is Jobs.

Apple is in good hands.

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.

Is this a joke?

Yesterday, contrary to all expectations, I fell in love with the new iPod nano.

I had never even considered a nano before, because I just felt I needed more capacity. But the other day I was looking at my 30 GB iPod and I discovered that I had over 3600 songs on it that I had never played and that was when I realized I didn’t really need to carry my entire music collection (or, to be honest, 1/3 of my entire collection, because that’s all 30 GB could hold) around with me. That opened the window of opportunity for the nano to win me over, but I still wasn’t really considering it. I was too in love with the idea of the giant screen and Internet access available on the iPhone or the iPod touch.

But yesterday, all of the pieces seemed to fit into place. My wife and I had planned a little weekend trip to Stillwater, MN and we were going to stay at the “historic” Lowell Inn. That logo should have told me everything I needed to know (mainly, that the place has been on a steady decline since the 1970s), but I overlooked it. We arrived in Stillwater and had a fine afternoon checking out the antique shops and vintage bookstores, and having lunch at the Freight House. But then at 3 we headed over to the Lowell to check in. I immediately sensed that the place wasn’t quite as luxurious as it appeared in the tiny photos on their website. Oh, sure, with your glasses off or squinting, everything looked really nice, but there were little details that said otherwise: paint chipping in places, the Post-It note by the front door indicating the location of the door bell, the bent vent grates, the loose stairway railings. But it was when we got to our room that our hearts really sank. We were expecting a suite, or at least a reasonably large room, or, well, let’s be honest, a bathroom that actually had walls and a door and not just a big curtain draped across it, that was too narrow to afford the user of the bathroom total privacy. (It was impossible for the curtain to be closed in such a way that a person sitting on the couch couldn’t see a person sitting on the toilet, either directly or in the mirror.) I also noticed more loose grates, and the headboard of the bed was barely attached, and other weirdness about the room, and was left in a bit of a funk. I probably wouldn’t have cared if the room hadn’t cost $168, but I just kept thinking of all of the other things I could’ve spent that money on.

So, after mulling it over for about 20 minutes, I mustered up the courage to do something I rarely ever do: we decided to go down and ask for our money back, and leave. The proprietor was a bit flustered at this, but he offered to cancel out the room and, if he was able to sell it to someone else, to refund our money. About a half hour later as we were leaving the Stillwater area to head back to Minneapolis, he called and let us know he had been successful. In the end I have to say I was extremely appreciative of the service we got, and I suppose the room’s antique charms might win over some guests, but in the end there is no way I will ever consider staying at the Lowell Inn again.

As we headed back we made our revised plans for the night. We were now flush with cash that we had intended to spend on the hotel and a nice (and commensurately expensive) meal at the Bayport Cookery. So we decided to go to Southdale instead so we could do some shopping and then head over to the Galleria for dinner at Big Bowl.

And so it was that I came to know and love the iPod nano. While SLP was visiting various clothing stores, I headed down to the Apple Store to play with the iPod touch. I had already seen a friend’s iPhone, but since I have less than zero interest in switching to AT&T, I know that particular gadget will remain elusively out-of-reach for me. So, the iPod touch. I was really enjoying looking at it, but then I happened to go over and check out the new nano. It was just a curiosity, nothing else, but I fell in love instantly. The screen, though small, is unbelievably sharp; I love the new user interface; and it is so small! It’s the first iPod I’ve seen (aside from the useless iPod shuffle) that I could actually imagine carrying around in my pocket most or all of the time.

I didn’t buy it immediately, although I wanted to. But the rock solid logic of this basically being the amount of money we saved by not being stuck in the Lowell Inn for a night convinced SLP as well, and on our way back home from Southdale we stopped at the new Super Target that just opened in Richfield, and that’s where I got it.

Now, on to the actual topic of this post. This morning I was checking out Apple’s website for carrying case options for the new iPod nano. I was a little disappointed that the new models don’t come with the little faux-leather slip sleeve that my previous, 5th generation iPod came with. And as I perused the options I discovered the iPod nano swimbelt. Yes, it’s real. Apple doesn’t joke when there’s money to be had. But do people actually swim with their iPods? Apparently at least one person does, because there is one (and only one) superlative review of this product there on the site.