The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: Influence & Legacy

Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy has been adapted and extended into virtually every media yet conceived by humankind — if more advanced species elsewhere in the galaxy are able to plug the story directly into their brains, they haven’t yet shared the technology with us earthlings. Back on Earth, Adams personally wrote the radio series (which many of those involved consider the definitive ur text), novels, a television series, and computer game. Although nowhere near the level of cultural saturation of its rough contemporary Star Wars, it is fair to state that it is something personally beloved by millions, but also a rather valuable franchise that placed quite a burden upon its creator. Like George Lucas, Adams spent the rest of his life shepherding and protecting, and yes, profiting off Hitchhiker’s.

If you’re just joining our trilogy (in three parts… so far) on Douglas Adams and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, don’t miss Part One, on its highly improbable leap from radio to TV.

Before and after Adams’ untimely death in 2001 — not that there is such a thing as a timely death — Hitchikers enjoyed a complex parallel existence in stage shows, licensed merchandise (including towels and rubber duckies), and additional written works by other authors. The now-superstar author Neil Gaiman’s second book Don’t Panic — only slightly less humble than his first, a Duran Duran hagiography — was a combination biography of Adams and history of Hitchhiker’s as a whole, cleverly written in a reverent pastiche of Adams’ own style. DC Comics adapted the original stories into comics form 1993-1997, after which things went relatively quiet until a 2005 feature film failed to catch on with American movie goers. Director Garth Jennings’s movie has many flaws, the largest of which may simply have been showing up too late to the fading Hitchhiker’s party. But much of the casting is inarguably excellent, particularly Martin Freeman as Arthur Dent and the voices of Stephen Fry and Alan Rickman as The Guide and Marvin the Paranoid Android, respectively. The movie may have failed to reignite fan fervor at its peak, but the neverending trilogy got even longer when the Adams estate posthumously authorized a sixth prose novel by Artemis Fowl creator Eoin Colfer in 2009.

Sam Rockwell, John Malkovich, Martin Freeman, Mos Def, and Zooey Deschanel in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy
Getting the band back together for the 2005 feature film

But the vast influence of Adams’ original works is incalculable. I can’t speak to his influence in his home country, but he was an integral component of the holy trinity for a particular strain of Anglophile geeks growing up in America in the 1970s and 80s: Monty Python’s Flying Circus, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and the holy Doctor Who, forever and ever amen. Rolling Stone magazine gave away 3,000 free copies of the first novel in 1981, guaranteeing countless young unsuccessful bands called Disaster Area, one successful band called Level 42, and a generation of college kids heeding Ford Prefect’s sage advice to enjoy “Six pints of bitter, and quickly please, the world’s about to end.” The BCC television comedy Red Dwarf is a direct descendant (albeit, if anything, even more bitterly bleak and nihilistic). As a cultural institution, Hitchhiker’s was still hip enough in 1997 to inspire the Radiohead song title “Paranoid Android”.

Adams, together with fellow imp Tom Baker, forever stamped Doctor Who with its signature blend of hard science, absurdist humor, and barely submerged darkness. The ideal recipe is still debated to this day, perhaps most evident in Christopher Eccleston’s particularly bipolar vision of the character as swinging wildly between anguished and giddy — at once grieving his complicity in the death of his entire species, but not so despairing that he couldn’t fall in love with a cute young blonde earthling named Rose Tyler (The Doctor! In love! Almost as unthinkable as the romantic misadventures that would befall Arthur after the largely sexless early installments of Hitchhiker’s). But in 1979, for those British fans that preferred wit & whimsy over reversing the polarity of the neutron flow, they could switch the telly over to BBC Two to watch The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

Peter Davison in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy
Fifth Doctor Peter Davison appears as The Dish of the Day in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy BBC series

As my frequent Doctor Who asides above prove, it’s virtually impossible to discuss Adams and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy without a few detours into Whovian matters — not least because Fifth Doctor Peter Davison famously cameos in the television series as the exceptionally rare (and chatty) steak served at the Restaurant at the End of the Universe. I first read the novels as a kid, completely unaware of their radio or TV incarnations. I quite literally pictured Ford Prefect as The Doctor (specifically, the highly eccentric Tom Baker’s unforgettable performance as the Fourth Doctor). When my local PBS affiliate finally ran the TV series, I was quite disappointed to find that David Dixon is very nearly the physical opposite of Baker; and not nearly as… well, alien.

David Dixon, Mark Wing-Davey, and Sandra Dickinson in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy BBC series
David Dixon, Mark Wing-Davey, and Sandra Dickinson in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy BBC series

Trillian, who appears for the first time in episode two, was another huge disappointment. Whether by her own acting choices, contemporary cultural mores, or the whims of a randy costume department, actress Sandra Dickinson pitches the character as even dumber and more sexed up than a typical Doctor Who companion, which is really saying something (thankfully, 21st Century Who Girls generally enjoy much more substantial characterization). She and Mark Wing-Davey as Zaphod Beeblebrox both sport exaggerated American accents that make me scratch my head as much as our silliest mock British accents must irritate actual Britons (addendum: I have since learned that Dickinson is actually American, so I don’t know what it means that her accent sounded fake to me). Dickinson would later marry Davison, and their daughter Georgia Moffett would in turn wed actor David Tennant (making the Fifth Doctor the Tenth Doctor’s father-in-law — and this is without any real-life time travel). It’s as if Adams is still working beyond the grace as the behind-the-scenes matchmaker keeping it all in the Doctor Who family — and I haven’t even gotten around to discussing Lalla Ward and Richard Dawkins yet.

Lalla Ward and Tom Baker in Doctor Who
Douglas Adams as Doctor Who matchmaker Part 1: Lalla Ward and Tom Baker

But the single greatest repercussion of Hitchhiker’s has nothing to do with Radiohead songs, the relative eccentricity of Doctor Who leading men, or spinoff merchandise. It is, simply, the Apple iPhone. Allow me to be approximately the millionth person to point out that the eponymous guide itself has since become a very real thing, collecting lint in the bathrobe pockets of millions of Earthlings. It took a number of iterations of numerous interlocking components for it to happen, and it’s not hard to imagine that Adams was a direct influence on the visionary nerds that invented and assembled them. Computers were networked together in the 1960s, an infinite number of Ford Prefects began to crowd-source Wikipedia in 2001, and then devices small enough to carry all of this around began to appear in the 1990s (I remember really lusting after the magical Palm VII, which was capable of retrieving your email out of thin air). These elements finally came together in 2007 with the first truly usable portable information device, Apple’s iPhone — an invention I’m sure Adams would agree is more useful than even the towel. Wikipedia’s theoretically infinite hyperlinked database full of persistently and instantly available information proved about as reliable as the Hitchhiker’s Guide, loaded as it is with dense entries on fripperies like where to find the finest Pan-Galactic Gargleblaster, while having little comment on an entire lifebearing planet like, say, Earth. To quote the first edition: “Harmless.” Second, extensively revised & expanded edition: “Mostly harmless.”

Peter Davison and David Tennant in Doctor Who
Douglas Adams as Doctor Who matchmaker Part 2: David Tennant and father-in-law Peter Davison

So what is it that makes Hitchhiker’s so enduringly popular? It’s not too difficult to decode its DNA: Adams’ involvement in Cambridge University sketch comedy groups, his writing collaborations with Graham Chapman of Monty Python, and his appreciation of classic science fiction (particularly Kurt Vonnegut and the British institution Doctor Who). But Hitchhiker’s is not a sequel, parody, adaptation, or pastiche of anything in particular. Although it plays with many tropes of science fiction, it was a genuinely new thing. Adams had the following to say of American TV audiences, but I think it’s valid as a universal statement:

“Audiences in the US (through no fault of their own) are treated as complete idiots by the people who make programmes. And when you’ve been treated as an idiot for so long you tend to respond that way. But when given something with a bit more substance they tend to breathe a deep sigh of relief and say ‘Thank God for that!'”
–Douglas Adams, quoted in Don’t Panic by Neil Gaiman, page 94

Douglas Adams
Douglas Adams and the answer to life, the universe, and everything

Adams gave people something with a bit more substance, and they seized upon it. His ideas were so original that Adams spent most of his latter career patiently explaining where they came from. NPR’s Marc Hirsh has a more pessimistic take, equating James Cameron’s recent announcement that he would only make films set in the Avatar universe to the trap that Adams found himself in:

[Adams] spent the last 23 years of his life, starting from the original 1978 radio broadcast, continually rewriting the same story over and over for different media. And as much as I love the books and have enjoyed many of the different iterations, I can’t help but think that that’s an almost tragic waste of talent.
— Marc Hirsh, NPR (via Neil Gaiman)

True, he must have been frustrated to not be able to move beyond Hitchhiker’s for most of his career, but one need only look at bookstore shelves today to see almost everything he wrote still happily in print, including two novels in a new series starring holistic detective Dirk Gently. Writing and managing the Hitchhiker’s empire was evidently a slow and painful task for him, and he wasted a lot of time struggling to bring Hitchhiker’s to BBC TV and Hollywood, with mixed results. But outside of his nominal career as a writer, he would seem to have lived a rich life full of close friends (including luminaries as diverse as Richard Dawkins and Dave Gilmour), good deeds (q.v. his book Last Chance to See, on endangered species), and thinking deep thoughts.

Thanks for reading Part Two of our trilogy (in three parts… so far) on Douglas Adams and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Don’t miss Part One, on its highly improbable leap from radio to TV, and Part Three, on its status as gateway drug for many future atheists.

The Dork Report

Based On a True Story: Mike Daisey

I agree 99% with the popular consensus regarding Mike Daisey: he lied. But the tiny 1% nobody seems to be talking about is bothering the hell out of me: if his now infamous monologue The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs is a work of fiction, why can’t we talk about it as a work of fiction?

Until recently, Daisey was forging a reputation as a popular monologist in the tradition of the late Spalding Gray: fusing the mechanics of autobiography, journalism, and theater to tell stories with the power to move individuals and sway popular opinion. That is, he was, before his enormously popular show The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs was dramatically revealed to be largely comprised of half-truths and fabrications. Daisey initially required theaters to advertise it as “a work of non-fiction”. When he began to feel the heat, he initially claimed he had merely taken dramatic license, but finally issued an actual apology.

The imbroglio has been Tweeted, blogged, podcasted, and analyzed to death over the past two weeks, but here are the key incidents: Daisey’s original stage monologue (with a free transcript on his website), an episode of the venerable radio program This American Life featuring a version of it, followed by their astonishingly gripping retraction. My favorite analyses of the ensuing fallout came from Daring Fireball (Separating the Baby From the Bath Water) and Derek Powazek (How to Spot a Liar).

The general consensus among the cognoscenti, digerati and NPR set alike, is that Daisey made a fatal error in presenting his piece as journalistic report. I agree. But most of these analysts go on to express horror and outrage that Daisey’s show goes on. The monologue inspired a popular petition on (now there’s a petition against the petition). Theaters are not canceling Daisey’s future shows and are refusing refunds for past showings. Gruber, in an episode of his podcast The Talk Show, attributes this to the theater business running on a tight margin, as if it were simply a matter of economics. Interestingly, The Understatement reports that many theaters are also daring to defend the “essential truth” of Daisey’s work.

Mike Daisey went to great lengths to preserve the fiction that “The Agony and Ecstacy of Steve Jobs” was nonfiction

Which brings me to the tiny sliver of this whole story that I believe needs to be addressed: there is a massive disconnect between journalists and, for lack of a single term, artists/writers/performers/monologists/etc. So Mike Daisey largely lied about what he saw in China; so what? Should his admittedly powerful monologue be wiped from the record? Can we not talk about it as a work of literature? Here is the point where, perhaps, the English majors of the world ought to take over from the journalists.

Ira Glass states in the This American Life retraction that Daisey’s use of the literary device of speaking in the first person triggered his brain to register it as truth. Other outraged journalists seem to not want to even entertain the idea that Daisey’s work might be an effective work of fiction on its own terms. Daisey was free to present his first-person account as truth (or as Stephen Colbert might term it, “truthy”) within the context of his play itself, but he erred by also doing so on This American Life, Real Time With Bill Maher, CBS News, and other news venues. He deceived accredited journalists with hard-earned reputations in order to preserve the fiction that his piece was nonfiction.

But what if he hadn’t? What if he had, from the beginning, pitched The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs as what it actually is: a fictionalized dramatic account, told in the first person but, to use a familiar phrase, based on a true story. Most of what Daisey claims he personally witnessed are actual ongoing events at Foxconn and other factories in China. Workers’ conditions are harsh and unjust, not only to western sensibilities, but also in violation of Chinese regulations. Many commenters have mused on how Apple Inc. may have been harmed by Daisey, both financially and in terms of reputation. It most likely has to some measurable degree, but no matter how much I may personally use and like many of their products, I don’t believe Apple is any more possessed of sensitive feelings than any other multinational corporation. Apple is no more deserving of protection from a work of fiction than — to fabricate a hypothetical example — Exxon might be if a writer were to publish a novel telling the story of an environmental activist visiting the 1989 Valdez spill.

The current refusal to consider that Daisey’s discredited work might still have merit as a piece of literature smacks to me of two things:

  1. Excessive apologia to Apple. Apple is justly beloved for designing great products and seems to be making a great effort to improve its environmental impact and supplier responsibility. But no one needs to worry about their feelings being hurt.
  2. A general distrust and fear of fiction and literature. On a grand scale, you often see this when video games are blamed for school violence, rock lyrics for drug use, or comic books for juvenile delinquency. When a problem is too big to deal with, often the easiest thing to do is ban or burn a book. Now, of course those are extreme cases, and all that’s happening here is a few journalists discrediting one man’s dramatic monologue. Perhaps journalists spend too much of their careers dealing with verifiable facts, and are ill-equipped to deal with the sometimes messy business of analyzing literature.

Daisey is not a journalist, and his situation right now is not the same as that of Jayson Blair, who was rightly run out of town for his numerous fabrications published by the New York Times up until being discovered as a fraud in 2003. He’s more akin to James Frey, whose supposed memoir A Million Little Pieces was revealed in 2006 to have been better classified as a novel. Had it not been marketed as his true life’s story, it probably would have been lost in the fray of bookstores’ crowded fiction aisles. Daisey’s medium is the theater, worlds away from the media journalists work in. No theatergoer or novel reader expects absolute verifiable truth from literature. The tools of literature have the power to entertain, instill a sense of catharsis in the audience, to illuminate, and perhaps even to move people to action. All of these goals seem to have motivated Daisey to do what he did.

It’s now near-impossible to appraise the merit of Daisey’s work on its own terms. Interviewed by Ira Glass in the This American Life episode Retraction, he stated that The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs is the “best thing I’ve done.” Clearly, he knew he had really hit on something that touched a nerve in his audiences, and it brought him a great deal of acclaim that later curdled into notoriety. He wrongly felt that the notion his work was factually true was essential to its continuing popularity, which provided him many benefits: larger audiences, fame, and likely a greater income than the vast majority of struggling theater artists are ever likely to glean from their work. I think it’s clear now that had he presented his work as fiction, it would have reached far fewer people, but still have had its undeniable impact on those that did experience it. The shame is that now we’ll never know.

The silver lining is he contributed to an ever increasing spotlight on the complex issue of China’s labor practices, and a growing awareness that the consumer electronics industry could not exist as we know it today without it.

4 Stars Movies

Design is how it works: Gary Hustwit’s Objectified

Objectified finds its thesis in a quotation from one of history’s prime industrialists, Henry Ford: “Every object, whether intentional or not, speaks to whoever put it there.” In other words, everything we select, purchase, and interact with, was first designed and manufactured by a skilled artisan. That person’s job is to obsess about you, your body, needs and habits, and how their product might become a part of your life. Director Gary Hustwit’s previous documentary feature Helvetica was a celebration of typographers and graphic designers, and inspired laypeople to recognize the long history and great labor that went into the typefaces they use every day on their computer screens. Similarly, Objectified profiles the often unknown industrial designers behind the stuff we buy.

Jonathan Ives in Objectified
Jonathan Ives’ inner sanctum. After conducting this interview, Apple had the filmmakers shot.

Apple’s resident guru Jonathan Ive is perhaps the most famous design auteur featured. Ive is probably the second most famous person at Apple, justly acclaimed for his singular design aesthetic that first caught the public imagination with the bondi Blue iMac and then the stark, white, deceptively “simple” iPod. Ive’s boss Steve Jobs famously said that design is “not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works,” a principle born out in Ive’s work. Knowing inside and out the particulars of different materials and manufacturing is just part of designing a product’s externals. Ive brandishes precision-tooled parts from a disassembled MacBook Pro to illustrate that Apple spends an enormous amount of time and resources not just designing their products, but also the custom machines and processes necessary to mass produce them.

Naoto Fukasawa in Objectified
Naoto Fukasawa rethinks the CD player.

Objectified spends some considerable time on the topic of sustainability, a responsibility that regrettably only recently entered the industrial designer’s job description. Valerie Casey of IDEO relates the incredible anecdote of the difficult process of developing a new toothbrush. When the product is finally ready and in stores, she embarks on a much-needed vacation to Fiji. If you didn’t already guess where this story was going, she finds a discarded IDEO toothbrush washed up on a beach halfway around the world. In less than a week, her product had become pollution.

Objectified necessarily makes a brief detour into interaction design (this brief digression would be worthy of a film unto itself, but in the meantime, the curious can refer to Steven Johnson‘s 1997 book Interface Culture: How New Technology Transforms the Way We Create and Communicate). When we interact with most analog products, their form follows their function. As a thought experiment, would an alien from outer space (or a Tarzan raised in the wild) be able to infer an object’s function simply by looking at it? That is likely the case with a spoon or chair, but not so much with an iPhone. For many products of the digital age, the outward form factor gives no clues as to the function. Thus, interaction design was born with the Xerox PARC graphical user interface. Many of our daily tasks are now abstracted onto a two-dimensional screen. The Apple iPhone and iPad have popularized the touchscreen, which likely signals the beginning of another sea change when peripherals like keyboards and mice will be revealed to have been a temporary evolutionary bump, now marked for extinction.

Awww yeah, designers know what time it is.

The last images we see are of the devices used to make the movie itself: a computer, hard drive, and camera. Tellingly, the Objectified Blu-ray edition has no menu structure at all. You put it in, it plays, and the supplementary features follow immediately after the closing credits. It’s a completely guided, linear experience that speaks to the film’s elevation of the creator over the consumer.

Official movie site:

Must read: A Hurricane of Consumer Values by Alissa Walker

The Dork Report

The Dork Report Special Edition: My iTunes 7 Nightmare

As Engadget reports, iTunes 7 may be more than a little flakey, and I have a nightmare story of my own.

First, some background: I use a PowerBook G4 17″, with a very, very large iTunes library of 16,000 plus tracks, stored on an external 250 GB LaCie Firewire hard drive. Perhaps unwisely, I was doing several things at once shortly after downloading the brand new iTunes 7: listening to a smart playlist on shuffle, and batch editing tags in another smart playlist (specifically, editing the Album Artist tags of all my compilations to read “Various Artists” — see The Dork Report for September 13 for more information). To complicate matters, I was running in background (itself freshly updated to Version 1.0.6).

After batch editing tags for several minutes, I opening the batch info window for another dozen or so. iTunes suddenly stopped playing a few seconds into Pink Floyd’s “Time” from The Dark Side of the Moon, and then froze. I noticed had frozen as well. I waited until it seemed neither would free up on their own, then I force quit both. I relaunched iTunes, but it was noticably sluggish (many spinning psychedelic pizzas of death for me). I selected a song to get info, and nothing happened. I tried another and a tiny exclamation mark appeared next to it (which I know from experience to mean that a track has been manually deleted or moved on your hard drive and iTunes can no longer locate it). I nervously switched to the Finder and clicked on the music folder on my external drive. To my horror, the folder was empty, and the custom icon I had applied long ago had disappeared!

Needless to say, I feared the worst: several gigabytes and years worth of music collecting (not to mention irreplaceable tracks purchased on the iTunes Store) gone. Not knowing what else to do, in fact thinking doing anything else might make matters worse, I quit iTunes and restarted my Powerbook. The external drive took longer to mount than usual (I’ve read that Mac OS X checks disks for errors on startup, so perhaps it sensed a problem and was running a repair). Once everything had started up and settled, I used Disk Utility to verify both my internal and external drives, with no errors reported. Taking the proverbial deep breath, I opened up my external Firewire drive… and the folder was back to normal. I launched iTunes, and again, everything was normal. As if nothing had happened. Thank god, right? But terrifying that several gigabytes of files could disappear and reappear so easily.

Shaken, I ran Backup to bring my Home folder backups up to date, and promptly went to bed to try and calm myself down with a nap.

There are a bevy of other problems being reported on Macintouch, including the very odd case of large chunks of people’s libraries being flagged as “Explicit.” But I think my story wins.

So. Lessons learned:

  1. For crying out loud, buy SuperDuper already! I’ve never properly backed up my music collection for the simple reason that I don’t have another drive big enough to duplicate it. Time, I think, to start deleting crap I never listen to nor wish to keep, and bring it down to a size more easily backed up.
  2. Resist the temptation to download new software as soon as it comes out. At the very least, don’t stress-test it with precious, irreplaceable computer data.
The Dork Report

The Dork Report for September 13, 2006

Time for some obligatory mouthing off about Apple’s latest iFiesta:

iPod with Video (such an ungainly name): enhanced with more storage and brighter screen.

iPod Nano: totally redesigned. Or rather, it’s just like the retired iPod mini except more mini. Comes in a very confusing array of models, with certain colors only available with certain storage sizes. No doubt black iPods are popular, for that finish is reserved for the top-priced model.

iPod Shuffle: totally redesigned. Really small. Really, really small. No, I mean, like, accidentally-inhale-small.

iTV: previewed months ahead of planned release, usual for Apple to say the least. I already use Airport Express to wirelessly stream music from my computer to my stereo, a massive improvement oo my computer’s speakers (which don’t suck). So being able to stream video to a real TV will no doubt be really cool. $299 doesn’t seem like so much when an iPod costs about the same.

The iTunes Music Store is now simply (and belatedly) just iTunes Store. Feature films and iPod Games join the existing lineup of music, audiobooks, podcasts, TV shows and music videos. Buying single TV shows and music videos makes sense to me (thanks to iTunes, I didn’t miss a single Lost episode last season), but at this point I can’t imagine ever buying a movie as a digital download. It’s a rare movie I see twice, and those that I wish to, I’ll buy the DVD (or just rent it twice through Netflix) for higher-quality picture and surround sound, not to mention bonus material. And digital download prices of $9.99 to $14.99 are absurd; I recently purchased the new 2-disc special edition of Apocalypse Now! for about $13.

iTunes 7, the first new release in years to include actual new features to enhance listening to and organizing music. Previously releases were almost entirely commerce-related (adding music video and TV content to the iTunes Store), and Apple has apparently been saving up a huge flood of new features, some significant, others troublesome:

Toggle between view options: 1. the familiar standard list, 2. grouped by album (with artwork), and 3. Cover Flow. Purchased outright from Steel Skies, Cover Flow is a visually striking new interface that aims to evoke the real-world browsing of albums by their covers. It apparently caches the album cover image files on your hard drive the first time you use it, so if it seems slow at first it should improve. It’s neat; already I think I will continue to use the boring list view when I know specifically what I’m looking for, but Cover Flow is a way to skim through and rediscover dusty old tracks I may have fogotten about.

Gapless playback. I haven’t tried this feature yet myself, but it always was annoying to hear a split-second pause between tracks on a live album, so this is welcome. To take advantage of it, however, iTunes must rescan your entire library, which can take forever if you have as huge a collection as me. Then you need to manually tag specific tracks as part of “gapless albums.” I’m not sure what happens then when you listen to stuff on shuffle… when happens when a “gapless” track is randomly cued up to a gappy one?

Transfer from iPod, meaning that for the first time, you can legally copy music from your iPod to another computer. However, it is limited to files purchased from the iTunes Store, and the destination computer must also be authorized (the first time you play a purchased file on any computer, you have to log in with your iTunes account info, which registers your computer over the internet to Apple). Apple obviously couldn’t/wouldn’t allow total syncing before because of piracy fears, but since it’s limited to DRM-controlled music, then everything should be kosher with the music rights-holders (99% of the time, not the musicians, but that’s another story).

Automatic album cover downloads. Lots of question shere. How accurate is it? I’d rather have no art than the wrong cover. You can request art for specific albums or have it go through your entire library at once (it also searches for art when you rip a cd). I tried it on my work computer with a relatively small libary of about 600 songs. The results were mixed: it correctly grabbed Talking Heads’ 77 (albeit of horrendously poor JPG quality), but couldn’t find such a popular and distinctively named album as Gorillaz’ Demon Days. I only noticed one error: iTunes mistook Suzanne Vega’s Sessions at West 54th EP for the compilation The Best of Sessions at West 54th.

A troublesome new meta tag: Album Artist. As I understand it, this is for the rare instance in which a single artist’s album features a few tracks by different artists, but is not a compilation. So, Jane Doe’s album may be by “Jane Doe” overall, but have one track by “Jane Doe feat. John Doe.” Now you can use the tag “Artist” for individual tracks and “Album Artist” to group together an entire album under a single name. OK fine, but much much more common (at least in my collection) are compilations of various artists. There’s already a tag to flag certain albums as compilations, but now iTunes 7 groups them by artist if you don’t manually specify something like “Various Artists” in the Album Artist tag. If you have only one track from a compilation, iTunes thinks it’s an album by that artist, even if it’s tagged as a compilation! So the end result is a lot of busy work for me so iTunes can go back to recognizing compilations. For someone as anal retentive as I with a meticulously managed music library, this is annoying to say the least!

More metadata: skipped count and date. Now you can track how often you choose not to listen to something.

And now for more complaints: when you purchase anything or a podcast updates itself, it appears in a “Downloads” sort-of playlist, instead of at the top. So now you need to manually click over to that playlist to see what’s going on.

Various interface changes, including non-glossy buttons and… heinous scrollbars! WTF? Icky grey-blue blobs that look like nothing else on a Mac anywhere! I’m not sure, but if these same scrollbars appear on the Windows version, then perhaps Apple wanted to make the user experience more uniform, and so they can advertise with images of iTunes that anybody will recognize as theirs. has a great overview of the graphical user interface design nightmare and links to many others (spotted on Daring Fireball).

iTunes (and iPods) still can’t alphabetize properly. I am totally strident on this point, so thus begins my rant: alphabetizing song, artist, and album names should have been in iTunes 1.0, and it’s insane that six revisions later it still can’t handle it. Artists beginning with “The” are alphebetized correctly, but songs and albums aren’t. So, The Beatles correctly appear under “B”, but “The Long and Winding Road” shows up under “T” and where’s John Lennon? That’s right, filed under “J” of course! Any brick & mortar music store organized like this would go out of business before you can run through your ABCs. If Apple will introduce a whole complex new system to handle relatively rare cases where you need an Album Artist, why won’t they address something as utterly basic as this? I predict that in the future there will be even more musicians who go by one name, if for no reason other than people being able to find their music on their iPod. OK, rant over.

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