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New York Times: Circuits: Tunes, a Hard Drive and (Just Maybe) a Brain

Published: August 26, 2004

ipod_slot_machineWHILE Bob Angus was presiding over a summer dinner party at his Upper West Side apartment in Manhattan, his Apple iPod decided to reveal its softer side.

Mr. Angus, a second-year graduate student at Columbia Business School, had selected the Shuffle Songs mode on his iPod, which was connected by an adapter cable to his stereo receiver. By doing this, he relinquished control of his 1,300-song music library—and, as he would soon find out, of his party.

The Guns N' Roses song "Paradise City" blared from his speakers. It was followed by the melodic piano solo at the beginning of Elton John's "Your Song." Mr. Angus's 10 guests burst into laughter.

"Everyone was rocking out," Mr. Angus said. "Then Elton comes on and kills it—it was like strike No. 1 against my manhood."

Such are the perils of using Shuffle, a genre-defying option that has transformed the way people listen to their music in a digital age. The problem is, now that people are rigging up their iPods to stereos at home and in their cars, they may have to think twice about what they have casually added to their music library.

Shuffle commands have been around since the dawn of the CD player. But the sheer quantity of music on an MP3 player like the iPod—and in its desktop application, iTunes—has enabled the function to take on an entirely new sense of scale and scope. It also heightens the risk that a long-forgotten favorite song will pop up, for better or for worse, in mixed company.

There is an unintended consequence of the allure of Shuffle: it is causing iPod users to question whether their devices "prefer" certain types of music.

Revere Greist with iPod (NYtimes)
WORKOUT - Revere Greist, an amateur bicycle racer in Los Angeles, has concluded that his iPod's Shuffle mode knows how to motivate him. (Alex di Suvero for The New York Times)
Revere Greist, a doctoral student and amateur bicycle racer in Los Angeles, has concluded that his iPod's Shuffle command favors the rapper 50 Cent—and perhaps more important, that it knows exactly the right time to play 50 Cent's biggest hit, "In Da Club." He finds the dramatic beat, coupled with the lyrics "Go Shorty, it's your birthday," inspirational.

Mr. Greist rides his bike 15 hours a week, often more than three hours at a time. To get him through the tedium of this workout, he created a 40-song mix called "What It Takes," a name derived from a quotation on a documentary film about Lance Armstrong's training for the 2000 Tour de France. (After Armstrong defies his team manager's orders and races up a snowy mountain, his team manager says into the camera, "Now, that's what it takes to win the Tour de France.")

The iPod "knows somehow when I am reaching the end of my reserves, when my motivation is flagging," Mr. Greist insisted. "It hits me up with 'In Da Club,' and then all of a sudden I am in da club."

For Mr. Angus, though, Shuffle can be a workout killer. He said that while working out at the gym, his portable music player invariably drifts toward the Billboard Top 40.

"It really likes Ruben Studdard," the winner of "American Idol's" second season, Mr. Angus said. This, despite the fact that he only has one song of Mr. Studdard's—the soulful ballad "Sorry 2004"—stored on his 20-gigabyte player. "There's nothing worse than when you are having an intense workout and Ruben comes on," he said, "but it seems to always happen to me."

I haven't noticed this penchant for knowing my moods with my iPod, but then again I use Smart Playlists to set up music for the moods I might be feeling. I've never just used the full-library function because I have enough classical music that hearing parts of classical pieces amongst my Top 40 and classic-rock songs would be jarring, to say the least.

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