The useful/uselessness of the new Napster

I’ve been busy lately, with a thing or two I can mention and maybe a couple that are secret for now, but nonetheless, busy. The one thing I can mention is the zine, which is still going strong. I had a near-aneurysm trying to think of a new name for the thing, and now I’ve just decided to go the ‘fuck it’ route and keep the original name of Air in the Paragraph Line. It’s neutral, it sounds weird, and it doesn’t involve me thinking of a new name. I have a bunch of writers on board, a couple of extra spots, and I hope to have enough stuff so I can print out a huge stack of shit and bring it on the plane with me when I leave for Hawaii at the end of the month.

Here’s one I keep forgetting to write about. A couple of weeks ago, I decided to join the new Napster. Sounds retarded, you think. Well, I found it an interesting offering for a few reasons, and I thought I’d mention the pros and cons and why I think it’s a great product. And I’d first like to start by saying I don’t own stock in them or get paid per new signup or anything like that. So here goes.

Napster has a new service, and instead of being the old peer-to-peer setup where you steal music from the world around, this one is basically like an iTunes sort of online store, but with a twist. You can pay 99 cents a track like iTunes, but they also have a subscription service where you sign up for $9.99 a month and you get all-you-can eat downloads from their catalog. The way this works is they use Windows Media’s licensing scheme so you get all of these files, and they work as long as you’re a paying subscriber. When you stop paying, they don’t work. So you can’t sign up for like a weekend and then fill your hard drive and quit. Napster to Go is an upgrade from this, where at $15 a month, you can take the tunes with you on your Windows Media-enabled portable player.

Of course, most people’s immediate reaction is “WHAT A FUCKING RIPOFF! YOU DON’T GET TO KEEP ANYTHING! THEY STEAL YOUR MUSIC! WHAT A JOKE!” and so on. But here’s the deal, I know that. I’m not using Napster to buy my music. What I am doing is using it to find music that I like. It’s like I have the ultimate in-store kiosk, except I don’t have to go to the store. I can download an album, give it a few spins, and if I really like it, I’ll drop the $15 on Amazon for a copy. People can’t wrap their heads around the idea that you aren’t paying $9.99 a month for a shopping spree in which you have to download as much shit as possible; you’re really paying $9.99 a month to rent music. It’s like paying for cable TV or satellite radio. You don’t get to “keep” anything from HBO if you pay for cable; you essentially rent the shows and watch them. (Maybe you tape them, but that’s a grey area.)

The Napster interface has a lot of clicky-clicking to do as far as finding bands related to other bands. They license some of allmusic’s information, so you get related items and whatnot. A neat feature that they have is that you can build a radio station based on the items in your library. It will look at the stuff you have downloaded, and then dump a playlist of similar stuff, so you can stream each song, or click on the album cover and go find out about the band if you are interested and want to download other stuff. This is pretty much why I was interested in doing this. I want an interactive way to cruise through allmusic, finding similar artists to the stuff I already like, listening to albums and deciding if they are worth the money or not. Amazon has had a recommendation feature for a while, and I’ve found a good number of books that way. They also have music, but just dorky 30-second clips, and it’s not driven in the same way as this guy.

Other features that I like include a good playlist system for dropping tracks into a list. I know, everything has playlists, but it’s more of a concern when you’re downloading a fuckload of stuff like me. You can use your account on up to four other machines, and there is a certain amount of persistence between logins. Let’s say I’m at home and I find a bunch of neato albums and download them. When I get to work the next day and fire up my napster client, I can then view the “out of sync” track list and download them onto my work computer. Playlists also persist across accounts. Another nice feature is that you can burn a CD of items in your library, Napster or your own MP3. It has some sort of built-in CDR software, so you don’t have to fuck with Nero or whatever. Just add your tracks to a playlist or drop them to a little burn staging area, and it figures out the minutes left and all of that. There are also a lot of browse-oriented features, like people put together their own radio stations (you can too), there are genre-specific pages of what’s new and music news-type stuff, and they have given it a good stab as far as creating community stuff (although most message boards are full of 14-year-olds screaming “THIS SUCKS! I WANT TO FUCKING STEAL MUSIC, NOT PAY FOR IT!”

There are caveats. The iPod flat-out won’t work with Napster to Go, since it doesn’t support WMA’s licensing features. You can “keep” songs, but you have to pay 99 cents each. You also can’t burn a Napster song unless you downloaded it for a buck. Not all songs download and cache; depending on the licensing and label, some will only stream, so you have to be online to play them. I’m not sure of the algorithm of when you have to be online or not to keep your license current; I have messed around for a day or so with my Tablet offline and it worked fine. We’ll see if it works when I go to Hawaii for a week.

Anyway, that’s been my new toy as of late. I’m finding old albums I’ve long since forgotten, and it has given me at least a few suggestions that actually turned out great. Another related project is that I’m throwing my CD collection into a MySQL/PHP site that I whipped up, with hopes of adding links on individual CDs or bands to reviews or little stories or whatever other crap I have. I have a few CD reviews laying around the site, but I’d like to have one central repository for them. So that’s the goal, but I have fucked up the edit page in my little project and can’t seem to get it to smash the contents of an array into the database and have it stick. I’ll deal with that after about 12 hours of sleep, I hope.

New bike

I am damn excited!

Remember when you were a kid, and Honeycomb cereal used to have those contests where you could win a free BMX bike? For a while, they had those tiny little metal license plates that said “HANG 10″ or whatever stupid slogan would be on there, and they were each a miniature replica of a state license plate, and then you would rig them up on your seat bottom or handlebars with a bunch of twist-ties. They probably eventually discontinued them because a kid split open someone’s face with one, or because actual metal cost too much or something. Anyway, the old contest was to get a special license plate, and you’d win the bike. Later, it was just some sort of puzzle book where you scratched off some silver lotto ticket paint off a page that said “sorry, try again!” or “25 cents of Honeycomb economy size”. Well, once after a trip to Kroger, I tore apart the cereal box and went through the book and scratched off the matte grey boxes, and I WON! I won the BMX bike!

My mom checked and double checked the rules a million times, figuring there would be a catch or that I won a chance to enter in a raffle or something. But no, it was legit. She sent the thing off, and I waited what seems like years for the package to show up.

One rainy Saturday, it did. UPS dropped off a box from the Huffy corporation, and inside was my brand new bike. It’s probably worth explaining that at the time, I was riding a total POS Huffy with a banana seat that was not cool at all, very far from BMX. And this was when BMX was bigger than Jesus. This bike had a red frame and all of the chrome parts were a bronze/gold plated finish – the rims, the handlebars, the crank, and the chainguard. It had the handlebars with the extra bar across the top that was dipped in the center, the four-bolt neck, coaster brakes but also a secondary lever brake on the rear wheels. The tires were red knobby BMX tires, and it had the pads on the bars. It was AWESOME. I put that thing together in record time, and brought it outside for my trial run.

I remember that day so clearly. It had rained like a mofo all night long and all morning, and it was just starting to let up, but there was still a haze. And there were earthworms EVERYWHERE. Sometimes after a good rain, they get flooded out and are all over the street. I got out just as the sky was starting to clear, and took off through the subdivision. Everything about this bike felt 100% better than my old clunker. It all looked cool, every part spun perfectly against every other, and most of all, I WON THIS BIKE! It was awesome.

I think I rode that bike well into my Freshman year, when I finally got a real ten-speed, and probably long after (or before) it was cool to ride a 20″ BMX bike with no speeds. Come to think of it, it was probably never cool to ride any kind of bike to our school, but the bus sucked, I always worked late at the school theater, and it’s not like mommy and daddy bought me a 5.0 GT Mustang when I turned 16.

So the reason I’m excited NOW, is that I just bought a new bike. I know I already have two frames and a bunch of pieces in my kitchen and neither run. And I’m not sure how long it will take before either will run, so I decided to make a small (~$300) investment in a complete turnkey bike that actually rode well. The lucky purchase was the 2005 Dahon Boardwalk D7. It’s a folding bike, which is pretty cool; with the pop of a couple of latches, the handlebars fold down, the frame folds in half, and then you lower the seat and fold up the pedals and you have about 25 pounds of fairly compact metal to throw in the trunk or schlep onto the subway.

The bike’s based on 20″ tires and a very low-slung frame, with highly extended seat and handlebar posts. It’s got 7 speeds in the back and none on the front, so it’s not like one of these new 78-speed mountain bike mofos, but the smaller survey of gears, switched with a twist-grip on the right side, works pretty well for the city. All of the components are full-size for the most part, very well thought-out and they are made for a big guy to ride around, not as a toy or for kids. It came with a rear rack, a set of fenders, and a fairly comfy standard seat.

I bought the thing at lunch, and rode back to the office from Bicycle Habitat, maybe a few blocks at most. Later, I took it out for a quick spin around the office, and I hauled it home on the subway to the first stop in Queens, then rode the rest of the way back. It was dark and I had no lights and a black jacket, plus I didn’t want to get stranded if something broke right out of the gate. (That happened on the first MTB I bought here in New York, the Mongoose. I rode way the hell out in Queens my first time out, and the fucking derailleur SNAPPED. I ended up walking the fucking bike home five miles.)

Anyway, the little thing is FUN to ride. The balancing is a bit different, but it’s not like pumping around on a little BMX. It’s very compact, easy to weave through traffic and up and around stuff in the city. I thought there would be some warble or flex in the frame, but it’s solid, almost as tight as my old Giant road bike. Everything works well; the brakes are tight, the shifting is good, and the headset is very smooth. It’s not as smooth on the New York excuses for streets as a good rockhopper with full suspension would be, but it’s decent. And I couldn’t see riding 100K in one of these things, but I could see commuting every day with no problems.

The folding isn’t hard to do, although it took a few practices. The worst part is that everything I have for the old bike doesn’t fit. I have water bottle cages with allen screws that go into the frame, but I really need some kind of handlebar-mounted clip thing to hold my bottle. I have a nice computer that even has a heartrate monitor, but the cable on the sensor is too short, and I’m sure that’s a huge witch hunt and a $30 purchase. I can’t find the frame mount for my Kryptonite lock. (NO it is not the one you can pick with a pen, you motherfucking blog readers.) But I think maybe I shouldn’t add anything to the bike, and just tough it out. I mean, I could spend the cost of the bike getting the approved Dahon-Apple iPod mount with the Bose wraparound handlebar speakers, or I could just ride around with no music and either hum a tune or think about something else. I could spend a few hundred on the official Dahon panniers, or I could just bring less stuff, or bungee down a gym bag. I think I need to do the less is more approach.

Of course, I picked the wrong day to buy a bike – we’re supposed to get about twenty feet of rain over the next two days. Maybe I should go down to the bike store and buy one of those euro-fag full rain getups and slog through it anyway. Well, except for the pneumonia and the possibility of a wreck on a brand new bike, that’s a grand idea.

So I’m seriously thinking of saying “suck it” to the MTA and riding in every day. I don’t think the bike will go with me to Hawaii, but I’d sure as hell like to ride every day from now until then, and then rent one local and have the energy to get up those damn hills. I am so out of shape now, it’s not even funny. But I sure feel great having a motivation to get some regular exercise…