Sunday, February 27, 2005


Behind the curve as ever, I've just started using Audioscrobbler, a service which aims to build a detailed profile of your music listening habits, which my early-adopter colleagues have been using since it launched a few years back. Setting yourself up is as easy as registering on their website and downloading the plug-in for your preferred media player(s). I've got it setup to track my listening in both iTunes and Windows Media Player, but not Napster as there's currently no plug-in available.

Once you're set up, the plug-in automatically reports the details of every track you play to the Audioscrobbler server which then begins to build a Musical Profile which you can access via the website (here's my profile). On its simplest level it provides a visual representation (bar chart) of what tracks and artists you listen to the most. Whilst briefly diverting, this doesn't add much to the Play Count information displayed in iTunes and just quantifies what you already have a pretty good sense of (although the presence of some artists near the top of my list left me demanding a recount and vowing never to leave my iTunes unattended in shuffle mode again...)

Looking for similar musical howlers amongst your friends' Top Artists list also proves temporarily diverting (right up until you remember they're most likely doing the same to you but laughing longer and harder). Where it gets significantly more interesting, however, is with the introduction of 'Musical Neighbours' (presumably so-called because of their musical proximity to you, not a likelihood that you'll hardly ever speak to them and resent their muffled sex noises coming through your ceiling at 2am). Your Neighbours are updated by Audioscrobbler "several times a week" and offer the promise of introducing you to gems rated by musically like-minded souls, which are then packaged up into your very own personalised online radio station , courtesy of Audioscrobbler's sister site,

I've only been using the service for a few days but can see that it's likely to be set as one of my homepage tabs in Firefox before long. I just wish it could somehow take account of my offline listening so when I docked my iPod it would upload the tracks I listened to whilst on the move. Moon on a stick, I tell you...

Tuesday, February 22, 2005

Creative Zen Micro vs. iPod Mini

The recent launch of Napster To Go (a £14.95 a month music subscription service, which enables you to download an unlimited number of tracks from the 1 million strong Napster catalogue to a compatible portable device and listen to them for as long as you maintain your subscription) persuaded me to splash out on a Creative Zen Micro (one of the few compatible devices available). I already own an iPod mini but was frustrated by the difficultly of sampling new music (beyond iTunes Music Store's unsatisfying 30 second clips) without forking out £7.99 for an album I might not like or resorting to less legal means of acquiring music (heaven forefend). Napster To Go promised a veritable smorgasboard of new music for the cost of less than two albums a month so I decided to take the plunge.

Out of the box, I was immediately impressed by the size of the Zen Micro - the same width as the iPod mini and a fraction shorter, the only trade off was an extra half centimetre in depth, making it about the same thickness as the 4th generation 40GB iPod. The automatic backlight and the way in which the controls and the perimeter of the player glow a cool blue when touched was also a pleasant surprise.

Less pleasant was getting used to life without a Click Wheel. Whilst the creatives at Creative deserve marks for effort for their vertical variation on Apple's legendary touch sensitive scroller, its far too easy to accidentally depress the button whilst trying to scroll up or down resulting in all kinds of menu mayhem. The addition of a right-click context menu complicates matters further and makes you yearn for the simplicity of the iPod interface. It also serves to remind you that this is essentially a Windows product - an impression reinforced by the Micro's frequent delays and lock-ups, reminiscent of Windows at its most obstinate.

Fortunately, things improve immeasurably once the audio actually starts playing. The sound quality of the 128-bit WMA files downloaded from Napster was impressive, even when listening through the bundled headphones (they're noticeably superior to the iPod's 'earbuds'). Which brings me to the real selling point of the Micro for me: its compatibility with Napster To Go. Whilst setting up the Micro to work with NTG was no picnic (requiring an upgrade to the player's firmware which proved to be a long-winded process involving numerous reboots) I wasn't disappointed with the reality of an 'all you can eat' music proposition. Within the hour I had loaded up my Zen with a dozen new albums and was congratulating myself on the £100 I'd just 'saved'. Predictably, my jubilation was shortlived as I was brought crashing back down to earth with some classic error messages (mercifully all surmountable).

There's very little to choose between the iPod Mini and the Zen Micro on price, size or weight (Creative has clearly learnt from past experience how importance a pocketable device is to consumers). What separates the two is their interfaces and compatibility. Were Creative able to more successfully emulate the iPod's intuitive and reliable interface (without getting sued by Apple, of course) they'd be on to a winner. Likewise, if Apple were to open the iPod mini up to work with WMA and the plethora of associated download services they'd have a world beater. As it is, neither device is able to offer everything I want from a portable music player and I suspect I'll continue using the two in tandem until a player is released which combines the interface of the iPod with a music consumption model similar to Napster To Go. The smart money's on Apple...

Sunday, February 20, 2005

My top 20 films of 2004

Sure enough, 2 posts in and I'm already making lists...

Below are my top 20 films of 2004 (10 seemed a little meager for what, all said and done, wasn't a bad year in film). I only considered films released in UK cinemas in 2004 as eligible (hence no Sideways, which I saw last week and is likely to be taking on all-comers at the top of my 2005 list).

Looking for some sort of trend, 2004 was undoubtedly a good year for the documentary, with the entertaining polemics of Fahrenheit 9/11 and Super Size Me preparing the way for the genius of Capturing The Friedmans (which also contributed the most compelling case to date for the value of DVD extras).

Ken Loach and Paul Pavlikovsky did the UK film industry proud, turning in pictures that were both subtle and sublime (and which deserved bigger audiences) whilst Bad Education, Look At Me and The Dreamers proved that European cinema remains in encouragingly rude health.

Across the pond, Hollywood mined a rich seam of quirkiness, with a string of heroic (and not so heroic) misfits (American Splendor, The Station Agent, Lost in Translation, Garden State, Eternal Sunshine, Monster, Elephant) and managed to produce a heart-on-sleeve romance (Before Sunset) which didn't have me hurling in to my popcorn.

The biggest cinematic disappointments of the year came from Hollywood heavyweights Martin Scorsese and Michael Mann, who both seem intent on 'doing a Coppola'. I can just about forgive the bloated and vacuous indulgence that was The Aviator purely on the basis that it looked so damn fine. However the unapologetic cliche-fest that was Collateral was put way beyond redemption the moment the stylist to Mr Cruise decided that dunking him head-first in a vat of talcum powder would somehow help make him a credible villain. This from the man who directed The Insider - how the mighty have fallen...

1. The Motorcycle Diaries (dir. Walter Salles)
2. Capturing The Friedmans (dir. Andrew Jarecki)
3. My Summer of Love (dir. Paul Pavlikovsky)
4. Ae Fond Kiss... (dir. Ken Loach)
5. The Station Agent (dir. Thomas McCarthy)
6. Lost in Translation (dir. Sofia Coppola)
7. Bad Education (dir. Pedro Almodóvar)
8. Look At Me / Comme Une Image (dir. Agnès Jaoui)
9. American Splendor (dir. Shari Springer Berman & Robert Pulcini)
10. Fahrenheit 9/11 (dir. Michael Moore)
11. Zatôichi (dir. Takeshi Kitano)
12. Before Sunset (dir. Richard Linklater)
13. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (dir. Michel Gondry)
14. The Dreamers (dir. Bernardo Bertolucci)
15. 21 Grams (dir. Alejandro González Iñárritu)
16. Enduring Love (dir. Roger Michell)
17. Garden State (dir. Zach Braff)
18. Super Size Me (dir. Morgan Spurlock)
19. Elephant (dir. Gus Van Sant)
20. Monster (dir. Patty Jenkins)

Saturday, February 19, 2005

Losing my blogging virginity

Thought it was high time I bit the bullet and joined the world of blogging. Every man and his dog seems to have a blog these days and I could see the symptoms of blog-envy beginning to manifest themselves in my behaviour (twitching, swearing, lunging at strangers). Moreover, it's only a matter of time before my father starts blogging and I pride myself on being fractionally ahead of him in the technology-adoption curve.

So, a bit about me. I work as a Project Manager for BBC Radio & Music Interactive, a department set up to take the BBC's radio and music brands and content onto digital platforms (e.g. the web, digital TV, mobile phones). I've recently overseen the relaunch of the BBC Radio Player (accessible from which, for the uninitiated, allows you to listen 'on demand' to BBC radio programmes for up to a week after broadcast. I may well write some more about the Radio Player in the future but till then you can read about the relaunch on Guardian Unlimited or Dan Hill's blog (a colleague, seasoned blogger and all round good bloke).

So, what will I be writing about? Well, radio, music and the web are all likely topics (the words holiday and busman's spring to mind) as are cinema and photography. I also think it unlikely I'll be able to keep my obsessive list-making in check for long so look out for extracts from my unpublished (and indeed, unwritten) magnum opus 'Alphabetised Confessions of an Obsessive Compulsive'.

Now, what happens it I click publish...