Thursday, June 17, 2010

iTunes Update

For those of you following my iTunes saga, as of yesterday I was able to log into my iTunes account successfully. I'm not sure why I was suddenly able to log in again, considering that on June 14th iTunes and Apple's help site were still telling me that my user ID did not exist. I had unsuccessfully attempted to log in as recently as June 14th in order to refresh my memory in advance of a conversation with a reporter about my problems with iTunes. I've gotten a couple press inquiries on the subject, and I'll keep you posted if anything comes of them.

I have no clue as to why I was able to access my account again after a month of being unable to do so. I didn't do anything differently than during past attempts. I can see my transaction history again, and all the unauthorized transactions are still listed. I took the opportunity to take screen shots and compile them into a single list, so I have them for my records in case something happens to my account again.

Looking at the transaction details for the unauthorized transactions there is a weird mix of Christian themed purchases (Veggie Tales, an app called "Bible Shaker") and semi-pornographic purchases (an app called "Phone Sex Girls 2.0", etc.). The only logical conclusion I can draw from this is that my iTunes account must have been hacked by Prince.

Wednesday, June 09, 2010

AMG Parties Like It's 1992

All Music Guide continues it's ongoing "AMG Loves..." series with a tribute to 1992.

I remember this as a really good time for new music. Nirvana had broken through to the mainstream, and there was a sense that it might be possible for musicians to make a living creating something other than pre-programed pop music. There was a real sense of optimism as many talented and interesting bands got snapped up by major labels looking for the "next Nirvana." I graduated from college in 1991, so while I was not as deeply involved in the new music scene as I had been, I was still pretty tuned into what was going on. Being slightly more removed from the industry side of things also allowed me to feel like more of a "fan" than I was able to while serving as Music Director at my college radio station.

I also felt some sense of personal gratification at seeing the kind of music that I had been championing for the last 4 years breakthrough commercially. I had long maintained that much of the music being made within the "alternative" or "college rock" milieu could prove popular if given a chance, and Nirvana's success seemed to justify that belief. I remember making a trip back to my college in '92 and hearing Nirvana blasting from the windows of a frat house, while only a year early many frat boys had been mocking the radio station for playing the same kind of music. Unfortunately, the window that Nirvana opened for other interesting bands to climb through shut rather quickly, or proved to be something of an illusion in the first place, but that is another story.

1992 was a difficult transition period for me personally. I was a sanctimonious, vegetarian, recent liberal arts grad who had moved back in with his parents during an economic recession. I was dealing with some really serious issues at the time like what the heck was I going to do with a B.A. in Philosophy, and the fact that my mother was constantly trying to sneak meat into my meals. I was working at an entry-level, auto insurance claims adjusting job after having done cool stuff in college that actually involved a lot of responsibility. I was thinking seriously about grad school. I spent a lot of time with some of my old High School buddies holding Arch Hall, Jr. film marathons in our parents' basements. I wasn't sleeping or eating much, and was probably clinically depressed. I was a walking, talking cliché, and yet I probably thought I was unique. Still, I don't remember it as an altogether bleak period. The music probably helped.

I think the single album that I most closely identify with this period in my life would have to be Luna's debut album Lunapark. Galaxie 500's breakup was still big news when this album by Dean Wareham's new group featuring former members of The Feelies and The Chills appeared. Something about the melancholic, yet forward looking and hopeful vibe of the album struck a deep chord with me at the time. "Soho has the boots, Noho's got the crack, New England has the foliage, but I'm not going back." Like Dean Wareham, I'd soon be leaving behind past associations and relationships, and by January of 1993 I'd be living in Noho myself (although I was there for grad school, not the crack). Some of Luna's subsequent albums might have been better than Lunapark, but none hold as special a place in my heart.

Some of my other favorite albums from 1992 include the debut effort by Dean Wareham's old Galaxie 500 bandmates, Damon & Naomi's More Sad Hits, as well as Barbara Manning's One Perfect Green Blanket, Unrest's Imperial Ffrr, The Jayhawks' Hollywood Town Hall, Kendra Smith's The Guild of Temporal Adventurers, Pavement's Slanted & Enchanted, Sugar's Cooper Blue, The Beastie Boys' Check Your Head, Stereolab's Switched On and Peng!, Uncle Tupelo's March 16-20 1992, Throwing Muses' Red Heaven, Mudhoney's Piece Of Cake, Lush's Spooky, The Flaming Lips' Hit To Death In The Future Head, The Chills' Soft Bomb, Nirvana's Incesticide, Prince's unnamed symbol album, P.J. Harvey's Dry, Digital Underground's Sons Of The P, The Afghan Whigs' Congregation, Neneh Cherry's Homebrew, Jonathan Richman's I, Jonathan, Sonic Youth's Dirty, Velocity Girl's self-titled EP, The Cowboy Junkies' Black Eyed Man, King Missile's Happy Hour, Sebadoh's Smash Your Head Against The Punk Rock, Neil Young's Harvest Moon, Yo La Tengo's May I Sing With Me, The Wedding Present's Hit Parade Vols. I & II, Beat Happening's You Turn Me On, Giant Sand's Center Of The Universe, Heavenly's Le Jardin de Heavenly, Eugenius' Oomalama, Bettie Serveert's Palomine, The Headcoatees' Have Love Will Travel, Tom Waits' Bone Machine, as well as the influential dream pop compilation ...One Last Kiss. That's a lot of albums, but I'm sure there are others I'm forgetting.

I had thought about posting a couple of the more obscure tracks from 1992, but as more music becomes available for download through other channels I see little point. (This is a big part of the reason I've mostly stopped posting music here). If you're in the mood for a giggle, go to Amazon and download The Headcoatees' "My Boyfriend Is Learning Karate."

So where were you in '92, and what were you listening to?

Tuesday, June 08, 2010

Follow up thoughts on the iTunes post

I wanted to follow up briefly on my original post regarding my recent problems with the iTunes store, in part because some readers left comments that made interesting points that I thought I should address. Also, reading the comments has pushed me to think a little bit more about some of the issues involved in an incident like this.

Some readers suggested that buying music from a local independent retailer is a better alternative to buying music from iTunes. I totally agree. In fact, I buy the vast majority of my music from my local indie retailer, In Your Ear in Warren, RI. The owner is a friend of mine and I know he considers me a valuable customer. I have bought very little music from iTunes over the years, and what I have bought is mostly stray tracks, and a couple "iTunes exclusives" from bands I like. By far, my preferred method is to keep things local, and I have long been an advocate for that. (My car even sports a "Support Your Local Record Store" bumper sticker.) That said, I can’t agree with the perspective that says anyone who buys from iTunes deserves to get screwed.

I also don't see it as my business to tell anyone to not shop at iTunes if they want to, which is why I only went so far as to recommend funding with a pre-paid card for safety reasons. I'm not going to tell people not to buy from iTunes because I had a bad experience with them.

One poster suggested that it is unfair to expect Apple to "know" I wouldn't want to buy a particular release because a big electronic store like iTunes is totally different than a store run by person with cognitive abilities. This is a fair point. The reason I framed the incident in the way I did was to point out the differences between retailers that you have a personal relationship with, and e-tailers that create a kind of simulated personal shopping experience. Would it be unreasonable to expect Apple's iTunes store to be "smart" enough to automagically recognize when someone attempts to purchase something unusual on my account? In isolation, yes. But when a pattern of purchasing emerges that is totally out of character with my previous purchasing patterns (as was clearly the case here), Apple could easily detect that if they cared to.

My credit card issuer caught the fraudulent activity not because they pay a bunch of humans to sit around and study transaction sheets for suspicious activity, but because they employ sophisticated algorithms that can detect patterns that are out of the ordinary. Fraud detection algorithms are much more sophisticated than I think many realize, and they are nothing new. Banks and credit card issuers have been using them since the 80s. I am honestly a little surprised that Apple doesn't have some similar system in place for iTunes.

That said, no algorithm can detect fraud 100% of the time. Even the very best algorithms will miss something or generate a false positive on occasion. But what this experience suggested to me is that Apple has no fraud detection algorithms in place for its iTunes store whatsoever. If they did, the algorithm would certainly have picked up on the suspicious purchasing pattern that started with a single $1 purchase, then quickly escalated to numerous more expensive transactions.

Should we expect an online store like Apple iTunes to have robust fraud protection? I'll leave that for others to decide. The question here to mind is what do we get in return for all the information that we share with Apple? Because, believe me, Apple benefits from the information we give them about ourselves. In the case of iTunes we get recommendations for things to buy and the ability to create Genius playlists. What we don't get is even the weakest form of fraud protection. For some that will be a fair trade, for others not.

For me, all of this raises another issue, which is: How many of your digital eggs do you want to put in one basket? This is going to be an increasingly relevant question with the proliferation of devices like the iPad.

Currently, I use an iPod to listen to music on the go and LPs and CDs to listen to music at home. I use DVD, Blu-Ray and Netflix streaming service to watch movies. I get my phone and internet service through Cox. My cell phone service is through T-Mobile. My GPS system is a Garmin. My books are all still made of paper. There is an undeniable appeal to the idea of being able to combine all these functions (and more) into a single device or closely related family of devices. Certainly this is the kind of integrated system that Apple is hoping we will soon find impossible to live without.

But there is an obvious value to keeping these things separate that I think is perhaps under-discussed. If something goes wrong with my Garmin, I can always fall back on Google Maps to get directions. If my iPod breaks, I can still listen to LPs at home and CDs in the car. If I have a billing dispute with T-Mobile, I can still make phone calls from home, etc. There is a certain level of redundancy to a patchwork system of devices that helps us avoid catastrophic failures.

But what happens as we move toward a model in which all of these functions are integrated into a single device or family of devices linked to a single corporate entity? It's clear to me that is currently the direction we are headed, but I don't know that the implications of this move have been explored as thoroughly as they should be. What privacy issues will be involved? Will you actually own anything on the device, or only be allowed to use it at someone else's discretion? What happens if you decide you want to switch to a competing device/service? What happens when there is a billing dispute? Will there be sufficient government oversight and regulation to prevent monopolistic behavior? Is the convenience gained worth the risk of losing access to everything at once?

I don't necessarily have answers to these questions. But perhaps it would be wise for consumers to think a bit about them before making the leap into this new paradigm.

Thursday, June 03, 2010


On any other day the retirement of first-ballot Hall-Of-Famer Ken Griffey Jr. would be the top story in baseball, but not today. Check out blown call that denied Detroit Tigers pitcher Armando Galarraga a perfect game.

It's 2010 and it is long past time for baseball to institute some sort of automatic replay. This kind of thing is just embarrassing for the sport. I know many feel the games drag on too long already, but there are a million ways to institute replays that would not add significantly to game times. For example, each manager could be given two challenges per game and the automatic ability to challenge any play that would end a game.

Of course, any future rule changes will do nothing for Galarraga, who was unfairly denied one of the rarest accomplishments in baseball (there have only been 21 perfect games in MLB history although, strangely, this would have been the third perfect game pitched this season).

With so many displays of boorish behavior from athletes, I think it is worth singling Galarraga out for praise for his reaction to this blown call. It would have been entirely understandable if he had blown his top, but he stayed remarkably calm and professional. If he can't (officially) be remembered for pitching a perfect game, he can at least be honored for behaving in a manner that would make any mother proud.