Invasion of the shoddy snatchers


It started — for me, it started — on Father’s Day. In response to an early present from the Queen B, I hurried home from the university where I’d been teaching. At first glance, everything looked the same. It wasn’t. Something evil had taken possession of the town.

It was… the iPod People!

Yeah, I got an iPod shuffle for Father’s Day.

For me, that was a big deal, as I am not an Apple guy. Sure, I like those “I’m a Mac, I’m a PC” commercials — Jon Hodgeman is awesome in his PC-befuddledness — and I recognize that Microsoft products are crap, what with their tendency to crash-and-burn more frequently than Lindsay Lohan on a Saturday night.   Nevertheless, Apple turned me off to their computers way back in the day, largely for two reasons. First, I felt distinctly uncomfortable with any operating system in which the action for removing a valuable floppy disk from the computer — namely, dragging the disk to the trash bin — was the exact same action for deleting all the valuable content off of said floppy. Second, and more fundamental, I didn’t like the way the those old Macintosh computers “smiled” at me every time  it was  turned it on or off. I don’t want or need my computer to be my friend, man… that’s just one step closer to the machines seizing control of the world and sticking floppy disks up my holes. No thank you.

Still, I’d heard lots of good things from students about their iPods, and the new Shuffle is a masterpiece of portable music design. It’s essentially a 1.1″ x 1.6″ x 0.4″ chip-clip with a gigabyte of music storage. The device has only three buttons (power switch, shuffle toggle, and volume/tracking button) and a single port that doubles as the headphone jack and the USB interface. It’s designed for quick and easy music listening: it an be completely and automatically filled (and refilled) with a random selection of music from your computer’s library in a single click. As I primarily uses my current (and ancient) MP3 player to listen to random music while walking or exercising, it sounded ideal for me, and at 80 bucks, it didn’t break the bank.

At least, that was the sales pitch.   Together with those awesome commercials, it’s easy to see how a person could be carried away into the magic fantasy land of iPodism.

I’m hear to tell you that the cold, hard reality is something altogether different.


I opened my iPod shuffle just before we left for Hawaii, mostly because I wanted to take it with me. I pulled it out of its box, along with all the stuff that came with it: the ubiquitous white iPod earbuds, the USB connector, two “Apple” window stickers (really), and a single 2″ x 8″ sheet of directions written with the same brevity of words and creepiness of illustration as the average airline flight-safety booklet you’d find squirreled away in the seat back in front of you.

The first step towards my iPod music experience was to download iTunes. iTunes is Apple’s media application for playing and organizing digital music and video. My experience with iTunes is that it can be likened to the supercomputer Deep Though from the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: user-friendly, very powerful, and takes about seven-and-a-half million years to execute a single command. My God, is iTunes slow. Worse, it’s like a plague, infecting its slowness to every aspect of Windows… everything slows down when iTunes is thinking, and iTunes tends to think longer, harder, and more frequently than Stephen Hawking in a physics lab.

Once iTunes was installed, I plugged in my iPod. iTunes happily acknowledged its presence and began “syncing” with it. Apparently, syncing is the process by which iTunes renders your operating system and your iPod inoperable for days on end. It turns out that iPods come with a fully discharged battery which must be charged through the USB connector, a process the Apple website says takes about 4 hours, although I suspect they dropped a “zero” after the “four.” However, after a night of charging and continuous activity from iTunes, in the morning I had an operable iPod shuffle.

It was great — I had a an offbeat playlist of newer and older stuff, and the sound quality through the earbuds was just fine for me. The shuffle’s battery almost (but not quite) survived the lengthy flight to Hawaii. A few days later, I decided to “autofill” the shuffle with a brand new playlist, so I plugged it in, let it charge for a bit, and then pushed the “Autofill” button on iTunes. A new gigabyte’s worth of playlist appeared in the iTunes window, and it began “syncing” with the iPod.

And then error message after error message appeared…

  • the iPod doesn’t have enough room for this track here
  • iTunes cannot read that track there
  • iTunes cannot sync with the iPod
  • iTunes is uncomfortable with the consequences of Godel’s incompleteness theorem

…and so on. The entire troubleshooting section of the directions sheet consists simply of the URL for Apple’s support website, so I went there and navigated my way to the iPod shuffle’s support page. One of the first links there is for the iPod Shuffle New User’s Guide that, when clicked, sends you to a user’s guide for the iPod Nano instead. After that, the support page gets less helpful.

After spending a few days reading everything on the support site, from Apple-certified “articles” to endless user-group discussions on the meanings of the various error messages that appeared, I discovered that, no matter what the actual problem consisted of, the ultimate advice from Apple was to try the Five R’s. iPod won’t talk to iTunes? Try the Five R’s. You can’t access your playlist on the iPod? Try the Five R’s. Your arm was unexpected amputated and your iPod is still clutched in the cold dead palm of your disposed arm? Try the Five R’s.

So I tried the Five R’s. Reset, retry, restart, reinstall, and restore.

Reset the iPod. I disconnected the iPod from the computer, turned it off, waited, and then turned it back on again. I got a blinky orange light instead of a shiny green one. No dice. On to the next R.

Retry. Apple’s advice is to retry connecting the iPod to a different high-powered USB port. I did this, and discovered that, in addition to now being unable to sync with the iPod, iTunes was now also unable to even recognize the iPod in the first place. On to the next R.

Restart the computer. Okay. Five minutes later, I still have an orange blinky iPod, a glacially slow iTunes, and no interaction betwixt ’em. Next R?

Reinstall the iPod, since apparently the software on an iPod can go obsolete within mere nanoseconds of its installation. I went and downloaded the newest version of iTunes, as the current version on my computer, now three days old, was woefully obsolete. I then connected my iPod and asked iTunes to update its software, if applicable. It said “I sure can!,” and then proceeded to freeze up the computer for hours before finally spitting out an error message admitting “Oops, I guess I can’t.” On to the final R.

Restore the iPod. Essentially, the scorched earth policy — reformat the iPod and start fresh. To begin, I installed the newest version of iTunes, as my current version, now hours old, was woefully obsolete. I then connected my iPod and asked iTunes to restore it. It said “I sure can!,” and then proceeded to freeze up for days before finally saying that the iPod had been successfully restored to its factory settings.

At which point iTunes and Windows refused to recognize the iPod, and all the music on it was lost.

Finally, I called up Apple Help, gave them the story, explained the failure of the Five R’s to resolve the problem (which I believe caused one Apple tech to faint on the spot). The eventual sad response was that my iPod was probably defective, and I should take it back and replace it with another. I explained that I was several thousand miles away from the original store of purchase, and the nearest Best Buy was on a different island several hundred miles away. The operator suggested I swim for it, and that was that.

So I held onto my defective little clip of an iPod for the next two weeks. When we returned to the mainland, I took it back to Best Buy, swapped it out with another iPod shuffle, and took it home.

This time, however, I did everything right. I installed the very, very, very latest iTunes first, and let it spend a day organizing my music files. Next, I took out the iPod and let it fully charge its battery (a process that took 6 hours) before trying to sync it up with oodles of music. Once fully charged, I had iTunes make sure the iPod’s software was up to date. Finally, finally, I pushed the “Autofill” button to put music on the iPod…

[ Beep. ] “iTunes cannot sync with the iPod.”

Another round of the Five R’s later, and iTunes and the iPod were still not syncing. I made another call to Apple help who, after relaying them the entire sordid ordeal, suggested that perhaps it was time I should get a new computer, and, you know what? a Mac would be a good choice for interacting with an iPod.

At that point, I hung up, returned the iPod, got the money back, and bought a beer instead. Given my experience, I can’t fathom how the iPod has taken over the music world, but I suspect the same people who rally behind the iPod would also probably pay big money for this next big, revolutionary Apple idea.


I ever meet Justin Long in person, I am so gonna kick his ass.

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